As a result, Parliament was dissolved and the General Election was set for January 1910. The Liberals, before the crisis somewhat divided, went to the electorate with a unified front. The House of Lords’ decision to veto Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” fed the propaganda in his speeches, which talked of England being ruled by “five hundred men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.” (1) Lloyd George’s attacks were to be expected as he was a fiery populist who revelled in attacking the rich; what was surprising to many was the attacks made by Winston Churchill, the young Liberal reformer, who was also a grandson of a duke. In a major campaign speech, Churchill referred to the House of Lords as “a played out, obsolete, anachronistic Assembly, a survival of a feudal arrangement utterly passed out of its original meaning, a force long since passed away, which only now requires a smashing blow from the electors to finish it off for ever.” (2) Prime Minister Henry Herbert Asquith seriously thought that his Party was on the threshold of making history. (3)
The electorate, however, did not follow Churchill’s lead; nor did the election result in the dramatic outcome envisioned by Asquith. Instead a pre-election majority of about 130 seats (over all other Parties in Parliament) was reduced to -120. The Liberals lost 125 seats, receiving only 275 seats; the Conservatives received just two seats fewer, 273. (4) The balance of power was held by the two other large Parties, the Irish Nationalists and the new Labour Party. Both generally supported the Liberals, and thus, the Liberals remained in office. Theirs was a much reduced mandate from 1906, but, nevertheless, a mandate.
The “People’s Budget” again was passed by the House of Commons, but unlike last time, the Lords allowed it to pass. (5) This, however, was not good enough for Asquith and other Liberals. Knowing full well that the House of Lords still could veto bills with total impunity, and in so doing, completely disregard the will of the electorate, Asquith began to pressure King Edward VII to use his royal perogative to create new peers if need be, to pass the Government’s legislation. Edward was very uneasy about the prospect of flooding the House of Lords with newcomers just to pass a Budget, especially since the election results were so inconclusive. However, he died just three months after the General Election, and his son, George V, became King.
George V instantly called the leaders of the two parties in order to reach a compromise and end the constitutional crisis. (6) When this failed the Liberals passed the Parliament Bill though the House of Commons. This Bill stripped the Lords of their veto in the case of money and financial bills and gave them a maximum delaying power of two years in all other bills. The bill was naturally opposed by the upper House, which saw it as a massive curb on its powers. The House of Lords rejected the Bill, and thus, Asquith persuaded the King to dissolve Parliament again.
Before going to the country again for another General Election, Asquith solicited a promise from the King that if the Liberals were returned again to office, he would use his royal perogative to create as many peers as necessary to pass the Parliament Bill. The promise was kept secret for the time being. (7)
The election results were almost an exact carbon copy of January 1910. The Liberals lost three seats and the Conservatives one; both returned 272 MPs. The Irish Nationalists and the Labour Party each returned two more MPs. (8) With the same results, the Liberals remained in office, and the King made known his earlier promise to Asquith. Even with the handwriting on the wall, several Lords still wanted to fight to the bitter end, and were called the “Ditchers.” Yet there were many more “Hedgers” who preferred a suspensive veto to being swamped by 400 new Liberal peers. Nevertheless, the Tory Lords tried to get back at the Liberals by emasculating the Parliament Bill with weakening amendments. However, Asquith made it clear that peers would be created unless all the amendments were dropped. They were dropped but the outcome in the House of Lords was unclear until the bitter end, when finally the Bill was passed by a vote of 131 to 114. (9) Britain finally received a 20th Century Constitution.
- (1) Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-1990, 2nd ed., (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 61.
- (2) Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), p. 211.
- (3) Ibid.
- (4) Clarke, p. 405.
- (5) Walter L. Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, 1830 to the Present, 6th ed., (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), p. 220.
- (6) Ibid.
- (7) Ibid., p. 221.
- (8) Clarke, p. 406.
- (9) Arnstein, p. 222.