Edwardian Britain and Electoral Reform
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The Act of 1906 was intended simply to establish as law what the world at large had supposed to be the law for nearly thirty years. The next step was a bill to abolish plural voting; that is, to prevent one person from recording a vote in more than one constituency. On the ground that this was merely a party move, since it was notorious that the great majority of plural voters were Unionists, and also on the ground that such a change should not be introduced except in association with other changes readjusting the existing unfair distribution of voting power, the bill was thrown out by the Lords. Then the Government attacked the education question, in accordance with the demands of nonconformists. Voluntary schools where the education was conducted on a denominational basis were not to be supported out of public funds. If they could not be maintained, the local authority was to have power to take them over, to assume the control, and to give the undenominational teaching which, from the point of view of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, was rather worse than purely secular education. The Lords made drastic amendments which the Government would not accept, and the bill was dropped.
In 1907 the programme was less aggressive. The budget however had two new features. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Asquith, for the first time dropped what had long been the fiction of professing to regard income tax as a source of revenue with which the country might presently dispense. Accepting it then as a permanent source of revenue, Mr. Asquith modified it by reducing the amount to be paid on incomes which were directly earned as compared with incomes derived from real property and from investments. The great measure of the year was Mr Haldane's scheme of army reform, which aimed at producing the maximum of efficiency without departing from the principle of voluntary recruitment.
No party in the state had hitherto ventured to commit itself to approval of any of those schemes for compulsory service which were in general urgently demanded by military men in view of the huge armies controlled by the European nations. The main point of the scheme was the reorganisation of the militia, the yeomanry, and the volunteers into the body known as "territorials." So far the scheme was viewed with very general favour except by those who were prepared to denounce any scheme which failed to provide for compulsory service. Criticism was mainly directed against certain reductions in the regular army for foreign service, and in the garrison artillery; while it was urged on the other side that the reductions meant nothing more than the removal of inefficients, and that in effect the regular army was rendered not a less but a more efficient striking force. This appears to have been admitted by the experts, even although they resented the actual reductions as unnecessary. A more aggressive warning note was struck by the Government resolutions pronouncing that the powers of the House of Lords in rejecting and delaying legislation ought to be restricted.
In 1908 the party battle again waxed furious. The retirement and death of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman removed a leader whose tact and management had during his term of office won for him an admiration and affection such as no one had previously looked for. His successor, Mr. Asquith, had been the acknowledged chief of the imperialist section of Liberals, and for the moment there were doubts whether the party would retain its solidarity under his captaincy. Very soon, however, it became apparent that there was to be no abatement in the Liberal demand for reforms. The reconstructions of the. Cabinet gave an increased instead of diminished prominence to the more Radical element, while there was no sign that the so-called Whigs were at variance with their colleagues.
The first measure was indeed hardly controversial, since Unionists even more than Liberals had been pledged to provide pensions for the aged poor so soon as the national revenue should be able to bear the burden. Such opposition as the Old Age Pension Bill met with was based on the argument that the money would be better applied to strengthening national defence, or else upon the view that the scheme ought to be contributory - that the pension should be a reward of thrift, not bestowed on the thrifty and thriftless alike.
The Government returned to the attack on the Education question, a subject on which it was a sheer impossibility to take a popular line. The attempt was made to find a middle way which both denominationalists and undenominationalists could conscientiously accept.. The proposal was that in areas where there was only one available school the regular religious instruction should be of the undenominational order, with facilities for denominational instruction to be given outside the school hours. But, in spite of prolonged negotiations, it was found to be impossible to arrive at any scheme which could command general assent, and the bill was after all withdrawn.
Licensing Hours Bill
Fiercer still was the controversy over a bill which was to reduce systematically the number of houses licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. In a period of fourteen years one-third of the existing licenses were to be extinguished, but compensation was to be provided by a fund levied from the trade itself. After the fourteen years it was to be recognised that the licence would be granted for one year only, carrying with it no sort of right to count upon its renewal. The whole energies of the licensed trade were devoted to a vehement campaign against the measure; ministerialist's lost seats at several bye-elections; the House of Lords were encouraged to believe that the Government had lost the confidence of the country and would be defeated in a general election, and the Peers rejected the bill.
