Government of England: The High Court of Parliament
1. The House of Lords
The High Court of Parliament, still the supreme legislature of the Empire, has changed enormously in many ways.
The House of Lords was immensely altered by the younger Pitt, whose lavish creations of peers not only greatly increased its numbers, but introduced many leaders of the business world into an assembly long confined almost entirely to the landed classes. And fresh additions have since raised the numbers of the House to something like six hundred.
Most members, except the Bishops, still sit by hereditary right, but Scotland since 1707, and Ireland since 1800, have sent a number of elected peers, and a few life peers—"Lords of Appeal"—now help the House when acting as the highest court of law.
The power of the House has dwindled as its numbers have grown. Two characteristics have often exposed it to attack, especially by opponents of the Conservative party. First, most of its members—except on rare occasions—take no part in its work. Secondly, the Lords are naturally inclined, as men of high social position and considerable wealth, to resist measures that seem to threaten the interests of the upper classes.
It has, indeed, long been recognized as their duty to accept a Bill passed by the Commons which represents the wishes of the nation. But opinions may easily differ as to whether any given Bill does represent them. In 1832 only William IV's threat to create peers induced the House of Lords to pass the Reform Bill. Nearly eighty years later the threat was used again in order so to alter the law that it should never more be necessary.
For in 1911 the Commons passed a "Parliament Bill," entirely changing the relations between the two Houses. It deprived the Lords of the right to throw out a Money Bill as they had thrown out the "Budget" of 1909. This in the main only turned a generally approved custom into a binding law. But the "Parliament Bill" also enacted that, if the Commons passed and the Lords rejected any Bill twice under certain conditions, it should become law, with the King's consent, if the Commons alone passed it a third time.
So sweeping a change in the ancient Constitution was naturally violently resisted. But the Liberals and their Irish and Labour allies were supreme in the existing House of Commons. The Unionists, therefore, could not take office unless they won in a General Election, which for various reasons seemed unlikely. So the Liberals remained the official advisers of the King, who therefore agreed to create such peers as might be necessary to carry their Bill. Thereupon, as in 1832, most of the Opposition peers abstained from voting, and, by a small majority, the Bill became law.
2. The House of Commons in 1830
The House of Commons was composed in 1830 much as it had been composed four centuries before. As in early days, each county had two members, while many towns were represented separately, generally by two members also. The number of these towns had grown immensely, and members now came from Wales and Scotland and Ireland; but otherwise there was little change.
Nor had the electorate altered much. Under a statute just four hundred years old the county members were still chosen by the "forty-shilling freeholders," and by them alone. And the electorate in towns differed, as always, in different places. Sometimes it included nearly every householder; sometimes only the men who bought or inherited or gained by apprenticeship the "freedom of the borough"; often, only the governing body of the town—the Corporation and its officers.
The elections—lasting sometimes for many days—occurred at least every seven years under the Septennial Act of 1716. And, if the King agreed, Parliament might be dissolved before its seven years were over.
3. The Need for Reform
By 1830 the whole system was out of date. To give every county, large or small,. just two members had been well enough when Parliament was chiefly a convenience to the King, and the electors wished chiefly to pay as few members as possible. But when Parliament became the means for announcing and enforcing the wishes of the nation it was absurd to give, e.g., Yorkshire and Rutland an equal voice in its decisions. And the Industrial Revolution, which made the northern counties so much more populous than the southern, increased the absurdity.
The Industrial Revolution affected also the representation of towns. Originally the sheriff was told to send up members "from every city, borough, and market town" in his shire. But soon many towns, chiefly to avoid paying members of their own, managed on various pretexts to escape being represented. On the other hand, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, and James I—perhaps because the Commons were becoming self-willed and the Crown wanted more members willing to support it—summoned members from many towns hitherto unrepresented, particularly in districts specially under royal control.
Some of these places were always small; other towns decayed in course of time; and so under the Georges scores of members represented "rotten boroughs," which deserved scarcely any influence. Yet new towns, or old unrepresented towns which became important in the Industrial Revolution, had next to no weight in Parliament, for the Crown now dared not summon new places, and Parliament itself did nothing.
