What is the Salisbury Convention and why is it so significant?

Britain has an uncodified constitution. This means that its sources are wide-ranging, including Statute Law, Common Law, the Royal Prerogative and Conventions. Conventions are traditioned that are honoured, despite not being legally binding. The Salisbury Convention is a significant one that is essential to effective operation of Parliament.

Why did the Salisbury Convention emerge?

Clement Attlee’s Labour Government received a clear mandate at the 1945 General Election.

Until the Life Peerages Act (1958) almost all peers (except Bishops and Judges) were hereditary peers. This gave the Conservative Party and in-built majority in the House of Lords. In 1945 the Labour Party won a landslide victory and secured a majority of 146 seats. They put forward a radical socialist agenda which included the formation of the NHS and the nationalisation of many key industries.

However, despite such a clear electoral mandate there was a danger that the unelected House of Lords could hamper the Government’s agenda. The Parliament Act (1911) ensured that the House of Lords could only delay a bill for two years, rather than block it. However, beyond this, there was no power to force the House of Lords to accept the evidenced wishes of the electorate. In 1945 only 16 of 761 peers were Labour members.

With the danger of a looming constitutional crisis evident to both the two most senior peers from the Labour and Conservatives, Lord Addison and Lord Salisbury, met to deal with the issue. This result in a very important agreement between that became known as the Salisbury-Addison Convention (normally referred to as simply the Salisbury Convention).

They agreed that:

  • The House of Lords would not vote at Second or Third Reading against any bill that was expressly outline din the Government’s manifesto.
  • The House of Lords may amend such bulls, but must not add ‘wrecking amendments’ to such bills. These are amendments that are clearly designed to thwart the passage of the bill.

In practice, this meant that bills in the government’s manifesto were very likely to become Acts of Parliament.

When can it be argued the Salisbury Convention is not binding?

In Britain, most Government’s formed in the House of Commons are majority governments. Indeed, since 1945 the average majority has been 57.4 seats. However, when this is not the case it can be argued that the convention cannot be held:

Coalition Government – During Coalition Government the manifestos of the governing parties are unlikely to be delivered in full. Instead, the policies put forward will be an amalgamation of the manifestos of the different parties in Government. Was seen between 2010-2015 when the legislative program of the Coalition came not directly from their manifestos, but instead from the Coalition Agreement that was formed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Whilst the Coalition Government argued the Salisbury Convention still stood, other did not. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee argue that it did not and that it was a judgement that should be made by independent peers:

“A coalition government’s programme, drawn up after an election, cannot have the same mandate as a party manifesto which is available to the people before they vote. A possible consequence is that Members of the House of Lords may not feel bound by the Salisbury-Addison Convention. It is for individual Members of the House of Lords to decide whether to apply this convention to bills which originate from the coalition Government’s programme for government. We have sought views on this matter of the Leaders of the main political parties in the House of Lords, as well as the Convenor of the independent Crossbench Peers. However, we received a range of opinions from a number of witnesses and no definitive consensus has emerged”

Minority Government – There are also question marks that can be raised against the Salisbury Convention during a period of minority government. This was for example the case under Theresa May after the June 2017 General Election. Whilst the Conservatives won the election, May was forced into a Confidence and Supply arrangement with the DUP. Similarly to with coalitions, a number of views were put forward about whether the Salisbury Convention could be said to apply under a minority government. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit said:

Even if it were justified to consider that a similar government today, facing a rather different House of Lords, could claim a mandate for a statement in a manifesto that few had probably read, it is hard to see how a minority government can rightfully claim such authority.

Low Turnout/Vote Share – In 2005 the Liberal Lord McNally questioned the role of the convention in the current political circumstances. He pointed out that the convention had been formed at a time where there was a landslide victory by one party that was likely to have its agenda frustrated by an elected house. McNally said that these circumstances no longer apply:

I do not believe that a convention drawn up 60 years ago on relations between a
wholly hereditary Conservative-dominated House and a Labour Government who had
48 per cent of the vote should apply in the same way to the position in which we find
ourselves today.

Whilst this was not a widely held point, it is an important one and questions can certainly be raised over whether a convention established in such different political circumstances still holds the same weight today.

Should the Salisbury Convention be codified?

Over time, some important constitutional conventions have become codified into law. This can help by removing debate as to when they are applicable. For example, the Ponsonby Convention was codified into law through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This has been explored by Governments but has generally been perceived not to be ideal. One of the benefits of conventions is that they can be interpreted with deference to the current political situation – something a more rigid statute law would not allow.

Article Summary

The Salisbury Convention is an important convention in ensure the effective operation of Parliament and to ensure the unelected House of Lords cannot thwart the wishes of a Government with an electoral mandate following a General Election.

Key Terms

Salisbury Convention – A convention in the UK constitution under which the House of Lords do not oppose bills that were clearly part of the Government’s manifesto.

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