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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 27: The Failure of the Constitutional Conference: 1910


← i. 542 | i. 543 → CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

The Failure of the Constitutional Conference: 1910

King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910. The new monarch, George V, hoped for inter-party reconciliation on the budget issue: perhaps a compromise could be reached. Asquith, the prime minister, and Balfour, the leader of the opposition, were inclined to give it a try. Asquith convinced his cabinet that a joint conference with the Unionists aiming to settle the constitutional disputes was worth the attempt. The cabinet gave their unanimous support on 6 June and the offer was accepted by Balfour. The first meeting of the constitutional conference took place on 17 June.1 The government was represented by Asquith, Crewe, Lloyd George and Augustine Birrel (the chief secretary for Ireland); Arthur Balfour, Lords Lansdowne and Cawdor, and Austen Chamberlain stood for the opposition. The deliberations of the conference, which involved twenty-two sittings between 17 June and 10 November, are beyond the scope of our study. This is because the delegates did not directly take counsel on the constitutional reform of the House of Lords. Nevertheless it is important to refer briefly to the issues implied. We draw heavily upon the keen observations made by Corinne Comstock Weston.2 The conference had several proposals before it. Balfour proposed three categories of legislation – ordinary, financial, and constitutional, which ‘required separate consideration and different treatment if the constitutional question were to be satisfactorily settled’.3 ← i. 543 | i. 544 → Asquith produced ‘A Suggested Scheme for Dealing with...

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