§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR, Manchester, E.)
Mr. Speaker, I collect, from the unwonted expedition with which the House has to-day satisfied its curiosity on the ordinary subject-matters dealt with at Question time, that Members are regarding with great impatience the statement which I promised on Thursday last that I would make to-day at the beginning of business. I quite agree that the subject of that statement is one of great constitutional importance; and I should be glad if I could make quite clear to the House, both for present purposes and for future reference, what I think is the sound constitutional practice which ought to govern the decision of the Prime Minister of the day when incidents such as that which occurred on Thursday last have to be dealt with.
There appears to be in many quarters of the House an idea that the accepted constitutional principle is that, when a government suffers defeat, either in Supply or on any other subject, the proper course for His Majesty's responsible advisers is either to ask His Majesty to relieve them of their office or to ask His Majesty to dissolve Parliament. But the most superficial acquaintance with the Parliamentary history of this country shows, not only that there is no such principle, but that, so far as principle can be extracted 50 from practice, the true principle is precisely of the opposite description. It has happened, indeed, that a Government which has undergone many defeats has resigned on account of a victory. That was, for example, the case of Lord Melbourne's Administration, of which Lord John Russell was the most important member. Fresh, at the time, from the passage of the Reform Bill, they were defeated many times before the resignation of 1839. But the resignation of 1839 took place, not in consequence of a division in which the Government were in a minority, but in consequence of a division in which they were in a majority— though doubtless a very small one. So that in this case, which is not an uninstructive one, we have a Government passing by as of no import, either from the point of view of resignation or of dissolution, successive defeats, yet regarding as of crucial importance a division which, in spite of its apparent success, convinced them that they had lost the confidence of those on whom they generally relied.
I think I heard some slight signs of dissent when I stated that so far as principle could be collected from practice, incidents like that on Thursday night had, broadly speaking, never been regarded by themselves as a ground either for resignation or dissolution. But I do not believe that an instance: can be quoted of a Government lasting four or five years without both suffering defeat and turning it. Lord Melbourne's Administration, up to its resignation in 1839, suffered many defeats. Between its reacceptance of office in the same year and its final expulsion from office in 1841 its life was a continual series of defeats And not only was it defeated on many less important occasions, but in 1841, if my memory serves me rightly, it suffered a severe reverse upon the Budget. But even this was not sufficient to decide Ministers to resign their offices. It required a formal vote of censure, shortly afterwards, proposed by Sir Robert Peel, to induce them to abandon their responsibilities as Ministers of the Crown.
I do not know that subsequent history shows any case of retaining office in 51 the face of repeated defeats as that of Lord Melbourne's Administration, composed, I ought to say, of Whigs of very high constitutional authority. But Sir Robert Peel's Government of 1841– 46 was more than once defeated. Lord Russell's subsequent Administration was often defeated. The two Tory Administrations that were in office between 1850 and 1860 both held office in a minority, and therefore I do not count them. Occasional defeat in such cases is not to be avoided. But Lord Palmerston, who came into office for his last Administration in 1859, was defeated more than once, although that Administration was, as everybody knows, a compromise Administration, under which everybody was content, or, at any rate, the majority of the House were content, that the business of the country should be carried on— the Radical Party because they were not sufficiently strong at that moment to take office themselves, the Tory Party because they felt that in many respects there could hardly be a more Tory Administration than that which Lord Palmerston led.
I pass over the brief Administration by Mr. Disraeli, also held in a minority, and I come to what, I think, by common consent is admitted to be the greatest of Mr. Gladstone's three Administrations— the Administration which began in 1868 and lasted till the early weeks of 1874. I think from the point of view which we are now discussing that the whole history of that Administration, to which in another connection I shall revert directly, is full of instruction. It is more instructive than Mr. Gladstone's Administration of 1880– 85, because the deathbed scenes of that Administration were to a certain extent complicated by the Reform and Redistribution Bills of 1884 and 1885. But the 1868 Administration was perfectly normal, and Mr. Gladstone's views upon it and the course taken by his Government are extremely instructive.
As the House is well aware, that Administration began to lose by-elections at once, and they suffered Parliamentary defeat, I think, no less than nine times. But that is not all. In 1872 the Administration, though manifestly losing greatly in public favour, was still strong, and was occupied 52 in carrying no less a measure than the Ballot Act. Mr. Bruce, a member of the Government, in a diary of which very instructive and interesting fragments have been published in the great biography of Mr. Gladstone, mentions rather pathetically that they had been beaten three times in one week, and that the least important of those defeats— let the House mark this— was a defeat in which the Government were beaten by 100 on the Motion of a private Member. What were the other two defeats? They were upon the great Government measure of the session, the Ballot Bill. An Amendment was carried against the Government by a combination of the ordinary opponents of the Government with some of its Radical supporters. The Government were defeated. Mr. Gladstone thought the Amendment of such importance that he asked the House to reintroduce his original proposal, and he was beaten by a bigger majority than before. A severer check (to use the word now in fashion) a more serious humiliation, it is hard to imagine. Yet Mr. Bruce, who chronicles these events with the natural regret of a member of the Administration so defeated, does not suggest, even by a word, either that t was the duty of the Government to resign their offices or to go to the country.
That happened in 1872. To the events of 1873, and of Mr. Gladstone's view upon them, I shall revert presently in another connection. At present it is only necessary to point out that the course the Government then pursued showed how low they rated the amount of Parliamentary support necessary for the retention of office. Mr. Gladstone was defeated on a Motion which he declared vital to the life of his Government, and he consented nevertheless to resumed office in the very House of Commons which had so treated him. Whether his reasons were good or bad I will not pretend to say; but I may parenthetically remark that, in my judgment, the three great cases in which a Ministry have resigned, have not been able to induce their opponents to take office, and have then resumed office themselves, have always been— will not use such 53 strong words as disastrous or discreditable —but certainly have been unfortunate, and do not hold out much inducement to their successors to follow the same course. Lord Melbourne, who resumed office after the Bedchamber controversy, as it was called, in 1839, did, I think, nothing but harm to himself, his Ministers, and his Party. Sir Robert Peel, under circumstances which I admit are wholly different, resumed office in 1845, and by so doing destroyed for more than twenty years the Tory Party.
Nor do I believe that anybody looking back upon the decision at which Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues arrived in 1873 would think that so far as they are concerned that course either was one which deserves the flattery of imitation.
I pass lightly over the defeats suffered by Mr. Gladstone's Government of 1880–1885. They were numerous and important. But for five years and a half they were ignored. He was beaten in his last brief Administration without resigning; while Lord Rosebery began his tenure of office in 1894 by enduring a defeat on the Address.
Now I think it is evident from this brief, and perhaps too rapid, survey of recent constitutional history that the only divisions which, taken by themselves, and in isolation from the general circumstances of the time, from the feeling of the Parties in the House, from the question of un on in the Cabinet— the only Parliamentary issues which, taken in isolation from these attendant circumstances, have always been regarded a conclusive are those in which there has been a trial of strength between the Parties with all the circumstances of notice and other attendant incidents required to make it clear that the issue to be decided is one of "confidence" or "no confidence." A case which I have just alluded to in another connection shows how rigidly this rule has been drawn; because, while it is the ordinary view— and I think, broadly speaking, the sound view— that a hostile vote on the Address is regarded as a vote of censure and is supposed to be fatal to the Government, I have just reminded the House that such a hostile vote was actually given in 1904 on the Address, and all that the then Leader 54 of the House and the then Prime Minister did was to reintroduce the Address in a somewhat abbreviated form. So narrowly did those authorities interpret the general dictum I have laid down that the only divisions which by themselves and in themselves constitute an irrevocable sentence on the Government on power are votes of censure, or votes which from other circumstance have about them the character of votes of censure.
I think that is the whole truth with regard to votes taken in this House considered in their isolation. But I quite admit that there are circumstances in which you cannot take vote in its isolation. You have to take it with all its attendant circumstances, and a Government, if it is conscious that it cannot carry on the business of the House, may be perfectly justified in taking a vote which, under different circumstances, it would regard with relative indifference as the formal occasion of its termination of office. I have never shared the view, which I think was expressed by Mr. Gladstone, that the conduct of right hon. Gentlemen opposite in 1895 when they resigned on the cordite vote was pusillanimous. Mr. Gladstone's view was, apparently, that after that vote it was the duty of the Government to struggle on until some more decisive exhibition of Parliamentary hostility was shown by the then House of Commons. I think that criticism goes too far. The embarrassments under which Lord Rosebery's Government were labouring are quite notorious; the extreme difficulty which they would have had in coming creditably out of a debate on a vote of censure was known to everybody; they had on hand a great controversial Bill, the Welsh Church Bill; they were involved in all the difficulties of the Committee stage, and it was clear that the Committee stage could never be got through without the defeat of the Government. I have always thought that, in these circumstances, the course they then pursued, though in no sense obligatory upon them, was not deserving of the criticism which, perhaps in a hasty I moment, Mr. Gladstone appears to have passed on it.
But compare these circumstances with ours. I do not think it will be denied that 55 at this moment the Government does actully possess the confidence of that House. I do not wish to introduce any unnecessarily controversial matter into this statement; but I think it will be admitted by those who look back upon our past career that, however bad may be the Bills we have passed, however infamous the motives by which we have been animated, yet as a matter of fact those Bills have suffered less change at the hands of the House [OPPOSITION cries of "Gag" and "Guillotine"] than, so far as I know, any great measures brought in by previous Governments. When I hear hon. Gentlemen opposite indicating that this result was attained by the use of tyrannical measures I am not concerned, at the present moment, to defend myself against the implied charge; but I would remind the House that a tyrant in this House owes his whole power to the confidence of the majority of this House, and that, however great may be the misuse which he makes of that power, the fact that he can exercise it does show— which is all I am concerned with at the present moment— that the confidence of the House is effectively possessed by him and by his colleagues. Therefore, so far as the majority of this House is concerned, I think it will be admitted that we retain their confidence. At any rate, in a few hours we shall have an opportunity of experimentally proving or disproving it.
Of course, I admit that there may be circumstances, apart from the confidence of the House of Commons, which have in the past induced, and may in the future induce, Governments to request the Sovereign to relieve them of their functions. For instance, there may be disunion in the Cabinet— one of the commonest sources of resignation. That. I believe, was the reason why Mr. Gladstone resigned in 1874.
§ MR. JOHN MORLEY
I submit, of course as a mere matter of inference, that he resigned because the Army and Navy Estimates would not be reduced to the figure which he desired to see them reduced to.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Yes, Sir, but which Mr. Cardwell and Mr. Goschen would not have them reduced to. Which is what I meant, and all that I meant, by disunion in the Cabinet. I think the view just expressed by the right hon. Gentleman really bears out my statement. Then, unless rumour greatly deceives us, the dissensions of Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet of 1880—
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am talking of matters which are not Cabinet secrets at all. I am talking of the Government of 1880, and not of that which took office in 1892 whose secrets the right hon. Gentleman is rightly anxious to guard. I believe the dissensions in that Cabinet were really matters of notoriety, they have been made matters of record since; and I have no doubt that they contributed more or less to the difficulties which beset that Government at the end of its term of office. I only refer to those dissensions as examples of the collateral circumstances which have induced Governments on previous occasions to attach an importance to a defeat in the House which that defeat, taken by itself, would never have acquired. I am revealing no Cabinet secret when I say that the present Government does not suffer from any such disunion.
But there remains one collateral circumstance to which I have as yet made no reference at all, but which appears to assume gigantic proportions in the speeches and conversations of hon. Gentlemen opposite. They may on reflection admit, after having heard 57 my account of the leading constitutional precedents, the first proposition which I lay down, which is that a vote like that of Thursday last, taken by itself, is not a ground for resignation or dissolution by a Government which retains the confidence of the House. But they say, "That is all very well so far as the House is concerned; but the House does not represent the country; and it is not the voice of the House but of the country as determined by by-elections which in these circumstances should determine the policy of the Government." I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman opposite did not use this very argument at a garden party on Saturday. We do not expect much wisdom from orators on such occasions; but I will admit that the right hon. Gentleman faithfully echoed what appears to be a common superstition upon the other side of the House— namely, that a Minister, kept in office by a majority in Parliament, ought to consider, in addition to the views of that majority, precisely how the tide of public opinion is flowing, so far as the direction and the strength of that tide can be judged by the course of by elections. Now I assert that this is an absolutely novel principle, a principle which, so far as I know, has never been suggested by any responsible Minister of the Crown either in public or in private.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
It is alleged of Lord John Russell that, in the midst of the difficulties of the Melbourne Administration, he gave as a reason against dissolution that candidates in the then state of public feeling would make inconvenient and dangerous pledges to their constituents. That was the doctrine which he favoured at a time when his Government was being constantly defeated in the House and when the by elections were going against it; and on constitutional matters Lord John Russell was no mean authority.
