Source Problems in English History


World History


The Parliament Act of 1911

The Parliament Act of 1911


WHEN in 1649 the Commons put an end to the House of Lords they met little opposition. For eleven years the people of England got along without the peers, although not for all that time without a second chamber. When the Lords came back at the Restoration it was, as they realized, to a position of less influence. "The initiative permanently transferred from one House to the other, the eyes of the nation permanently fixed upon the deliberations of the House of Commons instead of those of the Lords, these were the results of the civil war and the movement which led up to it." Charles II. regarded the Upper House as "of little power to do him good or harm." But the wings of the LOrds were by no means clipped. The Revolution of 1689 which gave to certain Whig families a long dominance in English polities rendered the influence of the Upper House secure for more than a hundred years. Only once in the eighteenth century was its hand forced. That was in 1711, when a Tory ministry, unable to carry its peace proposals against a Whig majority in the Lords, induced the Queen to call up three eldest sons to the Lords;1 and to create nine new peerages, and so to give the Tories the majority they needed. In 1719 the Whigs, to stop such creations, proposed that the Lords could never be increased by more than six beyond the then membership. The measure was rejected by the Commons. The incident of 1711, coupled with the outcome in 1719, meant that a way had been hit upon to override the veto of the higher chamber; the precedent, although not used again for a long time, was not to be forgotten. When the Lords in the struggle of 1830–32 stood out against the Reform Bill, it was only the threat of the creation of a sufficient number of peers that availed to pass it. The result of that struggle meant more than that a method of curbing the Upper House was hardening into usage. It was a warning to the Lords to go softly all their days. It meant that the Upper House, if it were to retain any influence, must be very chary in rejecting measures of the Commons, must never reject them, indeed, unless it was quite sure of popular support; it meant, furthermore, that the peers would no longer be able to force a Ministry, intrenched behind a Commons majority, to resign. The Lords had forced a Cabinet out once too often.1

What the Lords still had was the veto and the final right to decide when its use was demanded. This the Liberals and Radicals knew only too well and wished, no more than the Conservatives, to go through another struggle. A writer in the Whig Edinburgh Review for 1835 proposed that in cases of deadlock there should be a conference of the two Houses. James Mill, writing in the next year in the London Review, a short-lived organ of radicalism, projected a plan which was almost exactly that to be followed seventy-five years later. "Let it be enacted," he wrote, "that if a bill which has been passed by the House of Commons and thrown out by the House of Lords is renewed . . . in the next session of Parliament and passed, but again thrown out by the House of Lords, it shall, if passed a third time in the House of Commons, be law without being sent again to the Lords." And A. J. Roebuck, who in his Pamphlets for the People was hammering away at the Upper House, gave written notice in the Commons that he would ask for leave to introduce a bill proposing that the Lords should have merely a suspensive veto—i.e., that the Commons might, after a bill had once been rejected by the Lords, enact it into law. The proposition never reached the debating stage.

Quite different from the plans of the Radicals for limiting the veto of the Lords were the suggestions for reforming the Upper House. When the Government in 1856 proposed to add to the judicial talent in the Lords by giving a life-peerage to a well-known judge, it may have had nothing more in mind than it professed to have. The move was opposed on the ground that it was to revive a long-disused precedent, and that it would allow whatever government was in power a chance to swamp the Upper House with new members. In 1869 Lord Russell brought in a measure authorizing the Crown to create life-peerages, not more than twenty-eight of them, selected from the courts, from the fields of literature, science, and art, from the Commons, and from those who had held office under the Crown. He hoped thereby to improve the authority of the House and to raise the character of its debates. This was to do just what the Radicals did not wish done. Less authority was their wish for the Lords, not more. And the reform seemed to them exceedingly diluted. "Childish tinkering" was what John Bright called it. As for the Lords themselves—and there were more of them, as it turned out—they feared to tamper with the question, lest they should rouse sleeping dogs.

