The UK political system in the 1850s

I am currently reading a ‘biography’ comparing the political lives of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, and one thing keeps coming up that puzzles me about the political system then.

Now, we have a general election, the party who wins the most seats forms a government.

Then, they seem to form governments with astonishing regularity (which I assume is how someone like Gladstone could be Prime Minister from 1868–1874, and then again from 1880–1885, again in 1886 and and finally from 1892–1894). When a government ‘falls’ (like Sir Robert Peel’s did because he tried to repeal the Corn Laws) someone else is asked ‘to form a government’. It seems that all they are doing is choosing people for all the cabinet posts.

My questions are:

What does it mean under these circumstances by a government ‘falling’?
When a government does fall, who does the asking, the monarch (in this case Queen Victoria)? Or is it just a general ‘this has to be done’ thing?
How is it decided who should be asked (to form a goverment)?
Who can they choose from?

I’ve looked for a couple of hours to try to find the answers to these questions and failed. I used to be a member here, so I turn to you all for help!

Plus, if anyone can point me towards a book on this sort of thing, especially on how the English and then the British parliament has developed (since the Magna Carta?) I would be eternally grateful!

Thank you all for your help.

Hmmm… only nine views in half an hour; maybe I should have picked a different title!

Doing this without any sources and from my very imperfect memory but here goes:

A government was said to have fallen when the ministry could no longer command a majority in Parliament. At that point the Prime Minister tendered his resignation to the Queen who had the choice of a) disolving Parliament and calling a new General Election, b) asking a different politician, who could command a majority, to become Prime Minister and form a new government, or c) asking the resigning Prime Minister to have another go with a different set of ministers.

These options still exist today and would come into play if there was a hung parliament. In principle the Monarch can ask whoever he or she likes to form a government but these days the leader of the largest party in the Commons will have first go. In Victoria’s time the Queen had a stronger role and was less bound then than now in who she invited to form the government.

For a brief history you could do worse than go the Parliament web site.

Something about sex would have helped. Want to ask a Mod to change it ?

A government falling is caused by being defeated on a vote in parliment. Usually with a ruling party this means their own MPs didn’t support the vote. They no longer have the control someone needs to be a ‘Government’ so the minister’s resign and the Government has fallen. There’s no rule to say they have to resign as ministers, but that was the convention. Note that the current government was defeated by decided to ignore it and carry on.

Technically the Monarch then asks someone else to form a government just like they do the asking when forming a Government even today. Like much else she does, it’s mostly ceremonial.

Offically, the Queen decides who to invite to form a government, but likely there are civil servant and advisors pointing the Queen in the right direction. Of course there were only two parties back then so there weren’t exactly a lot of options. So I imagine they would always ask the leader of her majesty’s opposition first.

Under what circumstances would an election be required to replace a fallen government?

Firstly, thank you for the help.

Secondly, on the title; I did once title a thread something about Sex, and sat back and counted the ratio of views: replies. I think it finished about 100:1 (but it was about six years ago, so don’t quote me!) before the thread was closed with the words ‘Question asked, and answered’!

But to get back to the point; if the ‘government’ resigned every time they lost a vote then surely they got very little done?! How did, to go back to the original question, someone like Gladstone remain as PM for six years? I can’t believe that he never lost a vote, just refused to resign I suppose?

This all leads on to the point, when did this change? MarcusF (thanks for the link BTW) mentions that these things are technically still possible now, so when did these conventions give way to something more ordered?

There’s a big difference between losing a vote on a Bill and losing a Vote of No Confidence.

In a lot of cases, there were elections, too, though. So, for instance, in 1868, Disraeli becomes PM after the Earl of Derby resigns. Then there’s an election in December. The Liberals get a majority and Gladstone is PM. They rule until the 1874 election, where the Conservatives get a majority and it’s Disraeli again. The Conservatives rule until the 1880 election, where the Liberals get a majority and it’s back to Gladstone. (Things get strange after that for a while with Salisbury’s minority government, but…)

Roy Jenkins’s bio Gladstone is a great examination of British politics throughout the 1800s. I think your questions have mostly been answered upthread. A government could fall even on a vote about something not titled a “motion of no confidence” - for instance, a bill that the PM had designated as so important, or as so integral to his program, that he could not continue in office if it was defeated. Gladstone left office for the last time, IIRC, upon the defeat of his Irish Home Rule bill, which fit that category.

Why would a prime minister every voluntarily make such a designation?