But, as the hon. Gentleman opposite has challenged me about Mr. Gladstone, I should really like the House seriously to consider the very interesting events 58 which occurred just previous to the dissolution of 1874. I have given the House at an earlier period of my statement an account of what happened in 1873. I now pass on to 1874 for the purpose of illustrating this branch of my argument. In 1873 Mr. Gladstone was defeated on the Irish University Bill. He had made it a vital question, and he naturally and necessarily resigned on it; and— I think I quite wrongly— when he found that no other arrangement was possible without a dissolution, he resumed office in the very House of Commons which had shown its want of confidence in him so often before. The Government of that day got through the session; and there is extant a most interesting letter on the situation from. Mr. Gladstone to one of his most familiar and trusted colleagues, Lord Granville, which I see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose Burghs has got in his hands. There is one passage in that letter which has been quoted before in this House and has been largely referred i to in the public Press, the passage in which Mr. Gladstone says that no number of by elections, taken by themselves, whatever their cumulative significance, offer any constitutional reason for resigning. I have not got the words with me; if the right hon. Gentleman thinks my summary inaccurate perhaps he will hand me the volume. [Mr. JOHN MORLEY did so and opened it at the reference.] These are the words—A Ministry with a majority, and with that majority not in rebellion—A very modest phrase, apparently the most flattering one that Mr. Gladstone thought appropriate to the state of his Party but which certainly does not describe the condition of the Party which I have the honour to lead—
should not resign on account, of adverse manifestations, even of very numerous single constituencies, without making a precedent, and constitutionally a bad precedent; and only a very definite and substantive difficulty could warrant resignation without dissolution after the proceeding of the Opposition in March last.Then Mr. Gladstone, having laid down this dictum, proceeded to print out what a difficulty the Ministry were in, and how inconvenient it would be to seek a remedy in dissolution since in all probability a dissolution would not give 59 him a majority. He naively examines -various expedients for obtaining a popular "cry"; and, failing these, he pave utterance to a wish which I think is the most extraordinary ever expressed by a Minister in difficulties. What lie says in effect is, that the best way out of the scrape is to get up some honourable dissension among his colleagues which would enable them to extricate themselves from their embarrassment. Now can anybody doubt after this that Mr. Gladstone, in deciding what were the attendant circumstances which should, after a defeat in the House, or after a very narrow majority in the House, require the Government to dissolve or resign— never took into account at all, or took into account only to reject it, the general current of public opinion as indicated by the balance of by elections?
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am quite aware that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose Burghs quoted some passage in a letter to the Queen, but I venture to say that this outpouring of his soul to his most trusted colleague, this balancing of "pros" and "cons" in an intimate correspondence is the very best authority we can have as to Mr. Gladstone's view. I am confirmed in that opinion by an estimate which the right hon. Gentleman from where makes of Mr. Gladstone's character— a character which impelled him so long as his House of Commons battalions could be kept together, and he could continue to count on a majority of one The idea that he ought to resign with a majority at his back prepared to support him, he would have scouted as ludicrous. I do not say that I wholly agree with him. I am not sure that I go the full length either or Lord John Russell or of Mr. Gladstone. They drove their doctrines— no doubt sound in themselves — on certain occasions to very extreme limits. But I am perfectly certain we are not driving constitutional doctrines to an extreme limit when we say that this is not an occasion on which resignation or dissolution is necessary or would be in conformity with constitutional practice.
60 I admit, however, that this conclusion, however accurate, is not decisive. We are not and ought not to be the mere slaves of constitutional precedent. The British Constitution has gradually grown up, developed and moulded in accordance with changing circumstances; and the mere fact that Lord John Russell took a certain course in the late thirties and that Mr. Gladstone took the same course in the early seventies— to say nothing of later precedents on which I need not dwell— does not conclusively prove that we ought to follow examples, however illustrious and however consistent. But does he House seriously think, looking to the future, that we should improve upon past practice by making divisions such as that which took place on Thursday last the touchstone of the existence or the dissolution of a Government? The time may not be far distant, when the tables may be reversed, and when a stray division on Estimates or some other subject may be carried against a Government of which I am one of the opponents. I try, as we all should try, to look at this quite apart from our momentary political fortunes. We have got to consider it from the point of view of efficient administration, and by efficient administration, I may parenthetically remark, I do not mean administration which hon. Gentlemen opposite agree with or admire.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
If you like, or the country, any more than the country admired Mr. Gladstone's administration.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
The question and the only question is whether, looking to the future, there is any reason to depart from the practice which our Parliamentary ancestors have uniformly followed. I have no doubt how the question should be answered. I am quite clearly of opinion that it will be a very 61 great evil if Ministers, on whatever side they sit and whatever view the Opposition may take as to their merits, were to regard their tenure of office as dependent, and simply dependent, upon such a vote as took place upon Thursday last. If anybody will study the modern practice of constitutional government in foreign countries, he will see that one of the great evils of working by Parliamentary majorities is that in too many cases it leads to frequent changes of administration. We may all live, every one of us, to see the time when two historic Parties in this House are fairly evenly matched in point of numbers and when the balance between them is held by Parties which are not the historical Parties of this country. In those cases it would be in the power of a very small group of men at any time to require the Ministry to tender their resignations to the Sovereign and to compel the Sovereign to accept those resignations. That would be a very great evil, and I say that quite irrespective of the Party which is in power or is to be in power. It is an evil in itself; it is one of the diseases from which representative Government suffers; and we have avoided it in this country, in so far as we have avoided it, largely by the fact that we have not consented in the past, and as I hope we shall never consent in the future, to allow a Government united in itself, and having the confidence of the House, to abandon its post merely because of an incident like that of which we have had recent experience.
I have given. I am afraid at undue length—
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)
Mr. Speaker, I wish, as a point of order, to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman intends to conclude with a Motion for the adjournment of the House, a Motion which under our rules only a Minister has the power of making in these circumstances. If he does not conclude with such a Motion, then I have to ask whether it would be possible for us to debate, not a statement merely, but the long and reasoned speech of the right hon. Gentleman. My fear is that if he concludes without a Motion there will be no Question before the House, and we 62 shall be ruled out in attempting to answer the right hon. Gentleman.
§ MR. SPEAKER
A debate upon a Ministerial statement has generally been held to be irregular. There should be some Question before the House. Of course, under the circumstances of to-day, the Prime Minister, having spoken now almost an hour, I should not feel disposed to stop the Leader of the Opposition or the hon. and learned Gentleman who has just addressed me if they wish to offer any observations; bat I think I should have no power to set aside the general rule of the House and to allow a general debate to take place.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
Then I ask the right hon. Gentleman to regularise a debate— so that the House can discuss his speech— by making a Motion which under the rules he can make.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I had just finished my speech, and I will take it as concluded because I have dealt with all the points I wanted to lay before the House. I address myself now to the request made to me by the hon. and learned Gentleman, which is unexpected but, I think, quite a proper Question. I had not thought of it. I really am ashamed when I look at the clock, although I hope I have not occupied nearly an hour. I will venture to make a hurried suggestion to the House. We have got a vote of censure this afternoon, which, except qua censure, nobody takes very much interest in at the moment. Now, if I were to move the adjournment of the House and the division on that were to count as the vote of censure—
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Is that not a reasonable request? [Cries of "No."] Then if I cannot be met in that manner, we cannot have two votes of censure.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
There may be Answers to my speech going on till 63 midnight, and as the vote will be distinct on the question whether the Government were or were not right in retaining office, I should have thought that raised a much clearer issue. At all events, I shall not move the Motion myself, but, if necessary, it can be moved from this bench. I should like to hear the Answer which the right hon. Gentleman may make to a very sincere and honest suggestion on my part, and which I believe would conduce to the interest of the House.
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
The most natural interruption of the hon. Member for Waterford has drawn from the Prime Minister what he calls an offer. But I can relieve him at once of one portion of the bargain which he seeks to make, because it is quite obvious that after what has happened the Motion that stands in the name of my right hon. friend the Member for Berwick is superseded by what has occurred, and by the subjects which are before us today. What is the Motion of my right hon. friend? It is not a Motion of censure in the literal sense of the word that it expressly blames the Government; it is a Motion declaring that a dissolution should take place before the Colonial Conference is held. We may have entertained a distinct hope and desire even when that Motion was put on the Paper; but we entertain the most lively and overwhelming sense now of the hope and desire, indeed the insistent demand, not for a dissolution before a Colonial Conference takes place, but for a dissolution now, either immediate or prefaced: by such arrangements for the ending of the session as might be made. That has swallowed up the question of a dissolution before the Colonial Conference. Therefore, as far as that part of the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is concerned, he has his way.
But when he says that he will move, or someone will move on his part, the adjournment of the House in order that there may be an opportunity of expressing a vote of confidence in the Government, it is not that which is in question, but the opportunity of debating and discussing the situation of the 64 Government as explained by the right hon. Gentleman. I think that, if he expects an elaborate and carefully prepared historical record of past events, such as he has given to the House, can be met and answered in all particulars at a moment's notice, he is making too great a demand upon the intelligence and the knowledge of the rest of the House of Commons. We do desire to-day to have an opportunity, however it may be given, of a full discussion of the situation of the Government and their conduct with regard to the events of last week, and of their intentions announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to-day. We wish to have that as soon as it can be given. [MINISTERIAL cries of "Now."] Decidedly "now, "if you like. We are entirely agreed, we mean to have it to-day on a convenient opportunity; but it is not a convenient opportunity to discuss it on this mere statement and counter-statement, or speech and counter-speech, which can take place on the statement of the Prime Minister, but there must be some definite Motion of another kind upon which the discussion might proceed; and I leave it to the right hon. Gentleman to find us that opportunity in the way he thinks best.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I can only speak with the general assent of the House, and I do not of course do so in any controversial sense. As I understand the right hon. Gentleman, he has definitely abandoned raising the particular issue, now a very old friend, contained in the Motion of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Berwick. He desires, however, to have an opportunity of discussing the present situation of the Government and their determination to retain office in existing circumstances, and to have an opportunity of replying to the case which, I think, perhaps, at too great length, I have made as to the course we have adopted. I think everyone will feel that it is only fair to the Government that there should be one debate and not two. I would suggest that, as the House is here in large numbers in the belief that there was be a vote of censure moved by the right hon. Gentleman, the withdrawal 65 of which has never been signified to me—
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
I could not signify it because I was not aware of the announcement the right hon. Gentleman would make. I hesitated considerably over the matter, and I came to the conclusion that it was not for me to anticipate any particular statement of his.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman I never suspected hon. Members of any want of courtesy either to myself or to my friends; but I should have thought that our best plan was to substitute, either formally or substantially, a Motion embodying the new point which the right hon. Gentleman wishes to have a division upon— namely, the propriety of the course that the Government are now taking. Is that not so?
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
I think that the adjournment of the House or some analogous Motion would be a ready, opportune, and suitable means of giving us the discussion.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
All I want is to get the understanding quite clear as to what is desired. I understand the right hon. Gentleman thinks— and I agree with him— that by far the best way of bringing this matter to a clear issue is for the adjournment to be moved and for a vote to be taken on that Motion. You would, Mr. Speaker, I suppose in the exceptional circumstances of the case allow on that Motion speeches to be made relative to the decision I have announced to the House; but outside that question, taking it as broadly as you like, the conduct of the Government and the propriety of a dissolution, and whether the Government have or have not the confidence of the country, it would not be regarded as proper that hon. Members should intervene in a debate which from the nature of the words that must be moved carries with it no natural limitations. If that be so, I would ask one of my right hon. friends on this bench to move the adjournment of the House. It seems to me that this would give, 66 though in a circuitous form, under the conditions I have suggested, a very precise issue to the House, involving the confidence of the House in the Government. All those who are prepared to support His Majesty's Government would vote against the adjournment; all those who take the opposite view would vote for the adjournment. We came down to the House prepared to deal with the equivalent of a vote of censure which involved a relatively narrow issue. That vote of censure the Opposition no longer proposes to move; but, after having listened to the defence I have given and the course of action of the Government, they express a desire, which no one can describe as unnatural, to comment on that statement, and they further desire to show by their votes— [OPPOSITION cries of "No!"] — or by letting the matter go by default, what their view is of the conduct of the Government. I am quite ready to lend myself to that policy, which seems to me to be clear and intelligible, and it is the policy of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, if the House generally agrees. I understand that meets the wishes of the right hon. Gentleman?
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
I am anxious that there should be no misunderstanding. What we desire is to have an opportunity of discussing and expressing our views upon the situation caused by the circumstances of last week, and the resolution to which the Government have come upon it. [MINISTERIAL cries of "When?"] Now. It is obvious that under the ordinary rules of the House there is no latitude for a general discussion. As the Speaker has said, it would be confined to one or two Members only. We do not think that is right; therefore, if a greater latitude to the discussion could be given, we are willing that the right hon. Gentleman should move the adjournment.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has concluded his observations. I rise for the purpose of saying two or three words on this question. I stand in a different position from the representatives of the regular Opposition, and they have no responsibility whatever for me 67 or for my words. I desire to say for myself and my colleagues, that what we wish is to grapple with the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman here and now at this the earliest moment. We desire to express our views with reference to his action as announced to-day, not only by speech, but by every means in our power, and we do not desire the matter to be postponed. It was for that reason I took it upon myself to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman towards the close of his speech, in order to make the suggestion which I did, namely, that he should conclude his speech by moving the adjournment, a course which can only be followed under the rules today by a Minister. After that we should instantly join issue with the right hon. Gentleman, and take the opportunity of expressing our opinion. It seems to me that to postpone the consideration and discussion of this matter would be to indicate a quite inadequate view of the gravity of the situation. My point of view is that a great constitutional crisis has arisen, that the whole meaning of the Septennial Act and the whole meaning of constitutional government has been raised by the crisis that has arisen, and, in my judgment, it would be trifling with the situation if we were to adjourn the consideration of this matter for one day or one hour. Beyond that I will not go at this moment. I hope the course I have suggested will be followed. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman a Question which can he most properly answered now. It is whether the determination which he has announced on the part of the Government generally means that, notwithstanding the condemnation by the House of Commons of the administration of the Irish Land Act by the present Chief Secretary, that right hon. Gentleman is still to be retained in office.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
That is a Question of which no previous notice is necessary. I have never heard it suggested as among the many possible courses open to the Government that we should continue to retain office and ask my right hon. friend to resign. [Cries of "What about Wyndham?"] To refer to the actual Question before the House, there is a universal agree 68 ment, except as to the modus operandi We are all agreed that the Motion of the right hon. Member for Berwick is to be taken off the Paper. We are all agreed that the statement I have made on the position of the Government is one which the Opposition has a perfect right to discuss. We are all agreed that that discussion should take place today. We are all agreed that there should be an opportunity of voting on it if it is desired. The only question in dispute, therefore, is how these objects should be attained. Under the Standing Orders of the House only a Minister can move the adjournment of the House. But on reflection it occurs to me that to ask one of my right hon. friends to move the adjournment and then to ask all my hon. friends to vote against it would favour somewhat of Parliamentary paradox. If our purpose is attained in this way I shall have to ask my friends to vote for the adjournment; and hon. Gentlemen opposite would know that, in expressing their condemnation of the course of the Government, their proper course would be to vote against the adjournment. [Cries of "No!" and interruption.] The hon. Member for Northampton is apparently not anxious to divide; but the Leader of the Irish Party is. [Cries of "No."] Yes, he is. [Cries of "No."] If the House generally is agreed in voting for the adjournment the Government will have a larger majority and a more unanimous expression of confidence in their conduct than I had ventured to anticipate. If this account of the position is understood, I shall ask one of my right hon. friends now to move the adjournment.
