HC Deb 05 June 1893 vol 13 cc211-24
MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

I feel it my duty, Mr. Speaker, to call the attention of the House to what I believe to be a breach of Privilege in connection with two statements that appear in The Daily News of to-day. The first of these statements purports to be a report of a portion of the Debate in Committee of the House of Commons on Thursday night last, and I call atten- tion to the character of the following report, which is headed— English Gentlemen, Scene: the House of Commons. Time: 11 p.m. The Home Rule Bill in Committee; Mr. Mellor in the Chair. Mr. Gladstone: As a pointed appeal has been made to me by my right honourable Friend [laughter], perhaps I may be allowed to say [loud cries of 'No, no'] that, while I accept the principle of the Amendment, I am not quite satisfied with its terms. ['Oh, oh.'] I said before—but my voice is not quite so strong as it used to be [loud cheers, 'Speak up,' 'We can't hear you.' 'Progress, progress']—that the Government would bring up a new clause dealing with the subject. [Loud and prolonged laughter.] I am at a loss to understand why that statement should excite merriment. [Loud cries of, 'Oh, oh,' 'Rigby, Rigby,' 'Progress, progress.'] I do not share the suspicions of the Irish people so freely expressed by Gentlemen opposite. [Loud laughter and ironical cheering.] I am not angry. [Shouts of 'Oh, oh.'] I am grieved to the heart [Loud and prolonged cheering] that such a declaration should be so received. [Loud and repeated shouts of 'Progress, progress,' 'Rigby, Rigby.'] The Chairman: Order, order, Mr. Chamberlain. I will first say, Sir, what is imputed to my right hon. Friend, that it does represent, with more or less accuracy, the language he used about 11 o'clock on Thursday night; but the justice of my complaint with regard to this report lies, of course, in the interpolations with which it is alleged the speech of my right hon. Friend was received by the House. It is reported, in what professes to be a verbatim report, that there were 12 interruptions of a most offensive, and in some cases most malignant character. That is the report of what my right hon. Friend said. Then, Sir, I am made to speak, and these are the words put into my mouth— Mr. Chamberlain: 'I am sure my right hon. Friend mistook the meaning of the sounds to which he alluded. They were, I am convinced, intended to express the general esteem and regard in which he is held by all sections of the House' (Great laughter, in which Mr. Chamberlain, as he resumed his seat, heartily joined). Of course, the House may think that this report is intended to be a burlesque, but, if so, it is a very dangerous burlesque, for it is calculated very much to increase the bitterness which necessarily arises in connection with such a Debate as that upon the Home Rule Bill. It imputes to the Opposition and to me a deliberate attempt to insult my right hon. Friend, an offence of which neither my hon. Friends nor myself have ever been guilty. [Mr. Gladstone nodded assent.] What happened on Thursday night was this. My right hon. Friend agreed to accept a portion of an Amendment which had been moved, and he proposed in some way or other to restrain the powers of the Irish Legislature to create a central police force; but in doing so he said he did not share the suspicions upon which the claims for the Amendment were based, and he thought those suspicions were unfair to the Irish people and their Representatives. Thereupon there was slight laughter on the other side of the House, and that laughter, as I have some reason to believe, was merely an expression of an objection to my right hon. Friend's statement that the proposal to impose another safeguard in a Bill which is full of safeguards could be in any way a slight upon the Irish people. So I understood the interruption, such as it was, and accordingly when I got up I said to my right hon. Friend that I was sorry that he should be pained by what he heard, and I pointed out that the interruption was due to the opinion that there was no more slight to the Irish people in requiring this particular safeguard than in putting in all other safeguards in the Bill. I have put before the House exactly what occurred. Already to-day I have seen two or three people who, I think very naturally, not having been present in the House, although Members of the House, assumed this to be an accurate report of what occurred. There is not a word to show that it is otherwise than an accurate account, and if throughout the country the idea gains ground that there is this extreme and malignant feeling between the two sides of the House, it will be a public mischief and a public scandal. I have never before called attention to a matter of Privilege. I do so now because I wish to call attention to the policy of the particular journal to which I have referred, whose chief proprietor is a Member of this House, and one of whose chief writers is also a Member of this House; and because I think it is time to protest against such conduct, as not only prejudicial to the Members attacked, but also injurious to the honour and dignity of this House. I shall ask the Clerk at the Table to read this extract, but before I do so I have another to which I wish to draw attention. The practice of this journal is to give false accounts of speeches made in this House by Members of the Party it opposes, and then it proceeds to comment on those false reports. I never have objected to newspaper comments, and I am not likely to begin to do so now; but I do object when those comments are based on false statements of fact. The language in the leading article in The Daily News of to-day is to the following effect:— He lives to carry out a great policy, and he will not spare himself in the task. Deliberate and organised attempts to interrupt him, to embarrass him, and to shout him down ought to be sharply and sternly punished. If Irish Nationalists behaved as some of the Tories behaved on Thursday night, they would have been promptly named and suspended. I respectfully submit to the House that both these statements are breaches of the Privilege of the House. As regards the reporting of our Debates, nothing is clearer than that, although the general idea that any report of our Debates is a breach of Privilege has long fallen into desuetude, anything like a deliberate misrepresentation of our Debates is still a breach of Privilege. As regards the second passage, that is a deliberate attack on the impartiality of the Chair, because it is alleged that the Chairman would have named and suspended the Irish Members for precisely similar interruptions to those which occurred on Thursday night, and were not noticed by the Chairman.

