HC Deb 01 May 1899 vol 70 cc1062-70

The Report of Supply of Friday last—the Education Estimates—was brought up, and, on the Question that the House agree with the Resolution then arrived at in Committee,


rose and said: Just before the Committee of Supply closed on Friday night, the right honourable Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was pleased to make some personal observations about myself. I had, in my statement, laid before the House matters of very grave importance connected with the education of the country, and matters of far greater importance than any question of any person's personal position or interests. The Debate throughout the evening had been maintained at a very high level, and I was extremely sorry that at the very end it should have been dragged down by so small and unimportant a matter as that brought forward by the right honourable Gentleman. The House of Commons has a right to call upon any Minister of the Crown to explain his position at any time, and when the Leader of the Opposition has seen fit to challenge me to explain my position with the Government, I think it is only due to him and to the House of Commons that I should as shortly as possible do so. I am sure the House of Commons will give me that fair treatment and courtesy which it always shows to Ministers. Since the present Government has been in office the Duke of Devonshire has been the head of the Education Department. I have never been the head of that Department; I have only been a subordinate member of it. I know I have said so repeatedly in the House of Commons, but they have been reluctant to believe me—I believe chiefly because my predecessor, Mr. Acland, was at the head of the Department and held a position very different to that which I hold. He had powers which I do not possess; he had responsibilities which are not properly thrown upon me. I heard said—in fact, it was publicly stated—that an attack was to be made on Friday night on my position in the Government, and I therefore read to the Committee, with the approval of the Lord President, whom I consulted on the subject, the Order in Council which defined the constitutional position of the Vice-President, and which explained the position which he actually holds in the present Government. I have never found any difficulty in acting as a subordinate official of the Duke of Devonshire and in carrying out the various directions, administrative and legislative, which I have received from him, because, if I may be allowed to say so, the views and opinions of the Lord President and myself upon the subject of education are entirely in sympathy with each other. In my remarks on Friday night I went on to say there never has been a difference of opinion between us. On some minor questions I should be very sorry to try to make the Lord President responsible for every expression I have used in Debate in this House; but upon all questions, upon all important questions, we are entirely in sympathy, and the general education policy which I have propounded and tried to enforce in this House is entirely in accord with my noble Friend's, opinions and views. Then it is said that the Department has been several times overruled by the Government No doubt it has. But Departments are overruled by all Governments, because a Department looks upon a question only from its own point of view. The Government has to look at it, in addition, as it relates to the general policy and the general proceedings of the country. We have frequently desired to make reforms in education for which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us he could not find any money. We have often desired to have Bills promoted in this House, when the Government have thought that other Measures were more important and pressing, and that ours must give way. But if, when a Department was overruled by the Government, the Parliamentary officials of that Department were all to resign, it would be quite impossible to carry on the government of the country. There is no doubt that cases may arise—I believe extremely rarely—but cases may arise in which the head of a Department might find it to be his duty to resign. But surely that is a function that should be discharged in the first instance by the head of the Department, and not by a subordinate official. The present Lord President of the Council is a man of very much longer and very much more extensive political experience than I, and is a man who, I believe, on both sides of the House is regarded as the very embodiment of political honour, and so long as he is able to continue to hold his office and to continue to act with the Government as the head of the Educational Department it would be in my opinion a piece of rashness and presumption on the part of the second officer of the Department to presume to resign his office and thus inflict an un- founded censure upon his chief for not having taken the same course. Now, I think the intention to attack the office which I hold was a little interfered with by my reading out the Order in Council on Friday night; therefore, the right honourable Gentleman was good enough to supplement his attack by an insinuation that I conveyed to the House matters in such a form as to ridicule the Department to which I belonged and the Lord President who is my chief. He said— When he speaks of the Department and the President of the Council there is a hardly disguised ridicule conveyed to the House. Now, I have always tried to enliven the dull speeches which I am often obliged to make to the House by harmless pleasantry, which I thought sometimes amused the House. But I deny with the utmost indignation that I have ever east ridicule either upon the Department to which I belong or upon its chief, the President of the Council. This is not the first time that an insinuation of this kind has been made against me, and, oddly enough, by the same right honourable Gentleman, because, as he had the temerity to remind the House on Friday night, he made a similar charge against me in reference to Lord Cross when I held the office of Under Secretary of State for India. These sort of insinuations are obviously intended to sow dissension between Members of the Government. On that occasion the right honourable Gentleman entirely failed, because I remained for a long time after that Under Secretary of State for India, and during the whole of the time I held that office I retained the full confidence of my noble Friend Lord Cross, and he refuted in the strongest terms that he had any idea that there was any truth whatever in the insinuation which the right honourable Gentleman made. I believe I have now exactly in the same way the confidence of the Duke of Devonshire. Why should I seek to cast ridicule on the Department with whose policy in education I entirely agree, and why should I try to cast ridicule on the chief for whose political career and political honour I have the profound respect which I entertain for the Duke of Devonshire? To misinterpret anything which I may have said in the House of Commons as a desire to cast ridicule upon my chief is an accusation which I do not think the right honourable Gentleman should have made, and as it was made in the House of Commons, I in the House of Commons beg most emphatically to repudiate it. I wish the House of Commons to understand that I discharge the duties which are made in the Order in Council, the duties which I understand to be the duties of my office: that I am not responsible for the policy, I am not responsible for what is done in this House, except in the sense in which a person that has received directions is bound to carry those directions out and to defend that policy in the House when it is assailed. And as long as I retain, as I believe I do retain, the confidence of my chief, the Duke of Devonshire, and his colleagues, I do not care what the right honourable Gentleman or those who support him may say of me.