§ LORD HUGH CECIL
(Greenwich) suggested a more regular and simple way would be to let the right hon. Member for Berwick move his Motion without a speech and then let the hon. and learned Member for Waterford move an Amendment. [Cries of "No."]
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I had thought of the possibility of amending the vote of censure; but I think it would be rather difficult to accomplish. But I am clearly to understand that the course I have proposed is one accepted on 69 every side of the House. [Insistent cries of "Move, move !"]
§ SIR FORTESCUE FLANNERY
(Yorkshire, Shipley), rising to a point of order, said: Do I understand that the Leader of the Opposition did not give an undertaking. [Loud cries of "Order" and interruption.]
§ SIR FORTESCUE FLANNERY
On a point of order, Sir, I wish to ask whether the Leader of the Opposition has or has not undertaken [Loud cries of "That is not a point of order" and "Sit down"] to vote against the Motion for the adjournment. [Renewed interruption.]
§ MR. SPEAKER
The vote the right hon. Gentleman will give will no doubt depend on the debate that will take place.
§ MR. DALZIEL
(Kirkcaldy Burghs), rising to a point of order and speaking amid loud cries of "Move, "asked whether it would not be more regular for the first order of the day to be called and then for the adjournment to be moved on the Opposition side of the House. [Cries of "No, no!" and "Move."]
§ MR. SPEAKER
The difficulty is that the debate would then be limited in character. What the House desires to discuss is the statement of the Prime Minister.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Of course it is understood that, if the House have until twelve o'clock it they desire to discuss my statement, there will be no danger of a demand for a rediscussion. [Cries of "Move."]
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman 70 means. If he means that the House is to be prevented from asking for further days or from taking every opportunity they may have to discuss the action of the Government, I may say that I will be no party to such an arrangement.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
That is not the point. There is a definite issue now before the House, namely, the propriety or the impropriety of the decision of the Government as to the consequences of Thursday's division. Of course, if something else occurs— if the Government is again defeated [Cries of "Oh !" "Move," and interruption]— no one is precluded from taking advantage of any future opportunities. What I must make clear to the House is that the Leader of the Opposition, who is the only person to whom I should pay attention in asking for a day for a vote of censure, regards today as exhausting the necessities of the case. [Cries of "No, no !"]
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in consequence of the course which the Government has pursued it will be very hard to induce any section of the House, on this side at all events, to come under a pledge not to recall before the House the strange circumstances of the last few days.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR,
who was received with loud cries of "Move" and "Adjourn, "said: I think I can make the position perfectly clear. I give notice that I shall ask my right hon. friend to move the adjournment of the House, and that I shall not give a day for any further discussion of the subject.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY
(Sir A. ACLAND-HOOD, Somersetshire, Wellington) then formally moved the adjournment of the House.
Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — (Sir A; Acland-Hood.)
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
The Motion has been made by the person best fitted to make it. The right hon. Gentleman has made a long and 71 elaborate historical review to justify the course which he has chosen to take. No amount of precedents, no amount of reference to past occasions, will satisfy the House or the country that he has taken the right course on this occasion. He has quoted a great many instances in which Governments have been defeated, but these cases ought to be weighed as well as remembered. Some of them are of an important character, and some are of no importance at all; and they depend, as he himself had to admit, upon the circumstances in which they occurred as well as upon the merits. I will say at one that this was no ordinary occasion of the defeat of a Government. The right hon. Gentleman has endeavoured to make light of the indication of the feeling of the country afforded by the by-elections. He has done so on many occasions before; and the attitude he has taken is this— that as long as he was not deprived of the support of his friends in the House, he considered that he was entitled to retain office, notwithstanding any amount of by elections or other indications of a change of popular feeling. In that he takes up what I believe to be an entirely unconstitutional position. It is common for us to say, and it is true constitutionally, that the Minister of the Crown in this country is selected and appointed because he is the man who commands a majority in the House of Commons. But what does that mean? It means that the command of the majority of the House represents the feeling of the country. The moment the House of Commons get out of touch and harmony with the country then that plea for retaining office dissolves; and the right hon. Gentleman has no right to entrench himself behind the confidence and sup-port of his friends here after it is known to all mankind and to himself, as well as to any of them, that he has lost the confidence of the country. When I say it is known to himself, it is obviously so, because, if he was not aware he had lost the confidence of the country, why I should be show any reluctance to appeal to the country and immensely strengthen his position by securing a favourable verdict from it?
72 Another thing he has said to-day to which I must refer. It is that the state of things at home and abroad, it may be, is anxious, and that it would be undesirable that the power of the Government should go into other hands.
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
It has been said freely by the supporters of the right hon. Gentleman if he has not said it, and therefore we I are entitled to refer to it. Surely I can answer that by the very simplest of arguments— that the fact of being out of harmony with the great body of opinion of the country surely invalidates the Government in itself for the active and successful prosecution of the affairs of the country, and is therefore a strong reason for their resigning their position. But the right hon. Gentleman quoted Mr. Gladstone, and I think be was surprised that I should make some interruption when he went en to appeal to Mr. Gladstone. The reason is that I never remember that the right hon. Gentleman showed such extraordinary deference to the authority of Mr. Gladstone when he was alive. Really I think when he does refer to Mr. Gladstone as his authority he ought to be a little more sure that he is accurate. With regard to the letter to Lord Granville, to which he refers, that was followed in the same volume which he used as his authority by a formal letter to the Queen in which Mi. Gladstone submitted his resignation to Her Majesty—Mr. Gladstone laid before the Cabinet a pretty full outline of the case as to the weak ness of the Government since the crisis of last March, and the increase of that weakness, especially of late, from the unfavourable character of local indications.That is a point of which the right hon. Gentleman took no notice. In a note on the following page it says on this question— the question of retaining the conduct of affairs—The events of the last few weeks and the prospects of the present moment have somewhat tended to turn the scale in his mind and that of his followers.73 And in a letter written to Lord Aberdare, one of his followers, explaining the situation, he says—The continual loss of elections, and the expediency of avoiding being further weakened, have determined us at once to take the opinion of the country and to stand or fall by it.That is the quotation on which the right hon. Gentleman rests for the assertion that Mr. Gladstone paid no attention, or did not attach great importance, to by-elections. Here is what Mr. Gladstone said after the election was over and when he met Parliament again. He said—We found that the suspicions we entertained" — explaining the reasons for the dissolution of Parliament— "arising from a course of single elections and gradually gathering strength were confirmed by the actual results, and I do not regret a dissolution, whatever its results to us or, for the moment, to the Party with which I am associated, which has given to the people of this country a constitutional opportunity of declaring what its convictions were with respect to the conduct of public affairs.On April 4th, 1874, in this House again, he spoke even more explicitly, and said—My regret is not that a dissolution took place when it did, but that it did not take place before. I am not willing to hold office under any circumstances with a minority either in this House or in the country.As the right hon. Gentleman attaches so much importance to the authority and opinion of Mr. Gladstone I may quote further—It is repugant to my feeling and not compatible with the best interests of the country that the Government should continue to govern, even with a numerical majority, when its strength is falling away; when there is daily increasing evidence that it no longer represents the will and the opinion of the constituencies. That is a regret of which I have to make a frank expression.The culminating argument he used to-day was this reference to the alleged opinion and feeling of Mr. Gladstone. I think these words show that there was no foundation whatever for that argument, and that, on the contrary, Mr. Gladstone on that and on all occasions not only took the constitutional line before the country, but had the constitutional line imprinted on his own heart.
What is this case we have to deal with? The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and his supporters were well aware of the state of feeling in the country. He 74 had made the assertion that he retained office because he continued to have the support of the Gentlemen who sat behind him. But then last week the Government met with a rebuff with regard to their Redistribution Resolutions. He summoned a meeting of his followers, and appealed to them solemnly and called upon them to be constantly in their places in order to support the Government and to prevent them from any accidental defeat, which might, however small, have very grave consequences. Immediately following upon that was that on the very evening of the day on which the meeting was held Members on the other side of the House had to be put up to talk against time in order to save the Government from a defeat. On Thursday came the division which is the foundation of all our troubles at this moment. It was not a snap division. You cannot call it an accident. You might call it an incident if you like, but never: an accident. It was on an important question of policy, on one of the main policies of the Government, and it amounted to a rejection by the Nationalist Party of their proposal for carrying that policy out. It was, therefore, a matter of the very first importance. It was taken after a long debate in a full House, and after due notice, and after every effort had been made to obtain the attendance of Members. The majority was not large, but it must be remembered that there were over 100 Members among the right hon. Gentleman's supporters who were absent on that occasion. If that was not the sort of incident to which he had referred when he talked of resigning if he failed to obtain the support of his followers, then where is such an incident to be found? These are the circumstances which govern this particular defeat, and give it, apart from the merits of the question, a force, importance, and significance which none of the cases to which he has referred possesses.
When we came here to-day we were satisfied that there were only two courses constitutionally before the right hon. Gentleman. There was the course of dissolution and the course of resignation. Now we find he is to disregard this very significant and obvious expression of the opinion of the House, he is to disregard 75 the equally obvious and significant expression he has received for months past from the country, and he is to retain his office as if nothing had happened. It is an absolutely unconstitutional course he is taking. It is contrary to all precedents as well as to all the rules that are laid down by the handbooks of constitutional law. It is contrary to both; and on that ground we cannot but regret that the right hon. Gentleman, instead of taking the manly course either of going to the country or laying down the burden of office, thinks that he can stumble along a few months longer in a vain attempt, I suppose, to rehabilitate and restore the fortunes of his Party.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
I heartily rejoice that the right hon. Gentleman had adopted the course which he has adopted and enabled this debate to proceed at once because, as I said in the few words I uttered earlier, in my opinion this is so grave a matter that any adjournment of discussion and consideration would create a false impression outside as to the seriousness of the issues at stake. The right hon. Gentleman delivered a long, carefully prepared, and carefully reasoned speech, and although I fancy that most of those who desire to follow him would have been glad of the opportunity to read the speech and consider it before replying, it seems to me that the reply is so plain on the face of the matter that it is better for us to deal with it instantly. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted many precedents to show he is right that Governments have never resigned simply because of isolated defeats in the House of Commons, even when those defeats have ceased to be isolated and have been repeated.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
What I said was that a formal vote of censure had always been regarded as a reason for resignation.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
I quite understand the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but what are these regular votes of censure? They are just what the Minister of the day likes to make them. On two or three different occasions regular votes of censure were moved from the Opposition Benches, and what did 76 this Minister do who comes down here today and boasts that he has the confidence of the House of Commons? Why Sir, he ran away, allowed these Resolutions expressing directly a want of confidence in his Government to be carried without a division— nemine contradicente, and these Resolutions stand today on the records of this House. What, then, does the right hon. Gentlemen mean by such a vote of censure as will induce him to resign?" He means a vote of censure arranged by himself, on a day fixed by himself, when he will be able to bring men from all parts of the earth to support him on a division— men who differ from him on the fiscal question, but who are intimidated by the tide of popular feeling in the country and are prepared to vote for him in order to avoid the inevitable day of reckoning with their constituents. These votes of censure as tests of the real feeling of the House or the confidence of the House in the Ministry are a sham and a fraud. The right hon. Gentlemen knows perfectly well that he does not represent the majority of the House on the most vital issue before the country, namely, the fiscal question, and whenever he has succeeded in scraping through these votes of censure it has been by the votes of Gentlemen like the right hon. Member for West Bristol, who differ profoundly from him on the issue at stake, but who come to give him their votes to keep him in office. The right hon. Gentleman does not represent the majority of this House on this vital question.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the decision of the country, and he quoted precedents in past years where Governments had been defeated at by-elections. I want to know if there is any precedent in living memory for a Government which has met with such enormous condemnation in all parts of the kingdom in recent by-elections. I want to know whether, judged by these by-elections or by the action of this House, the right hon. Gentleman does not stand in the most contemptible position in retaining office when he knows, and everybody else knows, that he does not represent the majority of the country? What is the position of this Government? Let me recapitulate the extraordinary 77 position in which this Government stands, and which is without a parallel in the Parliamentary history of our time. How was this Government elected? It was elected on a war cry; on a declaration that the war was over; and the electors were told by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, amongst others. that every vote given for a Liberal candidate was a vote given in favour of the Boers, who were in arms against the Empire. Therefore, it was an election held on the war. I do not want to stretch the theory of referendum to un due length; but a Government elected on such a cry was not entitled to deal with great constitutional questions, and certainly was not entitled to challenge the decision of the electors who called for their resignation. Since then the Government has met with defeat everywhere; in London and in the country; in their strongest constituencies; in places like Brighton, which were specially selected as hopeless to be attacked by the Opposition. And even in their last lucky exploit, where they succeeded by the skin of their teeth in returning the noble Lord opposite, it was proved how strongly the tide was running against them in the country.