The said newspaper was handed in, and the passages complained of were read, as followeth:— English Gentlemen. 'At least our associates are English gentlemen."—Right hon. J. Chamberlain, M.P. Scene: The House of Commons. Time: 11 p.m. The Home Rule Bill in Committee; Mr. Mellor in the Chair. Mr. Gladstone: As a pointed appeal has been made to me by my right honourable Friend—(laughter)—perhaps I may be allowed to say—(loud cries of 'No, no')—that while I accept the principle of the amendment, I am not quite satisfied with its terms. ('Oh, oh.') I said before—but my voice is not quite so strong as it used to be—(loud cheers, 'Speak up,' 'We can't hear you,' 'Progress, progress')—that the Government would bring up a new clause dealing with the subject. (Loud and prolonged laughter.) I am at a loss to understand why this statement should excite merriment. (Loud cries of Oh, oh,' 'Rigby, Rigby,' 'Progress, progress.') I do not share the suspicions of the Irish people so freely expressed by gentlemen opposite (loud laughter and ironical cheering). I am not angry (shouts of 'Oh, oh'). I am grieved to the heart—(loud and prolonged cheering)—that such a declaration should be so received. (Loud and repeated shouts of 'Progress, progress,' 'Rigby, Rigby.') The Chairman: Order, order. Mr. Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain: I am sure my right honourable Friend mistook the meaning of the sounds to which he alluded. They were, I am convinced, intended to express the general esteem and regard in which he is held by all sections of the House. (Great laughter, in which Mr. Chamberlain, as he resumed his seat, heartily joined.) Nothing is more difficult, than to convince Mr. Gladstone that he ought to husband his strength. He lives to carry out a great policy, and he will not spare himself in the task. Deliberate and organised attempts to interrupt him, to embarrass him, and to shout him down ought to be sharply and sternly punished. If Irish Nationalists behaved as some of the Tories behaved on Thursday night, they would have been promptly named and suspended.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Louth, N.)

I rise to a point of Order. I think I heard the Clerk read out something of which the right hon. Gentleman did not complain—namely, that at least his associates were English gentlemen.


Does the right hon. Gentleman move that these passages constitute a breach of the Privileges of this House?


I move. Sir.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the passages in The Daily News complained of constitute a breach of the Privileges of this House."—(Mr. J. Chamberlain.)


As I was in the Chair at the time referred to in the article, I think I ought not to allow this matter to pass by without saying a few words with regard to what occurred on Thursday night. One of the statements in the article is that had Irish Nationalists behaved as some of the Tories did on that night they would have been named for suspension, and that, I suppose, has reference to myself. [Cries of "No!"] I sincerely hope that it has not; but, taking the statement in conjunction with the other paragraph that was read, I came to the conclusion that some persons might think that the reference was to myself. Let me call attention to the position on that night. There was undoubtedly a slight noise such as has been described; but I may at once tell the House that I am not aide to recognise in the paragraphs in The Daily News that I have seen to-day the state of things I heard then. But I may state, further, that this happened on Thursday, and it is not until Monday this paragraph appears. My impression was that this was not intended to be a serious account of what took place in the House of Commons. I noticed that when the Prime Minister was speaking on Thursday night there was either a slight laugh or slight noise. But I wish to call attention to this—that when I am sitting in the Chair it is very difficult for me to take notice of anything that occurrs behind me, and, unquestionably, what I heard on that occasion was behind me. I have, I hope, always done my best to maintain the honour and dignity of this House. I am as anxious as anybody can possibly be that no disorder, no heat, and no ill-feeling shall arise; but it is impossible for me to take notice of any disorder caused by an individual when I do not know who he is and cannot see him. Therefore it is that I occasionally pass over matters which, under other circumstances, I might take notice of. I believe that the House will agree with me that I have always endeavoured to make no distinction between Members of one Party and Members of another; and, whilst I am in the Chair, I shall always try to carry out the very difficult and very responsible duties which the House has imposed upon me in that spirit.

