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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter III. — Before the Reform Act of 1832

page 15

Chapter III.

Before the Reform Act of 1832.

"Some people tell us," said John Bright in 1858—

that the House of Lords has in its time done great things for freedom. It may be so, though I have not been so successful in finding out how or when as some people have been. At least since 1690, or thereabouts, when the Peers became the dominant power in this country, I am scarcely able to discover one single measure important to human or English freedom which has come from the voluntary consent and goodwill of their House.

Mr. Bright, it will he noticed, selects the year 1690 as that in which the Peers became the dominant force in this country. For purposes of comparison between the two Houses of Parliament, 1690 is much too distant a date. The division of Parliament into two Houses dates from the reign of the Second Edward. But the division between the aristocratic and democratic element in Parliament, if we accept the period of the first Stuarts, began after the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.

After the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor despotism found little to choose between Lords and Commons in subservience to its will. Only twenty-nine temporal peers received writs of summons to the first Parliament of Henry VII. During the whole reign of Henry VIII. Hallam says he can only find one instance in which the Commons refused to pass a Bill recommended by the Crown. When the dynasty passed on the death of Elizabeth from the Tudors to the Stuarts, the number of temporal peers was only fifty-nine. The first James created sixty-two peers; the first Charles fifty-nine.

The new creations, therefore, largely exceeded the old. They were for the most part King's men, and the House of Lords, as was to be expected, played but a small part in the great struggle which saved Parliamentary government in the middle of the seventeenth century. The two Houses had occasional collisions over the vexed question of the financial privileges of the Commons. At a conference held in 1640, the Lords protested that "My Lords would not meddle with matters of subsidy which belong naturally and properly to you—no, not to give you advice therein, but have utterly declined it."

Sturdy Mr. Pym, however, refused to accept their disclaimer. He told them that they had not only meddled with matters of supply, but that they had both "concluded the matter and order of proceeding, which the House of Commons takes to be a breach of their privilege, for which I was commanded to desire reparation from your Lordships."

The Lords made the desired reparation by declaring that they did not know they were breaking a right of the Commons by merely suggesting that supply should have precedence over the consideration of grievances. Such a suggestion, however, revealed the cloven foot. "No supply until page 16 grievances are redressed! "was the rallying cry of the friends of liberty, and it is significant that in one of the first instances of a collision between the two Houses the Peers are found opposing themselves to the fundamental principle which has been the key to the liberties of Britain.

The struggle between the King and the Parliament had not proceeded very far before a contest arose between the two Houses on the question of the right of the Bishops to sit in the Upper House. In 1641 the House of Commons sent up a Bill "to disable the Bishops and clergy from all temporal functions." The Upper House held two conferences with the Commons, and then rejected the Bill as an invasion of their rights. The Commons might with equal reason cut off the barons, or any other class of the peerage. In the following year the Commons sent up a Bill for "taking away the Bishops' votes in Parliament." Most of the Bishops, cowed by the vehement demonstrations of popular antipathy, stayed away. The temporal peers passed the Bill, and the King, acting under the influence of his Roman Catholic Queen, gave it his assent.

The outbreak of the war carried off many peers to the Royal Standard. The remnant of the House of Lords refused to concur in the vote of the Rump of the House of Commons, declaring Charles Stuart guilty of treason, and constituting a High Court of Justice for his trial. Thereupon the Rump, on January 4th, 1649, passed the famous resolution:—

The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, being chosen by the people representing them, are the supreme authority of the nation. Whatever is enacted and declared to be law by the Commons hath the force of law without the consent of the King or the House of Lords.

This was followed up on February 10th by a still more trenchant resolution:—

That the House of Peers in Parliament is useless and dangerous, and ought to be abolished. And that an Act be brought in to that purpose.

The House of Lords reappeared after the Restoration. The first time that they took action differentiating their policy from that of the Commons was significant. Charles II. had promised pardon to all rebels except those excluded by Act of Parliament. The House of Commons sent up its list of proscribed persons. The House of Lords enlarged that list by dooming the judges of Charles I. who had surrendered, and added nine other names to the list of the doomed. This was too much for the Commons, who struck out the additions proposed by the Peers, and added a clause that no one who had surrendered should be executed except under a special Act of Parliament passed for the purpose.