Now the Government have conducted their business this session in a most extraordinary manner. They produced an elaborate scheme of Redistribution in a form which the merest tyro in this House condemned. All their plans have been upset by this extraordinary blunder, and the Redistribution Resolution has been removed from the Order-book. So weak do they feel themselves in the confidence of the House that the right hon. Gentleman took the unwonted course of summoning a meeting of his Party at the Foreign Office, and made an ad misericordiam appeal to his followers to stay in the House and vote for him. As the Leader of the Opposition has rightly reminded the House, on the very afternoon of the day on which that meeting was held the Government had to occupy about an hour and a - half in putting up their followers to talk against time before the vote was taken, because the Whips informed them that there was not a majority of the Government followers present. And the day 78 after that the right hon. Gentleman met with a defeat in the division lobby.
What was the meaning and character of that defeat? I notice someone spoke of a snap division. What is a snap division? A couple of years ago my friends succeeded in beating the Government in an unexpected division in Supply, and the right hon. Gentleman instantly took the ground that that was a snap division and therefore must be disregarded. But can the right hon. Gentleman maintain that the division on Thursday last was a snap division? It is superfluous to argue the question because of the silence with which my statement is met. No one is inclined seriously to deny that that was a division which was expected, of which full notice was given, and that it took place in a full House just before midnight. It is unnecessary for me to read the extraordinary whip issued by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, to whom I certainly would be inclined to pay a tribute for his most extraordinary devotion to work, his constant urbanity under very difficult circumstances, and for the success with which he has whipped his men so far during the session. The right hon. Gentleman, therefore, cannot contend that this was a snap division.
Let me ask what was the subject-matter of the division? I asked the Prime Minister a Question as to the tenure of office of the present Chief Secretary for Ireland. Whatever fate befalls the Government as the result of such a division as this, I know of no instance of a great question of Irish administration on which a full House has given a hostile vote which has not been followed by the resignation of the: Minister or by some modification of his programme. The House will remember that the Chief Secretary was challenged on the issue by him of certain regulations to the Estates Commissioners under the Land Act. These regulations were denounced by hon. Members on this side. I was entitled, therefore, to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether they were still to be continued in the face of a hostile vote against him. The very day after the division took place The Times newspaper, which held a very serious view of the question, said it was not merely a defeat of the Government on an item of 79 Supply, but a defeat on what amounted to a Second Reading of an important Government measure. The reason for that statement was that the Chief Secretary had opened the discussion by sketching a new amending Land Bill for Ireland, and, with the exception of the right hon. and gallant Member for North Armagh, there was not a word said in favour of that Bill. Everybody who spoke condemned it; and in the division lobby it was defeated.
I want to ask with reference to the regulations, which have been condemned, and also with reference to the Land Bill announced, what action the Government intend to take in regard to Irish business? The right hon. Gentleman, in his speech, quoted again and again from Mr. Gladstone. Let me quote for his benefit some authorities which ought to have great weight with him, because they come very near to him personally and politically. Here is what the Secretary to the Board of Education said with reference to a case exactly like this—
We must not forget that a possible violation of the laws is not the only reason why a Minister should retire when it is shown that the Government has lost the confidence of the House or the country. Ministers are not only Ministers of the Crown, but they represent the public opinion of the United Kingdom, and when they cease to represent public opinion they become a mere group of personages. They may have to deal with disorders at home or hostile manifestations abroad. They would have to meet these with the knowledge that they had not the confidence or support of the country; and their opponents at home and abroad would know that too.Why, a most contemptible attempt has been made in the public Press to maintain this Government in office because, forsooth, of some great foreign and Imperial interests!
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO THE BOARD OF EDUCATION
(Sir WILLIAM ANSON, Oxford University) was understood to say that the hon. and learned Gentleman should quote the next paragraph, because it was there stated that the Ministry ceased to be entitled to hold office when it ceased to represent public opinion as represented by Parliament.
§ MR JOHN REDMOND
I do not think that I misrepresent the right hon. 80 Gentleman at all. He says they should retire when they have lost the confidence of the House or of the country.
§ SIR WILLIAM ANSON
It remains. to be seen whether the Government have lost the confidence of the House or of the country.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
The hon. Gentleman interrupts not to correct an inaccuracy, but to make an argument, and we will be glad to listen to him when the time comes for him to make a speech. A most contemptible appeal has been made to the public opinion of the country to keep the present Government in office for certain great foreign and Imperial reasons. A more dishonest sham was never made. What right has the Prime Minister to arrogate to himself—
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I did not refer to foreign affairs, either directly or indirectly, in the speech which I made.
§ MR. JOHN REDMOND
The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that I have been referring to the contemptible appeal which has been made to public opinion by every Conservative newspaper in London and the provinces. Moreover, if I am to judge of the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman at the Foreign Office by the apparently communicated reports which have appeared in his own newspapers, he himself made that appeal to his own Party when he said that in addition to the inconvenience of the season a general election would be fatal to great Imperial interests. [Cries of " Answer now."] What right has the right hon. Gentleman to arrogate to himself the sole ability to carry on foreign affairs in the future? What right has he to declare that he is the sole possessor of sufficient integrity, virtue, and patriotism to safeguard the interests of his own country? The pretence is a sham, and in my opinion a most dishonest sham. Let me quote the right hon. Gentleman himself. Dealing with the Liberal Government of 1895, he said—Whatever we do, let it be distinctly understood that the date of the dissolution cannot be far distant. I do not know whether you have watched the efforts of a courageous but 81 inexperienced cyclist, practising along a high road. You see him pursue a devious wavering course, now falling on one side, now on the other. You look at him, and wonder when the catastrophe will arrive. You cannot prophesy with any assurance; you cannot foresee with security what is the particular obstacle that will finally demolish him, but you see with absolute assurance that the obstacle cannot be far distant. It may be a Welsh ditch to the right, or an Irish bog to the left.Here let me interject the remark that there is something peculiarly gratifying and appropriate in the fact that the right hon. Gentleman, immediately after his attempt to rob Ireland of a part of her representation, should have made the acquaintance- of what he calls here "an Irish bog." Then he goes on—Three or four more by-elections of the kind we have recently experienced will be sufficient, without any House of Commons tactics at all, to do for the present Government what I think the whole country desires should be done for them, viz., to put them out of their pain. Common humanity suggests such a course, and I do not believe that even their most sanguine friends desire that a career so full of humiliation, so beset with dangers, should be unduly prolonged.I commend to the right hon. Gentleman his own words, which apply far more fairly to "the present situation than to that with reference to which he used them. He said that a very little more of the hostility of by-elections would be sufficient to end the Government. Yes, he was right; he knew the Government with which he was dealing. But we cannot trust to any number of by-elections to drive the right hon. Gentleman from his position long after he has lost the confidence of the country. We cannot say that it will be sufficient without any House of Commons tactics; we cannot trust to public opinion to drive the present Government out. Therefore, I believe it is the duty of all those who are in earnest in this matter to band themselves together to make the continued life of this Government in this Parliament impossible.
I may be told that I am threatening unconstitutional action. I answer that the whole foundation of the present position of the Government is unconstitutional. They are attempting to turn the Septennial Act into a limitation of the rights and liberties of the people and to change the very essence of the Constitution of this country.
82 According to the Constitution of America, when the President of the United States is elected he forms his Cabinet and holds office for four years irrespective of whether or not he commands the confidence of the Legislature. But the Constitution of this country is different. The spirit of the Constitution of this country is that the breath of the nostrils of Ministers is the confidence of the country and the public opinion behind it, and the moment that confidence is withdrawn a Ministry has no right or title to sit upon that bench. I say that the continuance in office of the present Government is a violation of the spirit of the Constitution, and for my part I believe it is the duty of all who value that Constitution to use every means that may be effective and at hand to drive the right hon. Gentleman from the position he occupies. I speak as a Free Lance, and my right hon. friends above the gangway must forgive me if, speaking for myself and my colleagues alone, I give perfectly candid expression to my conception of the constitutional duty which rests upon them. We are near the end of the session. If this had occurred earlier in the session it would have been easy for the Opposition to have brought the Government of the country by the present Ministry to a standstill. It is not so easy, I say, now, but still, in my opinion, it is possible, and I conceive it to be the duty of every man who loves the Constitution of this country, and of every man who is sincere when he professes a desire to drive the Government from office. I am not in the counsels of the Opposition and I know not what they may do, but this much I can promise — that so far as my colleagues and myself are concerned we will give and take no quarter. We will fight this out on small matters as well as on large, day and night, so long as this session lasts, and I believe that if that spirit animated the Opposition as a whole they would make short work of this Government of shreds and patches.
§ SIR J. FERGUSSON
(Manchester, N. E.) said he had never heard so extraordinary and unprecedented a doctrine as that just laid down to the effect that the opinion of the House of Commons was no test of the position and rights of a 83 Government. It struck at the very root of Parliamentary government. The Members of the House of Commons were not chargeable with desiring to prolong the life of the present Parliament for fear of meeting their constituents, and he believed the country generally would reject such an imputation. They had seen majorities in support of great and popular Ministers fall away when the action of those Ministers had failed to command the confidence of the House of Commons, but the fact that the present Government had been sustained generally by majorities practically equivalent to the difference between the Parties was a proof that they had not lost the confidence of the House, and that those who were their supporters in the past remained their supporters now. They were discussing a vote of want of confidence which was not on the lines they had anticipated. For the last two months a vote of censure had been threatened, impugning the conduct and the position of the Government, but it had been put off, first for one cause and then another, and it was only in the middle of last week that the Leader of the Opposition reminded the Prime Minister of his promise and asked for an early date to move a vote of censure. That day had arrived, and now they were told that the vote of censure by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwick would not be proceeded with. The Opposition at the present moment was being led by the hon. and learned Member for Waterford, and the Leader of the Opposition hardly touched the subject at all.
The speech of the First Lord of the Treasury had been followed by an attack upon the whole policy of the Government by the hon. and learned Member for Waterford, who said that those sitting on the Ministerial side were not in harmony. He had singled out as an example the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bristol, but the House knew very well that the right hon. Gentleman was not a man who would vote against his own conscience and opinions, and he had consistently supported the Government, being satisfied by their attitude. The hon. and learned Member had talked about the unanimous condemnation of the 84 Government at by-elections, but upon this point there had been much exaggeration. It was true that a majority of the by-elections had been decided against the Government, but that was not an uncommon occurrence when a Government had been in office for a considerable number of years. The hon. and learned Member said that the Government supporters were elected upon the cry for the prosecution of the war, but he could say from his own experience that that was not the case. At the last election his own majority was considerably larger than it had ever been before, but in his constituency the election was influenced by the education question, and he received a considerable number of Catholic votes. The Government had passed measures of the highest importance, and he believed that when the electors realised the importance of the legislation carried by the Government, the result would be somewhat different from that which hon. Gentlemen opposite had predicted. Those who had supported the Irish Land Act passed by the present Government, which was a great and liberal measure, were very much surprised at the attitude which was now being taken up by the Nationalist Party, but he supposed the Redistribution Bill was the head and front of their offending. With regard to what the hon. and learned Member for Waterford had said about Redistribution, no doubt the proposals of the Government would, if carried, reduce the number of the Irish representatives by one-fifth, end that must be distasteful to them; but those proposals were based, not upon a desire to reduce the influence of Ireland in the House of Commons, but b cause Ireland happened to be at the present moment over-represented.
The other night hon. Members representing Ireland brought forward a matter which they had at heart, and supported it with their whole Party, but the supporters of the Government did not then fully realise the importance of the occasion. There had been a dull debate on that occasion, and he was not very much surprised that some of the supporters of the Government did not take the question very 85 seriously. Usually, by the custom of Parliament, when a matter had been fully debated, a division was taken, but day after day, recently, hon. Members opposite had deliberately got up on the stroke of 7.30 and talked the question out in order to bring on a division just after nine o'clock, when the supporters of the Government were not present in full strength. It was impossible to overlook the fact that an effort was now being made to force the Government to resign. Votes of want of confidence in the Government had often been threatened but they had seldom been proceeded with, and the Prime Minister had always been willing to give opportunities for such Motions.
Important interests were concerned in a change of Government, and he was one of those who firmly believed that the foreign affairs of this country had been managed by the Government with unqualified success. The country owed a great deal to the Government for the way in which they had managed the foreign affairs of this country, and if hon. Gentlemen opposite were unmindful of the success in that regard which had attended the efforts of the Government they were about the only Parliament in Europe who were not sensible of it. This session no opportunity had been lost of attacking the Government and forcing divisions until it had been at last suggested in the House that a new Standing Order should be made to give every Monday for a vote of censure. The only result of that course of action had been to draw the Unionist Party more closely together in their desire to present a resolute front to hon. Gentlemen opposite. He believed that that resolute front would be maintained to the end, and that the Government would always be supported by a united and resolute Party.
§ MR. ASQUITH
, who was indistinctly heard, said: I have listened with care as well as with interest to the speech of the Prime Minister, and I confess that when the right hon. Gentleman sat down he left me in a state of considerable mental bewilderment. The right hon. Gentle- 86 man rose amid the remorseful cheers of the penitent unpaired, and he sat down, as far as I could discover, amid a general sigh of relief from that still larger number of his supporters who know that dissolution means to them a sentence of electoral death. But, as I have said, I find myself in a condition of considerable mental bewilderment. In the first place, the right hon. Gentleman ended without even making the declaration which it was the professed purpose of his rising to make, and it is only by inference from his predecents and general arguments that we are able to arrive at the conclusion that the Government intend, so far and so long as it can, never to resign, and never to dissolve.
