Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Main Question [20th February], as amended,
That when it shall appear to Mr. Speaker, or to the Chairman of Ways and Means in a Committee of the whole House, during any Debate, that the subject has been adequately discussed, and that it is the evident sense of the House, or of the Committee, that the Question be now put, he may so inform the House or the Committee; and, if a Motion be made 'That the Question be now put,' Mr. Speaker, or the Chairman, shall forthwith put such Question; and, if the same be decided in the affirmative, the Question under discussion shall be put forthwith: Provided that the Question shall not be decided in the affirmative, if a Division be taken, unless it shall appear to have been supported by more than two hundred Members, or unless it shall appear to have been opposed by less than forty Members and supported by more than one hundred Members."—(Mr. Gladstone.)
§ Main Question, as amended, again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ MR. WARTON moved, as an Amendment, to insert in line 7, after "Question," the words "That the Question be now put." The object of the Amendment was to give clearness of expression to the Resolution, and to avoid confusion. At present the Resolution, like the Ghost in Hamlet, "came in questionable shape." It was important that 473 close attention should now be given by the House to making the Rules clear in expression, for the House would have no Report upon them, and, what was more important, there was no other House to correct them.
§ Amendment proposed, to insert after the word "Question," in line 7, the words "That the Question be now put."—(Mr. Warton.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."
said, he was certain that no one could mistake the drift of the Resolution without this Amendment. Unquestionably, however, the Amendment placed the matter beyond all doubt, where doubt might possibly arise, and therefore he was prepared to accept the Amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ MR. GIBSON
In rising to move the Amendment which stands in my name, I am very pleased indeed to find that the Prime Minister has commenced the proceedings to-day by being convinced; and I hope that will be an augury that he will be influenced by the arguments that I propose to address to the House. I make no apology for asking to be permitted to occupy the time of the House while I state, as shortly as possible, the arguments by which I hope to show that the Amendment I have put upon the Paper is one worthy of the acceptance of the House of Commons. The Government themselves, by the very step they have taken, show the importance they place upon these Rules. Those Members who attended on Tuesday and the two following days must have been conscious that there was a settled spirit of impatience abroad on that side of the House. I am sure that hon. Members who sit on the Government side will recognize that it is not fair and not legitimate, even from the Government standpoint, to give the arguments against the Government proposal anything but a fair hearing. The Prime Minister admitted to the noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill) that for this Autumn Session there was only one precedent to be found in the present century upon which he could rely. [Mr. GLADSTONE: No, no!] At all events, I am 474 entitled to say that the Prime Minister only quoted one precedent, and admitted that during his own long Parliamentary career of half-a-century there was no precedent to be found. Therefore, when we are on a matter of such supreme importance, I am justified in saying that those who speak upon the matter are entitled to be heard at the fullest length that is necessary. Now, if hon. Members will reflect on these Resolutions, and consider a little what they will find in the most ordinary text-books on the history of the House of Commons, they will readily arrive at the conclusion that the changes proposed by the Prime Minister and the Government are the greatest ever proposed to the House to be made in its constitution. Unquestionably these Resolutions suggest to the Opposition the gravest alteration in their status ever suggested in the history of Parliamentary life; because up to this time it has been a wise and a great tradition of Parliament that both sides of the House have a duty to co-operate in the maintenance of order, and are equally bound to insist on its honour. And these Resolutions, and particularly the one under discussion, relegate and confine those duties mainly to the Party which chances to be in power at the moment; and if the minority are at all regarded, it is for the purpose, on the essential and fair construction of these Rules, of issuing against them a decree of practical outlawry. If the Resolutions are passed in the shape in which they stand at present, assuredly they must leave in the Opposition—what is most undesirable in the public interest—a rankling sense that they have been treated with harshness, injustice, and unfairness. I shall make no apology for discussing the Resolution, certainly at no length that I can avoid, but at a length that will enable me to submit my arguments to the House; and the very fact of the way in which this discussion has been carried on, looking at it broadly, in other parts of the House, renders it more necessary that those who speak from these (the Opposition) Benches should speak with complete fulness and at sufficient length. I make no reflections on those who do not speak. Hon. Members from Ireland, my own countrymen, exhibit, of course, characteristics that might be expected from the Re- 475 presentatives of a down-trodden people—reserve and taciturnity. I make no comment on that; but, possibly, we may find some of them overcoming the difficulties of their position, and taking part in the debate before it closes, and I reserve my judgment upon that. As to the Gentlemen of the Radical persuasion who sit below the Gangway, they have certainly exhibited a faith in their Leaders and in their conduct of affairs somewhat alien to the spirit of independence they have manifested on other matters. I read in the Recess an interesting speech of the First Commissioner of Works (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) at Beading, and it pointed out that owing to noisy, blatant, and talkative demagogues—he had not mentioned their nationality, but he had suggested it—thoughtful and eloquent Radicals had not a chance. Now is the golden opportunity for the thought and eloquence of the Radicals; but they appear to have been thinking so much of their eloquence that up to this time they have said little or nothing in the House on this matter. Therefore, it is but reasonable, when the Representatives who usually honour the House with their confidence and speech have not said much, that they should, at all events, when they cast nearly the whole burden of discussion upon these Benches, learn that our responsibility is considerable, and our duty, as we believe, to the House of Commons and ourselves is very great. Now, everyone admits that there is a necessity for reform—that some of the methods of the Procedure of the House are susceptible of improvement, and that abuses should, as far as may be, be corrected. But these admissions must not be taken as in the slightest degree an admission of the whole case of the Government. No one has ever denied on these Benches that they are willing to co-operate in any fair and legitimate reform; but we have suggested that caution and prudence are desirable and essential, bearing in mind that we are not dealing with a new Colonial Legislature created yesterday, nor with a Continental Lower Chamber having only a history of a few years, but with the great House of Commons of England, which has existed for centuries, and which has grown with her growth, and strengthened with her strength. I admit fully that whatever 476 reform is now adopted should come up to the necessity of the case, but should not exceed it; and that it is absolutely necessary that the House and the Government should take the greatest possible care, and exhibit the most extreme caution, to avoid interfering with that legitimate freedom of speech which is our absolute right at present. [Mr. GLADSTONE: Hear, hear!] The first Resolution that stands upon the Paper the Government indicated themselves, by their speeches and by its position on the Paper, and the position they have given it in their utterances outside the House, is a Resolution of supreme importance. The construction of that Resolution is also a matter to be borne prominently and clearly in mind all through these debates. I wish, in a few sentences, to draw the attention of the House to it. My Amendment has been in print for a considerable time, as well as the Resolution. What is the construction of the whole Resolution as it stands? In a House of 100 Members—this is the deliberate judgment of the Government—a minority of 1 can prevent the application of any clôture whatever. In a House of 200 it requires a majority of 5 to 1 to apply the clôture. And then, by a sudden spring, without any degrees, once the House passes the magic number of 200 a bare majority of 1 suffices to apply this most drastic measure. There are many Amendments on the Paper challenging the propriety, the prudence, nay, the justice and fairness of applying it by a bare majority in the way I have stated. Some propose to sweep away the distinctions of 100 and 200, and to say that in no case shall the clôture ever be applied except on a two-thirds' majority. I have approached the question from a different point of view. I have listened most earnestly to all the debates on this question, and have recently read the speeches of the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and other Ministers, delivered in the months of February and March last; but the speech, if I may presume to say so, which most brought home to my mind what was in the mind of the Government when they framed this Resolution, was that of the right hon. Gentleman the late Chancellor of the Duchy (Mr. John Bright); and, desiring to place on the Paper an Amendment which would, as far as possible, run in the groove 477 that the Government had laid out for themselves, I put an Amendment on the Paper which retained every syllable of the Government reform, which retained all their checks in favour of small minorities, and applied myself solely to take away the bare majority, which was in the first instance to operate when the House exceeded 200. The right hon. Gentleman to whose speech I have referred has indicated that the way the Government are going to meet the Amendment, which simply proposes to sweep away everything and substitute two-thirds, is to appeal to those who sit on these Benches below the Gangway, and say to them—"Oh, the Amendment which substitutes the two-thirds sweeps away the protection we have deliberately given you;" and they are prepared also to appeal to small minorities in other parts of the House, and say the Government have bought their battle by preserving the right of one man, in a House of 100, to prevent the application of the clôture. I recognize the force of that argument in the House of Commons; and, therefore, retaining all those limitations and checks which the Government have thought fit to apply to the protection of small minorities, I have sought to provide the additional protection that in no case shall the House, or any section of it, be silenced by a bare majority, or a very trivial or small majority. Anyone reading the Prime Minister's speech on the 20th of February, made in introducing these Resolutions to the House, will see that he approached the inquiry with an anxious desire not only to support himself by every argument which could suggest itself to his own ingenuity, but also by every appeal to authority which his own research or the research of others could place at his disposal; and it will be found, on an exhaustive examination of that speech, that the Prime Minister thought it necessary when proposing so immense an innovation in all the proceedings and modes of action of the House of Commons, not to rely on inconveniences which had been proved, not to rely merely on the necessity of reform, but to support his case by an appeal to every precedent and every authority that could be found, whether in foreign countries or in the Colonies. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman appealed to 478 the action of the British Colonies, in which, he said, the British character and the British love of freedom are reflected. Sir, that appeal is one which should be closely examined at the present time. That appeal to authority cannot stand investigation. The Prime Minister mentioned six Colonies in which the power of clôture existed, although he said at the close of his speech that he would correct in some details the minutiæ of his assertions; but I find that there is only one of our Colonies, and certainly that not one of the most important, in which there is any form of clôture whatever, and there it is, more or less, of a paper form, introduced in the first paper constitution and not from any actual experience. But, more than that, he said it would not be found that any Chamber in our Colonies which had adopted this measure had ever discarded it. That was a very unfortunate appeal, because two of them, Colonies of considerable importance—Victoria and New Zealand—have tried and discarded the clôture; so that the Prime Minister, when asking the Parliament of England to make the greatest change it has ever made in its constitution, found it necessary to appeal to the Colonial Legislatures, and that appeal comes back against himself. The Colonies, however, supply us with this information—three of them never applied the clôure at all; two tried it and abandoned it; while in only one, and that not the most important, has it been retained. The Prime Minister also led us to suppose—he did not actually say so, he suggested—that this was a measure that was in frequent and vigorous and healthy operation in Europe. How does that statement stand the test of any examination? Of the 13 Lower Chambers in Europe, in only three is there anything that has any semblance to clôture by a bare majority. It will be, indeed, a strange thing that there should be at least five of our Colonies in which fuller freedom prevails than it will with ourselves if this proposal of the Government becomes law. The Resolution, then, of the Government is not supported by an appeal to the Colonies, while it is opposed to the practice of the vast majority of European Chambers. But I do not put this question of clôture by a bare majority upon any appeal to authority, or the failure of any such appeal. The 479 suggestion that the minority should be silenced by a bare majority is opposed to the whole genius and habits of English public life. It will impair—it must impair—that freedom and independence of speech which is necessary for the discharge of the duties of public men. For it often happens that Members have to speak truths, and unpleasant truths, to Ministers; and if the legislative machine is to be interfered with in this way the House of Commons will lose one of its most important duties in the eyes of the people—that of being the grand inquest of the nation. No one recognized that fact more fully than the Prime Minister himself when in Opposition. These were his words, forcible and clear, shortly before he came into Office—The prolonging of debate, even by persistent reiteration of arguments, was not necessarily an outrage or an offence, or even an indiscretion.[Mr. GLADSTONE: Hear, hear!] I should like to know, if this Clôture Resolution is passed in its present shape, will the Prime Minister instruct the Speaker of the future, or the Chairman of Ways and Means of the future, that "persistent reiteration of argument is not an offence or even an indiscretion?"
§ MR. GIBSON
Not necessarily! No; but I venture to say probably. But these sentences of the Prime Minister are framed in the best possible way. He is always able to put his unerring finger upon some trifling word which enables him to give, shall I say a colour to his sentences? And it will be found as one of the great ornaments of the Prime Minister's style that, in almost all his interesting sentences and most nicely expressed arguments, there is a "substantially," or "in the main," or "as at present advised," or "not necessarily," as in the present instance. Well, I shall have to take the sentence with the Prime Minister's infirmity in it, and anyone who reads it will take it as a suggestion that persistent reiteration might be all right; but I venture to think, so long as he is in Office, that the right hon. Gentleman will not think so. It is rather startling to find the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Dodson) putting the question in an unusual way. He put it that it would 480 be fair to speak so long, and so long only, as there was a chance of obtaining conviction; but when conviction was hopeless then it was right to stop. But that is a dangerous way of considering the matter. Suppose the Minister of the day gets up and says—"I am right; I know I am right; I know I am never wrong. My Party know and believe that I am never wrong. It is impossible to bring home to them the conviction that the Government measures are wrong—it is hopeless"—then Obstruction begins almost the very moment that debate begins.
§ MR. GIBSON
No, it is rather a long one; but I think I have read the important pearl. Then another revelation has been made to the House. This Rule we understood to be introduced to put down deadly Obstruction. We have been told now frankly by the Home Secretary, and with frankness and vigour by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for India, that this is all a mistake, and that this Rule is not to put down Obstruction at all, but to facilitate the legislation which the Government think desirable; and, as the noble Lord put it, to prevent that reiteration which the Prime Minister stated before he came into Office might not necessarily be even an indiscretion. I hope the House will take distinct note of that. If you ask nine people out of ten in the country what is the justification for the revolution that is sought to be worked in the liberty of public speech by this 1st Resolution; if you read the speeches which have been made on many platforms by responsible men on the Ministerial side of the House, you will find that the great justification persistently, prominently, and steadily put forward for this change is Obstruction. It cannot be too clearly understood that this is not the justification now put forward in the House of Commons, but something else, and that not once only, but repeatedly, by the Ministers of the Crown. The great argument advanced in favour of the clôture by a bare majority is that the present state of things is intolerable. Is that an argument for a Rule which denies all toleration? Then it is argued that a majority of I can decide the fate of the most important legislation. It is true that a majority of 1 can at the present 481 moment decide the most important measure; but why? Because the House of Commons and every Member has been fully heard, that is why effect is given to the Votes of Parliament—because every one has been fully heard and, it may be, beaten, but fairly beaten. I ask the attention of the House to the difference between that argument and the arguments of yesterday and the day before, when we were told that the Government could not accept any Amendment that was not due to the action of the whole House. Similarly, when it was suggested yesterday by an hon. Member opposite that Parliament had a right to expect that a Minister should rise in his place and declare openly before the House what was whispered in the House, we were told—"No; the application of the Rule is to be the act not of a Party, but of the whole House." But how can such arguments be consistent with the principle that a majority of 1 should deprive the minority of free speech? Your previous argument was that the clôture would be the act of the whole House; your argument now is that a Party majority of 1 will suffice. Then it is argued that the Government and Parliament would prefer a simple to an artificial majority, and that it is simpler and clearer to have a bare majority. What has the Government done in the very Resolution before the House, compared with the closing lines of which my proposal is simplicity itself? Why, they recognize all sorts of complexities and refinements; and it is rather too late to say that minds capable of grasping such complications cannot understand the proposition that two-thirds shall be able to silence one-third. As Mr. Baden Powell very tersely put it—In a full House one man can stop a debate, and in a thin House one man can prevent a debate from being stopped.The 1st Resolution of the Government really contradicts every argument by which they ever sought to justify interference with Obstruction. They always used to say that Obstruction came from a narrow section, and from a limited number of the House, and they were always willing to acknowledge that the great bulk of their opponents were alive to the obligations of complying with the traditions of the House; but what do I find? I find in this Resolution the most jealous care to guard small mi- 482 norities from whom Obstruction might come, and the most immense pains taken to gag large minorities from which, admittedly, Obstruction has not come. We are told that our fears are groundless, because there are safeguards. You, Sir, are a safeguard for the present, and it is suggested that the Speaker and the Chairman of Committees will always be the safeguards of the House. Notwithstanding what the Prime Minister said yesterday, I must still uphold my own views. If you, Sir, were always to sit in the Chair I should not have so much to say in the matter, though I should vote against giving this power even to yourself; but in time to come, when the Party in power is doing its best to overcome its opponents, I decline to believe that the Speaker and the Chairman of Committees will never be alive to political influences. I do not say that the Speaker of the future will not be honourable; I do not say that the Chairman of Ways and Means will not be always a most respectable Gentleman; but, at the same time, I have a strong suspicion that his methods will be those of decorous partizanship; and I hold that it is absolutely necessary, if the House is to retain its honour and its character, that the Speaker, and the Gentleman who presides in the absence of the Speaker, should be above suspicion. I venture to assert, and I am confident it is the belief of all, or very nearly all, those who sit on these Benches, that it will be impossible for those two Officers of the House to be above suspicion if the clôture can be enforced by a bare majority. If ever we find a Speaker in sympathy with the Parties whose interests require the clôture to silence its political opponents, it will be impossible for us not to regard his action with acute and justifiable suspicion. We are asked to give one who may be a partizan despotic power, in the hope that he will not use it despotically and as a partizan; and if that hope is falsified he will be allowed to work his wicked will, for no one will be able to undo what may be his mistake, his error, or his offence. The Speaker of the future, if the bare majority is retained, will be in this dilemma—if he does not apply the clôture when the whispers of the Whips tell him it is desired by his Party, he will be open to the censure and frowns of his political 483 friends; while, if he does apply the clôture against the consciences of those whose voices he silences, he will be exposed, necessarily and justly, to the contempt of the whole nation. [Mr. GLADSTONE: Hear, hear!] And besides, the Speaker is not left even to his own regulated sense of public duty, or to the trained discretion of his conscience, or to his own reading of what he thinks justice requires. His duty is to be indicated to him unmistakably, and we are to be safeguarded by the fact that he is to be fortified—or shall I say driven?—by the "evident sense of the House." What is the meaning of that, and how is that evident sense to be brought to the ears of the Speaker? Yesterday an hon. Member opposite (Mr. Bryce) suggested the propriety, nay, the decency, of openness, and argued that the Minister of the day should rise in his place and say—"I am of opinion that the time has now come, and that the evident sense of the House is that the debate should be closed." The "evident sense of the House," if that is not to be done, can be shown only in two ways—either by noisy clamour or by secret and sinister whisperings. That is an absolutely exhaustive statement, and it is impossible for anyone to say how the "evident sense of the House" can otherwise reach the ears of the Speaker. However, the Minister will not rise in his place, and it is denied that the Whips on the Treasury Bench are to communicate to the Speaker in whispers the "evident sense of the House." What, then, is left but menagerie cries for the clôture to be met by similar noises in favour of the continuance of the debate? It will be a question of clamour and counter-clamour, of screaming and counter-screaming. The Prime Minister, when in Opposition, used an admirable phrase, which, for once, was not qualified by the word "necessarily." The evident sense of the House will be indicated by "obstreperous disorder."
