HC Deb 26 July 1915 vol 73 cc1988-2000

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Order for the Second Reading of this Bill be discharged, and that the Bill be withdrawn."

I shall only require a very few minutes of the time of the House in order to remind it how this matter stands, and to place before it the reasons which make the Government recommend that this course should be taken. The Welsh Church Act, as the House remembers, became law after being three times passed through this House of Commons. Under the Parliament Act, in the autumn of last year, it received the Royal Assent on the 18th September, 1914, and by the terms of the Welsh Church Act the date of Disestablishment could not be less than six months after the passing of the Act, and could not be more than twelve months after the passing of the Act. The House will, therefore, see that we are now in that six months' period defined by the Welsh Church Act in which, under the terms of that measure, the date of Disestablishment might have been fixed. But at the same time as the Welsh Church Act another Act, the Suspensory Act, also received the Royal Assent, and by that Suspensory Act the date which was the latest date under the Welsh Church Act was made by Statute the earliest date at which the date of Disestablishment could be fixed. By the Suspensory Act, therefore, the date was postponed as the minimum to twelve months from the 18th September, 1914, and there was a further provision that if, at the end of this twelve months, the present War has not ended, then the date of Disestablishment might be postponed until such later date, not being later than the end of the present War, as may be fixed by Order in Council.

At the time, when that measure was passed, what was contemplated no doubt was that if the War continued so far as to require it, an Order in Council might be made which would postpone the date of Disestablishment until the end of the War. But in the meantime, in the month of March last, in place of that proposal, another suggestion was made and was presented to Parliament in another place by the Government. That suggestion goes by the name of the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill, and the terms of that proposal are well known to the House. I do not propose to go into them minutely now, because the object, and the whole object of the proposal we are now making, is an object with which everybody, wherever he sits in this House, will sympathise—namely, to avoid domestic controversy in time of war. Some weeks ago the Prime Minister was asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Kingston (Mr. Cave) what steps were to be taken with respect to the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill, and the Prime Minister then said that inquiries were, being made in different quarters immediately affected by the Bill. I was asked to make those inquiries, and I have taken care to secure from both the Welsh Liberal Members, who are so much interested in this subject on the one hand, and from those who speak with authority on behalf of the opponents of Welsh Disestablishment, on the other, a definite answer to the inquiries which I addressed to them. As the result it has become clear that the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill will not receive support in all quarters of the House, and inasmuch as controversy is altogether against the public interest at this time, the Government contemplate as the alternative the making of an Order in Council, under the Suspensory Act, postponing the date of Disestablishment until the end of the War, however distant that date may be.

4.0 P.M.

I put myself in communication with my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Lord Robert Cecil), whose authority to speak on behalf of those who share his views on this question is recognised, and he has been in communication with the leaders of the Church in Wales, both those in Parliament, and those outside Parliament, and he tells me that he is authorised on their behalf to say that in these circumstances they do not desire to press the Government to pass the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill. In these circumstances, the proposal which the Government makes to the House is one, I am glad to say, which is not opposed in either of the quarters specially interested, and an Order in Council will be made under the Suspensory Act, while the Welsh Church (Postponement) Bill will not be proceeded with. I hope that I have stated accurately, and I feel confident stated, without giving any room for passion or heat, the course recommended in this matter. I would very respectfully urge the House that we should adopt this course by common consent. The one and only object which any of us now has in view in this matter is so to deal with it, on the one hand, as to inflict no unfair hardship on any section of opinion, and on the other, so to deal with it that we may not raise domestic controversies in the midst of a great war and so that we concentrate in this crisis of our fate on our single task, For that reason I beg to move that the Order be discharged and the Bill withdrawn.


It is hardly necessary for me to express satisfaction for those I have the honour to represent at the announcement just made by the Home Secretary of the intention of the Government with regard to this Bill. I fully realise the gravity of the present situation, and I think it incumbent upon us all to say nothing at a time like this which might strike a controversial note. I think, apart from any other consideration or of any merit or demerit of these proposals, that the withdrawal of such a Bill, as the Home Secretary has pointed out, at this time will give general relief, outside those who are particularly interested in the proposal. I do not think it is necessary for me to-day to go into the grounds on which opposition of the Welsh Members to this Bill rests. There is only one point I should like to make clear. Speaking to-day as a Nonconformist, as a Welsh Nonconformist, and one who, perhaps, may claim to know the views of my fellow countrymen as Nonconformists I do wish to make it perfectly clear that their opposition to this Bill is not based upon financial considerations. Behind their opposition there lies and there has been grave concern as to the effect of this Bill upon the position of the measure which, as the House well knows, has held first place in their minds for many generations. I have only one further remaining observation to make. I do not know whether it will be possible for those in this House and outside who take a different view from ours on this question in these days to see any sign of better things on the horizon of the future. But may I express my personal hope that through the discipline of these difficult days there may come in time a new spirit which will remove the bitterness and the discord of this ancient quarrel from religious life in Wales.


