Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Lloyd George on the House of Lords (1909)

David Lloyd George (1863-1945) was one of Britain's greatest Liberal statesman.  While Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced a strongly redistributive finance bill (known as the "People's Budget") which ended up provoking a major confrontation with the House of Lords.  This is a speech which Lloyd George made in Newcastle on 9 October 1909, in the course of the controversy.

Well, now, we are going to send the Bill up, all the taxes or none. What will the Lords do? I tell you frankly it is a matter which concerns them far more than it concerns us. The more irresponsible and feather-headed amongst them want to throw it out. But what will the rest do? It will depend on the weather. There are some who are not fair-weather sailors, and they will go on. But poor Lord Lansdowne with his creaking old ship and his mutinous crew, there he is, he has got to sail through the narrows with one eye on the weather-glass and the other on the forecastle.

But it does not depend on him. It will depend, in the first place, probably on the reports from the country. The most important gentleman in the business is not Lord Lansdowne with all his adroit management of the House of Lords, not even Mr. Balfour with his invaluable services to his party. The real sailing master is Sir Alexander Acland-Hood, the chief Whip of the Tory party; and the Ancient Mariner is engaged at the present moment in trying to decide whether it is safe to shoot the albatross. He will probably not decide until too late. But still this is the great Constitutional party, and if there is one thing more than another better established about the British Constitution it is this, that the Commons, and the Commons alone, have the complete control of supply and ways and means; and what our fathers established through centuries of struggle and of strife even of bloodshed we are not going to be traitors to.

Who talks about altering and meddling with the Constitution? The Constitutional party, the great Constitutional party. As long as the Constitution gave rank and possession and power to the Lords it was not to be interfered with. As long as it secured even their sports from intrusion and made interference with them a crime; as long as the Constitution enforced royalties and ground rents and fees and premiums and fines, and all the black retinue of exaction; as long as it showered writs and summonses and injunctions and distresses and warrants to enforce them, then the Constitution was inviolate. It was sacred. It was something that was put in the same category as religion, that no man should with rude hands touch, something that the chivalry of the nation ought to range itself in defence of. But the moment the Constitution looks round; the moment the Constitution begins to discover that there are millions of people outside park gates who need attention, then the Constitution is to be torn to pieces.

Let them realise what they are doing. They are forcing a revolution, and they will get it. The Lords may decree a revolution, but the people will direct it. If they begin, issues will be raised that they little dream of. Questions will be asked which are now whispered in humble voices, and answers will be demanded then with authority. The question will be asked whether five hundred men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, should override the judgment the deliberate judgment of millions of people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of the country.

That is one question. Another will be, Who ordained that a few should have the land of Britain as a perquisite? Who made ten thousand people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth? Who is it who is responsible for the scheme of things whereby one man is engaged through life in grinding labour to win a bare and precarious subsistence for himself, and when, at the end of his days, he claims at the hands of the community he served a poor pension of eightpence a day, he can only get it through a revolution, and another man who does not toil receives every hour of the day, every hour of the night, whilst he slumbers, more than his poor neighbour receives in a whole year of toil? Where did the table of that law come from? Whose finger inscribed it? These are the questions that will be asked. The answers are charged with peril for the order of things the Peers represent; but they are fraught with rare and refreshing fruit for the parched lips of the multitude who have been treading the dusty road along which the people have marched through the dark ages which are now merging into the light.