Foreign Parliaments: Their Constitution and Modes of Procedure
O’Connor Power, M.P.
Reprinted from the Bath Herald, November 19th, 1884
O’Connor Power gave a lecture in the Guildhall to the Bath Young Men’s Liberal Association. He had lectured there two years earlier. The Chairman made the introduction and said the association and other Liberal associations were intent on giving full justice to Ireland and promoting good government.
O’Connor Power told his audience that an influential association had been formed which proposed the abolition of the House of Lords. The Lords had obstructed the Franchise Bill, postponing the enfranchisement of two million Englishmen.* He believed the controversy between the two branches of the Legislature was ‘a waste of time, and temper, and energy.’ The Commons was a representative chamber, the Lords, a hereditary one, unelected and founded on aristocratic privilege. However, reform of the House of Lords was less urgent than tackling the inefficiencies of the Commons. The Commons might, on the same day, debate important foreign and colonial affairs and the merits of a local turnpike bill.
At length, and in great detail, he went on to describe the legislative arrangements of European governments. The Austro-Hungarian empire had local and provincial governments answering to a central Parliament. France transacted the business of the day at a sitting of four or five hours, unlike Westminster which might sit until the following morning. He gave an overview of the arrangements of Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Spain.
At Westminster, men might vote Aye or No with no understanding of the subject.
No man should be called upon to vote upon a subject the merits of which he has not heard canvassed on both sides before voting.
The Prime Minister [Gladstone] was in favour of political education.
O’Connor Power continued with the legislative system in the United States. Its 38 independent self-governing bodies, with a central government, strengthened democracy. The leader of the Opposition and of the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury, ‘a vigorous politician’ , had spoken with admiration of the Supreme Court and the Senate. He had shown ‘ill-disguised contempt’ for the privileges of the Lords and was eager for reform.
O’Connor Power believed,
the first step towards a reform of our Parliamentary system should be in the direction of allowing each division of the United Kingdom to control its own affairs. I would divide the House into four national committees representing England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland respectively. And I would give to the members representing each nationality the power of determining the form of all legislation of a purely local character.
Private legislation should be handed over to a body specially selected and permanently appointed.
He pointed out that fourteen or fifteen men constitute the Government of the country and ‘hold in their hands the reins of an empire which are laid on the on the necks of 350,000,000 of people scattered widely apart across seas and continents, in various parts of the globe.’ The present system is unworkable and, in a time of crisis, unsafe.
The Constitution is a representative Constitution. The Monarch acts on the advice of the democratically elected Ministry of the day. The House of Lords has no connection to the humble voter. Its members had behaved irresponsibly when dealing with the Franchise Bill and the Redistribution Bill.
Two hundred years ago, the Monarch came into collision with the representative branch of the legislature, with fatal consequences. Since then England had seen stability while European countries had been swept into revolutionary chaos.
The House of Lords must act responsibly. ‘The safety of the State is at stake.’
* The Government threatened to create new Peers if the House of Lords rejected the legislation. Ireland would be granted the same household franchise as England, increasing the Irish electorate from 200,000 to 700,000. Despite strong opposition from Liberal and Tory MPs, the Redistribution of Seats Act left the number of Irish seats unchanged. See That Irishman, Part Four, ‘A Democratic Position’, pp. 150-151.