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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 1. The Origins to 1937: Proposals Deferred- Book One: The Origins to 1911- Book Two: 1911–1937

Peter Raina

One of the peculiarities of British history is the development of a constitution headed by the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament. This system emerged to become a balance of democracy, efficiency and moderation that became the admiration of the world.
The contribution of the House of Lords to this balance is all too often overlooked. In this richly documented two-volume work, the author offers a detailed examination of the Lords’ constitutional position and the predicament they faced as the Commons increasingly championed popular rule. With a landowning membership based on the hereditary principle, the Lords struggled to adapt. Yet, valiant attempts were made. The author gives us the first thorough, full-length history of the Lords’ ambiguous responses to the new democracy and the stream of arguments, proposals and bills raised for reform of their House.
Drawing on speeches, letters, reports and memoranda of the times (some never previously published), the book brings to life the inner wranglings and arresting personalities, the hopes and anxieties and the sheer frustrations of a House divided between entrenched interests and idealism, and often threatened by progressives outside.
The two books in Volume One cover the period from the medieval origins of the House of Lords and proceed, through many tumultuous events, to the outbreak of the Second World War.
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Chapter 3: The ‘New Nobility’ in the House of Lords: William Pitt


← i. 72 | i. 73 → CHAPTER THREE

The ‘New Nobility’ in the House of Lords: William Pitt

We must here divert a little from our main theme and refer to the general characteristics of the peers of the realm from the last decade of the eighteenth century until the eve of the Victorian age. With the accession of William Pitt to office in December 1783 the personnel of the House of Lords changed immensely, and so did its character. During Pitt’s first administration the membership of the Upper House increased by as much as forty per cent.1 Until Pitt’s new creations, the members of the House of Lords most definitely belonged to the old, genuinely aristocratic families – with the exception of the bishops. The House counted 238 members (three dukes of the blood royal, twenty-two other dukes, seventy-eight earls, seventeen viscounts, seventy-six barons, sixteen Scottish representative peers and twenty-six bishops). By creating 114 new Peers during the seventeen years of his administration, Pitt changed the whole social structure of the Lords. Not only that. Pitt injured the character of the Lords. That is the judgement pronounced by some of the great British historians. W.E.H. Lecky in his History of England wrote that Pitt introduced into the House people who were for the most part of no distinction, and who ‘at once changed the political tendencies and greatly lowered the intellectual level of the assembly to which they were raised’.2 J.R. Green in his History ← i. 73 | i....

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