§ MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)
I have a Question to ask you, Mr. Speaker, on a point of Order, or 371 rather on a question of Privilege. I wish to know, Sir, Whether your attention has been called to a speech purporting to have been delivered on Saturday last and reported in the papers to-day, by the hon. Member for the Camborne Division of Cornwall (Mr. Conybeare), and reflecting upon your conduct in the Chair. I have informed the hon. Member of my intention to put this Question to you, and I do not understand that he repudiates the substantial accuracy of the report of the speech. I further wish to know whether that speech, in your opinion, does not constitute a gross breach of the Privileges of this House? and I ask the Question, with a view of taking any further step that may be requisite, and, if necessary, of making a Motion on the subject.
§ MR. SPEAKER
The right hon. Gentleman has asked me whether my attention has been called to some words attributed to the hon. Member for the Camborne Division of Cornwall. I this morning saw the speech in which the words referred to occur. The right hon. Gentleman asks me whether they constitute a breach of Privilege. Unquestionably it is a matter affecting Privilege; but, of course, whether it is a breach of Privilege or not rests with the House to decide. I may say that I wish, in referring to the matter which has been brought to the notice of the House, to pass over—as I can afford to do—any personal reflection intended to be conveyed by the hon. Member upon me; but the matter is graver than that. It is not a reflection upon me personally, but a reflection upon the House through the elected Speaker of this House. If any hon. Member thinks fit to impugn my conduct in the Chair, it is competent to him to bring my conduct under the notice of the House, and by a distinct Motion to challenge every act and every word of mine. I can understand that in the present heat of Party feeling when men's passions are roused—I can understand words escaping hon. Gentlemen which in their cooler moments they would repudiate. I hope that the words of the hon. Member were not premeditated or deliberate. I can only say that it is my wish and it is my duty in this Chair to allay Party feeling, if I can—[An Ironical Cheer from a Home Rule Member]—Yes, if I can—not with standing the sneer of the hon. Member—to allay 372 any heat or passion in this House. But it is a strange thing, indeed, that within a few weeks after I have been invested with an absolute discretion by a Standing Order passed by the House of Commons, as to whether I shall give or withhold my assent to a Motion for closing debate—it is, I say, a strange, and I hope it is an unprecedented thing, that an hon. Member of this House should think it becoming in him to charge me in the action I took with having thereby become a partizan of either one side of the House or the other. I shall say no more to the House of Commons, because I wish, if possible, to calm down any personal feeling. I will only add this, that I am content to leave my conduct in this Chair to the judgment of every fair and right-minded and honourable man.
§ MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)
Mr. Speaker, I understand, Sir, that with regard to what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and from yourself, I shall be entitled to say a few words as to my own conduct in this matter by way of personal explanation. In the first place, I wish to say at the outset that I received no information whatever that this question would be raised until I entered this House, and having come up from the country this afternoon I have seen no Report whatever of what I am asserted to have said. I do not rest so much on that; but I merely mention the circumstance to the House. And following on that, I desire to say that if what I am reported in The Times and other newspapers to have said should, on examination, be found accurately to represent what I did say, and if it does appear that I in any way expressed myself in a manner reflecting on you, Sir, as the occupant of the Chair, I should at once most humbly and most fully express my regret for having unintentionally done so in speaking on a subject on which, as an elector of the country, as well as a Representative, I believe myself entitled to comment. Having said so much, I wish to state what the position was that I endeavoured to take up, and how I endeavoured to guard myself against saying anything that would be invidious or unbecoming in me. I have regarded this as a grave Constitutional question. It has been our contention throughout the recent prolonged debates on the Closure Rule, that the closure 373 should be used only in the case of Obstruction, and I may add that Her Majesty's Government pledged themselves that it should be used only in such cases. I endeavoured to express my view, at any rate, that on Friday evening no case of Obstruction had, in my judgment, really arisen. And it does appear to me that when the adjournment was demanded, not by a mere handful of Members, but by the oldest and most respected Member in the House, and the principal Leader of the House after the right hon. Gentleman opposite, backed up by the whole of his Party, and the whole of the Party of the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Parnell)—it does appear to me that there was primâ facie evidence of no Obstruction such as this Closure Rule was intended to meet. I brought the matter before the Gentlemen I was addressing on Saturday evening in order to raise the Constitutional question as to whether we were right in our contention, or whether we were wrong. If our interpretation of the Rule is a right one—namely, that it should only be used against Obstruction, and not when the whole of one of the great Parties in the country is at issue with the Party in power, then I contend that I was fairly entitled to comment at that meeting upon so grave a Constitutional question. If, on the contrary, the interpretation we on this side of the House have, without exception, placed upon the Rule is a wrong interpretation, and if the Rule is contrary to the pledges of the right hon. Gentleman opposite to apply to the entire Liberal Party, and if not upon the initiative of the Speaker, but of the First Lord of the Treasury, it is to be used as the means of forcing an objectionable Bill through the House which is subversive of the