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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Why the Lords Must Go — Chapter I. — The Issue Stated

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Why the Lords Must Go

Chapter I.

The Issue Stated.

The question before the country is simply this: Peers or People: which shall rule? That it should be raised at the beginning of the twentieth century is somewhat of a surprise. That it should be deliberately raised by the House of Lords on a question upon which the mandate of the electorate was clear and unmistakable, and the usage of the Constitution unbroken, is still more surprising. The fact, however, is there. The challenge is none of our seeking. The people of these three kingdoms were in no mood to raise the great constitutional question that they evaded in 1895. But the action of the Peers leaves the people no option but to pick up the gauntlet which the Lords have flung at their feet.

On the right-hand side of the corridor leading to the House of Lords the eye is arrested by a large mural painting of one of the most memorable scenes in English history. It represents Charles Stuart, surrounded by his Cavaliers, hoisting the Royal Standard at Nottingham. It was the signal for the outbreak of the Civil War. Very heroic is the Sovereign, with his son on his right hand, surrounded by enthusiastic Cavaliers. I never saw that picture during the November days in which the House of Lords decided to make war upon the privileges of the Commons without recognising it as a symbol of what was happening before our eyes to-day. In 1641 the Stuart King, surrounded by the ancestors of our Tories, launched himself with a light heart against the elected representatives of the English people. Their descendants, animated by the spirit of the Cavaliers, were engaged in an operation less picturesque, but identical in essence with that depicted by the painter. That was the beginning of it. Less than eight years later we had the end of it, when Charles Stuart, on the scaffold at Whitehall, paid forfeit with his head for his attack on the privileges of Parliament. We shall not have to wait for eight years before the House of Lords pays forfeit for its insolent defiance of the privileges of the Commons. It is no single anointed head that will kiss the dust. But it is the conglomerate forces of the two great monopolies of Land and of Beer which will suffer, not by the headsman, but by an equally stern and trenchant expression of the indignation of a long-suffering people.

Long-suffering indeed, but not for ever suffering. The full cup has run over at last. It is now for the Commons of England, not to exact page 6 vengeance, but to administer justice long delayed, by striking down at once and for ever the pretensions of a senile oligarchy to establish the sovereignty of the Peers upon the ruins of the privileges of the people.

To the accomplishment of this task all other political interests must be subordinated. If the dual usurpation of the Royal prerogative of dissolution and of the Commons' privilege of financial control be not met with stern and instant chastisement, then our claim to be a self-governing democracy, a Crowned Republic, disappears at once and for ever. It is no use preaching of this, that, or the other reform to be carried out by the will of the people when the fundamental principle of the government of the people by the people for the people is trampled in the dust.

The question before the country at the coming election is summed up in the phrase, "Peers or People: Which Shall Rule? "The glozing and mendacious pretext that the Peers are exerting their authority merely in order to give the electors an opportunity of expressing their opinion upon the Budget is a subterfuge similar to that by which the wolf arrays himself in sheep's clothing in order to devour the flock. Even if it were accepted at its face value it would amount to a revolutionary change in the ancient Constitution of this realm. It would present to us, instead of a system of King, Lords and Commons acting in accordance with long-established constitutional usage as the legal representatives of the nation, an oligarchy wielding a despotism tempered by plébiscite, a system in which there will be neither room for King nor Commons. The principle of plébiscite is as foreign to the British Constitution as is the claim of the Upper House to refuse to the monarch the supplies voted by his faithful Commons.

The pretext that the Peers have wrecked the Budget out of an excessive anxiety lest any financial or social reforms should be introduced upon which a mass vote of the people has not been taken, is a piece of insolence so flagrant as to justify our resenting it as an insult to the common sense of the nation. Behind all these fine phrases and protestations of anxiety to take the opinion of the people there lies the settled resolve of the landlords and the publicans to render it impossible for the Liberals to govern the country in the future. It is an attempt to pack the cards against the Liberal Party, or—to vary the metaphor—to secure that the Tories shall always be at the wickets by appointing an umpire who will always declare the Liberals all out in the first over. That may be Tory politics, but it is not English cricket. If for one moment the claim of the Peers to refuse Supplies be recognised as valid, no Liberal Ministry can survive its first Session. For the House of Lords has become a Tory caucus, whose dominating principle is to promote the interest of the Tory Party and to protect the sacred privileges of beer. If the electors tolerate the attempt of the Peers to usurp the right of refusing Supplies, which has been hitherto exclusively exercised by the Commons, the government of this country passes permanently into the hands of what is to all intents and purposes a joint caucus of Tories and brewers. If the Tories and brewers succeed in securing a return of the narrowest possible majority, the Tories will be left to govern the country for seven years without any control or interference from the Second Chamber. This will never do. But it is this monstrous claim to secure for the Tory Party the monopoly of the government in this country, to destroy the ancient constitutional usage of centuries, that the electors have now to defeat, to repel, and to punish by inflicting upon the usurpers a defeat so overwhelming as to paralyse for ever the forces which have aimed so sinister and deadly a blow against the page 7 privileges of the House of Commons, the principles of self-government and the usages of the ancient Constitution of this realm.

