HC Deb 14 March 1894 vol 22 cc257-67

The Leader of the Opposition, in the course of last night, asked me what course Her Majesty's Government were prepared to take in reference to the Address to the Crown in its present shape. The House, I think, on both sides will understand that that was a question which I could not, and ought not, to have answered without due deliberation. I consider that the demand was a reasonable demand, and I propose now to state to the House what is the decision of the Government and the course which they intend to pursue. I will state what, I am sure is familiar to the House, that the Address in answer to the Speech from the Throne is a proceeding for which Her Majesty's Government make themselves responsible—responsible as the representatives of the majority of the House of Commons from whom that Address proceeds. I think that is a clear Constitutional principle which nobody will be disposed to dispute. The Government cannot present to the Sovereign in a formal manner a document of which they are not prepared to accept the entire and immediate responsibility. The present state of the Address in answer to the Speech is this—that an addition has been incorporated into it by the Amendment moved last night by the hon. Member for Northampton. When that Amendment was moved I stated the reasons why Her Majesty's Government felt themselves bound to oppose it. The avowed object of that Amendment was to raise in a definite form the action to be taken by the House of Commons in its resistance to the proceedings of the House of Lords. I then stated that Her Majesty's Government accepted fully in all its sense the declaration which was made upon that subject by the late Prime Minister in this House. I said that we meant to oppose the doctrine, as set forth in this House by the Leader of the Opposition, that the House of Commons was to be subject to the control of the House of Lords. But I referred also to the language used by the late Prime Minister as to the supreme importance, the gravity, and the greatness of that question, and the deliberation with which it ought to be approached by a responsible Government, and, I will say, by a responsible House of Commons. I claimed that, as far at least as Her Majesty's Government was concerned, they should be entrusted, at any rate by their supporters, with absolute freedom of action and discretion in such a matter. I stated that the Amendment moved was not in a form or couched in language which we were prepared to present to the Sovereign. The Amendment, as was pointed out, consisted of two paragraphs. The first paragraph prayed the Queen— That the power now enjoyed by persons not elected to Parliament by the possessors of the Parliamentary franchise to prevent Bills being submitted to Your Majesty for Your Royal approval shall cease. There was no statement in that paragraph as to what was the course to be pursued. The hon. Member for Northampton said, in effect—"You may take it as you please; it may either mean the abolition of the House of Lords or, if you like it better, it may mean the limitation of the veto." But the responsible Ministers of the Crown, if they tender advice to the Sovereign on such a question, must tender no ambiguous advice. They must have made up their own minds; they cannot take this light and airy view of such a question. It is a question of the most supreme gravity and involves the greatest responsibility, and, as far as the advisers of the Crown are concerned, they must form their own opinion, and they must tender clear and definite advice to the Crown. So much for the first paragraph of this Amendment. Then comes the second paragraph, which is— We respectfully express the hope that, if it be necessary —well, I imagine that when a responsible Government advise the Crown on a question of this kind they must do it not in a hypothetical manner; they must have determined whether a necessity, ay, and an extreme necessity, has arisen before they tender advice on such a subject as that. The second paragraph is— We respectfully express the hope that, if it be necessary, Your Majesty will, with and by the advice of Your responsible Ministers, use the power vested in Your Majesty to secure the passing of this much-needed reform. The hon. Member for Northampton stated what his view, at all events, was of the Motion which he made. he said it meant the creation of 500 Peers.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

That was only one suggestion.


