23 JUNE 1894, Page 4


THE LORDS AT LEEDS. THE so-called Conference at Leeds on Wednesday was not a Conference at all. There was a great deal of lively abuse of the House of Lords, but the report given in the daily Press does not show the smallest sense in the delegates gathered there that any check to a popular House is needful at all,—the smallest trace of sympathy with the conviction which possessed so completely the American statesmen who founded the United States Con- stitution that an impulsive people, if left to themselves, might do more harm in an hour or two than they might be able to undo in a quarter of a century. We are not going to deny for a moment that very great harm is often done by too much precaution, nor that the House of Lords has several times in its history thwarted the popular will too aggressively, and thereby stimulated instead of diminished the danger of the situa- tion. They made that very serious blunder at the time of the great Reform Bill, and only fourteen years ago they made it again when they threw out Mr. Forster's Compensation for Disturbance Bill, at a time when con- cession was quite as needful for the successful treatment of the Irish question as it was half a century earlier for the successful treatment of the Reform question. We can by no means think the House of Lords a perfect second Chamber, any more than did the statesmen who con- structed the United States Constitution with so much deliberation and such a deep conviction of the need of a drag, and a very powerful drag, upon the proceedings of a thoroughly popular Legislature. But we do say that a " Conference " on the proper substitute for the Lords' veto, which shows no trace of the feeling that some kind of effective check on popular impatience is desirable at all, is a sheer mockery of the meaning of the word " Con- ference,"—a mockery which places our English Radicals' rashness in the most striking and violent contrast to the procedure of our own nearest kinsmen when they dealt with the same serious question at the epoch of the great American revolution. At Leeds, the only discussion of any kind was a discussion between those who wanted to warn the Government that they were not to be per- mitted to fall short, in any case, of the sweeping-away of the Lords' veto, and those who thought that they might trust the Government to execute implicitly the popular will. Not a soul said a word in praise of an effective check on popular impatience ; not a soul seemed to think that if the veto of the Lords is to be swept away, some other effective check on popular haste, which the people would really respect, should be put in its place. The wisdom of those American statesmen who constructed the one written Constitution which has taken most hold on the affections of a great people was evidently held in as much contempt at Leeds as the wisdom of the House of Lords itself. The delegates met to destroy the House of Lords, neither to ask themselves what they should put in its place, nor whether they should put any thing in its place at all. Apparently they wanted to parade their scorn for anything like democratic statesmanship. Again, not a single delegate at Leeds recalled to the mind of the so-called Conference how much the House of Lords have yielded of late years to popular pressure ; their only mission appeared to be to wax indignant over the legislation they had mutilated and the legislation they had defeated. In any Conference worthy of the name,—the Conference at Leeds was not worthy of the name,—there would have been some attempt to estimate the considerations on both sides of the question, the considerations tending to show that the Lords can recognise the uselessness and mis- chief of resistance as well as the reasons and excuses for resistance. We have said that in relation to the Irish Compensation for Disturbance Bill the Lords acted rashly and prejudicially, but we must add that in the modifications they introduced into the Irish Church Disestablishment Bill, in their refusal to stand in the way of Mr. Gladstone's policy on the Irish land question, in declining to consider the Suffrage Bill of 1884 without an accompanying Redistribution Bill, and in passing that Redistribution Bill when Mr. Gladstone wisely accepted the compromise, the Lords acted very wisely ; and that again in their dealings with the recent Parish Councils Bill the Lords showed a fit and proper sense of the- meaning and limits of concession to a great popular desire for a new kind of experiment. It is by no means true,— indeed, of late years it has been the very reverse of the truth,—that the House of Lords have been obstinately obstructive. In throwing out the Home-rule Bill they only acted as any sagacious Second Chamber in the world would have acted, considering the narrow. majorities by which the measure was carried, and the very great doubt which existed as to whether it would have been carried at all, had the people known before the General Election, what unheard - of special privi- leges Mr. Gladstone was disposed to grant to the Irish representatives in the united Parliament. Second Houses of Legislature would be pure nonentities if they did not refer back to the people measures carried under so much coercion and by so little numerical preponderance, as the Irish Home-rule Bill. But the so-called Conference took no note at all of any considerations of this kind. They evidently understood that they were summoned not to "confer," but to inveigh ; not to deliberate, but to vote. They drew no distinction at all between measures passed. by very slender majorities and measures passed by over- whelming majorities. They were not even democratic enough to recognise that where the people are almost equally divided, the democratic principle itself demands the utmost circumspection. There never was a Con- ference in which there was so complete an absence of the desire to take account of " pros " and "cons." The delegates met to determine on a particular course, not ta consider even for a moment what there was to be said against as well as in favour of that course. The so- called Conference was a mere prearranged demonstration in favour of a particular decree.

The delegates did not even discuss how their decree is to be enforced. One of the delegates remarked that as the House of Lords bad the constitutional power to throw out any Bill carried in the Commons to give effect to this popu- lar decree, a few hundred Peers would have to be created to force it through the House of Lords. But this sug- gestion was very unfavourably received. Perhaps the Conference felt that a great constitutional revolution, carried by a. party of at most 350 representatives over 320' opponents, would hardly warrant so strong a measure as flooding the House of Lords with a great majority of Peers created expressly to overbear all opposition ; while others of the delegates appeared to feel an invincible repugnance to the creation of so many new Peers for any purpose whatever. But the upshot was that the " Con- ference " would not confer at all on the best practical means of coercing the House of Lords, but trusted to bluster as the best weapon they had. It did not occur to them that bluster would probably have its usual effect in stimulating resistance to the overweening presumption of a very doubtful and narrow popular majority ; and that when the appeal to the constituencies. came, the answer might be a peremptory order to drop the agitation altogether. Indeed, even if it were not so, even if the agitators secured the approval of the people, the Lords would never demean themselves by accepting meekly the position of ignominious uselessness for any legislative pur- pose in which it is proposed to place them, a position which Mr. Devitt is quite right in regarding as something much worse than mere defeat, since it would. mean both defeat and profound humiliation. Of course the Lords, if they saw that the people had really determined to rob them of all power, would insist on giving up not only the reality of power, but the pretension to it also. They would abolish themselves to take their chance in the Commons, far rather than acquiesce in so ridiculous a position as that for which the Leeds Con- ference has destined them. As the practical result of the Leeds Conference, we ourselves expect a decided re- action against the ending of the Lords. They have the force of England and even of Great Britain behind them in relation to almost all the questions now at issue between themselves and the Commons. Though they have been very far from a uniformly sagacious assembly, take them all in all, yet the English people are certainly very unlikely to decide in favour of a canititutional revolu- tion which would have made the very hair of the American conscript fathers stand on end more than a century ar, at its utter folly and rashness.