§ Mr. DILLON
I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."
I really do not think there ever was more justification for a Motion for the Adjournment of the House than exists on the present occasion. This election—I suppose we may assume there is to be an election—is absolutely unique in all its aspects. In the first place, it is an election which takes place after Parliament has three times prolonged its existence, a thing unheard-of in English history since the Long Parliament, and a thing which in my opinion, as I stated when the Bill was introduced for the prolongation of the life of Parliament, was a very great mistake. I think the election ought to have taken place when this Parliament had run its ordinary course, but the Government have prolonged the life of Parliament almost to the conclusion of the War.
That is not the aspect of the election to which I desire to draw attention. If ever there was an election in connection with which a responsible Government ought to have sedulously and carefully given to the people a full opportunity of having the issues on which they were to vote clearly defined and debated in such a way as to enable the people to understand what they were voting on, certainly this is the occasion. It is the occasion not only on account of the immeasurable importance of the issues and problems which will have to be dealt with in the new Parliament, but because we have taken a great step and have called into existence millions of new voters who have had no education in 2412 the issues of public life. Therefore I say that unless there was some overwhelming cause to the contrary, the Government were bound, if they really meant to preserve the spirit of democracy in this country, to go out of their way to offer to the people ample time to understand the issues on which they were voting.
There is another reason, and in my opinion even a stronger reason, why it was necessary for the electorate to have ample time. The people of this country have for upwards of nearly three centuries been accustomed to a certain machinery by which the great free institutions of Great Britain have been worked, and it is a machinery absolutely essential if you are to have a real appeal to the people in respect of great public issues. That machinery is the party machinery which I know has been denounced in this country over and over again, and though its faults have been criticised and exaggerated, after all it is the only machinery known to the people by which they can be instructed and enlightened on the issues which are at stake in popular elections, and if you have not party machinery I fail to understand how you are going to reach the masses, immersed as they are in cares and solicitudes of everyday life, and enlighten their minds on the great issues upon which they are called upon to vote. In the present instance, therefore, the party machinery is scrapped. It has disappeared. There are political leaders in this country who rejoice over that fact; but I am a very old political hand, and I do not share in their Utopian anticipations. I have thought over this subject a great deal, and I have had a great deal of experience. I have always failed to see how you are going to work the democracy without some such machinery. The party machinery is simply an organised method of bringing home to the people the issues, and the only substitute for it is a secret bureaucracy and a system of secret arrangements 2413 behind the backs of the people. For those two reasons I maintain that there never was an occasion on which it was more incumbent upon the Government of the day to give fair and full notice of the coming of a General Election, so that the platform and the Press could be used in order to crystallise and make clear to the mass of the voters the issues upon which they were asked to vote.
There is a third reason, and it also is a strong reason. We have called into existence a vote which is not only new, but which in character is wholly against the traditions of this country and of every other democracy in the world, that is the vote of the soldier. I listened with amazement to the Debates on the Franchise Bill, and I rose once or twice to protest against what I conceived to be one of the saddest things ever done by a responsible Government, namely, to introduce party politics into the trenches while the troops are actually engaged in battle. I have never been able to read of such a proposition before in all the history of democracy. We had a terrific example of the effect of such proceedings in the break-up of the Russian Army. It was the introduction of party polities and the revolutionary politics of the Soviet which turned the Russian Army into a mob and dissolved one of the greatest armies that the world has ever seen. No one who has devoted any attention to the history of the Russian troops can deny that there was any army in the history of the world which had a more glorious tradition as fighting men. Within a very few weeks they were turned into a mob, as the result of introducing party politics when in the face of the enemy. All of us desire that the soldiers who have defended the country and run such terrible risks, and who have given such a magnificent exhibition of bravery, should have a voice in the new Parliament; but the only way in which that can be done effectually and without danger to the discipline of the Army, is by postponing the election until peace has been concluded and the War is at an end.
I have moved this Motion because we cannot get any definite information, but, if this election is going to be rushed on the country at very short notice, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt that you will cheat hundreds of thousands of soldiers of all possibility of voting. Whilst I am still opposed to the whole policy of introducing party politics into the 2414 trenches and calling upon the soldiers to vote, I think a more monstrous act has never been done by any Government or by any politicians than, having decided to give men the vote, then to turn round and, simply in the interests of the Coalition Government, and because they expect to snatch a verdict in the dark from the people of this country, propose to carry on the election in circumstances under which hundreds of thousands will be absolutely denied all opportunity of exercising the franchise which has been given to them. There is not the smallest shadow of doubt that if the election is rushed in the first weeks of December a very large proportion of soldiers will be denied the right of voting. Take the case of the soldiers who will be able to vote, and I maintain that they will be a mere fraction of the men in the fighting line. How in the name of common sense can the Government pretend that in the interval between the time when the election will be announced and the time when the polling has to take place there will be any physical possibility of instructing the soldiers on the issues at stake? The thing is ludicrous. There is no machinery by which the soldiers in the trenches can be informed of the issues. Under the circumstances, the votes even of those who will be able to exercise the franchise will be collected in the dark. It will be a farce and a swindle. The votes will be collected by the officers without the soldiers really knowing what the candidates stand for. They cannot. It is impossible.
I have made inquiries, and I am informed on the very best authority that the Post Office has given notice to the Government that if the election takes place in the early days of December all the millions of Christmas parcels to the soldiers will have to stay at home. They cannot be delivered because the post will be occupied transferring the voting papers of the soldiers. I would like to know what the soldiers think about that. Will they be pleased if, instead of getting something extra, as they deserve to do, and, if the Government makes it possible, as I am sure they will do as an expression of gratitude of the people and of pride in their achievements, they simply get some election literature and ballot papers to vote for men about whose principles they are absolutely in the dark? It will be cold comfort to them. I say that alone constitutes nothing short of a public outrage. I am informed that the Post Office has 2415 served formal notice upon the Government that that is the situation. If the election takes place in the early part of December the post between this country and France and the other countries in which our troops are serving will be blocked and the whole volume of Christmas letters, cards, millions of parcels of substantial Christmas fare will be completely cut off. But, in addition to that, I am informed further that the men who have been recruited—as I think most cruelly and unnecessarily—the men of over forty-five years of age who have been recruited within the last few weeks, and who are not really in the Army, are now, like Mahomet's coffin, suspended between heaven and earth, and are neither on the home voting list nor the proxy voting list, and cannot vote at all, and will be disfranchised. I have here a memorandum furnished by a friend of mine stating that, to his own knowledge, in one constituency alone, there are over 400 of these men, mostly over forty years of age, family men, in business, who have been recently recruited and who, if this policy is carried out, will be disfranchised. It is bad enough, God knows, to take unfortunate men of forty years of age from their business and ruin them! Then when they have been ordered out to serve their country, they are to be informed that owing to the necessities of the Coalition Government, and their anxiety to get a verdict while the market lasts, they must be not only ruined, as I think unnecessarily, but also deprived of a franchise and a vote. Possibly the Coalition Government may be under the impression that they might vote against them, and consequently they may not be so sore on the subject as these men feel. For these reasons I think it is a cruel policy to the soldier.
But I turn from that to wider issues. I have not seen in any newspaper, not even in the Government-kept Press, which now consists of three-fourths of the Press—I should say, four-fifths of the Press—any reason given for the necessity for rushing on the election, except the one statement that the Prime Minister might lose his market and not get the blank cheque for which he is asking. I want to know this, What is the motive, what is the necessity for having the election at this particular moment? If the War Cabinet had made up their minds squarely and honestly that an election was really necessary in the public interest, why did they 2416 not announce it three weeks ago, a fortnight ago, or even now, withdraw the censorship and leave the platform open, and let the political leaders endeavour to-clear up the issues that are before the country? That is a very difficult question to answer, but I think I shall be able to answer it. To-night we have been informed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he is wholly unable to make any statement on the matter at all although he had asked me to postpone a question on Monday last, and said he thought he could make a statement to-day.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The only statement I hoped to make to-day was when the Session would end and what business would be taken before that date.
