HC Deb 22 January 1902 vol 101 cc628-44
*(4.8.) MR. PIRIE (Aberdeen,N.)

In rising to move the Amendment standing on the Paper in my name, no one is more aware than I am of the disadvantage under which the mover of such an Amendment is placed. The debate ought to be essentially non-partisan, but the nature of the occasion precludes it for being regarded in that character. For many years several hon. friends on this side of the House, belonging to various nationalities, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish, have constantly endeavoured to find an opportunity of obtaining a small portion of the time of the House to bring before it this important question of devolution of the work of Parliament, and one of the arguments pointing to the unsatisfactory condition of the affairs in the House is that no time can be found for the discussion of such an important subject except on an occasion like this. To my mind, it is a question not of diminishing, but of increasing importance, and it is no new one. It is natural for each Member to consider his own subject as being the most important that can be brought forward. But Members in every part of the House must realise that there is more reality in the question I bring before it, than in almost any other, for without some such devolution as my amendment contends for, the efficiency of Parliament must break down, and the large majority of the questions debated in this House become therefore purely academic, without, any chance of becoming law, or of affecting public opinion in any way I think it will be generally admitted that if party Interests could be eliminated entirely, and if I can make good the three following conditions, I shall have made out my case. I shall endeavour to prove (1st), that the existing state of affairs imperatively demands a remedy; (2nd), that the remedy proposed will be efficacious; and (3rd), that the informed public opinion of those most interested in the question is in favour of a change or inclines in the direction.

Well, Sir, the existing state of affairs imperatively demands a remedy for the reason that ever since 1867 this House has been overburdened with work. The public at present are very largely deceived as to the amount of work the House can do. Every Member receives countless letters and circulars from individuals, societies, and combinations who wish to bring their particular objects before the House, and every Member sees that it is a waste of time to trouble them with 99 out of 100 of those complaints and subjects for possible legislation. Really important legislation is blocked, and the loss of Parliamentary time is appalling, and greatly increasing every session. The divisions in the House take place to a large extent on subjects strange and foreign to a great number of the Members who take part in these divisions. A division on a question relating to Scotland is not familiar to English, Irish or Welsh Members; and so also with divisions on questions relating to England, Ireland, and Wales, which are often unfamiliar to Members belonging to the countries not directly affected. Last session there were 480 divisions. That means, taking the Parliamentary day at nine hours, a loss of three weeks of Parliamentary time spent in walking round the lobbies, and spent on matters on which the majority of hon. Members boast their ignorance. The congestion of public business is well illustrated by the fact that seventeen millions of the money were voted last session in one evening. Regarded as a matter of business that was an absolute farce. The nation has Imperial responsibilities, which the House and the public outside either neglect or is ignorant of. Take the case of our great dependency, India, for the welfare of which this House is responsible. During the last decade of the last century nineteen millions of its inhabitants died of famine, and I would ask hon. Members to contrast those appalling figures with the fact that the total loss of life throughout the world by war during 107 years only amounted to five millions of people. I will not dwell on this point beyond saying that the nation is not free from the gravest responsibility when questions affecting India, which are of vital importance to our good name and to the existence of our Empire, are disposed of in this House year after year in one short afternoon. If further proofs were wanted for my argument it is the fact that the House is about to be invited to consider the reform of its procedure. But reform in procedure will only touch the fringe of the question, as there is an overwhelming amount of work to be transacted. Another proof that public opinion is being moved on this question is the cry we have just heard for "efficiency." It comes from some of the clearest minds which the country possesses, and I think the country should be grateful to Lord Rosebery for having drawn attention to that crying need and necessity at the present time. It is because I believe that no greater step can be taken towards procuring efficiency than by adopting this Amendment that I mention the matter. Having alluded to Lord Rosebery, I will just read to the House the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, which is contained in his election address of 1895. He said— The excessive burden of work new imposed on Parliament can only be relieved by a large system of devolution. It is for this reason as well as from a sense of right and justice to the nations concerned that I regard as an urgent necessity the creation in the three kingdoms of subordinate assemblies. I would ask hon. Members to look around the world, when this question of efficiency is brought forward, and to see who are our greatest rivals. Are they not, by a general concensus of opinion, the United States and Germany, both being nations which have adopted this very system of State rights and devolution which I am now advocating. I trust these remarks will prove my first proposition, namely, that the existing state of affairs imperatively demands a remedy.