The right honourable Gentleman, Mr. Speaker, has thought fit, and I am not surprised, to recur to the subject which we treated of on Friday night. The right honourable Gentleman speaks of a personal attack which I made upon him, and he appears to think that that attack came in opportunely or improperly at the end of a Debate upon educational topics, which was of an unusually elevated tone. I quite agree with him in that, and I said so the other night. But it was the right honourable Gentleman himself who opened the subject of his own personal position in his speech in introducing the Vote to the House. He anticipated that he was to be attacked, and he proceeded to give us that defence of himself which he thought would be most effective by reading the exact terms of the Order in Council which defines his duties in his Department. Therefore, it would have been a strange thing indeed if I had not taken any notice at all of that part of the right honourable Gentleman's speech. But the right honourable Gentleman complains, or, at any rate, in extenuation of anything he may do, asserts, that he is not at the head of his Department; that he, therefore, is not in the same position as his immediate predecessor, Mr. Acland, and that he cannot be expected to have, as it were, a policy of his own on educational matters. But Mr. Acland was not the right honourable Gentleman's only predecessor. We can go back to the days when my friend, the late Mr. Mundella, occupied exactly the same position as the right honourable Gentleman for many years—not a member of the Cabinet, serving under the Lord President, and yet practically directing the educational policy of the country, and, at all events, never provoking those curious little episodes which have been periodic in the case of the right honourable Gentleman. The truth is that the right honourable Gentleman has a pretty turn for ironical wit, and he cannot help bringing that ironical wit into play even when he is speaking of so exalted a person as the head of his own Department. He assures us that when we find him taking a line in argument or in action in the House which we find difficult to reconcile with what appears to be the ordinary course which his duty would prescribe for him, he says that he is perfectly at one with the Lord President. The Lord President is a mythical person to us. We look to the right honourable Gentleman for the exposition of the policy of his Department, and it is because we find him constantly—I will speak plainly on the subject—constantly speaking of himself on these questions with his tongue in his cheek, it is on that ground that I think I am justified in saying that there is some ridicule—I think the word I used was contempt, but I may have used the word ridicule—thrown upon any doings of his Department. If the House wishes to have an example of the very thing I am speaking of, we need not go further back than the speech he has now delivered, because, when referring to the suggestion that if his action and his opinions differ so much from those which commend themselves to the Government, as they have on some occasions, he should resign his office, he immediately suggests that the President of the Council ought to resign—


I never said that.