At all events, these suggestions are not such as can be taken up in a moment. The House of Commons and the responsible Government must know what it means when it addresses the Sovereign in answer to the Speech from the Throne. I am not prepared to say that the creation of a great number of Peers is the proper method of dealing with a question of this kind. The creation of Peers for the purpose of influencing immediately the action of the House of Lords has never taken place in this country since the days of the great Tory Administration in the reign of Queen Anne, when 12 Peers were created in a single day for the purpose of overthrowing the Duke of Marlborough. It is quite true that the Government of Lord Grey in 1831 advised the Crown and obtained power for the creation of Peers, hut this authority was never put into execution. I will not discuss that question now. We are asked by the hon. Member for Northampton to determine now to create 500 Peers. Her Majesty's Government are not prepared to come to any such decision. I beg leave to point out the position in which we are placed. The question is one which a responsible Government cannot afford to treat with levity. It is not in that spirit that so great a Constitutional issue can be presented either by a responsible Government or a responsible House of Commons either to the House of Lords or to the Crown. If this matter is to be approached, and in my opinion it has to be approached, it must be in a very different spirit. That is the view which the Government take, and which I ventured to submit to the House last night on the subject of this Amendment. Therefore, Sir, we feel it to be impossible that Her Majesty's Government can make themselves the instrument or the organ for conveying the Address in its present form to the Crown. I have consulted the authorities of the House as to the method in which it is possible to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. We are of opinion—we may be mistaken in that, and it is for the House to determine—that the Address, with the addition carried last night, does not express or convey the well-considered and deliberate judgment of the majority of this House, and therefore we should not be performing our duty if we allowed ourselves to be the instrument of conveying to the Sovereign that which is not the opinion of the majority of this House. The course which we intend to pursue is this: When the Address in its present form is put from the Chair we shall vote against that Address. It will then be possible for the Government to move a new Address to the Crown. [Opposition laughter.] I have said—and I should have thought that gentlemen opposite would have recognised the fact—that this is not a matter for ridicule. I have endeavoured, as far as I can, to treat it from a point of view which should commend itself to all Parties in this House—to deal with it from the point of view of the situation of all responsible Governments and of the House of Commons in its relations to the Crown and the House of Lords. That is my desire. I have stated at the commencement that the Government are responsible for the form of the Address which they carry up by one of their own officials to the Sovereign in answer to the Speech from the Throne. I am now going to read to the House the form of Address for which we are prepared to make ourselves responsible, and in order to mark that responsibility I shall venture myself to move it. The Address will then run— Most Gracious Sovereign,— We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, humbly assure Your Majesty that the measures recommended to our consideration shall receive our most careful attention, and we beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament. I cannot make that Motion, of course, until the Amendment now under the con- sideration of the House is disposed of; but unless it is desired to raise other Amendments, which I do not expect will be the desire of the House in present circumstances, when the Address is put from the Chair, I, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, shall propose to negative that Address, and then I shall propose, in the place of it, to substitute the Address which I have just read to the House.

