An enjoyable aside

One of the most ludicrous, but enjoyable, by-elections in Britain will take place probably for the final time this Parliament in early February. This is the election to replace two of the retiring hereditary peers in the House of Lords, a rump 92 mainly men who carry some of the most famous names in British history and are a leftover from Tony Blair’s half-completed House of Lords reform in 1999.

Due to a quirk in this reform, when one of the hereditary peers retires or dies then another hereditary peer can stand for election. The electorate is restricted to either the 91 remaining peers or, in some cases, to peers that are members of the party grouping that the retired peers were members of. Since both retirees were Crossbench peers, this means that the electorate is a huge 28 members strong.

Each candidate is allowed to provide a 75-word biography: these can be found here and are often an interesting insight into what forcibly retired peers do with their time now they cannot legislate anymore. That is, of course, if they provide a biography: in this election the Duke of Marlborough has declined to do so, perhaps correctly figuring that since he’s the Duke of Marlborough why should he.

You don’t get the Duke of Marlborough standing for too many elections these days, which is one reason why these by-elections are so much fun. Occasionally the candidates list threatens to re-ignite old political battles, as when decedents of Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd-George, two Liberals who both tore their party apart after the First World War, recently stood against each other. Even the list of electors is a cause for joy, containing as it does the present Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (whose ancestor was, of course, a famous Second World War general) and the present Viscount Slim (whose ancestor was, of course, also a famous Second World War general).

In many ways this election – and the very fact that these people sit in one of our legislative chambers in the first place – is an anachronism that should be scrapped. But for any student of British political history, it is an excellent reminder of the continuity of politics in this country, for better or worse. Until the final hereditary peer is booted out of Parliament, I will continue to enjoy these bizarre but brilliant by-elections.

(For more information on such quirks, as well as an absolute goldmine of other historical snippets and information, I strongly recommend following @Labourhistory and @ConHistGrp on Twitter.)