Per Scriptum E. Wesley -- Mackinac Center Intern
The Parliament Act of 1911 decreased the veto power of the House of Lords, and consequently increased the legislative power of the House of Commons. This in turn marked a change in the relationship between aristocracy and commoners. As David Moore says in his article Parliament Act 1911: Constitutional Treason or Democratic Inevitability?, "It can be seen as the culmination of the shift in political power from the aristocracy to the ‘people’ where the Commons gained control of the state and the power of the House of Lords was radically changed from one of absolute veto to one of revision and delay" (ibid). However, the political changes were the result of certain social chances that had been developing through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Moore breaks up these social developments into seven categories. First, the Industrial Revolution began moving commoners away from the ties to aristocratic landlords and into the cities. One can easily see that the city workers (including the poor laborers and the business new middle class) would demand their political rights on no uncertain terms. Sure enough, the Labor Party began to advocate "Tariff Reform" while the Liberal Party advocated free-trade. Second, as has already been alluded to, a new social class was rising. The industrial changes not only separated the aristocrats and commoners economically, but also created more wealth for the rising, city dwelling, pro-business middle class. Third, the 19th century had brought more democratization to the political process, particularly through the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867. The House of Lords was particularly opposed to this movement, and under the leadership of Lord Salisbury formed the "referendal function" theory. According to this theory, the Lords "had a duty to act as interpreters of the national will, which included rejecting measures proposed by governments for which there was no mandate." Elections could not be interpreted as verdicts. The power of this theory would be greatly reduced in the Parliament Act. Fourth, the development of political parties was fundamental to the political situations surrounding the Parliament Act. Originating from the Whig Party (Whigs arose as being pro-parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688), the Liberal Party (founded 1865) stood on the theological and philosophical premise of individual human rights. They accordingly favored free elections, trade, and representative leadership in the House of Commons. However the Liberal Party became more pro-taxes and welfare, as a "new liberal" trend within the movement concerned itself with working conditions. The Labor Party (1906), claiming socialism as its ideology, grew out of trade unions and a dissatisfied working class. The moderate socialists, rejecting the idea of revolution, also formed the Fabian Society (1884). The Conservatives represented the land-owning aristocrats and the House of Lords. They were nationalistic in character, wanting to advance the empire of Great Britain, while still protecting the power of the old landowning population. The Conservatives had new and strong enemies. Fifth, the clash between commoner and aristocrat in England is personified through the "Irish Home Rule" question. Conservatives generally opposed the idea of weakening political ties with Ireland, while Liberals favored giving Ireland more freedom. Liberals saw man on a more individual level, and favored political liberty above empire. However, Conservatives saw the empire as the means through which liberty was to be dispensed, and consequently could not afford to compromise empire for liberty. Political ties between Liberals and Irish Nationalists prove the importance of this question on the Parliament Act. Sixth, state financial control was a prologue to the Act. Two great matters occupied the British budget before World War I; the Progressive social reform project, and boosting the British navy to counter increased German mobilization. Liberals wanted to balance the budget thought the "People’s Budget" (which increased income taxes, tobacco and spirits tax, and included a land taxed that increased with the value of the land). Obviously, the House of Lords viewed this bill as an attack on landowners, and began an opposition. When the 1909 Budget by the House of Lords was rejected, the budget issue became a crisis. This crisis was the primary reason for the Parliament Act. Seventh, challenges to the British empire in general led to a leveling of expansion in Great Britain. In 1911, Britain had reached its zenith as an empire, and upcoming war would tare it apart. Just managing the colonies, and forming treaties with other nations to maintain British power was a tense job at best. War was coming...
The Parliament Act itself addressed the following issues:
"1. Powers of House of Lords as to Money Bills. 2. Restriction of the powers of the House of Lords as to Bills other than Money Bills. 3. Certificate of Speaker. 4. Enacting words. 5. Provisional Order Bills excluded. 6. Saving for existing rights and privileges of the House of Commons. 7. Duration of Parliament. 8. Short title."For a copy of the Act click here (also includes the amendments of 1949). For debates on the Act see here.
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