§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, this matter has been before us for two years and it is therefore not easy to say anything which is likely to be fresh, but I think it is fair to say that the lapse of time justifies a few reflections upon the -matter. First, let us remind ourselves of the purpose of the Bill. It is to reduce from two years to one year the period of delay open to this House in dealing with legislation coming to us from another place. If we look at it in terms of Parliament sitting for its full term of five years, it means that out of the five Sessions the other House would not be subject to the veto of this House for more than the last Session of Parliament. At present, of course, if these powers were exercised to the full it would be possible for this House to delay Bills for the last two years out of the five of a Parliament's life. We are very strongly of the opinion that one year is quite adequate.
There have been various pleas advanced against the Bill. In the main, the contention has been that time is required for the public to become seized of an issue, for this House to make up their mind what to do about it and so on. Quite frankly, that is a contention which I do not think has much force in it. If we remember the rapidity of communications these days, through the wireless and other means—in addition to the Press which is ever present, and in addition to the efforts of men on the platform—I suggest that it is fanciful to pretend that it requires two years either for this House to make up their mind about a subject or for the public to be adequately informed.
There is one question to which I would refer—and here, I am afraid, I am repeating a reference I made on one of the other occasions on which we dealt with this matter; but it is very illustrative. Your Lordships will remember that not 1012 long ago there was a Bill relating to capital punishment, which came up to your Lordships' House with a provision in it prohibiting capital punishment. Now, it did not require two years for that issue to arouse public attention. It did not require two years for your Lordships to become exceedingly interested in the subject, and to come to a definite opinion on it. As a matter of fact, there was almost a furore within about a fortnight, and it is fair to say that instead of two years being required for the public to be fully seized of the issue, or for this House to be able to deal with it, two months would be a generous estimate. Therefore, I suggest to your Lordships that the case for a long period of delay is an exceedingly narrow one. It is an interesting point—which, of course, we have not overlooked—that this claim was never advanced when there happened to be a Conservative majority at the other end of the passage. We cannot forget that it becomes an issue of first-rate importance only when there is a House of Commons of a constitution not acceptable to the majority in this House.
What does this Bill in fact provide? It provides that there shall be at least a year from the Second Reading in another place before the final stage is reached. In the course of our discussions on previous occasions it was urged that the House of Commons might keep a Bill for a very long time; and that the twelve months which would be available for its consideration would be greatly curtailed, because we might not receive the Bill from the other place within a year. There was considerable validity in that contention; and as a result, as your Lordships may remember, I indicated last time on behalf of the Government, that in order to secure that there should be adequate time we were willing to accept an Amendment to provide that there should be, if required, nine months from the time the Bill was read a third time in the other place; and this was from the time it reached this House. That Amendment, I think I can fairly say, was rejected, with contumely; at all events it was rejected out of hand.
Let us think for a moment about this point. We have had some very great measures before us during this Parliament. Has it ever taken even nine months for this House to deal with a 1013 matter? We pride ourselves—notwithstanding certain animadversions made from time to time by political partisans—about the efficiency with which we deal with Bills which come before us. Take very large Bills like the Transport Bill—a big and complicated measure; or even the Iron and Steel Bill, which is so fresh in our minds. It did not take that length of time: two or three months was a generous allowance, even for these great Bills. And the fact is that this contention that two years' delay is required has nothing in it—and everybody knows it.
Two years ago, however, another point was made against this proposal. It was said that it was a constitutional revolution; and there were many forebodings as to what would happen in consequence. Let us be quite frank with one another; there has been no uprising of public opinion about the Bill. There has been no lively discussion on Conservative platforms. I am not a diligent reader, I must confess, of political speeches as reported in the Press, but I have not noticed a single occasion on which a Conservative candidate tried to work up his audience into anger about this Bill. In fact I have not seen any case in which it has been even mentioned—much less made a matter for attempt at stirrings of revolution. As a matter of fact, the reason is that the Conservative candidates have too much sense; they know there is nothing in the point. The threatened stirring up of revolutionary feelings in the campaign against this Bill—and this is a reflection which I venture to make on what threatened two years ago—has fallen completely flat.
I am sure that the people outside recognise and respect the high quality of our debates in this House. They recognise the high standard of our discussions and the value of the work done here in amendment of Bills; and they also, I am sure (and I am speaking now very much for the members of my own Party) admire and respect the restraint of the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition in the conduct of our business—and I would like parenthetically to say how sorry I am as I am sure the whole House is that the noble Marquess is not able to be here to-day. The public recognise the good service that this House renders. But they also know certain other 1014 things. Let us not forget that they know that the great majority of the Peers of this country never attend this House at all; they know that in reality the work here is done by about 120 to 150 men, and that that number contains a very high proportion of men of real distinction. They also know that in the background, as I expect we shall see in a Division today, this House is overwhelmingly Conservative and that it has no representative authority.
I believe they recognise furthermore that it is not reasonable that this House, if it were so minded, should be able to sterilise two years' out of the five years' work of another place if it did not approve of it. They also know that to suggest that it requires two years for us here to make up on' minds, or for the public generally to make up their minds, about great issues is, with the greatest respect, just ridiculous There is nothing in the claim. I, for one, regret exceedingly that an opportunity which offered itself two years or so ago to deal with the Constitution of this House and many other matters upon which we had attained so large a measure of agreement should be thrown away. I have regretted it ever since and continue to regret it. I think it will or may prove in the course of time to be another of the tragic blunders which the Conservative Party have committed in the face of a great opportunity. At any rate, we shall all agree on this: that, whatever we may think about it, it is too late in this Parliament to redeem that blunder. What has happened since then has fortified the Government and the Labour Party in their resolution to proceed with this Bill. It is entirely reasonable in itself, and I say, without vestige of dubiety, that there is no evidence whatever either from by-elections or elsewhere, that on this subject the people think differently from the Government. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Addison.)
§ 2.53 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, as the Leader of the House has said, I am sure that in all quarters of the House there will be deep regret that our Leader on this side has at the last moment been smitten down by bronchitis and is unable to be present to say the last word on this 1015 Bill from this side of the House. What is said here to-day is not the last word; the final verdict. That will rest with the electors of this country. Whatever misrepresentations are made during the Election—and I have no doubt they will be many and varied—I do not think they will obscure the simple issue which is before the House to-day and which will be before the country at the next Election.