§ Mr. DILLON
Everybody understood that when the right hon. Gentleman was going to state when the Session would end he would state also when the election would take place, because that really was implied. But he is now wholly unable to give us any hint when the election is coming on. Why is he unable? I think I can give it, if he cannot, and I fall back on my usual authority, Lord Northcliffe, who is an excellent authority. The truth is, of course, that there is going on behind the backs of the people an attempt to make a secret bargain between the different wings of the Coalition, which has turned out to be a more difficult job than Ministers expected. On Tuesday morning it was announced in the "Times":It is understood the Prime Minister has already acquainted—acquainted—the Unionist Leaders with his ideas on such questions as economic policy and Irish government.That is a very euphemistic way of acquainting the Unionist leaders with those ideas. I wonder what those ideas are. Do you not think the people are entitled to know what those ideas are? Did anybody ever yet hear in English history of a General Election coming on in two or three weeks, and the ideas of the Prime Minister and his surrounding Ministers unknown to the people, but carefully concealed, and the subject of secret conferences? I think it is no 2417 wonder that there should be this hugger-mugger and delay about announcing the election until these secret negotiations are completed. We hear now universal denunciation of secret diplomacy. That is condemned on all hands, but we are getting a taste of something worse than secret diplomacy. Secret diplomacy is to be abolished under the coercion of President Wilson in dealing with foreign affairs, but apparently it is going to be transplanted to England, and we are to have secret diplomacy in dealing with home affairs. I take the political correspondent of the "Times," to-day. Here is what he informs us to-day:It is understood that important Ministerial conferences will be held to-day on the interdependent questions of the General Election and the future of the Coalition. The Prime Minister will meet his Unionist colleagues in the Government during the morning and consultation with his Liberal wing will ensue in the afternoon.I understand that these conferences took place, and that the Cabinet were in Secret Session all the morning, with the result that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is unable to give us any information. Here is an even more significant statement:Many other Members have accepted the general plea—that is the plea in favour of the Coalition circulated by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle—subject to qualifications either as to the fixing of a time-limit for the continuance of the arrangement or as to the character of the reconstruction programme adopted by the Government. On this latter point—this is the significant thing—it is of interest to record that a deputation from the Unionist War Committee, including Sir Edward Carson, waited upon Mr. Bonar Law yesterday to ask for a declaration of national economic policy. The reply which they received was regarded as satisfactory."Regarded as satisfactory." Does that mean that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has declared for Tariff Reform? Surely, is it not a monstrous thing that the people of this country should be driven into an election like a flock of sheep without having the right to know what are the secret intrigues by which they are going to be driven and committed to policies that are nothing to do with the War and may affect the whole future of the country? If the Government would stand up to-night, and give us a pledge that this new Parliament, which they are now calling for, and which they are rushing the people of this country into at this election, would be only confined to a mandate for the conclusion 2418 of peace then there would be little difference of opinion, that would be a clear issue, and the people might be applied to. What security have we, once this election is over, that the Government, having won this verdict by fraud and by concealment, may not maintain the life of that Parliament for five years, and carry out all kinds of reform which they have kept in the recesses of their minds and in the secret councils that have been going on to-day and yesterday. Those of us who remember 1900, remember what Ministers are capable of, and I warn Ministers to remember the judgment that overtook the men who engaged in the fraud of 1900, when the people of this country were called upon to vote upon the single issue of the War—a little prematurely, because it was said that the War was over. The country was swept on that issue. What was the result? We all remember that that Parliament was brought into existence for six years, and carried out all kinds of reforms—what the Tories called reforms in those days—against the will of the people, and it was an absolute fraud on the electors. We remember how that khaki election was carried out. Every man, including the present Prime Minister—it brings back memories to our minds—who opposed that Government was denounced as a pro-Boer. The late Mr. Chamberlain, then Member for West Birmingham, issued his manifesto, saying,Every vote given for a Liberal is a vote given to the Boers.He swept the country on that issue. The present Prime Minister sat then for his present constituency. I remember that an Irishman wrote to me then. He was president of the United Irish League in Carnarvon Boroughs at the time, and said that the priest had called upon them to vote against Mr. Lloyd George as an anti-Catholic and as an enemy of Catholic education, and he asked what they were to do. I wrote back and said: "Stand by Lloyd George, for he has always been a proved friend and a faithful friend to Ireland." The Irish vote saved him. He got in by a narrow majority, although he was a convinced pro-Boer. Some dozens of honest Liberals were slaughtered on the khaki cry and the pro-Boer cry. That election was won on that issue, and the Parliament was prolonged for six years, and all kinds of reactionary and anti-Liberal legislation was passed. Then Nemesis overtook the authors of that 2419 election; the tidal wave came and they were submerged. I put this question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it is a square, a simple, and a plain question, and I think I am entitled to ask it and that the House is entitled to have an answer. It is this: If they have made up their minds—they appear to find it devilish hard to do so—to have an election in December, will they give the people of this country an honest promise that the next Parliament will conclude the peace, and then dissolve on a new register and give the people an opportunity of giving a real verdict on the great problems of Reconstruction which will then face them?
Another point is, what is the state of the lists? The Prime Minister knows and the Chancellor of Exchequer knows that it is absolute chaos. I took up the "Daily Chronicle"—the latest of the kept newspapers, the purchased newspapers—to-day and I found in one line—I am quoting the "Daily Chronicle," because its authority is unimpeachable, and it is now a Ministerial organ—that they say in one constituency in London alone there are 26,000 voters who ought to be on the register but who are not on the register. A similar condition of things exists in hundreds of other constituencies. Take my own Constituency. A young fellow came to me the other day who had been riding round my constituency on his bicycle. He told me that there were town lands where every house which ought to have three or four votes had not a single vote. He said there were twelve houses in succession and not one vote. This is owing to the radical change in compiling the register, in some cases I am afraid a dishonest one, and in other cases simply owing to a want of understanding because the official machinery was not in working order. Therefore it is idle for the Government to say, as they do say, that one of the great acts of the Government—and the Press of London are in full cry—it is disgusting to see the performance of the Government papers in London, the Sunday papers, and the weekday papers play the same tune exactly, as everybody will see—only the other day in the "Daily News," one of the still surviving independant journals in Great Britain or in London, there were parallel columns showing how they all said the same thing—by some mistake the same paragraph appeared in the North London papers—
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir D. Maclean)
I think the remarks of the hon. Gentleman in his last few sentences are quite wide of the Notice of Motion.
§ Mr. DILLON
I agree it is a rather delicate thing to be criticising the Government Press, but the point of my Notice of Motion is that the people of the country ought to have adequate time to clear up these issues. I think it is germane and in order under the Notice of Motion to prove the difficulties with which the people have to contend and the way in which the ordinary channels of information upon which the people rely, or used to rely, for having the issues of the election placed before them are now bedevilled and destroyed, and they are robbed of them. Those two important things reinforce the reason for giving adequate time and notice to the electors of the coming election. The whole purpose of my Motion is to complain of the conduct of the Government in not giving adequate notice. I say that if the War Cabinet in their wisdom—which I do not very much admire—came to the conclusion that a General Election was now necessary, they ought to have made up their minds some weeks ago, or at least by this time, and they ought to have given the people notice and every facility in the way of relaxing the censorship and freeing public meetings to debate the issues upon which they are called upon to vote. The Government have taken every conceivable means of clouding the issues, hiding their purposes, and of carrying on a system of secret conspiracy and negotiation behind the backs of the people, and then rushing an election in such a way that the utmost possible amount of inconvenience will be created, and at the same time creating the impossibility of informing the elector how he should vote. I confess the whole matter has a very far-reaching, vital, and fundamentally important bearing. It has been said, and said truly, that democracy is on its trial. It is on its trial. Throughout the whole of this War I have been an ardent friend of the cause of the Allies, on one ground and one ground alone—because I regarded the present struggle as the supreme and deciding struggle between the systems of democratic control and bureaucracy and the Prussian system. Thank God, the democrats have won! But democracy will be no less on its trial after the War than before the War. Democracy has many 2421 weaknesses, and I solemnly say that if this Government persevere in their present course, the time may come when they will be recognised as enemies of democracy hardly less dangerous than the Prussian system which has now been overthrown.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The Motion with which the House is asked to deal is, as far as I can recollect, that the House ought to be informed when this Parliament will come to an end.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The two go together more or less. The hon. Member has spoken for a little more than half an hour. On that point he spent about three minutes, as far as I could gather. The rest of his speech was taken up with almost everything which, at a time like this, could enter the mind of any politician, and it seemed to be that it might possibly be regarded as the views of the hon. Member on the general situation as it presents itself to his mind. I was not surprised to find that among those views was a very strongly expressed belief that the present Government is a bad Government. I have been a Member of the House for about eighteen years, and I hardly ever remember a speech from him in which the same thing was not said about whatever Government happened to be in power at the time. So that, as far as that general observation goes, I think we can flatter ourselves that possibly our vices are not greater than those of the ordinary Government of this country. With a good deal that he said, which had absolutely nothing to do with his Motion, strange to say, I was in agreement. He told us that in his belief some form of the party system would continue, and I agree with him. I do not think there has ever been any form of democratic Government in the world where parties were not a regular section of the machinery by which that democratic system was run. I do not know of any other way in which it can be done. Perhaps a slight but pertinent illustration of the truth of that observation is to be found in the fact that during the last twelve months a party was formed to do away with parties, which had only the effect of adding another to the number. There is no doubt that parties have got to stay. But, on the other hand, I myself think, as a general observation, that it would be an amazing thing if, after the terrible experiences through which the world has passed in the last four years, there were 2422 not a change in the outlook of parties, and a tendency to go further apart with some and closer together with others. That, I think, is inevitable, and that is all that is happening now.
