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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 11: Efficiency of the House of Lords: The Earl of Rosebery, 1884

Extract

← i. 196 | i. 197 → CHAPTER ELEVEN

Efficiency of the House of Lords: The Earl of Rosebery, 1884

During the last two decades of the Victorian reign we notice a pressing desire amongst some enlightened peers to urge the Lords to undertake reforms. But equally we hear an importunate call from others to leave the Upper House alone. The Noes always had it. What were the reasons?

During the late Victorian period the British aristocracy seem to have entered a strong phase of intellectual self-questioning. The cause of this was the publication of several influential discourses on civil society, its drawbacks and how to remove them. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty drew attention to social evils prevalent at the time. It was thought to be a ‘socialist’ manifesto – ‘radical’ (in a much more commonly used phrase of the era). The book enjoyed vast popularity among the masses, but it appealed to many enjoying the privileges of the upper class. To counter this socialist view of society, Herbert Spencer’s The Man Versus the State (1884) emphasized that the nature of man was essentially individualistic. W.E.H. Lecky in his Democracy and Liberty (1896) defended the values and advantages of the hereditary principle in the Upper Chamber. Another apologist for this principle was W.H. Mallock who published his Aristocracy and Evolution: A Study of the Rights, the Origin, and the Social Functions of the Wealthier Classes in 1898. The last two authors, as ideological mentors, played a significant...

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