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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 13: A Select Committee to Inquire into the Lords’ Constitution: The Earl of Rosebery, 1888


← i. 242 | i. 243 → CHAPTER THIRTEEN

A Select Committee to Inquire into the Lords’ Constitution: The Earl of Rosebery, 1888

For the next two years, no proposals for constitutional reform were put to either of the Houses of Parliament. More pressing problems occupied the attention of the members of each. The matter of great concern was the Irish Home Rule bill. When Gladstone began his third administration in February 1886, he made it his priority to give Ireland Home Rule status. The electoral results had given the Liberals a majority of 86 over the Conservatives. Gladstone felt fully assured that his efforts would succeed. But when on 26 March the Home Rule Bill was discussed in cabinet, the prime minister encountered strong opposition from Joseph Chamberlain, president of the local government board, and George Trevelyan, secretary for Scotland. Lord Rosebery, who was now foreign secretary, tried to mediate, but without success. Some cabinet ministers (including Chamberlain) resigned. However, these resignations did not deter Gladstone from introducing the bill1 in the House of Commons on 8 April. He did it in a masterly three-hour speech ‘amid phenomenal public excitement’.2 The House debated the bill for sixteen days ‘at very high levels of eloquence and argument’.3 Gladstone’s own close associates, the Liberal leaders Hartington and Chamberlain, delivered deadly blows against the bill. They induced 93 Liberals to vote in the majority of 343 votes to 313 on 8 June, thus considerably helping to defeat the bill. Thereupon Gladstone...

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