In the enactment of the series of persecuting edicts which were in flagrant violation of the liberty of conscience promised in the Declaration of Breda, the Peers did nothing to restrain the fanaticism and intolerance of the Lower House. They joined hands with the House of Commons in substituting an excise duty for the land tax, whereby, in Mr. Spalding's words, "by a vote of their own House they relieved themselves from all the most onerous liabilities in respect of land, by virtue of the payment or performance of which they had originally become entitled to their seats as peers."—(Spalding, "The House of Lords," p. 66.)

"The House of Lords," says Hallam, "after the Restoration contained an invincible majority for the Court ready to frustrate any legislative security for public liberty. Thus the Habeas Corpus Act first sent up to that House in 1674 was lost there in successive sessions. It was not until 1679 that the Lords consented to pass this 'great symbol of our liberty.' page 17 In 1680 the Lords threw out the Exclusion Bill which would have saved the country the disastrous years of James II.'s reign."—("The Liberal Platform," pp. 171-2.)

Charles II. created sixty-four peers. James II., before his reign was cut short by the Revolution of 1688, had created eight. Altogether the Stuarts made 193 peerages between 1603 and 1688—not so many as the Liberals created between 1832 and 1894. While the Stuarts were on the throne 99 peerages became extinct. There were only 153 temporal peers when William of Orange succeeded to the vacant throne.

If there was ever a period in the history of England in which it may bo alleged that the House of Lords did any good it was after the Revolution of 1688.

It was the Lords Temporal and Spiritual who, being left almost the only remaining authority in the State after the flight of James, took the lead in framing the Declaration of Rights, and in welcoming William and Mary to the vacant throne. Prom that day, for half a century and more, the Whig peers ruled England—the House of Lords in the reign of Queen Anne was more Liberal than the House of Commons.

Mr. Lecky pays a high tribute to the Whig peers who, in the early part of the reign of George I., were in the ascendant in the House of Lords. He says:—

In general, the services of the Peers to the cause of civil and religious liberty at the time we are considering were incontestable; and the advantage of an Upper House to this portion of our history can scarcely be questioned by any one who regards the Revolution and the principle it established as good.—("History of England," vol. i., p. 186.)

Comparatively good as was the House of Lords in those days, it came into collision with the House of Commons on a matter in which the Lower House showed a sounder sense of the genius of the Constitution than the House of Peers. Yet it was a matter which primarily concerned the Lords themselves. Alarmed by the creation of twelve peers in the previous reign for the purpose of securing a majority for the Court, and anxious to prevent the adulteration of the peerage by new creations from the King's favourites, the Whig Lords, with the King's assent, brought in a Bill in 1719 which forbade the creation of more than six new peerages. The King might fill up vacancies created by the extinction of existing peerages, but he was to make no new peers. The system by which sixteen Scotch peers were elected was to be abolished, and twenty-five Scotch peers were to have hereditary seats in Parliament. The Bill would, if it had been carried, have made the Peers a privileged order, who could neither be renewed nor swamped by the Royal prerogative. New blood could only be slowly filtered into the Upper House as peerages became extinct. The House of Lords passed the Bill through all its stages, but the House of Commons, which was full of country gentlemen who hoped some day to have the chance of a peerage, promptly threw it out by a majority of 92. The door therefore was left open, and is still open, for the creation of as many peers as may be necessary to bring the Upper House into harmony with the will of the people.

The only other notable clash of opinion between the two Houses in the eighteenth century was over Mr. Fox's India Bill in 1783. This Bill, brought in by the Coalition Government of Fox and Burke, placed the administration of India under the control of a Board of seven persons to be appointed by Parliament for a term of four years. The House of Commons sent up a Bill by a two to one majority—208 to 102. The House of Lords page 18 threw it out by 95 to 76. The King, who hated the Bill and its authors, promptly dismissed the Coalition Government and made Pitt Prime Minister. On an appeal to the country the action of the House of Lords was approved by the constituencies. Fox's party lost 160 seats, and the tidal wave of reaction gave Pitt a powerful majority. The circumstances somewhat resembled the history of the action of the Peers on the Home Rule Bill nearly a hundred years later.

In the eighteenth century it may be admitted that the House of Lords was no worse, and sometimes a little better, than the Lower House. But as the Peers practically nominated the Lower House in the latter part of that period, this is not very surprising.