Let me deal at once with one argument which was made by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House in what was a modest, moderate and agreeable speech. After a rather curious allusion to the death penalty, he based his claim for the Bill on the composition of this House. But that is not the issue before us in this Bill. This House has not objected to being reformed. On the contrary, for thirty years it has been pressing that it should be reformed and successive Governments—not only of one complexion, I admit—have declined to do it. It was not on the composition that our real disagreements took place in the Conference. We came fairly near to agreement there—I am not going outside the published terms—and the general principle that there ought to be a Second Chamber in which no Party had necessarily a continuous majority was accepted as common ground. If that is the objection which noble Lords opposite have to this House, why do they not proceed to lay before us proposals for a reform of the Second Chamber? On the contrary, they made it abundantly plain that, whatever reforms took place in the composition of this House, they would not give to a reformed House any more powers or any greater powers than they are prepared under this Bill to concede now. Therefore that entirely disposes of that "red herring" of the composition of the House and the backwoodsmen as bogeys in the background.
Nor was the Leader of the House, if I may say so respectfully, much more fortunate or felicitous in his description of the powers which this Chamber claims to exercise. It does not seek to override the popular will. This House has never arrogated to itself the right to interpret the popular will. But where the popular will is being clearly flouted or where it is at best very doubtful, 1016 this House has the right and the duty to give time for reflection and for the expression of the will of the people. It is that which involves what is known as the power of delay. The Leader of the House said in effect that the period of time was of little consequence. But it must be remembered, although the Government so often conveniently forget it, that this country, practically alone of all the great nations of the world, has no written Constitution and, what is much more important than the absence of a written Constitution, that the whole Constitution can be altered by the introduction of a simple Bill introduced by a Government with a temporary majority in another place. It may be that that majority is a small majority. It may represent only a minority of the British people. It may have become still less representative with the passage of time and the conduct of affairs by the Government of the day. Yet, under our Constitution, such a Government and such a majority have this vast unfettered power—unfettered, that is, except in so far as restraint may be exercised in case of need by a Second Chamber.
It is that which makes any Bill dealing with the Constitution so important. Not only are its proposals important; it is vitally important to be sure that the country approves the measure. That has always been recognised in the past. When Mr. Asquith introduced the Parliament Act of 1911 he insisted on two things: first, that the Second Chamber should have an effective power of delay —namely, the two years laid down in that Act—and, secondly, that the Bill should be submitted specifically and, indeed, textually to the electors in order to be sure that there was a popular mandate for what was proposed. How different that is from what is being done now by the present Government!
I think most people are still wondering why this Bill was ever introduced. If the Socialist Government had really feared that this House would thwart their mandate, surely a Bill would have been introduced in the early days of the present Parliament. Of course, there was no such fear. The noble Viscount has paid a just tribute to the leadership of my noble Leader and, I think he added, the judgment exercised—and so readily exercised 1017 —by his followers. Certainly your Lordships in the years that have passed in this Parliament have given no cause for any such fear. There have come to this House Bill after Bill which the great majority of your Lordships thought ill-advised and which events have proved to be singularly ill-timed and unsuccessful; yet all those Bills have been passed. It is true that they were passed in a great deal better form than that in which we received them. Literally thousands of Amendments have been made here which the Government and another place have accepted as necessary or desirable. That has all been clone by common consent and has evoked not only the approval of the present Government but certainly, as the Leader of the House has said, the fullest approval of the country.
There have been two exceptions; two issues on which we have been in conflict. First, there was the question of the death penalty. I was rather surprised to find the Leader of the House praying that case in aid of his argument in favour of the Bill. My Lords, in the matter of the death penalty the Government accepted your Lordships' decision. Why? Because they knew that that decision was right. Their own followers, not for the first and possibly not for the last time, had flouted the advice given them by their leaders. Furthermore, the Government knew that this House was correctly interpreting the will of the people. It is quite true that it did not take long for that issue to be understood by the people. But if the period of delay is whittled down and whittled down, what guarantee is there that a House of Commons determined to do what it desires, with pressure groups pressing upon amenable leaders, would have agreed to the will of the people if, in the last resort, your Lordships had not had a real power to make the will of the people effective or to give the public their chance?
Then there was the Steel Bill, the real genesis of this Bill. There is no secret that on the nationalisation of iron and steel the Government were much divided; and it is notorious that the Steel Bill itself, when it was finally produced to Parliament, bore little relation to and went far 'beyond anything for which a shadow of a mandate could be claimed. Moreover, the economic crisis which we face to-day has completely changed the 1018 circumstances in which the nationalisation of iron and steel was ever considered or discussed at the last Election—if, indeed, it ever was so considered by anybody. Here, if ever, there was a case in which the House of Lords was justified and bound to give the people a chance of deciding this momentous issue. Indeed, the Government have accepted the whole substance of your Lordships' Amendments postponing the operation of the Steel Bill until after an Election has taken place and the people have expressed their will.
Yet not only was the Steel Bill the genesis of the Parliament Bill—the Parliament Bill was never heard of before that controversy—but that consultation with the people in regard to steel was exactly what this Parliament Bill was designed to prevent. The retrospective clause in this Parliament Bill had, and could have, no other purpose but to force through the Steel Bill before the people had been consulted. Like a kangaroo, the Parliament Bill carried the Steel Bill in its pouch. My Lords, we have heard of kangaroo closures, but this is the first and, I hope, the last time any of a; will meet a kangaroo Bill. And the kangaroo was abortive, for the Government have accepted the whole substance of your Lordships' contentions regarding the Steel Bill. How foolish that sinister, retrospective clause looks now. It will remain for the time being on the Statute Book, a shoddy monument of Political ineptitude.
