HC Deb 23 February 1914 vol 58 cc1549-56

Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Gulland.]


In the course of the Debates during the last few days we have heard a great deal about intolerance. Many seem to have reached the conclusion that intolerance is an abominable thing except towards those who differ from us in religion. The case I have to present illustrates that aphorism. In my remarks I do not wish to display any personal animus towards the Homo Secretary, whom I have always found to be essentially courteous in his relations with Members. On the 17th November, 1913, a certain man of whom I know very little myself, and with whose expression of opinion I profess no sympathy whatever, namely, Thomas William Stewart, was tried at the Staffordshire Assizes before Mr. Justice Coleridge, on two charges, one of indecency, and the other of blasphemy. On the charge of indecency he was acquitted; and I contend that, therefore, the charge should have disappeared from the purview of the Court. I am not a lawyer, but I believe there is a legal maxim, non bis in idem— not twice for the same thing. After a man has been tried and acquitted it is not lawful to try him again on the same charge, or, at any rate, it is not lawful to raise that charge against him to create an atmosphere of prejudice in regard to another charge. On the charge of blasphemy he was condemned and sentenced to four months' imprisonment. Blasphemy is, one would have hoped, an obsolescent charge; one would have hoped it had become obsolete in this country. Public opinion—that is, of intelligent men—was shocked by this sentence of four months' imprisonment on a man really because he happened to have religions opinions—or lack of religious opinions—at variance with those of the great majority of the people. A petition was sent to the Home Secretary bearing the signatures of some of the most eminent men in England—theologians, professors of literature and science, and many others, including even some enlightened Members of this House. A reply was given to this petition, the substance of which was that certainly this man had been convicted of blasphemy, although that is a charge on which one can hardly keep a man in prison, yet there were other elements connected with the case. There was the element of indecency, and this charge was driven home, not so much by placing it in the forefront, as by what I may call a most cowardly insinuation, and by creating such an atmosphere of prejudice as makes it so difficult to properly deal with a case, even when a man takes his courage in both hands and defends one against whom that peculiar sort of prejudice has been created. The Home Secretary displayed courage worthy of a better cause. It was bad law, and I challenge the Home Secretary to find one other eminent lawyer here who will back him up in the statement that it represents good law—to try a man on two charges, to acquit him on one, and use the prejudice connected with that charge upon which he is acquitted in order to drive home the second charge. I say even if it were good law, it would be most contemptible justice.

It is extremely difficult to define what is blasphemy. It will be urged that this man not merely had opinions different from that of the majority, but that he ridiculed, say, the Christian religion; that he held it up to contempt. Ridicule and contempt are weapons which are not generally discarded even by the Front Bench opposite. I have heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer in one of his famous speeches—I do not evidence this against him—on the contrary, to deal by ridicule with that which is ridiculous is a strong and effective way—speaking of his political opponents, say that the aristocracy was like cheese, the older it became the higher it became. To quote the other side—to show I am not using the argument in a partisan fashion—a Noble Marquess said he should like to see all Socialists hanged, drawn, and quartered, and the Chancellor himself sent, not to the Riviera but to a far hotter place. These are the arguments of ridicule. But you do not put the Chancellor of the Exchequer or this Noble Marquess whom I have quoted on trial for blasphemy. I come again to that question of blasphemy. I will put as bold a challenge as it is possible to set forth tonight. I will put the Bishop of London in the dock. In the course of a Debate in this House the hon. Member for Swansea quoted the Bishop of London, from one of his utterances in Hyde Park. That utterance was this—and I will quote from the paper I have here, because I do not want to depart one iota from the "words: — I appeal to God. He can smash any machine; I appeal to God to smash the Parliament Act. I would rather be in prison with this man Stewart than confess before the world that my mind was of such a character, my appreciation of the universe so low and so contemptible, and my aspirations towards God so miserable to make God Himself a pawn in the miserable party game. I would say that that speech was blasphemy. However, in order to give the Home Secretary a chance to reply, I will conclude by saying this: I wish the House, and especially Labour Members, to observe that there may come a time when some of the more impetuous of their supporters may infringe some of the obsolete Acts of which the British Constitution is full—one of these obsolete Acts which are brought out of the darkness after 500 years to punish political opponents. And, remember, a Home Secretary standing there may declare, this man was not punished for the infringement of the particular Act, but some prejudice would be created, as has in other cases been created, and it might be insinuated that the person was a low Radical, a Socialist, or a Syndicalist. What is the argument of the Home Secretary? I pin him down to this point: he has uttered bad law. He has a man in prison, and is keeping him in prison, who was tried for one offence and acquitted, and who is being kept in prison, by the prejudice created, for another offence on which he was charged.


I am at a loss to know what are the real facts to which the hon. Member wishes to direct attention. His first point was really not an attack upon me, but upon the procedure of the Court on the occasion of Stewart's conviction. But the hon. Member, unfortunately, owing to a failure of memory, misstated the facts in a most extraordinary manner. He represented to the House that Stewart, who had on 17th November been tried and acquitted on a charge of selling indecent literature and pamphlets, was on the following day convicted of blasphemy. The reverse is the truth. He was tried and convicted of blasphemy on 17th November, and it was after he was convicted of blasphemy that he was tried and charged with selling indecent pamphlets, and was acquitted.


I accept that correction, but that does not dispose of the matter.