In 1883 the possibility of something better than reform, of curtailing the veto of the Lords, was raised by John Bright, whose scheme harked back, whether he knew it or not, to the plans of the Radicals in the thirties. In a speech delivered in October of that year, he proposed that the Upper House should be allowed but one veto, and that if a bill were repassed by the Commons after a rejection by the peers, it should become law. The Lords were, however, to be allowed to take up the measure a second time and to offer amendments. But if these amendments were put aside by the Commons the Lords should be bound to accept the bill. In the next year Lord Rosebery moved in the Lords that "a select committee be appointed to consider the best means of promoting the efficiency of this House." "We represent too much one class," he said, quite plainly; "we see one side of the shield too much." "It was too late for the Senate to deliberate when the Gaul was in their midst; it was too late for the House of Commons to discuss abstract questions when Cromwell was at the table. It will be too late to move for any select committee when the voice which calls for radical reform or abolition becomes loud and universal. . . . But what is heard now is not a demand for abolition. A demand for improvement," he declared, "makes itself heard in every public speech . . . it makes itself heard in every magazine . . . it makes itself heard in all the newspapers. . . . It can be no secret . . . that the more ardent spirits of the party to which I belong do not wish for the reform of the House of Lords. They wish for its abolition." In his reply the Marquess of Salisbury indicated his belief that Lord Rosebery’s dissatisfaction with the House was due to the fact that the majority in the House happened to be conservative, a phenomenon which the Marquess believed to be temporary, at all events, in its present degree. No one who realized the impulse toward democracy which followed the wide extension of the franchise could have believed that the Lords were to be anything more than the bulwark of the Conservative party, its ever-present help in time of trouble. Probably few of their number were so short-sighted as the Marquess, but they were satisfied with a situation which offered to the forces of radicalism a permanent handicap. Perhaps they could hold back the tide. At any rate, they voted down Lord Rosebery’s resolution.

In the same year they did, indeed, accept the third Reform Bill, although not without having first threatened to throw it out. The threat was met by Gladstone with another. He sent word to the Queen that he would not, as a result of the Lords’ attitude, dissolve Parliament and fight out again the issue of the franchise. If he had to dissolve, it would be upon the question of an "organic change in the House of Lords." "There is, perhaps, the alternative of advising a large creation of peers; but to this there are great objections, even if the Queen were willing." The method of curbing the peers which had been practised in 1711 and 1832 was less feasible when three or four hundred peers would have to be created to outweigh the hostile majority.

In 1888 the question of the Lords received attention in both Houses. In the Commons Mr. Labouchere struck at the root of the tree by moving that it was contrary to the true principles of representative government that any person should be a member of the legislature by right of birth. Mr. Curzon proposed to strengthen the Upper House, to place in it leaders of dissenting churches, important colonials, and men distinguished in the civil, military, and naval services. Mr. John Morley regarded the Lords as a rickety parapet on the edge of a precipice which was more dangerous than no parapet at all. Mr. Labouchere’s motion was easily defeated, but the fact that it received the support of the bulk of the Liberal party in the Commons was significant. Lord Rosebery’s motion in the Lords for a select committee to inquire into the Constitution of the Upper House, though less radical than Mr. Labouchere’s motion, showed the drift of Liberal thinking, as well as Lord Rosebery’s perseverance. The House, he urged, was becoming so large that the constitutional method of overcoming its resistance, the creation of peers, was less possible. The Commons rested on six million electors, the Lords on an hereditary principle, which had become dominant only since the sixteenth century. The Lords had been since 1832 the bulwark of one party. "This House which strains at a Liberal gnat will swallow a Conservative camel." Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the Franchise Bill of 1866 had been accepted by the Lords only because they came from the Conservative party. In 1884 Lord Rosebery had offered no constructive scheme. In 1888 he had a fairly definite plan. Let the Upper House be a representative body; let it be elected by the whole body of the Lords; by other groups as well, by the county boards, or by the larger municipalities, or by the House of Commons; let it have among its membership agents of the colonies. As for cases of disagreement between the Houses, let there be a conference and a decision by joint vote.1 This was carrying matters too far for the Lords, who rejected the motion by 97 votes to 50. When he refused to follow Lord Rosebery, the Marquess of Salisbury had indicated that he was willing to support the principle of life-peerages. He now introduced a measure for giving such peerages to men of eminence. Not more than five were to be granted in a single year, nor were there to be more than fifty at a time. Along with this measure, which would have been deemed hopelessly radical in 1869, the Prime Minister brought in a bill to enable the sovereign to deprive any peer of his right to receive the writ of summons, a measure which became known as the Black Sheep Bill. Both proposals were withdrawn by the Marquess when he found that the leader of the Opposition, Mr. Gladstone, would fight any such partial reforms.2