§ MR. GIBSON
I am answerable for everything except "obstreperous disorder." And what is the meaning of the word "evident?" It means, according to the Prime Minister yesterday, not a bare majority, not the clamour of one side, but the general sense of all parts of the House. I think I am justified in 484 saying that that was the meaning of what the Prime Minister more than once stated to the House.
§ MR. GIBSON
As a mere matter of political precaution, and, I may say, of admiration, I hardly ever go anywhere now without being armed with some quotation from the Prime Minister. I heard the right hon. Gentleman say yesterday that, by the "evident sense of the House" he did not mean the clamour of one Party; and that would indicate that if it was not to be of one Party, it was to be the clamour of more than one Party; and I merely put my gloss on that expression, and concluded that the "evident sense of the House" was to be indicated from all parts and from both sides. On February 20 the Prime Minister spoke of—Resistance to the unquestioned will of the House—not to the will of one Party in the House, or of a mere majority, but to what may he called the evident sense of the House."—[3 Hansard, cclxvi. 1139.]I think, then, that I have correctly stated the meaning attached by the right hon. Gentleman to the words "the evident sense of the House." That indicates that the majority that is to ratify the evidence of that sense should not be a bare majority—that the evidence of the majority who are to evidence that sense that is not to be confined to one Party shall not itself be confined to one Party. If that is so—and that is really what my Amendment says—why not say so in the Resolution? It is admitted that if there is only a bare majority to support the Speaker's judgment of the "evident sense of the House," that that is a grave scandal; the Speaker has made an immense mistake; and it is a circumstance that would be regretted as a scandal if on a great policy, or on the discussion of a great Bill, one half the House were silenced by a close and narrow majority. If that be so, is it not well to provide, as my Amendment does, that the Speaker's error in interpreting the "evident sense of the House" shall be rendered impossible by putting in such a majority as my words would indicate, instead of leaving the Speaker's error to be stereotyped without the possibility of rectification? Whether my figures are taken or not—whether it is a two thirds' majority or 485 any other—I say it would be monstrous to pass this Resolution against political opponents in a shape in which such an injustice would be plainly and distinctly possible. The "evident sense of the House"—what does it mean? It will be found by a most superficial examination on the part of anyone who reads with the plain desire not to misunderstand what he is reading that there is a contradiction in terms between the "evident sense of the House" which the Speaker is to interpret, and the bare majority which would indicate the existence of that sense. Is it fair, reasonable, or just that the Opposition should be excluded from giving the natural evidence at their disposal on the Speaker's judgment by walking into the Division Lobby? Why should the voting be all confined to one Party? Can a single reason be given that is based on justice? If this Resolution is examined by anyone who comes here to make up his mind for himself, he will find that it contains within itself a most powerful argument in favour of the Amendment. The "evident sense of the House," when the House consists of 100, may be set aside by one man; and when it consists of 200, it may be set aside by one-fifth. Is it not monstrous that, by a bound to the opposite direction, one man can indicate against 300 the "evident sense of the House?" We are told that the Speaker is to have regard to both sides of the Chair. How is the general sense of the House to be known if he confines his attention to the clamour of one Party and cannot appeal to a division, which, would tell whether he had judged correctly or erroneously? He will have judged—it may be fairly and honourably; but if the argument of the Government is honest, he will have judged erroneously if it is found that there is a mere Party and bare majority. I would fain hope that hon. Members opposite have the honour and character of the House of Commons in their minds as much as we have. I hope they are anxious to be satisfied in their own minds that what they are passing is a legitimate reform of the whole House of Commons, and not the forging of a mere weapon to be used against their political antagonists; but I would ask every one of them this question—If the Conservatives were in power, and they proposed this Resolution, how many of you would 486 support it? If you would not support this Resolution if it were proposed by the Leader of the Opposition, must not that be an admission that you are passing this measure, not for the reform of the House of Commons—nor for the advancement of its honour and dignity—but to strengthen the hands of your own Party against your political opponents? On the 6th of May the Prime Minister, in a deliberate and considered letter, volunteered to the Leader of the Opposition, stated that he was willing to accept the Amendment which I am now moving, with the intention of allowing the Rule thus altered to be tested by experience.
§ MR. GIBSON
I have not got the quotation with me; but I am perfectly sure I have taken those words correctly. Why did the Prime Minister write that letter? Why has he qualified and withdrawn that letter? Was it from the difficulties and the weakness of the Government at that moment he wrote that letter? Or was it from a sense of public convenience and public justice? If that was the deliberate opinion of the Prime Minister, written with all the weight of his representative position, and if that had been adopted in the earlier portion of this Session, it would now have been a Standing Order of the House, and it might have governed our deliberations for years. What were the arguments of justice—he is bound to put it upon justice—that satisfied him that he was then bound as Prime Minister to make that statement; and why has he now thought it necessary to change it? He was wise when he proposed to allow the Rule thus altered to be tested by experience; but is it not strange to find that now, instead of proceeding experimentally by steps, as is done with every institution in the world, the Prime Minister suggests that the experiment shall be tried at once in its final and most drastic shape? In the letter the Prime Minister proposed to try the Rule thus altered, so as to have it tested by experience. Why not test the Rule, as altered by my Amendment, by the experience then appealed to, instead of abandoning the appeal to experience, and trying brute force at once? When and why did the Prime Minister change that deliberate opinion for which 487 he gives a reason? Was it slowly, painfully, reluctantly? On the 14th of July he was asked a Question; but he postponed an answer to a more convenient season. On the 2nd of August, again, the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ritchie) asked, with the greatest precision, what the Government would do on this question; and the Prime Minister replied that later on he would announce the decision of the Government. It was not until the 14th of August, months after the proposal had been made, that the Prime Minister said that he would take the course which has now been adopted. The reasons given by the Prime Minister on the 14th of August are alike painful and curious. He stated that the terrible occurrence in Phoenix Park had altogether altered the course of Public Business. Is that a reason why a proposal deliberately put forward to the Leader of the Opposition should be abandoned? Is a change in the course of Public Business a sufficient reason for the withdrawal of a suggestion so deliberately made? Is the freedom of the House dependent upon the accident of events? Is a great National deliberative Council to be fettered by a crime? Are we to be told that a terrible crime not only killed two distinguished and honourable public servants, but that it gave to the Minister of the day an excuse for withdrawing a concession which he had announced he found it just to make? Why is this change made in the deliberate opinion and suggestion and offer of the Government? What has the House done that it should be so treated? I am entitled to ask from this Bench what has the Opposition done that they should be so treated? The Leader of the Opposition was deliberately written to by the Prime Minister, who made a certain offer on the 6th of May. I ask what have those who follow the lead of my right hon. Friend done since the 6th of May to justify this withdrawal of a legitimate concession? Sir, this Resolution of a bare majority is a grave and a serious one. It makes the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means—I say it again because I feel it strongly—more servants of a Party than servants of the House. It makes a private Member little better than a nonentity. [Mr. R. N. FOWLER: Hear, hear!] It drives away the Opposition from co-operation, and everyone who 488 has thought on this question knows that it must imperil the finality of legislation. Legislation is accepted by those who have been beaten in opposition because they have been fairly heard and fairly beaten; and if this Resolution is passed with a bare majority, unamended and unchanged, this House of Commons will be little better than a kind of superior Department of the Government of the day. Sir, I am opposed to this clôture altogether. I think it interferes with the independence of Parliament and the freedom of its Members; and I do venture to hope that many in this House will be found to support an Amendment which tries to maintain as far as still may be some of that independence and some of that freedom.
In line 8, after the word "taken," to insert the words "unless it shall appear to have been supported by two-thirds of those present, and."—(Mr. Gibson.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."
Mr. Speaker, I am desirous, in the first place, to recall the attention of the House to the nature and scope of the question which is before us. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, in his closing sentences, has fairly avowed that he is opposed altogether to the introduction of any closing power whatever. I would remind the House that although a considerable portion of the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman was really addressed to the question whether there should be a closing power or not, yet that is a matter which, after five nights of debate, the House has decided by a large majority; and the question now is, whether the closing power should be exercised, under the safeguards which we propose, by a simple majority of the House, or by some form of artificial majority, the right hon. and learned Gentleman having selected an artificial majority of two-thirds. Now, Sir, some portions of the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman are really of that character which, I think, though impressive in point of oratory, have little bearing on the subject in debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman appeals to Gentlemen on this side of the House, and says—"How many of you would have supported these Resolutions had they 489 been proposed by a Conservative Government?" [Opposition cheers.] An excellent Party taunt; but open at once to the retort, which those Gentlemen do not seem to have anticipated—"How many of you who are now opposing the Resolutions would have opposed them if they had been suggested by a Conservative Government? I think the House will feel that we may allow these arguments to pair off together. Let me begin by making admissions to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He says, and says truly, that these are the greatest changes, taken in the mass, that have ever been proposed in the Procedure of the House of Commons. It is perfectly true; and why, Sir, is it true? Because they are proposed under the greatest necessity; because upon every other occasion when change has been discussed it has been matter of convenience and relative advantage. But we have now arrived at a point when the question really is, whether the House of Commons is to discharge its work, or whether it is to leave that work undischarged? I affirm that the history of the last few years, and the history of the last two years in particular, distinctly shows that that, and nothing less than that, is the question. Therefore, I admit frankly to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that these are the greatest changes that ever have been proposed. Then the right hon. and learned Gentleman came to the argument of precedents abroad, and he reproved me to some extent—I do not complain of it in the slightest degree—for having imperfectly and inaccurately stated to the House the case of the Colonial Assemblies. But accurate information on these points is not always to be had at short notice; and I am sorry to say that though the notice has been a long notice, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not accurate in the state and the information at which his mind has arrived. It is not true that two Assemblies have adopted and rejected a closing power. What is true is this—
Having adopted it for purposes of urgency. That is quite a different matter. Neither is it true that in only a single Colony is there a closing power, for the closing power obtains in both Houses, I think, of South Australia, and in one House in 490 the Elective Legislative Council at the Cape. But I quite agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman to this extent—that the practice in the Colonies will not afford me a positive argument; and I am bound to say I do not think the absence of that practice will afford a positive argument to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because why are we asking the House to adopt a closing power? Not because we think such a thing to be per se, and in an ordinary state of things, desirable and advantageous; but because we think that under the pressure of strong necessity, when the question is whether the duties of the House are to be discharged or not, it is better to adopt a closing power than to leave those duties undischarged. But that dilemma has not been presented to the Colonial Assemblies. In those comparatively infant and slightly-developed societies and institutions, the business of their Legislative Chambers is usually easily managed, and no such question has arisen as a question of necessity for those Assemblies in general, as the question that is now before us. Now, with regard to the practice of foreign countries, I am not able at all to concur with the statement of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. On the contrary, we are prepared to challenge that statement seriously; but I will not enter upon the details of the subject, because I wish rather to go through what are, after all, the more vital points of the argument, and then in a few words to state distinctly to the House what is the position of the Government in relation to the question now before us. Sir, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has argued against the present proposal from the precedent supplied by us in the offer we made last May; from the little confidence that can, under a Resolution like this, be reposed in the character of the Speaker; from what he considers to be the gross inconsistency of our provisions with respect to a House under 200, and our provisions for a House over 200; from the evident tendency, as he thinks it, of our plan to gag, as he terms it, a large minority of this House; and likewise from what he says amounts to a contradiction in terms—a contradiction, so he phrases it, between our binding the Speaker to look to the "evident sense of the House," and our insisting upon it that on a divi- 491 sion that evident sense shall be shown by a simple majority. These, I think, were the principal arguments as between a two-thirds and the simple majority which were employed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I will refer first to that which, although it has the least weight in itself, yet I admit has the greatest force as an argument ad hominem. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says truly that in May we made an offer to the Opposition that, provided they were prepared to accept the Resolutions—I have not got my letter; but, generally, it was to the effect that, provided they were prepared to accept the Resolutions generally in a spirit of co-operation, and to forward their passing through the House, we, although we had not dropped our objections or any of our objections to the two-thirds or any artificial majority, yet we were willing to take it upon trial. Now, why did we do that? I admit that we offered to pay a very high price for the object we had in view. I admit it to be extremely doubtful whether we were right in offering it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has spoken of the withdrawal as if our taking a different course were a great wrong to the Opposition. But he will allow me to remind him that till this hour—till I heard the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I never had the right to say that the Opposition were willing to accept that offer. According to the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the offer was to remain hanging in the air. I am not finding fault with them for not accepting it, but with the right hon. and learned Gentleman for attempting to show that although it was not accepted yet our freedom was impaired. It was apparently, according to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, to remain hanging in the air, and to be taken up according to the way in which it might be of advantage to his Party, and it was to be brought forward against us as if it were in the nature of a contract.
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
The letter stated that the offer was to be made in the House, and it never was made in the House.