My Lords, the issue before us and before the country to-day is really one of single-Chamber government. That is what the Parliament Act of 1911 was most carefully designed to avoid. It was designed to give this Chamber those rights and duties which are necessary to safeguard, not our position, but the national interest and the popular will, and to give a reasonable time for delay and reflection. The Leader of tie House spoke to-day as if all issues were as simple as that of the death penalty. Of course, that is not so. Some issues are simple; others are very complex, and emerge clearly only after month; and months of debate in both Houses of Parliament. Unless sufficient time given for the people to form a considered view, there may he put into force legislation to which public opinion is entirely opposed and which may have disastrous and, indeed, irrevocable results.
1019 Now the Government have evolved an entirely novel and unconstitutional doctrine—I am glad that we did not hear it to-day, but it has been the theme song of almost every ministerial speech in another place. It is this: that once a House of Commons is elected, that House of Commons is the sole interpreter of the popular will; it is absolute until another election. Under this novel theory, the electors give to the Government and their majority in the House of Commons, an irrevocable power of attorney. Doctor Dalton, seldom the most discreet of men, has suggested that your Lordships' powers should be still further curtailed. But is he not logical when he suggests that? If the House of Commons is to be all-powerful at all times, why have a Second Chamber at all?—unless, indeed, it is to camouflage the reality of the absolute autocracy of another place. Do not forget that the modern technique of minority autocracies is always to preserve the camouflage of popular institutions, while effectively stifling or suppressing the popular will.
An effective Second Chamber is to-day more than ever the safeguard of popular freedom. It is the safeguard against extremists, whether of the Right or of the Left, and there is little difference between them. They are blood brothers and both are bad guides. It is a vital safeguard of democracy where there is no written Constitution, and where Parliament can do anything. The attitude which your Lordships' House have adopted on this Bill, on the Steel Bill and on the question of the death penalty, is good constitutional law and good sense. And it is essentially democratic. Four years ago, almost to the day, the present Foreign Secretary, Mr. Bevin, speaking in the House of Commons, of that House and of the British Constitution, used these words which I commend to his colleagues. He said:Where does the power to make law actually rest? It is not even in this House,"—That was the House of Commons, of course:it is certainly not in the Executive, it is in the votes of the people. They are the sovereign authority.Mr. Churchill has recently supplied the counterpart as regards this House, when he said: 1020It is not the function of the House of Lords to govern the people, but to make sure that the people have the right to govern themselves.That exactly expresses our attitude. That is the trust we cannot betray. That, my Lords, is the issue on which we shall vote, and which we shall commit with confidence to the people.
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SAMUEL
My Lords, I share fully the regret, which has been expressed by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, that this Bill comes before your Lordships' House for the third time by itself, as it was introduced, unaccompanied by any measure for the reform of your Lordships' House. I had hoped at one moment, when the three-Party Conference had sat and reached substantial agreement on all points relating to the composition of the House, that at last, after seven centuries of history, this great Assembly would be able to go forward and with unanimous voice propose change in its own composition which was suited to the modern world and which would have been agreed by the whole body of the nation. That opportunity was missed. To my mind it was a thousand pities. I feel very strongly that the responsibility rests mainly with the Conservative Party. They should have agreed to the Government's compromise proposal on the question of powers. There was a difference of only three months in the period of delay between what they were willing to accept and what the Government proposed, and for the sake of those three months it was not worth while abandoning the whole scheme. It would have been in the interests not only of the nation taken as a whole, but also of Conservatism to have settled satisfactorily and by agreement this vexed question of the Second Chamber. Every wise man, no matter what his political creed, should have in him some element of conservatism, of caution, and a sense of continuity. However, it is too late now. That moment which should have been seized has been let slip. I can only express the hope that, in the next Parliament, by unanimous agreement between Party leaders the question of the composition of this House may be again brought forward, and that on that occasion it may come to fruition.
I stand before your Lordships to-day as the only survivor in your Lordships' 1021 House of the Cabinet of 1911, the only survivor of that Cabinet which passed the Parliament Act which it is now proposed to amend. How different the situation is now from what it was in those stormy years! Then the battle for supremacy between the two Houses was fought out and decided, once and for all. But it needed two General Elections in a single year on that specific issue; it needed a great effort to overcome the obdurate resistance offered, and at the end it was only by the narrow majority of seventeen votes that your Lordships' House of that time passed the Parliament Act. That was achieved only by invoking the reserve powers of the Crown, which is tied to no class and protects no privilege. The Crown is as much a part of our democratic Constitution as any other feature in it. Those powers were rightly invoked on that occasion, as all the world now agrees, and rightly there was acquiescence by the Sovereign, who was prepared to exercise the powers of the Crown if the necessity arose. It is a matter of history—and again it is commonly agreed—that your Lordships' House in those years was wrongly advised in rejecting, Session after Session, many of the most important Bills of a Government who were sustained by a great majority in the House of Commons.
How different is the position now! Today, as a consequence of that battle and of that victory, your Lordships' House, though it still has a great Conservative majority, is led with great prudence and moderation by the noble Marquess whose absence to-day I, with all other members of your Lordships' House, so deeply regret. In the course that has been followed during these four or five years, Liberal, Peers sitting on these Benches entirely concur. Only two matters of difference have been pushed to the end, and on both occasions noble Lords generally on these Benches have concurred with the official Opposition. First, there was the insistence that the Steel Bill should not be brought into operation until after a General Election; secondly (and this is a matter which has been referred to by both the previous speakers) there was the question of capital punishment. Here again, I believe, the world agrees that on that issue of capital punishment the House of Lords were right and the Government were wrong. I think that many of the members of the Government 1022 would, in their hearts, agree with that verdict. But not one item large or small, in the programme of the present Government has been thrown out by the House of Lords in this Parliament, as measures were thrown out in the old days before the passage of the Parliament Act.
I have no doubt that when the Election comes, the tale of the achievements of the present Government will be put forward in every Election address of the Labour candidates, and on every platform there will be set out a catalogue of the measures beneficial to the people which, under the leadership of the present Government, have been put upon the Statute Book. They have reached tie Statute Book? How have they reached it? Through both Houses of Parliament. I think the Government will find it very difficult at the same time loudly to proclaim the magnificent legislative harvest of these five years and also to make an issue of the "intolerable obstruction" of an unrepresentative House of Lords.
