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- Nov 1, 2010
The Constitutional Crisis of 1909-10
The Constitutional Crisis of 1909-10
The Constitutional Crisis of 1909-10 was a long time coming. Arguably, the clash between the Commons and the Lords had been inevitable since the Representation of the People Act 1849. With every man entitled to vote, by what right did the Lords hold a veto on the actions of his elected representatives? With property requirements, it could have been argued that great landowners, as the Lords so often were, were entitled to more than simple propertied men. Without it, the defence had come down to tradition and the inherent superiority of the nobility.
It was fortunate for the Lords that they had not vetoed anything controversial enough to poke at this great iniquity. Home Rule had not made it to them, Gladstone having withdrawn his bill before Third Reading in the Commons. The National Insurance Acts they had accepted, even if a veto was close in the second month of Consideration of Amendments. The Imperial Federation Act, thanks to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s last-minute intervention, had not been brought down by them.
Asquith and Minister for the Federation H. L. Sykes-Emory, however, knew that the next battle would certainly involve a veto. Not only were they now forced, by their reliance on the Irish Nationalist Party in parliament, to push for Commonwealth Status for Ireland (a status that would inevitably provoke howls of Home Rule by the backdoor), but their plans for the Federation included reform of the Lords. Just as Scotland had gained representative peers in 1707, and Ireland in 1801, the new Commonwealths would require them if the settlement was to stick.
Most importantly, both Asquith and his new Chancellor, David Lloyd George, had long believed the veto would have to go for the more fundamental reasons of representation. After all, now it was so unjust as every man and woman having a vote, and yet some 680 peers still having a veto over their elected representatives. Both men knew that, given a sufficiently egregious veto by the Lords, the public would support them in an election where the main issue was removing that veto. They knew Ireland and Lords Reform of any kind would almost certainly draw vetoes, but were not convinced that these would be sufficiently damning in the eyes of the public. In this could be found the genesis of the People’s Budget; not only would it be in support of popular measures, but to never veto a budget was understood convention for the Lords.
David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Winston Churchill, Financial Secretary, 1909
The two men who defined the substance of The People’s Budget, Churchill and Lloyd George would eventually become bitter rivals, even if the latter only ever considered it a political, rather than personal, disagreement
Of course, many of the proposals that eventually comprised the Budget and its justification had been floating around Liberal - and even more so Labour – circles since before the National Insurance Acts. For the past 15 years, the fact that NI did not extend to every industry had been a bone of contention. The long period of contribution required before eligibility for pay-out (especially as it included employers’ contributions, and employers had many ways to delay the start of those contributions) had been a great source of dissatisfaction. The expansion of health coverage was perhaps the most desired of all reforms.* There had also been long-standing calls for minimum wages and stricter enforcement of the 8-Hour Workday, mainly by narrowing the acceptable threshold before overtime pay kicked in.
Ultimately, the People’s Budget, as the Finance Bill and the various bills that would create the spending demand for it were known, was an answer to many of these proposals. Not without reason would Lloyd George frame it as ‘fulfilling Sir William [Sinclair’s] promise.’ While he and the Financial Secretary, Winston Churchill, drafted the budget in 1908-09 though, Asquith faced a battle with the INP’s more radical elements.
In an April 1908 Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister had agreed with the leader of the INP, John Redmond, that the Irish Question would have to be answered. In a private meeting with Asquith a month later, Redmond had approved the plan of wrapping Commonwealth Status with Lords Reform, and the certain crisis it would cause. By early 1909 though, Redmond had become seriously ill. Barely capable of rising from his bed, he could no longer control the younger, more strident parts of the INP, personified most of all by Colin Ryan, the MP for County Cork South, whose Irish Commonwealth amendment to the Imperial Federation Bill had almost wrecked that legislation.
Asquith and Ryan were very much incompatible political personalities. The former – for all his daring, most famously in the Lords debate on the IFA – was fundamentally a careful operator. He and H. L. Sykes-Emory had a clear plan for how the Imperial Federation League could march to victory, and an even more meticulous sequence of events in mind for the triple blow of Ireland, Lords Reform, and the Budget. Ryan was a man of impulse and passion. It had taken all of Redmond’s considerable prestige and powers of persuasion to hold him in check, and now Ryan was practically the leader of the INP, a party that had become impatient after four years of promises that the government, reliant on their votes for its survival, would bring forth a Home Rule or Commonwealth Status Bill.