I maintain also that the remedy I propose will be efficacious; but at the outset I desire to state that I do not aim at or claim perfection for it. No measure carried into law can be absolutely perfect, but I do claim that the dangers and difficulties of this remedy do not approach in gravity those which it would remove. To those who are not blinded by the dilettante sort of optimism in which it seems to be the fashion of looking at serious questions nowadays surely the present situation in South Africa must be regarded as very serious indeed. It has already been pointed out in this House, and I entirely concur, that had the people of this country possessed more Imperial knowledge, and by Imperial knowledge I mean, a realisation of their responsibilities, a knowledge of what was going on in the Colonies and a knowledge of Colonial feeling, in fact had we more cultivated attention to Imperial matters in this House, and so rendered it possible for the public mind to educate itself on them, the present state of affairs in South Africa would never have occurred. It is surely obvious that this question which is commonly called Home Rule All Round is the first indispensable step towards obtaining what ought to be the ambition of every politician, namely the Imperial federation of the Empire. I also claim that such a remedy as I propose would remove what I may call the one great and ineffaceable not on the whole of the Government of this country during the last century, I mean the disaffection in our sister island, Ireland. I believe if this were granted that one of the chief causes of this disaffection would be at once removed, and that it would also remove that sympathy with disaffection in Ireland that exists to such an enormous extent in the United States, because if the state-right system which exists in the United States were grunted to Ireland, the United States would not any longer have cause to sympathise with the present state of affairs in that country. It is said that if this were carried out that it would create separation. To my mind the very reverse is the case. It would remove the cause of separation as you would have a truly united and contented country to deal with.

Now, my last proposition is that informed public opinion favours the change, or at least inclines in that direction. Who are most interested? I may be told the predominant partner, the English, But the predominant partner already possesses the remedy. It has Home Rule. English Members are able to legislate and obtain their own views of things at the present moment, and therefore no further remedy is required for them. But what about the other component parts of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The treatment of Ireland during the last century has been absolutely opposed to every law which, as far as I can humbly conceive, Providence intended should govern the treatment of one civilised race by another If hon. Members had seen the scenes which I saw in Ireland while on eviction duty, they might be the same determined advocates of Home Rule as I am, and to further which I entered this House. As regards my own country, Scotland, we carried a resolution in this House in 1895 declaring that we demanded Home Rule for Scotland. That resolution, like every other demand from the Scottish Members, was contemptuously treated and flouted by this House. Then there is the question of temperance legislation for Scotland. For years the Scottish Members had been demanding the right to relieve their country from the greatest curse any country can have, and yet, year after year, although motions had been passed by triumphant majorities of those most deeply affected by the matter, that demand has been refused, because English Members did not want Scotland to set an example intemperance legislation. Surely then there is room for reform. Why should we, who have our own special Church and our own special ideas of education, be obliged to submit these questions to the House of Commons, which is largely composed of men who are ignorant of Scottish feeling and wishes? However, I am not now complaining of that, I am merely describing a state of affairs which exists at the present moment. As regards Wales the principle of differentiation has already been admitted this session.