There was another matter in the right hon. Gentleman's speech as to which I remained and still remain in the greatest possible obscurity, and that is what are the conceivable conditions which, in the right hon. Gentleman's opinion, render it constitutionally improper for a Government to retain office. We have in this case, as has been pointed out, the plainest possible signs, at any rate, of two states of things. In the first place, it cannot be denied that the Government have lost the confidence, if it ever possessed it since the time of the election during the war, of the great majority of the people of this country. The Secretary to the Board of Education was bold enough to interject the observation a short time ago— "That remains to be seen." I think it is seen by everybody except the hon. and learned Gentleman himself. If he is in doubt on a matter of such vital importance and keen interest to the country, why does he not join with us in urging upon his colleagues in the Government the expediency and propriety of at the earliest possible moment putting the question to the test? But it is also plain since the vote of last Thursday that the Government cannot count at any rate on the continuous confidence of a majority of this House. I will not refer again to the special circumstances which preceded and attended that vote — the Foreign Office meeting, the appeals of the Prime Minister, the urgent whip, the full House, the late hour of the evening 87 when the vote was taken, the importance of the subject— you have here a combination of circumstances which renders it impossible even for ingenuity to misconstrue the meaning of that vote. The fact is the vote is an indication that the Government have lost the support and confidence of the larger proportion of their followers. Yet it is under these circumstances that the Prime Minister represents it to us that it is the duty of the Government— he put it no less high than that— to retain office, and not to appeal to the country.
Now I should like to examine by what chain of argument the right hon. Gentleman arrives at that conclusion. The larger part of his speech dealt with what I may call, without offence I hope, an antiquarian retrospect. He went back to the time of the Melbourne Ministry, a Ministry which I always thought was notorious in history for its tenacity of office under all conditions, and he produced for our benefit a number of fossils from the political museum by way of precedents. But the right hon. Gentleman failed to give us a single case, and I do not think that either the Prime Minister or any of his colleagues could give us the case of a Ministry which during three years— for it is exactly three years since the right hon. Gentleman became head of the Government— has never been in a condition, not during a single month, in which it could appeal with confidence to the electors of the country. The voice of by-election after by-election, from the very day that the right hon. Gentleman assumed his present office down to the present moment, has pointed continuously and consistently to one conclusion. The only precedent to which he refers which bore even a superficial resemblance to present circumstances was that of Mr. Gladstone in 1873– 74, and there, as has been pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman entirely misrepresented its meaning. For Mr. Gladstone did the very two things neither of which the right hon. Gentleman will consent to do. What are those two things? In the first place, when Mr. Gladstone was defeated by a vote of the House in 1873, he resigned office.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I am speaking of the precedent of 1873– 74, and taking that precedent, I say, in the first place, that Mr. Gladstone, when defeated, resigned office. Will he follow that example?
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am loth to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but when he appeals to me so pointedly I must remind him that the division on which Mr. Gladstone resigned in 1873 was a division which he himself said was vital.
§ MR. ASQUITH
Of course, different people have different standards. In this instance a division takes place two nights after the Prime Minister has taken the pains to summon his followers, which I am not aware that Mr. Gladstone did in 1873. He summons his followers, and explains to them that it was vital to the fortunes of the Government that they should give continuous attendance, and yet within two nights he is defeated upon a most important vote, traversing the whole Irish policy of the Government. Certainly Mr. Gladstone would have considered that a vital question. I said Mr. Gladstone did two things neither of which the right hon. Gentleman will do. In the first place when defeated by a vote of the House he resigned. In the second place, we have it on record, that when after resuming office during the remaining months of 1873, he found by-election after by-election was going against him, he did the other thing which the right hon. Gentleman will not do. He dissolved. So that the precedent of 1873–74 is in point in precisely the opposite sense to that for which the right hon. Gentleman contends. You have lost the confidence of the House, and you have also lost the confidence of the country, and there are two course's, and two courses only, open to you, as Mr. Gladstone's precedent shows.
When the right hon, Gentleman was finishing off his precedents he said that at any rate there were no dissensions in the Cabinet. Well, Sir, when you have got rid by a gradual but effective process of every independent-mind in the Cabinet it is not to be expected that you should be much embarrassed by Cabinet troubles. There is another 89 circumstance on which I think the right hon. Gentleman rather prides himself, and which, I believe, formed the staple of his appeal to his Party— namely, the terrible consequences which may ensue if foreign relations are taken out of the hands of Gentlemen, who sit on the front bench opposite and another order of Statesmen take their place. On that point I will quote once more what the hon. and learned Member for Waterford has already cited— from Sir W. Anson's work on the Constitution‐It is possible for a Ministry to remain in office a considerable time after undergoing defeat on a vote of censure without any risk of breaking the law.And he adds—but the practical and vital objection against such action on the part of a Ministry will be found in the weakness of its position if it had to discuss critical diplomatic questions with foreign Powers.That is the position which the Government of the Prime Minister is going to occupy in the next few months. I suggest to the House as the real justification, the real intention, of the policy now announced this evening that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends, in defiance of the opinion of the country and after deliberately flouting a considered vote of the House, are going to spend a few more inglorious months in possession of office in order to tinker with the fiscal question, with a result, I am afraid, that may tend grievously to mislead the Colonies, to present this United Kingdom in the Councils of Europe with a disparaged and discredited authority, and at the same time to prepare the way for gerrymandering the constituencies of Great Britain and Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman the other night, after the vote was given, spoke of dignity and of the necessity of maintaining some ideal standard. Had we not better leave dignity out of the question? The two practical courses open to the right hon. Gentleman after the incident of last week were either to resign or to dissolve. He has taken neither course. But in taking the course which the Government are now taking, I venture to predict that they will be convicted and condemned, not merely before the bar of public opinion in this country, but before the tribunal of history, for the betrayal of 90 the trust which the nation has reposed in them, and that they Will be considered from this day forward till the time of their political death as a Government which is deprived of all moral and constitutional authority.
§ SIR EDGAR VINCENT (Exeter)
asked whether the right hon. Gentleman seriously contended that their dignity would be augmented by the Government taking action on the result of a mere chance division. Did the right hon. Gentleman put the vote on Thursday forward as one that represented in any degree the opinion of the House? So far from the Government having lost the confidence of those who supported it, there was no time in the last two years when the Government had been in possession of so loyal a majority. In the historical criticism offered on the Prime Minister's speech, the right hon. Gentleman had not cited an instance of a previous Government which had resigned on a snap division, or if hon. Members objected to the word snap he would say a false division, because it in no sense represented the considered and permanent opinion of the House. If hon. Members doubted the considered opinion of the House, let them take a division that evening and then state what the real opinion of the House was. He insisted that the point of historical interest raised by the present position of affairs was the constitutional importance of snap divisions, contending that the position of the House in the country would not be enhanced by chance divisions like that of last week superseding and over-riding votes of censure and votes of confidence placed before the House by the Government.
Nothing could be more dangerous to the proper administration of Government affairs than that those who were responsible to the country should be frightened by a chance division of that kind; a division which did not reflect the considered opinion of the House. The opinion which was formed with regard to the desirability of the Government resigning office surely depended largely on what were the causes which brought about the vote upon which the Government was defeated. It was surely not contended that the 91 decision of last week in the division lobbies was produced either by a division of opinion in the Conservative and Unionist Parties or any discontent at the action the Government had taken. It was produced solely by the excessive confidence engendered among the supporters of the Government by the great success of the Party meeting earlier in the week. Party meetings did always too much or too little. Members of the Unionist party found that the entire Party was so determined to act in unison that they over-rated their strength and placed too great a reliance each upon the other and too low an estimate upon the tactics of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The Prime Minister in the action he had now taken had not only done that which was best in the interests of the Empire, but he had also established a most important and far-reaching constitutional precedent; a precedent which hon. Gentlemen opposite would no doubt profit by at no distant date.
§ MR. CHURCHILL (Oldham)
said it had often been said that nothing ever happened in the House but the unexpected. The hon. Member to whom they had just listened had the good fortune to be brother of the hon. Member for Sheffield, who had just left the House. It was a long time since the House had heard the hon. Member and his brother in such close agreement. They had always been accustomed to look upon the hon. Member for Exeter as an antidote to the poison distilled by the hon. Member for Sheffield. In looking at the views of these two hon. Members he had always marvelled at the economy of nature which had contrived to grow from a single stock the nettle and the dock. They represented different schools of thought and of Party action but to-day they found common ground in doing all they possibly could to arrest a dissolution of Parliament and an early appeal to the people. But, whatever might be thought of the decision of the Prime Minister, few would question its memorable and lasting importance. The right hon. Gentleman had recognised the importance of the occasion and of his speech, and had followed his speech by affording the House an opportunity to discuss the 92 decision he had come to by moving the adjournment.
In considering whether any particular set of circumstances in the House or the Unionist Party necessarily involved resignation or dissolution, he submitted that the House ought to look at all the collective circumstances involving a decision one way or the other. The decision of the Prime Minister ignored the vote of last week, but this act did not stand alone. It was the last and latest link in a long chain of events which, taken together, constituted a Parliamentary and political situation which, in his belief, was without parallel. The last Parliament was dissolved eighteen months before the time allotted by the Septennial Act, although the Government was supported by a good majority. Now they saw a Parliament, without public support outside, and a Government defeated on a vote in the House, being carried on by the Prime Minister to the full limit of its legal time. The first maxim of constitutional doctrine deducible from the right hon. Gentleman's action was that public opinion should never be consulted when it was adverse to the Government; but if a majority could be snatched on the spur of the moment, then the Government was justified in asking the Sovereign to dissolve. The last general election was a national verdict, and it had been used for the unmingled purposes of Party. The power given to Lord Salisbury had been assumed by another with whom the nation had not yet had any direct dealings, and whose character the House had only gradually and lately discovered. That power was being arbitrarily exercised by a new Cabinet long after all the men of light and leading who were the strength of the Conservative Party had dissociated themselves from the Government. The new Government had raised vast new controversies in the most reckless manner, and, having done so, they had displayed much perverted ingenuity in preventing the House from arriving at a decision on them.
There had been an unexampled series of by-elections, which had filled even those in whose favour they had gone with wonder, but as the Government had grown weak in the country, their methods in 93 the House of Commons had become violent. Every rebuff inflicted on the Ministry had been turned on the House of Commons. They had had to pay by the loss of their liberties in the House of Commons for the assertion of national opinion. Supply and the whole of their controversial legislation had been carried by the guillotine, and no one could possibly doubt that they had the gravest reason for complaining as Parliamentarians of the treatment to which they had been subjected by the Prime Minister. But the right hon. Gentleman said that the opinion of the country did not matter, and that as lone as he was master of the House of Commons he was entitled to go on. But "the master of the House of Commons" had found it necessary to organise boycotts against the House, to absent himself from important debates, and to abandon resistance begun by himself against Resolutions directly censuring his conduct, which Resolutions now stood upon the Journals of the House. The Government had now been defeated in the House of Commons in a very important division, and as the Prime Minister persisted in refusing to accept the consequences of that vote there arose the gravest constitutional situation. Their unwritten constitution was one which required the observance of good faith and moral obligation on the part of those who worked it. They were confronted with the plain and naked assertion that a Minister having a majority which would at intervals vote him confidence was entitled to use that majority to the utmost limit which the Constitution allowed. That was the assertion which was made, and it was one which should be carefully and severely examined.
There were other reasons which it appeared had weighed with the Prime Minister far more than the historical precedents he had given. The first was the condition of foreign affairs. It was odd how much more acute foreign affairs had become since the fiscal controversy arose. The gravest crisis in foreign affairs always seemed "to coincide with some Party-embarrassment in the House. But if foreign affairs were critical, what a precious Government they had to deal 94 with the crisis— a Government defeated in the House of Commons and imploring its supporters to give them the support which would enable them to carry on the session to an end, those supporters acceding because they knew that when an election occurred they would return no more. That was the Government by which they were to be represented in difficult and important negotiations which, they were told, were being conducted. What a situation in which to ask the Prime Ministers to come from all parts of the Empire to meet a Government who must soon be ejected from office, and who were ready to offer what they had no right to give and to promise what they had no power to perform. Then August, it was said, was an unsuitable month for dissolution. If it were only June, before villadom had gone for its holidays! He wondered whether the right hon. Gentleman would find a suitable month to dissolve. All months would look rather unsuitable when they came close. August was a hot month, but would October be better? It would be bleak and cold, and it might be a loud and roaring month— a month in which it would be quite unsuitable for Ministers to turn out of the shelter of Downing Street. The House separated under a vague suggestion that the dissolution was to be held in October; he was sure that when October arrived one of these grave complications in foreign affairs would arise, and they would be told that the existence of the Empire depended on the situation being I controlled by the master hand of the only man who exhibited the virtues of patriotism. They would be told to defer the election until February, or April, or until the last possible month when the right hon. Gentleman could persuade his followers to give him the scanty and grudging support they accorded to him.
They had been told ad nauseam of the sacrifices which the Prime Minister made. The hon. Member did not deny that there had been sacrifices. The House ought not to under-rate or deny those sacrifices. Some of them must have been very galling to a proud man. There were, first, sacrifices of leisure, and then sacrifices of dignity. For two years the 95 Government of this country had been conducted ad interim. All the public Departments had been carried on from day to day and from hand to mouth, and it was difficult to exaggerate the damage done in consequence to administrative efficiency. Then there was the sacrifice of reputation. He had a great respect for the intelligence of the Prime Minister— almost as great as for the character of the Home Secretary; and he could not suppose that the six volumes of dummy addresses recently presented to the Prime Minister by his directions concealed from him the great change which had come over his reputation in the country and in the House. For some years the right hon. Gentleman led the House by the respect and affection with which he was regarded in all quarters. In future he would not continue to lead the House by the respect and affection of the Opposition at least. The sacrifices which office entailed the right hon. Gentleman imposed also on his most intimate friends and relatives. It had been written that the right hon. Gentleman stood between pride and duty. Pride said "go"; but duty said "stay." The right hon. Gentleman always observed the maxim of a modern writer that whenever an Englishman took or kept anything he wanted, he did it from a high sense of duty.