I am going to deal with the whole matter. Let me say at once that so far as the prosecution of Stewart was concerned I had no more responsibility for it than the hon. Member, and so far as the conviction of Stewart was concerned I am also equally free from responsibility. Stewart was tried at the Assizes, was convicted, and was sentenced for having committed a breach of the law. Stewart has not appealed. So far, we must suppose that Stewart was satisfied that his conviction was in accordance with the ordinary process of law. Whether the hon. Member or some of his friends think the law to be a good one or a bad one is not, for the purposes of discussion, relevant. He may think the law may be a bad one, and other people may think so, but in that case the proper remedy is to repeal the law. There can be no question whatever that under our law as it stands Stewart was rightly convicted and rightly punished. Now comes the question whether I should intervene after conviction and punishment and advise the prerogative of mercy, and upon what grounds? It has been suggested, not by the hon. Member, but on other occasions, that I should advise the remission of Stewart's sentence because the law under which he was convicted was bad law, but I submit to the House that for any Home Secretary to make a Statute ineffective by remitting sentences in every case after conviction would be to advise the exercise of the prerogative of mercy in a most unconstitutional manner. If I, or any other Minister or Member of this House, believes a law to be bad, our duty is to come to Parliament to repeal the Act, and not by the exercise of the prerogative to render the Statute ineffective. I felt that very strongly to be my duty, and I acted upon ray view of what my duty was. Knowing that the hon. Member was going to raise this question, I sought and fortified myself with precedents. I had inquired if there was any precedent in the Home Office any Home Secretary on any count, either that he considered the law old and obsolete, or bad law, or on any ground whatever, had on that ground ever advised the exercise of the prerogative, and I was told there was no precedent for any such action by any Home Secretary. I submit it would have been improper for me, instead of introducing a Bill, to proceed by my own personal action. Now are there any other grounds on which I might advise the exercise of the prerogative? Certainly there are: If the character of the criminal is good; if it is his first offence; if his motive for committing the crime was not bad. We have to consider what was the motive of Stewart, and the circumstances surrounding his commission of that offence for which he was convicted.

In the petition it was represented that Stewart was the victim of religious persecution. I understood that to mean that it was intended to convey that Stewart was a man holding strong views about religious questions, that, actuated by the zeal of the missionary, he felt impelled to publish his views to others, and to endeavour to proselytise. If that had been a true view of Stewart's case, I confess it would have had weight; I confess a man who receives a severe sentence, who is only actuated by a belief that he is doing right work, and states his intention that he will conform to the law in the future, in such a case I think—and I believe the House would support me—to advise the exercise of the prerogative would be a just measure. I had, therefore, to inquire from the judge what were the circumstances attending the commission of this crime by Stewart. I was informed, as was, in fact, the case, that Stewart, whatever the zeal may have been which is peculiar to his religious views, that he used the occasion of his speeches to gather round him a miscellaneous crowd of men,, women, and children, that amongst this crowd he sent his wife to advertise his trade, and his trade was of a peculiarly objectionable character. Not necessarily criminal. Not at all. It was found not to be criminal That is not the point. The point I had to consider was whether Stewart was the victim of religious persecution, or whether he was conducting a very disagreeable trade. We may all have sympathy with a man who is actuated by zeal and enthusiasm, however mistaken his case may be; but we cannot have quite the same sympathy for the man who uses violent and, I will only say disagreeable language, in order to gather a crowd round him, and then uses his wife to advertise his trade in that crowd. The hon. Member alleges, on what ground I am utterly at a loss to understand, that in the Home Office letter of 27th December, it was stated that the Home Office admitted that Stewart was sentenced on a charge on which a man could hardly be kept in prison. That was not the meaning of the letter.

The plain and only meaning of the letter in reply to the allegation that Stewart was a victim of religious persecution, was that Stewart having been convicted of blasphemy, the circumstances attending the commission of the offence by him were not such as to admit of advice being given for the exercise of the Prerogative of Mercy. That is all the letter meant, and nothing else. Stewart is not kept in prison by me, but under the sentence of the Court, and I am bound to say I believe I should not be fulfilling my responsibility if, knowing as I do the conditions under which Stewart gave his lectures and made his speeches, and the use he made of those speeches and lectures for the purpose of carrying on his trade, I advised that mercy be used in his case. I have already dealt with the first ground why I think it is not my duty to take upon myself to repeal Acts of Parliament, and, therefore, on both those grounds I hope I have satisfied the hon. Member that there is no ground for the remission of Stewart's sentence.


I cannot congratulate my right hon. Friend upon the defence he has made for his action in this matter. He has shown great ingenuity in his defence, and he has availed himself of this opportunity of blackening the character of a man who is detained in prison under what I believe hon. Members of this House will regard as a savage sentence. What is the offence for which this man has been convicted? I am not speaking of the offence of which he has been acquitted and which it is now sought to bring home to him again. It is the offence of bad taste. It is a criminal offence, so it appears, to represent the Christian religion in such a way as to ridicule it. I think Christians nowadays must be content to put themselves on a level with other people and to use the forms of language for attack and defence just as heathen people do. Consider the case of the late Mr. Matthew Arnold. He ridiculed the Christian religion in a shocking passage called the Fairy Tale of the Three Lord Shaftsburys. Mr. Matthew Arnold retained his liberty, and was not charged with any offence of this sort. I mention that to show that this is a case in which the law comes down heavily upon the poor, and the wealthy and cultured person is left free to blaspheme as much as he likes in his own particular manner.

It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned it Half after Eleven o'clock.