Afraid Ryan would scuttle his plan with an impulsive Home Rule Bill if told of it, Asquith attempted to calm him with vague assurances. On June 3rd, 1909, Ryan finally stopped listening, and gave the Prime Minister an ultimatum; an Ireland bill, or an election. Asquith chose the latter. Though the totality of the Budget was not yet drafted, he was sure that enough of the spending pledges could be laid out on the campaign trail to guarantee a Liberal majority. The Liberal vote did see gains on 1905, taking both from the Conservatives in Great Britain and INP in Ireland, but not enough. When the results came in on August 12th, the INP, though reduced, again held the balance in Parliament.
Results for the Imperial General Election of 1909
In the coalition talks, which quickly devolved to mere supply and confidence negotiations, Asquith was finally forced to reveal his plan to Ryan. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s expectations, Ryan endorsed it wholeheartedly. It was also Ryan who convinced Asquith that, with the previous rancour that had leaked to the press, it would look too suspicious to come out with an outright coalition. The supply and confidence arrangement was thus stronger than it seemed when first announced. Certainly, many expected the new government’s 20-seat cushion would prove far weaker than it did.
As the various Acts that formed the backbone of the Asquith Reforms to the fledgling welfare state made their way through Parliament, and various Committees began to scrutinise the spending the state had committed to, the sheer inadequacy of extant revenue-raising measures became apparent. Within the Lords, the atmosphere began to take on the febrile quality of the Commons. Then, in February 1910, the government introduced the two legislative linchpins of its plan; the Finance Bill and the Bill of Union 1910. Even before Second Reading in the Commons, the Lords exploded.
The Finance Bill proposed to return Income Tax, which had not been levied since 1816. Worse, it would have an additional surcharge of 2.5% on income above £2,000. And yet, Income Tax was not the most offensive proposition to the upper house. No, that was the complete valuation of land, and the subsequent introduction of a Land Value Tax, as advocated by the American economist Henry George. Lloyd George and Churchill had more than accomplished what they set out to do.
The Bill of Union meanwhile, contained two separate offences. The first, long sought, was Commonwealth Status for Ireland. The second dealt with the Lords themselves; each Commonwealth would receive two representative peers in the House, at first appointed by their respective governments, but later elected from amongst the peers of the relevant Commonwealth, once more than two existed. This perhaps might have flown, were it not for the removal of the veto. From the passage of the Act onward, the Lords would be able only to send back a bill, not outright reject it. A returned bill passed three times by the Commons, unamended, would then bypass the Other Place.**
A poster from the General Election of 1910
A measure of how long Asquith had known this battle would happen was that this famous work of electoral advertisement had already been in a Liberal Party Headquarters drawer during the election of 1909
As expected, the Lords rejected both bills outright. In the debate on the Bill of Union, Lord Brunel called the legislation ‘the most damnable and pernicious bill to ever make its way to this House.’ In Cabinet on March 29th, Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill, according to legend, arrived with champagne. The next day, Asquith called an election for the 12th of May. The question was clear; Peers or People?
The INP and Liberal Party did not renew their 1905 pact in 1910, despite the reconciliation between Asquith and Ryan. The reason was the crisis that had erupted in Ireland itself over the Bill of Union. Completely unwilling to accept the thought of being in a Catholic-dominated Commonwealth, the Ulster Volunteers, mostly based in the six northern counties around Belfast, began importing guns from various illicit sources (one of which was, most disconcertingly, Germany). By March 29th, when the election could be called, there had already been violent clashes as the Volunteers took to the streets. Asquith thus prepared to amend the Bill of Union to separate the six counties from the new Imperial Commonwealth of Ireland. Ryan, naturally, could not accept an electoral pact under such circumstances.
On the 12th, after a campaign that seemed to have reached a temperature just removed from ‘outright civil war,’ as Lloyd George would say in his memoirs, the Liberals came just short, again. They were neck and neck with the Conservatives, but would require the INP to support them if yet another election was to be avoided. Ryan, as expected, drew a red line on the six counties. So deadlocked did the negotiations seem that Asquith even approached Alexander Courtenay, leader of the Conservatives in the Commons, for support on the Bill of Union. Courtenay, of course, had a red line on the Lords’ veto.