Misled by the electoral endorsement in 1895 of their rejection of the Home Rule Bill in 1894, they imagine that they are free to reject or transmogrify any and every measure that is sent up to them by the House of Commons. It is necessary at all costs to knock this delusion on the head without delay, otherwise what Lord Rosebery said will be quite true. The process of popular election becomes "musty and superfluous," and the British democracy passes under the yoke of the Peers.

The claim that is put forward with more or less impudence by the apologists for the House of Lords is that the Peers have a right to demand a dissolution in order that the electorate may have an opportunity of saying whether it has changed its mind since the General Election! It is not denied that the Liberals received a mandate from the electorate to legislate to defend Free Trade and to defeat Tariff Reform. That mandate was expressed in the unmistakably solid shape of a majority of 354. If the Nationalist vote be subtracted from the Ministerial vote and added to that of the Opposition, it still showed a majority of 192. There were only 158 Unionists of all shades returned to a House of 670 members. Never was there a verdict more decisive. To secure the election of that House, no less a sum than one million sterling was spent in polling 3,394,346 votes for the Liberals and 2,557,928 for the Unionists. To demand an immediate dissolution under such circumstances is the superfluity of naughtiness, and the proposal is made solely for the purpose of bringing representative government into contempt. It would be simply impossible to carry on if the House of Lords is allowed to refuse to pass any measure it dislikes until it has been submitted twice over to the verdict of the electorate. The Chartists demanded Annual Parliaments. Mr. Balfour regards the Septennial Act as one of the fundamentals of the British Constitution. But the demand for a dissolution by the Peers is virtually to allow the House of Lords to repeal the Septennial Act when the Liberals are in office and to usurp the prerogative of the Crown in fixing the date of a dissolution.

If the country stands this usurpation on the part of the Peers it seals in advance the fate of all legislation introduced by a Liberal Administration. Even if the Peers approve of the Bills sent up from the House of Commons, it is to their party interest to reject them in order that their party may afterwards have the credit of passing them. But even if they did not carry partisanship quite so far, Liberal legislation is unpopular enough with the majority of the Peers for them always to have conscientious scruples against allowing their Bills to pass into law. The fate that has befallen the Education Bill and the Plural Voting Bill in the first Session befell the Licensing Bill in the third, the Scotch Land Bill in the second, and the Budget in the fourth. The responsibility of the Peers is measured by the extent of their opportunity, and that is limited only by the range within which they can mutilate and reject Liberal Bills with impunity. When once they are assured that they can do their deadly work upon all Liberal Bills without protest or commotion they will reject them all. And what is more, it will be their duty to do so. For the acquiescence of the country in the exercise of their veto is equivalent to the conversion of a strictly limited and subordinate prerogative into one of absolute and uncontrolled power. It is as if a Constitutional Monarch were suddenly and silently converted into an absolute despot.

The issue, therefore, is whether the ancient time-honoured system by page 8 which this country is governed alternately by Liberals and Conservatives, according to the swing of the electoral pendulum in the electoral clock, is to continue, or whether this country is to be governed permanently henceforth by the Conservatives, acting through the packed Committee of the Tory caucus which rejoices in the title of the House of Lords. We are face to face with a demand for the permanent exclusion of the Liberal and Labour parties, not from office but from power. Liberals and Conservatives may take turns in the work of administering the affairs of the State. But when it comes to legislation, the Liberals are to be ruled out. The Conservatives alone can legislate, because their enormous preponderance in a Second Chamber, which is never renewed by election, enables them to put an absolute veto upon any legislation which the Liberals may propose, and their claim to reject budgets places the Government at their mercy.

It is against this new and monstrous reversion to a worse than Boyal veto, because vested permanently in the hands of a faction, that the Liberals must now protest with effect or for ever hold their peace.