I rise to say, in the first place, that I wish to offer no opposition as far as I am personally concerned to the Motion that has been made by my right hon. Friend. [An HON. MEMBER: "You can not!"] That is the conclusion to which I have come after consulting not only my own immediate Friends in this House, but after consulting the leaders of the Church in Wales. I feel, and indeed it is made quite clear by the interruption that occurred just now, that in order to avoid any misconstruction or misrepresentation it is absolutely necessary for me to explain to the House fully the reasons which induced me and others to come to that conclusion. I venture to remind the House of the outstanding facts in the history of this question. There was, as the House will remember, introduced into the House of Lords by the Duke of Devonshire a Bill which provided, I will not say for the exact provisions which were included in the Government Bill later, for they were very materially different, but which aimed at removing the same difficulty which was felt at that time, namely, the difficulty of discussing this question inside or outside the House in the presence of the War in which we are engaged. After some long consultation between the leaders of both sides and between the leading Churchmen and the Government, the then Government produced the Bill which we are now considering. The House will remember that on 15th March a Debate arose on the Adjournment of the House, in which this question was discussed. I am going to read to the House a document which contained the understanding which was arrived at at that time I quote as follows from the OFFICIAL REPOKT:— The Government believe that the apprehensions entertained by Churchmen as to the amount of work necessitated by the reorganisation of the Church in Wales on a voluntary basis, which will have to be completed before the date of Disestablishment, Mill, on examination, be found not to be well founded. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that such anxieties do exist, and it is with the earnest desire to secure a general acquiescence during the continuance of the War, not in the Act itself, but in the fact that the Act has been placed on the Statute book, that the Government are prepared to propose for the acceptance of Parliament the accompanying Bill. There are, however, anxieties on the other side which, very possibly, have no better foundation, but have a very real existence, and which equally cannot be ignored. It is feared that the postponement of the date of Disestablishment might be taken advantage of by a new Government in a new Parliament for the purpose of repealing or altering the Act. The present proposals, therefore, are put forward subject to the condition of an agreement being arrived at between the responsible leaders of the two parties, that before the date of Disestablishment as fixed by the new Bill, no proposals to repeal or amend the Act will be made or countenanced, except with the consent of both parties."—[OFFICIAL KEPOHT, 15th March, 1915, col. 1786, Vol. LXX] That was the agreement which was then arrived at, and I do not think it has ever been disputed, and it certainly has never been disputed by any of my right hon. Friends that that was a perfectly binding agreement, and they quite recognise their obligation to carry it out if Churchmen press them to do so. I wish to be as careful as I can to avoid any provocative statement, and I would much perfer, and from my own point of view it would be much easier, to sit silent and allow the thing to go through without any discussion, but I think the House will recognise, in view of the changed circumstances which have taken place, that it is right I should explain how it is I have arrived at my conclusion. I say that that was a complete Parliamentary bargain. Nevertheless, some hon. Members, and they had a perfect right to take that view, developed very strong opposition to the proposal. That opposition was not confined to Welsh Members only. It is only right to say that the hon. Member for North Somerset (Mr. King) and others took the same view, and you have merely to look at the Order Paper to see that many Gentlemen besides the Members from Wales were opposed to this Bill. It is only right that I should say as frankly and fully as I can that the Prime Minister, with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Munitions, and, later, my right hon. Friend the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, did their best to persuade the opponents of this measure to abandon their opposition and to allow what they regarded as a just and reasonable proposal to be passed into law. The hon. Members to whom that advice was tendered were not able to accept their view, and over an adjournment of a considerable lengthy period I have no doubt they were approached, and we know they were through the public Press, but that opposition still continued. The situation was therefore this, that if we, to whom the undertaking had been given, were to press the present Government to go forward with the Bill in spite of that opposition, we should have to face undoubtedly an angry debate and discussion, which would exhibit considerable and deeply felt differences of opinion, so deeply felt that they were not able to be concealed even during the time of this present War. I must say that I looked upon that prospect with great disfavour, amounting almost to dismay.

