Though the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (right) had been elected in a landslide victory, it made little initial progress in its general legislative programme. During the election campaign (in a speech delivered at Nottingham on 15 January 1906) the Conservative leader, A. J. Balfour had said:
‘the great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or whether in Opposition, the destinies of this great Empire’.This was no empty threat. At the beginning of the new Parliament there were 602 peers, including 25 bishops. Of these only 88 were Liberals, 124 were Liberal Unionists and 355 were Conservatives. In December 1908 only 102 peers took the Liberal whip as against 459 Unionists.
For several decades the Lords had been developing a theory of ‘plebiscitary democracy’ – asserting their right to hold up controversial bills until they had received the explicit endorsement of the electorate. In 1893 a Conservative dominated Lords had rejected the second Home Rule Bill. Between 1909 and 1909 the Upper Chamber rejected or wrecked ten Liberal bills.
The Education Bill: In April 1906 the government introduced an Education Bill, designed to appeal to its Nonconformist supporters by restricting Anglican privileges. It was its flagship piece of legislation and it dominated the 1906 Parliament:
1.All denominational schools receiving rate aid were to be taken over by the local authorities;But the bill never passed into law as the Lords amended it, after consultations between Balfour and Lansdowne, the Unionist leader in the Lords, in a way that completely overturned its provisions. The bill was withdrawn in December.
2.Teachers were to be appointed by the authorities without any sectarian tests and not be allowed to give religious instruction;
3.Religious instruction was to be limited to two days a week in transferred church schools (though concessions were made in areas where 80% of the parents requested them).
Outraged, Campbell-Bannerman considered an immediate dissolution with a campaign on the straight issue of the supremacy of the Commons. But cabinet opinion was firmly opposed.
The Trades Disputes Bill: The Lords did not destroy the Trades Disputes Bill, because a prior mandate had been sought. Brought in under pressure from the Labour members, it granted unions immunity from legal action. In future a trade union was not liable for civil wrongs committed on its behalf. This established that peaceful picketing was legal even when its objects were to incite to breach of contract. But the Lords destroyed a plural voting bill, a major item in the government’s legislative programme. The result was that after a year in office the Liberals, for all their huge majority, had achieved little.
The King’s speech in February 1907 referred to
‘unfortunate differences between the two Houses’.He was not exaggerating. A Licensing bill was postponed and replaced as the main legislative business of the early part of the session by compromise measures on Ireland - but they had to be withdrawn for lack of support.
It was a horrible paradox for the Liberals. They were being pressed by the Labour members to pass laws they did not really approve of and were prevented by the Conservatives in the Lords from passing their own legislation.‘ And they were beginning to suffer electorally as there were sharp swings to the Unionists and Labour in by-elections. In 1908 Lloyd George declared:
‘The House of Lords is not the watchdog of the constitution. It is Mr Balfour’s poodle.’There were two possible solutions to the problem of conflict between the two Houses:
1. To alter the composition of the Upper House, mainly by reducing the hereditary element. This had strong conservative elements, for a reformed second chamber would be on stronger moral and political grounds in applying the brake on the first chamber. (Does this sound familiar?! ) For this reason in 1907 some Tory peers introduced a (failed) bill to alter drastically the composition of the House: the hereditary peers were to elect a quarter of their number to represent them and the places so vacated would be filled by the government of the day with life peers. But if passed, it would weaken the power of the Commons and invalidate its claim to be the sole representative of the will of the people.
2. Campbell-Bannerman’s preferred solution was to curb the power of the peers by ruling that a bill passed three times by the Commons would become law without the consent of the Lords.