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)

I am sure no Member of the House, or any Party in the House, desires to cast the smallest reflection on the impartiality of the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees. We all recognise the pains with which he discharges his duties, and his desire to be perfectly impartial to every section of the House. I was glad, however, to hear the right hon. Gentleman confess that the position he occupies in the Chair does not always enable him either to recognise the persons who interrupt, or the entire character of the interruptions; and I therefore feel bound to say that I am entirely at issue with him as to the character of the interruptions. I believe I shall be borne out by a large number of hon. Members of this House when I say our strong impression was that on that night the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government was not only very much, but very grossly and rudely interrupted. [Cries of "Oh!" and "No!"] [Mr. W. E. GLADSTONE signified dissent.] The right hon. Gentleman himself, I know, rose immediately after these interruptions, and put upon them a different, and, I think, a very charitable interpretation, because he said he was not angry, but that he was grieved to the heart at these interruptions—[Cries of "No!"]—interpreting them as meaning a reflection, not on himself personally, or a desire to interrupt him rudely, but as a reflection on the Irish people. But I am a little surprised at the action of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. I hold that the charge made in The Daily News—a charge, in my opinion, fully made out by the facts of the case—[Cries of "Oh!"]—I hold that the charge in The Daily News is a serious and a grave charge. It is that of gross and rude ill-treatment of a leading Member of this House, who is entitled to the respect of every hon. Member of the House. But I remember, Mr. Speaker, that, on previous occasions attention has been called to comments by newspapers on Members of this House, charging them, not with this sufficiently grave offence of bad manners, but with complicity in forgery and with murder, and yet the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham joined in all the speeches that were made that the Press should be perfectly entitled to make these charges without any interference on the part of this House. I must say the right hon. Gentleman's tenderness as to himself contrasts very seriously, indeed, with the manner in which he viewed attacks on the late Mr. Parnell. I am not surprised, however, that the right hon. Gentleman should make his Motion today. The ingenuity of the right hon. Gentleman in finding means of postponing—[Cries of "Oh!"]—all the business of the country is excessive—[Cries of "Oh" and "Order!"]—and, therefore, I was not surprised that he was able to seize on the comments of The Daily News as a means of occupying some of the time of the House to-day. [Cries of "Question!"] What is his charge? His charge is that The Daily News misrepresents the attitude of himself and hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway who act with him with regard to the Prime Minister. Well, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that a feeling is growing in this House, and it is growing still stronger in the country, that the object of the right hon. Gentleman is to waste the energies—[Cries of "Question!"]—the energies of the House—[Renewed cries of "Question!"]


I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman. The question before the House is one of Privilege, and the discussion must, be strictly confined to whether the words read at the Table do constitute a breach of Privilege. The hon. Gentleman will, therefore, confine himself strictly to the event of that Thursday night on which the comments in the paper now before the House were made.


I will, of course, Sir, as I hope I always do, endeavour most scrupulously to respect your ruling and your suggestion. I will not pursue that line of argument further than to say my reason for alluding to it was—[Cries of "Order!"]—that I believe the comments of The Daily News on the action of the right hon. Gentleman that night, and on those who act with him, were rather beneath his deserts than above them. I believe The Daily News was justified in its comments, because undoubtedly on that night the right hon. Gentleman and his confederates above the Gangway were endeavouring to interfere and postpone and delay discussion on the Bill—[Cries of "Order!"]—and that one of their means of doing so was by what I may call baiting the First Lord of the Treasury. I have no right to make any suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government—it would be presumptuous on my part to do so—["Cries of Order!"]—I am sure if hon. Gentlemen who hear me are not able to measure their own littleness compared with the right hon. Gentleman, I am—but I would strongly implore the Prime Minister not to give encouragement to the system which has now been organised—[Cries of "Question!"]—of which the proceedings of Thursday night—[Renewed dies of "Question!"]—were only a little more flagrant specimen than than on other occasions. For these reasons, I beg to move as an Amendment— That this House declines to take notice of the extracts read from The Daily News, and passes to the Orders of the Day.

