The fact of succession to a Peerage of England or of Great Britain, or of the United Kingdom, disables the person so succeeding from being elected to, or from sitting or voting in the House of Commons.
The position before 1963
Simply put, it was once the case that an heir to a peerage succeeded to the title whether they liked it or not. This was not, generally speaking, an issue as few people could find reason to reject such a dignity. As it happens, one of the few disadvantages of being a peer was that one could neither vote in an election nor sit in the House of Commons. During the nineteenth century, when as a result of successive Reform Acts and the widening of the franchise, the House of Commons came to be regarded as of greater importance than the House of Lords, many came to believe that their political careers might well be disadvantaged by being forcibly elevated to the upper chamber.
The first person to seek to renounce a peerage title was William Waldegrave Palmer, known by the courtesy title of Viscount Wolmer and MP for West Edinburgh, who on the death of his father in 1895 succeeded to the title of Earl of Selborne but claimed the right to disclaim the title and remain in the House of Commons. A select committee of the House of Commons was asked to consider the matter and reported on the 20th May 1895, denying Mr Palmer's claim and producing the conclusion quoted above.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn and the 1963 Act
The story begins with a William Wedgwood Benn who was an MP for the Liberal Party and had been created the first Viscount Stansgate in 1940. Due to the death of his eldest son Michael Wedgwood Benn in 1944, the succession passed to his younger son Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a Labour Party MP. Tony Benn as he later became known, had no wish to leave the House of Commons, and campaigned for many years during the 1950s to be permitted to renounce the title of Viscount Stansgate.
In November 1960 the inevitable happened, the 1st Viscount died and Anthony Wedgwood Benn became the 2nd Viscount, who promptly petitioned the Commons to remain as an MP, claiming inter alia, that the issue of a Writ of Summons would be a breach of privilege be depriving him of his seat, and that until he received his writ calling him to the House of Lords he remained eligible to sit in the Commons.
The Attorney-General, Reginald Manningham-Buller, was asked to consider the matter and produced a report dated 5th December 1960, pointing out that Mr Benn was simply repeating the arguments first advanced by the Viscount Wolmer back in 1895 and that the House had already pronounced on the matter and that it remained as a matter of law that it was the "fact of succession which disqualifies the successor from membership of the House of Commons".
Accordingly a by-election was called in Benn's former constituency of Bristol South-East to elect a new MP, but with the support of his local party Benn stood in the by-election and duly won. The result was however overturned by the Electoral Court who confirmed the ineligibility of the 2nd Viscount and the second placed candidate, Malcolm St Clair, representing the Conservative Party was declared duly elected as the member for Bristol South-East.
Thereafter Tony Benn continued to campaign for the right to renounce his peerage. Eventually the government was persuaded and passed the Peerage Act 1963, which established, amongst other things, a procedure by which a peerage might be disclaimed. This Act technically became law on the 31st July 1963, and Benn lost no time in taking advantage of the change and formally renounced his title later that same day. (Malcolm St Clair sportingly resigned his seat, forcing another by-election and enabling Mr Benn to be re-elected as MP for Bristol South-East.)
Disclaimers under the Peerage Act 1963
The Peerage Act of 1963 permits the successor to a peerage title to disclaim that title; in the case of a member of the House of Commons within one month of succeeding to the title, in all other cases within a year.
The disclaimer of a peerage is only effective during the lifetime of the individual who renounces the title; the subsequent successor to the title may chose to inherit the title or disclaim it once more.
Since the 2nd Viscount Stansgate became the first peer to disclaim his title there have been four other notable instance were peers have disclaimed their titles.
Somewhat ironically with the exception of 'Lord Lambton' all the above were later given life peerages in order to enable them to sit in the House of Lords.
The current position
Matters have changed somewhat since the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed the automatic right of an hereditary peer to a seat in the House of Lords. It is now the case that the 750 or so remaining hereditary peers elect 90 of their number to sit as representative peers in the House of Lords and any hereditary peer who has not been chosen as a representative peer to sit in the House of Lords is now able to stand for election to the House of Commons. (With the fundamental exception of the two Royal Office Holders; the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk and the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholmondeley who are guaranteed a place in the Lords.)
Thus John Archibald Sinclair, 3rd Viscount Thurso was elected as the MP for the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in the general election of 2001 and became the first hereditary peer to be permitted to sit in the House of Commons without first renouncing his title. He was joined in that year by Douglas Martin Hogg the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham who was able to retain his seat despite becoming the 3rd Viscount Hailsham.
Accordingly, although a peerage may still be disclaimed under the Peerage Act 1963 there seems little reason for anyone to do so.
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- The Public Record Office “... Yours ever,Tony ”
- Viscount Stansgate