Certainly; but that is totally irrelevant to my observation. I am not complaining of not having had an answer. But I say that no 492 answer was given, and that to-night is the first occasion on which I have heard that it was the intention of the Opposition to accept it. Consequently, it is not to be supposed—as it would have been supposed from the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman—that for five or six months this matter has stood as an arrangement proposed by us and accepted by the Opposition. The reason which induced us to make the offer was a practical reason, and it was this. We had the months of May and June—the greater part of June—which we then hoped would be available for the general business and legislation of the country, if we could get Procedure out of the way. We saw—I am obliged to say it—that there was a disposition on the other side of the House to discuss Procedure at a most unnecessary length; and therefore we had to reckon, if we were to proceed with our Resolutions at the rate at which we were dealing with them, on a lost Session. Well, Sir, we were most anxious to gain the Session. There was not at that moment any certain necessity for Irish legislation to be dealt with immediately. We hoped, if we could get rid of Procedure, we should have six weeks or more available for the general business of the country; and, as a choice of evils, we did make the offer to give the two-thirds' majority a fair trial, believing, as we did, without any doubt, that experience would show that it would entirely fail in its operation and prove to be no satisfactory solution of the question. I have said plainly what was the motive that led us to offer that important concession. Circumstances had occurred, and were forced upon the House of Commons, requiring immediate consideration which deprived us of the possibility of reaping any of the fruits which we hoped for from a concession of that kind; and, that being so, it really would have been absurd on our part had we attempted to persevere with such a plan of action. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has gone back, and back, and back, and 100 speakers almost have gone back, and back, and back, upon the question of the Speaker of the future. It is quite plain, I think, that the main argument between the two sides of the House almost turns upon that subject. But I find it really difficult to understand the position of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite with regard to this matter. We have 493 said that the Speaker, the one great impartial authority of the House—I am now speaking of the full House, and not of the House in Committee, though we think the Chairman follows in the train of the argument—shall exercise this function; but in the exercise of this function that he shall appear as what he is—the Officer of the House, not of the majority of the House. We will carefully keep away every semblance of a connection between the Speaker and the majority in the formation of his judgment or in inciting him to move. But we have been met with the argument that such will be the recognized, or the unrecognized pressure, of the majority, that it will overbear the authority of the Speaker in the Chair. Yet, having an opportunity yesterday while I was speaking against the Motion of my hon. Friend, the Party opposite, with a few exceptions—I must say, considerably to my surprise—gave a vote under which the Minister of the day, backed by his majority—because I undoubtedly admit that the Minister of the Crown can ascertain the sense of the majority from my noble Friend near me, or whoever may hold the Office which he holds—may, by a formal application, put the Speaker in motion on this subject. We fundamentally and practically object to such a scheme; we would rather at once throw over this proposal with regard to the closing power than contaminate it by bringing the action of a Party and Party influence into connection with the Chair. Our contention about the Speaker is simple, and at the same time full. We say the Speaker will not, and cannot, deviate from the impartiality of the Chair. That he is infallible we have never stated. The Speaker may err under the Rules which he has now to administer; he may err under the Rules which he will have to administer; but we say he never can deviate from the impartiality of the Chair. The man who, in mature life, is chosen to preside over this House has a character which is worth something to himself no less than to the House. And it is charging upon him that he is a fool to throw that character away for the purpose of flattering the passions of the majority, while he knows that it is the first condition of his Office that, at every time and in every way, lie is to avoid flattering. He has the whole traditions of the House to re- 494 press him, and to put him to shame, in case he follows such a course. But if hon. Gentlemen do not believe in force of character combined with mature life; if they do not believe in the force of the traditions of this House in governing the action of the Speaker; if they believe—as they do believe—that he will be ready to make himself the blind instrument of what he believes to be Party passion in the majority of the House, well, then, I say—if I must descend to such an argument—a degrading argument, but a conclusive one—I say the Speaker dare not do that. If he does it, he must cease to be Speaker. Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman know that if the Opposition in this House—aye, when it is in a much weaker state than it is at this moment—if any considerable Party in this House, and any Party discharging the functions of the Constitutional Opposition, smarting under a sense of injustice, exhibit it by their speeches and their arguments, on an appeal to the public sense of the nation, throughout which all intelligence from within the walls of this House is circulated from moment to moment—does he not know that it would be as possible for a despot or a tyrant—
That is a kind of closing power which I think it is not desirable to introduce. It would be as possible, Sir, for a despot or a tyrant under our Constitutional laws to sit on the Throne of this country as it would be for a Speaker to retain the Chair of this House when once he had visibly and appreciably and practically made himself the slave of Party passions? Now, Sir, it is a strong thing to ascribe to your opponents a total blindness—I do not say to the public interests—but a total blindness to the consequences of their own acts, to their own Party interests. I will refer to the speech made when this question was under consideration by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Gloucestershire (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach). The right hon. Gentleman said, and fairly said, that if these Rules were to be abused by us, he did 495 not envy us the time we should have in the Autumn, when the public came to discuss the subjects of this Session. Indignation would visit not only the Speaker, but the majority with which he was in presumed co-operation. The consequence of such a miserable pollution of the consecrated traditions of the Chair would be the total and rapid ruin of the Party which had attempted so nefarious and insane a scheme. I think I have said enough on the argument with respect to the Speaker. The right hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Gibson) then said that there were provisions for a House below 200 and for a House below 100, but a want of provision for a House above 200. But there is no inconsistency in our provisions. The provisions below and above 200 are distinctly founded upon a principle which crosses and limits the principle of the closing power. We deemed it to be a power so grave that it ought only to be exercised in a House of considerable numbers; and as that is so, we introduced special provisions applicable to a House below a certain number. But when the House is 200 or more we thought there was a state of things in which it is qualified to exercise satisfactorily, upon the motion of its highest Officer, any function whatever that belongs to it as a Legislative Chamber; and therefore it was not because we wanted to establish an inconsistency between a small number and a large one, but because, as now we deny to any assembly of Members less than 40 the power of forming a House, so we go on to deny to any assembly of Members less than 200 the absolute right of exercising the closing power. Then, Sir, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said we were going to gag a large minority of this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Lincolnshire (Mr. E. Stanhope) said the other night that this was an undisguised attack—I think, or, if a disguised attack, so much the worse—but a vital attack on the Tory Party, and that they would resist it. Now, I am going to make an offer; but I do not know whether he will attach much value to it. If it should prove that this Rule is really a piece of Party machinery, and is calculated to silence the Opposition in this House, I promise him that he will find me among the first—whether in Office or out of Office—to join, to co- 496 operate heartily, with those who attempt either to subvert or alter this Rule, and to deprive it of all its noxious operation. But what astonishes me is the want of faith hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite exhibit in their own position and powers when backed by a just law. I say that no power on earth is sufficient to put down a minority in this House, exercising the functions of a Constitutional Opposition, and pleading for liberty of speech. And if that is so, and if we agree in asserting it, why do hon. Gentlemen opposite persist in charging upon us that we are deliberately setting about the accomplishment of that which we all loudly proclaim to be impossible and absurd? The gagging of a large minority is impossible. There never has been an occasion in this House when a large minority wanted protection. It is in the power of a large minority, smarting under injustice, that injustice being derived from the Chair itself, within a month to put the Speaker out of the Chair. ["No!"] No; not by the vote of a bare majority, not by the vote of two-thirds, but by making the Speaker feel, as he would feel, that he has lost the confidence of the House; that his position has undergone an essential change; that he no longer possesses any confidence except the confidence of a Party; that his position is totally untenable, and, consequently, that he must abandon it. And not only would they have the power of making the position of the Speaker untenable, but the power, with the greatest facility, to make the Business of the House impossible. Why, Sir, we had last year in operation, under the Rules termed the Rules of Urgency, a system of extreme stringency, qualified, it is true, by a majority of three-fourths. [Opposition cheers.] That is perfectly immaterial in the circumstances in which we stand. I grant you at once that, for an exceptional case of that kind, where a very limited section of the House is in conflict with the enormous majority of the House, the majority of three-fourths is as effective—indeed, more effective—than a bare majority, because it represents the action of a very large proportion of the House, instead of leaving the majority of the House responsible, as it ought to be, for its own acts. But what happened under those Rules of Urgency? Have hon. Gentlemen ever considered the great delay in the debates of last 497 year upon the Protection of Person and Property Bill which was disposed of under those Rules? Do they remember how many weeks were spent on that Bill, which only contained two clauses? That was the effect of the co-operation of a set of Gentlemen, perhaps not more than about 30 or 35 in number. I do not know that they were smarting under any special sense of injustice. [Mr. BIGGAR: Oh, yes.] Well, I think, at any rate, this—that they did not succeed in bringing home to the public mind that they were suffering under injustice—[Mr. BIGGAR: Oh, yes.]—with as much efficiency—and that is the point of my argument—as a Constitutional Opposition would be able to bring home that under which they were suffering—[An hon. MEMBER: They are English.]—to the bulk of this country. [An hon. MEMBER: English.] Very well; but that does not touch my argument. My argument is to show how much was done by a set of Gentlemen who admit they could not bring home the sense of injustice they were suffering to the public mind. [An hon. MEMBER: English minds.] Very good; but the English and Scottish mind is the mind of 30,000,000 of people; and the fact that they brought it home to the minds of 5,000,000 of people would be a very limited operation, compared with the operation which this minority would be able to effect. What I want to make is a "rule of three" sum. I want to show that a minority, insignificant in numbers, though, I grant, with an abundance of talent and courage and admirable organization—I freely give them, that amount of praise—and not having, as they say they have not, the ear of the 30,000,000 of people of this country, nevertheless was able to detain this House for many, many weeks in discussing under the Rules of Urgency two clauses of the Protection of Person and Property Bill. Then we are told that, under these milder laws, with nothing to prevent them from appealing to the entire population of the Three Kingdoms, a minority six or eight times as large as that of the Irish minority of last year would have no power, smarting under a sense of injustice received from the Chair and from the majority, of vindicating itself by stopping, arresting, and retarding the Business of the House. In my opinion, nothing can be more absurd and unjust on the part of right 498 hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite towards themselves, their Party, and their cause, than the apprehensions they entertain, that what they call a gag is to be put into their mouths by the operation of the Rule of Urgency. Then the right hon. and learned Gentleman says there is a contradiction in terms between our acceptance of the "evident sense of the House" as the criterion to determine the Speaker's action and our determination to press the House with all our might and main to accept the principle of a simple majority. The right hon. and learned Gentleman contends that amounts to a contradiction in terms. I say it does nothing of the kind; and I will point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the fundamental fallacy of his argument. His assumption is this—that all those who desire or are willing that the debate should close are ready, on a division, to vote that it should close. If that assumption be sound and true, then the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not far from being right. But his assumption is totally without foundation. I will not follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman into his play upon the different meanings of the word "Obstruction." He said—"You admit this Resolution is against Obstruction, and yet you are going to force it upon those who never obstruct." The word "Obstruction" is sometimes used in the sense of penal offence, and sometimes in the sense of offering general impediments, needless and frivolous procrastinating speeches to the Business of the House. We have stated, I think, that the chief business of this Resolution is to get rid of tedious and frivolous speaking thrust upon the House in the elongation of debates without necessity and without justification. For the purposes of my argument, I must suppose—although I have no persons in particular in view—that there are Members in this House who may occasionally fall into that error, and who, when a debate has reached its-natural close, are willing, against the "evident sense of the House," and are disposed to force themselves upon it and carry it forward. But those Gentlemen—those offenders, if I may so call them—are Members of the one or the other political Party. In order to simplify my argument, I do not speak of the Third Party in the House. Apart from questions of Irish policy, 499 they are Members of one political Party or the other. But what happens upon these occasions? The fact is notorious. The Front Bench opposite, if a body of their Party offend by prolonging a debate that ought to close, would not join in intelligible manifestations of their desire that it should close; they would leave that to other people, and if it formed the subject of division, they would not vote against those Gentlemen. It could not be done. To be passive, or quietly to accept the decision of the House in conformity with their own nominal wish, is what is to be expected from them; and, therefore, I differ entirely from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I assert that, in the practical working out of this matter, there are numbers of men who wish a debate to terminate, but who cannot, from the relations of Party subsisting among us, vote that the debate should terminate—they wish the speakers to be done, and out of the way; but they cannot vote them down, and therefore I entirely repel and repudiate the assumption of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the number of persons ready to vote that a debate should terminate is a proper test of the number of persons who wish that it should terminate. I must state very briefly my objection to the plan of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have dealt rather fully with his objections to our plan. Our objections to his plan are two. I might, indeed, fall back upon authority here. I do not know what the opinions of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Devon now are; but I find him reported on the 27th of July, 1877, thus—and there is much weight to be attached to his judgment in any matter connected with the Business of the House, which he knows so thoroughly. He then said, on the proposal that a penal regulation should be made—I would lay special stress upon the importance of avoiding the introduction of a distinction between an absolute majority and a majority of two-thirds or three-fourths. I cannot help thinking that there would be great danger in introducing such a distinction, because it might be the beginning of a system to which I should very much object—giving to a majority of two-thirds or three-fourths power to do that which we should not like to do with an absolute majority."—[3 Hansard, ccxxxvi. 68.]That opinion was repeated at a later 500 date, for on the 26th of February, 1880, just before he quitted Office, when moving a Standing Order as to the suspending of an individual Member, the right hon. Baronet again said—The hon. Member for Plymouth (Mr. Sampson Lloyd) proposes another thing which I do not agree with. He says that when this Motion is made it shall not be carried except by a majority of two-thirds. I think that is a very awkward Rule to lay down. It would be an entirely new practice in this House. We know of no such thing in this House as majorities of two-thirds. I should be exceeding sorry to see the introduction of such a principle as that in our proceedings, of which we at present know nothing."—[Ibid. ccl. 1460.]That was the impartial, responsible, and deliberate judgment of the right hon. Gentleman, and I think that it is one that may very well weigh with the House. But my objections to the Motion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman are two—first, its injustice, not to all minorities, but to small minorities; and, secondly, its injustice to the majority of this House. For I do venture to think that the majority of this House, who are the persons responsible to the people of the country for the things done in Parliament, have some title to be considered with regard to the rights which I contend that they possess. Now, let me look first at the plan of proportional majority in its bearing on a small minority; and, Sir, I cannot help making, I hope, an innocent reference to the curious tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He gave us a reason why, repelling the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for the University of London (Sir John Lubbock), he had adopted our limitations and safeguards for the small majority; and what was that reason? That the right hon. and learned Gentleman was painfully impressed with the sense of the injustice to which small minorities would be subjected, and was desirous, indeed, that the public interest should not be damaged by the suppression of the voice of the small minorities? No; nothing of the kind. He said it was this—because he knew that if he did not do that, we should make appeals and illegitimate efforts to get hold of the Irish vote. That, said the right hon. and learned Gentleman, was what he knew would happen; and, therefore, not at all from sympathy or concern with the interests of the small minorities—not in the least 501 degree from any large regard to the principles of political justice—but in order to bar our wicked attempts upon the Irish vote, the right hon. and learned Gentleman adopted our system in his part of the subject. I am rather amused at the manner in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I admit, encouraged by his no inconsiderable experience—appeared to assert his vested interest in the Irish vote. On many occasions he has enjoyed its benefit, and I do not wonder that he should be little disposed to forfeit so great an advantage. But, Sir, I do not know that the voting ever since we met on Tuesday last has been such as to make us particularly anxious to waste our breath in appeals, legitimate or illegitimate, to the Irish vote. But we have a little more to do than to consider the Irish vote. Whatever rights the Irish vote has, it has them not because it is the Irish vote—admitting it to be properly so called, though I must say I do not know that it is—not, I say, because it is the Irish vote simply, but because it is a limited minority of this House, pleading energetically and from the heart a cause to which the great majority is opposed. Not, therefore, for the Irish vote alone, but for every minority of this House, we are determined, as an absolute and fundamental condition of our plan, to adhere to the safeguards which we have inserted in the Resolution. But, Sir, the point I want to put now for the consideration of the House at large is this—I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has considered it—if we are going to have a proportional majority, what will be the ultimate form of that proportional majority? Will these safeguards continue to live in conjunction with the plan of the right hon. and learned Gentleman? I affirm they will not. And why? Consider the Resolution. We have cast upon the Speaker, by the Resolution as it stands, a very complicated, a sufficiently complicated, obligation. He has to make up his mind on the sufficient discussion. He has to make up his mind on the "evident sense of the House." He has, in many states of the House, to have regard to the numbers in the House, and form the best estimate of them which he can. For, pray, bear in mind that this is a matter, Sir, in which not even you, and no Speaker in that Chair, can afford to be 502 repeatedly or frequently defeated. He must move with security and success, or he must not move at all; and it will be difficult enough for him to move with all these matters to consider. But now comes in the right hon. and learned Gentleman with a cross consideration traversing and complicating all the rest; and, besides all these points that the Speaker has before him, he is likewise to form his estimate upon his inspection of the state of the House, with regard to which he never has had, and never can have, the assistance of those who are familiarly called the Whippers-in. He must form his opinion as best he can as to the division between two-thirds and one-third, and an immense addition must be made to the burden of his duties in point of complication. What will be the result if the House adopts the principle of an artificial majority, yielding to the fatal seductions of the right hon. and learned Gentleman? These safeguards will be found so inconvenient that they will disappear. The only remaining safeguard will be the safeguard of the two-thirds' limit, and the ultimate and real form of the proportionate majority will not be that of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for the University of London (Sir John Lubbock). I must say to anything which leads to that, or anything which tends in that direction, we have an insurmountable objection. I know no treason to the rights and character of this House of which a Minister or a Government could be guilty equal to that of voluntarily exposing to risk the freedom of speech enjoyed in this House from time immemorial by small minorities, which have not only made the most solemn assertion of our rights and privileges, but likewise have sown the seeds, the germ and promise of the most beneficial changes introduced in the progress of ages into the legislation of this country. Therefore, my objection to the simple action of the majority of two-thirds, combined with the strong conviction I entertain that the Motion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman would only be the stepping-stone to that simple action, is one fundamental reason why I cannot accept his Resolution. I have objected on the part of the small minority. I have contended that the large minority is absolutely safe, not, indeed, 503 in governing all the proceedings of this House, but in securing absolute freedom of speech and action. I now turn to consider the bearings of this Motion on the rights of the majority. And, Sir, what is our objection to this Motion, in the name and on behalf of the interests of the majority? I observe that these interests of the majority are, after all, the principal interests of Parliament, because it is the majority that governs the proceedings and acts by which the Members of Parliament will be judged when they come before their constituents upon the next Dissolution. Now, Sir, I tell you my objection to the Motion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is that it hands over the rights of the majority to the minority. It paralyzes absolutely in respect to the closing power the majority of this House, unless they can obtain the concurrence of the minority; and that, Sir, is not the worst of it. Sometimes there is more than one minority in the House. There is now a majority—I am thankful and glad to say not an inconsiderable majority—and there is also a small minority. We have very seldom had the pleasure of agreeing with that small minority off the ground of Irish land, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman guards that particular preserve of his with such vigilance that he will not allow us to set foot within it. Therefore, I must presume that he will make good his claim. But suppose the case that in this House it so happened that this Rule was in force; that a debate was enormously prolonged; that the whole of this majority, without exception, desired that the debate should close; and that the whole of the small minority, two of the three Parties in the House, desired that the debate should close. I say that, with our whole force of the majority, aided with the whole force of the minority, we should not be able to close the debate if it were opposed by the Constitutional Opposition—that is to say, therefore, the claim of that Party is, that without a whole majority and a small minority of some 35 Members in another part of the House are agreed in joining to close a debate, they claim for the minority the absolute right of determining whether the debate shall close or not. And, Sir, they speak of the abuse of power by the majority; but if the majority might abuse its power to go forward, may not 504 the minority abuse its power to hang back? There are personal securities against our abuse of power. What is the security against your abuse of power? You are to be entitled to set up your judgment against the judgment of the sheer majority of the House, sitting on this side of the House, even when that happens to be backed by the equally unanimous judgment of another minority, and you claim the right of stopping absolutely those proceedings. Therefore, I say with regard to the closing power, this claim which appears to be so modest, and which always founds itself upon the supposed case of a majority of 1, when stripped of all its disguises, is a simple demand that the power of the vote of a majority, and the right of the majority to put forward the Business of the House, shall be arbitrarily and absolutely arrested by the minority. Now, Sir, I do not deny that there may be a possibility of injustice in the action of a majority. God forbid that I should deny it. It is for that reason that, knowing how well by usage and tradition the Speaker is held apart from every Party in the House, we have insisted on the necessity of keeping him apart from the majority. A majority may abuse its power in pressing a thing forward, and the minority may abuse its power by holding it back; but if the majority abuses its power it is abusing a power which naturally belongs to it. If the minority abuses that power, it is abusing a power which it gets under a factitious arrangement in opposition to all the principles that govern the proceedings of this House. And, Sir, I am bound to say, and I hope it will not be thought an exaggeration, that I hope the House will not adopt this proposal. But, if it were possible, I should suggest that when the question of clôture was about to be decided, the majority might just as well save themselves the trouble of voting at all. Let them leave it to be settled by the minority among themselves. It is the minority that, as a body, will settle it; and it will be just as well for every practical purpose if they were left to settle it among themselves, and tell us at once when we come back to the House what they had resolved to do. Sir, it is to be borne in mind what is the normal attitude of the minority and the majority of this House. It is generally constituted by two Parties; 505 therefore, I will suppose it is so constituted. There is a Government and an Opposition; and this, Sir, is a principle now so rooted in the working of the British Constitution, ever since it came to be a popular Constitution for the self-government of the country, that I, for my own part, am so stupid as to believe that it is a permanent principle of the Constitution. What is the normal relation of these two Parties? Happily, there is a great mass of the Business of the House which they are agreed upon—most Executive and administrative matters, a great many legislative matters, and of all the legislation which now forms such a bugbear with Gentlemen opposite in my belief upon four-fifths we are thoroughly agreed. To take the Corrupt Practices Bill—a Bill about which differences of Party were apprehended—yet when we came to discuss it we found there was no Party difference at all. Therefore, upon a very large portion of our Business there is no question at all, and there can be no motive, either on the one side or on the other, to pursue a system of contrary and vexatious action. But I must look to the greater part of our Business, which is Party Business. Now, in Party Business, the business of the Government and the majority is to press it forward. The normal attitude of the Opposition, who resist and dislike it, and want to get rid of it, is to keep it back; and this cool proposal is, that it being the normal attitude, and the business and even the duty, from their point of view, of the Constitutional Opposition, or the large minority of this House, to keep back the Business of the Government, their title to keep it back shall now for the first time be sealed by the solemn vote of the House, and the right of the majority handed over to the minority. We cannot upon any terms or on any conditions, or in the spirit of any precedents, be they what they may, consent to this system of proportionate majorities as a mode of regulating the Government Business of the House. Now, Sir, one word more only on the subject of the position of the Government, which I hope may be sufficiently understood from what I have said, but three sentences more will enable me to make it plain. I have stated, Sir, that, after deliberate examination of this question, being confident of the disposition of the House to give us what it may 506 think an efficient plan, we do not think that, when we come to the point, we should be justified in endeavouring to force the rejection of this Motion by saying—"Unless you choose to pass it, we shall cast overboard the care of the affairs of this great Empire, and place our resignations in the hands of Her Majesty." We think that would be an excess of pressure, and a trespass on the just jurisdiction of the House. Were this a legislative measure, we should be entitled to follow our own judgment; but, as we have said before, this is a matter which concerns the House itself—the public and the private conscience of the House. This House has a character to maintain, and a dignity to maintain, and a tradition to maintain far different from that of any man or any Ministry, and far superior even to that of any Party in the country. It must be the judge of its own duty in the matter, and we wish it shall be the judge of its own duty in the matter. But while saying that, we cannot conceal our conviction—for my part I have the deepest conviction—that closure by a two-thirds majority would be not only an inefficient system of amendment in Procedure, but a deterioration of Procedure. I would rather have no closure at all than a closure by two-thirds' majority. Practically, it would come nearly to the same thing, because it would be a dead letter. But the bad principle we had sanctioned would remain on record against us. I beseech and entreat the House not to give its sanction to that bad principle. Sir, there is not a man who speaks in this House who speaks, or there can be few men in this House who speak, in this matter with so little personal interest as I do. My life is in the past, and not in the future. I am not thinking of measures I am to propose, and for which I am to be responsible. I am thinking of the great duties which year by year, and Parliament by Parliament, will be performed in this House by other and worthier men, with the deep conviction of the necessity of maintaining the sound fundamental principles upon which our great legislative system has been constituted, and especially upon which this Assembly has been founded from the first. Let it be careful to maintain every safeguard, every just extraneous restraint upon the action of the majority. Let it maintain absolute 507 freedom of speech. Let it be slow to abridge the power of multiplying the occasions of debate; let it cherish that admirable and wonderful system by which its acts and its words at once become the property of the nation and the world. Let it invite the action of public opinion and public privilege; let it avail itself of all extraneous observation as among its best and most valuable guides; but let it adhere to that which sense and usage and tradition alike dictate—that the majority and not the minority should prevail.
