HC Deb 22 May 1912 vol 38 cc2002-7

But the subject that I myself wish to bring before the House for a moment or two may also be said to arise out of the Order Paper for the day. I asked the Attorney-General— How many prosecutions have been undertaken in the last five years by the Director of Public Prosecutions for offences which may be described as political; and whether the Government will grant a Return of such prosecutions and of the results.

On a former occasion I asked the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary for a Return of the prosecutions for political offences, and in answering me—he gave a perfectly courteous answer; I am not making any objection whatever to it—he spoke of offences "which may be described as political," I said "political offences."

He was not quite willing to take that, and referred to offences which "may be described as political offences." I returned to the charge and asked for a Return of the number of prosecutions for offences which "may be described as political." The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary then referred me to the Attorney-General who was sitting beside him. I expressed my readiness to ask the Attorney-General, and thereupon I put down the question which I have had the honour to read to the House, asking the Attorney-General for an answer, but the Home Secretary thereupon answered for the Attorney-General, and actually took exception to my words, which were those he used in answer to my question. He said he could not discover what was meant by offences which "may be described as political." As a last resort I take this opportunity and ask that question again.

It took me some two or three years before I forced the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor in office unwillingly to admit that there was no such thing known to the law of England as a political offence and a political offender, and that the law recognised neither one nor the other, and it is for the purpose of getting a similar admission to-day that I adopt this means of pursuing this matter. The House will see that this is not merely, I will not say seeking for information, because that would rather condemn myself in having put down this question, but the House, will see that this question is not put for mere motives of curiosity, but for really valid and substantial Reasons. Upon the use in this House of the expression "political offences" and offenders a great fabric has been reared. Only just now the junior Member for Merthyr lodged a Bill for lenient treatment which political offenders are to claim as a matter of right. The case of the suffragists will be well remembered by the hon. Member. They are claiming lenient treatment as political offenders. Only to-day a case was brought up of an individual recommended, greatly to my satisfaction, for deportation, by the Common Sergeant, and hon. Members in this House at once took up his case, and asked, Is he not a political offender? Why should he be deported any more than those anarchists, nihilists, and seditionists, and all those who settle down here from various parts of the world? Why should not they too go? I mention Miss Malecka's case only because the agitation with regard to that lady arises on the ground that her offence is claimed to be a political offence, and therefore she should have lenient treatment as a political offender. Not only are there Members in this House who indulge in this kind of agitation; but I deplore very much the tendency on the part of Members of His Majesty's Government to encourage it. Members of the Government continually use this expression. They dare not come out and say frankly there is no such thing as a political offence and political offender. Not only is this the case in this House; but this deplorable tendency has spread to our Indian Empire.

Only quite lately, under the rule of a Viceroy who gained great distinction as an ambassador before becoming Viceroy of our Indian Empire, we have seen what I think is the shocking spectacle of prisoners being released upon undertaking to come up for trial when required, upon the avowed ground that the offence of which they were accused, robbery with violence, was a political offence, because they claimed that as their object in committing this offence! It is very easy, I think, upon, this doctrine to hold that any man will be entitled to rob and kill any other man on the ground that the money is to be used for what he is pleased to call the propagation of political views. Only to-day in this House exemption was claimed for Malatesta, whose deportation was ordered, and will, I hope, be carried out, on the ground that he was a political offender, and was entitled to lenient treatment, and because others spoke for him who are well known to have been exiled from their country as political offenders. Men like Prince Kropotkin, whose name was mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman has hitherto been exceedingly shy about admitting that there is no such thing as a political offence in English law and no such thing as a political offender. What the Government has been practising is surrender to agitation. That has now become the sole and persistent principle of government of this country, and there is a disposition to allow to those who are called political offenders a certain character which does not accrue to other offenders, on which they base a claim for more lenient treatment, whereas really they deserve above all others more severe treatment, because they are not driven by distress to commit crimes, but do them in order to destroy, as they say, existing institutions, or supplant existing institutions by others which in their ideal or imaginary worlds would be better than those which have stood the test of centuries of experience.

5.0 P.M.

These acts are of a peculiarly cruel and callous character. Even a lady who breaks an unoffending person's window in order to call attention to something she wants done is a far greater criminal than a person who is driven to commit a crime in order to satisfy his needs. If once responsible persons admit that the motive, when a person claims a political motive, entitles the offender to more lenient treatment, let the House consider where that leads those who hold that doctrine. In no very long time they are driven, if they pursue their policy to its logical conclusion, to palliating assassination; in no long time they will find political assassination is palliated. I have heard criticisms here about Russia, and they have generally proceeded from people who have had no experience of Russia except that which is derived from sensational novels and the records of the travels of people, who cannot speak a word of the language, and who are perfectly incapable of learning anything about the country through which they have travelled. I have travelled all over parts of that country, and I am a Russian interpreter, and I believe it is a fatal policy to allow that there is such a thing as a political offence and a political offender, and excuse acts because the perpetrators claim that they are done with a political motive. It is this kind of argument in Russia which leads people who appear otherwise to be everything that is estimable, to become implicated in no long time in ramifications and conspiracies, the avowed object of which is political assassination. I know we have not reached that stage in this country, but once you get upon this slippery slope, no man knows where he will stop, and I hope I shall hear from the Attorney-General some plain and absolute repudiation of the idea that there is any such thing recognised by the law of this country as a political offence or a political offender. I see to-day in the "Times" that the Home Secretary received a deputation from the National Political Reform League on the subject of the prison treatment of political offenders, and that "in the course of a sympathetic reply"—I protest against any sympathy being shown by the right hon. Gentleman for political offenders. I protest with all the force of which I am capable against it, and I say it is not a proper attitude on the part of the right hon. Gentleman. He will find himself hard set to get up and defend it in view of the considerations I have placed before the House:— In the course of a sympathetic reply, he assured the deputation that full use would he made of the regulations introduced by Mr. Churchill for the treatment of prisoners convicted of offences in which no moral stigma was involved.

His predecessor, now the First Lord of the Admiralty, when I pressed him upon this subject, said there must be some distinction in offences which involved "no-moral turpitude." There is just this difference between the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor.


What is the hon. Member quoting?

Sir J. D. REES

I am quoting from a report in the "Times." I say his predecessor, when I pressed him on this subject, used the words "moral turpitude." It is a difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They both, in face of these ladies, or whoever was pressing them, maintain that there must be a distinction in offences which involve "no moral stigma" in the one case or "moral turpitude" in the other. I call that dangerous.


I assure the hon. Member I never said that.

Sir J. D. REES

Is this an inaccurate report? It is from the "Times," which is generally accurate. I am very glad, however, to accept the right hon. Gentleman's denial, and I shall be very glad if, when he rises, he says that offences such as these, or such as are described as political offences generally do have attached to them "moral stigma" in his words, or "moral turpitude" in the words of the First Lord of the Admiralty. When anybody deliberately breaks the law of this country, that is an occasion on which moral blame or turpitude must attach to them, and to say you offend for a particular object makes no difference whatever. The fact that a person of education with no pressure of circumstance offends deliberately and in cold blood makes the moral stigma or turpitude greater than that which attaches to ordinary offenders, who are dealt with in large numbers by our criminal Courts from day to day. I think it is due to society and to the general law-abiding population who do not sympathise with these deputations, and do not want a sympathetic attitude towards what are called, wrongly and improperly, "political offences," that the right hon. Gentleman should not use the expression "political offenders," that he and the Attorney-General should disclaim it and make it perfectly clear to all and sundry that the law of England does not recognise any such thing as a political offence or a political offender.