I claim, Sir, to have proved my three propositions. I am only debating the matter as a principle on an occasion like the present, and I will not therefore enter into detail. The present is not the time for that. If the House with its multiplicity of work could afford time on a Tuesday afternoon, then many hon. Members would be prepared to enter into detail. All I would say is that we do not claim to have one model for all four countries in the United Kingdom. This is not a revolutionary change. It is merely a change brought about by the demands of the progress of civilisation and the evolution of society, as well as by the great problems which confront the present generation. As civilisation progresses, and society grows more and more complex a more minute system of government is naturally demanded. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose said in June last that one thing was becoming clearer every day, and that was that a whole group of new problems was arising which would require the greatest consideration on the part of statesmen. I would only remind the Government that this matter has been brought before the House on many previous occasions and would request them not to deal with it now, as it has been dealt with before. One way was to ridicule the proposition advanced, and I only regret that a Scottish Member on the other side of the House attempted on one occasion to throw ridicule on it by calling attention to what a dull assembly a Scottish assembly in Edinburgh would be. Dull it might be, but it cannot be denied that it would carry out the business it was elected to carry out. The other way in which this question has been repeatedly dealt with has been for the representative of the Government to evolve an exaggerated case out of his own imagination of five Parliaments for the United Kingdom all at war one with the other, and then condemn it. A more fantastic assumption cannot be imagined, under which all nationalities would be treated equally with due regard to their own interests, under the supreme control of the Imperial Parliament, the formation of which as a reality must be the necessary precursor of Imperial Federation. There have been many solemn warnings and many signs of coming difficulties and surely our nation should not be too proud to put its House figuratively speaking in order before the crisis comes. We ought not to be too proud to imitate the examples of other nations which show the most vitality, and the example of our Colonies which have adopted this system. Surely we might take a lesson from our rivals and from our Colonies of which we are so proud, and which ought to be to us bright examples of the vitality of progress by which alone nations can maintain their place. If not we flinch from our duty as citizens, we shirk our responsibilities as Members of a great Empire. Sir, I beg move.

(4.30) MR. GEORGE WHITELEY (Yorkshire, W.R., Pudsey)

said he rose to second the Amendment, but the whole subject had been so exhaustively treated by his hon. friend the Member for North Aberdeen, that he had left him little to say upon the matter. He would only say that the letter which he wrote and which appeared in the Daily News, under the name of "A Liberal, "expressed his views upon the question. The object both his hon. friend and himself had in initiating this debate was to obtain from the leaders of the Front Opposition Bench, and likewise from those hon. Gentlemen representing Irish constituencies, some inkling of their ideas upon this great an important subject. He had often heard it said in the Liberal circles in which he moved that the old extreme Home Rule, the form of which was embodied in the Bills of 1889 and 1893, was dead, and was not to be revived, but in its place there would be substituted some modified form of Home Rule possibly on the lines of Home Rule All Round. Was that so? Because if it were it was of supreme importance that it should be made clear to the country. He was strongly of opinion that the large numbers of Liberals who had at the present time strayed from the Liberal party would be anxious to join it again if this question were settled. Many would be willing to support a modified form of Home Rule if it were one which did not contain any germ of disintegregation of the country. He as entirely free from any pledge with regard to Home Rule, and for the last three years he had refused to pledge himself, for the reason that during that time he could not describe himself as an ardent Home Ruler, but since then he had been irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that something would have to be done in this matter. There was something really terrifying to timid minds in the name of Home Rule, but he believed the cause of Home Rule would be advanced if it could be called by some other name. At the present juncture we took great pride and hugged to ourselves the idea that we were the great colonising, administrating and governing nation of the world, and we were rather prone to deride the efforts of our continental rivals in their colonisation schemes. Yet we had a problem at our back door, as it were, which had confounded the wits of all our skilful politicians, and the minds of all Members of the House. He ventured to suggest that by local self-government somewhat on the lines of the American State Senates this problem could be solved. Home Rule existed in almost every nation of the world. If they went to Berlin they would find in some part of the city the palatial home of the German Reichstag, whilst in another part they would find the more humble edifice of the Prussian Senate.

