In the spring of 1719 the government introduced a measure for reforming the House of Lords. By its provisions the size of the peerage of Great Britain was to be frozen, while the Scots were to be allotted 25 hereditary peerages in place of the 16 elected ones they currently held. It failed but in the following session the same measure was brought back again. Marking its 300th anniversary, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-90 section, considers what happened next…
In the winter of 1719 the duke of Buckingham presented the House of Lords with a bill for reforming the state of the peerage. This was substantially the same measure that had passed the House earlier in the year but been pulled in anticipation of failing in the Commons. Now, it was back, and once again expected a bumpy ride through Parliament.
For the bill’s framers, the earls of Sunderland and Stanhope, reforming the peerage was an important way of ensuring that never again would the Lords be flooded with new peers, something that had occurred on more than one occasion under Queen Anne. It was also seen as an important insurance policy for them, negating the ability of future regimes to bolster their positions by foisting extra members on the upper chamber. According to the bill’s provisions, bar a handful of exceptions relating to the royal family, after the addition of six new peerages of Great Britain further peerages might thereafter only be created to replace ones that had become extinct. There was also a fundamental change to the basis on which Scots peers attended the Lords by abolishing the 16 representative peers and replacing them with 25 hereditaries. Such a change had been mooted in the previous reign but had come to nothing. It was a move supported by some Scots, who resented being elected to Parliament, but disliked by many others who feared they would find themselves shut out of Westminster. When the bill had first been considered in March, three Scots lords lodged a petition against it, but the bill had then failed the following month. The Scots were not the only ones concerned about the bill’s terms. There was considerable unease among MPs, who worried that limiting the numbers of creations available would prevent them from the opportunity of being ‘kicked upstairs’.
To give the plan the best chance of success the ministry aimed to move swiftly, presenting the bill just two days after the opening of Parliament on 23 November. Lord Newburgh wrote to his brother, the earl of Cholmondeley, observing that while the Commons was already very full, the Lords – where the bill was to be introduced – was still relatively empty. This, it was feared, was a deliberate ministry tactic, enabling them to get the bill through the upper chamber before some of the more ‘turbulent party’ could make it to London. Despite the ministry’s nimble footwork, opposition to the bill was in evidence early on in the Lords. On 26 November, during the debate on whether they should agree to proceed to committee stage, Lord Cowper gave voice to the concerns of a number of Members about the way the bill was being presented:
he had observed from history, and his own experience, that in affairs of moment, precipitation was ever dangerous, and, in many cases to be suspected…
He was answered by Sunderland, who rebutted his suggestion that the ministry had rushed bringing in the bill. It was, after all, essentially the same text that had been subjected to close scrutiny in the previous session, so he was confident that the Lords were well-briefed on whether or not they wished to support it. By the 28th Newburgh was reporting (not entirely accurately) that the bill had had ‘no opposition’ in the Lords, though he could not be so sure it would have such an easy ride in the Commons.
As expected, it was in the lower chamber that it ran into serious difficulties. While it passed first reading without objection, the ministry’s obvious desire to proceed at pace prompted debate over the timing of the second reading, with the opposition carrying a motion not to proceed with the bill till a week after the date proposed by the government. This no doubt gave the opposition additional time to prepare and when the business finally came before the House on 8 December, debate was long and lively.
Newburgh reported to his brother ‘I was never more tired and dispirited’ after sitting through debates that lasted from noon till ten at night in the Commons, which was packed with MPs, peers ‘and other people curious to hear the debate’. The result was the Commons throwing the bill out by 269 votes to 177: a thumping majority of 92. Newburgh’s experience watching the marathon session had been rendered the more uncomfortable by sitting next to Lord Carleton, of whom he complained:
if Carleton let one belch he let a thousand, complained of emptiness and want of dinner, so that with his windy music and heat in the house and fasting I have such a headache I cannot hold up my head…
Interest in the peerage bill extended beyond the walls of Westminster and prompted lively discussions both over the measure’s merits and over the quality of reporting in the international press. On 1 December the Daily Courant carried an advertisement for a pamphlet to be published the next day: The Constitution explain’d, in relation to the independency of the House of Lords. Later that month several newspapers noted that what were described as detailed reports of speeches made in Parliament carried in the Amsterdam Gazette were erroneous. The Weekly Medley or the Gentleman’s Recreation of 12-19 December went further and emphasized that the Dutch journalists had been both ‘disrespectful’ and inaccurate in their reporting of the business.
Defeat in the Commons gave the ministry little option but to let the bill fall. Newburgh’s view was that it should be considered ‘as knocked in the head both now and for the future’. The issue was to remain unresolved for the remainder of the century.
Clyve Jones, ‘ “Venice Preserv’d; or A Plot Discovered”: The Political and Social Context of the Peerage Bill of 1719’, in C. Jones, ed. A Pillar of the Constitution: the House of Lords in British Politics 1640-1784 (1989)
Clyve Jones, ‘Parliament and the Peerage and Weaver Navigation Bills: the correspondence of Lord Newburgh with the earl of Cholmondeley’, THSL&C, 139 (1990), pp.31-61.