Mr. A. J. BALFOURand Mr. Hunter (Aberdeen, N.)

rose together.

* MR. SPEAKER (addressing Mr. Hunter)

Does the hon. Gentleman rise to second the Amendment?


said, he begged to second the Amendment. It had been said by Sidney Smith that it required a surgical operation to put a joke into the head of a Scotchman. That raised n serious question to his mind—as to whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham was a Scotchman—because no man could read the passage in The Daily News—deliberately and purposely exaggerated—without being reminded of those contributions which appeared every week in the pages of Punch under the name of "Toby M.P." which contained similar exaggerations. [Cries of "No!"] He could scarcely believe it possible that any Englishman could road the passage and suppose it to be an absolutely historical record of the proceedings of the House. For one thing it did not appear in that part of the paper which gave the report of the proceedings. He was glad to discover that after all they who came from Scotland were capable of seeing humour where their friends from the South wore not.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House declines to take notice of the extracts read from The Daily News, and passes to the Orders of the Day."—(Mr. T. P. O'Connor.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


If I bear a part in the drama which has been brought before us, it is, I can assure the House, an involuntary part; and it causes whatever embarrassment I feel in intervening in this Debate which I am aware pertains to the position that for the moment I have the honour to hold in this House. But I must say this, and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham will not misunderstand me, engaged, as we are, in a very grave national and Imperial controversy, I regret the importation into our proceedings of anything collateral, anything not essentially and necessarily involved in their character, anything which can possibly evoke or can possibly make an addition to the passions, to the feelings of warmth which I am well aware are inseparable from the main issue. But, above all, I am anxious that in the midst of this controversy this House should not go out of its way to do any act which is petty or small. We ought to be—and I am sensible that the matters with which we are engaged are great matters, and we ought, I think, to conform in all respects to that conception of them. For my own part, I confess I have not read the words which have been quoted to us by my right hon. Friend. Undoubtedly if I had read them in the usual course of one's examination of the newspapers, I should have supposed that they were not intended seriously as a report of the proceedings of this House, and, moreover, I should have supposed—I may be right or I may be wrong—that no one could have mistaken them for a serious report. And, shall I confess it?—it is my impression now at the present moment. But my duty, undoubtedly, is not limited to the delivery of that opinion. I think it is right I should refer to what took place on Thursday night, and with respect to those matters I can give an account which, so far as I am concerned, is perfectly clear, and which I hope may tend to allay any feelings of offence or dissatisfaction that are anywhere entertained. In the first place, Sir, it is, perhaps, hardly right I should give an opinion upon any comments made in a public journal upon the conduct of the Chairman of Committees. Yet I am prompted to say under the circumstances of the case, and closely associated as I was with those circumstances—I am tempted to say that I am convinced that no writer intending to be seriously understood and founding himself upon such a report of the circumstances as that could have found the slightest ground of imputation upon the Chairman of Committees on that occasion. But it is perfectly true and quite within my recollection, as stated by him, that the inter- ruption which occurred came from behind the Chairman, and I cannot conceive how, if he had had the eyes of a lynx, it would have been in his power to notice the interruption. Now I refer to the interposition of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham on that occasion. It would have been extremely wrong if I had misunderstood the character of that interposition. My right hon. Friend and I now-a-days, unfortunately, are from time to time very sharply divided. But I could not for a moment fail to see that the motive of his interposition, so far as I was concerned, was a kind motive. Then, Sir, I am obliged to refer in the same way, and take this opportunity of making acknowledgment to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. A. J. Balfour), who has more than once testified his desire that, so far as he exercises influence in the House, that influence should be used to secure for me—as I have no doubt he would wish it to be secured for any other person occupying my position—a fair, and more than a fair hearing. Now I come to a tender ground, and that is in relation to the interruption that undoubtedly did occur. I think the memory of hon. Gentlemen will bear me out in saying that, as I have said, I know nothing of these persistent and continued interruptions. I may be wrong, but I believe that is, in the imagination of the writer, made use of for the public purpose he has in view. But, Sir, interruption did undoubtedly occur at a particular portion of my speech. I noticed that interruption, but permit me to say I did not notice it at all as an interruption. I did not notice it as intended to be offensive, but as expressive of a sentiment, and with regard to that sentiment, whether rightly or wrongly, I say again I condemned it, and cannot but repeat that the expression of that sentiment grieved me to the heart. But it was a totally different matter, and never crossed my mind that I myself had received the smallest form of insult. There are some things—there are many disadvantages of old age—but there are some things, at all events, it ought to learn, and I think no person who has had a small fraction of my experience in this House can fail to feel that large allowances are to be made in these controversies for sentiments and emotions that cannot be suppressed. I am here recognising it as an absolute duty to give the very same credit to hon. Gentlemen opposite—although I believe them to be involved in the most deplorable, in the most grievous error that has ever taken possession of a political Party. But as respects motives, as respects character, as respects honour, as respects integrity—I am bound and obliged to give to them the same credit that I ask for my hon. Friends and myself. Not only so, but as I know that my hon. Friends, and as I know that I myself, feel strong emotions in these Debates—emotions which I frankly own I have great difficulty in repressing, but which I deem it my first duty if I can to govern and restrain—so I must make the same allowance for hon. Gentlemen opposite, and however much I may lament and grieve the sentiments which I sometimes think I may detect in the movements that mark our Debates from that as from every other portion of the House, yet it would be monstrous, I think, to attempt to make those matters of serious and, above all, of retrospective complaint. But on the occasion to which I refer, I had, personally, no ground whatever, in my opinion, for any complaint at all. The expression of my true and deep sorrow was because I thought the sentiment expressed by the interruption was a sentiment which was unjust, and I ought, perhaps, to say thought the sentiment cruel to the people of Ireland, and to the Representatives of the people of Ireland. That is the true statement of the case, and the one conclusion I arrive at with clearness on this subject is that it would not beseem the dignity of this House, and it would not answer any good or useful purpose, were we to enter further into this discussion. The Amendment moved by my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) is an Amendment to displace the Motion of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham; but I confess I should rejoice under the circumstances if, by the consent of all Parties, both the Amendment and the Motion were withrawn.


