Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lloyd George: 500 men chosen from the unemployed

House of Lords reform in the news. 70 Tory MP’s to rebel and refuse to support the Bill so dear to Nick Clegg and the Lib-Dems; and much speculation that the coalition government will break up.

Lloyd George in 1908 the year before
he made two cracking speeches
During these past few months, whenever the House of Lords is mentioned, you can be sure to find Lloyd George describing it as a body of 500 men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed.

For example, Nick Clegg writing a comment piece in the London Independent on 21st June:

Lloyd George once described the House of Lords as being "a body of 500 men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed". In the years since he made that remark all that has really changed is the number – we are now pushing nearly 1,000 peers who get £300 tax-free a day just for turning up, more than half from the ranks of retired or failed politicians. For those retired MPs in the Lords, this amounts to a £1m top-up to their pensions.

A catchy phrase "chosen at random from amongst the unemployed", so what did Lloyd George actually say and when did he say it?   

It's in a speech he gave in Newcastle on 9 October 1909, in the course of the controversy over that year's People’s Budget.  The House of Lords had vetoed it because of a modest land tax to fund pensions for workers.  Lloyd George argued that the House of Lords had no right to the veto since it was an established constitutional principle that the House of Commons had the final say on budgets.  And he challenged the Lords thus:

Let them realise what they are doing. They are forcing a revolution, and they will get it. The Lords may decree a revolution, but the people will direct it. If they begin, issues will be raised that they little dream of. Questions will be asked which are now whispered in humble voices, and answers will be demanded then with authority. The question will be asked whether five hundred men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, should override the judgment, the deliberate judgment, of millions of people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of the country.

This is good stuff. There's more. And take note, this a Chancellor of the Exchequer speaking. 

That is one question. Another will be, Who ordained that a few should have the land of Britain as a perquisite? Who made ten thousand people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth? Who is it who is responsible for the scheme of things whereby one man is engaged through life in grinding labour to win a bare and precarious subsistence for himself, and when, at the end of his days, he claims at the hands of the community he served a poor pension of eightpence a day, he can only get it through a revolution, and another man who does not toil receives every hour of the day, every hour of the night, whilst he slumbers, more than his poor neighbour receives in a whole year of toil? Where did the table of that law come from? Whose finger inscribed it? These are the questions that will be asked.

Read the Newcastle speech in full.

Also worth reading is his Limehouse speech given a couple of months earlier. I remember the name from school history lessons. Write an essay on the reforms of the 1906 Liberal Government. 10 points to include, no 7, the Limehouse speech.  Limehouse, I know now from Wikipedia, but I probably didn't know then, was one of the poorest areas of the East End of London.


  1. Great stuff Pete, that Newcastle speech must have been electric at that time. Must Google him as I only know him as a name from history. He sounds quite the socialist, despite being a Liberal. Presumably the political landscape was a bit different then so maybe the Liberals were further left than today?

  2. A great question that I don't quite understand the answer to. The political landscape was indeed different then. Essentially in the 19th century there were two parties the Conservatives representing the landed aristocracy and the Liberals representing industrialists. But somehow that I don't quite fathom the Liberals succeeded in representing the industrial workers as well. How can one party represent both bosses and workers? Doesn't make sense. But until the Labour Party was formed in 1900 that’s how it was. Very strange.

    The Labour Representation Committee was formed in 1900 and won 29 seats in the 1906 election, helped by a secret 1903 Lib-Lab pact to avoid splitting the anti-Tory vote between Labour and Liberal candidates in the interest of removing the Conservatives from office.

  3. More on the mystery of the Liberals representing workers and bosses in the 19th Century. My correspondent Ben explains it thus. Essentially it emerged from the early two-party system. The Tories represented ‘country’ interests, landowners and (problematically) agricultural workers. And the Whigs represented ‘town’ interests, so industrialists and (similarly problematically) industrial workers.

    A key battleground was the Corn Laws and tariffs on food imports: good for farmers as they kept food prices up, bad for urban folk for the same reason.

    It was on the fringe of the Whigs therefore that radical ideas first started to find voice in Parliament, some Radical MP's elected and trying to push the Whigs to the left. Was always a stormy relationship, especially during and after the Chartist movements; nevertheless eventually the Radicals joined with the Whigs and Peelite Tories to form the Liberal Party, which therefore retained a Radical wing with working class / union support.

    Only in 1900 did the trade unions break with the Liberals (even then, gently – they still wanted a Liberal government) and gather together the various nascent socialist groups into the Labour Representation Committee, from 1906 renamed the Labour Party.