The hon. Member gave a number of other very interesting observations. He told the House, for instance—he got it from some newspaper and read it as if it was the history of some great new fact and a proof of some new crime on the part of the Government—that the members of the Unionist War Committee had waited upon me yesterday to express their views and to hear mine on after-war policy, and he added, quoting the newspaper to which he referred, that they were satisfied with the answer. I can assure him that there is nothing new whatever in that, except perhaps the last part of it. I have had deputations of the same kind from the same body at regular intervals during the whole continuance of the War, so that I think he may relieve his mind and feel that that at least is not a new phenomenon, and is not evidence of any special viciousness on our part. He told us, also, quoting again some newspaper, that the Prime Minister was to meet to-day first his Unionist colleagues and then his Liberal colleagues, and we were to be engaged in some kind of secret diplomacy in putting an end to democracy in this country. To begin with, if any of these meetings took place, I was not at them, and never heard of them. I do not pretend for a moment that we are not thinking about the General Election and the possibility of it. So is the hon. Member, and so is my right hon. Friend. But I can assure the House that the amount of time that we have given to that has been very infinitesimal, that that there have been no such meetings as have been suggested, and though, of course, a decision must be taken, it will be taken in the midst of other occupations, and will certainly not occupy the main time either of the Prime Minister or of his colleagues.
One thing struck me particularly in the hon. Member's speech, and I am quite sure it will give immense satisfaction when the speech is circulated among the troops at the front. I was delighted, and I am sure the soldiers will be delighted, to find what an intense interest he takes in their welfare. It will interest everyone who has been a Member of the House to find what an effort he has made all through the War to help the 2423 soldiers in the struggle in which they are engaged. That will come, I am sure, as a very agreeable surprise to the soldiers who are in the trenches now. Then he told us that the idea of giving votes to soldiers while they are fighting was an absurdity and that he was himself altogether opposed to it, and that that was the cause of the dissolution of the Russian Army. I may be wrong, but I do not remember any General Election taking place in Russia in which the Russian soldiers were asked to take part. The dissolution of the Russian Army was not due to any specific cause like that. It was due to the general breakdown of discipline, and, so far as I know, any question of having an election at which soldiers should vote had nothing whatever to do with it. He told us also that it was a farce to ask soldiers to vote, and that they could not be supplied with information which would enable them to form any intelligible opinion of what they were voting about.
§ Mr. DILLON
I did not say that. The right hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting me. I said, "If you do not give proper time, it is quite impossible."
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I admit that they need time, like everyone else, but I think the hon. Member will find, when he looks at his speech, that he implied that there was need this time to get information to enable them to record their votes. I have not had the privilege of being very often at the front, but I have been there, and my experience is that the soldiers are at no disadvantage in that respect, that they receive constant letters from home, and that they still take the same interest as those of us who remain here in what happens at home, and I think he will find that when the times comes they will be quite as well able to make up their minds as to how they will vote as any other section. What does it all amount to? The hon. Member's speech had, in reality, nothing to do with this Motion. His speech was a plea not to have an election at present. It was that and really nothing else. There is a good deal which can be said in favour of that view. I am not going to deal with that at all. It does not arise on the Motion, and it will be time enough for the Government to justify asking His Majesty to grant a Dissolution when they have taken that course. It will be time enough to do it then, and if the course is taken I do not 2424 think we will have much difficulty in justifying the decision. What seems to have entirely escaped the view of the hon. Members are two simple facts. In the first place this Parliament, unless an Act of Parliament is passed, will come to an end in January next year. That is one fact which ought to be borne in mind. There is another fact. There has been added to the electorate an immense mass of new voters. The present Parliament has long outstayed its ordinary time of existence, and if anything were being discussed on which a vote was taken by this House, if it suited the hon. Member he would be the first to say that this House had absolutely no right whatever to express an opinion on the subject. There is a good deal to be said for that. It ought also to be remembered that as a matter of fact there never has been a case when there has been a great change in the franchise—and here we have had the greatest possible change—without the earliest opportunity being given to the new electors to record their vote. The hon. Member tells us that the register is all wrong. I am a little doubtful as to that. I doubt if it is so defective as he suggests. But there is one inference to be drawn from his observation on that point, and it is not that we ought to have an election now, but that we ought not to have an election until a new register can be set up. I venture to say with every confidence that if the Government were to propose not to have an election now it would be absolutely impossible to hold it over to enable a new register to be set up. The hon. Member suggests that the Government are thinking of their own party advantage. Let me put this to him. He said he was in favour of our having an election in the ordinary course.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Other people were not. I cannot myself see why if he were always under the impression that the ordinary constitutional methods should be pursued and Parliament should come to an end at the usual time—I cannot see why he has changed his mind at the present time except for this reason, that at the earlier time it would not have been especially distasteful to the hon. Member, and I assume that at the present time an election would be very distasteful to him. That is not a conclusive reason for the course suggested by the hon. Member. That is all I have to say on the subject. It is for the Government to decide. If there 2425 is to be an election on the advice given to His Majesty by the Prime Minister, if that takes place, then we shall, I hope, be able as a Government to justify the decision which has been come to by the head of the Government. But until that takes place I am not prepared to argue what may prove to be a hypothetical question. The hon. Member says that the longest possible notice should be given. I entirely agree with him. But I would remind the House again of what I said before. Nothing is more clearly recognised by our constitutional practice than that these things are the subject, not of any written rule, but they are governed by custom, and in my belief there is no custom more clearly defined than that what advice on this matter should be given to the Sovereign as a question not for the Cabinet but for the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. DILLON
That is not a recognised practice, and I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House should say that it is. I believe that the custom has always been that the advice should be given with the consent of the Cabinet.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
And I am quite sure that the hon. Member is quite wrong. I know of my own knowledge of recent cases where no intimation whatever was given to the Cabinet until the decision had been taken, and I believe that has been always the regular practice. At all events, the hon. Member must recollect one instance very much complained of at the time, the instance in which Mr. Gladstone dissolved Parliament in 1874, when his colleagues received, I believe, the first intimation of the coming election from the public Press. At all events, it is an undoubted fact that he had sent the message to Her Majesty Queen Victoria before any one of his colleagues received any intimation. There would be good ground for complaint if the Government, knowing there was to be an election, were making use of that knowledge to set at work party machinery to help them, and if they were keeping the knowledge dark.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
There would be good ground for complaint if that were the case, but I, as one of the colleagues of the Prime Minister, know that it is not.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
No; and he has not given it to any of his colleagues. We may have opinions of our own, but it is the fact that if the Prime Minister has made up his mind to give certain advice to His Majesty, he has not informed his colleagues of that intention. That disposes of the charge that we are setting to work machinery in our favour. I go further, I say it is quite true that the circumstances at the present time make it desirable to give the longest possible notice. In ordinary practice, notice of Dissolution has not been much greater than is necessary by compulsion at the present time. If hon. Members will carry their minds back, I think they will find that there has rarely been general knowledge of a coming Dissolution for more than a week before it actually is expected. I think under the promise which has been given, and it is part of the understanding in regard to this election, there must be a clear week's notice before the Proclamation, and there must be twenty days after the Proclamation before an election takes place. I think that if you look back on the previous elections longer notice than that has not been the rule. Of course, people will say—I am digressing now—if the election takes place now, it is being taken for purely party reasons. That is always said. I very well remember that when the election was taken by the right hon. Member for East Fife, in December, 1910, it did not seem very wonderful to say, and we said, what hon. Members say now, that they took that election because they thought it was good for their own party. That is always said. [An HON. MEMBER: "There is a War on now!"] That is always said when a Dissolution takes place, but it never was the case before that, as a matter of fact, in view of the circumstances, this Parliament will be by the end of January three years past the proper time of its death, that there has been an entire change in the franchise, and that in addition, the House does not present the old franchise, because it has been allowed to drop. In face of all these facts, surely it is plain that the natural thing is to have an election and the burden of proof that you ought not have one lies with those who say an election ought not to take place. I am prepared to say to the House of Commons that the moment the Government knows definitely that there is going to be an election, at that moment the information will be given to the House of Commons.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Well, I am one of the Government. I will put it in that way if it will please the hon. Member better.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
No, I think not. In the Prime Minister's view and in my view the question of deciding whether or not there should be an election is the duty of the Prime Minister, but I will say to the House of Commons now that as soon as I know definitely there is to be an election, as Leader of the House of Commons, I will at once inform the House. I do not think I can say more than that.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The hon. Member prefers a January election. I do not know why. If a January election takes place there are many arguments in favour of it, just as there are many against it. It may be said that our sole object, if we have one, is because our market is good, or because we think it is. That has been said of every Government every time there is an election, and there may be some truth in it in the case of every election. But whatever the truth or inaccuracy of such a statement, it is undoubtedly the privilege of the Government of the day, represented by its head, to select the time to advise His Majesty for having an election, and we claim that right, and when we exercise that right, we shall do our best—and I am not afraid of saying it—to prove that it is not in the interests of a party, but that it is in the national interests that that election should be taken.
§ Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL
The right hon. Gentleman said he did not propose to state the arguments for the holding of an immediate election which, in his view, does not directly arise from the terms of the Motion, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man of such a candid mind that he can never resist, or seldom resist, the temptation of giving the House the benefit of all his thoughts, and having been led along the course of argument by the Mover of this Motion, he, while disclaiming any intention of doing so, gave the House a very elaborate series of reasons why, in his view, an immediate General Election was desirable, and 2428 indeed, essential. He disclaimed any responsibility so far as he was concerned. He threw the whole burden of the decision upon the Prime Minister, whose prerogative alone it is to determine the issue when a Dissolution is to take place. So we have been told. Therefore, if there be any unpopularity in the decision, it does not belong to the Prime Minister's colleagues. The three reasons which my right hon. Friend gave for holding an early election, were these: In the first place, he said this Parliament ends in January, and unless fresh legislation is passed it must come to a conclusion in three months' time—that is, three months hence. The moment when that argument should be advanced is at the end of January, and then it would be proper to consider whether or not in the circumstances of the moment the House, in view of its duty to the electorate, and in view of the international position, would be right or would be wrong in asking for an extension of its life. That is an argument which at the beginning of November, and not at the end of January, wholly fails in its force. The second argument was that this House has exhausted its mandate, and that it has no mandate from the electorate to deal with the problems that at this moment press upon it. Every Member of this House is conscious that it was elected at the end of 1910 to deal with a series of domestic problems. It had no mandate for the War. It had no mandate to deal with any of the questions that have arisen during the last fateful four and a half years. It had no mandate to decide the terms of peace, yet I think, with the general assent of the nation as a whole, it has dealt faithfully and patriotically with the great problems of the hour, and I believe that its career will be justified in history.
Thirdly, my right hon. Friend says, among the arguments which he declared he was not going to give, that a new electorate has just been created, and that never before has there been a case when a great franchise reform having been passed an immediate reference to the people was not made. I say that never before has the nation, immediately after a great Reform Bill been concluding a War on a vast scale, and been faced with urgent and vital international problems arising from the coming of peace. If there were any manifestations of public opinion in favour of an election, then I agree my right hon. Friend's plea would be a valid one. I can imagine that in 1832, in 1868, 2429 or in 1884, if the Government of the day, after passing a great Reform Bill, had denied to the newly-enfranchised people the right of declaring their opinions there would, doubtless, have been a popular outcry throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the nation would have clamoured for a renewal of the mandate of Parliament. Where is there a whisper of that now? When you travel about the country to elicit expressions of public opinion, or when you talk to men of all parties in any quarter, is there any active desire for the turmoil and disunion of a General Election? What is the issue of the election to be? Is it a question whether or not the Government have authority to conclude peace on the terms which it has announced. There is no division of opinion as to that. The whole nation one might say, without exception, is unanimously in favour of the terms of peace laid down by President Wilson in the main. I think the Government were well advised to make an exception in regard to the question of the seas. I think the whole nation is unanimous in support of the course which is now being taken by the Government in the International issues that are before the world. It is wholly unnecessary for them to seek an expression of confidence in their policy with repect to the conclusion of the War. The nation, by every means at its command, has expressed its agreement with the Government in power. What other issue can there then be? Are they going to seek a mandate now for a five years' term of office in order to carry out such post-war policy as may commend itself to-night? My right hon. Friend cannot be surprised if there is a suspicion that the Government propose to use the patriotic unity of the nation on the question of war and peace as an instrument to secure a post-war majority on questions on which there is not the same unanimity. That is the main objection to an election at this time.
We are enfranchising a vast number of new electors. The majority of them are women. The women, I believe, are taking in the main a serious view of their responsibility. They look upon politics not as a party game but as a grave and solemn matter. They are anxious—millions of them—to use the new franchise so as best to secure the good of their country. And while they will gladly avail themselves of an occasion to deal with a straightforward issue and express their views clearly on 2430 great questions put before them without complication and subtlety on their first introduction to politics as citizens, they will, I venture to say, find themselves bewildered by the manoeuvres of political strategy. That is the first objection to this election. There is another objection which I think has not yet been mentioned in this Debate. Ministers will have within the next few weeks, if Germany, as we all hope, agrees to the Armistice which is now being debated between our representatives and Marshal Foch—[An HON. MEMBER: "There is no Debate! "]—My hon. Friend is quite right—which is now being agreed to, we hope, by the German representatives on the terms proposed by Marshal Foch—if that is so, think of the problems with which our Ministers will have to deal within the next few weeks.
A Peace Conference must meet almost at once. All the large issues of the future will be at stake, while at home we have to carry through the most gigantic transformation which the nation has ever known in an equally short time, because from a peace footing we came on to a war footing to a great extent gradually. There was the severe initial shock, but the full development of our war energies only came in the course of months or years The withdrawal of labour for the Army and the munition factories was a gradual process, but at the conclusion of peace, unless we are to keep our millions of munition workers employed at the cost of the taxpayer making munitions which will no longer be necessary—and that cannot be contemplated for a moment—the whole of our munition workers must be demobilised, and with the utmost speed. A score of problems will have to be dealt with. Food questions, questions of shipping, will still have to be dealt with. The whole economy of our nation and our Empire will have to be transformed with the utmost rapidity from a war footing to a peace footing. That is the moment, when the Peace Conference begins its deliberations, when this great transformation is proceeding at home, for all the heads of our Departments to be busily engaged—in what? Carrying out the business of performing those vital functions? No! In touring the country from end to end and making electioneering speeches in order to secure a majority in the next Parliament.
