The Impact of the 1918 Reform Act
on the House of Commons
The victorious conclusion of the war, coupled with a great democratising reform for the peace,
created a sense of expectation that the parliament elected in December 1918 could not more
starkly have disappointed. There was widespread shock at the overnight transformation of party
politics, and general disorientation and speculation. To the central criticism that the 1918 Re-
form Act had produced a deeply unrepresentative, and therefore undemocratic, house of com-
mons, came complaints that the legislature had become merely an appendage of the executive,
and parliamentary government had been supplanted by party government. Many opined that
the authority of the house of commons had been undermined. This essay considers how the
implications of the act were envisaged, and how they were experienced and reported. It will
look at the legislature that resulted, its members, and how they adapted to, and changed, its
procedures and conventions. Finally, it will reect on the politics of the impact of the Reform
Act, on the parties, on their policies, and on a new political environment that had been created.
Through their writings at the time and their reections subsequently, those who were members,
and those who were observers, of parliament testied as to how they felt the house of commons
had changed as a result of the impact of the 1918 Reform Act.
Keywords: Conservative Party; democracy; general elections; house of commons; Labour Party;
Liberal Party; MP; parliament; Representation of the People Act 1918; Speaker of the house of
‘The magnitude of the measure is so obvious as to be almost platitudinous; its signi-
cance, though not less certain, is perhaps more subtle.’
‘We have to face this morning the spectacle of the old British political system in ruins’,
one newspaper announced when nally the results, if not the consequences, of the general
election were known.
A great ‘reform parliament’ – not to mention a ‘victory parlia-
ment’ – could expect to be exalted by high purposes; none served with such disrepute as
that which followed the 1918 Reform Act. ‘After the victory and the brief jubilations’, a
member remembered, ‘there followed a period of confusion and squalor which one might
J.A.R. Marriott in Fortnightly Review, Mar. 1918, p. 331. The author is grateful to Mari Takayanagi, and to
Stuart Ball, Paul Seaward, and Richard Toye, for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
Westminster Gazette, 30 Dec. 1918, p. 1.
The Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust 2018