And that so long as the President of the Council, who has such a high sense of honour, remains in his office, the right honourable Gentleman himself is perfectly entitled to remain where he is. All I have to say is, and I say it openly, my quarrel is not with the right honourable Gentleman. I did justice, think, the other night, in speaking of him, to his great and known ability, and even to that very humorous turn which we all so much admire in him, but my quarrel is much more with Her Majesty's Government for allowing this great question of national education to be made, as it were, the sport of the light fancy of the right honourable Gentleman. It has been apparent to us for a long time. Actually, we have had a Bill on an educational question introduced and passed through the House upon which the right honourable Gentleman was not allowed—or, at all events, as a matter of fact upon which he did not take any part from first to last—


Oh, I beg your pardon, if the right honourable Gentleman is referring to the Education Bill of 1897 I spoke several times, both on the Bill and in Committee.


There may have been just enough of interference to prevent the absolute accuracy of the allegation of total abstinence, but, at all events, the right honourable Gentleman ostentatiously remained at the far end of the Bench during the greater part of the discussion and he has been in the habit of conducting the business which falls to him as a representative of the Department with that spirit and in that way which certainly does not conduce to satisfactory progress. I know I am speaking the opinion, not of myself or of my immediate friends, but of the great majority of the House, when I say that we have never seen the affairs of a Department conducted in the manner in which the right honourable Gentleman seems to think it becoming to conduct the great questions with which he deals. It is on that ground that I made the observations which I made the other night, to which I adhere, and which I think have met with the approval of most of those who watch the proceedings in educational matters of this country. As I said before, my complaint is rather against the Government than against the right honourable Gentleman. Let the Government avail themselves of the benefit of being able to command the services of the right honourable Gentleman by putting him into some other place where he will not have a Lord President, or even a Committee of the Privy Council, and where he will have the liberty of independent action, then I have no doubt they will derive great use from his assistance. But in the present position in which he stands, so long as his duties are conducted in the manner to which we have become accustomed, I am afraid that all the friends of education will see much to complain of in the arrangement.


The right honourable Gentleman has made what he describes as an attack on Her Majesty's Government. He has carefully abstained from pretending that his attack was directed against the Vice-President, but he has said that it is directed rather against Her Majesty's Government than against any particular Minister. We owe a great deal to the Leaders of the Opposition in this House, and, among other Leaders, to the right honourable Gentleman. They perform useful and important functions, but it has never been pretended that it falls within their province to determine either who are to form part of Her Majesty's Government or what particular offices the Gentlemen who are to form part of it are to fill. It appears that the right honourable Gentleman has carefully watched the career of the Vice-President. He has studied his speeches and his performances. He admires his wit, and has a great opinion of his humour; but, says the right honourable Gentleman, the Vice-President of the Council would be rather more suited to some other office than the office of Education. The right honourable Gentleman really must allow Her Majesty's Government to settle their own little internal affairs for themselves. The time will no doubt come when the right honourable Gentleman will give important advice on the constitution of a Government which no doubt will have the great weight which ought to attach to the advice he may give; but the Government to be formed on his advice will not be formed by Gentlemen on this side of the House, and as far as they are concerned he must permit us—I say it with all respect—to form our own Administration in our own fashion.


complained that the right honourable Gentleman had not dealt with the constitutional point which had been made by his right honourable Friend, with whose views he desired to associate himself. He was astonished that the Leader of the House did not rise on Friday evening, when he had ample time to do so, to reply then to his right honourable Friend. It was not for the Vice-President of the Council to do so; it was for the Leader of the House. In order to show how these proceedings struck the outside public, he quoted from the leading article in "The Times" of that morning, in which it was said "the joke has gone too far." To that remark he quite agreed. He also endorsed the observation made by his right honourable Friend (Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman) that education was a sacred measure, and he had been disgusted at the levity of tone imported into the Debates by the right honourable Gentleman They were dealing with the interests of millions of people and children in this country, and it was the right of the House in this sacred matter to have someone on that Bench who spoke with the authority of the Government, and who would perform the functions that he was glad to acknowledge the other Members on the Treasury Bench, of whom he could speak with respect, had faithfully performed. He hoped the Leader of the House would take this matter into serious consideration, and before the House met again next February would give them someone in the place of the right honourable Gentleman.