Still the Government, like its Unionists predecessor, refused to regard bye-elections as a proof that it ought to resign, or, still more positively, to admit the title of the House of Lords to force an appeal to the country. In 1909 the gage of battle was flung down more emphatically than ever in the Budget introduced by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Lloyd George. The announcement that the naval programmes of foreign Powers necessitated an immensely increased expenditure on armaments met with an extremely reluctant assent from the economists in the Liberal ranks, while the programme put forward was stormily denounced as utterly insufficient by the Opposition. The Government stood to their view that their demands did not go beyond what was required by a reasonable prudence, but were at the same time adequate.
But the increased expenditure demanded an increased revenue. The rejection of the last year's Licensing Bill was met by greatly increasing the cost of licenses; thus the liquor traffic was to be laid under contribution. An increase of the duties on tobacco and'on spirits would levy a contribution from the working man. Wealth was to contribute by an increase of the tax upon incomes exceeding 5000 a year, and of the death duties. But above everything else a new tax was to be laid upon land by the appropriation of a portion of what is called the Unearned Increment; that is, the increased value of property brought about not by the action of the proprietors but by external circumstances - a scheme which involved an immense and complicated system of revaluation. The Budget, warmly applauded by Radicals who since the days of John Stuart Mill had claimed that the unearned increment was a fair and just source of taxation, was received with a storm of indignation by the landholders and the licensed trade. The House of Peers accepted the Government's challenge. It was admitted that they could not amend a money bill; it was admitted, on the other hand, that they had the constitutional right to reject such a bill in its entirety. They acted upon their technical right, in spite of strong protests from Lord Rosebery and others who detested the Budget itself, and threw out the Finance Bill.
Ministers, then, were obliged either to remodel the Budget so as to make it acceptable to the Peers or else to appeal to the country. But the question was no longer one as to what were the constitutional powers technically possessed by the hereditary chamber; now it was, whether it should be permitted to retain those powers. If the rejection of the Budget were to be accepted as a precedent, the Lords would at all times be able to force a dissolution. The Lords, it was argued, had ceased to exercise their proper function as an independent revising chamber, and had become simply an instrument of one party. While the Conservatives were in office they could legislate to their heart's content; while Liberals were in office they could carry no legislation which did not command the assent of the Opposition.
Ministers appealed to the country, with an emphatic declaration that no Liberal Government could in future remain in office until the powers of the Lords were so curtailed that finance should be removed entirely from their control, and that they should no longer be able to prevent the expressed will of the House of Commons from becoming law within the period of a single parliament. The general election was fought on the triple issue, the Budget, Tariff Reform, and the Abolition of the Veto of the House of Lords. The result was a considerable increase in the number of Unionists, since many of the Free-Traders who had voted against them at the last election considered that in the choice of evils Tariff Reform was less dangerous than Mr. George's financial methods. Nevertheless the Unionists were still outnumbered by the Liberal party itself, while for practical purposes that party could count on the solid support of the Labour members and of the now thoroughly reunited Irish Nationalists.
Death of Edward VII
The advanced Radicals undoubtedly supposed that the first measure of the Government would be a bill abolishing the veto of the House of Lords, and that the king had given a guarantee that the Lords would, if necessary, be compelled to yield by an overwhelming creation of peers. There was some indignation when it was announced that the government of the country must be carried on and the Budget must be passed before anything else could be done. Resentment grew among the extremists when it became known that the guarantees had not been given, and that ministers would formulate their plan before seeking to obtain them.
In the great crisis which had now arrived it was felt that everything turned upon the profound political sagacity of King Edward VII, a sagacity which had won universal recognition. But even at that momentous hour the hand of death fell. The strain of anxiety had broken the king's health. On May 5th men read with startled alarm the announcement that he was seriously ill. The next day bulletins announced that his condition. was critical, and just before midnight he passed away.