MR. A. J. BALFOUR (Manchester, E.)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Gentleman has certainly approached the consideration of an unexampled position in our Parliamentary history in a tone of gravity which befits so serious an occasion. He began his statement by alluding to the policy which he and those who sit near him upon that Bench have accepted with regard to the position of the House of Lords. I confess that, after that, statement, I understand as little as I did before precisely what that policy is. It was shrouded in language of prophetic obscurity by the right hon. Gentleman, and, though? do understand the policy with regard to the House; of Lords sketched out in the Amendment which the right hon. Gentleman now desires us to reverse, J confess I am as much in doubt as I ever was as to the view entertained by Her Majesty's Government. I only refer, however, to this part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement in order to say that I think he need not have introduced into it what he might have known was a gross perversion of an observation made by me on another occasion, He had the courage to say that I had laid down the doctrine embodying the views of myself and my friends that the House of Lords was to control the House of Commons. No such preposterous doctrine ever entered my mind, and no such statement ever escaped my lips. I have always regarded—and I still regard—the House of Lords as a useful and a necessary check in the general scheme of our Constitutional Governments, but the idea that the House of Lords is to control this or any other branch of the Legislature is one which no Conservative statesman ever has or ever could utter. However, I pass from that to what is more germane to the subject before us—namely, the addition to the Address carried in the House last night. The right hon. Gentleman has repeated to-day the argument which he used yesterday against the Amendment of the hon. Member for Northampton. I have not a single word of criticism to pass upon the argument by which he endeavoured unsuccessfully last night to persuade the House that the Amendment should be rejected. The right hon. Gentleman in this matter has been more fortunate in convincing us than in convincing his friends, for I observe from a brief glance at the Division List that if Members of the Government be excluded there remain 90 Unionists who supported the Government and but 30 independent Gladstonian Home Rulers who expressed by their votes in the Lobby that confidence in the Government of their choice which, so far as I know in Parliamentary history, has never yet been refused to an Administration which professed to command a majority in this House. However, Sir, I suppose a night's reflection has shown the supporters of the Government that there was more weight in the argument addressed to them last night and repeated to-day by the Leader of the House than they had at first sight been disposed to imagine, and the question is really only the question, how the Government can give their followers an opportunity of eating humble pie—no, I will not use that word—how they can, most conveniently and consistently with the Orders of the House, give their friends an opportunity of saving on Wednesday precisely the reverse of that which they said on Tuesday. I desire to give the Government every assistance. I wish to renew to-day the support which I was ready to give them yesterday upon the same question; and when the right hon. Gentleman proposes to follow the course which he has sketched out to us, I, and I believe all my friends, will be found in the Lobby with him. How many other gentlemen will be found to reverse the vote, which I presume they gave with deliberation and with a full knowledge of its consequences yesterday, we cannot say until the numbers are declared. I shall only say, in conclusion, that, while I shall do my best to endeavour to reverse the ridiculous decision which the House came to yesterday, I must make one word of comment on the extraordinary and absolutely unexampled position into which Her Majesty's Government have dragged the House on this occasion. Such a thing has never yet been heard of in our Parliamentary history, that the Address to Her Majesty should have to be recalled on the Motion of the very persons who originally proposed it, that they should have to reject their own Address as amended by their own supporters, reject it with contempt, and bring forward in language unfamiliar to our ears and unknown to our precedents a new form of Address in which we are to express our thanks to Her Most Gracious Majesty. The Government have got themselves and have got us into a great difficulty. We shall do our best to get the Government out of it. We cannot, indeed, wholly extricate them from the humiliations which have been poured upon their undeserving heads by their own supporters; but what we can we certainly will do, and the Government may count upon us, the Conservative Party, on this as on all other occasions, to support the ancient constitution and practice of this House.

MR.LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

I have listened to observations not precisely complimentary of the two Front Benches on the excellent Amendment which I moved last night and which I carried. All I can say in regard to it is —"It is a poor thing, but mine own." As has been said, the Amendment is divided into two parts. The first declares that the power now exercised by the House of Lords to prevent the passing of Bills should cease. I do not gather that the Government are opposed to that in substance. It has been urged that I was claiming for Her Majesty powers that do not exist under the Constitution. I was doing nothing of the kind. I was simply using words which are ordinarily used in the Queen's Speech and in the Address in reply thereto. We know perfectly well that the whole thing is a sham. It is only a little complimentary correspondence which is carried on by Ministers with themselves. I was obliged to use the technical terms. If any gentleman will look at the Queen's Speech he will see that such and such a Bill will be submitted. That does not mean actually that it will be submitted by Her Majesty: it is her Ministers who intend to submit it. In the same way, when in my Amendment I pray Her Majesty that the powers at present exercised by the House of Lords shall cease, of course I mean that the Constitutional means shall be adopted—that is to say, that Her Majesty's Ministers, who are the real persons addressed, shall bring in a Bill to put an end to those powers. The second paragraph has also been criticised. I am told that I suggest a perfectly monstrous and un-Constitutional thing when I ask that when a Bill is rejected by the Lords they shall not remain absolute masters of the situation. All I ask is that the same course shall be pursued as was adopted in 1831—that is to say, that Her Majesty, by the advice of her responsible Ministers, shall create such a number of Peers as will swamp the resistance of the Lords. That is perfectly Constitutional. It has been acted upon before. The threat will be enough. The advantage of being a Peer is this—that there are so few of them. If we were all Dukes, who would care to be a Duke? It is certain that if you were to threaten the House of Lords that if they resisted Bills sent up by this House 500 Dukes would be created they would give way at once. I am not going to believe that the Radical Party in this country is composed of such contemptible men as not to contain within its ranks 500 who could be trusted, if sent to the Lords for a specific purpose, not to vote on the other side a few days afterwards. I am surprised that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has such a poor opinion of the great Democratic Party. At any rate, I will undertake to find 500 men to-morrow ready to go up to the House of Lords and to vote down the majority there. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking in the name of the Government, says that this matter is to be approached without levity. I always hear that complaint made when any sort of Resolution is brought in which it does not please Her Majesty's Ministers to accept at once. When my right hon. Friend has treated a thing with levity they have complained of it; when he has treated it ponderously they have complained of his ponderosity. For my part, I do not at present know what the Government intend to do upon this subject. I want to know two things—how and when the Government intend to deal with this matter? They tell me they are going to revolve it in their own minds without levity; that they are going to arrive some day at some sort of decision. My contention has been throughout that the supporters of the Government outside this House have already arrived at their decision, and that decision is in accordance with the Amendment, which I submitted. I defy the Chancellor of the Exchequer to go to any Liberal or Radical meeting in any part of the country where such a Motion as mine would not be received with unanimous applause. The Party have made their decision: we are their Representatives, and the Government are our representatives. I do not recognise the Government as my masters for an instant. I have always regarded them as the servants of the majority in this House. I am not going into technicalities; but I will say that whether you take the majority of Members on this side of the House or the vast, majority of Liberals outside, they are with me in this matter. They demand prompt, speedy, and drastic action. They do not care outside whether——


