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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
The last 100 years

The Parliament Act

David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George
By 1909 the House of Lords had in essence become the Common's junior partner but the unelected upper house still retained some formidable powers.

Without its consent, no bill could become law and although the Lords were perfectly entitled to reject bills from time to time they were not expected to reject Money Bills or Budgets. In 1909 the House of Lords overstepped the boundaries of precedent.

When the Lords rejected the popular 'People's Budget' put forward by the Liberal Chancellor, David Lloyd George, they had in effect stopped the elected government doing its business.

Deadlock ensued, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis two general elections were held in 1910. Both gave the Liberal government a renewed mandate for its proposals, but the Lords still refused to bend.

The Liberals, with the support of the monarch, were prepared to create a mass of new peers to see the Bill through the upper house, forcing the Conservative 'diehards' to back down.

As well as the Budget gaining consent the government also passed the 1911 Parliament Act, which stripped the Lords of their power of veto.

In future if the Lords rejected a Bill passed by the Commons three times without amendment it could then go straight to the Monarch for consent, bypassing the upper house entirely.

Votes for women

As the struggle between the Lords and the Commons was finally resolved, the by now decades-old struggle for the female franchise was in full swing.

That women did not have the vote at the start of the twentieth century was in some ways hardly surprising as married women had only been legally allowed to own property in their own right since 1882.

Resistance to the female franchise was fierce and deeply ingrained.

The status quo was defended by those who believed that when a man voted he was voting on behalf of his whole household - a separate vote for women was therefore unnecessary and, some believed, undesirable.

There had been various advocates of the female suffrage in the nineteenth century, notably the radical John Stuart Mill, who unsuccessfully attempted to pass many bills granting women the vote.

But although the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was founded in 1867, little progress was made until the twentieth century.


Lady Astor
With the franchise won Lady Astor became Britain's first woman MP
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women's Social and Political Union.

She was determined to use more revolutionary methods of agitation than the careful constitutional approach preferred by her predecessors.

Gaining attention for the cause was paramount. Window breaking became a favourite tactic, but the most shocking outburst of the militant suffragettes occurred in 1913 when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King's horse on Derby day, later dying of her injuries.

On balance a majority of MPs were in favour of votes for women on the eve of the First World War.

Several bills were introduced into the House designed to give women the vote but none got further than their second reading. The war itself was to prove the engine of change.

The involvement of women in the war effort and the decision of the suffragettes to abandon agitation until after the war reaped its reward in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave all women over 30 the vote. In 1928 women were finally given the franchise on equal terms with men.

Ironing out the quirks

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee's Labour government ended multiple votes
With the adult population of Britain now fully enfranchised there still existed one or two quirks in the British political system that remained to be ironed out, including the unusual practice of multiple voting.

People who owned a business could vote in the constituency where they lived and again in the constituency of the business itself.

Another anomaly was that the universities were represented in Parliament, having 12 seats between them with Oxford and Cambridge having two MPs each.

To vote in a university seat electors had to have graduated from that university, giving them in effect a second vote.

Despite having returned such eminent men as William Gladstone and Sir Isaac Newton, these seats had been opposed by both Labour and the Liberals for much of the twentieth century as they clearly contradicted the principle of one citizen one vote.

Labour abolished multiple votes under the 1949 Representation of the People Act, and in the general election of 1950 the British public finally went to the polls on the basis of one citizen one vote.

The only major reform of the franchise in recent years has been the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969.


Sir Edward Heath
Sir Edward Heath - the prime minister when Britain entered Europe
Arguably the greatest constitutional change to take place this century, or any other, occurred on January 1, 1973, when Britain finally joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union.

Clause II of the European Communities Act, the law which took Britain into Europe, stated that laws passed in Westminster could now be over-ruled by the EEC. Parliament was now no longer the ultimate power in its own land.

The issue of Britain's relationship with Europe is still extremely contentious.

Traditionally, both the Labour left and the Conservative right have opposed what they both consider to be a surrender of sovereignty and as Britain continues to debate closer ties with the Continent, including the possibility of joining a single currency, Europe is an issue that refuses to go away.


As well as the movement of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels, more recently the present Labour government is devolving some of Westminster's powers back to Scotland and Wales.

Both countries said 'Yes' to the government's proposals to give Wales an assembly and Scotland a parliament with tax varying powers in referendums held in 1997. Elections for both bodies will be held in 1999.

In granting devolution to Scotland and Wales, however, Parliament clearly stated its intention to keep control over constitutional affairs, foreign and defence policy and relations with Europe, leaving everything else in the hands of the new assemblies.

The future

The present government's plans for the reform of Parliament do not stop at devolution. Both the House of Lords and the electoral system itself may face a complete make-over.

Labour made a manifesto commitment during the 1997 general election to remove the voting and sitting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

This is to be the first step in process of reform which is intended to make the House of Lords more democratic.

Since coming to power Labour has also appointed a commission headed by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jenkins of Hillhead to review the electoral system.

In the words of Home Secretary Jack Straw, the commission will be free to recommend: "Any appropriate system or combination of systems in recommending an alternative to the present system for parliamentary elections to be put before the people in the Government's referendum".

Whether or not the commission will recommend any radical change, including the possibility of abandoning or reforming the First Past the Post System in favour of Proportional Representation remains to be seen.

In any case, whatever comes of Labour's plans for the House of Lords and the electoral system, it is safe to say that the 'Mother or Parliaments' will continue its ongoing process of evolution and adaptation.

Links to more Talking Politics stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Talking Politics stories