I am sure I can say for myself I did not realise until I occupied the office which I now have the honour to hold, and I am not sure that everybody in this House recognises, how closely discussion in this House, and even discussion in the Press, is watched not only by our enemies, but by neutral Nations. That has been brought home to me very strongly in the last few weeks. I certainly am not for a moment going to say anything which would lead anyone to believe that I for one take a despondent view of our position. On the contrary, I am as convinced as I ever was that final victory in this War must be on our side. I am not one of those who believe, as I gather certain sections of the Press believe, that pessimism is a patriotic duty. But I do feel that internal dissension at this time is a thing every patriotic man ought to avoid if he possibly can, and, though that probably was true on the 15th March, I think it is certainly not less true at the present time. I put it no higher than that. There is another consideration. I thought very strongly on 15th March that a considerable postponement beyond the end of the War was an act of justice. I do not wish to use that phrase in any offensive way to Welsh Churchmen. I thought it was unfair and unjust to ask them in the middle of a great war to hurry through the necessary preparations for the great change which they might have to face. I think so still, but there is this to be said, that I think we may say that the appearances of a long war are more evident now than they' were then, and, obviously, the longer the War lasts, the less force there is in that consideration. Something was said in this Debate by the hon. Member behind (Sir H. Roberts) about the financial Clauses in this Bill. I can assure the hon. Member that Churchmen never attached any importance to the financial proposals of the Bill. That was not our demand. It was not even mentioned in debate by any Churchman, nor was it any part of any demand that we ever put forward. From the financial point of view we certainly should not have been justified in asking the House to enter upon a party struggle with reference to this Bill.

In view of these considerations, in view of the great undesirableness of a party discussion in this House being brought home to us, even more strongly than we felt it in the earlier stages, in view of, I will not say the unimportance, but compared with the great issues involved in. Disestablishment and Disendowment, the relative unimportance of this Bill, at the request of the Home Secretary I took an opportunity of consulting on this subject as many friends as I could, including some of the leaders of the Church in Wales not on this side. They, taking what I venture to say was a patriotic view of their duty, decided that, if the Government thought it right that this Bill should be withdrawn, they would submit to that decision. I want to make two things quite clear. In the first place, I want to say in the clearest way that I can possibly command that in my judgment, and in the judgment of those whom I had the opportunity of consulting, no question of a breach of faith by the Government arises. I hope that nothing I have said will suggest that any such thing is in our minds. Certainly it is not in mine. This is not the time even to make a criticism on the attitude of the Welsh Members. Whatever I thought about that, I should not bring the Government into any condemnation that I might be tempted to pass, because, as far as I know, they were perfectly ready, if we had pressed it, to fulfil the undertaking into which they had entered There is one other thing I want to say. I am authorised by the leaders of our party, both in this House and in the House of Lords, to say that, in acquiring in the course proposed, it must be clearly understood that their views on the question of the Welsh Church have undergone no change, and that the pledges that they have given in connection with it are still binding on them. I hope that that will be perfectly understood in the country as well as in this House. I think I may point out this—that, if it becomes necessary to proceed with this great controversy, our position will not in my judgment be weaker for the action we are taking now, but stronger. I remember very well that on the 15th March my right hon. Friend the Minister of Munitions made an eloquent speech in which he urged his Friends to pass the Bill. He said with great force—I remember feeling the force of it as I sat opposite—that if they passed that Bill they would take away a great part of the strength of the case of those who desired the repeal of the main measure. I hope my right hon. Friend, if he ever takes the trouble to read what I am saying, will not think me impertinent if I add that I thought he went rather further than I should be inclined to go in that speech. But I do say that in my judgment the course which those who desire Disestablishment and Disendowment, and the course which those are opposing it have taken at this time on this Bill will not operate in favour of those who desire that great change. It must be remembered—and it is right to point these things out, so that there shall be no doubt about them—that the engagement into which we entered as the price of this Bill, namely, that we would not within a certain period seek to alter or repeal the main measure, has absolutely disappeared. I remember that my right hon. Friend opposite, the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Ellis Griffith), thought very little of that undertaking. He will not regret its disappearance. It has gone altogether. So that if we do have to go on with this controversy after the War we shall be in not a weaker but a stronger position than we should have been in if this Bill had been passed.

