Parliaments, Politics, and People: The Referendum issue & the constitutional crisis before the First World War

Ahead of this evening’s IHR Parliaments, Politics, and People seminar, we hear from Dr. Roland Quinault, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, about his paper from our previous session.

Britain was slow to adopt the constitutional device of a referendum – the practice of referring political issues directly to the judgment of the people without recourse to Parliament. It was only in the late twentieth century that referendums were held to decide important issues that cut across party lines, such as devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Britain’s membership of, or exclusion from, the European Union.  But in the early twentieth century some prominent politicians and political theorists advocated the use of the referendum as a means of ending the constitutional deadlock between the two Houses of Parliament. The 1906 general election resulted in a large Liberal majority in the House of Commons, which soon came into conflict with the even larger Conservative majority in the House of Lords. In 1909 the Lords, in an unprecedented action, rejected Lloyd George’s Liberal Budget. The Prime Minister, Asquith, contemplated holding a referendum on the issue but instead called a general election, in January 1910, on the theme of ‘the peers versus the people’. The result left the Liberals and Conservatives with the same number of seats but the Liberals remained in office due to the support they received from Irish Nationalists and Labour MPs. The government then introduced a Parliament Bill to abolish the permanent veto that the House of Lords had over legislation passed by the Commons. The peers were desperate to preserve their veto power and some of them advocated a referendum on the question, which they hoped would be a democratic way of retaining their traditional authority.

Prominent supporters of the referendum included members of the Cecil clan – the family of the late Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. He had advocated submitting divisive issues, such as Irish home rule, to the direct judgment of the people. His views were endorsed and developed by other members of his family.

Other influential Tories, however, were wary of the referendum proposal. They feared that the referendum, once adopted, would be extended from constitutional to financial measures, which might result in confiscatory legislation against the rich. A constitutional conference between the leaders of the two main parties did not endorse the referendum proposal. Nevertheless the House of Lords passed resolutions proposing that a referendum should be held when there was a dispute between the two Houses on a matter of gravity not adequately submitted to the judgment of the people.

In December 1910 the Liberal government called another general election at which the Conservatives had two major objectives: to defend the powers of the House of Lords and to advance the cause of tariff reform. At the earlier 1910 election the Conservatives had lost seats in Lancashire – the citadel of free trade – due to their support for tariffs on food imports. To allay the fears of free traders, Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservative party, promised a referendum on tariff reform if the party won the general election. Balfour’s declaration angered many tariff reformers and did not secure many more seats for the Conservatives.

In March 1911 a Scottish peer, Balfour of Burleigh, introduced a ‘Reference to the People Bill’ in the House of Lords. It was supported by peers who objected to what they termed ‘single chamber tyranny’ and by peers who had experience of the successful use of the referendum in Britain’s self-governing colonies, notably Australia. But other peers were much less enthusiastic about the proposal and the Bill was suspended. Nevertheless when the peers tried to amend the 1911 Parliament Bill they specified that a referendum might be held on issues relating to the Crown, the Protestant succession and devolution. In the event, however, most supporters of the referendum – except the Cecils – abandoned their opposition to the Parliament Bill in order to prevent the Lords being swamped with new Liberal peers. The subsequent passage of the Parliament Bill ended attempts to adopt the referendum in order to resolve constitutional disputes between the two Houses of Parliament. In 1912, moreover, the Conservatives abandoned their pledge to hold a referendum on tariff reform. An attempt by Winston Churchill to have two referendums on the issue of female enfranchisement also failed.

There were various reasons why the Edwardian referendum movement proved barren of achievement. Although touted as a democratic measure, such an appeal to the people would have been restricted to a minority because at that time all women and 40% of adult males were without the vote. Furthermore it was far from clear that one issue could be singled out from a raft of interrelated measures. There was, moreover no agreement over who exactly should call a referendum, who should draft the question and what should happen if the referendum result was at odds with government policy. Most Edwardian political leaders adopted an opportunistic partisan stance on the issue – they would only contemplate its adoption if it was likely to strengthen their partisan position. There was little discussion about how the adoption of  the referendum would undermine parliamentary sovereignty. In this and in other respects, there are some clear parallels between the referendum movement before the First World War and that before, during and after the 2016 EU referendum.


For the full Parliaments, Politics and People seminar schedule click here.

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