With respect to the Bill now before us, for Liberals in Parliament and in the country it has two aspects. Both of them are legitimate; both of them can be regarded as embodying sound arguments. Some may say that with an hereditary Peerage in partial control of the Government and the State—and, after all, in spite of all additions which have been made in recent years, three out of four members of your Lordships' House of more than 800 members hold their seats by hereditary right—the more the powers of such a Second Chamber are cut down the better it is, and that whenever a Government present a Bill to extend still further the Parliament Act and reduce still more the powers if delay that Bill ought to be supported by good democrats. They may say that by so doing anyone who holds that view w ill best sustain and continue the policy that was embodied in the Parliament Act by the Liberal Government of Mr. Asquith nearly forty years ago.
The other view that may be held by people of democratic mind and progressive politics is that the Parliament Act which was passed in 1911 has worked well; that it embodied the considered view of those who spoke for Liberalism in this country; that it contained what they believed to be the right solution so far as powers were concerned, and that 1023 what is needed now is reform of the composition. So far as powers are concerned, that was the settlement arrived at by a powerful Liberal Government with a great majority in another place at that time. The question is: What should be done until the reform of the constitution of your Lordships' House is carried into effect? What should be done during the interim—if interim be the right word to cover a period which has already extended nearly forty years?
The Parliament Act did not embody only a provision for abolishing the absolute veto of the House of Lords; it did not embody only a provision for removing all control over finance by the House of Lords; it did not embody only a clause reducing the lifetime of a Parliament from seven years to five: it also provided for a two years' delay and a three-fold passage of a Bill through another place. That was as much part of our proposals at that time as any other feature of the Parliament Act. We did not support a single Chamber, and when we were accused of being supporters of a single Chamber we said, "No, we have deliberately put in this proposal which allows that period of delay." For my own part, I am not prepared to plead guilty to abandoning the policy of the Parliament Act, of betraying the principles of those who supported those proposals, when I am doing nothing more or less than defending the very principles and the clauses of that Parliament Act itself.
Of these two views, my right honourable and honourable friends in another place, and no doubt numbers of Liberals throughout the country, have preferred the first. So long as your Lordships' House remains unrepresentative, they think that our powers ought to be reduced to a minimum. My noble friends in this House prefer the second view, and say that we should stand by the Parliament Act as the Liberal Government passed it. It is hot unusual—it frequently happens to the Conservative Party—that different views are taken where no matter of political principle is concerned, and whether the delaying period should be one year or two is no great State issue. Frequently, the Opposition in another place take one view and 1024 noble Lords, quite rightly, take a different view. How often when great Bills come forward in another place there are much sound and fury, excited debates, crowded Division Lobbies, the "old lion" roaring, and when the Bill comes to your Lordships' House, under the moderate guidance of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, we have an air of sweet reasonableness and placid calm. In another place, the Leader of the Opposition might say, in words familiar to your Lordships and which come from A Midsummer Night's Dream:I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar, that I will make the duke say, 'Let him roar again, let him roar again'.But when it comes to your Lordships' House, so asnot to fright the ladies"—in this case no doubt, the electors—the Leader of the Opposition might say:I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; will roar you an 'twere any nightingale.These differences do occur between the attitudes of the two Houses and the Parties in them to various principles, and it is not improper that it should be so.
So far from the rejection of this Bill—which we shall vote for—being contrary to the spirit of the Parliament Act, we have had the recent example of the Steel Bill. As The Times said, this Bill was intended to be the pathfinder for the Steel Bill. We had exactly the kind of case to which the Parliament Act was meant by its authors to apply. If there had been no Steel Bill, I am pretty sure there would have been no Parliament Bill. The electorate were not made aware as a really prominent issue in the last General Election of 1945 that the Steel Bill would be introduced. In another place, an October 31, the Lord President of the Council, Mr. Morrison, defended this measure because he objected to issues being referred to the electorate by the House of Lords—when they have already been resolved at the last Election.How many of the voters, when they went to the poll at the last Election, were conscious that during the lifetime of this Parliament a great measure such as the nationalisation of the iron and steel industry was to be carried out, a measure 1025 of great importance affecting the whole economic position of the nation? If the industry is nationalised and it fails, if the administration is inefficient and unsuccessful, it will do infinite injury to the whole economic life of the country and to the standard of living of the people. Furthermore, that Bill came forward at the very end of a Parliament, and during the years of that Parliament we have had much new experience with regard to nationalisation which ought to be taken into account. There are new factors, and there is no reason to suppose that the electorate need necessarily acquiesce in that Bill now with the same measure of indifference as at the time of the last General Election, after so many industries have been nationalised not always with great success.
Therefore, I conic to this conclusion: that if ever there was a case when the functions reserved by Parliament to a Second Chamber should be exercised, this case of the Steel Bill is it. Yet—and here is the point to which I would draw your Lordships' special attention—if this Parliament Act amendment Bill had been already the law of the land, if we were now working under a Parliament Act of this sort, passed, say, in 1946 or 1947, the Steel Bill would at this very day have come into force as the law of the land, without any reference to the constituencies at all; for the period of one year would have elapsed from the Second Reading of the Bill in another place on the first occasion on November 17, 1948. We are now at November 29, 1949. The period would have elapsed and the Royal Assent would have been given to that Bill, if this new Parliament Bill had taken the place of the Parliament Act of 1911 as the law of the land.
There are other factors to be taken into account. All these conditions indicate that had the Steel Bill become effective in law—as it would have done but for a late concession of the Government—under the provisions of this measure, it would have had legal validity, but it would not have had moral validity, considering its history. The Conservative leaders declared that if they came into power after the next General Election they would repeal that Bill. That will not now be necessary, because it will not be put into operation, owing to the recent Amendments which the House of Lords 1026 proposed and which, in effect, though in slightly different terms, have been accepted by the Government. But the Conservative leaders said they would have repealed this Bill, and in my view they would have been within their rights in doing so, taking into account all the history of the case.
It is a very undesirable thing that one Parliament should have to undo the work of another. Hitherto, in the working of our Constitution, we Lave always avoided that. Each Parliament in turn has been willing to accept the work of its predecessor and has not cancelled it out by a series of repeals. It would have been an unhappy thing if, for the first time, as I think, it should be necessary and legitimate for a new Parliament to undo the work of its immediate predecessor. Once that became the practice of the Constitution, and if it were made a precedent, it might well be quoted later, and so would introduce into our legislation an air of uncertainty and instability which would have a most deleterious effect upon our industrial life, upon our financial constitution and upon the national life in general. It is far better, therefore, as has now been agreed, that the coming into force of the Steel Act should be held over.