The right hon. Gentleman, as was to be expected from what we know of his character, has done everything to allay any passions that might have been aroused by the somewhat unfortunate speech of the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment. If I had followed that hon. Gentleman—


I wish to say I distinctly except that right hon. Gentleman from any discourtesy to the Prime Minister.


Had I followed the hon. Gentleman I might have been tempted to comment somewhat severely upon the language he used. But I am unwilling now, as the House has perhaps wiped that speech from its memory, to go back upon it, and will say nothing more upon the subject but to note with satisfaction that every hon. Gentleman who has spoken—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the hon. Member for Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter), and the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister—have all agreed, as against the hon. Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. T. P. O'Connor), that the account of what occurred, as given in The Daily News, and read by the Clerk at the Table, are judged merely by intrinsic evidence to be regarded as a burlesque. I do not know that it is necessary for me to say much more on the subject except this. There has been, undoubtedly, an attempt in some quarters, of which the extract read is a specimen, to endeavour to make out that in the undoubtedly embittered controversy in which we are engaged, there is an attempt among gentlemen who agree with me to personally embarrass the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the Home Rule Bill. Well, Sir, it is not possible but that an accusation of that kind should be regarded by us as deeply injurious. This House has, I believe, never allowed personal considerations to enter into its Debates. However vehement Party hostility may be, personal generosity has never been absent from among us; and I believe at the present moment there is not a single individual in this House, be his opinions what they may, or be the part he takes in our Debates what it may, who is not perfectly certain of fair and honourable treatment at the hands of those who most widely differ from him. If that be true of all hon. Members, how much more is it likely to be true of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, who, however much we may differ, and however much we do differ, has behind him 50 years of a great Parliamentary career, and whom we all recognise as one of the greatest Parliamentary figures who have illustrated and adorned this House since Parliamentary history began. I thought I was bound to make this brief statement, because the right hon. Gentleman, being from the very nature of the case in the very forefront of this great battle, naturally is, as everyone must admit by his position—I will not say interrupted—if it is so I regret it—but subject to exclamations which have arisen in the course of his speech indicating dissent from or assent to his views from various sections of this House. That is the fate of every man who takes part in Parliamentary controversy. I know I am speaking the sentiments of every man who sits behind me when I say that, so far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, we desire not only to give him fair play, but more than fair play, if I may use such an expression. Never should the weapon of unintelligent interruption be used. It is a weapon which should never be used against any man, and least of all against a gentleman in the position of Prime Minister.


I think if the Amendment is withdrawn, after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, I should ask the House to allow me to withdraw my Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.