Again, consider the case of the millions of our electors who are now serving in the War, serving in the Army or in the 2431 Navy. When we passed the Representation of the People Act, no one then, I think, thought it desirable that an election should take place during the War, and the vast majority of the House was determined if such an election took place there should be some opportunity given for soldiers to vote. Many of us thought that it would be nearly impossible for soldiers serving in the distant theatres of war to vote, but a scheme was devised to enable them to vote by proxy. That scheme has proved a failure, as many of us said it would. I am very glad that some of us here resisted, and succeeded in defeating, the plan to compel all soldiers if they voted at all to vote by proxy, and not to vote by ballot papers, and that a change was made so far as soldiers serving in France are concerned. But in the case of soldiers in Mesopotamia Salonika, Egypt, Palestine, and Italy when they do vote at all they will have to vote by proxy, and it has been confessed by the late President of the Local Government Board that the whole device of proxy has proved a failure. I very much doubt if even one in ten or twenty of the soldiers in distant theatres of war will be able to vote at that election if the election is taken now. Take next soldiers who are serving in France and Belgium What opportunity will they have to inform themselves fully, not merely of the personality of the candidate for whom they are asked to vote, but of the principles for which they stand and of the main issues at this election? Obviously they would be able to perform their duties as citizens far more effectively if they were at home for a few weeks or a few months, during which, at all events, a large proportion of them would return to civil life when they could take part in the election in the ordinary way as free civilians, and with no longer the limitations imposed upon them as soldiers. And at home they would have the atmosphere of the election, and know well what the issues are to be decided, which would not be the case if they were at a distance, where they can only judge from a printed election address or such information a biased Press may give them.
There is another point to which the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. Dilon) referred, in connection with these soldiers. This election is to take place early in December. If it is after December the whole of the mail service to and from the Army 2432 will be absorbed by sending out, first, the election addresses, and, next, the ballot papers, and then securing the return of the ballot papers. I myself had the privilege of being Postmastesr-General for five years. One of these years was during the War, and I visited the front and examined the system of working of the Army post office, and I am convinced that the Post Office will have great difficulty in performing the task put upon them if it does nothing else and all the ordinary mails are more or less suspended, and the soldiers at the front will not like to spend the first Christmas during the armistice, as we hope there may be, without receiving any of the communications from their friends at home, which they are accustomed to receive. They ask for bread, and you give them a stone. They expect Christmas puddings, and the Goverment give them a ballot paper. Whatever the problems of the election may be at home, I think that upon the Army the effect is likely to be even greater, and as for our sailors at sea, almost all of them will be disfranchised, I am afraid, if this election takes place during the War. The whole matter can be summed up in a sentence. If this election is to secure the Government authority to conclude peace on the terms announced, it is unnecessary. If this election is to decide the course of post-war policy, it is premature.
§ Mr. ARTHUR HENDERSON
I desire to associate myself with the Mover of this Motion, and with what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken with regard to the issues of the proposed General Election. I followed as closely as I could the speech of the Chancellor or Exchequer and I had a difficulty in deciding whether he was seeking to persuade the House that he was in favour of an election or that he was against an election, and I think that he tried to leave the impression to those who heard his speech that an election was somewhat remote.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW was understood to dissent.
§ Mr. HENDERSON
At any rate he did give us to feel that it was not definitely decided upon. Personally, I am not disposed to accept that view of the position. I believe that an election has been decided upon. It is quite true that the Prime Minister has not taken the formal steps which will eventually have to be taken, but I believe that the election has been 2433 decided upon, and that there is going to be more than one issue. I think I may say that there are going to be two issues. Ostensibly, we are going to have an appeal to the country in order that the present Government may obtain a mandate to make peace. When the stunt for an election began in certain organs of the Press, the idea, advanced with striking unanimity, and I think the hon. Member for Mayo referred to the striking unity of certain Press paragraphs, but that is not surprising, but when it began what was the line that was taken? It was that it was necessary to have an election in order that the Government should have a mandate to carry the War through to a successful termination. When the War happily began to end, more as the result of the magnificent efforts of our gallant troops, supplemented or reinforced by a skilful handling of the political weapon by the illustrious President of the United States of America, it was necessary for a change of tune to take place in the Press. So instead of getting a mandate to carry the War through to a successful termination they then told us it was necessary to get a mandate to make peace. If that was necessary, I do not think any section of this House would dispute it for a moment. It is not necessary. I have no hesitation in saying that never was it less necessary from the standpoint of Parliament than it is now. I think there never has been a time during the whole of the period of the two Coalitions when it was less necessary than it has been during the past few months, and I might almost say during the whole lifetime of the present Government. I admit that there was a time during the previous Administration when there was a vast amount of criticism in this House, and when it almost looked as if an election would be necessary, because it would become impossible to carry on the government of the country for the successful prosecution of the War. But on the formation of the present Government that became absolutely unnecessary, for the simple reason that a majority of those who enjoyed such freedom to criticise passed on to the Front Bench. I happened to be a member of the Government at the time, and I know the experience of relief it was and how different it was to sit there under the new Government than it was under the old. You could not imagine the transformation it effected, for the simple reason that the independent committees which met once 2434 or twice or thrice a week, and began to hold pistols at the head of the Prime Minister and his Government had passed away almost like snow before the sun, merely because so many of their Members had been silenced by being placed in office and by taking seats on this side of the House on the Front Bench rather than on the other side. Therefore, I say it never was less necessary during the whole time of the two Coalitions than it is at this moment.
But may I say I am strongly opposed to an election, and I am going to give, or will try to give, one or two reasons. I am going to oppose an election at the present time at the risk of having it said, as it is always said on such occasions, that we are out to protect our own political skins, and that we are afraid of this, that, and the other thing. I want to take no notice of those statements, because I think they are absolutely unworthy of colleagues in the House wherever we sit, and are, to a very great extent, beside the question. The first reason which I advance against an election at this time is this: I think it is totally opposed to the spirit in which the Government has been carried on since the formation of the first Coalition under the leadership of the right hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith). Then a Coalition was formed in which three parties joined. I do not mind saying that I always regretted, very seriously regretted, the fact that the Fourth party, under their very great late Leader, did not see their way clear to becoming members of that Government. I believed in the idea of a National Government and that a National Government ought to remain in existence until the work for which it was formed had been made absolutely secure. But if that spirit is to be carried out properly, it implies one thing, I think, that ought to be regarded as essential. It implies this: that the carrying on of that Government ought not to be to the advantage of any one party nor ought it to be used at this period in any way to be to the detriment of any of the parties in the Government. I am going to show if you have an election at the present moment you depart from that, and at any rate to the extent of one of the parties, the party with which I am identified, you place that party in a position that it ought not to be placed in, having regard to the immense value and I hope I will not be thought to exaggerate 2435 when I speak of the immense value, that not only the first of the Coalitions obtained, and certainly the second of the Coalitions obtained, for I want to say unhesitatingly, and I do not think the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be prepared to deny what I am going to say—I want to say here that the second Coalition would never have been possible—I challenge contradiction on the point—but for the fact that the party with which I am associated determined upon accepting the invitation to become members of that Government.
If I am right in making that claim—and I think I am—then I say I can press with greater force the point I was making. Once that Coalition is formed, it ought to be so carried on until its objects have been finally and completely achieved, and carried on so that its work will not make for the advantage of one of the parties and the disadvantage of one of the other parties. I am prepared to show that if the election comes now, that will be completely departed from, and I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. When we joined the first Coalition—and I will admit it was slightly improved upon in the second—what was the position? I suppose the representation that we had in this House was taken as the criterion, or, in other words, a sort of system of proportional representation was put into operation. Hence it might be argued, on the basis of proportional representation, that in the present Government the numbers to which we were actually entitled were exceeded. I am prepared to concede that that might be fairly argued, but is any section of this House going to argue that the conditions under which either the first or the second Coalition was formed, and the selection or the number of Labour representatives chosen, is any criterion of the position as it might be under the election taken on normal conditions with the electorate extended by some 11,000,000 or 12,000,000, as it will be on the new register? I do not think that it could be contended for a single moment, if we take it merely on the basis of proportional representation, that we had anything like our fair or adequate share in the Coalition, having regard to the immense size of the register.
As I listened to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he seemed to make the point that as we had a register consisting not of 8,000,000, as the register did in 1914, but of nearly 20,000,000, that was an argument 2436 in favour of an election. Yes, but I would like to ask his attention to this point. That surely pre-supposes that when you are going to give your extended electorate an opportunity of giving their judgment they give that judgment under proper conditions. Does he wish to suggest, or does any other representative of the Government wish to suggest, that taking an election under existing circumstances is appealing to the judgment of the nation under fair and proper conditions? I would take a good deal of convincing, and therefore, from the standpoint of Labour's legitimate share or from the standpoint of the broadened electorate, on neither of those points can we be satisfied. But I want to take it one stage further. The hon. Member for Mayo put what I thought was a very pertinent question. He put the question as to whether we could have an undertaking, in view of the Fact that the papers now tell us that the object of the election is to obtain a mandate for the making of the peace—he put the very pertinent question, Will the right hon. Gentleman say, or can he say, or will he get authority from the Prime Minister to say, that once that has been accomplished, another appeal to the country will be made?
