The passage of the Parliament Act in August 1911, which significantly diluted the powers of the House of Lords, was one of the most dramatic episodes in British political history.  

It was the culmination of long-running tension between the two Houses, which reached its peak when the Tory-dominated Lords flexed its legislative muscle against late-19th century Liberal governments, but remained generally passive during Conservative ministries.

During the 1906 general election campaign, the Tory leader, the Rt Hon Arthur Balfour, warned: “The great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or whether in opposition, the destinies of this great Empire.” This attitude led to the famous (if misquoted) Lloyd George jibe in 1907 that the House of Lords, far from being a constitutional watchdog, was merely “Mr Balfour’s poodle”.

The new Liberal government’s landslide victory brought matters to a head. The Upper House (where the Liberals had only about 15 per cent of the membership) had left the Tories’ 1902 Education Bill virtually untouched, but so obstructed the Liberals’ 1906 Education Bill that it had to be withdrawn.   

The 1907 King’s Speech warned that “serious questions affecting the working of our parliamentary system have arisen from unfortunate differences between the two Houses. My ministers have this important subject under consideration with a view to finding a solution to the difficulty”.

A form of joint resolution mechanism between the two Houses was proposed by a cabinet committee, and accepted by cabinet. However, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman MP favoured the suspensory veto – the Lords legislative veto was diluted into one delaying enactment for a specified period – and told the King’s private secretary that “one or two (myself included among them) rather hanker after the more drastic method of the one year’s veto, and fear that this milder scheme is too artificial and complicated”.

He forced a change of policy, presenting his proposals to the Commons in June 1907. They were overwhelmingly passed, despite the surprisingly public misgivings of the chancellor, HH Asquith. Winding up for the government, he admitted to being “a slow and… even a reluctant convert to the necessity of this particular method of dealing with the problem”.

Asquith replaced the terminally ill Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister in April 1908, but ministers needed a clear, unambiguous catalyst, an act of defiance by the Lords, to give effect to their proposals.

That catalyst was the ‘People’s Budget’ of the new chancellor, Lloyd George, on 29 April 1909. Whether or not he designed his radical Budget deliberately to be rejected by the peers, its proposals on taxation of land and income and its various social reform measures were bound to provoke them.  

The opposition in the Commons fought hard but unsuccessfully against the Finance Bill. Would the peers dare amend or even reject it, either of which would be a constitutional bombshell? Typically provocative speeches by Lloyd George in and out of Parliament further inflamed matters.
By the end of November, the Unionists (as Tories were then known) decided on rejection, citing the peers’ constitutional watchdog role. Their amendment at the Lords second reading, denying assent “until it has been submitted to the judgment of the country”, was massively carried by 350 to 75.

Asquith promptly denounced this as “a breach of the constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons”, and Parliament was dissolved. The January 1910 election returned the Liberals to power, but with such losses that their majority now depended on support of the Irish Nationalists and the rising Labour Party.  

The Irish MPs told ministers that their price for supporting a 1910 Finance Bill would be legislation on a suspensory veto rather than on time-consuming comprehensive Lords reform, so that Home Rule could be delivered speedily.  

That spring, the government introduced into the Commons pre-legislative resolutions on the reform of the Lords veto. Once accepted after prolonged debate, a Parliament Bill was immediately presented. At the same time, a Finance Bill was being rushed through the Commons, and the Upper House, accepting the electorate’s decision, passed it in one day without a division.

The government was determined to press on with Lords reform, even if this required promises from the King to create, if necessary, sufficient new peers to override opposition in the Lords.

However, the King’s unexpected death in early May stalled parliamentary business, and made it impolitic for ministers to expect his successor, George V, to become embroiled in controversial constitutional manoeuvrings.  

It was also an opportunity for all sides to explore possible compromises through a Constitutional Conference of the main party leaders, held between June and November 1910. But it all came to nothing, as differences proved irreconcilable.