He would like to ask the attention of the House for a moment to the magnanimity of the Prime Minister. In order to appreciate that magnanimity it was necessary to examine the conduct of the Unionist Party. Their conduct to the Prime Minister had been characterised by a certain ingratitude. They knew he was in a difficult position; and, in spite of all warnings, they left the right hon. Gentleman in the lurch, an object of derision and a spectacle of ignominy to his political opponents. This was the Minister who for their sake invented the dinner hour, who arranged with his subordinates that obstruction should be practised from nine o'clock till eleven so that they should not be hurried, who secured them the longest holidays which Parliament had ever enjoyed, and who was at the present moment struggling in the face of odds to secure an adjournment of the House 96 in time for August 12th. This was the man who sent them at all hours of the day urgent telegrams requesting their attendance, at the public expense. Nevertheless, these hon. Gentlemen deserted the Prime Minister in the hour of need. The harm which was done on that occasion was irreparable. It was all very well for hon. Gentlemen to be penitent now; it was all very well for hon. Gentlemen to be penitent when they were barked back to heel by a jackal tribe of Jingo newspapers. The injury was complete and Lasting. The dignity of a Prime Minister, like a lady's virtue, was not susceptible of partial diminution. On Friday last a round -robin to the Prime Minister was signed by a number of Members. It was a stranger petition than had ever been sent in modern times by members of a representative body to the head of the Government. What was the burden of their prayer? "Save us from our fellow-countrymen, whatever happens, let us have no dissolution; under no circumstances leave us to the mercy of those we profess to represent; for God's sake stand between us and our constituents, if only for a month. "He wondered whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham had signed that round-robin. If he had, it would be a deplorable instance of the weakness of mankind, for he had gone about the country saying that he, at any rate, was eager for a dissolution. Why did the right hon. Gentleman not put that pressure on the Prime Minister which he could so easily put upon him to ensure that autumn dissolution which would enable him to bring his cause to the only test by which it could be judged? The magnanimity of the Prime Minister consisted in the fact that he practised the virtue of forgiveness. Whereas another Prime Minister might have taken a petty revenge on his followers and resigned office, the present Prime Minister at their appeal consented to continue the Government.
The Member for Waterford the other day exclaimed, "The farce is ended." He was wrong. The farce had been encored. By special request the performance would recommence. Suitably attired in the character of Pooh-Bah, the Prime Minister would resume those 97 intricate negotiations with the Government of Japan in which he was sup posed to be engaged at the present time. His brother would return to the elaboration of those schemes of Redistribution which, if they reached their logical conclusion, would secure the continuance of the Government in office until a very late period next year. The Home Secretary would once again place his commanding abilities at the disposal of the Crown The Lord Chancellor would turn with a weary sigh to the further administration of judicial patronage, the Secretary for India would resume, just at the point where it might have been interrupted, his edifying dispute with the Viceroy, and the Secretary for War would once again meet his Army Council— who almost thought they bad seen the last of him— and would persevere with his plans for encouraging and improving the Volunteers until the Volunteers had reached a total of 180,000. When he reflected upon the circumstances by which the Conservative Party were brought together upon the basis established by the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1885, and upon the great battles desperately fought and narrowly won by that Party, it was a marvel, melancholy even for an opponent to contemplate, to see that Party squandered irretrievably amid such floods of utter hypocrisy and cant.
He did not think the Opposition had any cause to regret the right hon. Gentleman's decision. Every day a minority held office before a general election was a day of danger and probably a day of loss. The inestimable value of the situation created by the vote of last Thursday and the speech of the Prime Minister that day must be apparent to anyone who would have to address the constituencies in future, and perhap take part in the next election. Whatever might be said, they were face to face with what was morally and practically a constitutional break-down. They were confronted with the spectacle of a Minister who was resolved to rule without the pretence of public support from the nation and in defiance of an adverse vote of the House of Commons. Those who believed in the doctrine that Governments derived their just powers from the consent of the 98 governed were bound to resist the continuation of this situation by every means in their power. The hon. and learned Member for Waterford in the course of his intervention in the debate proclaimed that it was his intention to fight inch by inch this session to its conclusion. He hoped the hon. and learned Gentleman would make that proclamation good. The humiliations of the Government were not yet ended; and opportunities remained, numerous and various, for pressing these. He believed that if every Member who resented the action taken by the right hon. Gentleman would fight him inch by inch and word by word the session could not be concluded at all by this Ministry. And he was sure that public opinion outside the House would approve and acclaim any action which might be taken by the constitutional Opposition to terminate a situation which was as dangerous as it was disgraceful, and to dismiss from unlawful power a Minister who had flouted the traditions of Parliament and dishonoured the service of the Crown.
§ COLONEL SAUNDERSON (Armagh, N.)
When the hon. and learned Member for Waterford speaks for the Irish Members, I am bound to follow at some time or another and speak for those that I represent, and that is not a very insignificant Party. I listened with attention to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Life. It was a speech which brought back to my mind the memories of long past years. I have been a Member of this House for a very long time, and I have heard speeches made by both Parties when it suited them, but I never knew a Government which had the confidence of the Opposition, and I have never known an Opposition which did not point out to the Government of the day that it had lost the confidence of the country. I have no doubt when the time arrives for the present Ministerialists to cross the floor of the House they will make use of the same arguments.
I have listened with attention to the speech of the Member for Waterford. On Thursday night that hon. Member spoke almost with violence, and certainly with 99 excitement, and appeared to be the new Leader of the Radical Party. Today I see that he is not the Leader but the master of the Radical Party. Members of the Front Opposition Bench talk about what they intend to do in the future, but what they will actually do depends upon the advice given by the hon. Member for Waterford. The hon. Member says that the Government have lost the confidence of the House. Then why do the Opposition not divide? As a matter of fact, the last thing the Opposition want is a deciding vote. The supporters of the Government ask for a division. I do not call the division of Thursday night a snap division, I look upon it in a very serious light. But whatever may have been the causes of the abstention of Unionist Members, it was certainly not because they had lost confidence in the Prime Minister. Speaking for my Unionist colleages from Ireland, and indeed for all Unionists, I would say that their confidence in the Prime Minister has not wavered one jot. All Governments make mistakes. This Government has made mistakes and the next will do likewise. But the Unionist Party still regard the Prime Minister as deserving of their heartiest support. The Member for Waterford has attacked the Government for not maintaining the Constitution— that Constitution which he has tried to wreck. I hope from that remark that, after all, constitutional instincts are gradually finding their way into the hon. Member's heart.
I want to know of any case within the last fifty or a hundred years of a Government resigning with a majority of seventy in the House of Commons. I see no constitutional reason for resigning. The hon. Member says that even if the Government do not resign the Chief Secretary for Ireland should resign because a Bill he has introduced has been rejected. In that case the Chancellor of the Exchequer should also resign. The whole Government should resign, because the whole Government are responsible for the Bill.
§ MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
What Bill? The division was on the Vote for the Land Commissioners?
§ COLONEL SAUNDERSON
Which arose out of the Bill. All I can say is this, that my colleagues and myself, and I know that I speak for every law-abiding man in Ireland in this matter, have not had a Chief Secretary for years past in whom they have had more implicit confidence. He has one very great quality which fits him for his post, namely, untiring determination. If hon. Members opposite who represent Ireland spoke with open minds as well as open mouths they would agree with me when I say that Irishmen admire a great man, a courageous, and determined man. My right hon. friend has shown, to my mind, that he is fully aware of what Ireland requires, and that he is determined that law and order shall be preserved. It is most monstrous that this House should say that because of the vote the other night the Government should resign. The longer the right hon. Gentleman governs the better for the country. All I can say is that, whatever course the Government takes, I and my colleagues are not in the least afraid to meet our constituents. Whether that visit takes place next October or next year, and whether the Party now in power is turned out of office by a majority of the other side or not, the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister will always receive the support of the minority of which I am a member.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)
said he never listened to a speech such as that which had just been delivered without feelings of great sorrow. Nothing filled him with greater sorrow than seeing an Irishman rejoice at the misfortunes of Ireland, and that was the spectacle to which they had been treated by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Armagh. The hon. and gallant Gentleman had been able to comfort the Prime Minister by saying that although the House of Commons had censured the Government on the vote given last Thursday, they had the support of the Orange Party. The hon. and gallant Gentleman recurred to the point with regard to the position of the Chief Secretary. That right hon. Gentleman introduced within two years of what was to be the last Land Act for Ireland 101 a proposal for a new Land Act. Within a few hours of that the House denounced Ibis policy and yet he elected to retain office. By what right? The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary ought -to have at once resigned in the face of the vote of the House. The hon. and gallant Gentleman was always against his country, and now supported a Government because they upheld a Union which the hon. and gallant Gentleman's grandfather was patriotic enough to vote against.
The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister had spoken for fifty-five minutes, and during that time had mentioned every subject under Heaven except one as a reason for remaining in office, and that was the will of the people. In point of fact the right hon. Gentleman seemed to live in the eighteenth instead of the twentieth century. He had stated when a Government should resign and when it should remain in office, but never once had he mentioned the will of the people. He was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had had the grace to abandon the defence made for him by the Party Press. The newspapers declared that the Government ought to stop in office because of the peculiarly delicate position of foreign and international relations. That was simply an impudent pretence that the right hon. Gentleman alone was the guardian of our international affairs. The right hon. Gentleman contended that his continuance in office was necessary in the interest of the country; that the Heaven-sent Ministers opposite were the only Gentlemen who could safeguard the interests of the country; that Ireland would be ruined if deprived of the services of the Chief Secretary. He had only to state the proposition to show its absurdity. Remove the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister from the Government and the world would be unconscious of the names of the rest of the Ministers, and within six weeks of their relinguishing office the world would have forgotten them. Yet these were the men who were supposed to stand between the Empire and ruin.
The right hon. Gentleman said there were no dissensions in the Cabinet.
102 The right hon. Gentleman might as well have spoken of the revolt of a number of clerks against their employer as a revolt in the Cabinet. The reason there was no dissension in the Cabinet was that by a gradual but effective process every man with an independent mind had been driven from it. The right hon. Gentleman did not seem to realise that the people had a right to have any voice in the House of Commons and in the appointment of the Ministers of the Government which governed their country. No Minister had a right to exist except by the will of the people. The right hon. Gentleman was doing one of the most fatal things a Conservative Minister ever did. He was destroying the interest of the people in the Government of their own country. In election after election in every part of the United Kingdom (in country and in town) for the past three years the country had declared to the Prime Minister that neither he nor his colleagues on the Front Bench represented the views of the country. The House of Commons had emphasized that by the vote of censure on certain Estimates in the House, but even if the Government had had on that occasion a majority of eighty their right to exist only depended on the will of the people. Their only right to be in that House was as the representatives of the people, to voice the views of the people, and therefore if it were proved that the voice of the people was on one side and the voice of the Government was on the other, the Government's retention of office was as much an act of usurpation as any other act of usurpation that had ever taken place
Over, and over again the right hon. Gentleman had said that a dissolution now would be disastrous. The moment a Government came to that conclusion that Government ought to be dissolved. The hon. Member for Oldham had used strong language with regard to the right hon. Gentleman. He would make no personal attack on the right hon. Gentleman; he would only say that if it were proved to him that he had ceased to represent the views of his constituents and was advocating a policy which did not coincide with their views he would 103 consider himself a dishonourable and dishonoured man. It was not for him to press his code of political honour and duty upon other people, but he said emphatically that any Minister, whatever his gifts or character might be, who retained office against the will of the country dishonoured himself. Some allusion had been made to the institutions of America, one of which was to have elections at regular dates, but he had always held that the system adopted in this country was much more elastic and kept the House much more in touch with the people. The best House of Commons he recollected was that of 1885, which lasted exactly six months.
The right hon. Gentleman had referred to the examples and teachings of Mr. Gladstone, but could any hon. Gentleman conceive Mr. Gladstone, the soul of honour and political courage, being in the position of the present Prime Minister— with all respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, he was fouling and calumniating the name of Mr. Gladstone by introducing it in this regard. Mr. Gladstone dissolved in 1874 when he had not a tenth of the warnings from the people of this country that the right hon. Gentleman had had, and one of the reasons he gave for resigning was that a few by-elections had gone against him. He would never have held office on sufferance. They were told that if the Government dissolved the country would not get the treatment it had hitherto received from foreign Powers; that Count von Bülow and M. Rouvier and the Shah or Bey or Sultan of Morocco, whatever his title might be, would actually cease to tremble in their shoes if this country were deprived of the services of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the Secretary of State for War, and other intellectual Titans on the Treasury Bench. Going back to 1886, Mr. Gladstone then brought in a great policy and was defeated by a majority of thirty. Everybody knew that next day Mr. Gladstone could have got a vote of confidence if he had reconsidered his proposals and changed his Bill into a series of Resolutions and consented to postpone his proposals from the end of the session to an autumn session. But Mr. Gladstone was not the man to do 104 that. He brought in a great policy which, he thought was good for England and Ireland, and time had proved the wisdom and justice of his conclusions. When that policy was defeated he appealed to the country. He was beaten in the country, but was it not more honourable to be beaten in that way than to hang on to power like a poor servile limpet.
It had been stated that the country would lose its influence in the councils of the world if the Government went out of office, but he had always understood that the power of a Government with foreign nations was in exact proportion to its power in its own country. What constituted the strength of the Government? The support of the people whom it governed. The right hon. Gentleman had only one thing in his mind and that was the Septennial Act-His theory was, "Let me get in, in any wav you like. Let me get in upon a vote for the settlement of a war which I say is over, but which is not over, and when I am in I have the Septennial Act and I will live by Parliamentary intrigue instead of by popular vote." Parliamentary intrigue in the 20th century I It might have been all very well in the-days of Walpole, but at this time of democratic Government and popular franchise for a Prime Minister to have the audacity to declare that he could rule in spite of the will of the people was perhaps the boldest piece of effrontery-that House had ever seen. It recalled to his mind the day of Lord Strafford, but then Lord Strafford was playing for his head and lost it. The right hon. Gentleman was playing to keep the one Government in office that stood between the country and its sentiments. The demoralising lesson that the right hon. Gentleman was now putting before the country was that whatever the people might think and whatever they might do he was going to continue in office.
§ MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
asked whether the Government proposed to reinstate the Vote of Thursday last and to take a fresh division upon it. There seemed to be an idea abroad that the division was taken upon the Chief Secretary's financial proposals-It was nothing of the kind. Those proposals were to be the subject of a 105 Bill. The discussion took place upon the issue of a set of regulations, which a majority of the House held to have been contrived for the purpose of stopping the operation of what might be called the philanthropic portion of the Land Act in the West of Ireland. He therefore desired to know whether the Vote was to be reinstated and discussed afresh, and whether the set of regulations was to stand and remain n the hands of the Commissioners who were administering the Act.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
said he could not regard this matter with the same lightness and geniality with which it had been dealt with by the First Lord of the Treasury. He had a profound respect for that House, and believed in its traditions. He was convinced that that House alone stood between the country and anarchy on the one hand and despotism on the other. Therefore he could not dismiss a vote of that House with absolute disregard, not to say contempt. Nor could he suppose that the House ceased to be the House because the Prime Minister and his colleagues were absent from it. He believed that on the evening when the Prime Minister's policy of retaliation was condemned the House was still the House although the Prime Minister was absent, and that the decision arrived at nemine contradicente was a decision of the whole House. So long as he was a Member of that House and a student of the British Constitution nothing would induce him to admit that the mere absence of the placemen on the front bench and their followers destroyed the House of Commons or invalidated its decisions. For him, therefore, the event of Thursday last was not the first, but the second, defeat of the Government in that House that session.
It was said that the Vote was on a "mere Estimate." But an Estimate was the settled conviction of His Majesty's Government, arrived at after consultation with all its members and the permanent officials, and if the House reduced that Estimate by a single shilling it was a vote of want of con- 106 fidence in the Government. He was told by the notice he received on Thursday last that the debate in the evening would prove unexpectedly lively, and would be followed by an important division. That was the language of the Patronage Secretary. The Prime Minister, however, did not regard it as an important division at all; to him it was unimportant, and could be entirely neglected, forgotten, and put aside. But that was not his view on Thursday night. He then recognised it as an important: division, and said chat two alternatives presented themselves— either that the Government should take some serious step, or that the House should be asked to reverse the vote. The proposal was either to repropose the Vote or to reverse it. But how could the right hon. Gentleman repropose the Vote? It was passed. Nor could he propose to increase the amount by £100 on the Report stage. The only thing that could be done was to move the recommittal of the Vote, and then they would have the whole debate over again. Toe present debate was no revision of the vote of Thursday last; it was merely an inconclusive discussion, leading perhaps to an inconclusive vote which would mean nothing.
The right hon. Gentleman had quoted precedents for disregarding the opinion of the country and the votes of the House of Commons. A famous precedent was that of William Pitt, and that was rather the other way. He had vote after vote cast against him in that House, Address after Address was moved to the Crown for his removal from office, but he endured them. Why? Because he knew that the country was with him, and that if he dissolved Parliament he would come back with a large united Party behind him. Pitt was the pilot who weathered the storm; he did not pretend that there was no storm. He trod the deck, weathered the storm, and when he went to the country he returned with a vast majority which he used in the service of the country. Had the Prime Minister any such expectation as that? Had he Pitt's reason for disregarding a vote to that House? He, at any rate, could not take the view of his right hon. friend that a vote of that House could be disregarded at all. Respect for that House 107 and regard for the Party of which he was the leader should have dictated a different course from that which his right hon. friend had taken. He was not bound to judge of the honour and duty of the Government; he would leave that to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who thought himself competent to judge anything. But he had a right to some voice when the question was that of the dignity of the House of which he was a humble Member, and he held that proper respect and regard was not paid to the House when a Minister came down and suggested that a vote given under the circumstances of Thursday last— a vote specially important because the Chief Secretary devoted almost the whole of his speech to a Bill that he proposed to introduce to remedy the complete breakdown of the ludicrous system of finance embodied in the Land Act of 1903— should be disregarded. He was sorry for the decision the right hon. Gentleman had arrived at. He did not think it would conduce to the profit of, the Party or to the orderliness of debate in the House. He believed it was a mistaken decision, and he was convinced that before long the right hon. Gentleman himself would come to the same conclusion.
§ MR. LLOYD-GEORGE (Carnarvon Boroughs)
said the Prime Minister had come to what he considered was a very grave decision. He had quoted a long list of precedents, but not one of them had anything to do with the present circumstances. He had quoted cases where Ministers had been defeated over and over again in Committee of the House. But that had nothing whatever to do with this case from first to last. In fact, this Government was about the first that had ever made it a question of confidence that the House should carry Bills through Committee absolutely without amendment. The right hon. Gentleman had quoted Mr. Gladstone's letter to Lord Granville but he did not quote Mr. Gladstone's speech in 1874 in which he apologised to the House for not dissolving in 1873 when it was perfectly clear that the country was against him. Mr. Gladstone said on that occasion—It is repugnant to my feelings and not compatible with the best interests of the country 108 that a Government should continue to govern even with a numerical majority, when there are daily increasing evidences that it no longer represents the will and opinion of the constituencies. That is the regret of which I have to make frank expression.It was perfectly clear to any impartial observer that the Prime Minister had lost the confidence of that House in the-real Parliamentary sense. [MINISTERIAL. cries of "No."] The week before last supporters of the Government went on discussing a small matter on the Navy Estimates for two and a half hours because they had not a majority in the House. It was true that when the closure was moved they all went into one lobby, but that was a well-known Parliamentary device for extending the time of the division in order that a further opportunity should be given to the laggards to-arrive. Then the Prime Minister summoned that extraordinary and mysterious meeting at the Foreign Office, at which he called upon his followers for loyal support to the end of the session, and he got his answer on Thursday last. The Prime Minister knew that he did not command the confidence of his supporters. [MINISTERIAL cries of "No, no!"] The vote taken in 1895 was not a vote of confidence in the Ministry but a vote of want of confidence kb the constituencies. The country had expressed its opinion and the Prime Minister knew that he had not the confidence of the country and he could easily prove that he never had had its confidence. What he said was practically that he would go to the constituencies, weather permitting. The Prime Minister was in a balloon with the gas escaping, looking for a safe place to descend. He was crossing a stormy sea and of course did not want to descend.
They all saw the pitiable spectacle on Friday of hon. Members trooping into the Chief Whip's office and supplicating the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister, and begging them not to send them to their constituencies. There was not a saint in the calendar who had ever been appealed to so earnestly as the Chief Whip was appealed to on that occasion. Why did the Prime Minister call that miserable abject spectacle of Parliamentary cowardice 109 by the name of confidence, because it was nothing of the kind. The Prime Minister knew very well what was going to happen to him and he could not take his punishment like a man. That was the real difference between the Prime Minister and Mr. Gladstone. The supporters of the Government had begged the Prime Minister and his colleagues not to resign, and they had graciously consented as a result of those entreaties still to retain high office and high position in response to the humble prayers of their followers. Yielding to the entreaties of his followers, the Prime Minister consented to retain office, and a supporter in the Press called this magnanimity. Why it was evident from the demeanour of the Prime Minister on Thursday night that, vexed and upset as he was ["No, no!"] the Prime Minister was making a feeble clutch at that office which was slipping out of his hands, and, as one of his greatest Parliamentary supporters had told him, in the interests of his Party and in the interests of the country he ought to go. He remembered that in his school books he used to read something about the panther, and he read that the panther was a graceful but a greedy animal, and when the panther was shot and bleeding to death he would still go on devouring his food as long as he could. That was the position of the Government, but in their case they did not call it greed but imperturbability, and some Unionist papers called it magnanimity. He preferred the old Saxon word. The Prime Minister had not got the confidence of the country and he never had it. From the very moment the Prime Minister came into office it was perfectly clear that he never had the confidence of the country. The Government had been doing work since the Prime Minister took office which had never been submitted to the country for approval. And they were in the position of doing work which had never been ordered.
The Prime Minister practically said, "If I go what will happen to the Empire?" The Prime Minister was tie last man in the world who ought to put that forward. There had been great Ministers in the past who at he end of a great career had, by showing a great reluctance to quit 110 office, rather incurred the derision and contempt of their contemporaries and of history. But those were cases where there was some justification far believing that if they quitted office the country would suffer. Those were Ministers who found their country weak, poor, and uninfluential, but they left it strong and prosperous. What about the Prime Minister? Could that be said about him? Take the whole four years of his Premiership. No Minister in this country had ever before crowded into such a short career so many acknowledged blunders and mistakes. He started his career with a great blunder, with an acknowledged political blunder, namely, the Education Act. [MINISTERIAL cries of "No, no !"] Those cries were a very feeble defence of the Education Act, and he did not require any better justification than the absolute feebleness of those interruptions. He repeated that the Education Act was an acknowledged political blunder. The Prime Minister had proceeded from blunder to blunder; he had blundered about the Army corps and in his attempts to reform military affairs generally, and he had ended with his Redistribution proposals. All these blunders had occurred in a very short career, and what right had the Prime Minister to claim that if he left office now this country would suffer in regard to any of its interests. The Prime Minister was the last man in the world who ought to make that claim. Take his Party; he was holding office for the sake of his Party. How did he find that Party? He found it strong and united with the support of the country behind it, but he was leading it divided, distracted, unpopular, weak, and on the brink of a great catastrophe. What right had the Prime Minister to claim that he was the only man to save the Empire from any point of view?
It was all very well for hon. Members opposite to suggest that this was all due to the fiscal question. He had witnessed how skilfully the right hon. Gentleman had manæuvred things to save not only the country but his own Party. They had been told that "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." There were the angels on the Front Ministerial Bench, and there were the fools opposite. The 111 Prime Minister had lost his hold upon the country before the fiscal question was ever raised. For the Prime Minister to pretend that he was the only one capable of dealing with the present situation was an idle pretence which was not supported by the facts of the case. In order to stick to office the Prime Minister was doing things which he believed he would have been ashamed to do in any ordinary transactions of life.
What had the Prime Minister done during the last three or four years in order to retain office? He recollected that two or three years ago the right hon. Gentleman found that he could not hold office without the support of the Irish Members on the Education Act. He created disaffection in his own ranks and a hundred men petitioned him against the Bill. They were mostly absent throughout the proceedings, and the Prime Minister wanted the support of the Irish Members to carry through the Bill. What did he do? He instituted a new regime in Ireland and (ailed upon a great and distinguished public servant who honestly and straightforwardly told him he was a Home Ruler. The Prime Minister, through his servant, said that was no objection, and he led the Irish to expect Catholic Universities, and devolution, which would be tantamount to Home Rule. He kept that going through the whole of that session, and he kept it going through a second session when he made his licensing proposals and when he could not have kept a majority in the House. Then came the time when that constituted a serious danger to his retaining power. Another section of his supporters said, "If you keep this going we shall vote against you." The Prime Minister without the slightest compunction threw over that distinguished public servant who had sacrificed a great career in order to serve him faithfully. He sacrificed his own friends in the Cabinet. What happened next? He found the magistrates in this country administering the law. That was a source of danger to his continuance in office, because it irritated a powerful section of his supporters, the brewers. They went to him and said, "If this sort of thing continues, we shall vote against you." 112 Then the Prime Minister, the guardian of law and order of this country, without any scruple denounced the administrators of the law because they were carrying out the law of the land, in order to continue in the office which the Government clung to.
What had the Prime Minister done that session? In the winter there was a genuine cry of distress from the unemployed which it was impossible for any Minister to disregard. The Prime Minister brought in a Bill and made use of it as an excuse to continue the life of his Ministry and his Parliament. Then he found that that was a danger to him. He had set up a principle which they would not hear the end of for many years, if not for generations, in this country, thoughtlessly and recklessly. When he found that a source of danger to his Ministry, having raised false hopes in the minds of these wretched people, what did he do? Just as unscrupulously he sacrificed them and made the wretchedness, poverty, misery, and anxieties of these poor people out of employment, mere pawns in the game of retaining office. Tariff reform! The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham said the trade of this country was in danger; that its industries were in peril. After all, we depended on our commerce and industries in this country, and if that were true it ought to be attended to. What did the Prime Minister do? He said, "Yes, that is true, "and he wrote a great pamphlet to say so, and he delivered a great speech to support that contention. Then he found therein also a source of danger to the life of his Ministry, and he hung it up and postponed it. He treated it as if it were of no consequence, and made a free trade speech at Edinburgh one day, while he had on another made a protectionist speech at Sheffield. All his, on which the life of the people depended, he trifled with, treating it as if it were all a matter of keeping him in office. Any continuance of that state of things was a danger to the community. It was a disgrace to the House of Commons and to the Constitution.
§ SIR EDWARD GREY (Northumberland, Berwick)
I am going to comment on some of the debate, but I have no 113 comment to offer on the Prime Minister's speech. It dealt, it seemed to me, with points strictly in order, but not the least relevant to the circumstances in which we are placed. I care nothing for precedents in this matter. There are none. They do not apply, and I do not think that when we come to look, not into the precedents, but into the actual circumstances in which we are placed, there has been a word said in the debate so far— strong as much of that language has been— which is a whit too strong in condemnation of the line which the Government have taken. The hon. and learned Member for Waterford spoke strongly, but not a bit too strongly. Besides strong language on the general situation there has been a strong personal note. The personal note was used by my hon. friend who has just sat down, and used by him, I think, without any personal animus, I know it was used with effect, and the personal note is of the essence of the case. It is on the personal aspect that I take part in this debate, and I do it without any personal animus. I have sometimes received from right hon. Gentlemen opposite compliment, I have invaluably received courtesy, I have no personal inclination to gratify whatever in speaking harshly of the Prime Minister's conduct; but his conduct is of the essence of the case. The important personalities who were his colleagues are his colleagues no longer. He stands as the one personality of his Government on whom the whole responsibility must fall for the course he has taken.