Results for the Imperial General Election of 1910
Asquith returned to the negotiations with the INP, left with nothing but what might have been the greatest gamble in a career of gambles. At their next meeting, Asquith told Ryan it was the 26 counties or nothing. He would call another election, and, as quoted in his memoirs:
abandon [Ryan’s] project altogether. We [the Liberals] will win outright in England without your weight upon us, and you will lose your last, great chance to achieve what you have striven for. What I, too, in perhaps a different form, but similar spirit, have striven for. I do not wish to tear Ireland asunder, but it is the only option left if we are to have Irish self-rule of any sort. Be it by pen at the borders of Ulster, or by violence in an all-Ireland Commonwealth, the deed is done, and we have only to choose which poison we are to take.
When Ryan attempted to argue, Asquith produced reports from the Home Office. To show them to Ryan was, at that point in time, almost certainly illegal. They detailed the extent to which the Ulster Volunteers had armed themselves, and the IRA were arming themselves in response. This was what finally broke the deadlock. Faced with the grim numbers, and the grimmer still visions of what they meant for Ireland, Ryan relented on the six counties.
With a government formed, and one that was committed in the Supply and Confidence Agreement to push through the Finance Bill and Bill of Union (now amended to reflect the carve-out of Northern Ireland), Asquith could go to Buckingham Palace with a mandate to convince the King. George V, having presided over what seemed Parliamentary Crisis after Parliamentary Crisis in his nine short years on the throne, agreed to the Prime Minister’s request that, were the Lords likely again to veto the bills, he would ennoble enough men to override them. This threat was the deciding factor when, on July 15th, 1910, both bills passed Third Reading in the Lords and received Royal Assent. Before the King could breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the Constitutional Crisis of 1909-10 though, the drama had one more act.
George V, 1911
Thrust into kingship early by the death of his father in 1899, the reign of George V proved one of the most tumultuous, both at home and abroad, in the history of Britain
Asquith, having delivered victory after victory, could hardly have thought his party was plotting against him after what he considered to be his greatest victory of all. And yet that is exactly what was happening. After ten years, the party, just like the King, was tired of crisis. Every year with Asquith seemed to pose an existential question about the very nature of the British state and English identity. Even as he proclaimed that what was to come next was management of the new settlement - not yet another reshaping - the very same Machiavellian, cards-close-to-the-chest strategizing that had brought him to the point it was no longer necessary, finally came back around on him. No one could believe he was truly done. Winston Churchill, in a private letter to his wife, Clementine, put it best.
We had followed Alexander from Macedon to India, and now we were spent. He did not have to say it, for we all knew there would be another push, another conquest. In the manner of the worst scoundrels, we thus mutinied.
On August 2nd, 1910, the Cabinet informed Asquith that he could go quietly, or he could face a Vote of No Confidence. Furious, the Prime Minister demanded to know which of them had set this up. Not a man answered. After two hours of shouting, pleading, long silences, and, finally, poorly suppressed tears by all involved, Asquith agreed to go. He was then told that David Lloyd George, as a popular figure associated with the People’s Budget, but not necessarily the great parliamentary wrangling of 1905-10, would replace him as Prime Minister.
The follow-up, and final, question restored some levity to proceedings. Asquith was asked if he wished to be elevated to the Lords, stay on the backbenches, or resign. The Prime Minister, as he still would be until later that day, replied, to great laughter, that ‘all things considered, perhaps it might be best if I wait a while before re-entering the Other Place.’***
* The Hospitals Act 1873 had created a common standard of care, and the NI Acts health insurance for the employed, so health coverage was still, in practice, limited to the wealthy and those who had been employed long enough to qualify for insurance under NI.
** The bill also included a provision by which Crown Colonies could apply for Commonwealth Status, one which Newfoundland took advantage of even before the legislation had reached the Lords to be rejected. News of the application contributed substantially to grinding to a halt the Canada Convention on potential accession.
*** He eventually would enter the Lords, as the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, a decade later, in 1920.