The Lords and Liberal hypocrisy

Writing before the actual voting on the second reading of the Finance Bill in the Lords, and before the terms of the Premier’s “remonstrance” are made public, there is yet no difficulty in judging of the role of the Liberal Party in the present “crisis,” from its present attitude and past history. The veto of the Lords is a Liberal hardy annual. The late G. A. Sala said that during his experience as a journalist he had known eighteen distinct agitations against the House of Lords by the party of “going to do,” all of which came to nought. Numerous resolutions have been passed by the Commons to “end or mend” the House of Lords, but all of them have been calmly ignored by Liberal Cabinets, who have accepted with remarkable meekness every vagary of the odds and ends who fill the Upper Chamber.
Of the present Budget itself it is hardly necessary to speak. There will be many dry eyes at its departure. It is a Dreadnought Budget of blood and iron, and the real nature of its threadbare reforms has already been exposed in these columns. Indeed, standing between a free-trade budget and a tariff-reform one, the worker is verily between the devil and the deep, blue sea. But from these equally distasteful alternatives we turn to the present curious constitutional issue.

It is, as has before been observed, Liberalism’s last ditch, and as like as not the Liberals will be buried in it. In spite of clap trap and agitation, the people are 1argely indifferent to the matter, and this is causing Jacks in office considerable anxiety. A keen and searching Tariff Reform agitation, dwelling almost solely on the question of unemployment, is telling in the constituencies against the Liberal-Labour coalition. What wonder, then, that their peace of mind is somewhat disturbed by the fact that the Lords for the nonce find it expedient to stand forth as champions of democracy by demanding an appeal to the electorate? It is considered extremely doubtful if the Liberals will obtain a majority sufficient for working purposes at the general election, and in any circumstances the Lords (aided and abetted by the Liberals) are playing a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.”

It will be within the reader’s memory that not long ago the irrepressible Mr. Churchill stated in a speech that the refusal of the Lords to pass the Finance Bill would be directly followed by an appeal to the country. The next day, however, the Premier took his enfant terrible to task and publicly declared that to dissolve at the dictation of the Lords would be to grant them privileges which belonged solely to the Cabinet and the King. The Daily Chronicle went further, and indicated several damning consequences that would follow such suicidal action on the part of the Government. And obviously, to dissolve because the Upper Chamber refuses to pass the Budget would be granting the Lords a precedent for throwing any government out, and for delaying and defeating any finance bill that did not coincide with their archaic views. Moreover, if the Liberal Government were re-elected and the Lords then passed the Budget, it would be no victory over the peers, but it would, on the contrary, have established a precedent which increased the privileges of the latter, and weakened the control of the Commons over finance.

The Liberals admittedly are the most cunning of the capitalist class, and they cannot in consequence be acquitted when, instead of standing firm and saying, like Lord Milner, “damn the consequences!” and compelling the Upper House to give way, they deliberately decide that the Commons must commit suicide in this matter. As Mr. M’Kenna admitted in his Griffithstown speech on Nov. 23, “The Prime Minister said some time ago he would not advise a dissolution at the dictation of the Lords. And yet here we stand to-day admittedly compelled to have an election in consequence of the action of that body.” Thus, thanks to the Liberals, the peers stand to win in any case, and Liberalism is again exposed for the fraud it is.

In point of fact the Liberals do not intend, and never have intended to abolish the Upper Chamber. It is far too valuable to them. To both that and the Tory section of the capitalist class it is highly valuable as a barricade that may be called into future usefulness against the rising forces of Socialism. Moreover, it is particularly useful to the party in power at present as an effective election slogan, and as a universal excuse for broken promises. Without the Lords the Liberals would cut a very sorry figure – and well they know it. A peerage is the latter party’s campaign-fund contributor’s expected reward. Moreover, many opulent supporters of the present Government are even now impatiently awaiting their peerage, and as an instance, Sir Alfred ‘Thomas, who according to the Morning Leader (Nov. 25th) is standing down for a “Labour” man in East Glamorgan, as part of the unholy lib-lab compact, and “will accept a peerage” apparently in recompense. How, then, can the Liberals abolish the House of Lords?

The Conservatives are refreshingly frank regarding their chief reason for desiring to retain or strengthen the Lords. The Observer for Nov 28th says:

“At all costs we must avoid a Constitutional deception which could only be a screen for the proceedings of any Socialistic majority of the future. If there is to be any change in the composition of the House of Lords as it exists, there is no escape whatever from the inexorable dilemma on which we have insisted again and again. There must be either a stronger Second Chamber or no Second Chamber.”
The Second Chamber has been abolished once in English history, only to be restored and to maintain its position as an integral part of capitalist government. Even prominent Liberals to day, such as Mr. Haldane, confess to an anxiety to retain the upper house in some form; and regarding the projects for adapting that chamber more closely to modern conditions, it is obvious that capitalist reform of the Lords would mean a strengthening of that body against working-class advance.
Whatever may be the fine details of the decision of the Lords on the Finance Bill; whatever the terms of Mr. Asquith’s resolution in imitation of that of Lord Palmerston; whatever the result of the January elections that are to follow, it remains practically certain that beneath all the bluff the privileges of the peers have been increased at the expense of the Commons through the supine policy the Liberals have indicated they will follow.

Yet even the threatened strengthening of that bulwark against revolution will, in spite of its intention, fortify the revolutionary movement. It will be another factor helping the workers to see the futility of compromise with capitalist parties, and it will further demonstrate the crying need for a determined, intelligent, and really independent policy on the part of the workers for the revolutionary conquest of the State for Socialism.

(Socialist Standard, December 1909)

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