So two members were chosen by the seven electors of Gatton, and two by the single voter at Cockermouth, and two by the owner of the uninhabited Old Sarum; but Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, whose population even in 1825 was nearly four hundred thousand, had not a single member between them.
Moreover, the forty-shilling freeholders were but a small minority of the county population, and the borough voters often a still smaller minority of the townsmen. And many towns were "pocket boroughs"—that is, places controlled by some peer or other great landowner—so that the election was a mere pretence. It was calculated that 345 members were really nominated by individuals, not chosen by the people. And, while the "borough-monger" often sold his "seats" to the highest bidder, direct bribery of the electors themselves was constant, in towns and counties alike.
Walpole and the Pelhams and George III spent vast sums in buying seats and bribing voters to secure a satisfactory House of Commons. And, though the younger Pitt abolished bribery by the Government, it was still practised by the candidates themselves. Many a man was ruined by the enormous expenses of "treating" the voters. Further, many an elector too honest to be bribed voted against his conscience for fear of losing his cottage or his work. For voting was public, and every landlord or employer could learn how his men voted, and, if they disobeyed his wishes, turn them away.
At last, however, the Parliamentary reform proposed by the two Pitts, but long delayed by the French Revolution, was carried out, mainly in the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884-85, and the Ballot Act of 1870.
Many boroughs lost their members altogether: others, with one county, Rutland, retained only one. But members were given to important towns hitherto unrepresented, and additional members to very large towns and the largest counties. Finally, the counties and most of the bigger boroughs were split up into "divisions" or "wards," each returning one member.
Further, the electorate was altogether changed. The Act of 1832 "enfranchised" (i.e. gave the vote to) the middle classes. In towns it set up, instead of many different qualifications, one general qualification for all places, viz. the occupation of a house, shop, warehouse, or the like—worth £10 a year—provided that the occupier lived within seven miles of the town.
In counties it still based the right to vote mainly on ownership of land. But it recognized other kinds of ownership than absolute freehold, and it allowed the vote to "occupiers" of land worth £50 a year, which enfranchised many tenant-farmers.
Disraeli's Reform Act, in 1867, went beyond the middle classes, giving the vote in towns to householders, and to lodgers if their rooms were worth—unfurnished—£10 a year. And in counties it greatly reduced the value of the land which voters must own or occupy.
But it was Gladstone's Act, in 1884, that enfranchised the agricultural labourer by giving the vote to householders and lodgers in counties as well as towns. This left no important class of men, except the tenants of poor lodgings, deliberately shut out from the franchise, though the strict rules as to registering claims to vote, in lists of voters made every year, practically disenfranchise many thousands. But women remained legally disqualified either to vote or to be elected to Parliament.
Meanwhile Gladstone's Ballot Act established secret voting, and many laws forbade "corrupt practices" at elections, so that threats and bribes became far rarer, if they were not altogether unknown. Again, all the voting for any one member had now to be done in a single day, and this, with other changes, made elections more decent and orderly. Scenes of drunken violence became less common, and dead cats, rotten eggs, and other unsavoury missiles less often served instead of arguments.
The Parliament Act of 1911 made five years, instead of seven, the longest period between two General Elections. In the same year the ancient payment of members was revived, with two differences: first, that now the nation and not the electors paid; secondly, that the payment was a fixed sum of £400 a year, not an allowance of 2s. or 4s. for each day of the session.
Even before this, the rule requiring a member to be a landowner was abolished, so that now the poorest man, if twenty-one years old, may be a candidate. Only he must not be a foreign subject, a convicted felon who has not served his sentence, a bankrupt, a lunatic or idiot, an English or Scottish peer, a clergyman in the Anglican or Roman Church, or a judge or other official disqualified by the law. To secure election, too, he must generally be supported by some great political party, and often by the "wobblers" in the constituency, i.e. men who vote not always for the same party, but for one side or the other as conscience or inclination dictates. And he must avoid all "treating"—direct or indirect—and keep his election expenses within the limit fixed by law: otherwise he may be punished, and if elected promptly unseated for "corrupt practices."