The concessions behind the 1911 Parliament Act

Last summer a parliamentary question by Lord Hylton flushed out the huge volume of legislation passed by Parliament since 1997 but never actually brought into force. However, these are but the young upstarts in the list of things Parliament has said it would be but has never quite got round to.

The grandfather of them all is the opening of the 1911 Parliament Act, which clipped the House of Lords’ powers but promised it was only an interim measure, for “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis”.

A century on, that intention of having the second half of Parliament elected by the public is still unmet. Judging by the recent debate on Lords reform in the upper house itself, many of its members would be quite happy to see another century without democracy. Indeed Baroness Hooper even said  she wished she could turn back the clock and restore hundreds of hereditary peers to the House of Lords.

However, the reason the House of Lords survived both 1911 and subsequent attempts at radical reform was the triumph of pragmatism over a love for hereditary power when it came to the crunch.

The 1911 Act had its immediate cause in the 1909 People’s Budget from Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, which raised taxes for the richest to pay for military armaments and social works. As he put it:

This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.

The sums now seem modest – including the equivalent in today’s terms of introducing an extra 2.5% (2.5%, not 25%) on the income tax rate for incomes above £285,000. But at the time they triggered outrage amongst many Conservatives and a three year political struggle, which included two general elections called as the Lords first tried to block the Liberal Party’s financial plans and then attempted to see off a Liberal Party assault on its powers.

Eventually, faced with the threat of 250 new hereditary Liberal peers being created to remove the Conservative party’s large permanent majority in the Lords, Conservative peers agreed to the 1911 Parliament Act. It ended their power to block financial measures that  had a majority in the Commons and also replaced their ability to block other legislation with the power to delay it.

However, in return the Conservative peers managed to retain their permanent majority and also a purely hereditary basis for the Lords. Moreover, one of the major elements of that 1909 Budget was seen off – a land tax.

Much like the Cuban missile crisis, the headline result (Parliament Act / Russian missiles out of Cuba) catches the attention but hides the major concessions given to secure it (hereditaries and Conservative majority continued / US nuclear missiles removed from Turkey and Italy).

The lesson was not lost on peers and modest changes in the Lords have frequently been made since. Most significantly, the introduction of life peerages by the then Conservative government in 1958 achieved its desired aim of revitalising the Lords by allowing new blood to be brought in to make up for the declining interests, aptitude and attendance amongst the hereditary ranks.

That lesson is not lost on current peers, many of wanting to see modest changes such as those proposed by (Lord) David Steel, hoping that small changes can once again head off pressure for major change. It is no surprise either that though Steel is a former Liberal Party leader, his proposals have run into muchcriticism even from his fellow Liberal Democrat peers, such as Lord Tyler, who want to see elections for the Upper House.

One hundred years on, and despite the public consistently overwhelmingly backing the idea, having an Upper House constituted on a popular basis is still controversial with Parliamentarians.

Cross-posted from the Total Politics blog.

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