Friday, 26 February 2016

The Liberals in power (1906-14): 1. The problem of the Lords




David Lloyd George
c. 1911

The Lords oppose the government

Though the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman  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;
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).
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 The bill was withdrawn in December.

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.

Asquith becomes Prime Minister



H. H. Asquith
Early in 1908 Campbell-Bannerman’s health began to fail. He resigned on 3 April), and died two weeks later). On 4 April the King summoned the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Henry Asquith to Biarritz.

Asquith was succeeded at the Treasury by David Lloyd George, a man born outside the British elite. He had been an effective and high profile President of the Board of Trade: he had settled a threatened rail strike, had prepared legislation for the establishment of the Port of London Authority to take over the management of a vast area of London’s dockyards. The new President of the Board of Trade was Winston Churchill. The elevation of these two men gave the government a new aggressiveness which goaded the Conservatives into a succession of political errors. But all was not well for the government. Churchill, standing for re-election on his appointment as President of the Board of Trade was defeated in North-West Manchester and forced to find another seat in Dundee.

The Licensing Bill

The session of 1908 was intended to give the temperance movement its due with a Licensing Bill. The main provision was the establishment of a fixed ratio of the number of public houses to the population in each licensing area. The Liberals had as clear a mandate for this as they had for their Education Bill (both bills appealed to the same constituency) but this was not a popular cause and the brewers were a powerful lobby. It was fought hard in the Commons and the Lords declined to give it a second reading.

The government was now in a dilemma. It had little to show for its impressive electoral victory. An economic slump meant that unemployment was rising and the Unionist cause of tariff reform (now official policy) was becoming more popular. As in 1907 the government was beginning to lose by-elections.

Economically the government was pulled in two directions. Since going to the Exchequer in 1905 Asquith had laid the groundwork for a taxation policy designed to finance social reform, notably old age pensions. But it was faced with the possible further increase in arms expenditure. The Liberals had cut defence spending when they came to power but in 1908 they were faced with fierce pressure from the Dreadnought building programme (see later post). The potential conflict between social reform and defence spending was painful and divisive for Liberals.


Old age pensions

Pensions were the main plank of the 1908 budget. The pensions bill received its second reading in the Commons on 15 June 1908. It was introduced by Lloyd George (though Asquith had devised the scheme) and came to be popularly known as ‘the Lloyd George’.

The measure was a disappointment to those who had wanted universal pensions. It was finally agreed that: British citizens over 70 with incomes of up to £21 pa would receive the full non-contributory pension of £13 p.a. (5s per week) for single persons and of £19.10.00 (7s. 6d. per week) for married couples. Incomes of up to £31.10s would qualify for a pension reduced by one shilling a week for each shilling of income above £21. The minimum pension would be one shilling. Those with incomes as low as £26 p.a. would receive only 3s a week (this caused Labour members to vote against the amendment). Asquith estimated that about half a million persons would qualify for the pensions and that the annual cost would be £6m; but by 1912 the government was spending £11.7m. and by 1914 £12.5m.

The pensions provisions reduced some peers to paroxyms of anger. The former Liberal leader, Lord Rosebery described them as
'so prodigal of expenditure as likely to undermine the whole fabric of the Empire'. 
The scheme’s main defect in the eyes of its critics was the high qualifying age. The Labour Party began campaigning for improved pensions: a minimum of 5s non-means-tested and applied to men and women of 60. But for all its inadequacy it was a milestone in social legislation, since it made it easier for the aged poor to avoid the workhouse and avoided the language of opprobrium associated with the poor law.

On 1 January 1909 ('Pensions Day') c. 490,000 people drew a pension – a relatively low number because of those disqualified from entitlement (paupers, some criminals, aliens and the wives of aliens and those deemed guilty of ‘habitual failure to work’). Most of the recipients were women. All had to learn the new procedure of completing forms available at the post office. The costs rapidly escalated and the numbers of pensioners rose after the removal of the pauper disqualification in March 1911.


Other social legislation

In 1909 Churchill's Board of Trade  produced the Trade Boards Act of 1909, which set up boards for the four trades in which, largely owing to the lack of trade unions, ‘sweated’ labour was found to be prevalent. The boards were to fix minimum wages, which then had to be confirmed by the Board of Trade.


In 1908 the Coal Mines Act had established a statutory eight-hour day for miners, the first occasion in which the working hours of adult males had been limited by statute. However this was poorly received in some collieries where the miners were already working less than eight hours.