He did not suggest that they should copy Germany in this matter, but rather they should copy America. America was at the present time the richest, most populous, and most powerful nation in the world, and one could not but look forward to the time when that nation would overshadow the whole of the commercial world. He ventured to suggest that if such a system were offered to Ireland, it would not be possible for the Irish people to reject it or to refuse to accept it, for it was well known that the Irish demand for Home Rule was largely dependent upon the sympathy and pecuniary support it derived from America, and if Ireland was offered a scheme of Local Government exactly similar to that of America, her grievances would disappear altogether, for Americans would be very loth to part with their dollars in order to obtain for a foreign nation better terms than those they themselves enjoyed. It was chiefly on those grounds that he advocated a scheme of devolution of this kind. Hon. Members on the Government side of the House were not generally supposed to have any undue political love for the Irish representatives in the House, and his suggestion gave the man opportunity of placing the Irish Members in a difficulty, because if his suggestion was accepted the whole question would be solved, whereas if the Irish rejected it Home Rule would be at an end. One thing was certain—there was a keen general desire to see the Liberal Party back in office. The country could not but recognise that there were a great number of important domestic questions at the present time which could only be properly dealt with by a Liberal Government. While the present Government remained in office they would misgovern the country in the future as they had done in the past, indulging in wars and frittering away the resources of the country. We should find all progressive legislation stopped so long as Home Rule in its present bare and bold form was one of the chief planks of the Liberal programme. He did not think, despite its sixteen years of life, it could be allowed longer to hold that place, but, on the contrary, safety would be found in a modified form of Home Rule, and he appealed to the House to consider this question. Hon. Members could not but recognise that there was a difficulty which would have to be surmounted; a difficulty which, by either a Liberal or a Tory Government, would have to be dealt with and settled. His own opinion was, that the revision of the Constitution in a matter like this was a matter not for one party or another, but for the whole House. He did not expect that hon. Members and right hon. Members on the Unionist side of the House would vote for the Amendment, but he asked them to consider the question along with those who sat with him, and see whether a solution of this question could not be found upon these or similar lines.

Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add the words— But we humbly represent to Your Majesty that the time has come when self-government in local affairs should be granted to the various countries of the United Kingdom, for which purpose legislative bodies should be created to which the imperial Legislature might delegate the requisite powers. (Mr. Pirie.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there added."


The hon. Member who seconded this Amendment candidly avowed the object he had in view, viz., that the Liberal party must be returned to power, and the Tory Government, which he himself at one time assisted, got rid of. It is difficult to prophesy, but I venture to say that if the Liberal Party came into power, and proposed anything in the nature of the suggestion contained in the Amendment, they would very soon again be out of office, because I am satisfied that such a proposal would not meet with the sympathy of the people of the country. The hon. Member, who moved the Amendment, very truly said that the proposal had been many times before the House, and I think that nothing could be more remarkable than the contrast between the stupendous change involved in the carrying into effect of such a resolution as this, and the small amount of interest taken in the matter by the House. The reason so little interest is taken in the matter by the House, is that it is regarded as quite unreal, and not actually believed in by those who advocate it. Certainly, when one remembers the times it has been before the House, the small amount of interest it excites is quite remarkable

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

It has been carried twice.


I remember it being carried once, and I daresay the hon. Member is right in saying it has been carried twice. But even then, on the occasion that I remember, it was carried only by a small majority in a House of something like 200, and more than once it has not been possible to keep even forty members together in order to discuss the subject. With the exception, of course, of the hon. Gentlemen from Ireland (who do not regard this proposal as satisfactory) there is no desire what ever in the United Kingdom for anything in the nature of Home Rule. The hon. Member who seconded the Amendment implied that the institution of such a scheme as this would put an end to the Irish demand. If by that he meant their expressed determination to have Home Rule, and such Home Rule as they have before now shadowed out, I think he is vastly mistaken. I do not believe that any mere delegation of local affairs is at all likely to satisfy the demands of the Irish Members. Indeed, I believe that on a previous occasion when this matter was under discussion, and actually carried by a small majority, one or more of the Irish representatives dissented from the proposal.

I have said that, with the exception of Ireland, the demand for Home Rule has not been put forward with anything like strength from any part of the Kingdom. Take Scotland. Can it be contended that there is any such demand? ["Yes."] Where are the signs of it? We are told that at one time there was a majority of Scotch Members who supported the proposal. I do not believe a majority of Scotch Members could be got to support such a proposal now. Then, as regards England, certainly it could not be contended for one moment that there is any desire of the kind. On the contrary, a great majority would be found who opposed such a proposal. So far as Wales is concerned, we have already had a discussion on the subject, and I should not attempt to renew it: but on that occasion the House negatived an Amendment suggesting a modified form of Home Rule for Wales Therefore, as Ireland certainly would have nothing to do with such a scheme of modified Home Rule, as meeting their demand, as there is no evidence to show that Scotland desires it, as England, without doubt, is opposed to it, and Wales has been refused it, I really cannot see what argument can be brought forward to induce the House to assent to the Amendment under discussion.