Mr. Gladstone had long been brooding over the powers of the higher chamber. The defeat of the second Home Rule Bill by the Lords in 1893 hardened his heart against them. Upon the issue of the Upper House he was ready to go to the country, but when some of his Cabinet held back, he let the scheme go by the board. His hesitation was probably wiser than daring would have been.

Why had the Liberal party been so slow to take up and push a cause that deeply concerned it? The student who has followed the course of events can readily give the answer. It had been the peculiar combination of elements in the party which numbed the will. Eager radicals who wished to use the spur, and slow, steady-going Whigs who believed in safety first, were ill-fitted for riding together, not only because they liked different paces, but because, however little they recognized it, they really wished to go in opposite directions. Radicals hoped to curtail the Upper House, or perhaps to abolish it. They would have welcomed the Gilbertian fancy of Lords transformed into fairies. Whigs, on the other hand—and Whigs up to nearly the end of the century, and in some respects indeed up to 1906, were the bone and sinew of the Liberal party—wished to make over the House of Lords. Few of them, indeed, differed in this respect much from the old-line Tories. They were not alert to realize that a made-over House was really a more powerful one. It was this real division in Liberal councils that so long retarded a definite policy.

The years that followed 1893 were for the Liberal party lean ones, and schemes for curtailing the Lords were allowed to lapse. Not until the great Liberal victory of 1916 did the question again take the stage. By this time economic urgency was behind political aspiration. Social-democratic reform on a large scale had become more than the hope of Fabian idealists or statistical slum-workers. It was the demand of a great working class, underpaid, ill provided, and underfed. That class now had votes and was going to see to it that their rulers were not held back by a political wire fence from the rich fields of taxation possibilities which the great holdings of the landed and mercantile classes afforded. How they saw to it, how the Liberal party was at length forced to take up the question of the Lords, is the theme of the great play that begins its rapid action in 1906 and closes after a stormy fifth act with a clean conclusion in 1911. The party was pledged, when it came into power, to deal with education. The Education Bill of 1906, which was designed to render state-supported education less sectarian, had all the weight of non-conformist opinion behind it and all the massed force of the Church against it. It was passed by an enormous majority in the Commons, where non-conformist sentiment was probably stronger than it had been since the Long Parliament, but was thrown out by the peers. The Plural Voting Bill, which was to limit a man with several residences to one place of voting at a given time, met a similar end. Then it was that the government brought in and passed through the Commons resolutions, "merely anticipatory," that the power of the Upper House to alter or reject bills must be restricted by law, so as to make sure that "within the limits of a single Parliament the final decision of the Commons should prevail." This was in 1907. In the next year the bill for Old Age Pensions was accepted by the peers because the Conservative party did not oppose the plan. The Lords were, said Mr. Lloyd George, the "poodles" of Mr. Balfour, the leader of the Conservatives. But the Licensing Bill, a mild enough temperance measure which was to reduce the number of public houses by one-third and bring about that consummation within fourteen years, went the way of the Education Bill and the Plural Voting Bill.

The Liberal party now found itself estopped in every attack upon privilege. Faced with aggressive Liberal measures, the Lords had resumed all their old powers. They had taken back all the authority they had before 1830, had taken it back because the New Liberalism was dangerous to institutions and interests of the conservative classes. It was at this point that Mr. Lloyd George brought in the Budget of 1909.


The Source materials of this problem are of two kinds, neither of which calls for much discussion.

1. Statutes. One statute, the Parliament Act of 1911, is taken from the Law Reports, the Public General Statutes, 1911 [London, 1911]. The other, the Finance Bill of 1909 (which was finally passed in 1910), is not given in official form because of its length, but its novel features, as summarized by Professor Seligman in an article in the Survey for Jan. 15, 1910, are explained in a few brief paragraphs.

