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UK Constitution and Government/Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor


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Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor
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Constitution

 

The Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor (1901—)

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Edward VII

Edward VII was the oldest person in British history to become King, beginning his reign at the age of fifty-nine. He participated actively in foreign affairs, visiting France in 1903. The visit led to the Entente Cordiale (Friendly Understanding), an informal agreement between France and the United Kingdom marking the end of centuries of Anglo-French rivalry. In the case of Germany, however, Edward VII exacerbated rivalry through his bad relations with his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Towards the end of his life, Edward was faced with a constitutional crisis when the Liberal Government, led by Herbert Henry Asquith, proposed the People's Budget. The Budget reformed the tax system by creating a land tax, which would adversely affect the aristocratic class. The Conservative landowning majority in the House of Lords broke convention by rejecting the budget. They argued that the Commons themselves had broken a convention by attacking the wealth of the Lords. Before the problem could be resolved, Edward VII died in 1910, allowing his son, George, to ascend to the throne.

George V

After George became King, the constitutional crisis was resolved after the Liberal Government resigned and Parliament was dissolved. The Liberals were reelected, in part due to the unpopularity of the House of Lords, and used the election as a mandate to force their Budget through, almost too late to save the nation's financial system from ruin.

The Lords paid a price for their opposition to the Liberals, who in the commons passed the Parliament Bill, which provided that a bill could be submitted for the King's Assent if the Commons passed it in three consecutive sessions, even if the Lords rejected it. The time would later be reduced to two sessions in 1949. When the House of Lords refused to pass the Parliament Bill, Prime Minister Asquith asked George V to create 250 new Liberal peers to erase the Conservative majority. George agreed, but the Lords acquiesced and passed the bill quickly.

World War I occurred during George's reign. Due to the family's German connections, the Royalty began to become unpopular; George's cousin, Wilhelm II, was especially despised. In 1917, to appease the public, George changed the Royal House's name from the German-sounding Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English Windsor.

In 1922, most of Ireland left the United Kingdom to form the Irish Free State following the Irish Civil War. The Irish Free State retained the British monarch as a Sovereign, but functioned as a Dominion of the Crown, with its own Government and Legislature. Six counties in the Irish province of Ulster remained in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. In 1927, the name of the country was changed from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

George V died in 1936 and was succeeded by his son, who ruled as Edward VIII.

Edward VIII

Edward VIII became King in January of 1936 and abdicated in December. His reign was controversial because of his desire to marry the American Wallis Simpson. Simpson was already divorced once; she divorced her second husband so she could marry King Edward. A problem, however, existed because Edward was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which prohibited remarriage after divorce. The Government advised him that he could not marry while he was King, so he indicated a desire to abdicate and marry Simpson. The abdication was not unilateral, as the Act of Settlement provided that the Crown go to the heir of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, regardless of that person's willingness to rule. Therefore, Parliament had to pass a special Act in order to permit Edward to abdicate, which he did.

Edward's brother, Albert Frederick Arthur George, became King. He chose to rule as George VI to create a link in the public's mind between him and the previous Kings of the same name during a time of crisis. Edward, meanwhile, was made Duke of Windsor and the issue of his marriage to Simpson were excluded from the line of succession.

George VI

When George took power in 1936, the popularity of the Royal Family had been damaged by the abdication crisis. It was, however, restored when George and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, led the nation and boosted morale during World War II. During the war, Britain was led by one of its most famous Prime Ministers, Sir Winston Churchill.

Following the War, the United Kingdom began to lose several of its overseas possessions. In 1947, India became independent and George lost the title of Emperor of India. Until 1950, however, he remained King of India while a constitution was being written. George was also the last King of Ireland; the Irish established a republic in 1949.

George died in 1952 from lung cancer. His daughter Elizabeth succeeded him.

Elizabeth II

During Elizabeth's reign, there have been several important constitutional developments. A notable one occurred in 1963, when Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned. There was no clear leader of the Conservative Party, but many favoured Richard Austen Butler, the Deputy Prime Minister. Harold Macmillan advised the Queen, however, that senior politicians in the party preferred Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home. Elizabeth accepted the advice and appointed the Earl of Home to the office of Prime Minister, marking the last time a member of the House of Lords would be so appointed. Home, taking advantage of the Peerage Act passed in 1963, "disclaimed" his peerage. A Conservative member of the House of Commons vacated his seat, allowing Home to contest the by-election for that constituency and become a member of the House of Commons.

There have also been many recent constitutional developments in the nation. The office of Prime Minister increased greatly in power under the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (the "Iron Lady") and the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Under Blair, many of Parliament's lawmaking functions were devolved to local administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 1999, the House of Lords Act was passed, removing the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House.

Elizabeth II continues to reign; her heir is Charles, Prince of Wales.