Reform of the House of Lords
At the moment of the accession of King George V the country was in the throes of an acute constitutional crisis. The general election had proved that in Great Britain, apart from Ireland, there was a large majority of the electorate which demanded a modification in the character of the House of Lords. From all quarters schemes were being propounded for the composition of an ideal Second Chamber, since it was admittedly unsatisfactory that such a chamber should by its constitution be the instrument of one party. In the view of the Government the curtailment of the powers of the House of Lords was the first question, though its settlement would have to be followed in due course by a reconstruction of the chamber itself.
To those, however, who regarded it as a primary necessity that the Second Chamber should act essentially as a barrier to the flood of democratic legislation, the great need seemed to be a reconstruction eliminating those elements which deprived its judgments of weight - the strengthening rather than the diminution of its authority. When the Lords made it clear that they would not accept the Government scheme except under compulsion, the Government resolved that the king should not be called upon to apply compulsion until the country had definitely pronounced its approval of the scheme itself. At the end of the year parliament was dissolved, and the scheme was approved by a majority of the electorate practically identical with that which had returned the ministry to power in January.
The Parliament Bill
The Parliament Bill of 1911 left the composition of the Second Chamber untouched, while pronouncing that the reconstruction was required. It touched the Commons only by reducing the life of a parliament to five years instead of seven, the period set by the Septennial Act almost two hundred years ago. It dealt directly with the veto of the House of Lords. For the future the rejection by the House of Lords of a bill passed by the House of Commons was to be effective for two years. If at the end of the two years the House of Commons again passed the bill it was to become law, whether there had or had not been a dissolution in the interval. It was made known that the king had been advised and had agreed to create a sufficient number of peers to secure the Government majority in the event of the bill being rejected by the hereditary chamber.
A section of the Peers were prepared to die fighting, to reject the bill and to throw upon the Government the onus of destroying the traditional character of the Peerage. The calmer counsels of the leaders of the party prevailed, and the Parliament Bill became law. But the constitution of the hereditary chamber remained unaltered, and the Unionists very expressly declared their intention of dealing with the question on their own lines whenever they should return to power. The Parliament Act, therefore, can only be regarded as a temporary settlement pending the reconstruction of the Second Chamber.
That reconstruction the Government deferred in spite of the declarations of the Opposition that their doing so would be a breach of faith. Two other measures of constitutional importance were to take precedence of the next measure dealing with the House of Lords. One was to reorganise the distribution of votes among the electorate. This was to be effected in two ways, first by the abolition of plural voting, so that no one might vote in more than one constituency, secondly by reducing the term of residence necessary in order to enable a man to vote after changing his abode from one constituency to another. It was assumed on all hands that by the first the Unionist vote in the electorate would be reduced, and by the second the Liberal vote would be increased on the hypothesis that many more of the shifting labouring population would be enabled to exercise the franchise.
The other measure was a bill for conferring at once upon Ireland a legislature of her own, but upon lines compatible with the ultimate introduction of similar measures for Scotland, Wales, and England, while retaining the supremacy of the imperial parliament. The presumed end in view was the substitution of a federation of the four nationalities in place of the unitary system, giving self-government to each and a common central government to all, analogous to the systems already established in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. This scheme met with a fervid opposition from the Protestant division of Ulster which feared a Roman Catholic ascendency. It was certain that the second if not the first of these two bills would only become law if the Liberals should still be in office at the end of two years and should again pass the bill without regard to the House of Lords.
The same expectation applied to a bill for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, which followed generally the precedent of the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland; the theory in both cases being that an Established Church is warranted only while it is unmistakably a National Church, whereas in Wales, as in Ireland, the majority of the population belonged to other communions. In both cases the opposition to disestablishment rested on the principle first that only through an Established Church can the state express its Christianity, and next that in any case the state has no right to appropriate ecclesiastical endowments which belong to the Church and not to the state.
While the Government were shouldering the responsibility of introducing a series of immense and far-reaching modifications in the constitution, they were zealous also in proceeding with the social legislation for ameliorating the condition of the masses, of which the necessity was studiously affirmed by all parties in the state. Following up the bill for conferring old age pensions, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. George, introduced in 1911 a great scheme of National Insurance for wage-earners. Since a scheme for national insurance was in theory eminently desirable, all parties declared themselves ready to extend a provisional welcome to the bill; but any scheme would of necessity be exceedingly complicated, while in the nature of the case only a very limited number of persons in the country could be capable of forming a competent judgment on its financial soundness.