§ MR. ECROYD
said, he wished to examine the proposals of the Government in a fair and candid manner. It would be contrary to his duty, and could only weaken the cause he desired to advance, if he were to impute motives to those who had placed these proposals before the House. The difference of opinion between those on the Opposition side of the House and the supporters of the Government might be summed up in a very few words. The question was whether the clôture already resolved upon by the vote of the House should be put in force by the vote of a mere Party majority against the judgment of a large minority. He would like to examine the effect of these two modes of dealing—first, upon the temper and character of the House itself; secondly, upon the character and the permanence of its legislation; thirdly, upon the public estimate of its spirit and impartiality; and, fourthly, upon political opinion in the country, and especially on the adherents of the Party in Opposition. First, as to the effect on the temper and character of the House. Every Member was the guardian of freedom of debate; and, surely, they might be permitted to hope that questions so exasperating as those with which they had had to deal during the last three years were not to be continually presented to the House; that the great sacrifices they had made, the extraordinary measures they had passed for the pacification of Ireland would have some effect, and that there would be less probability of Obstruction. Might they not hope also that those powers which the House had possessed, during the years in which Irish questions had formed the chief subject of debate, might be found sufficient to rule their proceedings in the discussion of less burn- 508 ing questions in the future? The objection which he and others entertained was not to well-considered reforms of Procedure to meet an acknowledged difficulty in dealing with the vast and varied Business which increasingly pressed upon the House, but to the adoption of a particular form of Rule which would have the effect of subjecting the speech and the proceedings of the minority to the regulation of the majority, who must always be the supporters of the Government. One quality was absolutely essential to the success of any Rules that might be adopted by the House, and that was, they must command the confidence and loyal assent of both the great Parties. They must be lifted above all possibility of being regarded in the country as Party instruments for the suppression of unwelcome debate. The most imperfect Rules that would answer to those requirements would be found more advantageous to the proceedings of the House than the most stringent Rules open to such an imputation; and no argument had been adduced to prove that such changes as would have obtained the sanction of both Parties would have failed to remedy the evils about which complaint was justly made. They ought, he contended, to distinguish carefully between Obstruction and legitimate opposition, and their Rules should be such as to act only against Obstruction, and not against fair and reasonable opposition. It was clear that the freedom fully and fearlessly to debate all important questions was most dear to those constituencies who returned Members of the Opposition; and, if it should be in any degree impaired by the action of this Rule, the opinion of those constituencies would certainly be that the Speaker had unjustifiably intervened to check the further examination of questions raised by the Opposition. Any Opposition would always be objectionable to a powerful Government with a large and impatient majority at its back; and, whatever the safeguards by which the Rule might be surrounded, there would be frequently successful efforts on the part of the majority to close a discussion which was becoming inconvenient. It was true that, in a technical sense, the initiation of the proceedings leading to the clôture was vested in the Speaker; but the real initiation lay in the "evident sense of the 509 House," which could only be manifested in the conduct and cries of the adherents of the Government, and might be inspired by the Government itself in times of great pressure and difficulty. Therefore, the real initiative force would be the desire of the Government to stop further discussion and criticism; and, that being so, what became of the independent initiative of the Speaker? An impatient majority might, by their cries, render the proceedings of the House so difficult as to compel the Speaker to intervene in the interest of Order, and thus to meet their wishes by suggesting the clôture. The Prime Minister had told them that no Speaker could ever afford to be mistaken in his judgment of the "evident sense of the House;" and it was quite clear that, under a system of cl6ture by a bare majority, the Speaker would very soon find that he was always justified in proposing clôture when it was suggested by the cries of the supporters of the Ministry in power, and extremely dangerous to suggest it under any other circumstances. The proceedings of the House had two ends in view. It was an Assembly not only for the actual work of legislation, but also for the public discussion of great questions which were exciting interest, in order to enable the country to form an opinion as to the desirableness of legislation; and, if this Rule were to be voted by a bare majority, the tendency must be to restrict the debating power of the House, and to degrade it more and more into a mere instrument for the mechanical passing of measures adopted by the majority, and by the societies connected with them out-of-doors. Its acceptance would mean the transfer of the great business of debate from this august Assembly to the Press, to periodicals, and to local committees and bodies, who would press their views upon the Ministry of the day with all the power of the conferedated Caucuses, and the result would be the degradation of the character and proceedings of the House. Then it should be remembered that there might be Obstruction in more ways than one, and there was already manifest a dangerous form of Obstruction which sought to curtail debate and to deprive this Assembly of its debating character. Was there not an increasing tendency to impatience of debate—a disposition to to force measures through the House, 510 with very scant discussion, because they had been brought there in obedience to the demand expressed in certain centres outside? Had they not seen also the attempt to obstruct and stifle debate by one Party in the House systematically refusing to take part in it? These forms of Obstruction were more dangerous and more insidious than all the open Obstruction which they were endeavouring to combat. If the character of the House as a debating Assembly was to be changed in that manner, its authority must continually diminish, and the country would no longer be governed by the open decisions of a free Parliament, but by secret coteries and cliques, which would become hotbeds of corruption, and would degrade the whole political life of the country to a level no higher than that of the United States. For his part, he did not fear that any intentional unfairness would occur in the administration of the clôture. The danger he feared was that of political impatience. Although impatience was a most untrustworthy guide in all human affairs, yet it was clearly manifest that, at the present moment, the great moving power behind these proposals was the impatience which was felt by the Liberal Party because the Government had been unable to carry into effect the numerous measures which they set before the country at the time of the last General Election. He did not believe that they would have heard of the Resolutions in their present form if it had not been for the embarrassment in which the Administration had been placed by their non-fulfilment of those promises, many of which, he thought, were of an extremely rash and unwise character. It had been stated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Mr. Goschen), the other evening, that in his opinion such a restraint would be exercised by these Resolutions as might practically prevent the necessity for putting them in force. That was his (Mr. Ecroyd's) greatest fear. He feared that it would prevent the Members of the Party in Opposition from fully and fearlessly discharging their duty to their constituents. The representatives of special interests and the setters forth of grievances little understood in that House would no longer be able to obtain a hearing, for they would be suppressed not with any intentional unfairness, but because it would always 511 be deemed that their representations on questions affecting their constituents were inopportune and of secondary interest. But that would not be the opinion of the constituencies, and what he feared was not more the effect upon the House of such proceedings as upon the political temper and feeling of the country. They knew what excitement and danger had arisen in times past in the contests between capital and labour, and he feared that similar excitement might occur again, even, perhaps, to a more serious extent; but how much greater would be the danger if the safety-valve of free discussion were removed from that House; if proposals deeply interesting to great masses of the people, however dangerous and impracticable they might be, could not obtain a full and fair hearing in that House? With respect to Ireland, he had not been satisfied that the course pursued by the House towards the Irish Members had always been consistent with the highest wisdom; and if this Amendment had involved the possibility of the House acting with injustice to the small minority of Representatives from Ireland he should not have supported it. The scope of the Amendment, however, was not to take anything from the safeguards provided for small minorities, but to extend those safeguards—indeed, the question of safeguarding small minorities was one that had not, in his opinion, received too much attention in these discussions. He believed that if, by any Rules of a stringent character, they were to succeed in forwarding legislation at the cost of suppressing all unwise and inopportune expressions of opinion, they would be put in the position of an engineer who tied down his safety-valves. He would appeal to those moderate Members, who were the strength of both Parties, that they should be content with the adoption of the Rule in a form which would carry to the minds of all men the conviction that this violent interference with our ancient freedom of debate should never on any occasion be carried into effect by the will of a mere Party majority. He desired to point out to them how much more authoritative and efficient would be a Rule which could be carried, if not with the entire approval, yet with the hearty and loyal assent of the great Constitutional Opposition, and he entertained the most profound hope 512 that they might not have cast upon the floor of that House a torch of everlasting distrust and discord. He regarded the proceedings of the last few years as a mere passionate episode brought upon this country by the misfortunes of Ireland, and he thought it would be a source of never-ending regret if that should lead them into steps that would involve the permanent deterioration of the character and feelings of the House. He would also appeal to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone), himself one of the most distinguished ornaments of that ancient Assembly in any period of its history. Let him not, in the fulness of his career, after having rendered such great and noble services to his country, and while occupying in its estimation that high position which he (Mr. Ecroyd), as one of his political opponents, was as free to recognize as any man—let him not take measures which might weaken, and possibly destroy, the character of that mother of all free Legislative Assemblies. It might be that they of the Opposition were mistaken in their estimation of this Rule; but that was a matter of secondary consequence. The very fact that they had so real and so terrible a sense of the evils to which it must lead, if passed in its present rigid form, was quite sufficient to render it both inadvisable and imprudent—at least imprudent—to force it on the House by the assent of only a Party majority.
said, that, as an independent Liberal Member, he desired to express his hearty satisfaction at the introduction of this new Rule as now proposed, and hoped to see it carried by a good majority. He was very glad that the right hon. Gentleman had stuck to his guns in this matter, and had repudiated the Amendment of the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite. It was true, as had been written, that "one of the proud results of our free Constitution has been the development of Parliamentary oratory." Undoubtedly that development had contributed largely to the rapid increase of the wealth and prosperity of the country; but the time had now arrived when some healthy check must be placed on the unhealthy tendency to loquacity in that House. Down to a comparatively recent date, the good order of the House of Commons was recognized by 513 all; but in place of the former system, which permitted two or three recognized Leaders in debate to monopolize the time of the House, all now wished to take a part, some for the mere love of notoriety. He thought the necessity for reform had been chiefly brought about by certain hon. Members, who had shown an evident desire—he might almost say an avowed determination—to bring the Parliamentary government of this country into discredit, if not to make it altogether impossible. He did not know whether certain hon. Members who sat below the Gangway on the opposite side of the House would deny such a charge; but, after pretty constant attendance in that House for the last three Sessions, that was the only conclusion as to their conduct that he could come to. It was impossible without reform for that House to fulfil the many duties imposed upon it by the country. Serious disorders required strong remedies, and he admitted that the proposed remedy was a strong one; but he believed that its effect had been very much exaggerated. In the first place, they had this great security against its abuse—that the Speaker must take the initial step under this Rule. Further, he must perceive that "it is the evident sense of the House that the Question be now put" before he could allow the Rule to be used; and with the experience and acquaintance which every Speaker must necessarily have had with that House before he could be placed in such an honoured position, they might rest assured that he would rightly interpret the "evident sense of the House," and not permit himself to be swayed by mere noise or unruly conduct. Then, again, the opinion of the Speaker must be ratified by the majority of the House. It was here that they joined issue with the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marriott), whose Amendment proposed to make it impossible for any majority of the House to close debate. He believed that the time had now come when they could no longer get on without giving the power of closing a debate to some proportion of the House. What that proportion should be was the question raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), who proposed that closure should only be carried by two-thirds 514 of the House. It seemed to him that to limit the power to such a proportion of the House would be to make it impossible to close debate without the joint action of the Government and the Opposition. They would thereby directly introduce into every question an excited Party feeling, which would impede dignified action, and be likely to hinder the advancement of Public Business. Further, it seemed unwise to introduce into that House, where hitherto all questions, whether great or small, had been decided by one arbitrament—the decision of the majority—any other decision of a different proportion of the House. If they could, by a bare majority, pass a Reform Bill which was to alter the whole balance of power throughout the country, why might they not also, by a bare majority, put an end to the Obstruction of a handful of men who were intent on destroying the dignity of that House? It was not conceivable that this Rule could ever be enforced against the legitimate discussion of any great question by the recognized Party in Opposition acting in concert with their Front Bench; and he believed that whenever this Rule might be used for the advancement of Public Business, it would be found that the Leaders and the main bodies of both political Parties would act together. He thought the only statesmanlike way to deal with this question was to put it in the hands of the Speaker and a majority of the House. One argument against the proposed Rule had been that it was possible that the Office of Speaker might be rendered more liable to the heat of Party politics; but he thought the contrary result might be expected. The mere possibility of such a departure from all the dignified precedents which the present occupant of the Chair had taught them to look on almost as a matter of course would be considered the very reason for especial care on the part of both political Parties to select a Speaker of the most honourable and impartial character. Indeed, the love of the English nation for fair play would make it impossible for a Speaker, however desirous to serve his Party, to act as the tool or instrument of any Minister, however powerful. He also thought that the proposed Rule would be a distinct gain to the Speaker. The House could never forget the extraordinary scene of Feb- 515 ruary 2, 1881, when, after a debate of 41 hours, the Speaker, acting wholly on his own responsibility, stopped the debate. That act, arbitrary as it might be called, unprecedented as it undoubtedly was, was nevertheless received with satisfaction by the whole country. What had occurred once might occur again; and he thought it would be an immense relief to the Speaker to feel that he could not be called upon to close a debate entirely on his own responsibility, but must have the support of a majority of that House. But it was urged that a Party would blindly follow the lead of a Minister without conviction or independence on their own part, and it had been insinuated that the Liberal Party was a Party of that nature; but they had on other occasions been told that their Party was breaking up, and that they would shortly have to appeal to the country. He admitted that there was independence of opinion on their side, and if they were so independent as had been said, that very independence would be the safeguard of the proposed Rule. Believing in the independence and honourable feelings of a majority of that House, whether Conservative or Liberal, he was prepared, as an independent Liberal, uninfluenced and un-caucused, to give his hearty support to that Rule.
§ MR. GREGORY
said, he approached the question in a spirit of fairness and candour. His sole interest in it wag that of a Member occasionally taking part in the Business of the House, and therefore desirous of facilitating the conduct of Public Business. The question which suggested itself to his mind was this—whether, if they carried out the propositions of Her Majesty's Government, they would not be going too far in assenting to the Rule under consideration, and beyond the necessities of the case. He regarded the Resolution as followed by a series of Resolutions which, although stringent, yet he could not say they were too stringent for the conduct of the Business of the House. This present proposal, however, was an entirely new one, and an innovation of the ordinary Rules and proceedings of that Assembly; and he thought the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister had gone too far, in assuming, as he appeared to do in the course of his argument, that this was not an in- 516 novation—not a new thing, but something which was inherent in the constitution of the House, and that it would be but the revival of a something they had had before. In his (Mr. Gregory's) view, what they were dealing with was an entirely new subject—it was an innovation in the proceedings of the House, and he might say an innovation of the Constitution of the country, and he felt compelled to regard it entirely from that point of view. It was impossible for the House, in considering the proposal now before it, to entirely disregard the existing state of things, and the machinery employed in maintaining the condition of matters generally. In spite of what had fallen from the lips of the right hon. Gentleman, he most certainly should treat the proposition submitted to the House as one entirely and beyond all question new. And what was the question with which they were now dealing? It was one which, in his estimation, was of no little importance, and one for which he could not see that any necessity had arisen; for was not the issue to be decided this—whether or no a bare majority should be able to act with absolute power over a minority, in closing their mouths upon any subject which might be under discussion? Hitherto, so far as his experience and recollection went, there never had been any difficulty found in bringing a debate to a close at some fixed period. When it was considered that a debate had been sufficiently prolonged, and that the time had arrived when it should conclude, it had been the practice to arrange a day for its termination, and that regulation had been strictly adhered to on both sides of the House. That, up to the present, had been the state of affairs, so far as the two great Parties in the House were concerned; and if there were only two Parties to be taken into account there would be no need for alteration. But then he was prepared to admit that the old condition of things had somewhat changed, had been disturbed within the last year or two, and a new, though a small, Third Party had appeared upon the scene who had not acted upon such understanding. That some change was requisite in the Rules of the House, therefore, he would not deny; but, surely, where the Party was numerically so weak a one, would not the two-thirds' majority of the House accomplish 517 the purpose they had in view? Such a sweeping proposition as that made by the Government was not necessary, and even if it were it should not be passed without the general concurrence of the whole House. What they had to ascertain was whether the opposition on the part of a certain section of Members was continued against the manifest feeling of the House, and he did not know of any safer and better test than of a proportionate majority. He ventured to think that, in that manner, they could effect all that they desired to attain in restraining the undue prolongation of debate, and that it was unnecessary to apply a more stringent rule. Between the two great Parties there never had been experienced any difficulty in making an arrangement to close a debate on a certain day, and a two-thirds majority would beyond doubt meet any extreme case they might be called upon to deal with, or that had ever occurred in the House in the course of his experience. The fact that the power created under that new Rule would be exercised by the Chairman of Committees ought to make them more cautious about allowing it to be applied at the will of a bare majority; and he respectfully appealed to Members on both sides whether by conferring so great a power they would be really promoting the better regulation of the Business of the House, or whether it would not be preferable to put in force a Rule in which all concurred, and which would meet all the exigencies which might arise?