Why has this change occurred? What is the reason for this unexpected change in the Government's programme for this Parliament? Why did they at the last moment, and after a considerable time had elapsed for consideration, decide to accept the Lords' Amendments which, in effect, postpone the operation of the Act until after the General Election? Is it because they recognise the justice of that demand on general constitutional grounds? Not at all. They deny that it would have been wrong to pass it in the life of the present Parliament. Is it because in any case is would not be practicable to bring the Act into full operation within the period that they had intended, that they would not be able to set up the authority to administer the Act, and for other similar reasons? That may be true, and it may render the change less distasteful. But that would not of itself have obliged them to make this change.
I am inclined to think that there may be another reason—namely, that, from the point of view of legislation once the 1027 Steel Bill was passed the way would be clear for an early General Election if they found it expedient to undertake one. What their view is likely to be I am unwilling even to guess; very likely they have not yet decided. The fact remains that it may have been a very cogent argument to say that it would make no difference in the actual working out of the scheme to agree to the postponement; while if they did not do so, and did not pass the Bill at once, the timetable, under the provisions of the Parliament Act, would necessitate postponing a General Election until at least the late Spring, and possibly even later.
The month of April is an important month in the Parliamentary calendar, because it is the Budget month. What the provisions of the Budget may be would probably have a great influence upon the course of an Election coming very quickly afterwards. If devaluation succeeds—if by the early Spring we are likely to be well on the way to a solution of the dollar problem, if our gold and dollar reserves are steadily recovering, and if, consequently, the Budget is likely to be an easy or even a popular one, then there would be much to he said, from the standpoint of the Government, for waiting until after those events had taken place before going to the country. If, on the other hand, they foresee that the opposite may occur—that the reserves may still be diminishing, that the pound may still be falling in the markets of the world, and that the economic position is still so grave and gloomy that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to bring, in a Budget in accordance with those facts—then for the Government to go straight away to the country would be political ineptitude.
In the course of my career I have often heard of a Government saying they would wait and introduce a popular Budget, and then go to the country; but I have never heard of a Government saying that they would wait and introduce an unpopular Budget and then go to the country. That possibly being the situation, we may have an explanation there of this change of programme.
Last November, after devaluation, there was a good deal of pressure from the newspapers and from the Conservative Party for an immediate Election. 1028 Had the Government acceded to that pressure, I am certain that immediately afterwards those who had been advocating a General Election would at once have accused the Government of running away from their responsibilities, of having got the country into a mess and of leaving it to other people to get us out of it by taking the harsh measures that would be necessary to recover the situation. Those would have been the immediate consequences. The Government, however, took credit—and perhaps rightly took credit—for not having done that, and for having been willing to face the situation and bear their responsibilities. They vaunted themselves on their virtue, as they were entitled to do. I am waiting to see whether, if the Budget is likely to he unfavourable, they will still maintain that virtuous attitude; whether they will still go on and face the consequences, bring in the Budget and take measures, however unpopular, to combat the situation, and then go to the country appealing for respect for their own virtues in having regard to the financial interests of the country. It is probable that that question has not yet been finally answered by the Government, because they cannot foresee—as none of us can foresee—whether the economic situation will turn out favourably or unfavourably; and in this period our politics are dominated by our economics. I believe that history will regard the story of the Iron and Steel Bill and the Parliament Bill together as a most complicated pattern of political manœuvring. As to this Bill, we on these Benches feel that the House ought to reject it, and we shall vote accordingly.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ LORD TEVIOT
My Lords, I desire to detain your Lordships for only a few moments, but I must take up the noble Viscount the Leader of the House on two things which he said. He apparently does not meet the many people in the country, in all walks of life, whom I meet, and who all say: "Thank God for the House of Lords." They are fully alive to the importance of this House. The noble Viscount referred to the results of the by-elections. I have often heard members of his Party refer with satisfaction to the results of the by-elections. I took the trouble to ask somebody in my political office to look up the results of by-elections during this century. It is a 1029 curious thing that, no matter what Government have been in office, if the majority in a constituency at the General Election was 5,000 and upwards it has practically never been reversed in a by-election. I think I am correct in saying that during the term of office of this Government, there has been only one by-election where the majority was less than 5,000—South Hammersmith, where it was 3,800-odd. So far as I can remember, in every case the by-elections have shown a big diminution in the majority of the Government candidate. I hope the noble Viscount will bear that fact in mind in future.
It, is absolutely essential, as we all know, that we have a really strong Second Chamber, and I have taken the trouble to look up the powers of Second Chambers in other countries. I find that in the Commonwealth of Australia their Senate has is Socialist majority at the moment. I find that one of the conditions under which the Senate works is that the Senate may not originate or amend money bills and that disagreement with the House of Representatives may result in dissolution or, in the last resort, a joint sitting of both Houses. Your Lordships will see that the feeling throughout the world is that there should always be a strong Second Chamber. In view of what was said by Sir Stafford Cripps, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, in Bristol on February 28 last year, I feel that we do need a very strong Second Chamber here. This is what he said on that date:If we fail as a nation in tackling and solving our problems by methods of social democracy, then we shall find ourselves drawn into totalitarian expedients.Think what a sinister remark that is. We in this country need a really strong Second Chamber which will combat anything such as is suggested, or perhaps hidden, in the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Parliament Bill seems to me to 'mean that this House would have no effective powers to restrain extremism anywhere in our political life and, therefore, under this Bill we should become nothing more than a debating Chamber. For that reason I shall vote against the Bill.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
My Lords, as I listened to my noble 1030 friend the Leader of the House, with that admiration which he always excites in our breasts, and heard his disquisition as to the extreme moderation of everything that he has proposed, I could not help being reminded of the old nursery rhyme of the housewife going into the farmyard to collect material for the family dinner, and saving to the assembled ducks:Dilly, dilly, dilly, come and be killed.That was really the attitude of my noble friend.
