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Dukes in the House: Can you be a duke and focused on the modern world?

Dukes in the House: Can you be a duke and focused on the modern world?

(Illustrations | Tracy Worrall)

6 min read

Can you be a duke and focused on the modern world? Having run the country in former centuries, some are now more used to running their eyes over the minutiae of parliamentary legislation. Daniel Brittain reports.

Were you as surprised as Nick Robinson on the Today programme last October to discover a crucial amendment to the government’s Environment Bill was the work of the Duke of Wellington? Robinson was clearly amazed that a duke had a role in modern British politics. “He must be quite old by now,” he mused. This would certainly have been the case had the Wellington in question been the first duke and victor of Waterloo.

It was, though, the ninth duke. He lives above the splendour of his ancestor’s home, Apsley House on London’s Hyde Park Corner. His country estate is Stratfield Saye, the stately home in Hampshire given to the first duke by a grateful nation in 1817, two years after seeing off Napoleon.

Wellington was the last duke to be prime minister. If “duke power” is somewhat diminished from its peak in the 19th century, some of the breed are still hanging on. In fact, there are now more dukes in the House of Lords than there were active ones before the 1999 reforms which saw most hereditary peers removed. Of the 24 non-royal dukes, four  – Wellington, Montrose, Somerset and Norfolk – are eligible to sit in the upper chamber.

Removing the right of all hereditary peers to sit in Parliament was a central plank of Labour’s 1997 manifesto. The now-Lord Grocott, when he was plain Bruce Grocott, MP for Telford and Tony Blair’s PPS, was determined to see the back of the 759 hereditary peers. It didn’t work out that way, after compromise was introduced allowing 92 to remain.

Two decades on, Grocott remains determined to abolish them – and as a first step has made it his mission to stamp out the by-elections, held by and for hereditary peers, to fill vacancies. “The lesson of the last 100 years is that it’s hard to do full scale Lords reform,” Grocott tells The House. Abolishing by-elections in a simple two-clause bill is easier. He’s now on his fourth attempt; the others were filibustered out. “It’s absolutely simple: you should not be able to inherit the right to sit in Parliament,” he says.

It’s absolutely simple: you should not be able to inherit the right to sit in Parliament.

Grocott freely acknowledges that “there are a great many hard-working elected hereditary peers”, pointing out that under his bill all current ones would retain their seats.

Asked if there is a pecking order of opposition to the hereditaries – are dukes worse than mere barons, perhaps? – Grocott laughs. “There’s no difference, they’re all the same.” With more dukes and fewer barons among the hereditaries, he jokes “the by-elections are delivering a better class of peer”.

The (19th) Duke of Somerset tells The House he “has some sympathy with Lord Grocott,” and readily concedes that “we’re difficult to justify”. Having said that, he enthusiastically put himself forward for a by-election to the Lords, winning on his second attempt in 2014. “The chance to serve in the Lords was too big a privilege to shy away from,” he says. The Duke of Wellington, who won his by-election in 2015, agrees: “I’ve aspired to serve in the Lords since I first became interested in politics.”

Rather than his prestigious ancestor, these days Wellington is best known, in Parliament at least, for his longstanding campaign against water companies dumping sewage in rivers. A Conservative until he resigned in 2019 over Brexit, he now sits as a crossbencher. He condemns water companies and governments for taking insufficient action after raw sewage was discharged into England’s rivers 400,000 times over a period of 3.1 million hours in 2020, and the amendment to the Environment Bill which so startled Robinson forced reductions. Sensing defeat in the Commons, the government eventually compromised: there will now be progressive reductions of sewage in storm overflows.

(IMAGE: UK Parliament/Flickr)

Sharing Wellington’s concern for the environment but still very much a Conservative is James Graham, eighth Duke of Montrose, a former opposition front bencher and landowner on Loch Lomondside. With three months to go until his 87th birthday, he’s the ducal elder statesman. He remains an assiduous attender and was a delegate at COP26. Joining the Lords in 1992, he managed the transition to elected hereditary with ease, winning at the initial set of elections in 1999.

John Seymour, 19th Duke of Somerset, appears far from determined to keep hereditaries in the Lords. On the other hand, serving is “too big an opportunity to miss”. He’s had two periods of service; succeeding his father in 1984 at the age of 31, he served on Lords committees while developing a full-time career at Sotheby’s. He told The House he found the sheer number of hereditaries in the pre-reformed House “questionable and not very attractive”. Nevertheless, he was “sad but not overwhelmingly so” to leave in 1999.

The lure of the place grew with age, especially as he made the transition from Eurosceptic to committed Europhile, before returning to the House as a crossbencher in 2014. To complete the transition, his children were educated in Europe, where two now live, with one helping immigrants in Italy. He regards the present government as “nationalistic” and condemns “the government’s aggressive war on immigration”.

With a pedigree at least as long as the Somersets, the 18th Duke of Norfolk, the most senior duke in the peerage, plays a key ceremonial role as Earl Marshal; organiser of coronations and the rather more frequent state opening, he is one of the two Royal office holders given a guaranteed seat in the 1999 deal. Thus far he hasn’t made use of it, giving only a maiden speech in 2003.

But now – breaking news – Eddie Norfolk is returning to the fray as a crossbencher, having submitted an application to take up his seat. In common with other ducal landowners, he has a first-hand appreciation of our changing environment, climate change and the effect on wildlife. “I’m passionate about it,” he tells The House. With Britain the worst performer in the G7 for halting nature loss, the duke says he’s determined to bring the subject nearer the top of the political agenda, arguing that stultifying laws are hindering the restoration work Natural England could effect. On 20 February, he’ll become the fourth working duke in the Lords – and he’s looking forward to it.

On Lords reform, he says that as he hasn’t yet taken his seat “it would be wrong for me to comment”. He’ll have the opportunity to develop a view as Grocott’s House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill goes through its stages.

Grocott has new ammunition from the Marquess of Salisbury who, as Lord Cranborne in 1999, was instrumental in brokering the deal which ushered in the current system of hereditary peerages. The marquess recently told the Financial Times that, back in 1998, he warned Tony Blair that New Labour’s legislative programme would be wrecked unless some hereditaries were retained. Salisbury is quoted as saying: “I didn’t mean it – it would have been a constitutional outrage! But I said it.” The bluff worked, and today’s dukes are among the beneficiaries.

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