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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 21: Lord Newton’s Reform Bill: 1907

Extract

← i. 404 | i. 405 → CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Lord Newton’s Reform Bill: 1907

It is useless to speculate whether Lord Newton1 had any knowledge of what was going on in the government’s cabinet committee. It may have been of little concern to him: he had his own views. Lord Newton was a very conscientious man. We are grateful to the British political scientist David Southern, who has briefly but shrewdly elucidated the character of this noble lord.2 Having evaluated Lord Newton’s diaries, David Southern brings us closer than was previously possible to Lord Newton’s way of thinking. We learn that the Lords’ rejection of the Education Bill was, in Lord Newton’s opinion, a ‘ridiculous exhibition of [a] majority of ignoramuses’. Indeed, in general, Lord Newton regarded the House of Lords as ‘overgrown’ and ‘unrepresentative’, having a ‘huge Conservative majority permanently encamped there’. Thus the ‘treatment of this Tory stronghold by successive Conservative governments was often both narrow and foolish. When they were in office they showed little but contempt for it […] and when in opposition they left to the peers the thankless task of throwing out Liberal bills regardless of the consequences.’3

Lord Newton wanted to change this unjust function of the Lords, both in the interest of his House – to restore its reputation – and for the benefit of the masses, who might yet be persuaded to revise their disenchantment with the recent ill behaviour the Lords had shown. With Lord Newton’s proposals for reform of...

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