HC Deb 04 May 1894 vol 24 cc410-7
SIR W. LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)

moved— That an bumble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that whenever She bestows any title or honour on any of Her subjects She will be graciously pleased to issue a statement of the services for which such honours are bestowed, in the same manner as is done when the Victoria Cross is granted. He said, he thought that this was a short, unassuming, unpretentious, and practical Amendment. It had nothing to do with hereditary titles. He was not going to argue about that to-night, because he thought they were too absurd to be argued about at any time. It had nothing to do with the House of Lords in its political capacity or functions. They would have plenty of opportunity of discussing that within the next few months or years. It had nothing to do with appointments involving the discharge of duties, or in reference to which certain services had to be performed. It had solely to do with marks of honour and distinction—such as peerages, knighthoods, baronetcies, stars, garters, and thistles. [Laughter.] The House laughed, but these decorations were much valued. It gave a man a pull to have some sort of handle to his name. Why it should be so he had no idea, except that he saw a good many things going on in this world which went to prove Carlyle's saying that there were 35,000,000 people in this country, mostly fools. They must have regard to the people amongst whom they lived. Take a baronetcy; he did not see any value in it; he had heard a baronet described as one who was not a nobleman and had ceased to be a gentleman. Notwithstanding this, they knew that titles and honours were sought after by the majority of mankind. In fact, all snobs wanted to be nobs; all asses sought thistles, and all Radicals wanted to be Peers. His Amendment, of course, was in the form of an Address to I lei-Majesty, and equally, of course, that was a matter of form. But, in his opinion, the Sovereign had nothing to do with the matter. The Sovereign was, as they all knew by the Constitution, the fountain of honour; but when the Sovereign distributed these honours the Sovereign acted for the Ministry of the day; the Ministry was responsible to that House, and the House was responsible to the country. Therefore, he said that these titles and honours belonged to the public. They talked now of Gladstone's Peers and Salisbury's Peers; and if they lived a little while longer, they would, no doubt, be speaking of Rosebery's Peers. Now, he wanted to make the Prime Minister more responsible to that House and to the country than he had hitherto been. The late Prime Minister said, in a memorable speech, that the time of that House was the property of the nation, and ho (Sir W. Lawson) said that these honours and titles were the property of the nation. If, therefore, they were not given for national purposes they were clearly misapplied. Mind, he was not censuring anything that had been done in the past-He was not saying that the titles and honours and ribands and stars and garters and thistles conferred during the century had not been given for the very best of reasons to the very best and most deserving of people. In that respect he made no charge against anybody. What he wanted was that in the future it should be made more clear why these titles and honours were bestowed. He had sometimes thought that a Court of Revision in these matters, something like the Irish Land Court, would be rather a good thing, and that when a man had enjoyed a title or honour for two or three years he would be taken into Court and examined in order to see whether he was still worthy of it, and whether the man had ennobled the title in the same way that the title had ennobled the man. He thought there was something to be said for a tribunal of that kind. He remembered that when Lord Dudley was made a Peer it was proposed to admit him to the Council, but one of the Councillors got up and said he thought it was better that they should wait two or three years to see how he went on. That would be a very good principle to introduce in this matter. They might wait two or three years to see how the holders of titles and honours went on, and if they wont on the honour or title could be confirmed. But they need not go so far as that. Let them have the means of knowing which public honours wore given. By his Amendment it was proposed that the information should be given in the same way as when the Victoria Cross was conferred. The Victoria Cross was given for some heroic deed, such as saving a wounded man on the battlefield or rescuing a person from death by fire or water, and the recipient of the Victoria Cross considered it an honour to have the deed recorded on account of which it was conferred. He was sure that all those who were ennobled or who were made baronets or knights, or invested with stars, garters, or thistles, would be very glad that it should be recorded why they had got these honours and decorations. In the case of the soldier it should be recorded how many people he had killed; when a great politician got an honour it ought to be made known how many constituencies he had corrupted; and if he was a brewer it ought to be recorded how many barrels of beer he had browed. Or when a man was removed to the Peerage because he was useless in the House of Commons it ought to be stated in his patent how self-sacrificing he was in consenting to be ennobled, inasmuch that being no good there he had gone to another place where he possibly could do some good. Such a record would be a very useful one, not only to the public, but to other people who wanted to get honours, as it would show them how to proceed. Above all things, an arrangement of this kind would make the whole proceeding open and above board, and remove them from the suspicion of favouritism and jobbery. Beyond all that, he thought it was a real onward step in a democratic direction that it should be made quite clear that public honours would be bestowed alone for public services rendered. Holding these views, he begged to move his Amendment.