At the beginning of this controversy there were two distinct issues. It was thought that the Parliament Bill was introduced in order to force through the Steel Bill and, therefore, during the discussions the merits of that Bill were partly in issue. But it also raised—and this is the only point upon which I am going to address your Lordships—very acutely, particularly by its retroactive clause, the whole question of the Second Chamber. That is a very important question and I beg your Lordships not to underrate it. Its existence, its powers and -its constitution are the real issues with which we are faced in this Bill. It is clear that, quite apart from the special provisions of this Bill and the question of one year, two years or three years, its actual provisions create a 'precedent for any further diminution which may be desired by the Cabinet of the day of the powers of the Second Chamber. That has already been partially recognised this afternoon, but it is the point 'upon which I desire to press your Lordships very strongly.
It has become obvious to anyone who has been reading what has happened in the last few weeks, that an active and influential section of the Labour Party, if not the whole of it, adopting a very different tone front that of my noble friend who leads the House, intend to use this precedent for the further diminution of the legislative powers of this House. It has become almost a commonplace of ministerial speeches that, in principle, the Second Chamber ought to be abolished, or at least deprived of all its legislative authority. We may take it as certain that in any future Parliament the powers of this House for resection—and not for rejection only, but even for delay—are to be at the mercy of any Government which may in the future control the House of Commons. It is true, of course, that 1031 the right of discussion and suggestion with regard to any legislative proposal will remain, but it will be in essence no greater than that possessed by many other bodies who are accustomed to consider legislative proposals. The Trades Union Congress, for instance, or any other body which exists to advocate any legislative proposals—such as the World Government Society or the United Nations—will have just as much power over legislation as will belong to this House; that is, the same power of discussion and suggestion as belongs to every debating society in the Kingdom. That is no exaggeration—that is the literal fact of what will or may be the position of this House. Some bodies are no doubt more influential than others, but the point is that this House will have no more legislative power than any of those bodies which exist in the country. The issue we therefore have to face is the question of whether in our Constitution there ought to be a single legislative Chamber or two such Chambers.
I am not going to enter upon any elaborate disquisition as to the advantages of the Second Chamber; they seem to me obvious. The whole question—and it is the question we have constantly reiterated—is whether there is to be any right of appeal from the First Chamber to the electorate before measures of great importance are carried into law. It is unnecessary to remind your Lordships that the overwhelming mass of constitutional opinion in the democratic part of the civilised world is in favour of the existence of a power to insist on such an appeal. Sometimes it is by a Second Chamber and sometimes by referendum; but whatever the device is, the power of appeal remains. I have read frequently, in publications which support the view that a single Chamber is sufficient, the allegation that because the House of Commons represents the people there is therefore no need for further appeal to them. I believe that to be an entire illusion. I do not think it was ever true, but in the past it might fairly have been said that the people had appointed the Members of the House of Commons as their deputies and representatives, and that each Member was authorised and expected to use his own judgment as to what his constituents really desired and to act 1032 accordingly. Even during my life-time it was still true to say that something like that was roughly the position of a Member of Parliament—a position which, as your Lordships know, was vehemently contended for by all sorts of authorities whom I need not cite.
I remember well the Parliament of 1880, in which there was a considerable Liberal majority, being returned in the General Election of that year. But that was a majority which was by no means docile. The Members thought for themselves, and the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Gladstone, who was probably as powerful a Parliamentarian as ever lived, could not rely on carrying his Government measures through the House of Commons unless the majority of Members, using their independent powers of consideration, had arrived at the conclusion that the Government policy was in accordance with the wishes of the people. As your Lordships will doubtless recollect, the Gladstone Government were repeatedly in danger of defeat in the House of Commons, even during the first years of their existence. And though that was substantially avoided in that Parliament, yet in the succeeding Parliament, which also had a large Liberal majority, the House of Commons decided to reject the Home Rule Bill and force a dissolution which resulted in the defeat of the Government at the polls.
No such event would be possible under the present working of our Constitution. That is the point I desire most strongly to press on your Lordships. We had then something very nearly approaching to a democracy. We have changed it for a democratic oligarchy, the oligarchy being the Cabinet of the day. Substantially, whatever they do the Cabinet of the day are in no danger of serious defeat by the modern House of Commons. So long as they retain control of the Party machine they can prevent any considerable revolt of their followers. That has been increasingly true for many years before the present Government came into office. Should a member of the majority vote against the Government of the day on any important question, immediately pressure has been put upon him through his constituency by the Party central offices. Every kind of inducement has been employed to prevent his action; and 1033 if he declines to be coerced in that way, it is pretty certain nowadays, unless he has some very strong personal and local influence, that he will lose his seat at the next General Election through the action of the central Party organisation.
That, as I say, has been so for many years past, but it has become much more definite and explicit at the present time. Therefore we have to ask ourselves whether we will entrust all legislative powers in this country to a single Chamber which is at the orders of the Cabinet of the day. That is the real truth. Indeed, a modern Cabinet seem in these matters to be as powerful as an absolute monarch; and though it may truly be said that they owe their power ultimately to the votes of the electorate, yet that was equally true of rulers like Napoleon III—or even Hitler. A despot does not become less of a despot because he obtained power by a plebiscite; a Cabinet is no less an oligarchy because its powers have a similar origin. If it be said that in any case the Cabinet will have to face the electors in not less than five years' time, I reply that even that safeguard, insufficient as it appears to me to be, may be swept away by the procedure inaugurated by this Bill. With these considerations in view, it seems to me that this is no time to talk of abolishing the powers of the Second Chamber. T am sure that they ought to be maintained and even strengthened—only there is one great difficulty.