It must be remembered that things have greatly changed of late years with regard to the administration of local affairs. When the question came up the other day with regard to Wales, my light hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board made use of language in which I heartily concur, as to what might possibly happen in the future in connection with County Councils. I confess that when I drew the Bill of 1888 I looked forward to the time when a great deal more should be done in the direction of devolution than was then proposed. We did indeed propose more than was assented to by the House, because we desired to delegate to County Councils a great number of the powers at that time possessed by Government Departments. The House, however, did not see fit to assent to that proposal, and perhaps, I admit, with some reason, because at that time it was impossible to say how those Councils would be constituted, or how they would do their work, and it would have been rash, until the experiment was shown to be a success, to transfer to them the various powers proposed. But since then we have had much experience of County Councils, and am not using exaggerated language when I say they have admirably discharged the duties cast upon them, and they have inspired in the minds of everyone such an amount of confidence as will justify the delegation to them of further powers at some future time. Then, too. County Councils have been set up in Scotland and in Ireland, and, in addition, Private Bill Legislation has been remitted to be dealt with in Scotland. What has taken place with regard to Private Bill Procedure in Scotland may, I think we may hope, very well take place with regard to other parts of the kingdom before very long. The work is being effectively and well done, and I see no reason at all why similar powers in that direction should not be given to other parts of the country.

Therefore, I contend that, so far as local affairs are concerned, there is already a large measure of delegation, and there is no reason why further advance in the same direction should not be made before very long. But the proposal before the House goes very much further than any question of the delegation of merely local affairs. It would mean the total disruption of the existing order of things, of the system on which this Empire is governed. It proposes separation where we ought to have unity. Whatever may be said about foreign procedure, there can be no doubt at all that the tendency all over the world is towards, not separation, but unity. We have had a striking example of that of late years in Australia, where that tendency has resulted in the establishment of the Commonwealth, and to embark on any such enterprise as that suggested by this Amendment would, in my opinion, be going entirely contrary to the spirit of the age and the desire of the English people.

The proposer of the resolution said he did not enter into details. That is very true, and I think he showed his wisdom, But that is one of the disadvantages of these abstract resolutions. The abstract resolution has, I admit, something rather attractive about it, and many people would be inclined to vote for it, or not to vote against it as an abstract resolution, who would shrink back in horror from its proposals when put into the shape of a Bill. If the hon. Gentleman opposite is so sure that it would do something likely to be acceptable and not damaging to the Empire, or to the unity of the Empire, let him try his hand at a Bill, so that we may see what it is he proposes to do


I have already introduced a Bill for Home Rule for Scotland.


I have not seen that Bill, but this proposal is much larger than one of Home Rule for Scotland. What does it mean? Are we to have four or five Parliaments? Are we to have four or five Executives? What are to be the exact relations between the local Parliaments and the Imperial Parliament? It is all very well for the hon. Members to say that they desire the local Parliament to discuss only local affairs, and that all matters of Imperial interest should be confined to the Imperial Parliament. Does the hon. Member suppose for one moment that if there were these local Parliaments you could by any device or Act of Parliament confine their discussions to matters of purely local interest? Of course you could not. Can it be conceived, for instance, that the local Parliament of Ireland or of Scotland, or anywhere else would not feel itself perfectly justified in discussing such questions as the war in South Africa, as India and the way she is governed, or the finances of the country generally? Nothing could, by any possibility, prevent such discussions. Does the hon. Member think that discussions on Imperial matters carried on in that way, with different ideas and different policies in the various Parliaments, would strengthen the Empire in its Imperial work? What the hon. Member proposes would not strengthen, but weaken, the Empire. I can only repeat what my predecessors have said again and again, that in our opinion the proposal shadowed forth by this resolution to put the British Constitution into the melting pot without knowing exactly what will come out, is a proposal which the Government will strenuously resist; and I can assure the hon. Member and those who agree with him that we shall not be enticed by the holding out to us ef the prospect of a serener time here into departing from the principle which we are bound to maintain, viz., the unity of the Empire. Nothing will induce us to accept Home Rule in any shape or form, by whatever name the hon. Gentleman may choose to call it.