§ MR. SALT
said, he did not rise with the intention of dealing in detail with the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, because, of course, that duty would fall upon somebody on the Front Opposition Benches; but he could not help, early in the debate, making an observation upon the main argument with which the right hon. Gentleman supported the position with regard to the two-thirds' Rule. He said, in the first place, that if the Rule were carried into effect, the Speaker and the House would often be placed in the difficult and discreditable position of the Speaker having misjudged the opinion of the House, and so finding his judgment incorrect. But while the argument proceeded, he (Mr. Salt) could not help calling to mind what was proposed under the Resolution with respect to 518 small minorities in that House—that if the minority were less than 40, a majority of 100 should be sufficient to carry the clôture; and that if the minority exceeded 40 a majority of 200 should be necessary. It would clearly be much more difficult for the Speaker to arrive at a correct judgment with regard to those circumstances, than to give an opinion, from his long experience, whether two-thirds of the Members present desired that the debate should be closed. The second argument of the Prime Minister was that the Amendment would place the majority in the power of the minority; and, of course, he (Mr. Salt), in common with everyone else, admitted that the House must be ruled by the majority. But the case in which it was proposed to apply the two-thirds' Rule differed, in a great degree, from a vote upon a Bill or a Resolution which was intended to have some practical effect. The question would be, how far the desire of the minority to put their views before the House and the country should be curtailed; and, as the practice now proposed would be entirely new, it was only reasonable that the stopping of a debate should only take place when two-thirds of the Members so wished. He rose, however, rather for the purpose of suggesting that it was very important, in the consideration of the Amendment, to understand clearly the object of the Resolution. They had been told that it was to put down Obstruction; but no one seemed to have a very clear idea of what the Obstruction was that was to be put down. He did not think Obstruction was the right term; but, using it for convenience, he wished to remind the House that there were many kinds of Obstruction. There was legitimate Obstruction, and there was Obstruction that was altogether illegitimate. Illegitimate Obstruction appeared to be where an individual, a small number of men, or a Party, combined together to stop all Government Business and all the Business of the House until they were able to carry some favourite scheme of their own. That was a kind of Obstruction which experience showed was resorted to only by a very small number of Members, and it was that which the country really believed Parliament was aiming at in these Resolutions. If that class of Obstruction could be dealt with at all by Rules, a two-thirds' majority 519 would be quite sufficient; and the power would not appear to be too stringent, though it was probable that the Obstructionists in such a case would fall under the other provisions of the Government scheme. But there was also another and legitimate kind of Obstruction or opposition which had been for generations associated with the ideas and habits of the House. It had grown up with the House itself, and the Forms of the House seemed to have been actually designed for it. One of the most remarkable features of the House was its respect for minorities, and there was reason for it. Supposing a Conservative Government, in face of a strong Radical Opposition, attempted to deal with a question generally considered Liberal or Radical, the Opposition, feeling that the proposal did not go far enough, that it was not thorough, and would not settle the question, would be justified in using all the Forms of the House that it properly and reasonably could avail itself of to prevent the measure from being carried. Again, a Radical Government, opposed by a strong Conservative minority, might desire to pass an exceedingly Radical and revolutionary measure, upon which the country had not been consulted, or which formed no part of the task which the Government was commissioned by the electors to perform; and, in that case, he (Mr. Salt) held that it would be perfectly legitimate for the minority to use the Forms of the House in order that the country might be consulted before the measure became law. That would, no doubt, be most disagreeable to the Party in power, and might probably have the effect of stopping the way of Government Business and of private legislation; but it would be quite legitimate Obstruction, and in accordance with the habits and traditions of the House, and within the Rules under which the had been in the habit of acting for many years. They should, therefore, be very careful to understand what it was they wished to hinder. The real question before the House was, whether it was intended not only to put down that illegitimate Obstruction to which he had referred, but to overcome, in a summary manner, legitimate opposition also. The two-thirds' majority was eminently applicable to the kind of Obstruction which was illegitimate and dis- 520 loyal to the House and to the country; but if the object was to hinder the other kind of Obstruction of which he had spoken, he was strongly of opinion that interference with the existing Rules had better be avoided altogether. One word as to the length of speeches and debates. It was, no doubt, most unfortunate that debates should be long and speeches tedious; but the Resolutions following the 1st were amply sufficient to deal with those evils. He could only hope that the good sense of the House would some day curtail both speeches and debates; but, in the meantime, it was well to remember that all constituencies expected their Members to speak more or less frequently, and that, as long as they acted under the erroneous impression that the usefulness of a Member was to be measured by the number of his speeches debates would continue to be long and tedious. Those constituencies were apt to lose sight of the fact that Members might be doing even better work while they were silent than when they were making speeches; and, that being so, it would be well to bear as patiently as they could with the evil of tedious speech, instead of introducing stringent Rules, which might be found to go further than was intended. Then, as to the alleged unproductiveness of the Session, he was disposed to contest the Prime Minister's assertion that Public Business was in a deplorable state. Bringing that statement to the test of actual facts, he (Mr. Salt) found that a considerable number of useful measures had been passed during the present Session, and among them he might mention the Act for the Consolidation of the Municipal Laws, the Settled Estates Act, the Act with regard to conveyancing, and a number of Scotch Acts, in addition to which there were the Irish Acts, with which they were almost too well acquainted, but which were Acts of great importance to Ireland. Then there was the Parcel Post Act, an Act that would bring competition home to every small trader in the country, and bring confusion into every post office in the country; but then it was a very important Act, and he could mention others. But he had mentioned enough to show that the Session, which had been said to be so deplorable, was rather rich in useful Acts than otherwise; so that there was 521 no such great need to establish in a hurry this very stringent Rule, in order to check the natural tendency of the House to talk a good deal, or to enable the legislation of the country to be carried on with great rapidity. In the amount of discussion hon. Members must be guided by the wishes and good feelings of their constituents, and so also they must be guided, to a great extent, as to the amount of legislation. He had very great doubts, notwithstanding what had been said in public speeches and printed in public addresses to constituents—he had very great doubts whether the constituents really required a great mass of legislation. He had had experience himself in many ways; he had been the victim of legislation; he had had to initiate legislation from the commencement, and had conducted it in the House; and he was very strongly of opinion that what the country really wanted was not so much a great mass of legislation hurried through the House without full discussion, and against bitter opposition, but legislation on certain questions thoroughly well digested and thoroughly well thrashed out both by friends and opponents; and in order to carry out legislation of that sort, which was really beneficial to the country—and he spoke specially with regard to commercial matters—it was not necessary to accompany it with such a stringent Rule as this Resolution.
§ MR. A. MORLEY
said, that so many insinuations had been thrown out as to the silence of supporters of the Government below the Gangway, that he had no hesitation in rising to refute the suggestion that they were under any undue pressure. He entirely agreed with one remark from the hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Salt), and who had added a most temperate and moderate speech to the debate, that there was a danger in these days of a too great length of speeches, and possibly a necessity might exist for lessoning that length of speech. In the remarks he had to make, he would endeavour not to fall into the error referred to. It appeared to him that there was a great danger of losing sight of the evils that it was the intention and object of the Government Resolutions to put a stop to, by having too prominently put forward by speakers from the Opposition Benches the consequences which would, 522 according to their belief, result from the adoption of the Rules under discussion. Some hon. Members, speaking from that side, and among them the right hon. and learned Gentleman who moved the Amendment, had been candid enough to say they objected to a clôture of any kind whatever; and he said, although he was moving an Amendment with the object of lessening the effect of the 1st Resolution, he personally would be glad if the 1st Resolution were done away with altogether. But it appeared to him (Mr. A. Morley) that the evils of the present system were at least as great as any evils that had been predicted by hon. Members on the other side. Shortly stated, the evils they had pourtrayed were—first, the oppression of one Party in the House by the other; and, secondly, the limitation of the freedom of debate. It seemed to him that if hon. Members would review the proceedings of the past two years, they would come to the same conclusion as himself—that the very evils that they had put forward as their strongest arguments against the Resolution were the very evils the House of Commons had suffered from during the past two years. The evils pourtrayed by the Opposition as the consequences of the Resolution were oppressions of the minority by the majority; but, as had been well pointed out by the Prime Minister, the evils from which the House of Commons had been suffering was an oppression of the majority of the House, and the Party in the House from whom the country expected legislation—an oppression of that large Party by a minority sometimes very small, sometimes rather larger, but still always a minority of the House itself. Turning to the second evil predicted, the limitation of the freedom of debate, that limitation existed at present, for, under the existing Rules, a small minority could occupy the whole time of the House in order that no legislation should be carried on at all; and many hon. Members who had strong claims to be heard and to influence what was being done had been compelled to remain silent at the risk of being supposed to neglect their duty, not merely to their constituents, but to the public interests with which they were identified. They were told of another danger to be apprehended from the passing of the Resolutions. The House of Commons, it 523 was said, would deteriorate in character. Now, he would appeal to the hon. Members opposite, and to what had so often been said—was not the House of Commons in danger of deterioration if the present state of things continued? No doubt, there were many who thought the House of Commons suffered deterioration when a Liberal Government was returned by a large majority; but the deterioration they bad mentioned was of a different kind. They had frankly stated that men of position, from a patriotic sense of duty to the State, would not be likely to undertake the hardships of life in the House of Commons if it continued in the state it had been for the last two years. The objection he felt most strongly to this Amendment was that it was introducing a totally new system into the Procedure of the House; and he must say that any doubt which he might have felt on the subject would have been entirely removed by the speeches from the Leader of the Opposition, and he looked forward to hearing how the right hon. Gentleman was going to face his utterances of two years past, and how those who followed him and acted on his usually wise advice would see their way out of the difficulty those speeches had imposed on them. It was said this was not a new principle, because, under the Urgency Rules, the Government accepted the same principle; but the Urgency Rules were passed for very special circumstances, and for a limited period. They were passed at a time when it was absolutely necessary to fortify the Speaker in dealing with the terrible state of affairs into which the House had drifted, and it was necessary for the Government to make such modifications as would secure the co-operation of the Opposition. It was for this special reason that the change in Procedure was inserted. The right hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), in objecting to the Resolution as it stood, said it would reduce every private Member to something little better than a nonentity; but really the strongest argument in support of the Resolution was that, instead of doing this, it would considerably increase the rights and the powers of private Members. What private Members wanted was more time for the discussion of questions in which they were interested; 524 and how could that be more facilitated than by introducing Rules lessening the waste of time, which waste of time obliged the Government to ask year by year for more time for their own Business, to the reduction of the time at the disposal of private Members? The right hon. and learned Gentleman also tried to answer the objection to his Amendment that it was an acknowledged principle that the most important questions were decided by a bare majority, by stating that in an ordinary sense no legislation was carried until the matter had been thoroughly thrashed out, and every Member heard upon it; but that was not the case. In order to carry through Business in the present state of the Rules, it was absolutely necessary for many Members well qualified to speak on the subject before the House, and thoroughly competent to express their own ideas on it, to remain silent in their seats, in order to allow sufficient time for necessary measures to become law during a Session. The right hon. and learned Gentleman took occasion to remind the House that they were not dealing with a Colonial Assembly or a Legislative Chamber of a few years standing, but with the ancient House of Commons; and not for a moment would he (Mr. A. Morley) suggest that the Procedure of a Colonial Legislature, or even of the United States, formed any strong argument for the House of Commons to imitate their Rules; but be could appeal with some confidence to the experience of the House of Representatives in the United States, which had been in existence for more than 100 years. The work of the House of Representatives was as nothing compared with that which the House of Commons had to deal with. There they had a complete system of Home Rule for each State. Each State transacted its own business, and the House of Representatives had only Imperial questions to deal with, and they were really only small questions of which the House of Representatives had to take cognizance. Notwithstanding that, when the House of Representatives was constituted, a Rule was passed called "The Previous Question Rule," and it had been in existence for more than a century. He took some interest in ascertaining how this Rule had worked, and what was the opinion of it, held not only by 525 those who now formed the majority of the House, but by the Party previously in the majority, and he wrote to one of the leading Members of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives to ask how the system worked, and how it was viewed by men of position on either side. He answered to the effect that the Democratic Party did not consider the Previous Question Rule worked harshly, that it was engraved on the consciences and habits of the House, that it was accepted as a matter of course, and no Member was prepared to advocate the abolition of the Rule. The Rule, he added, worked well, because an understanding was always reached in advance of its application as to the time a debate should extend, and this usage had caused the Previous Question Rule to become a secondary matter. The understanding was always arrived at after a preliminary and informal discussion, inasmuch as public opinion would not justify either Party in making dilatory Motions, prolonging a discussion that ought to be concluded in a reasonable time. The inference of this statement from Mr. Hewitt was that this Rule, whether it were called the clôture or the "Previous Question," would not actively be put in operation any considerable number of times, but that by its very existence it would lead the two great Parties to come to an agreement as to the reasonable length of discussion before the House was asked to come to a decision, and the Rule would be held over those only who would not become parties to this general arrangement, and against such would the evident sense of the House be expressed that the debate had been long enough.
§ MR. WHITLEY
I think, Sir, that no apology is necessary from any Member for submitting a few observations to the House on a question of so much importance as the present. This is not a petty question. I strongly feel that the Privileges of this House should not be intrusted to a bare majority, and should not be restricted in the debates upon it. That which affects the freedom of discussion should be debated by the whole force of the House. It appears to me that the Resolution of the Prime Minister, if adopted, would change altogether the character of this House; and therefore, although I have only been a short time a Member of it, it is my 526 duty to express the feelings I entertain, and which, I believe, are shared by many hon. Members. The arguments throughout upon the question have been all on one side, while the action of the Government has been entirely on the other. The Prime Minister introduced these Resolutions, and said he was very sorry that Resolutions of this kind should be necessary. Other Ministers are of the same opinion. They admitted that the change is a serious change, and said that nothing but a case of absolute necessity could be brought forward as a justification for a measure of this kind. I think we should separate, as far as possible, the arguments by which this change is justified. I am in the recollection of the House when I say that the original justification for these Resolutions was Obstruction. Nothing was said, originally in the House by the Government, nor outside the House by Members of the Government, or their supporters, as to any other ground on which such an inroad on the freedom of debate could be justified. It has been admitted by Members of the House that there has been no Obstruction by the Opposition; but it has also been admitted that the Obstruction has been only by a small minority. Now, is it necessary, for the sake of stopping the Obstruction of a small minority, to interfere with the liberties and freedom of all the Members of this House? With regard to the bare majority, by which this Resolution, if carried, is to stop any debate, I quite agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson). It is a very different thing to have a majority on a question to be discussed, and a majority on a question of closing the mouths of Members. The arguments of Ministers are on one side, and their action is on the other. They say the Speaker is to be guided by the "evident sense of the House." Why do they shrink from the natural consequences of the "evident sense of the House" being shown by a majority of two-thirds? I think there is no fear whatever of its being brought into action by the "evident sense of the House." I cannot help thinking—indeed, I feel quite confident—that there are, on the opposite side of the House, hon. Members who are as proud of the freedom of discussion here as anyone on this side can be. 527 I am very sorry this debate has fallen into the category somewhat of Party questions. In that we are making a great mistake. If these Resolutions had been introduced by the Conservative Government, I feel sure the Prime Minister would have opposed them. The hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) has admitted that, if these Rules had been proposed by the Opposition, he should not have accepted them, because he did not trust the Opposition. Why, therefore, should the Government complain that these Rules should be opposed by the Conservative Party, who cannot be expected to have confidence in the Government? The President of the Local Government Board very naively said this—"To-day we have these Resolutions. You, when you come into Office in a short time, will find that these Resolutions will suit you." I was very sorry to hear him say that. To all of us the freedom of the House should be the great thing, and that remark of the right hon. Gentleman's has not, in any sense, removed my indisposition to vote for the Resolution. The Prime Minister has made a most eloquent speech, and has defended the rights of small minorities. Well, we do not want to trample on the rights of minorities. We are prepared to defend the rights of minorities as much as any hon. Gentleman on that side of the House. But I contend that this Resolution is a very arbitrary Resolution indeed, and the arguments in favour of it do not commend themselves to the judgment of the House. The Prime Minister, I am sure, feels no confidence in the Resolution himself. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last (Mr. A. Morley) adduced the system of other countries, and referred to America. I trust the English House of Commons is not going to follow the example of the customs of other countries, and, least of all, that of America. The traditions of the House of Commons extend over 600 years. During that number of years, freedom of debate has been preserved up to the present time intact. Whatever has happened, no Minister, until now, has interfered with that freedom of debate which is the glorious inheritance of the House of Commons. I do hope that the House of Commons of to-day will remain true to its antecedents, for I feel that no good argument has been advanced for the introduction of this new 528 mode of clôture. Depend on it that anything that closes debate will, in time, depreciate the action of the House and the confidence the country feels in the House. I hope and believe that the majority of the House will see that no satisfactory reasons have been given for the adoption of the Resolutions proposed by the Government. I hope the majority will say this is not a Party question, and that the Amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Gibson) will be carried by a considerable majority.
