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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 20: Relations between the Two Houses of Parliament: The Liberal plan


← i. 376 | i. 377 → CHAPTER TWENTY

Relations between the Two Houses of Parliament: The Liberal plan

With the dawn of the twentieth century we hear no immediate cry for general reform of the House of Lords. What we do encounter, however, is the desire of the new Liberal government to curb the powers of the Lords. The Liberal government came to power after the resignation of A.J. Balfour1 as prime minister on 4 December 1905. Balfour resigned because he felt he had lost the confidence of his major colleagues in the cabinet. This was because of an acute difference over the issue of protection versus free trade. Joseph Chamberlain,2 the colonial secretary, was Balfour’s chief opponent. Chamberlain strongly advocated protection. He was encouraged in his conviction after the end of the fourth Colonial Conference, which took place in London in July 1902. The conference, among other things, favoured the principle of imperial preference in trade. At first Chamberlain thought he would win Balfour’s support within the cabinet but, when this did not happen, he made his wishes public in two speeches – one in Birmingham on 15 May 1903, the other in the Commons on 28 May. Both speeches put the prime minister in an embarrassing situation, although he could still count on the senior members of the cabinet. A crisis in the cabinet ensued when, at the beginning of September, Chamberlain resigned from it. Several other resignations ← i. 377 | i. 378 → and dismissals followed. The...

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