Wednesday, August 10, 2011

This Day in British History (Parliament Act Curbs Lords’ Power)

August 10, 1911—Temperatures had climbed to 97 degrees outside, matching the intensity of the proceedings in Great Britain’s legislative body, which, after three-quarters of a century of incremental change, was ready to alter the relationship between its ancient landed aristocracy and its surging middle and lower classes with the Parliament Act.

The measure, which curbed the House of Lords’ traditional and crucial power of the purse, not only eliminated the upper chamber’s power to veto bills passed by the House of Commons, but also set a two-year limit on its ability to delay such bills. While Parliament probably headed off violent socioeconomic change with the legislation’s passage, it also tied the fortunes of the ruling Liberal Party even more strongly to its Home Rule allies from Ireland. The tensions that would grow among the Liberals, the Home Rule faction, Unionists bent on keeping Ireland within the British Empire, and the Unionists’ Conservative partners led within less than a half dozen years to an all-out fight for Irish independence.

The impetus for the landmark legislation was Liberal outrage over the Lords’ refusal to pass the 1909 “People’s Budget” proposed by David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (in American terms, the equivalent of the Treasury Secretary, but with an even wider portfolio, influence and power).

It was bad enough that the “Welsh Magician” was proposing old-age pensions that the worst Tory mossbacks thought of as the opening wedge of socialism. No, worse than that was the unapologetic, punch-in-the-face manner in which Lloyd George, the great hope of the revolutionary wing of his party, wanted to pay for not only this pioneering social-welfare legislation (the Social Security Act was not passed in the U.S. until 1935), but also for bolstering the Royal Navy against the rising German military threat—all while closing a gaping deficit:

* increased death taxes;
* a tax on coal and mineral royalties;
* a duty on undeveloped land;
* much higher taxes on the liquor trade; and
* a super-tax on all incomes over ₤5,000 a year.

When the Lords balked, Lloyd George’s boss, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (in the image accompanying this post), decided it was time for hardball. If the House of Lords did not agree to the “People’s Budget,” he was prepared to ask King George V—almost ready for his coronation, following the death of his father, Edward VII, earlier that spring—to appoint more like-minded members of the Lords until Asquith had enough votes in that chamber.

If the outlines of that scheme sound vaguely familiar to American ears, they should. As blogger Brad DeLong pointed out in an Independence Day post from 2004, Franklin D. Roosevelt would attempt something like that with his unsuccessful “court-packing” scheme of 1937. FDR’s attempt to gain a majority on the Supreme Court that would be amenable to his economic legislation and alphabet-soup agencies (NRA, AAA, TVA, etc.) proved somewhat less successful than Asquith’s maneuver against the Lords.

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914, George Dangerfield considered how two groups dealt with Asquith’s challenge: the “Hedgers,” or Conservatives who could read the political handwriting on the wall and had decided to cede ground on the Parliament Act; and the “Ditchers,” or last-ditchers--the die-hards prepared to be, in the words of Lord Selborne, "killed by our enemies" rather than “perish in the dark, slain by our own hand” by yielding an old prerogative.

Dangerfield exhibited some idiosyncrasies in this study (notably, references to the “tyranny” of the Home Rulers over the Liberals--an odd formulation indeed, given that many Irish would employ the same language about British misrule). But he is wonderfully ironic in explaining the ostrich=- like worldview of the Ditchers:

"In their minds, to attack the House of Lords was to attack an ancient and virtuous talisman. There was a certain magic in the hereditary principle. That most peerages sprung from the curious powers of survival in some obscure medieval family, or from a dishonest bargain struck in the eighteenth century, or from a talent for guessing right on the Stock Exchange, or from a genius for keeping business projects on the windy side of the law this they could not or would not recognize. To them, the House of Lords was the mysterious symbol of Breeding. They rallied to its protection as savages rally to protect a house of an idol."

When the debate concluded, the lords left their chamber. For 10 minutes, silence ensued. At last the lords returned in two thin lines. Onlookers surmised, from the size of the lines, that the Hedgers had won the day--or, as some preferred to think of it, "the Bishops and the Rats" (the Church of England and some renegade Ditchers) had given them the upper hand. That proved to be the case

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