HC Deb 20 May 1881 vol 261 cc936-42

Mr. Speaker, I rose as the hon. Member for Knaresborough advanced to the Table to take the Oath, intending to take the same course which the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Stafford Northcote) was permitted to take last month when the hon. Member for Northampton presented himself. ["Order!"]


I rise to Order. I wish to know, Sir, whether there is any Question before the House?


I will conclude with a Motion. I presumed, Sir—[Mr. WARTON: Hear, hear!]—I presumed, Sir, to follow the example which you permitted to be set by the right hon. Member for Northampton—[Laughter.]—I mean the right hon. Member for North Devon. You, Sir, on the occasion I refer to, allowed that right hon. Gentleman to move and interpose a Motion when the Member for Northampton came forward to fulfil the statutory obligation, because he had an objection to that hon. Member taking the Oath which the law imposed upon him; and I wish to follow that precedent, because I desire to point out to the House that we have now adopted a new course in this House. Formerly, a person coming up to take the Oath at the Table took it on his own responsibility; and if he did anything wrong in taking the Oath he was liable in a Court of Law to suffer for what he had done. But the proceedings of the Leader of the Opposition have put this question and the House in a totally new position. The House has now assumed to itself the guardianship of the Oath. It has relieved the individual from that responsibility, and taken it upon itself. Now, Sir, I, as you are aware, totally dissent from those proceedings. In my humble opinion, this House had no Constitutional right to interfere with a subject of Her Majesty in performing the duty imposed upon him by the Statute Law, and I had proposed to move that such proceedings were illegal; but you, Sir, decided that that could not be allowed. If not allowed to move that the proceedings were illegal, I concluded that they were legal; and, being legal, I wanted to make them impartial. I wanted, when the opinions of a person coming to take the Oath were previously inquired into, to see that such a proceeding was impartially carried out, and that we had sufficient guarantee concerning the opinions of every Member before he came to the Table. [Laughter.] It is a more important question than some hon. Members seem to think. For the first time for generations this House has appointed a Parliamentary Inquisition to inquire into the opinions of hon. Members before they take the Oath. ["No!"] Hon. Members say "No!" What do they mean? Is there any other reason why the hon. Member for Northampton should not be allowed to take the Oath, except that he holds certain opinions concerning the sanctity of the Oath? My point is that there was no evidence in this House at the time as to what his opinions were. ["Oh!"] There was not the slightest then. There was evidence, perhaps, of what his opinions were some months ago; but there was no legal or official evidence of what his opinions were when he came to the Table to take the Oath. I say, again, that this House has appointed a Parliamentary Inquisition into the opinions of Members. That I object to; but, if decided upon, it ought to be carried out fairly and impartially, and we ought to have a guarantee concerning every man's opinions before he comes to the Table. What I meant to have moved I will read to the House, because it explains what I want to do, and explains why I think I was unfairly treated by having a noise made, and not allowed to move the Resolution, which I think, according to your ruling in regard to the right hon. Gentleman, I ought to have been allowed to move. The Resolution runs as follows:— That, having regard to the precedent of April 27, 1881, when this House decided that a duly elected Member should not be permitted to go through the form of repeating the words of the Oath prescribed by Statutes 29 Vict. c. 13, and 31 and 32 Vict. c. 72, Mr. Thomas Collins be not permitted— ["Order!"] I am reading a Resolution Which I had written out before he came up to take the Oath— to repeat the words of the said Oath until this House shall, by means of a Select Committee or otherwise, satisfy itself as to the nature of his opinions touching the sanctity of the Oath. I say that the House, having taken the Oath under its charge, should be most anxious that there should be no profanation of the Oath, and ought to take every precaution against anything of the sort. I have—I think unfairly—not been allowed to move that; but as I should like to hear from some of those hon. Members opposite, who so loudly shouted at me some articulate reasons why they would not allow me to perform my Parliamentary duty, I will conclude with a Motion which I would not otherwise have made—"That this House do now adjourn."


I beg to second the Motion. It would be very amusing, if this were not so grave a matter, to see how grown-up men can treat a question of such deep significance as has been done by hon. Members opposite. I am very glad to say that the action of the hon. Baronet has brought us this result —that we now have it on your high authority, Mr. Speaker, that if any Member rise when a newly-introduced Member is about to take the Oath, he shall not be listened to—that he shall have no right to interfere with the taking of that Oath. I must congratulate the House upon that result—proved by the way in which you have treated this matter. I am sure it is your deliberate judgment upon it, and we shall always be able in future to cite your demeanour on that occasion as a precedent. It cannot be road otherwise. When my hon. Friend rose, the Gentleman referred to and the Opposition side of the House knew perfectly well what he was about to do. They raised a clamour, they raised laughter, and they took care that my hon. Friend's words should not, Sir, reach you. And I have no doubt, Sir—I am sure I say it with all respect to the Chair—that you knew, by rumour or direct Notice, what my hon. Friend was about to do; but you were of opinion that my hon. Friend had no right to interrupt in the taking of the Oath, and that no one can question any hon. Member upon any views he may entertain. In seconding this Motion, I, therefore, congratulate the House that we have now a decision and a ruling—by the demeanour of yourself, if not by express utterance—to which no exception can be taken.


