THE GOVERNMENT AND THE HOUSE OF LORDS.
WE have dealt above with the various possibilities connected with the passing of the Budget. Here we desire to discuss the next move on the political chessboard, and the probable action of the Government in regard to the House of Lords. How far will they be able under existing conditions, and with the majority at their command, to carry out the policy advocated by them before and during the elections ? The Ministerial policy is twofold. In the first place, the Liberals have expressed their determination to make it clear that for the future the Lords shall be prevented not merely from altering Finance Bills but from rejecting them. They are to be deprived of all authority in questions of taxation. In addition, the Liberal policy, as defined by Mr. Asquith, is not to reform the House of Lords, or to set up a, new Second Chamber, but to keep the present House of Lords as it is, while depriving it of that limited right of rejecting legislation which it now claims and exercises. No one of course claims for the House of Lords an absolute right of veto. The most that the Peers claim, or have claimed during the past thirty years, is the right to insist upon a reference to the electors of legislation about which they hold the opinion of the people at large to be doubtful. If a Bill is thrown out by the House of Lords, it is always understood that, should the Govern- ment take the opinion of the country and the opinion be favourable, the Lords must accept the Bill when next presented to them. It is now proposed that this limited right of rejection should be taken away, and that in future the right of the Lords to reject a Bill shall be limited to a single Parliament. This somewhat cryptic utterance is understood to mean the adoption in some form or other of the principle of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's pro- posal,—that the Peers shall only be allowed to reject a measure twice, and that if it is sent up to them a third time they must on the third time of asking accept it.
We will deal in order with the prospects of these two proposals. Will the Government, as soon as the Budget is disposed of, pass through the House of Commons and send up to the Lords a declaratory Bill depriving the Peers of all participation in financial measures ? And if they do so, will they be prepared to advise the King to create, if necessary, sufficient Peers to pass the said declaratory Bill in the Lords ? Further, if their advice is not accepted, will they resign, and thus bring about another Dissolution? No doubt if the Government had secured what they believed they would secure at the Election which is now closing, a majority of a definite and homo- geneous type, they would have adopted this course, and in such circumstances the King, who will without question act from what we may term the strict Constitutional point of view, might have felt bound to accept the advice of his Ministers, yielding, as every part of the Constitu- tional machine must yield, to the clearly expressed will of the majority of the people. It is difficult, however, to believe that Mr. Asquith and his colleagues can feel that the result of the elections will justify them in pushing matters to extremes. Conceivably the result of a new appeal might be to give them a greatly increased majority, but, on the other hand, it might have just the contrary effect. In any case, the risks are very great, and for that, if for no other reason, moderate counsels are likely to prevail. We shall be told, no doubt, that Mr. Asquith before the Election declared that he would not continue in office unless he obtained guarantees that his policy as to the Lords could be carried out. It appears to us, however, that Mr. Asquith and his colleagues might perfectly well come to the conclusion that in the very peculiar circumstances which have now arisen it will not be possible to carry into practice the declaration as regards guarantees. After all, " the force of circumstances" ' controls Prime Ministers as it does humbler people. To represent the declaration with which we are dealing as a pledge would certainly be unreasonable, for it had nothing in it in the nature of a contract. No one is in a position to say that the Liberal Cabinet would be breaking faith by not demanding the guarantees in question. Such guarantees are indeed appropriate rather to the taking of office by a new Ministry than to a situation such as the present.
But if moderation is required at the hands of the Liberal Government in the interpretation of their some- what rash declaration as to guarantees, moderation must also be demanded of the House of Lords in their treatment of any Bill which may be sent up to them laying down the custom of the Constitution in regard to Finance Bills. We are not in the secrets of those who lead opinion in the House of Lords, but we should be very much surprised if the Peers were to refuse acceptance of a Bill worded so as to declare the inability of the House of Lords to reject Money Bills which were Money Bills in the true sense, and nothing but Money Bills,—that is, Bills for the levying of taxes pure and simple, and not involving non-financial legislation, as did the clauses creating the new system of valuation for the Land-taxes. No doubt it might be a very difficult piece of drafting to define a Money Bill in this sense, but we do not believe that the task passes the wit of man. To approach the problem from another point of view, we do not see that the Lords need object to giving up their theoretical right of rejecting Finance Bills in the case of Bills limited in their operation to one year, for such Bills would always be liable to revision in the House of COMMODE' should there be a change of opinion in the country. Again, the Lords would not show any dereliction in respect of their duty of securing popular control over the House of Commons by abandoning the right of rejecting Bills which merely altered the degree of old taxes, but which involved no new principles of taxation. It is quite clear that the country assents to the principles of the Income-tax and of the Customs-duties. The House of Lords would not, there- fore, if our suggestion were adopted, lose that which it values, and naturally values,—the right to secure a reference to the people in regard to the introduction of novel systems of taxa- tion, or of attempts to use Finance Bills to carry legislative projects which are not in reality financial. A Bill, then, which would deprive the House of Lords in theory as well as in practice of the right of rejecting old taxes is a Bill to which the Lords could very easily consent. Here it may be noted that if the result of the proposed change in the theory of the Constitution were to be as we have described—namely, that the consent of the House of Lords should not in future be necessary for old taxes or for their alteration in degree, but only for taxes which involve the creation of new machinery and the adoption of new principles—the position of the -Upper House in respect of finance would be like that of the Senate under the French Constitution. -Unless we are mistaken, the Senate cannot alter or reject old taxes, even though the degree is varied, but its assent is required to the imposition of new forms of taxation. In our opinion, if the Government will act on the lines we have indicated, there is room for compromise, and for avoiding that Constitutional struggle which must be involved in an attempt to declare that the House of Lords must lose the whole of its existing rights not only over Tax Bills in the strict sense, but also over all legislation to which has been attached the label "Finance."