The trick was that (a) it was the U.K. of Great Britain and Ireland between 1800 and 1922, with the result that the Irish M.P.'s often held the balance of power. England tended to go Conservative to some degree (Wales and Scotland were often heavily Liberal); if the Sinn Fein guys supported the Liberals, they formed the government; if not, the Tories got the nod. To make it slightly more complex, a party of “Radicals” led by Lord Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston’s father) were Tory supporters – at a cost, and if Dizzy didn’t meet their price, they threatened to go with Gladstone.

The six year spans were due to the Septennial Act, which required elections for the Commons at least every seven years – and a wise Government called it sometime in the fifth or sixth year when they had reasonably strong support, rather than waiting until the bitter end and taking the chance of having little support at that time. Part of the 1910-11 reforms revised the Septennial Act to a five-year maximum (though it still has the same name, now a misnomer).

Because it ups the stakes – it makes it a lot harder for members of your own party to vote against the bill.

So if you have a bill that the PM personally supports strongly, or thinks is critical to running the government, but he knows that some members of his party do NOT favor the bill, he might do this just to force them into voting for the bill. Because if they don’t, the government may fail.

Of course, it works the same for the PM. If he under-estimates the opposition to the bill among his own party member, and they vote it down, he is out as PM.

Yes, unlike the US Congress, where the President’s failure to get his way on an important Bill does not affect the status of his administration much, virtually every vote on a Government Bill is a ‘back me or sack me’ one for the PM’s government. Thus a government which cannot command a good ‘working’ majority in the H. of C. (say, 30 seats) cannot rely on getting its business through; being able to force its Bills through the House regardless is the mark of a strong government able to impose party discipline on its MPs.
Admittedly not every single vote on every clause of a Bill is a confidence matter; small defeats on minor matters may be let go, or just reversed at a later stage in the Bill’s progress. But a defeat on a flagship Bill, or on the Finance Bill, would be a very serious reverse. At the least it would probably damage the Minister fatally, and if the PM offers or has offered him prominent support on the issue the PM’s own status is gravely damaged. Naturally the PM’s own MPs shrink from using this nuclear option, but the threat of it can be used to extract concessions from the government.
When the PM tenders his government’s resignation he ‘advises’ the King to send for Mister So-and-So and ask him to see if he can form a government. This ‘advice’ the King will be almost bound to accept, even if his inclinations are otherwise (in 1940 the King would have preferred Halifax rather than Churchill). Alternatively the PM will ‘request’ the King to dissolve Parliament, which will precipitate a general election. Whether the King could with propriety refuse a dissolution in the modern polity is debatable. The Crisis of 1910, when several elections in quick succession had not produced any noticeable change in the composition of the House after the House of Lords refused to pass the Finance Bill, was one instance where it might have come to that.

“When the PM tenders his government’s resignation he ‘advises’ the King to send for Mister So-and-So and ask him to see if he can form a government.” Mk VII(Sorry, I haven’t figures out how to quote properly)

It seems that (at least during the Gladstone/ Disraeli period) PMs were often followed by one of their rivals; surely they wouldn’t have recommended to the monarch that should happen? Similarly in 1855 (during the Cimean War) when Aberdeen’s government fell, Gladstone advised him to be moderate in his farewell speech so as not to burn his bridges; the idea being that if no one else could form a government, he might get back in with changes to his cabinet.

Does this mean that someone forms a government and submits it to some sort of vote to ensure it has sufficient support? So if (on this occasion) Lord Derby doesn’t get enough support, Aberdeen can have another go at forming an acceptable administration?

And to resubmit my earlier question, this clearly isn’t the system we have now; when did it change?

The outgoing Prime Minister could well advise the monarch to call on a rival to form a Government, particularly during the 19th century. Party discipline was nowhere near as rigid as now and blocks of votes could move around - see Polycarp’s post #11 on the Irish members - so the rival may be able to form an uneasy majority (for now!) that could break up again and allow you back. The thought would be to drop your rival in it - let them make a mess of things before an election is called. When things are going badly there’s a lot to be said for being in opposition!

In essesnce you’re right about forming a government and seeing how it goes but - for the reasons above - the opposition might not force a vote of no confidence.

As with so much about the British constitution it is difficult to say when things change! In theory, and to some extent in practice, it hasn’t changed. This week Tony Blair will tender his resignation to Her Maj. I don’t know if he will formally recommend calling for Gordon Brown to form a government but the Queen will, as required by the unwritten rules, call on the leader of the majority party - who just happens to be Gordon Brown - to form a government.

When the major parties instituted formal, periodic leadership elections. Or, to be more precise, when the Labour Party–which I believe always had formal elections–emerged as a major party following WWI, and when the Conservative Party adopted leadership elections in 1965.