Constitutional rights of one great section of the United Kingdom—I thought it was best to bring out the fact so that we might be informed of it, and be in a position to ask Her Majesty's Government for a further opportunity of discussing such a grave and important point. In the next place, it was my object to point out that there was a danger as repeatedly insisted upon by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House, that the interpretation placed—I do not mean by you, Sir, nor by the Members of this House, but by the country—on 374 the application of the Rule would be inevitably such as would bring your conduct into question. That is the feeling that we on this side feared would arise from the application of the Rule. I do not say it would be right to indulge in any such feeling; I am not myself indulging in any such feeling; as I have said before, I was anxious when I made my speech on Saturday, to guard myself against falling into such an error. If I have done so, I have already. I hope, amply withdrawn any objectionable words that I may have used. But I am only asking the House to consider that it was my object in that speech to bring out the danger that had, in my opinion, actually arisen, and that had been forecast by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone); and it seemed to me that the fact that any such feeling should be suggested even was a proof of the wisdom of the right hon. Gentleman's argument against the Rule in the form in which it was brought forward and passed by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. I believe, Sir, that the Party opposite coincide with us in our desire that nothing should be done to weaken or lessen in any way the authority of the Chair, or to reflect upon that authority. And, again, I say that if at a public meeting, in the heat of the moment, I said anything that could possibly convoy any erroneous impression that I intended to reflect on your conduct and authority in the Chair, I can only say I am sorry for it, for I had no such intention. I spoke on Saturday with a full consciousness of the gravity of the situation. I felt it to be my duty to express my opinion, however inadequately, on the present position of affairs; and with the explanation which I have now offered, I humbly submit that I did not transgress my duty in saying what I did say on such a grave Constitutional crisis.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREA-SUEY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)
I understand that the hon. Gentleman has unequivocably withdrawn, Sir, any imputations on your conduct in the Chair. He has, notwithstanding, made some reflection upon me as to my conduct as Loader of the House; but I do not think that I should consult the convenience of the House if I were to enter into a debate on the 375 course which I thought it my duty to pursue on that occasion. I have only risen, Sir—
§ MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)
What is the Question before the House? [Cries of "Order!" and "Name!"]
§ MR. W. H. SMITH
I only rise, Sir, for the purpose of venturing to assure you of the complete and absolute confidence which the House reposes in your perfect impartiality, and I am sure that the view is shared by hon. Gentlemen opposite—a view which has been so unanimously expressed on this side of the House. It cannot be denied that you have executed the duty—the important and responsible duty—imposed upon you by the Orders of this House— [Cries of "Order!" from the Home Rule Benches.]—in a way which has secured the confidence and respect of the House.
§ MR. JOHN MORLEY (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
I have no desire, as I have no right, to prolong this very painful incident. I only wish to say that when I road the language ascribed to my hon. Friend the Member for the Camborne Division of Cornwall (Mr. Conybeare) in the newspapers this morning, I felt a very profound regret. But as to that, it is unnecessary to add another word, because my hon. Friend has made a very complete and satisfactory withdrawal, and has taken from those words any of the animus which at the first reading they may have seemed to possess. With reference to the language which you yourself have used on this occasion, it is not necessary for me to say that we, on this side of the House, should deprecate as warmly as hon. Gentlemen opposite any words used or anything done to show our want of faith in your absolute impartiality, and in your desire, which we cannot doubt for one moment, to use your great authority and position, as you have said, to allay Party heat, and rather to calm down passions than to inflame them. I hope, Sir, that this unfortunate incident may now be allowed to close.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
also rose. [Cries of"Johnston!"] The right hon. Gentleman said: I merely rise to say, Sir, that after the explanation of the hon. Member for the Camborne Division of Cornwall, I do not, of course, propose to make any Motion on the question which 376 I brought under the notice of the House.
§ MR. JOHNSTON
I wish merely to say that we, on this side of the House, patiently listened to all the hon. Member for Camborne has had to say on this matter; but that, owing to the interruptions of the hon. and learned Member for Longford (Mr. T. M. Healy) and other Members below the Gangway on that side of the House, when the First Lord of the Treasury was speaking, we were not able to hear what fell from the right hon. Gentleman.
§ MR. T. M. HEALY
May I ask the First Lord of the Treasury if he can inform the House whether, before he moved the closure on Saturday morning, he had previously obtained the sanction of the Chair. [Loud cries of"Order!"]
§ MR. W. H. SMITH
I do not know whether it is fitting that I should reply to such a question—[Cries of "No, no!" "Do not answer!" and interruption]—but I wish to say that I did not.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
There is another question, Mr. Speaker, with regard to this incident which I venture to put to you, because it is of great importance. It is whether a Motion can be made for the closure when no Motion is before the House, because, so far as I can understand the proceedings on Friday night, you had not put the Motion when the right, hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury rose and moved that the debate should come to a close? I only ask for information.