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CHAPTER III

THE HOUSE OF LORDS

THE democratic development of the representative House, as it has been described in the preceding chapter, could not but affect the position of the House of Lords. The theory of the constitution which was held in the eighteenth century has, it is true, never been formally abandoned, and it is still the orthodox and official faith that the three powers in the State are equal and co-ordinate. In practice, however, it is generally admitted that the predominance rests with the Commons, and the only question at issue is whether or to what extent their absolutism should be checked by the Upper House. The theory that all power proceeds from the people, though it has never been embodied in any public act, has come to be tacitly accepted by all parties, not indeed as an eternal and absolute truth, but as a convenient expression of the practical conditions of government in England, as in the majority of Western States. The peers no longer stand upon their rights as an independent and coordinate estate; they recognise that the 'will of the people,' when once it has been really pro

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nounced, must be law; and if they oppose the Commons, they do so ostensibly on the ground that the representative House is misrepresenting the nation. This position has become so familiar to us that we hardly pause to observe that it implies a revolution in the theory of the constitution. The same system which served, during the eighteenth century, as the instrument of aristocratic government has become, without any change in its forms, the vehicle of democracy; and the supremacy which used to be vested, indirectly at least, in the Lords, has been transferred by an invisible process to the Commons.

Under the new conditions, however, the system does not work as smoothly and harmoniously as before. The predominance of the Lords over the Commons was secured by indirect representation in the Lower House; that of the Commons over the Lords is secured only by superior force. And the consequence is that from the date of the Reform Act of 1832 the two powers have been frequently at issue; and though with the increasing popularity of the representative House it has become. increasingly necessary for the peers to yield, yet they have still sufficient power of resistance to make their relation to the Commons difficult and strained.

All this was clearly foreseen by the Tories of 1832, though it was characteristically ignored by their Whig opponents. Recognising that

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the working of the constitution hitherto had only been made possible by the supremacy in both Houses of a single homogeneous class, they perceived that to discriminate the Lords and the Commons as really independent powers must lead to intolerable friction, if not to the stoppage of the whole machine. There is no man,' said the Duke of Wellington, 'who considers what the government of the King, Lords, and Commons is, and the details of the manner in which it is carried on, who must not see that government will become impracticable when the three branches shall be separate, each independent of the other, and uncontrolled in its action by any of the existing influences.' The prediction has been verified in the spirit if not in the letter. Government has not become impracticable, but it has become much more difficult than it was. Bills passed by the Commons have been constantly rejected or remodelled by the Lords, and so strong has the antagonism become at last between the two powers that the party which claims to be the popular one stands committed to the summary abolition of the veto of the Upper House.

The conflict began immediately after the first Reform Act. As early as 1834 the earliest proposition was made for a reform in the constitution of the House of Lords, by relieving the arch

1 Hansard, vol. vii., p. 1202.

bishops and bishops of the Established Church from their legislative and judicial duties' in that assembly. The benevolent suggestion was offered by the nonconformists, and was directed against the Church rather than against the peers. But in other quarters and on other grounds hostilities had already commenced. The opposition of the Lords to a number of measures passed by the Lower House had culminated in the amendments to the Bill for the reform of the English corporations (1835). The Government on this occasion yielded, reluctantly enough; and the Radicals were provoked to language which anticipated the rhetoric of 1894. The House of Lords, they declared, was an irresponsible body—a body with interests wholly opposed to those of the nation;' by it the people were 'checked, thwarted, insulted, trampled on, scorned and absolutely derided;' an unjust and selfish oligarchy' could no longer be allowed to defy the unanimous feelings and opinions of the people; ' and while the peers retained their power, peace was impossible for England. So strained indeed, at this period, were the relations between the two Houses, that not only Radicals, but even members of the Upper House itself doubted the possibility of the maintenance of its powers. The Duke of Richmond declared to Greville that he thought the House

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See Speeches of Roebuck and of O'Connell, Hansard, vol. xxx., pp. 1162 seq.

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of Lords was nearly done for; 1 Lord Lyndhurst said there was no chance of their surviving ten years; '2 and Lord Abercromby thought it hopeless that any body of men should recover from the state of contempt into which they have fallen.'"

Yet the peers not only survived the crisis, but to such an extent recovered their position that, thirty years later, Bagehot could declare, with axiomatic dogmatism, that 'few things are less likely than an outbreak to destroy the House of Lords,' and that the real danger is that it will decline and atrophy by virtue of the very security of its position. This, however, was a prophecy as ill-grounded as the former. The enlargement of the electorate by the Act of 1867, and the more vigorous Radical action consequent thereon, brought into relief once more the latent antagonism of the two Houses, until at last, in 1884, they came to an open and angry rupture. The Lords refused to pass the Franchise Bill of that year until they had before them the scheme of redistribution. Their attitude roused a storm of indignation. Mr. Gladstone quoted Shakespeare in the House; Mr. Morley hit off the famous assonance, 'mend or end; '6 the National Liberal Federation declared, in the style it has made its own, that the refusal

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1 Greville, Journal of Reigns of George IV. and William IV.,

vol. iii., p. 288.

2 Ibid. p. 313.

3 Ibid. p. 291.

4 English Constitution, No. 4. and Introduction to 2nd edition.

5 Hansard, vol. cclxxxix., p. 1432.

6 Annual Register, 1884, p. 156.

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