The present House of Lords has a very great history, going back at any rate to the days of Edward I, and perhaps further. It has a great tradition of public duty, honestly and capably carried out, and I trust that I shall not be regarded as impertinent if I say that the present House of Lords has worthily discharged its traditional duties. I have seen various schemes for improving its membership by confining it to people who have already proved their capacity in other ways. I say frankly that such schemes do not much appeal to me. I have no belief that a House consisting of ex-Governors or ex-civil servants or ex-dignitaries of other kinds would be a better Chamber than the present one. I have to admit one great point against our present House t that is that there are in it a permanent majority of members who hold the views of one of the great Parties of 1034 the State. To my mind that is an objection to which no satisfactory reply has been suggested in the schemes to which I have alluded. I believe that the members of a reformed Chamber would be just as conservative as the present House. I cannot think that a Second Chamber which permanently favours one Party will be able to retain any considerable legislative power. The great days of the House of Lords were when it was really impartial as between the different forms of political thought in the country and when it exercised its powers sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. That, of course, is no longer the case, and I am satisfied that if we are to preserve a Second Chamber—as I devoutly hope we shall—we must meet that great objection. It can be met, so far as I can see, only by entrusting the legislative functions of this House to members who can truly claim that they are actually representatives of the settled views of the electorate.
I will not, on this occasion, attempt to sketch the details of any scheme by which that result could be achieved, but I do not think it would be very difficult to devise such a scheme. One word of caution only I will add. I believe that it would be a very great mistake to destroy the present House. Apart from a few minor alterations, I hope that it will remain substantially as it is, but its legislative duties must he carried out by a section who have behind them the authority of the electors. I believe that this is absolutely essential if we are to maintain the Second-Chamber Constitution of this country. I am convinced that it will rest with the majority of the members of this House whether or not that result is attained. If they agree that a real Second Chamber is essential, and are ready to take the necessary steps to secure it, then I do not believe that any House of Commons, however avaricious of its powers it may be, will in the end be able to resist a policy of that kind.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT JOWITT)
My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships more than a few minutes because I realise that the time has come when we want to record our votes, and also because I realise that, whatever eloquence I might possess, I could not possibly persuade your Lordships to stray from the paths which have already 1035 been mapped out by the various leaders. For my own part, whether two years is or is not too long to ascertain the opinion of the electors, I am perfectly certain it is too long for those who at comparatively regular and recurring intervals have to get up and talk again on this Bill in an endeavour to find something new to say about it.
If I may be allowed to say so, it must also be quite long enough for the Liberal Party. I have always had the most profound admiration for both the personality and the oratorical efforts of the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel. I do not think I ever in my life have heard anybody perform with such skill and agility such an appallingly difficult task as he has performed to-day. As a result of the three occasions in this House when voting on the Bill took place, the Liberal Peers are one up against." On the first occasion they voted for a Second Reading. On the second occasion they voted against a Second Reading and on the third occasion they are going to vote against a Second Reading. That makes them one up "against." But my recollection is that in another place the Liberal Party have been two to one the other way. So that in the match as between the two Houses, the Liberal Party seem to be all square. I confess that had I been the noble Viscount, I should not have used the phrase about "roaring" in the circumstances. It seems to me that that leaves him open to some misconstruction.
For the rest, I should like to say this. I am old enough to remember the controversies of 1909, those full-blooded controversies that we had in those days. It is the fact that there is nothing to-day to compare with the rancour and asperity of Party politics which was shown at that time. It is the fact, as the Leader of the House has said, that honesty compels us to admit that the passage of this Bill has excited very little public interest one way or the other. Perhaps it is because we have not the platform orators to-day that we had in those days. It has become traditional on these occasions to quote something from Mr. Churchill in his unregenerate days. I wish we had somebody to give us the same sort of "stuff" (dare I call it?) to-day. At any rate, it would make the newspapers more interesting reading. There is the magnificent passage about the: 1036400 or 500 backwoodsmen Peers, all meditating on their estates on the great questions of government, all studying Ruff's Guide and other blue books, all revolving the problems of Empire and Epsom, every one of them a heaven-born, God-granted legislator.That is good reading.
Then the prophecy as to the future. This is from 1909 and Mr. Churchill is indicating what is going to happen in the future:As democracy becomes more numerous and educated, more varied, more complex and more powerful, it is necessary that the House of Lords should recede and, retire. It is necessary that it should count less and less. Most men expected that gradually as things happen in the history of our country the House of Lords would pass peacefully and painlessly away. That would have been a natural evolution, much better for us and much better for them.Who accuses us of being in favour of single-Chamber government?
Now I stop to say one word about the speech of the other Liberal leader, Lord Teviot, with his peculiar brand of Liberalism which has for its slogan, "Thank God for the House of Lords!" He told us about the powers of other Second Chambers. But perhaps the noble Lord would consider that other Second Chambers are elected chambers. The problem which we have to consider here is, what powers shall we give to a Second Chamber which is not an elected Chamber? If you had an elected Chamber here, of course, the problem would be wholly different from the problem as it is.
I pass now to consider the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton. He drew us a dramatic picture of what I think he called an abortive—I suppose he meant "aborted"—kangaroo carrying its young in its pouch. I do not quite know how I square all those things. "But," he said, "this is virtually single-Chamber government. Why have a Second Chamber at all?" I will tell your Lordships why I, at any rate, am in favour of a Second Chamber, why I believe and hope that for many years to come we shall have a Second Chamber, and what, in my view, its functions should be. First, its functions should be the examination and revision of Bills brought from the House of Commons. That function has become more needed since, on many occasions during the last thirty years, the House of Commons has 1037 been obliged to act under special rules limiting debate. So far, I take it we are all agreed. Secondly, its functions should be the initiation of Bills dealing with subjects of a comparatively non-controversial character which may have an easier passage through the House of Commons if they have been fully discussed and put into a well-considered shape before being submitted there. Thirdly, its functions should be the interposition of so much delay (and no more) in the passing of a Bill into law as may be needed to enable the opinion of the nation to be adequately expressed upon it. This would be specially needed as regards Bills which affect the fundamentals of the Constitution or introduce new principles of legislation. Fourthly, there should be full and free discussion of large and important questions, such as those of foreign policy, at moments when the House of Commons may happen to be so much occupied that it cannot find sufficient time for them. Such discussions may often be all the more useful if conducted in an Assembly whose debates and Divisions do not involve the fate of the executive Government.