§ MR. BUCHANAN
said, that he felt he owed an apology to the House for speaking on this subject, owing to the short time he had been in the House; but, perhaps, as he was somewhat new to the House he was also somewhat new to the Rules which already existed; and he should confess that, like many others, he was somewhat at a loss to recognize the very great value which older Members of the House put upon them. Still, he quite allowed that any alteration in the Rules of the House should be carefully made. The aspect in which he rather looked at the question was that in which people outside looked on it. What was the interest which the people of this country took in the subject under discussion? Shortly, they had seen that as a matter of fact, in the past two years, the Business of that House had been impeded by two causes—by organized Obstruction, and also by what the noble Lord the Secretary of State for India described as licence of debate. They had been told that what they were wanted to do was to restore to the House the capacity for adequately doing its Business. Looking once more at the public interest in reference to this question, he was perfectly sure the country would receive with as much satisfaction as the great bulk of the Members of the House received with satisfaction the speech of the Prime Minister. He was sure the right hon. Gentleman therein adequately expressed the views which prevailed far and wide through the country, as well as through the Party which he led. Had they a right, as a majority returned by a majority of electors, to give up its power over the transaction of their own Business in the House? Had they the right to forego the control which the majority exercised over everything else, and which they ought to have 529 over the character and mode of legislation? If the Conservative Party opposed them in the matter, then they would have to go to the country, and take to themselves the blame for whatever legislation they might have frustrated by the very great lengths to which debate was carried on in the House. The supporters of the Ministry had been taunted by the other side that they were not taking their part in the debate, but were observing a "portentous and unnatural silence." As against that charge, he maintained that the arguments advanced from the other side had been adequately met by the speeches already delivered from the Government Bench and other Benches, and that, therefore, it would have been mere waste of time if more speakers from the Government side had got up to make further reply. Another point he had to notice with, regard to the two-thirds' majority proposal of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As they knew, in the case of first - class Party debates, the Opposition generally mustered 200 Members, and in Divisions they very seldom fell under that number. Now, that would necessitate 400 Members in the majority. That was to say, there would require to be a House of 600 Members. Now, everyone knew there had not been a Division since the Reform Bill in which there had been over 600 Members voting, and even Divisions in which 550 took part were of great rarity. The two-thirds' majority, moreover, he pointed out, would add considerably to the difficulties of the Speaker, as he would not only have to determine that a subject had been adequately discussed, and the "evident sense of the House," but he would also have to assure himself that there was a two-thirds' majority in favour of it. Now, those who, like the present Speaker, had been long in the House, could determine with considerable accuracy the number of those who were in the House at a moment; but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Preston (Mr. Raikes) had referred to an occasion in which he said, as Chairman of Committees, he would have been called upon to put into operation the Closure Resolution, and that was in connection with the Irish Sunday Closing Bill of 1878. On the 1st of April of that year, when the House sat till 6 in the morning, 530 there were 12 Divisions which took place, and all of these would have come under the two-thirds' Rule. On the 13th May, when, again, the House sat till past 9 in the morning in Committee upon the Bill, there were 10 Divisions; but only two of these would have come under the operation of that Rule. He therefore submitted to the Government that it would be desirable to widen the latter part of the Rule. For his own part, considering the great number of safeguards already put in the Rule, he should prefer to see no provision at all, unless it was one to the effect that the closing number should be fixed at 80 or 100 Members, because, if they were to make it effectual against Obstruction, it should be made effectual against Obstruction developing at late hours in the morning, when the House was thin, and when, unless the Rule were so widened, it would be difficult to put the Rule in operation.
§ COLONEL ALEXANDER
said, he must confess he was not a little surprised at hearing the Prime Minister say, in answer to the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), that he made the mistake which he acknowledged he had made with reference to the practice of the Colonies on the ground that he had no sufficient information on the subject. He was quite prepared to admit that what the right hon. Gentleman said really was the case; but what he would contend was that the right hon. Gentleman might have had the information on the subject, and that there was information close at hand. As the Prime Minister was not present, he would ask the Secretary of State for War, and his right hon. and learned Friend the Judge Advocate General, whether it was not the case that on the 8th December, 1881, Government had received a special despatch from the Cape, stating that the Rules of Practice of the House of Assembly being substantially the same as those of the House of Commons, there was no authorized mode of procedure for directly interfering with the freedom of debate, or for abridging or terminating discussion by closure. That was two months before the Prime Minister spoke. The Prime Minister also alluded to the practice in Victoria; and he would ask the Secretary of State for War 531 whether, as early as the 2nd of February this year, the Government did not receive a special despatch from the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria stating—That the clôture had been adopted as a Standing Order confined to the Session of 1875–6, but that no Standing Order having a similar object has since been adopted by the Assembly.So that, in point of fact, the clôture in Victoria was an experiment; and as that experiment had not been repeated, he would ask the House whether they might not, under these circumstances, reasonably infer that the experiment was not considered by those who did try it to be altogether a success? The same thing also occurred in respect to New Zealand. Of 16 Colonies originally enumerated by the Prime Minister as possessing the clôture, there was only one with the power of closing a debate at present. The single exception was the Colony of South Australia, and against the practice of that not very large or very important Colony he thought they were entitled to set off all the other five Colonies. A good deal had been said as to the effect which was likely to be produced by the introduction of the clôture into the Procedure of the House, and also as to the possibility that under this system the impartiality of the Chair might be impugned. He should like to direct the attention of the House to the operations of the system in a country where it had been some time established—the United States of America. He found in that favoured country an All-night Sitting was quite as common as in this old country, and that Obstruction also was in full swing. In the American intelligence of The Times for May 31 there was conclusive proof, as the extract he was about to read would show. It was stated that—The House continues dead-locked over the contested Election Question. The Republicans to-day proposed a change of the rules in order to break the dead-lock; but the Democrats continue to oppose progress by presenting dilatory Motions.With regard to the possibility of what had been said as to the partiality of the Chair, it was said that "the Democrats then endeavoured amid uproar to censure the Speaker for arbitrary ruling." Well, he ventured to think that the day would come—sooner, perhaps, than some of them expected—when there would be 532 found men in the House who would endeavour amid uproar to censure the Speaker for arbitrary ruling. They were preparing, not for the present Speaker but for his successors, not only an odious but an impossible task. The "evident sense of the House" might mean, under those circumstances, superior shouting or howling power—greater lung power on the part of the minority. In short, the system introduced would be a premium upon every kind of uproar in the House. It was sometimes asked, why should not the clôture be decided, as in any other question, by a bare majority? But there was very considerable difference between deciding a question after full discussion and deciding whether there should be adequate or, for the matter of that, any discussion at all. They knew what occurred in France in the Second Empire, where the clôture was used, or rather abused, to prevent M. Thiers and his Colleagues from making themselves heard in the Assembly; and what had happened in France might equally well happen in this country under a Constitutional Monarchy. What would have become of Lord Cochrane, of Sir Francis Burdett, of Mr. Brougham, and the very small band of Radicals in Parliament at the beginning of the present century, with the clôture in full operation? They never would have been allowed the chance of ventilating their Radical opinions, and thus preparing the way for the introduction of the Reform Bill of 1832. Another argument adduced by the Prime Minister was that the Ministry had been known to resign when placed in a minority of 1; but he would ask whether the same Ministry would not have considered a majority of 1, or even of 2, on a vital question actually equivalent to a defeat? The Prime Minister, having taken his stand on a bare majority as the only sound principle, had proceeded to depart from that principle; for he said that when he spoke of a bare majority as the only sound principle upon which they could on this matter proceed, let it be understood that he did not mean a bare majority without safeguards. The safeguards of the Prime Minister were to exempt small Houses from the operation of the proposed Rule; but everyone having experience in either this or the last Parliament must be perfectly well aware that it was precisely in small 533 Houses where the evil had made itself most felt. He would add that it appeared to him that the principle which must he propped up and surrounded with safeguards was virtually and practically no principle at all. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Mr. Goschen) had pleaded that, after all, it was, in fact, a very small measure, and that it would very seldom he put in operation. Possibly not in ordinary times; but he thought he could tell the right hon. Gentleman two occasions upon which it would certainly be put in operation. It would certainly be put in operation, he thought, at the dinner hour. He believed that—All softening, overpowering knell—The tocsin of the soul—the dinner bellwould have the effect of an unanswerable cry that the clôture be put in immediate operation. There was another and a much more serious occasion upon which he thought the Ministry might sometimes be tempted to use it. The Ministry might be tempted to use it on the eve of a General Election, and Just as they were going to the country. What, for instance, was to prevent the Government, in the last Session of a moribund Parliament, from rushing a lot of crude and ill-digested measures through the House in order to give them an opportunity of placarding throughout the constituencies a long and triumphant array of legislative achievements? The Prime Minister had said that he no longer staked the existence of his Government on the success or failure of this measure, and he released his followers from the obligation of voting against their honest convictions in the matter. This was very kind of the Prime Minister; but he was much afraid that the kindness came too late—too late to undo the mischievous effects produced by the Party styling itself the National Federation of Liberal Associations, which, during the last six months, had worked upon the fears and apprehensions of weak-kneed Liberals, to whom, at the eleventh, or even at the twelfth hour, he would say very respectfully, but very earnestly—"Emancipate yourselves from the intolerable tyranny of an insolent Association. Tell the pretentious busybodies who shroud their insignificance under a pompous and high-sounding title that you are not the delegates of a Caucus, but the Representatives of a free people."
§ Mr. R. N. FOWLER
said, the object of the clôture, or, as he preferred to term it, "the gag," was no longer disguised. It was to gag the minority, not the Irish Party—who, according to the Prime Minister, had only done their duty—but the Conservative Opposition. That was clearly the intention both of the Prime Minister and of the Liberal Party. It was now proposed to gag the Conservatives, for the purpose of forcing through the House a certain number of Liberal measures which were contained in the programme of the Prime Minister. And when the programme of the Prime Minister was exhausted, the more far-reaching one of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would be brought forward. He wished to remind the House that during the existence of the Parliament elected in 1868, notwithstanding the proposal for the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland—which he looked upon as a national crime—was brought forward and passed into law by the Liberals, no complaint had been made of undue Obstruction being offered to it on the part of the Conservative Party. He could not conceive any measure to which the Conservative Party were more deeply and conscientiously opposed. If the minority were gagged, they would cease to have any responsibility for the good order of the House; and if the Members of the Opposition were not treated as gentlemen, hon. Gentlemen opposite could not complain if the gentlemanly feeling of the House ceased. The Daily News was the leading organ of the Government, and it was exercised in its mind as to the state of the Conservative Party. He thought what they read in The Daily News and The Spectator should be regarded as an intimation to the Tory Party to do the exact contrary, for that which was advocated in those papers was the blindest veneration for the will of the Prime Minister. Hon. Gentlemen opposite appeared to regard the Prime Minister with the same feelings of blind reverence as those with which Horace regarded Augustus—Præsenti tibi maturos largimur honores,Jurandasque tuum per nomen ponimua aras,Nil oriturum aliàs, nil ortum tale fatentes.In those circumstances, hon. Members opposite could not complain if those who sat on the Opposition Benches were de- 535 termined to give this Resolution their most strenuous opposition.
§ MR. HENEAGE
said, that hon. Gentlemen opposite taunted the Liberal Party with the Caucus, but appeared to forget the two meetings which had been held at the Carlton. The majority of the Liberal Party disliked the Caucus as much as the Conservatives. He was willing to admit that this proposal was a great change in Parliamentary Procedure; but when he was returned to Parliament, after an absence of 12 years, he had been much struck with the change which had taken place in the House. He found endless talk and no work, and for that state of things a remedy was required. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson) had said that the Government proposal was the greatest change which had ever been proposed in that House. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman had underestimated the change which the adoption of his proposal would bring about, in setting up an artificial majority, unknown to the traditions of the House, which had always decided questions by the majority of votes. If any exception to the general rule were to be adopted, it ought to be in the suspension of Members, which was now decided by the bare majority. If any exception should be made in the case of the clôture, it might be in the adoption of the Ballot in voting upon it, so that Members would be able to vote according to their convictions, instead of leaving the House. The Amendment would render the Leader of the Opposition supreme, while the Leader of the Government would be helpless. It would act unfairly to small sections of the House and independent Members, because there was always a sort of honourable understanding between the two Front Benches which would enable them to put a stop to any discussion which was not entirely acceptable.
§ MR. HORACE DAVEY
said, that a Constitutional mode of putting the voice of the House into effect had been long established, and the burden of proof lay with those who would introduce another method. Hitherto the voice of the majority had prevailed, and there ought to be the strongest reasons given for substituting a different majority from that which had hitherto decided all ques- 536 tions. He would not attempt to go in detail through the arguments used by the right hon. Gentleman opposite—to do so would be to water away the effect of one of the most magnificent speeches that ever resounded in that House; but he could not agree in thinking that the proposal of the Government would tend to stifle discussion. He was as opposed as any Member in the House to anything which would stifle freedom of discussion, which was the breath of the Liberal Party. But in his view freedom of discussion did not mean freedom for a dozen Gentlemen to express the same views a dozen times over. He believed that the clôture, so far from restricting debate, would promote freedom of discussion, and he meant by that, freedom of discussion on a variety of topics; whereas, under the present system, many Members who were competent to give valuable information to the House were precluded from doing so. Some questions were discussed at inordinate length, while other subjects of equal or of greater importance were either not discussed at all, or were brought on at a late hour or in a thin House, when real debate became impossible. The House was thus deprived of the valuable assistance which could be given by many Members, and a few speakers were allowed to monopolize the whole of their time. They were told that the measure was brought in for one purpose, and would he used for another; but he believed that charge to be wholly unfounded; he had always understood that the Resolution was aimed at the more specious kind of Obstruction. With respect to the Circulars of the National Liberal Association which the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Colonel Alexander) had referred to, he could only say that he had never received one, or even heard of the Association, and he believed that this bugbear of the hon. and gallant Member was a perfect mare's nest. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson) entirely failed to support the burden of proof which lay on him of showing some strong reasons for departing from the ordinary methods of coming to a decision upon any question. He objected to the proposal of the right hon. and learned Gentleman on several grounds. If a closure by a two-thirds or any other artificial majority 537 were adopted, the Government of the day would throw the blame for not passing measures which the country desired upon the Opposition. Moreover, such a clôture would be unfair to the Speaker and the Chairman, to whom the initiative was intrusted. It would also be unfair to the Government of the day, who could not be expected to place themselves in the power of the Opposition. If the concurrence of the minority were necessary, the effect would be that their consent would have to be bought, and half-measures satisfactory to neither side would be the result. At present the majority was all powerful in the House, and it would be anomalous and strange to say that the power of closing debate should reside in the Speaker, backed by the voice of the House, and not trust the majority to say under what circumstances the closure should be applied. It was said that the vote on the question whether the clôture should be applied would be a Party vote, and no doubt that was true; but he believed that for the successful conduct of Parliamentary government, the division of Members of that House into Parties was necessary. It might be that the Resolution imposing clôture would be a Party vote; but he thought too highly of his countrymen not to believe that in either Party there were men who preferred honesty to partizanship, and who would refuse to prostitute their sense of fairness and of justice even to the ties of Party.
§ MR. GRANTHAM
said, the mask had now been thrown off on the other side of the House. From the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Christ-church (Mr. Horace Davey), and that of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Heneage), it was clear that, so far as they were concerned, the earlier part of the Resolution was perfectly irrelevant, and that the principle advocated by them was not that these questions should be determined by the Speaker and the "evident sense of the House," but that the power of closing debate should be entirely in the hands of the Ministerial Party or of the majority of the House. When these Resolutions were first introduced they were told by the Prime Minister that they were wanted to put down Obstruction. Nothing was then said of the desire by the Government of the day to have the power to close debate when 538 they thought right. With respect to the Prime Minister's speech that evening, although he admitted its brilliancy, he was surprised at its audacity, for he had given the Members of that House credit for forgetting everything that he had said before. He now said that it was of the utmost necessity that this Resolution should be passed, and that it was perfectly impossible for Parliamentary government to continue in consequence of the great delays in legislation. Why, in introducing these Resolutions last February, he put this Resolution and the question of Obstruction in the back, ground, and told them that the power to delegate their work was of more importance than to put down Obstruction; and only three or four years ago, when in Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman made it a charge against the then Government, which had been obstructed every bit as much as the present Government, that there were a great many measures which ought to have been introduced, and had not been, not in consequence of Obstruction, but because of the incompetence of the Government to introduce measures of importance to the country. [Mr. GLADSTONE: Not at all.] At that time the right hon. Gentleman favoured Obstruction, and in an article he wrote he directly exonerated certain hon. Members from the Obstruction with which they were justly charged by the House and country. The only alteration he suggested at that time was that the then Government should be hurled from power in consequence of their incompetence. Now, however, the right hon. Gentleman and his Government, in consequence of their own incompetence to govern, were obliged to appeal to the House to help them out of their difficulties, and to pass most drastic measures, and to interfere with the ancient Privileges of that House, because a Radical Government were unable to govern under the same conditions that had satisfied all preceding Ministers and Parties. They had been about 10 months discussing this Rule, and they were now at the 10th line. That looked as if it had been fully discussed, and Amendments had emanated almost as much from the one side of the House as from the other; but yet the Rule stood in the same position as it did at first. It was pretty clear that the Government did not in- 539 tend that this Resolution should be the result of the feeling of the "evident sense of the House." The speech introducing the Rule was at variance with the Rule itself. The reason of that was that the speech represented the views of the Liberal element in the Cabinet; but the Resolution was drawn by the Radical element, though whether it was to be modified or not to suit the Liberal element was dependent upon the state of the political barometer. In the damp and rainy days of June and July the Radical barometer was low and at "stormy," and the Government were willing to modify it; but now that they believed the reflected glory of our troops in the Egyptian campaign had driven the barometer up again the Radicals thought they had the power to force their views upon the Cabinet and the country. The Rule was not intended for the purpose of putting down Obstruction, but for the purpose of enabling the Government to pass any measures they desired. This Resolution, it appeared, did not generally commend itself to the Liberal Party, for the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) had stated that at least 100 Members on the opposite side of the House did not approve of it. The Rule, as it stood, was utterly inconsistent, for it contained two principles that were antagonistic to each other. The first part of the Rule placed the matter in the hands of the Speaker, and took it out of the range of Party strife, whereas the second part at once brought it back again to Party strife, by stating that the Speaker's opinion was to be that of a majority of the House. He would be content if the Rule stopped at the fourth line. He would much prefer the matter being left in the hands of the Speaker to the responsibility being frittered away and placed in the hands of the Minister of the day. The Rule was clearly being made the battle-ground of Party. There would be two fights over every question that was brought forward—first, as to the length of the debate; and, secondly, when the Question was put from the Chair. It was singular how the right hon. Gentleman's change of views had corresponded with the variations of the Radical barometer. This change reminded him of the lines—'The Devil was sick, the Devil a saint would be,The Devil got well, the Devil a saint was he.
