Winston Churchill with Arthur Balfour, who schemed too much. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

August 18, 2021   6 mins

The Tories were split about the Irish Union and Free Trade. The Liberals were stalking constitutional reform. The Left was increasingly bickering among itself. Party alignments were shifting. Our recent democratic upheavals would have been familiar during the constitutional crisis which came to a head 110 years ago today. On August 18th, the Parliament Act 1911 removed the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation passed in the House of Commons.

If you think we live in dramatic political times, this Act was the product of a much more febrile and rambunctious period. There was no single cause of the Lords crisis; it was a combination of inevitable changes in democratic politics, high cunning, and silly plots. If there was a single event that set things in motion, it was this: in December 1905, Arthur Balfour became the last Prime Minister to cede power to the leader of the opposition without having first been defeated in a general election. He thought the Liberals would disagree about Ireland and be unable to form a cabinet. Instead, they did the obvious thing: got themselves in order and called an election against a long-serving, increasingly out-of-touch government.

In early 1906, the Liberal Party won a whopping victory, increasing their seat count by 214. Balfour became another last: the last Prime Minister to lose his seat in an election. Defeat didn’t dent his belief that his party ought to be the ultimate arbiters, though. Balfour announced: “The great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great Empire.” These Liberals weren’t the sort of chaps you want handling questions of empire and social reform. The Tories must remain in charge, one way or another.

Balfour’s statement might seem like the usual press release bluster. But the leader had a scheme. The Tories had a stonking majority of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. And so, having lost an election in the lower house, Balfour started running the country from the upper. He and Lord Lansdowne, Conservative leader in the Lords, thought they could take an approach of “caution and tact” to voting down government legislation in the Lords. It didn’t work. In 1907, the Liberal government passed nine measures in the Commons. The Lords rejected five of them. Lloyd George jibed that the peerage was Mr Balfour’s poodle.

Tory brass knew Lords reform was necessary. Balfour agreed in principle. But he ended up rejecting the idea, claiming that Lords reforming would weaken the Commons (this from the man using Earls and Marquesses to vote down government legislation!) Not that Balfour felt the need to demean himself with explanations; he was still Tory leader largely because no-one else could take over. He was too posh to push: “I am certainly not going to condescend to go about the country explaining that I am ‘honest and industrious’ like a second coachman out of place!”

Meanwhile Balfour saw opportunity in the threat of the growing German navy. He pushed the Liberals to accept that British ships had to be built. This neat distraction unified his grouchy party. New ships meant new taxes. The Tories preferred the indirect taxation of putting tariffs on imports — making food more expensive. The justification was that age-old Tory favourite: the alternative was the confiscation of private property, the thin end of the socialistic wedge. The Liberals, led by H. H. Asquith, stood for Free Trade and Cheap Bread — and had to accommodate themselves to the new class of Labour voters who had made themselves known in the 1906 election. In the 1909 budget, the Chancellor David Lloyd George proposed raising money via a “super-tax” on the wealthy, as well as other taxes designed to hit landowners.

Balfour and Lansdowne wanted to let the budget pass the Lords, although some peers threatened to sack their staff in protest at the new taxes. Then Lloyd George gave his Limehouse speech, throwing shade on the recalcitrant toffs: “What is the labour they are going to choose for dismissal? Are they going to threaten to devastate rural England by feeding and dressing themselves?” Tory peers frothed. Balfour schemed again. If the Lords voted down the budget, there would be a general election, and the Tories could promise tariffs that would protect British jobs. The peers rejected the budget. The first election of 1910 was held (with 92% turnout). The Liberals lost 123 seats.

The brouhaha really got going at this point. The Liberals stayed in government with the support of Irish Nationalists and Labour, giving them a majority of over a hundred. The alliance complicated the game. Passing the budget was no longer sufficient. The Irish Nationalists insisted that the Lords must lose their veto, something Liberals had been talking about since the 1880s, so that a bill could be passed giving Home Rule to Ireland. To the Tory party, this was intensely unacceptable.

There followed months of protracted and frankly useless negotiations. As always with Lords reform, a slew of clever but unpopular proposals came and went like the tide. There were Tories who would have accepted a form of federal Home Rule, but Lansdowne was stubborn. This, you see, was the thin end of the imperial wedge. There was even a plan to mix life peerages and a select number of hereditaries. Ultimately, there was no compromise. The crisis was crystallising dividing lines in British politics that would continue for years.

A second 1910 election was held. Only this time, Asquith had a scheme worthy of Balfour. There was a new king, George V, and the Prime Minister had secretly got him to agree to create a mass of new peers that would vote for the legislation, if necessary. Edward VII had refused him this promise without a second election, but George, having been on the throne for less than seven months, was bounced into rather flustered agreement by the duplicitous Asquith. The game was up. Balfour had schemed his way into a ridiculous position. The King had been duped. The Tory peers had gained nothing by holding out for everything.

The Parliament Act 1911 passed the Commons five months after the second 1910 election. While Asquith drew up his list of potential new peers to swamp the Lords, Balfour was labouring under the strange idea that the king might take the Tory side. It was quite a shock when Asquith present the list in July. He spent half an hour at the dispatch box, his voice hardly audible as Tory MPs howled “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!” Balfour caved and announced his shadow cabinet’s policy: to pass the bill. By November, he had resigned. Many Tory peers became “last ditchers,” opposing Asquith to the bitter end. Most, of course, flaked out.

The peers’ great fear, besides Irish Home Rule, was that the hereditary principle would be toppled. Life peerages, which would allow commoners to sit in the Lords, were mooted in this crisis. They weren’t introduced until the 1950s, though. And the hereditary peers weren’t removed from the House of Lords until 1999. Those negotiations ran much more smoothly thanks to the under rated Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. A master of High Politics who makes Peter Mandelson look like a playground gossip, Salisbury negotiated for 92 hereditary peers to retain their place in the Lords. Unlike Balfour, Salisbury knew the value of compromise. Those hereditary peers don’t seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon.

Still, every time a government is elected, more life peers are added to make sure the numbers even out. There are now nearly 800 members. Charles Moore described it as “an ermine slum.” It is the only upper chamber in the world that is bigger than the lower chamber. Many peers are useless. The Lords lingers on, but calls for reform and complaints of its wastefulness are frequent. As with the negotiations of 1910, there is a plethora of proposals about what to do with them. Most are convoluted, impractical, or simply haphazard (remember Nick Clegg’s Senate?). Robert Salisbury has proposed the simplest answer of anyone: “a directly elected federal parliament. It would sit in the chamber of the House of Lords. The House of Lords would be abolished… The chamber of the Commons would become the seat of the English parliament.”

It is hard to imagine an idea less favourable to the “last ditchers” who so passionately objected to the Parliament Act 1911 — which can only be another reason to implement it. If only someone with sufficient vision could persuade him back into politics: Lord Salisbury retired from the House of Lords in 2017, on the day of Theresa May’s snap general election. Her Brexit nightmare and Boris’s ineptitude have revived many of the conditions of the 1910 crisis. And the House of Lords is the unsolved problem of British democracy we always return to at such times. Many of the semi-redundant life peers are now just as keen to keep their place as the hereditaries used to be. They should worry about a new Balfour coming to defend them. Then their time really would be up.

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at The Common Reader.