The National:

IF you’ve ever sat down to watch an episode of Downton Abbey, you know there’s nothing that gets large swathes of the British elite more nostalgic and dewy-eyed than the memory of times gone by, when the birthright of “old money” was all one needed to secure influence over the laws of the land.

Thos were days when the mischievous little scamps making your dinner and cleaning your toilets were delighted just to be permitted in the vicinity of such greatness, and when even Irish Republicans could be won over to the cause of Queen and Country once they realised what a jolly nice chap you were.

Such romantic revisions of the past may be worth little more than an eye roll, but the real trouble is that the remnants of this era, diminished as they are, still play a role in the “democratic” institutions of the British state. This was laid bare today by an investigation in The Sunday Times which found that there are 85 hereditary peers in the House of Lords – just over 10% of its total membership – who own 170,000 acres of land between them.

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This group of Dukes, Marquesses, Marchionesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons earn their titles by virtue of being pushed out of the right vagina, and they gain their position in the Lords by being selected from a pool of hereditary peers through a “by-election” – which only other Lords can vote in – whenever one of the sitting peers dies or retires.

Naturally, actually having a vagina seems to exclude one from that privilege, and three in five of the lucky lads went to the same three prestigious all-boys private schools: Eton, Winchester and Harrow. It goes without saying that every last one of them is white.

Indulging in the unequal, unrepresentative, undemocratic past may be a relatively harmless way to spend a Sunday evening, but it’s no way for a modern democracy to function. The fact that the British establishment insists upon clinging to this embarrassing relic of its history is as clear a reminder as any of why the UK political system is unfit for purpose.

The National: Lord Bethell is an unelected, hereditary peer and also a minister in Boris Johnson's governmentLord Bethell is an unelected, hereditary peer and also a minister in Boris Johnson's government

This isn’t just about a few dozen aged aristocrats getting to vote to amend or delay legislation. It’s not only about the £47 million in expenses racked up by these men over the last two decades. And it’s about much more than the fact that this group, who work less and claim more than other Lords, are 60 per cent more likely to bring up their own business or personal interests in the chamber.

Because while this story is an acute example of how privilege earns power in British politics, it’s only one piece of a puzzle which should have been taken apart and put back in its box long ago.

Most of the peers in Westminster’s second chamber are "appointed" by the sitting prime minister with the assent of the Queen – a meritocracy, or so we’re told, but we all know "merit" still translates to wealth and status in the innermost circle of influence.

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Let’s not forget that, just this week, it was revealed that former prime minister David Cameron had attempted to use his sway with the Tory government to get Covid support for a finance company he was advising in his new career as a corporate lobbyist. This is a common pipeline for former politicians, who stand to make a pretty penny by using their personal connections to influence decisions to the benefit of their clients.

Whether you’re born with a title or just with the money to open the door to “the room where it happens” (to quote the excellent musical Hamilton), the balance of power in British politics continues to be determined by factors which have nothing to do with merit.

We shouldn’t be distracted by arguments for microscopic change like doing away with hereditary peers. It’s the whole system that needs torn down and rebuilt – and if Scotland has any sense it will decide to do just that, sooner rather than later.