(The first part of this essay described how the Liberal government elected in 1906 was frustrated in its reforming efforts by the Conservative majority in the House of Lords, culminating in the rejection of Lloyd George’s Budget in 1909. The Prime Minister, Asquith, then called a general election in early 1910 on the theme of “Who runs Britain: peers or people?” only to find his part lose many seats and end up equal with the Conservatives. If the Liberals wished to continue in office, they would henceforth be dependent on the support of the Irish Nationalist party, and the price for that support would be Home Rule for Ireland)
Asquith now produced three Commons Resolutions on reducing the power of the Lords, which were to be embodied in a Parliament Bill. These were, in summary: The Lords were to have no control over Money Bills; If any Bill passed the Commons in three successive sessions, it would automatically pass the Lords without a vote; and General Elections were to be called every 5 years, instead of 7, as was previously the case (thus giving the electorate the final say in most cases). This package duly passed the Commons with a majority of about 100, the Conservative party voting against.
In April the House of Lords passed the Budget without a division. But what if the Lords rejected the Parliament Bill? There was a precedent for such a crisis back in 1832, when the Lords refused to pass the Great Reform Act, and had to be bullied into submission by King William IV threatening to create fifty new government-supporting peers to vote the measure through. Would the monarch once again be placed at the forefront of politics? It would be a development all responsible politicians were anxious to avoid.
King Edward VII died on May 10th 1910 (“Killed by Asquith!” cried the more extreme Tory backwoodsmen). The new King, George V, aged 44, was eager to prevent a crisis, and called a “Constitutional Conference” in June, which however broke up without achieving anything. Lloyd George suggested that instead of a fully hereditary House of Lords, peers should elect some of their own number. The Conservative Party leaders were prepared to consider this, but the backwoodsmen were irrevocably hostile.
When the Parliament Bill passed the Commons but was defeated in the Lords, the King demanded a new General Election to gauge the country’s mood. This was held in November, and once again resulted in a hung Parliament, with the two main parties equal in strength and the Irish holding the balance. King George now gave his tacit support to Asquith’s government, letting it be known privately that if necessary he would create as many peers as were needed to enable the Bill to pass. Historians later found that a provisional list of 250 new Liberal-supporting peers was drawn up, including some very odd suggestions – Thomas Hardy, for instance. Meanwhile the humorous magazine “Punch” had fun with its own list of wildly unsuitable peerage nominations, complete with appropriately silly titles.
In February 1911 the Parliament Bill was reintroduced into the Commons, passed all its stages by mid-May and then went up to the Lords, who amended it severely. The Conservatives were now divided by a diehard movement under Lords Halsbury and Willoughby de Brooke: the two groups being known as the “Hedgers” (the more sensible party leaders, who wished to hedge on the issue) and the “Ditchers” (who vowed to die in the last ditch rather than accept Lords reform). In July the Commons rejected the Lords’ amendments, and Asquith informed Lord Lansdowne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, of the King’s promise to create new peers if necessary to pass the Bill.
On July 24th Asquith was howled down in the Commons by a group of extremist Conservatives, led by Lord Hugh Cecil, who shouted “Traitor! Traitor!” at him until the Speaker was obliged to suspend the session.
The final Lords debate took part in very hot weather on August 9th and 10th. After some fierce exchanges, the Bill was passed by a narrow margin: 131 – 114. “We’ve been beaten by the bishops and the rats!” exclaimed a disgusted Ditcher peeress; and indeed examination of the voting showed that 11 bishops and 29 Conservative lords had voted for the government, including some very distinguished names.
And so a major change was written into the constitution. But probably something even greater was intended. The preamble to the Parliament Act announced that the ultimate aim was to replace the House of Lords with an elected body. That was over a hundred years ago, and from that day to this the idea has been endlessly discussed but never enacted!
The most immediate change was the ousting of the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who was considered to have been no more than half-hearted in his opposition to the Parliament Act. He was replaced by a much more intransigent figure: a Scots-Canadian called Andrew Bonar Law.
Bonar Law was to lead his party into very dangerous waters over the next few years. A Home Rule Bill for Ireland was duly put before Parliament in 1912. Under the terms of the Parliament Act, the House of Lords could only hold it up till 1914, but the next general election was not due till 1915. No matter how many by-elections the Conservatives might win, they could never stop the Bill in the Commons, for the Liberals were supported by the 80 Irish Nationalists and the 40 MPs of the new Labour Party. Instead the Conservatives encouraged resistance from the Protestants of Ulster, who were now threatening outright rebellion to prevent Home Rule. Soon arms were being imported from Germany, with vocal support from the Conservatives. Faced with this threat, Asquith’s government seemed paralysed.
As it happened, Home Rule passed onto the statute book at the exact time of the outbreak of the First World War, which enabled its provisions to be suspended, probably to the relief of both the main parties. But the problem of Ireland had only been postponed.
(These events have been superbly described in a classic piece of historical writing: “The Strange Death of Liberal England”, by George Dangerfield)