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We should not aspire to the inequality of hereditary peerages as portrayed in Downton Abbey, says Eleanor Laing

By Joseph Willits 
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LaingDownton Abbey has a way of entering in to the political arena. David Cameron's controversial mimicking of Australian PM Julia Gillard, will always be associated with his dressed like "an extra from Downton Abbey" attire. More recently, the series has been highlighted by MP Eleanor Laing as evidence of inequality in hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, and a historic lesson of what not to aspire to.

In his Lord Mayor's speech, Cameron discussed "the historic agreement" made about royal succession at the Commonwealth conference in Perth, that "if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a little girl, that girl will be our Queen." Whilst changes have been made to the law on royal succession, there are currently no plans to do so regarding hereditary peerages in the House of Lords.  

A report by MPs in the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee, have discussed "modest" rule changes to the House of Lords, but at present, suggests "there may be no compelling reason to alter an historic system of inheritance", due to the fact that "aristocratic titles no longer confer any particular rights, duties or privileges".

The report continued:

"In the United Kingdom, however, 92 seats in the House of Lords continue for now to be reserved to holders of hereditary aristocratic titles. Only two of these 92 seats are currently occupied by women. While the holders of hereditary peerages continue to be eligible for membership of the House of Lords, the way in which their titles are inherited, and its effect on the gender balance in Parliament, remain matters of public interest."

A "public interest", it seems, which has been generated further by a national obsession with Downton Abbey. Tory MP Eleanor Laing, a member of the committee, said:

"Downton Abbey illustrates very well the problems that have occurred in such families for hundreds of years ... Surely now is the time to address that. The House of Lords should look at the issue of male primogeniture. Most people find it intolerable for a man to take precedence over a woman in our parliamentary system."

In Downton Abbey the Earl of Grantham has three daughters, including Lady Mary.  She however does not inherit his title, going to his nephew instead.

A Government source in the House of Lords described successional changes to the monarchy as "discrete". Changing the law for the Royal Family was much simpler, he said, as it only concerned one family. It would be much more complex and problematic making to changes to hereditary peerages due to the number of families involved, and tight laws surrounding male succession.

On the issue of gender balance, the source said: 

"Whilst among hereditary peers women are extremely under-represented, on the front benches of both the government and the opposition, women are very well represented."

Among the constitutional changes made to royal succession at the Commonwealth conference in Perth, was also lifting of a ban on members of the line of succession marrying Catholics. MPs in the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee have also questioned the Queen's role as head of the Church of England: 

“The scenario does beg the question of whether it remains appropriate for the monarch to be required to be in communion with the Church of England. The most obvious difficulty in having a Catholic monarch – beyond the purely statutory obstacles – as the Crown’s role as supreme governor of the Church of England.”

MPs said that the current relationship between the monarch and the Church of England may be reconsidered by Parliament.


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