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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 2. 1943–1958: Hopes Rekindled

Peter Raina

Peter Raina’s House of Lords Reform recounts the long struggle to bring an ancient institution up to date. The first volume ended in 1937, as crisis overwhelmed Europe. Reform issues were not forgotten, however. This second volume continues the story, presenting a wealth of illuminating records, a great many of them published here for the first time.
The 4th Marquess of Salisbury planned changes to the Lords even before the war’s end. Further proposals followed after the establishment of the Labour government in 1945. Fearful that its legislation would be blocked, Labour amended the Parliament Act, 1911 to limit the Lords’ delaying powers to just one year. Some believed the Upper House would disappear altogether.
Salisbury’s heir worked hard for preservation, and managed to secure an all-party conference. Its complex schemes and animated discussions are all presented here in original documents. Though the conference failed, Lords Reading, Exeter and Simon continued the effort, with ideas that would eventually bear fruit. They championed the rights of women, self-regulation through standing orders, and the creation of life peers. The Churchill government formed a Lords Reform Committee but could get no further. Then, in an unexpected twist, the cause finally triumphed when Harold Macmillan and the Earl of Home got a one-clause bill through parliament in 1958. The Life Peers Act transformed the nature of British politics.
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We ended our first volume on the history of House of Lords reform in 1937. After this date, a long pause occurred – first, because of the political crisis in Europe, which occupied the minds of the members of both Houses of Parliament; secondly, because of the outbreak of the war in September 1939, which took priority over all other issues. Yet, despite these formidable problems facing the British nation, or perhaps in view of the fact that such problems might eventually force an imperative need for change on the country, reform of the Upper House continued to concern those thoughtful men who had made a lifelong trade of politics there. The 4th Marquess of Salisbury belonged to this class of people. While the cataclysm of the war still engulfed Britain, this marquess, now over eighty years old, produced a brief draft of a new reform proposal for the House of Lords. The House, he wrote with approval, constituted ‘a platform from which men of inf luence’ could mature public opinion, but its functions would have to be discharged differently in future. The House of Lords required strengthening, but this strengthening should be evolutionary. Although the hereditary principle must be retained, it now needed qualification. A peer should not sit and vote in the House by reason alone of his hereditary right. Lord Salisbury issued these theories in April 1943. And it is from this point that we begin the second volume of our history of House of Lords...

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