A century-old ‘interim measure’

The preamble to the Parliament Act of 1911 described it as an ‘interim measure’ until such times as the second chamber could be constituted on popular basis rather than the hereditary basis. The act’s major change to the power of the House of Lords, to a delaying, rather than an absolute, veto, remains in place, as does the provision to limit the delay on finance bills to one month. So, too, do hereditary peers, 92 of whom still sit in the House of Lords over 100 years later.

The context of the 1911 act is important, for the constitutional crisis of 1910-11 was caused by Lloyd George’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ which precipitated a political conflict with the landed aristocracy. There is no firm historical consensus on the reason Lloyd George introduced it. One view is that he felt that the easiest way of introducing taxes on higher incomes, including a super tax on incomes over £5,000 per annum, and taxes on land valuations, was through a budget: by convention, the Lords did not block finance bills. Another is that he sought to tempt the Lords into a contest; a further view is that he saw his budget as a ‘win-win’ for either eventuality. In the event, it prompted two general elections: that of January 1910 on the budget itself and that of December 1910, after no consensus could be reached between the political parties on reform. Even the king’s threat to create a flood of new peers did not prevent many so-called ‘ditchers’ from fighting to the end against the 1911 act.

Indeed, the hereditary peers have proved a very difficult group to remove from the Lords. The major threat they have held over 20th century governments is to foment delays in legislation that would cause governments to lose political momentum. After Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election, the in-built Conservative majority of peers cannily agreed to the Salisbury Convention, which meant that all measures promised in an incoming Labour government’s manifesto would be allowed to pass into law. This took away a major incentive for the peers to be removed. The Attlee government’s reform, the Parliament Act of 1949, was chosen in part for its simplicity: it merely reduced the delaying power from two years to one. Harold Wilson’s 1966 general election victory with a majority of 96 also prompted an attempt at reform in the Parliament (No.2) Bill, which would have introduced a two-tier system of voting and non-voting peers: this was introduced into the Commons on 19 December 1968, then abandoned the following April after the bill had spent over 80 hours in committee. The House of Lords Reform Act 1999, while it took away the voting rights of the vast majority of hereditary peers, allowed 92 hereditary peers to remain, with the government again under threat of having its legislative programme delayed.

More recently, the Clegg proposals were an historical anomaly. The other ‘big bang’ reforms of the Parliament Act of 1911, the Parliament Act of 1949 and the House of Lords Reform Act 1999 all followed progressive landslides: the Liberal victory of 1906, and the Labour victories of 1945 and 1997. Only incremental change has proved successful in the absence of a progressive landslide. The Life Peerages Act 1958 and the Peerage Act 1963 are evidence of this; the latter statute allowed individuals to disinherit titles after Tony Benn had been temporarily disqualified from serving as an MP for the then Bristol South-East constituency on inheriting his father’s peerage, and allowed women who inherited peerages to take their seats in the Lords. This all said, however, the Clegg proposals had a number of fundamental flaws in any event: members of the upper house would be elected for 15-year terms and could not be re-elected: hardly a recipe for accountability to the electorate.

With the current economic challenges the country currently faces, Lords reform is undoubtedly a low priority. The issue is irrelevant to the pressures families are facing every day. But only two countries in the world retain any form of hereditary element in their legislatures: the UK, and Lesotho, which also has an hereditary element in its senate. That remains an affront to democracy. Change – in one form or another – is bound to come eventually.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics published by IB Tauris (2010). He writes the Labour history column for Progress tweets @NThomasSymonds

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