Another dissolution was inevitable, and the government, in total secrecy, persuaded the King to agree to create new peers if necessary. Once he reluctantly accepted his ministers’ advice, a second 1910 election could proceed in December. This produced virtually the same result as in January, but Asquith could parade it as the electorate’s support for the Parliament Bill.

The new Parliament Bill was introduced in February 1911, and the following months were spent in intensive debate in both Houses, much of which concerned alternative solutions, such as qualified Commons majorities to override any Lords rejection of a bill, and the various definitions in – or proposed for – the bill, such as ‘money bill’ and ‘constitutional bill’.

The Lords gave the Parliament Bill an unopposed second reading in late May, but then proceeded to amend it fundamentally in committee. As it became clear that the Tory peers might even reject the bill outright, Asquith deployed his secret weapon: the King’s promise on peerage creations.
Once the Tory leaders learned this, the endgame was in sight. Their real dilemma was how to engineer an orderly retreat. Because of their huge Lords majority, even a simple mass abstention would probably be insufficient for the bill to pass. Some would actually have to vote for the bill. This deeply split the party between those prepared to let the bill pass (the ‘hedgers’) and those who wanted to pursue opposition to the last ditch (‘ditchers’).  

When, on 24 July, the Commons came to consider the Lords amendments, Asquith was howled down with cries of “Traitor!”. He curtailed his speech – “I will not degrade myself by attempting to address arguments to gentlemen who are obviously resolved not to listen” – and the Speaker abandoned the sitting for ‘grave disorder’.

An opposition censure motion on 7 August, condemning ministers’ ‘unconstitutional’ action in advising the King to create new peers, was easily defeated, and the Lords amendments were overturned the next day.  

With the outcome of the voting truly uncertain, the final Lords’ debate and vote on 9-10 August was a genuinely dramatic occasion. The division brought a small but decisive victory for the government of 131 to 114, with around 37 Unionists voting for the bill. Perhaps the happiest person was the King himself: “It is indeed a great relief to me – I am spared any further humiliation by a creation of peers.”  

On 18 August, the Parliament Bill became an Act. Three months later, the Unionist leader, Balfour, resigned and was replaced by Bonar Law. In 1914, an Irish Home Rule Bill was passed through the use of the Parliament Act procedure.

The 1911 Act’s preamble famously assumed that it was merely an interim measure, prior to a comprehensive reform of the second chamber, which, unfortunately, “cannot be immediately brought into operation”. Yet, a century later, no conclusion is in sight.

Why is Lords reform so difficult? It is partly its constitutional and political complexity, with, at its heart, the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, and the fact that it raises fundamental questions about the nature of our representative democracy.  However, political expediency inevitably leads to a series of compromises that amend the status quo, rather than enabling those fundamental questions to be addressed.

Discussions about reform tend to confuse two distinct issues: the need for change to the House of Lords and the need for a ‘second chamber’ at Westminster. The latter is often simply taken for granted, as necessary to make up for the inadequacies of the elected Commons.

There are important arguments about constitutional checks and balances, limiting untrammelled majoritarian government in a modern democracy. But is a second House of Parliament necessary? What about addressing the existing inadequacies of the Commons? Political analyst Walter Bagehot once said that “with a perfect lower house it is certain that an Upper House would be scarcely of any value. If we had an ideal House of Commons... it is certain we should not need a higher chamber”.  
 
The unicameral argument has a long history. The Lords was even abolished in 1649 when the revolutionary Commons found “by too long experience that the House of Lords is too useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued”. As recently as February 2003, 172 MPs voted in favour of outright abolition.

The Parliament Act crisis provides a clear warning to a government seeking further reform of the Lords, that it is stepping into a political and constitutional minefield.  The former Lords Speaker, Baroness Hayman, warned earlier this year: “In fact, there is so much unfinished business from 1911 as well as from the 2010 general election that I suspect our successors may be here in a century’s time still watching the story unfold.”
Instead of spending another century trying to reform the second chamber, perhaps it is time to address the real question of whether we need one at all.

Tags: Arthur Balfour, Baroness Hayman, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Lloyd George, Parliament Act 1911