This week, the Tories have put the traditional practice of male primogeniture, where aristocrat’s titles are passed down only to the male heirs of a family, and hence entirely bypassing daughters, under review. If this practice is abolished, the first-born daughters of an aristocratic family would inherit their father’s peerage or baronetcy, instead of their younger sons.
The review has been ordered by the Prime Minister and will be conducted by a team of female aides, led by press secretary Allegra Stratton, and Parliamentary private secretary Trudy Harrison. Notoriously, the Conservatives have what has been come to be known as a ‘women problem’. Data suggests that there is a huge gender imbalance in members of the Tory party – in 2017, the Party Members Project found that only 29% of members were women, compared to Labour’s 47%. Additionally, despite the increasingly mobile youth, far fewer young women voted conservative than men in 2019.
So, their plans to bring an end to male primogeniture are intended to encourage more women into Parliament, hence cementing future part election success by appealing to young women more strongly. The plans will hopefully form part of a larger bill of reforms, taken to parliament in the next Queen’s speech later this year.
This is not the first time the issue of primogeniture will come up in parliament – in 2011, passing the throne on to the eldest males was abolished for the monarchy. However, at the time, the House of Lords prevented the reform from reaching them and changing the lineage of their titles. Despite this previous set back, many of the landed gentries have declared their support for this proposal. Lady Charlotte Carew Pole, who’s husband is set to inherit baronetcy from his uncle, founded the not-for-profit group Daughter’s Rights. As head of the organization, she campaigns for an end to male primogeniture, so her eldest daughter would inherit the family title.
Despite primogeniture among the aristocracy affecting a very small number of individuals, it is still an important flagship issue with real-world consequences. Primarily, a reform would change the number of women who sit in the House of Lords. Currently, of the 92 hereditary peers entitled to sit in the House of Lords, there is only one woman, the Countess of Mar. However, there are 49 who’s seats would be filled by their sisters or daughters if the law were to change. Decisions made by the Lords would ultimately become fairer, with more women weighing in, sharing their experience, shaping policy, and resultantly pulling parliament a little further away from their ‘pale, male and stale’ image. Even if the women do hail from the most privileged upper echelons of society, beginning to even out the gender imbalance is not a bad thing, both principally and practically.
Weirdly, some rich white men have managed to make arguments advocating for sex discrimination in primogeniture. These generally tend to revolve around not wanting to lose their last names, as their titled daughters may take on their husband’s surname, rather than keeping the family name attached to the family seat. However, in comparison with increasing gender parity, this seems like a palsy excuse for a sexist fear of change and boring fuddy-duddy misogynists to hide behind.
Although both the readers in The Times comments section and I think the aristocracy and the House of Lords are an archaic remnant from an undemocratic time long gone, a step towards equality is still a step towards equality. Policy coming out of the House of Lords would undoubtedly become more inclusive if there were more women in hereditary seats. But let’s not overblow the significance of this proposal. The government and parliament have a long way to go until they’re representative and inclusive.
Boris Johnson, if you’ve taken a break from adding an increasingly ludicrous number of tiers to the UK’s post lockdown plan to read the newspaper of a university you didn’t attend, maybe start trying to get women into politics from the grassroots by investing in schemes for the underprivileged and underrepresented, rather than just looking towards the idle rich to fix your image problem.