* MR. LAMBERT (Devon, South Molton)

said, he felt at a great disadvantage, after his witty friend had been addressing the House, in rising to second the Amendment, but he had much pleasure in doing so; and he wished it to be understood that he meant no disparagement of what had been done in the past. No doubt what had taken place was suitable to the times, but the proceedings of that period did not come up to the requirements of the present. They wanted to know now why titles were conferred? The Victoria Cross was instituted in 1856, and was conferred on those who had done deeds of gallantry. The Victoria Cross was none the less valued because the deed of valour had been specified so that the country knew why it had been granted. On the contrary, he believed it was all the more valued. The Victoria Cross honour only lasted for life, whereas others were hereditary, and certainly, if it was thought desirable to record the service rendered in respect of an honour which only lasted for life, it was all the more desirable that where the honour was hereditary a full statement should be given as to why it had been granted. Many of them would like to know how it was that the transference of a man from that House to another House should so ennoble him and invigorate his blood that his sous were afterwards qualified to legislate for the country? It would be a great advantage to the successors of noblemen if they were able to specify, to use a Yankeeism, what their ancestors had done to gain the title and honour which should "reverberate through the corridors of eternity." He noticed that a Bill was introduced into the House the other day which would relieve Peers from being immured in "that living sepulchre" the House of Lords. He should think it would be a considerable gratification to them, and their grief might be assuaged if, instead of having to earn the Biblical formula of "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, go up higher," they might, as good sons of good and faithful fathers, go up higher by virtue of the published merits of their predecessors. This Amendment should be supported in the interests of the history of the country, for how many illustrious pages might be added to the country's history if there was a, record of the deeds of valour or other deeds which ennobled the recipients of honours and gave them a place in the hereditary Peerage. There was, so far as he could see, no objection whatever to this Amendment, especially as it was not compulsorily retrospective. The proposal would tend to inculcate respect for a title. There were irreverent people who had no respect for titles, and he was not surprised at it, for he himself had heard of one person who seceded to one Party in order to be made a Baronet, and then returned to his own to be made a Peer. If rewards were to be given for political apostasy, let them know it, so that people could see what were the qualifications necessary to unlock the golden gate of nobility. Where there was a good reason for conferring a title there was all the more reason why the particulars should be made known. Although this Motion was not retrospective, he believed that if it passed into law many of the members of "our old nobility" would take steps to register the record of their titles, and thereby justify, or endeavour to justify, the honours which they enjoyed. He saw no reason why the Government should not, but every reason why they should, accept the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that whenever She bestows any title or honour on any of Her subjects She will be graciously pleased to issue a statement of the services for which such honours are bestowed, in the same manner as is done when the Victoria Cross is granted."—(Sir W. Lawson,) —instead thereof.

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


Suppose it is expected that I should give my hon. Friend some information on this subject; but I am sorry to say I am not in a position to do so, as I have never been in a position to dispense honours. It seems to me there is a difficulty in the proposal of my hon. Friend. The truth is, that in old days this practice used to obtain. I have seen a great many of the old patents of nobility, very long documents, which contained all the styles and titles and all the merits and virtues of their recipients. They corresponded very much to epitaphs. They detailed a great many virtues which nobody ever suspected their owners possessed. It is said De mortuis nil nisi, bonum. I will say De honoratis nil nisi optimum. It would be an invidious task, I am quite sure, to attribute to the recipients of honours a great number of merits which nobody ever believed them to possess. If, for instance, I had to ascribe the hereditary honours which my hon. Friend (Sir W. Lawson) possesses, I should attribute to him every virtue under the sun, except that which I observe he attributed to the Victoria Cross, that of having saved some people from water. If, on the other hand, my hon. Friend had to give me a character for the more trausient honour which I hold, I am quite sure he would extol me far beyond my merits. On occasions when these honour are bestowed, you see in the daily organs of the Press extraordinary enlogiums upon the recipients of these honours. I hope my hon. Friend will admit that, whatever crimes may be attributed to the two Front Benches, they have not been guilty of indulging themselves in decorations. When we have, Mr. Speaker, the honour of dining at your hospitable board, we very seldom display a decoration. But there are people who attach enormous value to these distinctions. I do not know why it is. Lord Melbourne observed that there was only one Order in the world worth having, and that was the Garter, because there was no merit attached to it at all, and it was that which made it the first Order in Europe. I do not think to go into these matters in this extremely solemn, serious, and improving manner is the best method of dealing with them. I have always thought that in works of romance the romances which have a moral object are among the dullest and the poorest and the worst; and if you have decorations, and in the same way endeavour to attach a moral value to them, you destroy their interest very much. There is a good deal of amusing speculation in these decorations—first, as to why in the world the person desired to have them, and in the next place why he obtained them. It would spoil very much indeed this interesting speculation if we descended to details. I am reminded of the flies in amber— We know they're neither rich nor rare; We wonder how, in the name of fortune, they got there. I think there are in this world a great many people who get a great deal more than they deserve. On the other hand, there are a great many people who, perhaps, get a great deal less than they deserve. That reminds me of the story of Lord Erskine at the Bar. Somebody said it must be a great disappointment to him when he failed to obtain a verdict. His reply was— Well, I lose a good many verdicts I ought to have won, but, on the other hand, I win a great many verdicts I ought to have lost, and so, on an average, justice is done. That is very much the same in this respect. A great many people get distinctions they do not deserve, and a great many people deserve distinctions and do not get them; but, on an average, justice is done. Under those circumstances, I hope my hon. Friend will not disturb a state of things which, on the whole, may not be ideally perfect, but which accommodates itself very much to the weakness of human nature. "After all," as a great writer observed, "there is a good deal of human nature about man," and that being so I do not think that we had better endeavour to reach these counsels of perfection, and under those circumstances I am afraid I cannot support the Amendment of my hon. Friend.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 52; Noes 34.—(Division List, No. 40.)

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."