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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 33: Reconstitution of the Second Chamber: The Liberal party proposals, 1913


← ii. 90 | ii. 91 → CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Reconstitution of the Second Chamber: The Liberal party proposals, 1913

The passing of the Parliament Bill of 1911 considerably dispirited all those who had, up to the last minute, put up resistance to it. At the end of the last debate on 10 August, the Earl of Selborne had delivered an impassioned utterance: ‘We ourselves, as effective legislators, are doomed to destruction. The question is – Shall we perish in the dark by our own hand, or in the light, killed by our enemies?’1 The bill was to haunt the earl for the rest of his life, and he left no stone unturned to change its provisions. In this endeavour he won supporters as well as sympathisers who now desired that he should take the lead. We illustrate this with letters the earl received. One, dated 16 August 1911, is from the Unionist and ‘die-hard’, George Wyndham:2

My dear Willy,

I have waited a few days so as to take a cool view of the situation. I find that with increasing calm there comes increasing certitude that the vote given by the House of Lords for Revolution – owing to Unionist abstentions and acts of treachery – demands prompt and definite action on the part of those who strove to prevent that national disaster.

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