Prime Ministers and the Constitution

The first Prime Minister to carry out significant constitutional reform was the Duke of Wellington. Wellington was an unlikely figure to be associated with constitutional changes – he was a deeply conservative and aristocratic politician, a defender of the British ‘Protestant Constitution.’ Yet in 1829, Wellington was responsible for opening up that constitution to Roman Catholics. Under the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, all non-Anglicans had been barred from holding political office in Britain. In 1828, the matter came to a head when the veteran Irish political activist Daniel O’Connell won a by-election in County Clare. Under the Test Acts O’Connell was forbidden from taking up his seat in Parliament and a political crisis arose. Wellington had previously served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, and took up the cause of Catholic Emancipation. Against strong opposition from many parliamentarians, Wellington succeeded in ensuring the passage of the Catholic Relief Act in 1829.

Civil unrest

Barely three years later, the political elite again faced the threat of civil unrest. In 1830, Wellington’s Tory administration collapsed and a Whig government came to power under the leadership of Earl Grey. Grey was sympathetic to calls for political reform and made passing a parliamentary reform bill one of his major priorities.

The bill aimed to expand the franchise to incorporate elements of the new middle class, redistribute parliamentary seats to ensure better representation for the industrial towns, and eliminate the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum and Dunwich, which had very few electors. Even these modest proposals faced stiff opposition, particularly in the House of Lords. As public anger grew, the Lords relented and at the third time of asking agreed to let the bill through in 1832. This bill became known as the Great Reform Act, although the extension to the franchise was far from great: it grew from only 5% to 7% of the adult population.

The Chartist movement pressed for further reforms and extension of the franchise to working class men. The 1832 Act paved the way for future reforms, like those in Disraeli’s Second Reform Act (1867), which extended the franchise to 16% of the population. It was only in the 1880s that the franchise was extended to most adult men, and corrupt practices finally ended with the secret ballot. And it was not until 1918 and 1929 that the franchise was finally extended to women, under Prime Ministers David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin.

The next big constitutional question was Home Rule for Ireland, which dogged Prime Ministers from the 1880s to the 1920s. In total, four bills for Irish Home Rule were introduced into Parliament. Two of them were passed, but only the last one was ever implemented. The first two bills, in 1886 and 1893, were introduced by the Liberal governments led by William Gladstone. Neither of these was passed, but in 1914 the Liberal government led by Herbert Asquith succeeded in passing a third Home Rule bill, which provided for the creation of the UK’s first ever devolved parliament in Dublin.

However, the 1914 Act was never implemented due to the outbreak of the First World War. After the War, southern Ireland unilaterally declared independence, and the fourth Home Rule bill – the Government of Ireland Act 1920, creating parliaments in Dublin and Belfast – was implemented only in Northern Ireland. So it was that Lloyd George found himself granting a devolved parliament in Belfast to the protestant Unionists of the North, who had themselves opposed Home Rule. The Unionists dominated the parliament for 50 years, until direct rule was re-introduced by Edward Heath (PM 1970-74) in 1972, because of the Unionists’ failure to respond to the demands of the Catholic population for more effective civil rights.

Parliament Act

As well as playing an important role in Irish Home Rule, both Asquith and Lloyd George were involved in passing the 1911 Parliament Act, a major constitutional development which limited the powers of the House of Lords. In 1909, Lloyd George, Asquith’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced his ‘People’s Budget’, with measures to expand social welfare and state pensions. The House of Lords rejected the budget, and plunged Britain into a serious constitutional crisis.

In the two elections held in 1910, the Liberals – together with Irish Nationalists and the Labour party – campaigned for reform of the House of Lords. After the second election, it became clear that the pro-reform parties enjoyed a majority of public support and the Lords relented on the (re-introduced) budget. The Parliament Act of 1911 that ensued formally established the Commons’ supremacy: the House of Lords could no longer reject money bills, and could no longer veto other public bills, but only delay them for two years. In the 1949 Parliament Act the Lords’ power of delay was reduced to one year under the post-war Labour government headed by Clement Attlee. Attlee’s government, facing an overwhelmingly Conservative House of Lords, also negotiated the Salisbury convention whereby the Lords agreed not to block or wreck measures which had been included in the governing party’s manifesto.

The abdication crisis of the mid-1930s presented the Prime Minister with a unique constitutional dilemma. Stanley Baldwin was faced with a major challenge when King Edward VIII announced his plan to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The marriage was unpopular with many in Parliament and the Church of England. The Cabinet rejected the King’s compromise solution that he could marry Wallis without her becoming Queen, and forbade him on constitutional grounds to publicly appeal to his subjects over the heads of his ministers. After a period of uncertainty, the King reluctantly agreed to abdicate, but there was no constitutional provision for a reigning monarch to give up the throne. So Parliament passed His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 to give legal effect to Edward VIII’s decision. Under the terms of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the various governments of the Dominions also ensured that the Act took effect in their countries, meaning that the succession of George VI to the throne would apply automatically across the Empire.

Devolution and the Supreme Court

The greatest combined set of constitutional changes took place under the premiership of Tony Blair. His New Labour government reformed the House of Lords, introduced devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, and created the new Supreme Court.

The House of Lords Act 1999 fulfilled a promise first signalled in the Parliament Act 1911 by removing almost all the hereditary peers. Ninety-two hereditary peers remain, pending further reform, but the House of Lords now consists overwhelmingly of appointed life peers, whose party balance is adjusted in proportion to the votes cast at the previous general election.

Devolution (the new term for Home Rule) had been unsuccessfully attempted under the previous Labour government led by James Callaghan in the 1970s. Following successful referendums in 1997, the Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 1998 established a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. And following referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 re-established a Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.

In the late 1940s the UK had been a founder member of the Council of Europe, and closely involved in drafting the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which was ratified in 1951. But British people who wanted to enforce their Convention rights had to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. With the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 the ECHR became directly enforceable before the British courts. The other big legal reform of the Blair government was the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act, which removed the law lords from the House of Lords and created a new Supreme Court (which formally opened in 2009). The Lord Chief Justice became head of the judiciary, in place of the Lord Chancellor, and the Act created an independent Judicial Appointments Commission, leaving the Lord Chancellor with very limited discretion over judicial appointments.

This brief survey has highlighted just a few of the more important contributions to the UK’s constitutional development. Because the British constitution is unwritten it is easily amended by Act of Parliament, and constantly evolving. Future reform proposals include changing the law on succession to the throne, a referendum on Scottish independence, and possibly a further referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.


Copyright Professor Robert Hazell CBE. This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.