(5.0). MR. DALZIEL

The right hon. Gentleman opposite has brought forward many arguments upon this subject, but I think the last he has used is the weakest of all. Is it not a fact that every Town Council in the country has the right to discuss, and even to send petitions dealing with great Imperial matters. In our colonies you have representative Parliaments which are allowed to pass resolutions, and express their opinion regarding Imperial policy, and with regard to the South African war, and yet they do not contribute to the expenditure in connection with the war. If we have local assemblies directly contributing to the expenditure of such an undertaking as the South African war, surely they have more right to express their opinion upon Imperial affairs than they have in our self-governing colonies. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that this is an unreal debate, and I agree with him. It is an academic debate, but it has less interest than it would otherwise have possessed had my hon. friend made his best efforts to get hon. Members together to support it. We thought the House was going to be engaged to-day discussing the great and important telephone question, and it seems mysterious to me that that question has not come on. The right hon. Gentleman has said that there is no case for this Amendment, and I agree that the time is inopportune to discuss this question in one sense. I think, however, that my hon. friend has done a public service in bringing the question forward, for no one has done more to keep local government before the attention of the Scottish people than he has.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no case at at all for this Amendment, he is taking up a line of argument which cannot be defended. I would remind the right hon. Gentle- man of the fact that in the King's Speech the name of Scotland is not even mentioned, and it is treated as if it did not exist at all. If we get the same treatment this session as we did last, we shall only get a single day to discuss the whole of the Scottish Estimates. This fact has only got to be mentioned in order to show that there is a case for this Amendment. It is worth while noting that if Scottish Members were supreme at the present time, or at any time since the passing of the Reform Bill, we should have been able to settle the liquor question and the land question exactly on the lines advocated by the great majority of the Liberal Party. It is contrary to the principle of representative government, that for twenty, thirty, or forty years, the majority of the people of Scotland, through the political power which this House has given them, should have returned an overwhelming majority of her representatives to Parliament in favour of certain measures, and yet this House refuses to pass them. This is totally opposed to the representative principle, and it is a legitimate grievance to the Scottish people. When the right hon. Gentleman says we have no case at all I think he is wrong. He has referred to the Colonies, and from what he has said one would think that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham had been out and discovered those Colonies, and that nobody had heard of them before. I think a good many of these things are being said in view of the Coronation, and they probably have another explanation. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that all the Colonies that came to our aid in this war are Colonies which are strong because they have a system of Home Rule, and they have got that system in spite of the party to which the right hon. Gentleman belongs. It is no argument to say that Home Rule is against the best interests of the Empire.

I do not think, however, that, in the interests of this question itself, this is a proper time to give a decision with regard so it. Many hon. Members who would be obliged to vote against this Amendment might, under other circumstances, be inclined to support it. This Amendment puts some of our friends in a rather awkward position, and many of its supporters are away to-day who would doubtless be present upon another occasion. But perhaps the most important reason of all, so far as I can judge the political situation, is that I do not think there is any immediate likelihood of a Government being in office which would carry out the proposal contained in the Amendment. There is a good deal of work to be done outside before we can carry this proposal, and in view of the fact that the principle has been approved of on two separate occasions by a substantial majority, I would appeal to my hon. friend, now that his object has been satisfied by this discussion, to withdraw his Amendment. I notice that we are going to tinker with our rules of procedure, and hon. Members opposite think that a more alteration of the rules will satisfy this demand for more available time. In my opinion, this House can never adequately deal with the local affairs of all parts of the United Kingdom, and we demand Home Rule because we think it is in the interest of the localities concerned and in the interests of this House. The House of Commons has enough to do with Imperial affairs. Therefore, I appeal to my hon. friend to be satisfied with the debate which has taken place, and let the question rest where it is. We may be able to have another motion at some other more favourable opportunity when we may hope for a more satisfactory result.


In view of the appeal that has been made to me by my hon. friend, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Question put and negatived.

Main Question again proposed.

MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)

I would now ask the Government to be kind enough to agree to the adjournment of the debate, in order that I may move tomorrow the Amendments standing in my name relating to the affairs of Ireland. I can assure hon. members that the House will lose nothing by consenting to this arrangement.


I think that is a perfectly reasonable proposal and I agree to it.

Debate adjourned till to-morrow.