The Salisbury Convention

Have you heard of the Salisbury Convention / Doctrine?

Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of SalisburyThe Salisbury Doctrine, or “Convention” as it is sometimes called, emerged from the working arrangements reached during the Labour Government of 1945-51, when the fifth Marquess of Salisbury was the Leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Lords. The Convention ensures that major Government Bills can get through the Lords when the Government of the day has no majority in the Lords. In practice, it means that the Lords does not try to vote down at second or third reading, a Government Bill mentioned in an election manifesto.

Since 1945, the Salisbury doctrine has been taken to apply to Bills passed by the Commons which the party forming the Government has foreshadowed in its General Election manifesto, being particularly associated with an understanding between Viscount Addison, the Leader of the House of Lords, and Viscount Cranborne (the fifth Marquess of Salisbury from 1947), Leader of the Opposition in the Lords, during the Labour Government of 1945–51; and thus is sometimes called the Salisbury/Addison doctrine. Lord Carrington later described the convention as extending to any wrecking amendment to a manifesto measure (Lord Carrington, Reflect on Things Past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington (1988), pages 77–78).

Put another way, what this means is that if the Government does not mention a specific policy in its manifesto, and let’s say the Prime Minister three days before the General Election explicitly says he has no plans to introduce said policy and later does a complete U-Turn, the Lords are allowed to vote it down.

More info here.

Everything to play for here folks.

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7 Comments on “The Salisbury Convention

  1. Probably true that the Salisbury Convention doesn’t cover the same-sex marriage bill. But being reaiistic, if the Lords vote it down in this Parilament – and they’ll think very long and hard before doing so, even if they can – it will be in all three main parties’ manifestos in 2015, short of the Conservatives having another 1922 moment, melting down and sacking their entire front bench. All of which would certainly make for a more interesting General Election, especially given that UKIP will presumably have a manifesto commitment to oppose it, but realistically a Lords rejection now is unlikely to do more than delay this legislation by more than a few years.
    So would it be better in that context to fight tooth and nail and die in the last ditch, to mix my metaphors, or to use such an opportunity to make the case for legislation that actually provides meaningful safeguards for dissenters in the public sphere (teachers and registrars being the most obviously vulnerable groups here) while praying for a sea change in popular opinion, and thus in the views of the political class, on a scale consistent with the intevention of the Holy Spirit. Because without such a sea change I think the chances of there not being a large majority for this in the next House of Commons, but with the backing of Manifesto commitments, are vanishingly small.

    • The large majority was against the wrecking amendment and for marriage equality.
      Conservative religionists are just going to have to live with it. We’ve had to live with the dominance of their values in the past, so I’m sure they will cope.

      • Cope – yes. Agree – No. I will have to get used to living in a country that has legislated something that I think is, simply, stupid and wrong. Parliament can, if it so chooses, legislate to call a sausage a banana, and impose penalties on those who dissent in the public domain. That still doesn’t actually make a sausage a banana. The basic problem here is that on the one hand we have people, myself included, who think that marriage=man + woman for a whole variety of reasons, religious and/or secular. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t create other equally valid ways of celebrating, recognising and affirming same sex partnerships, and the sooner the Church gets round to doing so properly the better. On the other hand you have those who think marriage=2 people, gender is irrelevant, and it is unacceptably discriminatory to have an institution that requires both genders . These are, ultimately, irreconcilable positions. I think you’re wrong. You think I’m wrong. You’re probably going to carry the day in Parliament. I accept that, however stupid I think it is. I just hope those of you who take the second position are right in your claims that legislating for the second won’t seriously damage the first, because there’s no going back if you aren’t, that the protections for dissent built into the legislation actually do stand up to the aggressive litigation that will eventually follow as night follows day, and that this doesn’t prove to be seriously socially divisive downstream. Because whatever merits this bill may have, it is abundantly clear it is not thought through.

  2. But it is also not done for the Lords to ultimately reject a measure which has passed the Commons with such a huge majority. As we have an unwritten constitution it remains a convention – but as a conservative ignoring it even its an issue you have a strong view on may have unforeseen consequences. Indeed many on the right have accepted this already.

  3. From the memory of my A Level politics lessons… even if they do vote it down, I think the Lords can only delay it for up to one year (used to be two but that was reduced at some point).

    • I think that’s right. Don’t know the present rules, but in the twentieth century their powers were diminished so they could delay something if they felt the HofC wasn’t representing the views of the electorate, or hadn’t debated something properly, but they can’t completely block something just because they don’t agree with it. (I think they might have done this with fox hunting). It was all the Irish’ fault! :)

      Really enjoy our conversations, BTW.

      • What you get is an extended game of parliamentary ping-pong. With only 2 sessions left before the next election it would be perfectly possible for the Lords to delay this until it fell by default, for the next Parliament ot pick up or not as it saw fit (albeit restarting from square 1). But you’d also get a constitutional crisis, which as a general rule the Lords prefer not to provoke (hence the Salisbury Convention in the first place). So while personally I think it would be democratically appropriate to have this particular legislation subject to testing in Manifestos and a general election, I rather doubt the Lords will push it that far. But you never know. Stranger things have happened.

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