2. Speeches. These have been recorded by trained and accurate reporters, or briefed by men expert in getting the gist of a speech from complete reports. The extracts have been collected from three closely related sources.

a. Hansard is the official report of speeches in Parliament and is based upon stenographic notes.

b. The London Times [weekly ed.] gives excellent summaries of public speeches in and out of Parliament. While the Times is a Conservative or Unionist paper, its accounts of speeches are entirely non-partisan and fair.

c. The Annual Register gives summaries of speeches which are based upon the official accounts or taken from accounts in the best London dailies.


1. What were the immediate expenses in 1909 which made necessary a largely increased revenue?

2. What were the plans of the government for further expenditure in the future?

3. Which of the Budget proposals of 1909 looked to immediate returns? Which to future revenues?

4. Which features of the Budget would be the most objectionable to the Lords? Why?

5. What alternative did the Unionist (Conservative) party offer to the Budget?

6. Was Mr. Lloyd George framing a financial policy for the future? or was he trying to insert into a finance bill schemes of social legislation? or was he arranging the stage for a struggle with the Lords?

7. What is meant by "tacking"? Had the government been guilty of tacking in the Budget of 1909?

8. What is the constitutional significance of the Resolution of 1672? of the Commons’ argument of 1689? of the course of the Paper Bill Repeal of 1860–1861?

9. What did Mr. Balfour mean by the "theory of a ’second chamber’ system"? Did the action of the Lords in rejecting the Budget accord with such a theory?

10. What had been the history of attempts on the part of the Lords, by the rejection of measures, to force an appeal to the people? What had been the policy of the Liberal party on this matter? Why did the government then allow a dissolution to follow the rejection of the Budget?

11. How much did Mr. Asquith imply by his warning on Dec. 10th? Had the government any plan in mind by this time?

12. Who writes the King’s Speech? What was the significance of the King’s words?

13. Why would Lord Rosebery’s scheme for the House of Lords be unsatisfactory to the Liberal party? What former scheme did it resemble?

14. How far had Mr. Asquith’s Resolutions been forecast at earlier times?

15. What further plans for the House of LOrds besides those indicated in the Resolutions did the government have in mind? Have those plans been carried out?

16. What was the significance of Lord Lansdowne’s scheme? How was it that the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords was willing to offer so much?

17. What became of the Budget of 1909? What constitutional theory lay behind the fact that the Lords passed the Budget so quickly when it was presented to them again?

18. Why was a second election in less than a year’s time necessary?

19. When Mr. Asquith went into the election of December, 1910, what security did he have that the King would exercise his prerogative to pass the Parliament Bill?

20. Why did the King have no alternative but to accept the advice of his Ministers?

21. What was the change made in the duration of Parliament?

22. How is the Parliament Act likely to affect the introduction of legislation when the Liberal party is in power?

23. How will the "speeding up" of legislation, which will naturally occur, affect the influence of the Cabinet?

24. What will be the effect of the Parliament Act on the improvement and revision of bills?

25. What had been Edward VII.’s attitude toward the Parliamentary struggle (see Edward VII. in Dictionary of National Biography)?

1I. e., to give immediate titles to three heirs apparent and so gain additional votes without creating additional peerages.

1 When in 1839 the Lords passed a motion for an inquiry into the affairs of Ireland, and when in 1850 they passed an adverse vote upon the Don Pacifico incident, they produced no change of Cabinet. The dissolution which followed in time the rejection of Gladstone’s three resolutions on the Irish Church was not really an exception, for the dissolution had been determined upon by Disraeli as soon as Gladstone’s resolutions passed the Commons.

1 In the same year Lord Dunraven introduced a plan of somewhat similar character.

2 In the next year Lord Carnarvon tried unsuccessfully to revive tim Black Sheep Bill.


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Chicago: "The Parliament Act of 1911," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 329–342. Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: . "The Parliament Act of 1911." Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 329–342. Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The Parliament Act of 1911' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.329–342. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from