Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Parliament Act of 1911 helped make Britain a democracy by regulating the relations between Lords and Commons by statute, allowing the House of Lords to delay legislation only for a short time.

Summary of Event

The Parliament Act of 1911 was a major constitutional statute that limited the power of the House of Lords (the upper house of the Parliament) so that it could never again challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons (the lower house). The act eliminated the theoretical equality of the upper and lower houses and allowed the democratic process to guide Great Britain from the House of Commons almost entirely unimpeded. Parliament Act (1911) Democracy;Great Britain [kw]Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy (Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911) [kw]Act Redefines British Democracy, Parliament (Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911) [kw]British Democracy, Parliament Act Redefines (Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911) [kw]Democracy, Parliament Act Redefines British (Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911) Parliament Act (1911) Democracy;Great Britain [g]England;Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911: Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy[02400] [c]Government and politics;Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911: Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy[02400] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr., 1909-Aug., 1911: Parliament Act Redefines British Democracy[02400] Balfour, Arthur Lloyd George, David Lansdowne, Lord (Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice) Churchill, Winston Asquith, H. H. George V

Up until 1911, both houses of Parliament had to pass a bill before it became law. The only exceptions were money bills, which had to originate in the House of Commons and were not supposed to be rejected by the Lords. After the Parliament Act of 1911, the Lords had to accept all bills passed in three successive sessions of the House of Commons. This meant that the Lords’ veto over bills passed in the Commons had been canceled, and henceforth the longest the upper house could delay legislation would be for approximately two years. Since 1911, therefore, Britain’s legislature has been functionally unicameral, or one-chambered, and much more effective than it had been previously in responding to the will of the electorate.

The drive for democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had made the House of Commons increasingly representative of the will of the majority of the British people at the same time that the House of Lords appeared increasingly anachronistic—that is, belonging to another era long past. Most of the Lords inherited their seats as leaders of wealthy landholding families. Some were leaders of families who had gained considerable riches recently and who had distributed some of their fortunes to help the campaigns of leading politicians. Whether they were the heads of newer or ancient noble families, members of the House of Lords tended to be strongly Conservative regardless of the inclination of the majority in the House of Commons. As long as the Conservative Party Conservative Party (Great Britain) held a majority in the House of Commons, cooperation between the houses could be maintained, but when the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) took over, either by itself or in alliance with the smaller Labour Party Labour Party (Great Britain) and Irish Nationalist Party, Irish Nationalist Party the two houses could easily become deadlocked.

Trouble that had been simmering between the Lords and Commons came to a head after the Liberals came to power in the House of Commons in 1906 with a large elected majority. The House of Lords rejected several bills passed by the House of Commons on such important matters as education and voting qualifications. Although both the Liberal and Conservative Parties were supposed to be fairly represented in the House of Lords, the Conservatives in that house far outnumbered the Liberals by the early twentieth century. This meant that the majority in the House of Lords followed the leadership of Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, even when he was in charge of a minority in opposition. Therefore, when Balfour unsuccessfully opposed a measure in the Commons it was likely to be tossed out by the House of Lords. The situation gave rise to one of the most celebrated quips of the era: The House of Lords as the “watchdog of the constitution” had become “Mr. Balfour’s poodle.”

Resentment of the Lords focused dramatically after the House of Lords rejected the so-called People’s Budget of 1909 People’s Budget (1909)[Peoples Budget] and thus violated the British constitution as it was then interpreted. Money bills were regarded as the special responsibility of the House of Commons, and the Lords were supposed to accept all such bills. The People’s Budget passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 379 to 149 and was then rejected by the Conservative majority in the Lords by an overwhelming 350 to 75. The budget had been brought forward in the Commons to help pay for old-age pensions and battleships. It imposed taxes on land and high incomes, a move loathed by numerous members of the House of Lords.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was David Lloyd George, a brilliant Welsh politician who bitterly resented the hereditary privilege embodied in the House of Lords. It has been suggested that Lloyd George designed the budget for the express purpose of bringing on a constitutional crisis with the House of Lords; however, no evidence has come to light that supports that assertion.

The justification for the Lords’ rejection of the budget was included in an amendment fostered by Conservative leader Lord Lansdowne, which declared that the Lords could not vote for such a controversial measure until it had been “submitted to the judgement of the country.” In other words, the Lords called for another election to be fought over the issue of the budget.

