(Since the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords has once again surfaced, this essay, which is in two parts, outlines the great battle between the two Houses in the years before the First World War)
In early 1906 the Liberal Party under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman won a massive victory in the General Election. They then formed one of the great reforming governments, including such ministers as Asquith, Lloyd George, Haldane and the young Winston Churchill, who had recently defected from the Conservatives. But despite their majority in the House of Commons, which on many issues would be reinforced by the 29 members of the new Labour Party and the 80 Irish Nationalists, the Liberals were unable to get many of their proposals on the statute book, because the Conservatives (who at this time called themselves the “Unionist” party, because of their opposition to Irish Home Rule) had an equally large majority in the House of Lords. As Arthur Balfour, the party leader and former Prime Minister, put it, “The Conservatives should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great empire”.
Accordingly, although the House of Lords let through the Trades Disputes Act, which secured the power of the Trades Unions, they killed various other measures, such as an Education Bill, a Licensing Bill, various Bills for land reform and a Bill to end plural voting. Tensions rose: Campbell-Bannerman produced a Commons Motion proclaiming that, “In order to give effect to the will of the people, the power of the other House to alter or to reject Bills passed by this House must be restricted by law”, which was duly passed by an enormous majority; Lloyd George dubbed the House of Lords “Mr Balfour’s poodle”, and Winston Churchill warned, “They have started the class was, and they must be careful!”
In April 1908 Campbell-Bannerman retired, and died soon afterwards. The government was reconstructed, with Asquith succeeding as Prime Minister, Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Churchill receiving his first cabinet post at the age of just 35.
In his 1909 Budget, Lloyd George had to find money for such newly-introduced items as old age pensions, child allowances and labour exchanges, plus eight new Dreadnaught battleships and army modernisation; all of which required an extra £15,000,000: the largest increase ever in peacetime. He proposed to find the money from increased death duties, higher income tax (to be raised to the extortionate level of 6 pence in the pound in modern money!), a higher-rate “supertax” on higher incomes, car licenses and a petrol tax, increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and a new tax on unearned profits from the sale of land. It is noticeable that most of these were targeted on the richer classes; and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the government was deliberately provoking a showdown with the Lords. The Liberals had been performing poorly in recent by-elections, and felt the need for a new and decisive issue.
Would the House of Lords reject the Budget? They had not done so for 200 years. Even before the Lords had even discussed the Budget, Lloyd George goaded them with bellicose speeches, accusing them of caring nothing for the sufferings of the old and poor. “Who made 10,000 people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?” he cried; and again, “Should five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, override the judgement of the mass of the people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of this country?” If it was his intention to provoke the Lords into resistance, he succeeded; because although the more responsible Conservative leaders now urged caution, large numbers of peers who rarely attended debates (nicknamed “backwoodsmen”) now turned up in large numbers, and in November 1909 the House of Lords rejected the budget by a large majority: 350 to 75. “We’ve got them at last!” Lloyd George crowed.
Asquith put forward a Commons motion calling the Lords’ action “A breach of the constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons”, and called a general election for next January, on the general theme of “Who governs Britain: peers or the people?” But in this election the Liberals lost many seats and the Conservatives gained many, so that the two parties ended up virtually equal in the Commons. It looked very much as if the government had dug a trap for the Lords and fallen into it themselves – though in fact it was usual at the time for governments to lose general elections.
The dispute now took on a completely new tone. With the main parties evenly balanced, the 80 M.P.s of John Redmond’s Irish Nationalist Party now held the balance of power, and it was obvious to all what price they would demand for keeping Asquith’s Liberals in office. The price would be Home Rule for Ireland.
Home Rule had been forgotten about for the past fifteen years.
Gladstone, the great Liberal leader of the 19th century, had been converted to the cause of Home Rule in the 1880s, and had produced two Home Rule Bills, in 1886 and 1893. The first had split his party and been defeated in the Commons, with “Liberal Unionists” under Joseph Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire leaving the party to merge with the Conservatives (who in consequence renamed themselves the Unionist Party). The second had passed the Commons but had been resoundingly rejected by the House of Lords. It was plain that the Lords would never consent to Home Rule; regardless of how the Commons voted.
It is important to understand what was meant by Home Rule. Nobody except a handful of extremist republicans envisaged a fully independent Ireland. Redmond’s Irish Nationalists were moderates: what they demanded was no more than a measure of devolution, of the kind now enjoyed by Scotland. But of the 100 Irish seats in Parliament they controlled about 80, with such a stranglehold that in many cases their candidates were returned unopposed. Only Protestant Ulster held out against their dominance. It would have been sensible for the Conservatives to reassure Ulster that Home Rule would be no big deal, and would not threaten them in any way, but Conservative hatred of the Liberals was such that, in a move whose fatal consequences have haunted us ever since, they decided instead to fan the flames of Ulster intransigence. The famous slogan, “Home Rule means Rome Rule”, was coined: a devolved Ireland would be dominated by the Catholic Church, and Protestant Ulster would be persecuted. The moribund Orange Order was resurrected to combat Home Rule, by force if necessary.
In 1910 the Conservatives and the Ulster Protestants were still irrevocably opposed to Home Rule. But if the government now passed major constitutional legislation to reduce the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, it looked as if Home Rule could no longer be prevented. What would happen then?
(To be continued)
(To be continued)