Independence Minutiae: The Aristocracy

(Title Image: britannica.com)

This isn’t about class warfare (….most of it isn’t anyway). It’s about the last trappings of the old Anglo-Norman aristocracy and feudal system; what could be more impolitely called the “silly hat and cloak class”.

“Aristocracy” is usually defined as meaning the the highest social class rather than the ruling/political class – though at UK level the two are often intertwined (“The Establishment”).

You can’t deny that a “Welsh Establishment” exists (aka. “The Crachach”). However, its significance is often overblown by those looking to pick holes in all semblances and expressions of Welsh nationhood, as though our mainly cultural aristocracy is worse than the hundreds of years of entrenched privilege that dominates the top British society.

Hereditary Peerages


Basically, at some point hundreds of years ago, someone’s great-great-great etc. grand father or uncle was bigger and stronger than everyone else’s. They scooped up lots of land by, in the main, killing people or stealing it through force. Owning lots of land, or being best mate to the monarch at the time, also comes with titles which can be passed down the male line.

The highest hereditary titles outside of the immediate royal family are dukedoms, marquessates and earldoms. Below these you have viscountcies and baronies (lords).

There are two extinct dukedoms in Wales – Duke of Monmouth (the only title holder infamously rebelled against James II which ultimately led to the Glorious Revolution) and Duke of Powis (sic), which eventually became an earldom and is still in use, with the family based at Powis Castle near Welshpool.

There are several active Welsh earldoms, the most famous being Earl of Snowdon which is currently held by Antony Armstrong-Jones, Margaret Windsor’s former husband. Phil the Greek holds Earl of Merioneth (sic) as a courtesy title. Then there are the Earls of Carnarvon (sic), Denbigh, Montgomery etc. Earldoms are generally linked to pre-1974 shires. However, many of the title holders don’t live in Wales and don’t hold any land rights or estates here.

I don’t need to bore you with lists of hereditary viscounts and lords, but there are quite a few of them – at least 20-30. Most are held by prominent local families – like the Phillipps family of Pembrokeshire (Viscount of St. Davids) and the descendants of David Lloyd-George (Viscount Dwyfor). Again there are no estates and most of the castles and stately homes have passed into public trust – whether that’s the National Trust or other organisations.

The Republic of Ireland ruled hereditary titles unconstitutional when it became a republic, although there’s still a titular-only Irish “nobility” known as “Chiefs of the Name” which, amongst others, includes the Ó Donnabháin.

Do I get a funny hat?

Head of state issues aside, the very idea of hereditary titles is an anachronism that has no place in an independent Wales, and we should follow Ireland’s example in rendering them unconstitutional.

Life Peerages

Some titles are only kept for the lifetime of the office holder, namely members of the House of Lords. This, of course, includes two sitting AMs as of 2017 – Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) and Baroness Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales) – who, as far as I know, have the distinction of being the only publicly-elected members of the House of Lords.

Of course, independence means no Wales-based members of the House of Lords, so the very reason for creating life peers goes out of the window. Unfortunately, judging by the UK’s usual pace of constitutional reform, there’s little prospect of comprehensive House of Lords reform this century.

As life peerages come with no land rights and are, effectively, an extension of the British honours system, there’s no reason to scrap them. It’s just that they would no longer be issued post-independence and would, in literal terms, die out. Instead, these would be superseded by a Welsh honours system.

Officers of State

Several state posts pre-date the constitutional monarchy, when the (absolute) monarch would receive advice through the Privy Council. Many of these positions are now ceremonial-only, though two positions have a“serious” constitutional role:

 

  • Lord Chancellor – In charge of the court system and keeper of the seal (without which no government document is “official”). It’s usually a position given to a party grandee who’s too important or experienced to be shunted to the backbenches, but not important enough to be given a position of serious responsibility (as the judiciary is de facto independent anyway).
  • Lord President of the Privy Council – The Privy Council are (presently) responsible for commissions, Orders in Council (effectively a royal decree) and things like royal charters, which are important types of secondary legislation. In theory it’s the main organ of executive authority, although in practice that’s the UK Prime Minister and cabinet – “the Sovereign reigns, the government rules”.

Carwyn Jones, as First Minister, is Keeper of the Welsh Seal (and is also a Privy Councillor). Other Commonwealth Realms – like Canada – have their own Privy Council, while others – like New Zealand – have Executive Councils.