I rise, Sir, to Order. I wish to know whether the hon. and learned Member is in Order in calling in question the authority of the Chair?


I have not in the least, Sir, called in question the authority of the Chair. I have pointed out what is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the manner and action of the highest authority we have in the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Sir Wilfrid Lawson.)


I beg to ask you, Sir, wherein the position of the hon. Member for Knaresborough, in regard to being sworn, before he took the Oath, differed from that of Mr. Bradlaugh, neither of them since their election having made any statement respecting their religious opinions, or as to whether they considered the Oath binding upon their consciences, and both of them having been equally willing to complete their election by taking the Oath and their seats?


I may state to the House that the hon. Member for Knaresborough presented himself at the Table of the House to take the Oath of Allegiance, as required by law, and according to the usual practice of this House. It had been reported to me, no doubt, that the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle intended to interpose; and I had determined that if any such interposition was attempted by the hon. Baronet or by any other hon. Member of the House—either to put any question to the hon. Member for Knaresborough, or to interfere in any manner—it was my duty not to allow such interposition. I wish to point out to the House that the case of the hon. Member for Northampton was essentially different. That hon. Member himself raised questions which demanded the consideration of this House, and led to those proceedings with which the House is familiar. Had he, in the first instance, presented himself at the Table to take the Oath, as the hon. Member for Knaresborough has done to-day, I should not have permitted any Member to interpose; and I am persuaded that in so doing I should have taken a course which would be consistent with my duty to this House.


I am not sure whether it may not appear officious on my part to say one word after what has fallen from you, Sir, as to the opinion of the Chair. But I may, perhaps, go as far as this—to say that I think the distinction to which you have adverted is an obvious distinction. My own opinion, if it be of any value, and the opinion, I think, of the great majority of those who sit on this side of the House, is very well known. It is that there ought to have been, ab initio, no interference whatever with Mr. Bradlaugh, or with any other person, in the performance of what he deemed to be his statutory duty. But that is not the question now before us. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle founds himself on the fact that such interference was permitted from the Chair on the former occasion, and he argues that the two cases are parallel, and that such interference should in consistency be permitted by the Chair on the present occasion. Now, the House will recollect that when the interference took place on the part of the right hon. Baronet opposite, it was permitted by you, Sir, not on any technical grounds, but on the distinct and separate ground of the prior proceedings of the House. There are no prior proceedings in this case. Therefore, I submit that the two cases stand to be judged as separate matters and on their separate merits; and I do not think that my hon. Friend can justly contend that there is any kind of parallel, the one with the other.


I only wish, Sir, to add one word to what has fallen from yourself and the Prime Minister, which, I think, will further illustrate the difference between the two cases. In the case of the hon. Member for Northampton, when he presented himself for the purpose of taking the Oath, I rose, not for the purpose of putting any question to the hon. Gentleman, I rose for the purpose of objecting on the grounds known to the House, and which I was prepared to state and did state. I rose for the purpose of stating the objections that I felt, and which the majority felt, and ultimately showed that they felt, to his going through the form of taking the Oath. I did not rise to put any question to him. But the hon. Member for Carlisle rose, not for the purpose of objecting to the hon. Member for Knaresborough taking the Oath. He had no grounds—good, bad, or indifferent—for objecting to the hon. Member taking the Oath, as I conceived I had on the occasion of the hon. Member for Northampton presenting himself; but he rose to put a question. [Sir WILFRID LAWSON: No, to move for a Committee.] Well, he rose to move for a Committee without any grounds whatever upon which that could be founded. Of course, it was a matter of discussion on the occasion of Mr. Bradlaugh's admission whether or not the right course was taken. The majority of the House affirmed it and maintained their decision. It is open to the hon. Baronet to move to have that Resolution rescinded if he thinks good so to challenge it. But I maintain it is not open to him, and is not consistent with the decency or dignity of the proceedings of this House, that objection should be made to the hon. Member for Knaresborough taking the Oath by a side wind and in a manner intended to cast ridicule over the Oath. The question is one of a very serious nature, whatever may be the opinion of the hon. Gentlemen on the other side.


May I ask leave of the House to withdraw my Motion? But I would desire to make a personal observation. I made the Motion for adjournment because of the interruption with which I was greeted on rising; and if you, Sir, had risen when I rose, and told me what you have told the House now, of course I should not have interfered; but in consequence of the disturbance, and not getting any information from you, I considered I had a right to move the adjournment of the House.


I wish just to say one word in reference to what has fallen from my hon. Friend opposite. My point is that there was no interruption. The hon. Member for Knaresborough is an old friend of a great many Members on this side the House; and considering the cordial way in which he was received by several right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench, I apprehend he has the personal regard of hon. Members opposite. In those circumstances, he was received with great pleasure, not only by political friends, but by other Members, and it was owing to this circumstance that the hon. Baronet was unable to be heard.


said, he had a suggestion to make. Sometimes there was a difficulty about a good Party cry. At one Election, if he recollected right, the cry was "Beer and Bible." He would suggest to the hon. Member for Carlisle that he should go to the country with the cry of "Bradlaugh and Local Option."

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to