§ Mr. HENDERSON
No. I followed his speech very closely, and I noticed that, skilful leader as he is, experienced politican as he is after eighteen years in this House, he nicely evaded it, and I want to come to it, because it is the crux of the whole question in so far as the Labour party is concerned, because we are going to hold a conference—such as I should like to see all the other parties hold—of probably a thousand delegates and they are going to have something to say on this matter. These delegates on two occasions have approved of Labour being represented in the Government, but these delegates are going to insist on fair play, and I think they are entitled to fair play, and to know before we go to the country this. Supposing it takes twelve months before the final stage of the Peace negotiations is reached—I meant the stage not of the end of the armistice, or the signing of what might be described as preliminary peace conditions, but the stage when everything that has been agreed upon will be put into the Treaty of Peace and finally signed. I want to know whether he will 2437 tell us or get authority to tell the House that, when that stage has been reached, there will be another appeal to the country?
§ Mr. HENDERSON
Am I entitled or not to ask this question? I am not asking it for the sake of asking a question. I am treating the matter very seriously, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to do the same. I am going to try to give the reasons why I think I am entitled to ask this question. Supposing we get the Treaty of Peace, what is going to be the position if the Parliament Act is availed of, and the Government that has got elected for the purpose of giving effect to their peace proposals goes in for three or four more years—the full limit of the Parliament Act? What is going to be their work? Their main work is going to be to deal with questions that we are vitally interested in. Let me re-mind the Chancellor of the Exchequer of one in which I am very vitally interested as an ex-member of the Government—I mean the restoration of trade union conditions. It has been said from that Front Bench by the Prime Minister that nobody had more to do with getting trade unions to forego the conditions for which they had fought for many years than I had to do as Chairman of one of the Committees that was created at the Treasury conference in 1915. Now that is a question in which Labour is vitally interested. Take all the great problems of reconstruction. We are vitally interested in those questions. Have we to have a mandate for the settlement of peace used for four years to deal with these questions without a proper mandate? Because I want to say that, by virtue of the conditions under which this election is going to be conducted, it will be well nigh impossible to get a proper mandate for the problems of reconstruction. The minds of the electorates will be concentrated, or at any rate will be influenced, more directly by the wave of feeling of patriotism that must flow as the result of the intimation which will be made public in a few days that this War has been won—as the right hon. Gentleman said—won for democracy. If that is a correct summing up of the position, it seems to me that no Government is entitled to ask for the verdict of the country in order to enable them to make peace, and then to go along and use the power thus given to deal with the great problems 2438 of reconstruction, and deal with them when some of those who are most vitally interested have not had the opportunity properly of expressing themselves, and certainly will not be properly represented in giving effect to any proposals which may be brought forward.
I want in a word or two to associate myself with the second reason why I think this election should not be taken. Like other hon. Members, I am receiving constant communications from France. I have no hesitation in saying that the information I have received is twofold. First, many soldiers have not, from one cause or another, been placed upon the register, or, at any rate, are not in a position to record their votes. The point which is mostly made in my correspondence is that they are indifferent to an election being taken while they are on any of the battle fronts. What they say is: "We do do not want an election now; we want the election to be taken when as many of us as possible can be at home, and then we can more clearly understand all the issues involved in the contest." I think when we remember speeches which were made in this House—I remember many of them—that no election should take place until the soldiers who had done so well were in a position—not a few of them, not a small percentage of them, but the overwhelming majority of them—to record their votes, it is passing strange that we should now have the threat or risk of an election being taken when I believe it is correct to say that many thousands of the soldiers and sailors will not be in a position to record their votes. Many of them will decline to record their votes. They are not, they will say, in possession of the information that they feel they ought to be in possession of before the decision they are called upon to take is to be given.
I should like to make one point more. It is a point which has not been touched upon by any of the previous speakers. I should esteem it a favour if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would just give me a moment as I put this point to him. One of my strongest objections to an election is as to its possible effect upon the industrial life of this country. I do not think many of the members of the Government, or many of the Members of the House, quite realise the dangers to which we are going to be exposed soon after peace has been secured. Let me try in a sentence or two to put what I mean. We 2439 shall have to begin very shortly the process of demobilisation. The demobilisation of the Army will be a serious matter. To me there is a more serious matter. The most serious question to me is the demobilisation of our munition workers. When you demobilise your soldiers you will do it gradually; what is more, whether they are demobilised at a quicker or a slower pace, they will be cared for by the Government, not only up to the moment when they are discharged, but for some time afterwards. I think there is a gratuity and an unemployment insurance benefit for a certain number of weeks after they are discharged if they are unemployed. What about the munition workers—I use that term in its broadest sense, and I include all manner of workers, male and female, that have been engaged upon war work? Take the question of the women. That in itself is going to raise a very difficult question indeed. I do not know that any of us quite realise how we are going to get the men satisfied without doing an injustice to the women. I do not see how we are going to get the skilled workmen satisfied without doing an injustice to the lesser skilled men who have been brought in to do certain duties during the War period. Peace has come much more speedily than was expected. Supposing that the armistice begins to operate at once. I cannot imagine the Government going on in anything like the same degree, keeping the workpeople engaged upon the employment which they have been on for months past, and, therefore, there has got to be a sudden conversion, or a speedy conversion in industry from the processes of war to the processes of peace. I fail to see how the conversion can take place with these people employed however short the period may be, and I think there will have to be a period of enforced idleness.
Try to visualise the position. You may have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of these people on the streets, men and women, no longer for the time being with any employment to follow. It seems to me that that may have this effect, for it is wonderful how contagious the spirit between nations becomes. We know what has been taking place for months in Russia, and we have evidence of what has been taking place in Bulgaria, and more recently in Austria Hungary, and we have some idea of what is beginning to operate in Germany. We 2440 do not know how far this will go on in Germany, but the point I want to urge is that I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will keep very pertinently in his mind that we ought not to do anything in this country that would in the slightest degree encourage an emulation of this deplorable spirit that has characterised the life of Russia during the past few months, and which is beginning, I am afraid, to make its influence felt in some of the other countries with whom we shall be concerned in the making of peace.
The question may be asked: How is this affected by the General Election? I just want to answer that question. Suppose we have this election and there is a continuation of that which is going on in some of the constituencies, where bargains are being struck in the name of the Coalition Government between two parties. I get information almost daily in connection with this matter. We are told that representatives of the party that has been led for some years by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer—the Unionist party—and one section of the Liberal party are joining together to run Coalition candidates, and that the one thing that they are going to try to do is to prevent Labour from getting its proportionate share of representation in this House, having regard to the broadened franchise of 20,000,000 electors. Let us imagine for a moment that they succeed. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer realise what may be the effect of their success? I want to claim that if one thing more than another has kept down the revolutionary spirit in recent years in this country it is the fact that Labour has had the power to express its grievances upon the floor of this House. I believe that the coming of a Labour party into this House, even in limited numbers, has done that one thing. It has provided the break, as it were, upon any desire upon the part of the extremists to go lengths industrially that they might have been disposed to go if there had not been this method of giving expression to their grievances, and of getting, if not those grievances altogether remedied, at any rate getting something which gave them a certain measure of satisfaction. Try to imagine all the problems of demobilisation and reconstruction being settled with this revolutionary spirit abroad to which I have referred, and with this sense of injustice, that the Government have taken an advantage of the working classes by 2441 asking for a mandate to make peace and then continuing in office, denying Labour its proper share of representation. It will give those people who may be disposed to adopt revolutionary tactics the feeling that they must take matters into their own hands, because Labour, owing to the fact that the authority of the Government in this House and the country has been improperly applied, and not through any fault of their own, will be no longer in a position to deal effectively with the grievances upon which labour feels so strongly.