The second portion of the problem we are now dis- cussing—the right of the Lords to reject or modify ordinary legislation upon which they are not satisfied that the will of the people has been expressed—is a very different matter, and involves considerations of the most difficult and complex kind. Were the Government prepared to abolish the House of Lords, and to substitute for it a Second Chamber based on a democratic suffrage, we believe that they would obtain a very large measure of approval in the country. Again, were they to send up to the House of Lords a measure for reforming fundamentally the present House, and for limiting very strictly the influ- ence of the hereditary principle and introducing nominated and elected elements, it might well be argued that the House of Lords would be unwise to reject such legislation. If, however, a Bill is sent to the Peers which merely abolishes their veto, and with it their House, without substituting anything in its stead, then unquestionably the Peers will not only have the right, but it will be their imperative duty, to reject such legislation. The country desires the reform of the House of Lords, and might very likely be found to approve of the substitution of a purely elective body ; but whatever else is doubtful, it is clear that the country is net prepared for single-Chamber govern- ment. But single-Chamber government is what we shall have in fact, though not in name, if the House of Lords has no right to reject a measure the third time it is sent up to it. To pretend otherwise is to shut oaa's eyes to facts.
Suppose for a moment that the House of Lords were this spring to pass a Bill for the abolition of its veto in the form we have suggested. Immediately the party in power, dominated as they are by the Irish vote, would present a Home-rule Bill to the Upper House. That Bill would, no doubt, be rejected by the Peers, but its rejection would of course not be accepted by the Irish Party. They would insist, and most naturally from their point of view, that exactly the same Bill should at once be sent again to the Lords. If they had weight and power enough to secure its passage once through the House of Commons, they would have the power to secure its being passed for the second and the third time. The only result of the so-called suspensory veto of the House of Lords would be that Bills would be read nine times in the Commons instead of three. The passage of the Bill would almost certainly be accomplished by suspend- ing the Standing Orders, and passing it through all its stages at one sitting. The Irish Party would see to it that the principle of" the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill" was fully maintained. In a word, the abolition of the Lords' veto would merely add another stage to the legislative ceremonial of the House of Commons. To prevent its own abolition, if it is unaccompanied by the substitution of a new Second Chamber, must then, as we have said above, be the imperative duty of the House of Lords, and we hold that it would be justified in running all risks in order to perform that duty. We need hardly say that the notion that the Lords are to be frightened by the possibility of being deprived of their titles, and of the right to be called Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, or Baron in official documents, is one which will not weigh with them for an instant. A great many of the most prominent Peers would gain, not lose, in political importance by being allowed to enter the House of Commons ; while the notion that any but the very newest creations would lose in social prestige by the abolition of the House of Lords is absurd. If the House of Lords is to be deprived of its present very limited power of insisting that the people are to be consulted upon doubtful issues, it had far better be abolished altogether. As we have already said, the question of reform is a very different matter, and one upon which there is a great deal to be said.
For ourselves, we have always favoured, and continue to favour, Lord Newton's scheme, under which no man would sit in the House of Lords merely because he was the son of his father. He must, in addition, show public service, and public service of a responsible kind. We are free to confess that we should prefer the establishment of an elective Second Chamber on a democratic basis,— a Chamber resembling the Senate of the United States or of France, for Such a Second House would be a much more efficient instrument for keeping in check the vagaries of irresponsible or temporary majorities in the House of Commons than the Peers can ever be. We recognise, however, that the notion that the House of Commons will ever consent to put such a curb on itself is not within the range of practical politics. The best that we can hope for in the way of increasing the power of the Second Chamber is a reformed House of Lords. Any reasonable scheme, therefore, of reform of the House of Lords which can be devised, and especially one which will give a larger proportion of voting-power to the Liberal Party, should be accorded the fullest and fairest considera- tion. It will, we expect, be impossible to suggest any scheme which will give what many Liberals seem now bent upon having,—a Second Chamber which will necessarily say ditto to the Liberal majority in the Commons ; but any plan which would increase the power of the Liberal section in the Lords would be welcome. We must not forget, however, that the brake is an instrument which is meant to be used downhill, and not on the level.