Peerages in the United Kingdom
The peerage in the United Kingdom is a legal system comprising both hereditary and lifetime titles, composed of various noble ranks, and forming a constituent part of the British honours system. The term peerage can be used both collectively to refer to the entire body of nobles (or a subdivision thereof), and individually to refer to a specific title (modern English language-style using an initial capital in the former case but not the latter). British peerage title holders are termed peers of the Realm. The peerage's fundamental roles are ones of government, peers being eligible (although formerly entitled) to a seat in the House of Lords, and of meritocracy, the receiving of any peerage being the highest of British honours (with the receiving of a more traditional hereditary peerage naturally holding more weight than that of a more modern, and less highly regarded, life peerage).[dubious ]
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Peerages are created by the British monarch, like all Crown honours, being affirmed by letters patent affixed with the Great Seal of the Realm. Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom makes recommendations to the Sovereign concerning who should be elevated to the peerage, after external vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Under present custom, the only new hereditary peerages granted are to members of the royal family; the last non-royal awardees of hereditary titles were in the Thatcher era. Since then, ruling parties have refrained from recommending any others to be elevated although there is nothing preventing future governments from doing so.
Labour, elected to power in 1997, sought to remove all of the seats in the House of Lords reserved for hereditary peers, but Prime Minister Tony Blair relented by allowing 92 members to remain by legislation enacted in 1999. The House of Lords' purpose is now that of a revising legislative chamber, scrutinising and potentially changing proposed Parliamentary Bills before their enactment. Its membership for the most part comprises life peers, created under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which includes those who can add value in specific areas of expertise in parliamentary debates, as well as former MPs and other political appointees from respective political parties.
The Sovereign, traditionally the fount of honour, cannot hold a British peerage (although the British Sovereign, whether male or female, is informally accorded the style of 'Duke of Lancaster'). All British subjects who were neither Royal nor Peers of the Realm were previously termed Commoners, regardless of wealth or other social factors, thus all members of a peer's family, with the exception of a wife or unmarried widow, are (technically) commoners too; the British system thus differs fundamentally from continental European versions, where entire families, rather than individuals, were ennobled. Nobility in Britain is based on title rather than bloodline, and correspondingly The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) who enjoys Royal status as daughter of The Queen, opted for her children to be Commoners by refusing offers of titles, despite their being grandchildren of the Sovereign (qv. Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall).
Certain personal privileges are afforded to all peers and peeresses, but the main distinction of a peerage nowadays, apart from access to the House of Lords for life peers and some hereditary peers, is the title and style thereby accorded. Succession claims to existing hereditary peerages are regulated by the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct and administered by The Crown Office.