All your Lordships agree with those propositions. Those were the propositions unanimously adopted by the Bryce Report on the functions of a Second Chamber in 1917, and, with the greatest respect to the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, he is quite wrong in saying that any responsible member of this Government has committed himself to the proposition that we want to achieve in this country single-Chamber government. We do not. I, at any rate, have never heard any responsible member of the Government advocate that, either in public or in private. I would suggest respectfully to the noble Viscount that he should verify his quotations and see to what extent, if at all, he can make that good.
My Lords, the risk of our losing the Second Chamber would be if that Second Chamber were to bring itself into fundamental opposition with the elected Chamber and thwart that Chamber. If we get into that position, or if we allow our Chamber to clog the machinery of government, or if we dispose our Chamber to embark on controversies for the sake of asserting its own power (I am borrowing my words from the Bryce Report) then we shall have brought 1038 about the classical conditions on which we shall lose the Second Chamber altogether. It is because I believe the arrangement in this Bill is one which enables the Second Chamber to perform its functions and gibes sufficient time to enable the opinion of the electors to be ascertained and to enable the electors to be instructed in what is taking place, that I say that those who are friends of the Second Chamber should support this Bill and not reject it, which I understand your Lordships are proposing to do.
I know the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, has the idea firmly fixed in his mind (and I am most unlikely to be able to remove it because I have tried before) that the present House of Commons and those of recent times have been completely servile to the dictates of the Cabinet. Looking at the matter from a different point of view, from the other side of the fence, I sometimes wish there were more truth in that. But I can assure the noble Lord it is not the case. I remember very well one illustration which has been referred to to-day on the question of the death penalty. I remember our leaders giving advice publicly that we should net do away with the death penalty, and I remember this servile House of Commons, in spite of the advice which we gave them, taking exactly the opposite course. It really is not the fact, in my belief, that the House of Commons of to-day, or I think of recent times, simply obeys the dictates of the Cabinet. Indeed, I realise from the other side how sometimes it is necessary to take the greatest caution lest there should be a rebuff from this particular House of Commons which the noble Viscount thinks is servile.
My Lords, it is because I believe we must retain a Second Chamber in this country, and because I believe that this Chamber has done profoundly useful work, that I am anxious to avoid its being brought up into the real heat of battle with the elected Chamber. If that battle is once more joined, I am perfectly certain that it is not going to be the elected Chamber which loses. I hope that, just as the last Parliament Act covered the ground for the ensuing forty years, so this Parliament Act will still this controversy for another forty years. Of course, I do not in any way rule out the possibility of same alteration being made in the composition of the House, 1039 if that is considered desirable. But we all agree that that is a task which must await the next Government, and not this Government.
§ On Question, Whether the Bill be now read 2a?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 37; Not-Contents, 110.1039
|Jowitt, V. (L. Chancellor.)||Braintree, L.||Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, L.|
|Calverley, L.||Marley, L.|
|Addison, V. (L. Privy Seal.)||Chorley, L. [Teller.]||Morrison, L.|
|Crook, L.||Mountevans, L.|
|Huntingdon, E.||Darwen, L. [Teller.]||Pakenham, L.|
|Faringdon, L.||Pethick-Lawrence, L.|
|Hall, V.||Foley, L.||Piercy, L.|
|St. Davids, V.||Hare, L. (E. Listowel.)||Quibell, L.|
|Stansgate, V.||Henderson, L.||Rochester, L.|
|Holden, L.||Rothschild, L.|
|Ammon, L.||Inman, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Archibald, L.||Kershaw, L.||Uvedale of North End, L.|
|Amwell, L.||Latham, L.||Winster, L.|
|Bingham, L. (E. Lucan.)||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Norfolk, D. (E. Marshal)||Mersey, V. [Teller.]||Hampton, L.|
|Ridley, V.||Harlech, L.|
|Abercorn. M. (D. Abercorn.)||Samuel, V.||Harris, L.|
|Exeter, M.||Simon, V.||Hawke, L.|
|Reading, M.||Swinton, V.||Hindlip, L.|
|Townshend, M.||Templewood, V.||Howard of Glossop, L.|
|Trenchard, V.||Kenilworth, L.|
|Albemarle, E.||Kinnaird, L.|
|Beatty, E.||Truro, L. Bp.||Layton, L.|
|Bessborough, E.||Llewellin, L.|
|Buckinghamshire, E.||Aberdare, L.||Lloyd, L.|
|Craven, E.||Altrincham, L.||Luke, L.|
|Dundonald, E.||Amherst of Hackney, L.||Mendip, L. (V. Clifden.)|
|Fortescue, E. [Teller.]||Amulree, L.||Monkswell, L.|
|Granville, E.||Ashburton, L.||Monson, L.|
|Iddesleigh, E.||Badeley, L.||Noel-Buxton, L.|
|Iveagh, E.||Baden-Powell, L.||O'Hagan, L.|
|Lindsay, E.||Balfour of Inchrye, L.||Polwarth, L.|
|Manvets, E.||Belstead, L.||Rea, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Blackford, L.||Rennell, L.|
|Portsmouth, E.||Brassey of Apethorpe, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Sandwich, E.||Braye, L.||Rochdale, L.|
|Stanhope, E.||Carrington, L.||Roche, L.|
|Vane, E. (M. Londonderry.)||Chatfield, L.||Sandhurst, L.|
|Ypres, E.||Cherwell, L.||Sandys, L.|
|Clanwilliam, L. (E. Clanwilliam.)||Selsdon, L.|
|Allenby, V.||Sinclair, L.|
|Bledisloe, V.||Clwyd, L.||Stamp, L.|
|Bridgeman, V.||Clydesmuir, L.||Stanmore, L.|
|Buckmaster, V.||Courtauld-Thomson, L.||Strathcarron, L.|
|Cecil of Chelwood, V.||Courthope, L.||Swaythling, L.|
|Elibank, V.||Derwent, L.||Templemore, L.|
|Falmouth, V.||Ellenborough, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Hailsham, V.||Foxford, L. (E. Limerick.)||Teynham, L.|
|Lambert, V.||Gage, L. (V. Gage.)||Waleran, L.|
|Long, V||Gifford, L.||Wardington, L.|
|Marchwood, V.||Glentanar, L.||Wolverton, L.|
|Margesson, V.||Greville, L.||Woolton, L.|
|Maugham, V.||Hacking, L.|
Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.