I hope therefore, that this aspect of the case will be taken, even at the last hour, into consideration, because I believe—and this is the last word I am going to say upon this subject—that not only is it inconsistent with the spirit that has obtained for three years in this country in the formation of our Government, that not only is it in opposition to the wishes of the large majority of the soldiers in the field, but it is endangering our national safety. I think all these three points are sufficiently important to justify the Government in doing, what I think they ought to have done, to have gone on and completed their task, and really to have carried the War to its successful termination, which can only be in the strictest sense when they have a treaty of peace, and when it is known what that treaty of peace contains. Then they could have come, resuming normal conditions, the Prime Minister connected with his old party, or any other party, and all the members of the Coalition returning to the parties with which they are connected when this Government was formed, and allowed us all to go, as it were, starting off the mark in a fair, straightforward, English fashion, and not merely have used this opportunity, as I believe it is being used, for the purpose of dividing the sheep as against the goats.
§ Mr. T. P. O'CONNOR
I really can add very little to the very powerful and impressive speech—the most powerful and impressive I have ever heard him make—which my right hon. Friend has just addressed to the House. But I just want to have a few words upon an aspect of the question which more especially appeals to me. Before I do that, I want to say, first, to the Leader of the House, that I am grateful to him for the candour which characterised his observations during one portion of his speech which was very much 2442 in contrast with the lack of explicitness in another part of his speech. But if he was candid, I regret to tell him that he was singularly inaccurate in his statements. I cannot understand how so well-stored an intelligence as his actually repeated the ridiculous old fable that Mr. Gladstone called the Dissolution of 1874 without consulting his colleagues and keeping some of them even in ignorance of the statement of his intentions. What are the facts? In order that I may be able to correct the statements of the right hon. Gentleman—I would not take the trouble of doing that for a moment except as they bear on the point of the Debate—I have looked up the biography of Mr. Gladstone, I commend a perusal of that biography to the right hon. Gentleman. He would see that the story of Mr. Gladstone, off his own bat, without consulting anybody except one or two of his colleagues, springing a Dissolution on the country, is absolutely without a particle of foundation. I will not at this hour trouble the House with reading the extracts from Mr. Gladstone's own diary on this question. It will be sufficient to call attention to two dates. On the 18th January, 1874, Mr. Gladstone thought of Dissolution for the first time. On the 23rd he brought his project of Dissolution before the Cabinet, and the Cabinet unanimously approved the Dissolution. I have another fact which the right hon. Gentleman may have forgotten. The right hon. Gentleman forgets what happened when Mr. Gladstone retired from the Premiership. Why did he retire? Everybody knows why because, after the action of the House of Lords he wanted his colleagues to go to a Dissolution. His colleagues declined to go to a Dissolution, and Mr. Gladstone retired from office in consequence. What was the statement of the right hon. Gentleman to-night? His statement, founded, as I have shown, on entire ignorance or forgetfulness of all the precedents and facts with regard to a Dissolution, laid down the doctrine that the choice of the time of Dissolution belonged to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone. That statement is entirely inaccurate, as I have shown. But what is the meaning of the statement of the right hon. Gentleman? What a flood of light it throws on the whole system of government under which we now are! Here is the Leader of the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second man in the Cabinet of the Empire, and he 2443 comes down with the entirely false and unfounded statement that the choice of the date of Dissolution belongs to the Prime Minister alone, without his having consulted with his colleagues in the Cabinet. What does it mean? It means personal government.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
Personal government! That is one of the methods by which we are signalising our triumph over Prussian autocracy and making the world safe for democracy. Why do I call attention to that? It is not to enlarge the historical knowledge of the right hon. Gentleman or to contribute to his greater grasp of the facts of the history of politics. It is to call attention to this particular fact as a symptom of the whole situation. I complimented, and frankly complimented, the right hon. Gentleman on the candour of a part of his statement. I regret I cannot do the same with regard to the other part. He was asked several questions. The first question, to which he has made no reply, was, on what policy are the Government going to ask for a renewal of the mandate from the country? On that he is silent. As in the case of the Dissolution, there is only one man to decide the policy. When the Prime Minister, and only the Prime Minister is gracious enough in his royal condescension, as in the noon-tide splendour of the great All-Highest War Lord—when the Prime Minister is willing to tell him, "This is the hour for Dissolution," he obeys. Similarly, he waits on the Royal and Imperial Command to tell the House on what he and his colleagues are going to ask for the confidence of the country. That is an extraordinary situation. That is making the world safe for democracy. Again I have to mingle praise with blame, because I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman credit for candour in one respect. We do know the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on one question, though on that I am not sure that we know the policy of the Prime Minister. I would like to ask—not as a matter of idle curiosity, but as applying to the vote I am going to give when I am asked to vote at the poll at this election—whether the speech that the right hon. Gentleman made on the Irish question the other night had been rehearsed to the Prime Minister before it was given to the House?
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr.Whitley)
That is clearly going beyond the terms of the Motion for which leave has been given by the House. The hon. Member must keep to the Question.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
May I not, in perfect consonance with order and with the terms of the Motion, renew my demand on the right hon. Gentleman to give us some indication of the policy on which the Government is going to the country? If that be outside the Notice of Motion I will not pursue it, but if it be inside, I repeat the question. I wonder to see these Labour Members still on the Treasury Bench, one of them, like myself, the son of an Irish farmer, the right hon. Gentleman did not give any answer to the suggestions and inquiries made by my hon. Friend with regard to the attitude of the Government on some of the questions of the day. Are we going to have a Liberal or a Tory principle of reconstruction?
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
It is quite irrelevant to the present Motion to raise questions of that kind. The only question raised in the Motion which Mr. Speaker put to the House is the question of withholding information as to the duration of the present Parliament. The hon. Member must not go beyond that.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
I must deplore my absence of the subtlety possessed by my hon. Friend, whose less clumsy tongue was able to reach a wide sphere of discussion. Probably under these circumstances I had better repeat the questions my hon. Friend put.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I may remind the hon. Member that there is a Standing Order against repetition.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
I am quite willing to leave myself in your hands as to whether I am wearisome or not. But I come back to the point. Are you going to precipitate this election on the country at a moment when hundreds of thousands of people are to be without employment and without wages, probably without homes—at a time when the whole world is infected with new 2445 revolutionary ideas? There is no excuse for precipitating an election at this moment. The right hon. Gentleman and his chief are abandoning the old ground of principle and wish to secure a personal verdict or a personal issue. A good many people are constantly girding at the party spirit. The party spirit is the very salt that keeps the life of every democratically favoured nation free and healthy. If you substitute the personality of any man, I do not care who he is, for the good old, pure, healthy, party system, you are dealing a deadly blow at all that makes the public life, of this or any other nation pure and healthy.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. S. Walsh)
The Debate has really been extremely interesting, but I think on one or two points the House seems willing to consider the desirability of going back upon its own conduct. The whole argument that has been advanced from the opposite benches really consists in this, that the absent voters, the soldiers and sailors, the proxy voters in Palestine and Mesopotamia and in the far-off reaches of our Empire, as they cannot all effectively vote really ought not to be called upon to vote at all, and therefore the election should fit in with the conditions which exist at the time of its taking place. May I ask the House to consider for a moment why it was that we inserted a special clause in the Representation of the People Act making arrangements for the absent voters and proxy voters. What was the basis upon which this was done? Clearly the idea of the House was that the election would take place in a period of war. If we reduce the case to its simple factors, everyone of us in this House, including my very dear Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool, who were Members of Mr. Speaker's Conference fully visualised the certainty of the election taking place under War conditions, and we recognised, as indeed we must all recognise, the great necessity for so adapting our electoral machinery as to give these men who have been civilians and were not being dispossessed of their civilian rights a chance of voting effectively when the election took place. Inasmuch as all human affairs must be more or less imperfect, you can never have a condition of absolute perfection such as 2446 would seem to me the idea of many Members, if this thing is to be done at all. The House with this full knowledge and a great sense of responsibility placed an addition of 150 per cent. upon the existing register—that is to say, we multiplied by two-and-a-half the voters of the nation. We said to the soldiers: we are not going to be so mean as to deprive you who are fighting to maintain the Empire of your citizenship. We are going to do all we possibly can in exceedingly difficult circumstances—such as have never existed before in the history of the world—to see that the sailors and soldiers must be given as effective a chance as possible to record their votes. The argument now used is that, as there is a great likelihood that many of them cannot vote, therefore, you must postpone the election until they come home. Can anybody deny the doctrine of moral authority that ought to animate an assembly such as this?
