Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Radio 4 follows our lead

After weeks of reporting on the January 1910 election Radio 4 followed our lead this morning on the Today programme. Their website gives a flavour of the historical comparisons:

2010 is not a bad year to be a political junkie - there is to be an election whose outcome seems both uncertain and important, with a new House of Commons which will contain a large new batch of new members. Some have been looking back to the early seventies for historical comparisons but the real date we should have fixed in our minds is perhaps 1910. Author John Antcliffe and political historian Anthony Howard discuss the impact of the last huge influx of new MPs.

There were, of course, two general elections
held in 1910. The House of Lords had refused to pass the Peoples Budget of 1909 and Asquith was trying to persuade the King to pass the Parliament Bill to limit the power of the Lords to block key legislation passed by the Commons. Before the January election Asquith approached the King to ask him to create a enough Liberal Peers to swamp the Tory majority in the Lords if they blocked the Commons will again. The King-Edward VII-was unwilling to do so unless there was a General Election.

Of interest in Southport is that it was known that Edward VII was more than happy to give the Liberal candidate (de Forest) a peerage. There were many rumours about the parentage of adopted de Forest. The significant favour that Edward showed him by, for example, inviting him to Royal birthday parties and to stay at Sandringham when he was a young added credence to the suggestion that he was Edward's son. (de Forest packed a lot into his early years and was the youngest Liberal candidate ever in Southport-that is until I came along in 1983 and stole his record being a year younger)

Edward died in 1910 and was succeeded by his son George whose childhood birthday parties de Forest had attended. George let it be known that if he did create 250 new Liberal Peers de Forest would not be one of them. You may draw your own conclusions.

George insisted on trying to get the constitutional impasse solved by holding a secret constitutional conference and only after that had failed and the Lords had again refused legislation did he grant Asquith a dissolution. I wonder if PR would suffer a similar fate?

This is relevant today as we contemplate another hung parliament. The right of the Prime Minister to have parliament dissolved and to hold another general election is a fraught constitutional matter governed by quaint sounding precedents like the Lascelles doctrine.

We shall return to these conventions not least because they may become central to the political debate after the election but also because I am involved in drawing up conventions for the council. It will be interesting to compare the impact of one or two important constitutional innovations that happen in local government and the devolved parliaments which if adopted by Westminster would improve the situation quite markedly. The key reform in this respect would be fixed term parliaments-but I doubt that is top of anyone's list.

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