§ MR. GRANTHAM
begged to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his correction. He would only add, in conclusion, that, whatever effect this Rule might have upon the history of the country and of Parliament, he could not help remembering the brilliant services rendered to the country by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister; and he regretted, therefore, all the more that this stab in the heart of one of the oldest Privileges of that House—the right of a minority to freedom of debate—should have been given by him; and the House might say with the poet Waller—That eagle's fate and mine are one,Which on the shaft that made him dieEspied a feather of his own,Wherewith he wont to soar on high.
§ SIR JOHN LUBBOCK
said, he could assure his Friends on the Ministerial side of the House that he very deeply regretted to find himself on the present occasion unable to concur with the majority of those with whom it was usually his pride and privilege to act. The Prime Minister, in proposing that Resolution, had disclaimed any personal motives, and stated in a touching and pathetic passage that it was impossible that he could long preside over them. For himself, he hoped the day when the right hon. Gentleman would leave them might be still far distant, and he must say that if they could hope always to retain his right hon. Friend as their Leader his fears would vanish. He did not for a moment believe the right hon. Gentleman would abuse the power of the clôture by a bare majority, nor, he might add, did he think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Devon (Sir Stafford Northcote) would do so. But in giving the power they intrusted it not only to those two right hon. Gentlemen, but to all their successors. Now, what was the evil under which they were suffering? A small number of Members, in their desire to disintegrate the Empire, had set themselves to obstruct the Business of the House; and at length, last Session, the affair having on one occasion come to a climax, the Speaker intervened, and with the general approval of the House put the Question under discussion to the vote, the Leaders of the Opposition unanimously supporting Her Majesty's Government. Therefore, the evil complained of was 541 the action, not of the Leaders of the Opposition, but of a very few nearly irreconcilable Members. That was the evil. But the remedy proposed, while so hedged round with safeguards in the case of small minorities that it could only with great difficulty be applied against those who had offended, was of the most drastic character against the Opposition who had not offended. Of course, it was theoretically possible that the Leaders of the Opposition might join in an organized Obstruction. Such an hypothesis seemed very improbable, and, at any rate, the case had not yet arisen. If such a calamity should occur, if the two-thirds' majority was found insufficient, then, indeed, they must go further. But as regarded the existing evil, the Amendment which stood in his name would clearly make the Rule more effective. It had much surprised him that most of those who had criticized this Amendment appeared to be under the impression that it would render the Rule much weaker, and, in fact, almost inoperative. So far from that being the case, in nine cases out of ten it would immensely facilitate its operation, and render it much more useful. If it would be, perhaps, less stringent against opposition, it would be more effective against Obstruction. Indeed, in a House of less than 250 Members it would be very difficult to apply the Rule as it now stood. Suppose an obstructing minority of 30 or 35, and a majority of 100, or even 150. It might he a very fair case for the clôture; but would the Speaker or Chairman feel himself able to interfere? There might be half-a-dozen Members in the Library or the Lobbies; even while the sand was running half-a-dozen Members might come in, and, the number of the minority being thus raised to 40, 200 would be required, and consequently the clôture under the Resolution of the Government would not be carried. The Government did not ask for clôture by a bare majority unless there were at least 400 Members in the House. Now, if hon. Members would refer to last year's Division Lists, they would see that, out of between 30 and 40 Divisions in which more than 400 Members took part, there were only, he thought, three or four in which the discussion lasted over more than one night. He doubted whether the Government would have attempted or 542 wished to apply their Rule to any one of those, excepting that in which the Speaker intervened, and on that occasion the right hon. Gentleman had himself told them that the clôture would have been carried, not by a bare majority, but by 10 to 1. They had almost all of them come, more or less reluctantly, to the conclusion that some change in their Rules was necessary; but he believed that the Government proposal would fail just where it was wanted. In the small hours of the morning, and late in the Session, it would be almost impossible for the Government to apply their Rule; and, in fact, while with the Amendment now proposed the Rule would much less infringe upon the rights of free discussion, it would more effectively put down the wrong of unjustifiable Obstruction. It would interfere less with the liberties of the House, and yet in 19 cases out of 20 would more effectively aid Governments in conducting the Business of the country. If, however, it was hereafter found that the character of opposition in the House was so fundamentally altered that clôture by a majority of two-thirds was insufficient, then, on the principle that the Queen's Government must be carried on, he should be prepared to vote for it. He believed, however, that with the Amendment now proposed the Rule would be as effective for all justifiable purposes; certainly it would be passed with less opposition; and for the satisfactory working of the Rule it was most desirable that it should be adopted as far as might be with general concurrence. Again, it must be remembered that by Rule 5 the Speaker or Chairman of Committees in any case ofContinued irrelevance or tedious repetition on the part of a Member may direct the Member to discontinue his speech.Moreover, under Rule 9, the Speaker and Chairman of Committees might Name any Member who was obstructing the Business of the House; and the House might then, and no doubt would, suspend such Member. In fact, therefore, the 1st Rule which they were now discussing was not necessary in order to put down irrelevance, or tedious repetition, or wilful Obstruction. Those proceedings were dealt with by subsequent Resolutions. The 1st Resolution applied to a Member wishing to speak neither for wilful Obstruction nor to repeat what 543 had been already said by others. Surely they should not silence a man who was honestly addressing himself to the Question, who was not repeating what others had said before him, and who was not wandering from the subject, if one-third of the House really desired to hear him. Much stress was laid on the protection afforded by the Rule to small minorities. But how long would such protection last? Once grant the principle of clôture by a bare majority, and the privileges of small minorities were doomed. The Rule, as proposed by Her Majesty's Goment, could hardly ever be applied unless they had at least 200 supporters in the House. Very soon, therefore, a Party would arise and ask—indeed, there were many already who did so—why should so much favour be shown to small minorities? The Government would have the power to close debate by a bare majority, and the temptation would become irresistible to deprive small minorities of the special protection which for the present they left them. Though, therefore, for the moment, it might seem that those who expected to find themselves in small minorities would be in a better position by supporting the Government proposal, it was for them to consider how long they would retain their peculiar privilege, and whether before long the power of the clôture would not inevitably be applied to bring them under the general Rule. Without some such alteration as that which was suggested the Rule would be quite inconsistent with itself. It was proposed that the clôture should only be applied when it was the "evident sense of the House" that the debate should be brought to a close. And yet, if the Speaker or Chairman misinterpreted the general wish—as even with the best intention was quite possible—if a noisy but narrow majority could succeed in conveying an erroneous impression, then, though the division would prove that there was no general desire for the clôture, that it was certainly not the evident sense of the House that the debate should be closed, still the clôture would be carried because the Speaker or Chairman made a mistake. They had been frequently told that this Resolution would be but seldom used. He quite believed that was the intention, and would be, no doubt, the practice of the 544 present Government. But they could not answer for or control their successors, who would certainly use whatever power was given to them. Indeed, it would be difficult for them to avoid doing so. They would come into power with certain pledges; they would have described certain measures or changes as of great, perhaps vital, importance. The use of this Rule would enable them to carry out their pledges, and surely they would be severely blamed if they were not to use the weapons which were about to be placed in their hands. And what would be the position of the Speaker himself? If he should know that the clôture would be passed, though but by a small majority, and if he should decline to apply the Rule, he would inevitably be told that he was the one impediment to the passage of some great measure, and he would be ridiculed for his absurd and mischievous scruples. He would be told that the minority were using the Forms of the House, and that the majority must, therefore, do so too; he would be asked why this Rule was passed if it was never to be used; and he would be stigmatized as a traitor to his Party, as sacrificing the interests of his country, and as false to the opinions which he professed to hold. On the other hand, what would be his position if he should yield, and if he should put the clôture to the vote, to be carried by a small majority. They could imagine how indignant the Opposition would be under such circumstances. It seemed to him that the Speaker's position would be quite intolerable. On the other hand, if the Amendment now before the House were accepted, all these difficulties would vanish. If the Speaker should think that there was a two-thirds' majority, and should be mistaken, no harm would be done, and no bitter animosity excited; while if the majority should be two-thirds, the minority could not, of course, complain. He feared lest the change now proposed should injuriously affect the character of the Opposition. At present, after a sufficient discussion, the minority permitted a vote to be taken, and acquiesced in the decision of the majority. But was there no danger that under clôture by a bare majority they would, knowing that the clôture was unpopular in the country, think it politic to endeavour to attach to any measure they 545 greatly disapproved the additional stigma of having only passed it by means of the clôture? Another consideration to which he attached great weight was that the proposed Amendment would render the Resolution much less objectionable to hon. Members opposite. It was most desirable that any changes in their Rules should be made, as far as possible, with general concurrence. A Rule so passed was obviously more likely to work satisfactorily. They were told that, as the most important questions were settled by a bare majority, there was no reason why the clôture should not be so settled. Well, if hon. Members saw no difference between settling a question by a bare majority after discussion and stifling discussion by a bare majority, it was probably impossible to make them do so; but he should have thought that the more evenly opinion was divided, and the more important the question to be decided, the more desirable it was that there should be a fair discussion. However that might be, those who used this argument seemed to forget that the Government did not themselves propose clôture by a bare majority, except in a House of 400 Members. The Prime Minister characterized a two-thirds' majority as something monstrous and unheard of, yet, up to a House of 800 Members, he himself required a majority of two-thirds. His right hon. Friend the late Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had referred to the conduct of public meetings. There, of course, the chairman of a public meeting could put it to those present to decide whether they wished to hear a speaker any longer or not. He doubted whether such a speaker would be compelled to stop if one-third of those present wished him to continue; but, however that might be, there was a fundamental difference between their deliberations in that House and the discussions of any public meeting. A public meeting was responsible to no one; it could do what it liked, while Parliament was responsible to the electors and the country. Many of those who had supported the clôture by a bare majority had done so under the impression that clôture by a bare majority had been found to work well abroad and in our Colonies. The National Liberal Federation, in their pamphlet, had, he was told, gone much further, and, in 546 defiance of the facts, had stated that our Colonies "had found it indispensable." But the very reverse was the case. As Mr. Baden Powell had pointed out, the Province of South Australia, containing less than 250,000 English, was the only Colony which now had the clôture. Victoria and New Zealand had tried it, but, finding that it would not work, had given it up. Moreover, in South Australia the clôture was not adopted because it was found necessary, but was a part of the original Constitution. The experience of the Continent had also been relied on; but that argument had utterly broken down, for only three out of 13 Legislative Assemblies had clôture by a bare majority as now proposed. Switzerland had clôture by two-thirds, and in four places there might be clôture by a bare majority after further debate. The evidence from America adduced by the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. A. Morley) seemed to him to be open to doubt. Whether that was so or not, they should remember that in America there were such things as dilatory Motions, which they in that House would not have at their command. The clôture, as it existed in America, was subject to checks which the Prime Minister did not propose to introduce in this country. It was, therefore, really quite different. Moreover, he greatly doubted whether it worked well. Not many months ago the majority in Congress, after a scene of great disorder, refused to allow the minority to discuss the Bill for the exclusion of Chinese labour—surely a very important subject, and one which required most careful consideration and discussion. Some people argued that the clôture must have worked well, because it had never—so they said—been given up where it had once been instituted. He could not admit the fact, and was told that the very reverse was the case. But, even if it were so, it would prove little. Every majority naturally approved a Rule which gave them so great an advantage. Hon. Members opposite now opposed the clôture; but if it should be carried against them, depend upon it they would not abandon it when they came into power. They would naturally say—"This Rule has been used against us, and probably will be used against us again. Why should we surrender the advantage it gives to the Party in 547 power?" His fear was that, not being responsible for the Rule, they would use it even more severely than the present Government. The majority of hon. Members on his side of the House were now in favour of the Rule as it stood; but then they were now in a majority. Let them wait till they should again be in a minority. He did not suppose that they would at first complain of the Rule itself; but if it should, be used at all against them, doubtless they would consider that it was being abused. If the clôture by a bare majority had existed in ancient times, the history of England would have been altogether different. Instead of reforms, we should have had revolutions. Instead of Acts of Parliament, we should have had civil wars. The whole progress of the nation in the great achievement of self-government would have been indefinitely retarded. In conclusion, he once more appealed to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government to accept that or some similar Amendment, because he believed that in adopting the Resolution as it stood they would abandon a great principle to the exigencies of the moment, and would be making a retrograde step which, once taken, they might bitterly regret, but would never be able to retrace; while, on the other hand, if they should accept the Amendment, they would restore efficiency to their deliberations, while sacrificing as little as might be that freedom of discussion to which they owed the liberties of their country, and which, if in some respects a source of inconvenience, yet was in the main the very life and strength of the House of Commons.
§ MR. WHITBREAD
said, that his hon. Friend the Member for the University of London (Sir John Lubbock), with whom he was sorry he was not able to agree, was not irreconcilably opposed to all forms of clôture, but rather appeared to entertain a fear that a downward course would be taken if the two-thirds' majority were not adopted. His hon. Friend, in one part of his speech, found fault with the care taken by the Government to shield small minorities from oppression; but surely such minorities required protection much more than large ones. In the few remarks which he (Mr. Whitbread) wished to make, he would like to allay some of the exaggerated fears which had been 548 aroused by the proposals of Her Majesty's Government. In the first place, he must confess that of the two proposals now before the House, it appeared to him that that of the Government involved the smaller innovation. He would admit that it was an innovation that they did not like, and probably it never would have been proposed in a normal condition of the House; but the supporters of the Amendment, besides proposing the closure of debate, also desired to introduce the principle of giving to an artificial majority greater powers than were possessed by the simple majorities which determined all the other questions ever submitted to the House. The principle being once admitted that a two-thirds' majority should be armed with exceptional powers for a given purpose, could it be supposed that further proposals would not be made with respect to such majorities in the future? There was evidence of the possibility of conflict between the two Houses of Parliament in legislative matters. Upon the discovery of the exceptional authority of a two-thirds' majority, was it altogether outside the range of possibility that those exceptional powers should be appealed to to enforce the authority of the House in its external relations? The truth was that there was no saying how far the effect of that new principle might reach. With respect to the proposals of the Government, the unfounded fears of the Opposition had conjured up spectres in all directions. They were to have a partizan Speaker, a partizan Chairman of Ways and Means, and a Minister in power with a majority at his back, reckless of all consequences, and determined, at all hazards, to pass revolutionary measures by the aid of these New Rules. Such were the fears of the Opposition; but they were altogether contrary to past experience. The political temper of the nation, and of the House, would not be so changed by the New Rules as to make majorities overbearing, and minorities meek and long suffering. The latter, as long as they retained their power of moving Amendments, would always be able to defeat arbitrary legislation; and a minority against whom the clôture had been enforced would so crowd the Paper with Notices and Amendments as to render progress impossible. Very erroneous ideas had evidently been 549 formed of the practical result of the clôture, which would always be accompanied by natural safeguards. The enormous power of retaliation which minorities possessed ought not to be forgotten. It had been said that it was quite evident the Government did not intend to move these Rules in order to put down Obstruction, but that they intended to use them for quite another purpose—namely, to press forward new measures which they contemplated the introduction of. He should like to say a word upon that view. The majority of the House had certain duties to perform, and amongst those duties there was none greater than their care of the time of the country. They were as much the guardians of the public time as of the public purse. When a General Election took place, the majority returned to Parliament was returned there to carry out certain measures which they had promised upon the hustings; and it was their duty, by all fair and legitimate means, to press forward those measures. If they failed to do so, they failed in their duty; and, as guardians of the public time, it was their duty to press forward those measures as rapidly as possible. But that any new measure, any new line of legislation was contemplated by the Government, and that these Rules were to be passed to enable them to carry such new measures, seemed to him to be about as absurd a statement as could be made. He was not given to prophecy, and he was not in the secrets of the Government; but this much he would prophesy—that whatever measures the Government would have thought it their duty to introduce in the normal condition of Parliament as to Business would be the measures they would introduce after the New Rules were passed; and he could assure hon. Members opposite that the bitterness of the draught would not receive the addition of a single new ingredient from them. The House was now, and had been for the last six years, in an abnormal condition. The most that could be hoped from these New Rules would be to bring back Parliament to its normal condition, as regarded the transaction of Business, which existed prior to the year 1874. Before sitting down, he wished to protest most strongly against one line which had been taken by two 550 hon. Gentlemen opposite; and that was the line of prophesying that, although there was an impartial Speaker in the Chair at present, in the future they could not guarantee the impartiality of the Chair. He welcomed the words which fell from the hon. and learned Member for East Surrey (Mr. Grantham); and he joined the hon. and learned Member in the strong protest he had made against that line of argument. He did that for several reasons. In the first place, the argument was unseemly and undignified; and, in the next, it was unwise and even dangerous. It must be remembered that, in public life, men were very apt to live up to the expectations that were formed of them; and he was not sure that it was a wise thing to endeavour to take away from the position of the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means, by merely prophesying, night after night, and in speech after speech, that, although the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means at present were impartial, they could not expect the continuance of that impartiality in the future. A great effect was produced upon men holding high positions by the expectations that were formed of them. If they desired to see impartiality in the future, let it be clearly shown that they expected it—that they would look for it, and that they would bitterly resent any departure from it. Besides, they must remember that the time would come, in the nature of things, when hon. Gentlemen opposite would be called upon to appoint both a new Speaker and a new Chairman of Ways and Means; and how would they then be situated if they had previously disclaimed any likelihood of impartiality being exercised in the case of either? If they went on saying—"We expect you to be a partizan after the passing of these Rules; you must be a partizan in the future; you will be nothing but the servant of the Government and of the majority," what was the result likely to be? He believed—and he hoped he might confidently believe—that the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means of the future would be as they were now, and as they had been in the past. He believed that they would show that impartiality which was recognized on all sides, and in every quarter of the House. Still more, he believed that they would show even that 551 watchful and jealous care for the rights of the minority and the weaker Party that he had heard recognized, even, he might say, in the most unexpected quarters. It was a strange argument for the right hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced this Amendment (Mr. Gibson) to use—a strange argument, he (Mr. Whitbread) thought, in the mouth of a Member of that learned Profession which the right hon. and learned Gentleman adorned, when he said that, in the future, the Speaker would be alive to the wishes, and even to the prejudices, of the Party who put him into power. What would the right hon. and learned Gentleman have said if any hon. Member pointed to the legal luminaries on the Bench, and said that, although the Judges on the Bench at present were impartial, in the future Party bitterness would enter into the discharge of their duty, and the country must not look for that impartiality hereafter? Surely a Member of that Profession, of all others, might have remembered that a Judge dropped the Advocate and all his Party feeling when he was appointed upon the Bench; and he (Mr. Whitbread) thought it was a little too much for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to deny to the whole body of Members of that House the power of selecting a man to preside over their deliberations, who should be as impartial in the Chair as the Judges selected from the Legal Profession were impartial upon the Bench. He, for one, refused to believe that the whole political temper of the nation would be changed, and that circumstances would hereafter exist which would deprive persons placed in high positions of the impartiality they had hitherto exercised. He saw nothing to indicate that the conduct of debates in that House would be on other lines than it had been heretofore. He could not understand that there was anything in the simple power of closing a debate which should lead the House to abandon all that forbearance towards one another which had made Members of the House of Commons, above all other Assemblies in the world, tolerant of each other's opinions. He was sure that they were not going to enter into an era when the stability of our legislation would be in jeopardy; but he hoped and believed that they would continue to enjoy and 552 deserve the high reputation they had hitherto possessed. He supported the Resolution as it stood: first of all, because he believed that, in arriving at some simple means of closing debate, they were, in reality, saving the freedom of debate from the peril in which it had been placed by the licence of debate in recent years; secondly, he supported it most cordially on another ground—namely, because he believed that, of all the plans which had been suggested to the House for closing debate, it was the one which gave the greatest protection where it was most needed, and that was to the smallest number.