Beyond this issue was the greater question of the relationship between Lords and Commons. The atmosphere of this period was charged by a steady barrage of criticism against the House of Lords in the House of Commons by numerous Liberals, particularly Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, who was himself the grandson and nephew of a duke. Ridicule from the lower house had the effect of goading many members of the upper house into outraged resistance.

The election of 1910 left the Liberals only two seats ahead of the Conservatives and made them dependent on the Irish Nationalists and Labour members for a clear majority over the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the House of Lords passed the budget on the grounds that the election had confirmed the will of the electorate to have them do so. What they feared was legislation to alter the constitution, and this came along promptly in the form of resolutions for a bill to limit the powers of the House of Lords permanently. The resolutions were introduced by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, and they passed resoundingly because the Irish Nationalists knew that legislation for Irish home rule would go through once the obstacle of the Lords was removed.

In essence, the resolutions that became the Parliament Act of 1911 only allowed the Lords to delay legislation. Money bills, certified as such by the Speaker of the House, could be held up for only one month, and other bills could be delayed only for two years. If three successive sessions of the House of Commons passed a bill, it would become law automatically, without the approval of the upper house. Another provision of this Parliament Bill was that general elections had to be held at least every five years instead of the seven years that had prevailed for centuries.

The death of King Edward VII intervened before the issue could be fought out. In Great Britain, whenever a monarch dies new elections must be held, so Edward’s death necessitated the second general election of 1910. The results were much the same as in the first: Liberals and Conservatives both had 272 seats, and a majority for the Parliament Bill was guaranteed by Irish Nationalist and Labour votes in the Commons.

Given the inflamed passions among the legislators over the constitutional issue, it is curious that outside Parliament the issue generated little interest. The new king, George V, was persuaded to give assurances that he would support the Liberals’ plan to swamp the Conservative majority in the Lords by creating new members. This prerogative right was the famous “safety valve of the constitution,” which was once applied in the early eighteenth century and used as a threat during the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832. Faced with the prospect of inundation by newly minted lords, many in the upper house were willing to accept defeat, but a number of diehards, called “Ditchers” because they would resist to the last ditch, would not vote for the Parliament Bill when it came up to the House of Lords. Nevertheless, the act passed by a vote of 131 to 114.

In 1949, another Parliament Act revised downward the capacity of the Lords to delay acts of the Commons, from three sessions and two years to two sessions and one year. This amendment was supplemented by the Salisbury Convention, in which the Lords agreed not to oppose legislation mentioned in the election manifesto of the ruling party upon its second reading. The Lords could still propose reasonable amendments not intended to wreck legislation. This compromise came at a time when the Lords were dominated by Conservatives generally opposed to the new Labour government’s efforts to enact provisions for nationalization and welfare state policies.

Significance

In the period since the 1911 Parliament Bill became law, the House of Lords has almost always cooperated with the House of Commons. Delay has been invoked on only a few occasions, and the House of Lords has sometimes succeeded in convincing the House of Commons to amend legislation distasteful to the Lords. In addition, the House of Commons has made legislation on a few occasions despite sustained opposition from the House of Lords, including the War Crimes Act of 1991 and the European Parliamentary Elections Act of 1999. Parliament Act (1911) Democracy;Great Britain

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allyn, Emily. Lords Versus Commons: A Century of Conflict and Compromise, 1830-1930. New York: Century, 1931. A University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. thesis that provides rich detail on all aspects of the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnstein, Walter L. Britain Yesterday and Today: 1830 to the Present. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Popular text treats the subject of the Parliament Bill with great clarity, particularly for American readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Handcock, W. D., ed. English Historical Documents, 1874-1914. Vol. 12, part 2. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977. Includes key speeches by Asquith and Balfour regarding the Parliament Act of 1911 as well as the complete statute itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Roy. Mr. Balfour’s Poodle: People v. Peers. 1954. Reprint. London: Pan Macmillan. Very readable, detailed account is entirely devoted to describing the subject rather than arguing a thesis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laybourn, Keith. Fifty Key Figures in Twentieth-Century British Politics. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of biographical sketches includes entries on all the individuals who played important roles in the events surrounding passage of the Parliament Act of 1911. Essays are cross-referenced, and suggestions for further reading are provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, T. O. Empire, Welfare State, Europe: History of the United Kingdom, 1906-2001. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Presents a detailed and solid account of the events surrounding the Parliament Bill aimed at British readers.

Irish Home Rule Bill

Ireland Is Granted Home Rule and Northern Ireland Is Created

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