Reforming the House of Lords may seem an obscure part of British politics, which never makes much progress. But lurking behind the coalition government’s plans, which envisage holding the first elections to the Lords by 2015, are major challenges for the British constitution. And the long contest for dominance between Lords and House of Commons has a much more colourful history than many might assume.
For a start, says constitutional historian Andrew Blick of King’s College London, we need to get away from ideas of a more or less settled relationship between the two houses of parliament, governed by centuries of tradition. Ever since the 17th century, he points out, the Commons has been asserting its primacy over the Lords. But what has made the relationship more fluid and uncertain is that it has often been regulated by convention rather than clear legal rules, in keeping with our reluctance to adopt written constitutions.
The Commons concentrated first on establishing ‘financial privilege’, primacy in dealing with budgetary and taxation matters. The Lords did cede ground here, but continued to exercise its veto regularly over other measures.
By the 19th century the relationship became more turbulent as it was caught up in the intensification of party politics. Franchise reform helped force some radical issues onto the political agenda, sometimes taken up by Liberals in the House of Commons, while the Lords had a Tory majority. The Lords, says Blick, were increasingly seen by exasperated Liberals as “a force for blocking non-Conservative legislation”.
Proposals by some Liberals for Irish Home Rule caused particular tension. Many in the Lords, seeing this as a threat to the Union, were determined to block the proposed legislation, and this in turn made Liberals and others keen to “do something abut the powers of the Lords”. The scene was set for perhaps the greatest Commons-Lords confrontation – over Lords attempts to block the Liberals’ ‘people’s budget’ of 1909, which included increased taxation of higher incomes and land ownership.
While many in the Lords, explains Andrew Blick, saw Lloyd George’s budget as “an attack on the financial position of the aristocracy”, a kind of existential threat, Liberals saw attempts to veto the budget as a violation of the Commons’ financial privilege.
The conventions were clearly no longer working, so the Asquith government, using slogans like ‘Peers v People’, pushed through the 1911 Parliament Act. This specified that the Lords had power only to delay rather than veto legislation originating in the Commons (except legislation extending the life of parliament, which remained subject to Lords veto). So-called ‘money bills’, relating to budgetary measures, could only be delayed by a month.But tensions between the two houses still existed – and these were most exposed at moments of dramatic change.
In 1945, after its landslide election victory, the Labour party’s plans for radical economic and social innovation could have prompted resistance from Tory Lords. But a new ‘Salisbury convention’ (named after the then Conservative leader in the Lords) restrained the upper house from blocking proposals which a governing party had made in its election manifesto.
Matters have been complicated by the formation last year of a coalition government at Westminster, where legislation is introduced according to coalition agreement rather than party manifesto.
What may cause most tension, however, is if the House of Lords believes it has a new democratic authority once many of its members are elected. Lords deference towards the Commons, believes Blick, might “begin to disintegrate”. There could even be a challenge to the convention, established after Lord Salisbury’s retirement as prime minister in 1902, that heads of government have to be MPs, not members of the Lords.
That may seem fanciful. But clearly the old reliance on conventions, rather than clear rules, could come under increasing strain, as Lords and Commons flex their muscles for a new version of their long constitutional contest. The future relationship may be, in many senses, much less conventional.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.