Is it not a perfect truth that every day we were feeling that we were really committing a serious infraction against the sense of moral responsibility that ought to guide our actions, and that year by year we were getting less and less in touch with the electorate? When the House with a full knowledge said that the 31st January should be the determining date—
§ Mr. WALSH
—They did it with a full knowledge of the facts, and when they placed the absent voters and the proxy voters as integral parts of the Representation of the People Act, they did it with the idea that the War was going on, and that the election would be conducted under war conditions. It is said by my right hon. Friend (Mr. A. Henderson)—and I use that term in the fullest meaning—that the Coalition included all parties in the House with the exception of one. I share the regret that the party which sits on the benches opposite did not join; but they are the surest arbiters of their own conduct, and we have no right to complain. A coalition does imply the cessation of party conflict; yet my right hon. Friend is the Secretary of the Labour Party which months ago agreed to break the party truce. If he were here he would probably say that he never advised the breaking of the party truce. He never lifted his finger to prevent the breaking of the party truce. He was 2447 very eloquent to-night about the necessity of maintaining the Coalition until the terms of peace have been fully adumbrated—if one may use a special Parliamentary expression—and until the whole of the conditions are fully known upon which the soldiers and sailors when they return will be able to give their opinion. But the right hon. Gentleman himself, as the secretary of the Labour party, has been an assenting party to the breach of the party truce, although the abolition of party conflict during the War is the very basis of any Coalition. We are now told of the deplorable state of things in Russia. We were advised not to do anything that might bring about a similar atmosphere in Great Britain. Yes; but I remember people throwing up their hats in the Labour Party Conference, and hailing the spirit of Russia as a glorious revolution, and hailing the leaders. Now we are told it is deplorable. It is deplorable—I thought it was deplorable then. I think I knew a little more historically than some of the people who threw up their hats and hailed it as a glorious revolution. I thought that the conduct and the spirit of Russia then was deplorable. It would be deplorable if it were imported into this country; but I would really like to see men of great responsibility in the Labour movement, men of high character and great responsibility, doing a little more to stem the incoming of that spirit which is such a deplorable thing in Russia.
What relevance, if I may say so without the slightest disrespect to the Chair, was there in the point about the troubles that will arise when demobilisation takes place? That is an argument that an election should never take place. Clearly we are losing our mandate, our mandate at least is lessening from day to day—[An How. MEMBER: "You would lose your job!"]—and of course an obligation rests upon the House of Commons to place itself more and more in contact with the electors. I think, speaking from memory, that there are 7,000,000 women voters—
§ Mr. WALSH
Yes; I think that the Scottish and English electorate is not included in that. Surely these women, upon whom an almost unutterable anguish has been imposed during the last four and a quarter years, have the right to be consulted at the earliest possible 2448 moment consistent with the broad welfare of the State and the conditions stated by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is not true to say that we are conspiring, or speak of subtle and underhand workings that were talked about, and which would not bear the light of day. I can only say that the real reason I have risen was because of the very direct reference which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) to myself. I know nothing of any conspiracy; I have not the slightest idea of any such thing.
§ Mr. WALSH
For myself, I admit very fully that the conditions to-day are very different from those in existence some few months ago. Let any hon. Member think of the conditions that did exist a few months ago. Labour seemed very strained. In almost every essential industry there were strife and conflict, and it did not seem quite sure to any man who loved his country, and desired that it should come out triumphant from this terrible conflict whether the heart of Labour was altogether antagonistic to the Government, and, of course, if that atmosphere had been maintained the defeat of the Allies and of ourselves was inevitable, and with that defeat the defeat of the hopes of humanity for centuries. Labour, I think it right to say, has become a great deal more conciliatory. I think that the action of the Government, and of every State Department has resulted in greatly amplifying the general goodwill of the nation. In that sense, perhaps, the need for an election is not quite so insistent as it was, but those in the homes of the people, and particularly in the homes of the 7,000,000 women voters have the right to be consulted at the earliest possible moment. [An HON. MEMBER: "Upon what?"] On the general conditions. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Coalition!"] How is it possible for the Leader of the House or any single person to state on an occasion of this kind what the multifarious issues of an election will be? [An HON. MEMBER: Democracy!] I ask any man will he in his own constituency confine himself to one issue? Will he not have to deal with many questions? Are 2449 not the issues at every election multifarious? How is it possible to answer questions which are submitted to us relevantly, but which, of course, every man knows cannot be answered by any single person? What I rose specially for was to say this, that if the Labour movement is willing to say that that an honourable party truce shall be observed during the whole continuance of the War until the conditions of peace are made then there may be a great deal in the point of view submitted by hon. Gentlemen. But inasmuch as the Labour movement which is headed very largely by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnard Castle, declared that the party truce shall be broken, and party conflict shall be brought into the whole political atmosphere, how can he consistently, therefore, take up the attitude he has taken to-night? My last word is that I have no knowledge of any conspiracy. I have no knowledge of it, and I have been in the Labour movement for a very long time and have had a much more direct connection with organised labour, and a much longer connection with organised labour than my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnard Castle. I say there is no conspiracy, and hon. Members may disabuse their minds of the idea.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I only desire to make one or two observations. And may I say that I think the House cordially congratulates the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken on the very bold and independent way in which he has treated this question. I am bound to say that however I may differ from the Prime Minister in politics I think at this particular moment, having regard to the courage and ability and the statesmanlike qualities he has shown in the last few months, fateful months for this Empire and the world, to accuse him of conspiracy, or attempts to gain personal advantage, is the lowest form of argument that could be used. In my opinion the Prime Minister, whatever his faults, and in very few questions do I agree with him, is the great outstanding figure of the Empire at the present moment. After all, what is the argument at the present time against an election? It is a strange thing to find all these democrats criticising what—an appeal to the people of this country! Take care, they say, "lest you encourage Bolshevism if you appeal to the country for their verdict. An appeal to the country is inevitable, and for this simple 2450 reason: You have enfranchised millions of the people of this country who have never voted before. I myself have opposed the enfranchisement of 7,000,000 women, but, having enfranchised them, do you really think, from the moment their names appear upon the register, you have any right, in the face of an Act of Parliament, to prevent them from expressing their opinion, and their opinion at the gravest crisis in the Empire to which they belong? You will make your by-elections a farce if you confine them to those who are on the old, stale register, now nearly eight years old, or six years old [An How. MEMBER: "Nine years."]—or something of that kind, and tell them, "Though you are enfranchised by Act of Parliament, you are to have no voice in deciding who is to be the representative of your constituency in the House of Commons." The truth of the matter is that behind all this parade of objection to the election from the Irish Benches opposite, they are only thinking of what will happen in Ireland, and when the election is over the real reason of this Motion will be found.
There has been no argument, and there can be no argument against an election. What is to happen? Let us look at it practically. Supposing we enter into a Peace Conference, to-morrow or the next day, as I hope we will, when the War is over, as I believe it is nearly over—supposing we enter into a Peace Conference, what will happen? The Peace Conference will sit with closed doors for many months. What are we going to be doing here? Is it not essential, as regards the Peace Conference itself, that the nation should decide who is to have charge of it, and who is to have their confidence. But, apart from that, when you come to consider practically, what we are to be doing, while a Peace Conference is sitting, is it not essential for us that in meeting here we should have the mandate of the country behind us in everything that we do? Otherwise, I know perfectly well what will take place.
This old, worn-out, listless House will not be attending to any of the business of the country. Hon. Members will be in their constituencies thinking of what is to happen when the General Election is to come. That, in the period of reconstruction, when everything is in a state of chaos, that requires the full force of the people behind them in everything they do, would lead to inevitable anathema in the conduct of business in this House; and what is more, while the Peace Conference 2451 was going on, and while we were listless, and while we had no mandate in the country, all the mischief-makers in the country would be doing their best in the backwash of the War, and with a disgruntled population in many respects, to create mischief, chaos, and anarchy.
§ Mr. PRINGLE rose—[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide, divide!"]—
§ It being Eleven of the clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.