The hon. Member is not in Order in referring to this is matter.


I will not pursue these remarks. With regard to the kindly support with which the Leader of the Opposition intends to furnish the Government, let me point out that yesterday he gave them 90 men, and still the Government were in a minority. The Government had the support of 30 independent Gladstonians, and 149 gentlemen voted against them and for my Resolution. The Resolution was not intended as a Vote of Want of Confidence; it was simply intended to urge them to greater activity in this matter, and to point out to them what the feeling of the House is. I think we have done that pretty clearly. The Government may withdraw the Address or not, as they please. I do not bother myself about Addresses; but, I hope they will take to heart what has been told them by the Division last night—that they will not wait for years, but will as speedily as possible bring in a clear specific Bill placing the power where it ought to be, in the hands of the Representatives of the people.

MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

Before the question raised by the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer has passed away I should like to make one or two very brief observations.

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

I rise to Order. I wish to know what is the Question before the House, and if it will be the right of every Member, whether honourable or right honourable, to interfere in this discussion?


There is no Question before the House, but it is usual to allow the Leaders of responsible Parties to make observations on occasious such as the present.


Is not the right hon. Member for East, Manchester the Leader of the Unionist Party?

[No answer was returned.]


I can assure the House that I will make a very brief demand upon its patience and its courtesy. I am glad to see that undoubtedly the difficulty in which the House and the Government have been placed will now be, temporarily at any rate, avoided by adopting the course which has been suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both sections of the Unionist Party will assist the Government to retrieve their defeat of yesterday. But I want to ask, what is to follow? What is the position which is made for this House by what has taken place? The hon. Member for Northampton stated that the Amendment was not a Vote of Want of Confidence. I do not think it is a Constitutional doctrine to say, for a Member to pretend that it is in his power to say, whether a proposition which he has made and which the Government has rejected is or is not a Vote of Want of Confidence. That depends entirely on the treatment which is accorded to the proposition by the Government itself, and in the present instance the Chancellor of the Exchequer has distinctly shown that, in the mind of the Government the Amendment which was carried against the Government was a Vote of Want of Confidence, and unless it is now formally rescinded by the House then the natural consequences will follow. Well, but what is the position? This Amendment, treated by the Government as a Vote of Want of Confidence, was carried by a proportion of those who call themselves supporters of the Government in the proportion of five to one of the independent supporters, while 147 of the ordinary supporters of the Government voted against them.


The right hon. Gentleman is now going rather beyond the limits of Order.


I will accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will conclude in a sentence. I think, Sir, that under the circumstances which I have described, and which are within the knowledge of the House, it is quite time that the Government sought a new mandate.