Before that, the parties had leaders, but matters were much more fluid, and the monarch had greater discretion when a prime minister resigned. In today’s world, when Tony Blair wishes to retire, the Labour Party has a formal mechanism in place for choosing his successor, and the Queen will appoint that successor when he tenders his resignation.

In the Nineteenth Century, there wouldn’t have been any formal Labour leadership election; rather, the Queen would have consulted with elder statesmen–including, but not limited to Blair–and determined by consensus the most appropriate successor. Of course, that successor would need to command a majority in the Commons, but it’s unlikely that the elder statesmen would be so foolish as to agree on a candidate who could not do so.

Likewise, when Margaret Thatcher encountered trouble in 1990, there would have been no mechanism in place for the Conservative Party either to depose her or to elect her successor. There would have been a wider range of possibilities–perhaps her rivals would have forced her to lose a vote on the floor of the Commons and resign, and conceivably a faction might even have gone into coalition with the opposition. In either case there would likely have been consultation between the Queen and elder statesmen as to the appropriate course, rather than the cut-and-dried sequence that we see today.

From what I’m reading it sounds like it was more interesting then, just not remotely as representative!

The paired ideas “The monarch appoints the P.M.; the monarch must appoint a P.M. who can command a majority in the House of Commons” have remained alive surprisingly long a time into the “democratic” 20th Century and beyond. No monarch since George III (save for one abortive action by the very youthful Victoria at the very start of her reign) has ever attempted to force his/her will on the British people. But the monarch’s role as an unbiased head of state above party politics is not quite purely a figurehead role. In consultation with party leaders and elder statesmen of each party, the monarch will from time to time use his/her prerogative powers to cut through a constitutional crisis.

Some examples:
[ul][li]In 1832 the Lords were blocking adoption of the Reform Bill, which would replace “rotten boroughs” and lopsided representation with the first precursors of the present system. William IV was asked by the Whigs to create enough peers to overcome the blocking vote in the Lords. He agreed only to threaten to do so, and placed specific conditions on his promise. Armed with those conditions, the Duke of Wellington then went to the Tory peers to persuade a fair number of them to support, abstain, or absent themselves when the Reform Bill again came up for a vote, averting the need to “swamp the Lords with new creations.”[/li][li]In 1910-11, George V, having just succeeded his father, employed the same methodology as had William when the Lords defeated the Budget, and then the new law converting the Lords from a veto to merely a delaying power. In both cases, the King decided what he would use the prerogative to do and under what conditions, tailoring his decision in such a manner as to force a compromise on the parties.[/li][li]In 1931, Ramsey MacDonald resigned as Labour P.M. after financial demands resulting from the Depression threatened to vitiate an integral part of Labour’s platform – what they had promised to do and were in the process of doing. As Labour split, largely against MacDonald’s wish to accede to the bank demands to avert financial crisis, George V, rather than calling for another election or asking Leader of the Opposition Stanley Baldwin to form another government, ascertained that a majority in Commons favored the economic plans MacDonald but not his party wished to pursue, and instead called MacDonald to form a National, all-party Government of all those who would support his economic plans. This government lasted until 1935.[/li][li]In 1957, Anthony Eden, ill and in disgrace over Suez, had to step down as Prime Minister. As our esteemed Freddy the Pig has noted, at this point the Conservative Party had no mechanism for selecting a new P.M. – “everybody knew” who the eventual successor to the P.M. would be, as jockeying for power led to a discernment that one person was the obvious next P.M. But that had not happened yet with Eden’s team, which had taken over from the elderly Churchill less than two years previously. After using Lord Salisbury to sound a fair number of Conservative ministers and backbenchers, the Queen herself chose Harold Macmillan as the man she deemed could command the allegiance of the Tory party and hence a majority in Commons. Though he probably had a plurality of the people sounded out, and was at worst most people’s #2 choice, she and she alone made the decision, without “advice” in the formal sense though certainly with plenty in the normal informal sense.[/li][li]Six years later, history repeated itself. Harold Macmillan was severely ill, and his party had just gone through the Profumo scandal, in which he had damaged his own credibility by standing by Profumo. He found it necessary to resign, and again no single person was the obvious replacement. On the advice of Macmillan and Salisbury, she again made the choice: the 18th Earl of Home, who resigned his peerage to take a seat in the Commons as P.M. Again he was “everybody’s second choice” and the man she saw as most likely to command the allegiance of all of a badly split party.[/ul][/li]
(I love these oddball exceptions to the “the Queen is a figurehead” meme, simply because they’re so intriguing and say so much about a system founded on compromise and consensus, as opposed to the American conflict, checks and balances system.)

I think that is a very accurate one-sentence summary!

I’d come across the first example, Polycarp, in my reading on the Reform Bills, but not the others, so thanks!