There were moreover three fundamental questions on which the widest divergency of opinion was possible. Should such a scheme be compulsory? To what classes of the community should it apply? Should the whole cost be borne by the state, or should employers contribute, or should employees contribute as well? The Government decided that it should be compulsory, inclusive, and contributory. Consequently every detail of the bill met with strong opposition from one quarter or another, while almost the entire medical profession proclaimed that the medical benefits could not be provided at the scale of payment to which the Government declared themselves limited by the financial conditions. From the outset it was evident that the measure would not be popular; since the classes for whose benefit it was intended resented its contributory character, which would touch their pockets immediately, while only a prolonged experience would enable them to realise such benefits as they would obtain in., exchange. Nevertheless the bill was carried and came into operation during 1912. The old Chartist demand for payment of members of parliament was at last realised by the provision of an annual stipend of ￡400.
Growth of Union Power
Meanwhile the new unionism had been gaining ground among the working classes. The leaders of the movement would appear to have had the double aim of consolidating a Socialist vote in parliament, and of coordinating aggressive action on the part of trade unions, so that the battle. should no longer be between isolated employers and their dissatisfied em ployees, but that the whole forces of associated trades should be brought to bear to force the whole body of employers to accept the men's demands. A series of great trade disputes were adjusted by the disputants' acceptance of the mediation of the Board of Trade and the arrangement of compromises between masters and men. But in 1911 it began to be realised that in certain cases the general public as well as the particular antagonists were materially affected by the disputes.
This began to be brought home by a strike of the railway men in the summer of that year, when it became evident that in certain employments a cessation of work might paralyse industries other than the one directly affected. Still more impressive was the great coal strike at the beginning of 1912, followed as the spring was passing into summer by a strike of transport workers. The public supply of fuel was cut off by one, and its supply of food was in danger of being cut off by the other. There was a general acquiescence in the principle that masters and men should be left to fight out their own private battles; but it began to be very seriously questioned whether that principle could be applied when those private battles threw out of work businesses which had no means of protecting themselves, and reduced the supply of the necessities of life for the general public.
In the two former cases named the action of the Government brought the disputes to a close for the time being. In the third, Government merely tendered advice which was not accepted, and the strife was left to work itself out. In all three cases there was a commendable absence of disorder of the kind which is apt to accompany extensive trade disputes; but the successful treatment of two particular emergencies was not a solution of the questions which lay at the root of those emergencies, and ministers before long felt it necessary 'to pledge themselves to introduce legislation, probably on the lines of compulsory arbitration.
Foreign Affairs - India
Outside the British Isles, but within the Empire, the most notable event was the visit of the king and queen to India. In that great dependency, what may be called the concluding act of the regime of Lord Morley and Lord Minto was the admission of natives of India to a larger share in the executive councils both of the central government and of the presidencies. The continuity of their policy was maintained by their successors, Lord Crewe at the India Office and Lord Hardinge in the vice-royalty. The disaffection which at one time seemed so threatening ceased to be prominently active, and the presence of the Emperor of India in the Peninsula appealed forcibly to the imagination of the natives, giving rise to very encouraging demonstrations of loyalty. The visit was signalised by the announcement that the ancient capital of the Moguls, and of imperial dynasties long before the Moguls, the city of Delhi, was to be restored to its old position.
On the subject of relations with the European Powers only a few words can be added. Russia, formerly feared as an aggressive military power, when she was the special object of imperialist denunciation, had become instead the special aversion of advanced Radicals, chiefly because of the tyrannical methods of her domestic administration. She now adopted a dictatorial attitude towards the Persian government, which appeared to be in contravention of the recent agreements, and it was chiefly from Radical. quarters that the diplomacy of the British Government was denounced for weakness in seeking to preserve friendly relations with a reactionary power at the expense of a helpless nation.
In 1911 there was a moment of intense anxiety when it appeared that relations with Germany had been strained almost to the breaking-point, a war between France and Germany seemed almost inevitable, the subject of contention being Morocco, until it became generally understood that in certain eventualities Great Britain would feel herself bound to give France effective support. Although the quarrel was adjusted before the public realised how great had been the danger of a general conflagration, in certain quarters in Germany the British attitude was. resented; but the Governments both of Britain and Germany directed determined efforts to attaining a better understanding between the British and German nations. While the presence of chauvinistic elements made it impossible to view the European situation without grave anxiety, there were signs that the common sense of both nations would triumph, that the tension would be relaxed, and that mutual suspicions would gradually pass away.
Here our history closes, at a moment when solutions had been offered of two critical constitutional questions, and of one critical international question, while it would be rash to say that any one of the three had been definitively solved. At the same moment the industrial question appeared also to be reaching a critical point, and of that question it cannot be said as yet that any solution holds the field. This, however, may be said, that the British people has shown during these crises a temper, a power of self-control, and a disregard for inflammatory rhetoric, in which lies the best augury for the future.