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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 9: The Spiritual Bill: 1870


← i. 186 | i. 187 → CHAPTER NINE

The Spiritual Bill: 1870

The stubbornness of the lords caused irritation among various sections of the population, particularly among those who had become agnostic or anticlerical. As it was impossible to kick the hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, attempts were made at least to weaken the powers of these lords by altering the composition of their House. Such a move could be undertaken in the Lower House as well. With this intention, on 21 June 1870, Mr Somerset Beaumont moved for leave to bring in a bill to ‘relieve Lords Spiritual from attendance in Parliament’. He said that he had

only to submit a plain and simple question, whether – however much the Bishops might have contributed to the wisdom of Parliament in former times – in the year 1870 it recommended itself to the common sense of the House and the country that in times like the present, when they were the representatives of a Church that hardly – if indeed it did – own the allegiance of the majority of the nation, that they should have the exclusive right of sitting in Parliament?1

Mr Beaumont believed that the presence of the bishops in the House of Lords ‘was advantageous neither to the Church nor to the State’. The bishops were accustomed to use all their influence against reform. Therefore he wished to abolish a privilege which he thought was ‘inexpedient, unjust, and unreasonable’.2 The...

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