Having the state seal in the hands of the head of government should be considered constitutionally dangerous. So post-independence, control of the seal should be given to another state office. That could be the Presiding Officer/Llywydd, the Clerk of the Assembly or an elected head of state.

In terms of the Privy Council, Wales could either have its own Privy Council (if we retain the monarchy) or, preferably, an Australian or New Zealander-style Executive Council made up of members of the cabinet, the head of state or the head of state’s representative (like a Governor-General – I come back to that later).

Many of the other Officers of State exist solely to play a part in the arrangements for major state events like coronations, state openings and state funerals ( Lord High Steward, Lord Great Chamberlain, Earl Marshal etc.) and have no real bearing on Wales.

Lords Lieutenant & High Sheriffs

Lords Lieutenant (and their deputies) are the monarch’s representatives at county level. Each one represents a lieutenancy area, which are based on the 1974 counties. So Wales has 8 Lords Lieutenant.

Lords Lieutenant are responsible for organising royal visits, presenting awards, various civic roles and chairing magistrates and HMRC committees. It’s comes with a military-style uniform and expenses are paid – though there’s no full-time salary. High Sheriffs perform a similar role.

As part of the recent St David’s Day Agreement, it was suggested the First Minister should recommend people for Lieutenancies within Wales.

I would prefer these roles to transfer to directly-elected mayors or, alternatively, become part of the role of the current ceremonial mayors, or future ceremonial mayors of post-Williams local authorities.

Of course – no monarchy, no Lieutenancies.

The Church

Prior to the Reformation, the church was a key land-owner and revenue raiser – hence why the monasteries were dissolved as they were a threat to the authority of the monarch, and why higher positions in the church have always been semi-aristocratic.

After the Reformation, the monarch became supreme head of the establish state church (Church of England) and the political power of the clergy shifted from Rome to London.

There are only few countries in the world where clergy play a direct role in the legislature, including The Vatican, Iran and the UK. 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords (Lords Spiritual).

This is an England-only quirk. Wales and Northern Ireland don’t have established churches, while the Scottish Presbyterian church has no representation in the House of Lords. So in Wales this question has already been answered – the church is separate from the state.

The Gorsedd of Bards

You could consider the Gorsedd of Bards a semi-aristocratic body or unofficial Welsh life peerage system. As they play no constitutional role, and their presence is mostly symbolic and cultural, there’s no real reason to make any changes.

The Gorsedd could, I suppose, become the backbone of a Welsh honours system as an alternative to other ideas, or to complement the St David’s Awards.

Manorial Rights

This is another feudal relic. “Lords of the Manor” have certain rights over other people’s land, such as sporting or mineral rights. This means some people have bought property without realising they didn’t have full control over the land.

Many of these titles are sold on the open market, some for their novelty value, others to exercise said manorial rights.

All manorial rights claims had to be registered with the Land Registry by 2013. Just last year, a Cheshire-based businessman who held the title “Lord of the Manor of Treffos” on Anglesey attempted to exercise his manorial rights to extract minerals, which could’ve affected up to 4,000 homeowners.

The claim was eventually dropped, but still technically remains a “right”. However, since then, the Law Commission have been pressed by the UK Parliament to recommend that all manorial rights be axed. Safe to say an independent Wales should follow suit, rendering “Lord of the Manor” titles unconstitutional and legally worthless.

Should Wales have a Governor-General?

Commonwealth Realms (which is what Wales would become post-independence if we retained the monarchy – like Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc.) have a Governor-General; a viceroy who represents the monarch on matters of state and carries out ceremonial duties.

Wales and Scotland would be peculiarities because we would share a land border with the home state of the monarch, in personal union. Considering Cardiff is only two hours from London and not on the other side of the planet, it’s reasonable to assume Wales wouldn’t have a Governor-General, and would simply deal with the monarch directly.

There is precedence though. Pre-1922 Ireland had a viceregal Lord Lieutenant, which became a Governor-General until the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1936. This is despite Ireland being right next to Great Britain.

Having a Governor-General would be a “soft Welsh monarchy”. Most of the functions of head of state would be carried out by whichever Welsh person was selected for the office. However, the monarch would remain in place, and the Governor-General would be appointed, not elected. Despite that, there have been calls in New Zealand to elect their Governor-General (or at the very least have the New Zealand Parliament nominate someone for the position) as an alternative to a full republic.

Of course, if Wales were a republic or chose its own head of state in some other way, then none of this would be relevant.