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS
said, he had observed that all the speakers who had supported the Resolution as it stood had fallen back on the so-called disorders which they had experienced in recent years; and if he asked them to put their finger on what it all came to—although they did not like openly to avow it—there could be no doubt that the motive power of those hon. Members who had spoken in favour of the Resolution was the action which had been resorted to by what was known as the Irish Party. It was all very well to conceive it; but it was quite true, and the House would never have heard a word of these Resolutions if it had not been for the action of that Party. If that were what was called Obstruction, it was quite different from the expression of honest opinion in that House, which, according to the language of the Prime Minister, might not be necessarily wrong. The simple way to deal with Obstruction was to put it down; and the Opposition were as much agreed upon the necessity of doing so as the Government themselves. He hoped, however, to be able to show, before he sat down, that the Resolutions, as they stood, went a very great deal further than that, and that they also went far beyond the circumstances of the case. The hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Whitbread) said the Opposition had proposed a far greater innovation than the Government; and the hon. Member charged them with proposing two innovations, whereas the Government had only suggested one. He (Sir E. Assheton Cross) begged to deny any proposition of the kind. They had proposed nothing. The Government had proposed 553 the clôture, which was undoubtedly an innovation; and what the Opposition said was—"If you have the clôture you must have another innovation, in order to render the clôture comparatively harmless;" that innovation being a majority of two-thirds. He quite agreed that a great deal might be said primâ facie against that proposal, unless the clôture was to be forced upon the House as it was at present. The hon. Member said that a two-thirds' majority might be used to further very important matters, and he instanced a conflict with the other House of Parliament. But that was a matter which might be brought forward any day. They might depend upon it that if the Prime Minister of the present day was anxious to enter into a conflict with the other House, he would do so, whether there was a two-thirds' majority or not. But that was not a matter to enter into now. It was quite true that they must make Rules for their guidance, and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread) said that the Government of the day—as at present constituted—were not likely to use the Rules of the House in a way in which they were not intended when they were passed. True; but when engaged in making Rules they should endeavour to make them for evil times, and not for good times only. He apprehended that the object of making Rules was to guard against further evils. They had Rules existing already. The hon. Member said the New Rules would not be abused. What ground had he for saying that? It was the abuse of the existing Rules which made the Prime Minister bring forward new Rules now, and it was the duty of the House to frame the Rules with such safeguards as to prevent them from being abused in the future by being used unscrupulously by ambitious Ministers. At any rate, they ought to guard the House against being placed in a position that the Rules which they intrusted in the hands of the Minister in power might not, some day or other, be used against the interests of debate in that House. The hon. Member also said that it was the duty of the Ministry to press forward the measures they had promised the constituencies on the hustings. Quite true; but they were not to press forward those measures until they had undergone adequate discussion in the House. The whole question was this—and let there be no 554 mistake about it—they were as strongly impressed as the Prime Minister was with the necessity of putting down Obstruction; but they were determined, as far as lay in their power, to maintain that there should be perfect freedom of discussion in regard to all the measures that were brought before them, in order that they might obtain that most desirable thing, which had always been the case hitherto when measures had been passed by the House, that a change of Government should not produce the reverse of good. He was one of those who deeply regretted that the Government had not presented to the House the other Rules before they proposed this one, because he believed that if the remaining Rules had been discussed, the House would have felt that Obstruction had been in a great measure dealt with by them, and that there was no occasion for this Rule at all. With reference to what had fallen from the Prime Minister, he should like, with all due deference and respect, to make three observations upon it. In the first instance, he could not help thinking that, although the House was much impressed with a good many of the arguments used, when the Rules were introduced early in the Session, in the month of February, it seemed now to turn out that many of those arguments, and arguments which had led the Government to the conclusion they had arrived at, were arguments that were only furnished after the Government had come to the conclusion that New Rules were necessary, and they were arguments upon which the Government had built up the edifice they had since constructed. No one could imagine for a moment that if the Prime Minister had set to work for the purpose of forming an opinion as to what the Rule was that ought to be established, he would have alluded to the Colonies in the way he did, because it was quite clear that he would have had more accurate information as to what had taken place in the Colonies before he would have ventured to mention the case of the Colonies to the House. The same might be said of the reference by the right hon. Gentleman to Foreign States. At the present moment, the question was in the most hazy condition possible; and the House had no accurate information as to the state of the question in connection with the Foreign Governments of Europe. 555 All that they had was an assertion on one side of the House which was disputed on the other. Anyone who had heard the assertion of the Prime Minister, or who had read it in the country, would conclude that he had built up his view of these Rules from the practice of other countries—that it was his knowledge of the practice elsewhere that had led him to the conclusion he had arrived at. It now turned out to be nothing of the sort. Certain statements had been laid before the right hon. Gentleman in the first instance; and, as it often happened in other cases, the arguments upon which he had based his conclusions were now shown to be utterly fallacious. The other day they had the opinion brought forward of a very high authority—the opinion of Lord Eversley, who, as early as 1848, was said to have pointed out that the clôture was the proper remedy for the evil. But when the opinion of Lord Eversley came to be examined, it turned out to be a totally different remedy from that proposed by these Rules. It was simply that a Member should give Notice that, at some future time, he would move the closing of the debate. Anyone who had read the speech of the Prime Minister would believe that Lord Eversley's opinion backed up the conclusions of the Government; whereas, upon examination, it appeared that the arguments of the Prime Minister, based upon Lord Eversley's opinion, fell entirely to the ground. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) had no wish to weary the House, and he only desired to make a few remarks, which would be very short indeed. The second observation he desired to make was this—the Prime Minister said he was asked how many Liberal Members would have voted for the clôtureif it had been proposed by the Conservatives when they were in power? The Prime Minister said he would answer it by putting another question—How many Conservatives would have objected to it if it had been proposed by a Conservative Government? He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) would answer that by saying that more than one-half of the Party would have objected and voted against the Government in such an event, and the Government would have had no chance whatever of passing it if they had proposed it. The third observation he wished to make was this—the Prime Minister objected very 556 strongly, and so also did the hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Whitbread), to all the remarks which had been made upon the impartiality of the Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman in the Chair would know very well that any observation which had been made in that direction did not apply to himself, but to future Speakers who might be elected under totally different circumstances, and under totally different conditions. The Prime Minister said the Opposition were always harking back, back, back, upon that. He was quite ready to give it up if the Prime Minister would give up another argument upon which he was always harking back, back, back. The Prime Minister objected to the proposition of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson) upon two grounds. He said, supposing the Amendment of the right hon. and learned Gentleman were carried, how could it possibly be that the safeguards he had proposed could ever be brought to bear? That was the question the Prime Minister propounded; and his (Sir R. Assheton Cross's) rejoinder to it was this—the right hon. Gentleman said the Speaker would make up his mind that it was the "evident sense of the House" that the debate ought to be closed, and then he added that the Speaker could not afford to be deceived in the matter. He said quite truly that it would be a very difficult thing for the Speaker to make up his mind whether two-thirds of the House were in his favour or not. It would often be more difficult to know this when a division was called, because when the division bell was rung other people would come into the House, and they might absorb the balance of Parties, and so put the Speaker out of his calculation; and it would be unfortunate if the Speaker were deceived under such circumstances. But he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) did not think that anyone, even in such a case, would charge the Speaker with having wilfully made a mistake. It would be very natural to say that the "sense of the House," as it was constituted before the division bell rang, was in one direction; and, as often happened, when the bell rang it was in a totally different direction. He did not think that anyone would be prepared to make any charge against the Speaker under 557 such circumstances. And now he would ask the Government what would happen under the Resolution which was proposed? The Speaker would say—"I believe it is the 'evident sense of the House,'" which would mean the evident sense of the vast majority of the House—not the sense of one Party, but the general sense of the House. A division would be called and taken, and if it should then appear that there was only a majority of one, two, three, or four, or some other small number, what would become of the authority of the Speaker? If that argument was worth anything against the Amendment of the right hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), it told with ten-fold more force against the propositions of the Government as they now stood on the Paper. The Prime Minister said that he had two objections to the Amendment. First, that it would do an injustice to small minorities. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) would remind the House that the Amendment of his right hon. and learned Friend did not affect the Government provisions as to minorities at all. The hon. Member for the City of Edinburgh (Mr. Buchanan) was of opinion that there ought to be no provisions for small minorities at all; and he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) thought the hon. Member for the University of London (Sir John Lubbock) was of the same opinion. The Amendment left that question entirely as it was proposed by the Government; and, therefore, that observation of the Prime Minister might be dismissed. But then the right hon. Gentleman said it was unjust to the majority. Why? That was the most extraordinary statement they had heard. The right hon. Gentleman said the Amendment of the right hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin would hand over the rights of the majority to the minority. What rights had they? They had no rights whatever; and if they had any rights, how could those rights be handed over? What the Prime Minister really meant was that the Amendment did not place in the hands of the majority the rights which he thought they ought to possess. That was a totally different thing from handing over existing rights to the minority; and what the right hon. Gentleman meant was that he would like to hand over to the majority rights which 558 they had not got at present, and which, if the Amendment passed, he would be prevented from doing. That was a totally different thing from handing over to the minority rights which the majority now enjoyed. But, in discussing the question, the right hon. Gentleman had really let out the whole secret of what it was he wanted. The Opposition had been asking, over and over again, exactly what it was the Prime Minister wanted. The noble Lord who sat next to him (the Marquess of Hartington) some time ago did give an exposition of the powers of the Speaker, and it was one which the House ought to consider carefully. The noble Marquess said that a great deal of time was often wasted in discussing certain propositions that were brought before the House, and that the time employed in discussing the questions to which he referred might be much better employed in discussing other Motions that stood on the Paper. Therefore, the Speaker, according to the noble Marquess, was to take the responsibility, not of deciding whether a question had been adequately discussed or not, but whether the time of the House would be better employed in discussing the Motions which stood next on the Paper. That was the view of the noble Marquess; and not only did the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for India put that view before the House, but he gave examples of what he meant. He said that the House did not want to hear the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett) on Russia, nor the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Mac Iver) on Free Trade, nor the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) on patent medicines. The noble Marquess thought that the time of the House would be better utilized by going on with other Business than that upon the Paper. That was altogether a different thing from the Speaker taking into consideration whether or not a question had been sufficiently discussed; because, in the opinion of the noble Marquess, he was only to consider whether there were other matters on the Paper more worthy of being debated. What the Prime Minister really wanted was not simply the power of putting down Obstruction, but power to shorten the legitimate discussions which had hitherto gone on. The hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Whitbread) said 559 there had been no complaint of the action of the House until the year 1874, and that that was the time at which the Obstruction began. No greater compliment could be paid to the Opposition which lasted from 1868 to 1874, and nothing tended to prove more satisfactorily how little justification there was for the coercion it was now proposed to place upon them. During all the years the former Liberal Government were in Office, from 1868 to 1874, there was not one word that could be said against the course pursued by the Opposition. Then, what had happened since 1880 that called now for the passing of Resolutions that were not directed so much at the little knot of Irish Members as against the Conservative Party in general? There were Conservatives who might object to a course of Obstruction; but when it came to a vote the Conservative Party would not vote against it. It was said that the responsible Members of the Opposition, although they were not prepared to justify protracted debate, when it was proposed that a debate should be closed, were not prepared to say so. That was as much as to say that the responsible Members of the Opposition were not prepared to do their duty. What he had always contended to be necessary in order to restore debate to its old position was that, when the Leaders of the Opposition got up to close a debate, the debate should be closed. That was the old clôture, and it was done by agreement, and it was what they wanted, to return to now. By the present Resolution, so far from inviting them to accomplish that great object, the Government were taking all the responsibility from them, and they would no longer be prepared to rely upon the good faith and honour of a Party. He should have been glad if several Members who occupied seats on the Liberal side of the House, but who were not in their places at that moment, could have been present. He had heard the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Magniac) express a strong opinion in opposition to the clôture, and an opinion that was by no means complimentary to those who sought to introduce it. He had also heard the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Rylands) altogether repudiate it, and the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) had entered a similar protest against it. He would remind the hon. 560 Member for Swansea of the opinion he had expressed on the subject when it was under discussion on a previous occasion. The hon. Member said "he trusted there was no sort of possibility of its being adopted," and he added "that any such proposal would meet with his most determined opposition." Those words were uttered by the hon. Member in the year 1880, and he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) wanted to know what had occurred since to change the views of the hon. Member, and what had induced him to make the speech which he made the other day in favour of the clôture? So far the hon. Member for Swansea had not given the smallest reason for his change of opinion; and he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) ventured to say that the views expressed by the hon. Member for Burnley and the hon. Member for Swansea some time ago were identical with those of a great number of Members who sat in that part of the House. The Prime Minister had said—and he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) was glad to hear the statement that this was not to be made a question of want of confidence—that although the Government pressed the Resolution very strongly, still it was not a matter of want of confidence. He hoped the Liberal Members would remember that, and that they would vote according to their consciences. He also wished very much that they could be able to vote by ballot on the question. He believed, if that were possible, they would see very different results than those which were likely to be brought about. There were some very sensible remarks made by a Member of the Government on this matter not long ago, which he should like to bring under the recollection of the House and under that of the Prime Minister also. This was not a question that could be decided by a mere Party vote, but it was a question which must be decided by the general opinion of the House, and if the House was to be bound for all future time to act loyally under the Rule, it was a question which could not be decided simply by Party exigencies. He would remind the House of the opinion expressed by the Secretary of State for the Home Department not long ago—observations made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman only three years ago on the matter—or, rather, on a much smaller matter than the clôture—being 561 simply upon the question of altering the Rule whether the House should go into Committee of Supply on Mondays without previous discussion. The right hon. Gentleman said then—It was quite impossible that a matter of that kind could be satisfactorily settled merely by a majority. They should depart from the ancient Rules of the House only by general consent.He still hoped the right hon. and learned Gentleman would get up in the course of these discussions—for he thought the right hon. and learned Gentleman had not spoken yet—and that he would repeat the words he had made use of with so much force in 1879—that they ought not to come to any conclusion to depart from the ancient Rules of the House except by general consent. There was only one word more he wished to say on the question. They had heard from the Prime Minister a very strong expression of his objection to the clôture by a two-thirds' majority. The right hon. Gentleman said it would put everything in the hands of the minority, and that nothing would induce him even to accept a cloture at all, if that proposal were carried against him. At the same time, the right hon. Gentleman refused to make it a question of confidence. He looked upon cloture by a two-thirds' majority as actually worthless, and he would rather not have clôture at all. Under those circumstances, he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) wanted to know how and why it was that the right hon. Gentleman ever suggested to his (Sir R. Assheton Cross's) right hon. Friend (Sir Stafford Northcote), who sat near him, that he would accept a two-thirds' majority? The hon. and learned Member for Christchurch (Mr. Davey) had made use of some words which he (Sir R. Assheton Cross) would not have ventured himself to apply in any form or shape. The hon. and learned Member had implied that if the clôture were passed in the way proposed by Her Majesty's Government, there might be arrangements, and Lobbying, and alterations in the course of Business. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) thought that what was present in the mind of the Prime Minister was this—that if he could get the clôture passed in the way suggested by the Amendment, it might be possible in the months of June and July to carry out arrangements very like those which the hon. and learned Member for Christ- 562 church had described as Lobbying, and he thought the right hon. Gentleman would rather not have the clôture at all than clôture under such circumstances. It was a great pity, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman ever made the suggestion he did to the right hon. Member for North Devon, or that, having made it, he ever departed from it. He (Sir R. Assheton Cross) sincerely hoped the House, notwithstanding what had been said, would adhere to the Resolution so far as it would put down Obstruction, hut that they would still allow every legitimate opportunity for fair discussion. He was quite sure of this—that it was upon that principle, and that principle alone, that the Business of the House could be conducted with satisfaction either to the House or to the country.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. O'Donnell.)
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow.
§ House adjourned at a quarter after Twelve o'clock.