HC Deb 11 April 1912 vol 36 cc1404-8

But scanty and insufficient as is, of necessity, the attention which Parliament has given to local legislation, what is the result in other directions of our honest and strenuous but ineffectual efforts to grapple with a desperate task? Let the House consider for a moment the extent and variety of the field over which we insist upon exercising daily and exclusive supervision. Look at the Question Paper of this House on a Monday or Thursday in any week you like to select. What does it include, or, rather, what does it not include? Delay in the postal service of some hamlet in Connemara, a dispute about trawling in the Moray Firth, a decision perhaps in a poaching case by some rural bench in Wales, a case of deportation in East Africa, the position of the Mahomedan community in the new-Presidency of Bengal, the efficiency or inefficiency of the rifle that is served out to the Army or to the Territorial Force, the sea worthiness of the latest type of "Dreadnought"; and, perhaps, the international relations between Great Britain and Germany.

Captain CRAIG

Is all that to be stopped?


I am sure the House will agree I am not exaggerating when I say that is a typical case, illustrated by the Order Paper of almost any day in a week of the Parliamentary Session. These are but samples of the matters, varying from the infinitely great to the infinitely small, of which the House of Commons under our present system requires, and properly requires, to be constantly informed. Now I ask this question: Has any deliberative assembly in the history of the world ever taken upon itself such a grotesquely impossible task? People complain, both inside and outside the House, of the deterioration of the quality of our Debates and of their excessive curtailment? These twenty years, since 1893, have seen the development in our procedure, stage by stage, both parties having had a hand in the process, of new accelerating expedients, and, in particular, the closure by what is called the guillotine.

Except as a safeguard, which is not often needed, against wanton repetition or obstruction does anyone welcome it? Is it satisfactory to anyone, I do not care in what quarter of the House he sits, that large fragments of important legislation should pass without adequate debate, or sometimes without debate at all, or that vast sums of public money should at the end of every Session be voted, undiscussed, un-examined, silently, and en bloc? No; there is no one who cares for the dignity and for the efficiency of the House of Commons who would use this modern machinery with anything but reluctance, and, indeed, with repugnance. But it is the creature of our own self-imposed necessities, and, so long as you insist upon your present system of centralised impotence, resort to it may be, and often is, the less of two evils. Meanwhile, how are we doing our duty to the Empire at large, with its ever-increasing appeals to our interests? I do not exaggerate when I say that if you were to sit continuously during the whole twelve months of the year, and worked through them with unremitting ardour and assiduity, you would find at the end not only that there were still large arrears of legislation which you had not even attempted to overtake, not only enormous sums raised by taxation whose appropriation had never even been discussed, but that there were vast areas of the Empire—I do not now speak of the Self-governing Dominions—for which we are still directly responsible as trustees, to whose concerns we had not been able to afford so much as one single night. From the Imperial point of view, that is the case for Home Rule. The claim of Ireland rightly comes first, find must be separately dealt with. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Why? Because the task is too large and complex and the conditions too varied.


Why Ireland first?


That may not seem so to hon. Gentlemen opposite. I say the task is too large and complex and the conditions are too varied to admit of its being accomplished by one blow and by a single measure. What we are doing now—I say this advisedly—we should do with the distinct and direct purpose of these further and fuller applications of the principle.


Will the right hon. Gentleman put the Question of "Home Rule all round" in the preamble?


That is a very premature interruption. I am going to explain the Bill presently, if the right hon. Gentleman will exercise a little patience.


I will as long as I can.


Home Rule—

Captain CRAIG

No Home Rule.


Home Rule, in this larger sense, in my opinion, rests upon the necessities, is demanded by the responsibilities, and is indeed due to the honour of the Imperial Parliament.

Let me point out further and finally that such a process is in strict accordance with the spirit and the tendency of our Imperial development. Since 1893 we have seen within the Empire the formation of the Australian Commonwealth, the grant of self-government to the Transvaal, and the erection of the Union of South Africa.

Captain CRAIG



The case of the Transvaal—and some of us remember what was said about the Transvaal, and all of us now know how absolutely futile were the predictions which were then made, as, futile as will be the predictions the it are made in regard to this Bill—the case of the Transvaal is strictly analogous to that of Ireland. He would be a bold man—I do not know whether the Noble Lord (Lord Hugh Cecil) will undertake to do so—who would assert that the case of Ulster presents more difficulties or ought to be less capable of solution than that of Boer and Britain living side by side in a territory just recovering from the ravages of internecine war. In the cases of Australia and. South Africa the object was to provide a central legislative and administrative authority to deal with matters of common interest to a group of separate but adjacent States. In the pursuit of that object the utmost care was taken, as it had already been taken in the previous case-of the Dominion of Canada, to keep alive and to preserve for the various States in all its integrity full local autonomy for local purposes. The Dominion started with separate States, which needed to be combined and centralised for matters of common concern. We start with a congested centre, which needs, if it is to do efficiently that which is common to the whole, to be relieved of everything else and to delegate local interests to local management.

In a word, the great Dominions and ourselves setting out from opposite poles, animated by the same purpose, are going to meet at the same goal. I do not believe there is one of them to-day of which the vast majority of the inhabitants are not in hearty sympathy with the spirit and purposes of the measure I am introducing. I have said so much—I hope not too much—by way of introduction, because I want to make it quite clear what are the general grounds of policy on which His Majesty's Government are submitting this measure to the Imperial Parliament. I shall now proceed to ask a large measure of the indulgence of the House to explain, and so far as I can to elucidate, the provisions of the Bill itself. I preface that explanation with the statement that if it is to the at all clear and intelligible I must of necessity omit a great many matters of detail—such matters, for instance, as the saving Clauses for vested rights of judges, Civil servants, and other officials, which, although not unimportant, are really uncontroversial. I shall content myself, and I ask the House to be content with, an exposition of the main governing provisions of the Bill. For convenience of explanation I think it will be desirable if I divide what I have to say into four separate heads or chapters. I will begin with the legislative powers which it is proposed to confer on the new Irish body. I shall then deal with the Executive, and then I shall proceed to consider finance. Finally, I shall deal with the position of Ireland after the grant of Home Rule in the Imperial Parliament here.

First of all, I will deal with legislation. There is no question here, as there was in the case of the Dominions, to which I have referred, of distribution and allocation, as between the central and the local bodies of the supreme legislative authority. We are here in the Imperial Parliament, and the Imperial Parliament can neither surrender nor share its supreme authority with any other body or any other part of His Majesty's Dominions. That is the cardinal principle on which this Bill is founded; it is the cardinal principle upon which this Bill proceeds, and it is stated in express terms in its first Clause:—

"Notwithstanding the establishment of the Irish Parliament or anything contained in this Act, the supreme power and authority of Parliament in the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters, and things within His Majesty's Dominions."