I said precedents did not apply to the course which the right hon. Gentleman is taking. I say so because, in my opinion, for the last two years in attempting to drag the House of Commons through work under the conditions to which he has kept it he has done great wrong to the House and the country, and I believe in every way he has done great damage to his own position and reputation. He has a three-fold personal position. He is leader of the Party opposite; he is Prime Minister of the country; and he is Leader of the whole House of Commons. I take first of all his position with regard to his own Party. We are to be told 114 that that remains unimpaired. It is as good as it ever was. I am sorry for it, for I thought two years ago it had been better than to-day, and I do not envy that position such as it is today. The Prime Minister says he can still get a vote of confidence from his Party, that if the Government come down and ask deliberately a vote "Aye" or "No, "whether they prefer him or us, they will vote for him. Yes, if they are given plenty of notice. They will do that on a set occasion, but they do not care for his policy enough to be here to support him regularly. What are vote? of confidence worth on these conditions? It was not merely on Thursday night that they were not here to support him. What made the catastrophe on Thursday night was the fact that the division came at an hour when it was not possible to continue the debate. The situation happened to be on Thursday night what it had been numberless times early in the evening. The Government have constantly been without a majority in this House, but they have always hitherto been able to talk against time and to prolong the situation when without a majority. They could not do it on Thursday night, and the result was apparent then which would have been apparent constantly in the session at times inconvenient to the Government. Support of that kind is not support which can be made worth having by a vote of confidence from time to time.
What is the Prime Minister's position with regard to his own Party? His own Party is not united; there are two sections, irreconcilable, and opposed to each other. They both support the Prime Minister. Why? Each of them supports him in the expectation that in the long run he will throw over the other; and he must know that that is the situation. It is a false position for any man to occupy, and it is a lamentable condition on which to hold the office which he holds. And the mischief which has been wrought in this House arises from this— that for some two years the Prime Minister has been in that position, an inherently false position, and that time after time he has had to make attempts in the House of Commons and in the country to prove that that false position 115 is logically tenable. There can be nothing more calculated to make the House incapable of doing its work than that it should feel that the Leader of the House is himself in a false position which he is trying from time to time to defend by ingenious logic; and that they should know that the result of being in a false position is that the House, too, is in a false position. I am sure this has affected his position in the country. He has demurred to our interpretation of the meaning of the by-elections in the country. They are the only means by which at present we can gauge the opinion of the country, and their comment has been strong enough.
What I am most desirous to show is that the position of the Leader of the House has been impaired apart from his position as Leader of his own Party. He has for two years taught the House to go on doing its ordinary work in the midst of the confusion of the fiscal question— a confusion for which he is responsible. He was not the first to raise the question; the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham raised the question first with the consent of the Prime Minister; but I have no complaint to make of the Member for West Birmingham as regards the methods he has adopted. He has not caused confusion either in the House or outside of it. He has fought openly for victory on a great question, and the Prime Minister has played for time. He has gained time, but he has gained it, I believe, at the expense of his own reputation, and I am sure at the expense of the reputation of the House of Commons. For two years we have seen a great matter of controversy in the country, and constant attempts made 116 to debar the House of Commons from deliberating on it, and from influencing the opinion of the country. They have been made by the Leader of the House of Commons, and it has been his object to keep the House of Commons in a state of suspense and confusion. That is bound to affect his position as Leader of the whole House.
The right hon. and gallant Member for North Armagh said just now that the right hon. Gentleman's position was the ordinary one; that he did not command the confidence of the two Parties on this side of the House. That is the normal position of the Opposition, which does not give its confidence to him, but that does not comprise the whole truth. Every Leader of the House whom I have known, although he might not have had the confidence of the Opposition, has had personally an influence and an authority which you cannot define, but of which the whole House has been sensible, and which has been invaluable in critical moments to the House of Commons. Two years ago the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister had as large a share of that as anyone I have ever seen in the House of Commons. The asset of personal goodwill towards him from the House as a whole was very great. I fear it is that position which has been impaired, because he has deliberately endeavoured to prevent both, the House and the country from facing the great question which is before it, and must be before it, for some time to come, because it seemed to him in the interests of his whole Party it was not convenient for him to take it up. That has impaired, and must have impaired under present conditions, that mutual respect between 117 the Leader of the House and the House, without which I do not think it is possible that the dignity or prestige, honour, and order of the House of Commons can be preserved. I think the House of Commons has been in an intolerable position. The Prime Minister has an opportunity, an intelligible and reasonable opportunity, of putting an end to that position; but he apparently prefers to keep it in that position in which it has been for two years, and to ask it to continue its work not only now, but, as far as we know, for another session.
I suppose his supporters will say that foreign affairs are at the moment rather critical. Was there ever a time during the last ten years that that could not be said? They began with the Jameson Raid. Then we had various excursions into foreign affairs. Then there was the war. Then there was the peace. Then there was the Japanese Alliance, then the entente with France, now the Japanese Alliance again, and, when that was concluded, a war in the Far East, then the question of peace in the Far East, then when all this is exhausted there will be the perennial question of South Africa. We have been for ten years in a critical state of foreign affairs, and if this Government remains in office we shall continue for ten years more. If the critical state of foreign affairs is the reason why the Prime Minister does not resign, or dissolve, he had better take measures to extend the Septennial Act. Does he expect to get any good result in Parliament from prolonging the life of the present Government? The last election took place upon the war, and it could not have counted as an ordinary election. To all intents and 118 purposes this House of Commons is ten years old. Does the Prime Minister suppose he can restore it to a vigorous and healthy condition now? He knows he cannot and the House knows he cannot, because they know it is out of touch with the country as a whole. The longer the Government attempts to go on keeping the House of Commons working, the more they will damage the House of Commons as an institution, and the longer they go on, I sincerely hope and trust, the greater will be the resentment of the country when they have the courage to appeal to it.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
The right hon. Baronet who has just sat down prefaced his speech by announcing that he agreed with the personal attacks made upon myself by certain preceding speakers, and that he meant to follow their example. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he has totally failed to follow that example. Perhaps from want of habit and practice his attempts at personal invective have fallen incomparably short of those whom he set up as his models; and, much as I may have to complain of the justice of his attacks, at all events I have nothing to say against his taste. I do not know that I can pass the same eulogium upon two other hon. Gentlemen who have spoken. The hon. Member for the Carnarvon Boroughs made a very characteristic speech, perhaps in nothing more characteristic than in what he professed to put before the House as an account of the political transactions of the last two or three years. It as much resembled the actual facts of the case as the Arabian Nights resembled the ordinary episodes of domestic life in the East. It was the pure creation of a fantastic and, in this 119 case, somewhat malevolent imagination. At all events, it did not, and could not, afford the House the smallest ground OE which either to praise or to condemn the conduct which. His Majesty's Government have taken on the present occasion. As for the junior Member for Oldham, his speech was certainly not remarkable for good taste, and as I have always taken an interest in that hon. Gentleman's career, I should certainly, if I thought it the least good, offer him some advice on that particular subject. But I take it that good taste is not a thing that can be acquired by industry, and that even advice of the most heartfelt and genuine description would entirely fail in its effect if I were to offer it to him. But on another point I think I may give him some advice which may be useful to him in the course of what I hope will be a long and distinguished career. It is not, on the whole, desirable to come down to this House with invective which is both prepared and violent. The House will tolerate, and very rightly tolerate, almost anything within the rule of order which evidently springs from a genuine indignation aroused by the collision of debate; but to come down with these prepared phrases is not usually successful and, at all events, I do not think it was very successful on the present occasion. If there is preparation there should be more finish, and if there is so much violence there should certainly be more obvious veracity of feeling.
But I pass from a phase of the debate which has been simply a series of personal attacks upon myself I pass from it because, to my mind, in spite of the opposite view of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, that is wholly 120 irrelevant to the issue before the House. I may have every crime which the invention of the hon. Member for Carnarvon can suggest; I may be guilty of every dishonourable motive which the anxious preparation of the hon. Member for Oldham may enable him to see. [OPPOSITION cries of "Oh."]Did you hear the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham? [Cries of "Yes."] I think I am dealing with it in a very moderate spirit. But that can have nothing to do with the issue before us. If I deserve all the attacks that have been made upon me, it is a very good reason why I should resign. I grant that certainly, and no doubt if the pictures of successive Prime Ministers were to be painted by their political opponents in moments of passion and were to be regarded as true, they ought to resign probably once in every three weeks. But, after all, it is not my character that is in question. It may be as black as hon. Gentlemen opposite have chosen to picture. I may be the greedy office-seeker which I appear in their lurid imaginations, though I would point out to the House that there is a certain lack of humour when Gentlemen like the Member for Carnarvon and the Member for Oldham, and even, I must add, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwick, are so frantically indigo ant with what they call my clinging to office, the alternative being that they should get office. I suppose two out of the three Gentlemen I have mentioned are certain to get office. [An HON. MEMBER: The country is with them.] I hear some one say that they have the country behind them. After all, the appetite for office may be a very honourable appetite, but there is something almost grotesque in those who want to snatch from the 121 present possessors of power that very power; that they should fill their speeches with personal accusations of an indecent clinging to office against those whom they desire to despoil of that privilege, if privilege it be. In truth, I should never have thought of making insinuations or recriminations against others; but hon. Gentlemen have spent three hours in making them against me. [An HON. MEMBER: Is that the best you can say?] Though I agree with the hon. Gentleman who courteously interrupts me that it is irrelevant to the issue before us, I think it is worth saying.
There is another accusation which is more than usually absurd, which is that I have asked the House to violate the ordinary Parliamentary traditions with regard to the resignation of Ministers because I claim to be the only individual who can manage the foreign affairs of this country. In the first place, it is the Government who are responsible, and not I individually, for the foreign affairs of this country. In the second place, I have never suggested that that is a reason for violating constitutional procedure to anybody but those who agree with me in politics. Surely it is reasonable to say to those who agree with me, and who agree with those who sit on this bench, "You approve of our foreign policy. You think it important that we should stay in to carry it out. Support us." That is a most reasonable appeal to make to friends who think with us on the question of foreign policy. I should never have the lack of taste to come down to this House and say to hon. Members who differ from me, who do not particularly admire our foreign policy or our domestic policy, "Keep us in office because we have done so very well." I should not think of 122 saying it, and I have never said such a thing yet. Speech after speech has been made upon a garbled version of what is supposed to have occurred in a Party meeting. Can anything be more grotesque, more unworthy of an occasion which hon. Gentlemen profess to think of great constitutional importance?
There is one more point I may make upon the personal aspect of the question. I think it was the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool who contrasted my poor self with the noble being who sits opposite me, and who very worthily leads the Opposition. What said the hon. Member for the Scotland Division? He said that the Leader of the Opposition, when a vote was passed against his Estimates, behaved like an honourable man; he did not imitate the cowardly and discreditable conduct of the present occupants of the Treasury Bench.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
I studiously avoided anything like personal attack. I might have said discreditable, but I never said cowardly.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I agree with the hon. Member, I did not use his exact words. But Lord Rosebery's Government had been defeated on the Address.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
said that the Government of Lord Rosebery was defeated on the Address in reference to an academic opinion.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I should have thought that an opinion about the House of Lords was not academic, and it is the only time, as far as I know, when a hostile vote on the Address was not taken 123 by the Government as indicating that they should resign. I do not blame them I think they acted quite in accordant with tradition. What I do complain of: is that a contrast should be drawn between the honourable men who resigned and the not honourable men who do not resign, whereas, as a matter of fact, it is the hon. Gentleman opposite who had almost a monopoly, or at any rate e great preponderance, of that kind o: courage which enables a Government to go on after incidents of the kind of which we have been speaking.
The right hon. Baronet actually had the courage to say that he would not be influenced in his opinion as to the propriety of the Government's action by what had happened in previous Governments and under previous Administrations. A more amazing statement to come from one who poses as a guardian of the Constitution I never heard in my life. An attempt has been made to show that the opinions I attributed to Mr. Gladstone were not his opinions. They were his opinions. I omitted two facts about the Government of 1868– 74, and the two facts are these— the Government was beaten, if I am not mistaken, nine times in the course of its existence, and in the last two years, I think it was, of its existence it gained on a seat and lost twenty-three to its opponents— an absolute record, I believe, with regard to by-elections. It is, after all, vain to quote some obiter dictum of Mr. Gladstone when in opposition and to ignore his consistent conduct in every Government of which he was a member. His position was, I believe, perfectly constitutional, though I am of opinion still, as I was when I addressed the House a few hours ago that he drove his theory to excess, and 124 was too little regardful of those collateral circumstances which might well influence a Government in its decision. No reply has been made to me on this subject. Hon. Gentleman have been abusing me all the afternoon— a useful and congenial occupation. They have not answered, or even attempted to answer, a single one of the constitutional arguments I have used. They have almost implied that they mean to start a new order of things, that they mean to ignore the Parliamentary past of this country and to make precedent which is to govern the future. I hope they will do nothing of the kind. They have an opportunity to-night of expressing their opinions; are they going to express them? They have an opportunity, and a very good opportunity, of voting now upon a point which will show at all events what this House of Commons thinks of the matter in dispute. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Waterford that it was desirable that the matter should be debated this afternoon; I agree with him that it was desirable that a vote should be taken; and I can only recommend the House, after having heard the arguments of both sides and the invectives of one side, to make up their minds as to the side on which the balance of truth and constitutional propriety lies, and as to whether we are not carrying out, and our opponents refusing to carry out, the Parliamentary tradition which has so long guided the deliberations o this House.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty two minutes after Seven o'clock.