But I earnestly hope even now for an agreement—though I am afraid not in the same sense as my hon. Friend behind me (Sir J. H. Roberts); I echo strongly the desire that even now an agreement on this great question may be arrived at. I am not going into the weary controversy again, but what are the great principles involved on each side? Those who desire this change are actuated, they tell us—I am quite ready to believe it—by a desire for religious equality, and a profound and growing belief in the national feeling of Wales. On the other hand, we who are opposed to Disestablishment and Disendowment are actuated—I ask them to believe it as fully as I believe their account of their own feeling—by a genuine fear of the secularisation of the State, and a passionate belief in the unfairness and impolicy of Disendowment. Are these two views really incompatible? Is it really impossible to combine these two positions? I do not know, but sometimes, in my more sanguine moments, I think that some agreement admitting the force of both contentions might be arrived at. But there must be in all our hearts a profound disgust to think that, after all that we are now going through, all the misery, pain, and grief involved in the present War, we the representatives of two Christian bodies, should return again to this controversy. Surely some method of peace might be arrived at. Surely, if that is not a purely Utopian view, now is the time, now, when for the moment we have forgotten the bitterness of our party controversies, is the occasion, for the two 6ides to come together. I personally hope that nothing I have said this afternoon will do anything to hinder that blessed consummation.


I think a few words ought to be said from, this side of the House, partly because it is a very serious matter, and also because neither the speech of the Home Secretary nor that of the hon. Baronet opposite has done anything like justice to the action of the leaders of the Welsh Church at this particular crisis. This postponement Bill was, I always thought, and many of my Friends thought, of real value, not only to the Church, but to all those concerned in this discussion. It gave to the Church in Wales a breathing time of six months after the end of the War, and relieved them from the very painful task of considering during the War how they could prepare for the blow which was to fall upon them on the signing of the treaty of peace. On the other hand, these very six months would have been exactly the time when the discussion to which my Noble Friend referred with so much eloquence and feeling might have taken place. We had the promise of the Prime Minister that so far as he was concerned he would do his best to carry the Bill through Parliament, and it was on the faith of that promise that the Bill brought in in another place by my Noble Friend the Duke of Devonshire was dropped. So we were certain that, if we pressed it, this Bill must become law.

Then this position arose. Hon. Members from Wales gave a determined opposition to the Bill, and expressed their intention, if it were pressed, of making an attack not upon us—that would not have mattered in the least—but on the Government of the country. The Government thought—I take their word for it—that a discussion of that kind at the present time would be injurious to the public interest. They went to the Welsh Members and asked them to give up their intention of disputing the Bill and to accept the view of His Majesty's Government—not the present Government, but the Liberal Government—that this Bill was a fair compromise. They told them, I have no doubt, as they have told us, that a public discussion to-day would do public injury. The Welsh Members refused. They did not meet the Government in the spirit which was expressed by the hon. Baronet to-day. They refused altogether to withdraw their intention to have that acrimonious public discussion. They preferred to carry the controversy into war-time. I am not going to discuss that; I simply state the fact. The Government came to the leaders of the Welsh Church and put the same point to them. They told them that controversy to-day would do injury to the public interest, and they asked them to release the Government from the promise which had been given. I think the course taken by the leaders of the Welsh Church does them great honour. They had a very hard choice to make. They had the promise of the Government that the Bill would be passed into law, and they had to make the choice between pressing for the fulfilment of that promise and releasing the Government from it to avoid injury to the public interest.


Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government had given an undertaking not to introduce any Bill except for the prosecution of the War?


No, I was not aware of that.


In the House of Lords.


I do not agree. This Bill, at all events, has been introduced by the Government, and I am sure that, in doing so, they have broken none of their pledges. The point I want to make is that the leaders of the Welsh Church have taken a deeply patriotic view. It is not right to say that they agree that this is the proper course to take; but they hear and they accept the assurance of the Government that to press for the fulfilment of the promise would be against the public interest. For that reason they submit. For myself, and I think for many of my friends, I can say that, after the consent of those who are entitled to speak for the Welsh Church, we should not think it right to oppose the withdrawal of the Bill. But it is only because they agree that we give way. I think it is only fair that the Government should say, what I am sure they feel in their hearts, that the leaders of the Welsh Church in taking this course are doing a patriotic thing. They are making a real sacrifice. They are giving up the solid advantages which they had in their hands, and they do deserve at a future time, either at or before the end of the War, consideration both from the Government and from the country. I do not think it is right to pass this matter over as a matter of course. I want the House to believe that the sacrifice made to-day by the Welsh Church and its friends is a patriotic one, and one which ought to receive consideration both now and at some future time.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

Perhaps the matter would have best been left where it was left by the observations of my Noble Friend (Lord Robert Cecil), whose zeal for the interests of the Church in Wales, and whose consistent and able advocacy we all recognise and appreciate. But I have risen for the purpose of, if I may, asking my hon. Friends to restrain their natural flow of language, and to allow the Motion which has been made to be adopted without further controversy. I must say, with the right hon. and learned Gentleman who has just sat down (Mr. Cave), that I fully recognise, without reserve or qualification, the admirable spirit exhibited by those who represent the interests of the Welsh Church in this matter, who were entitled to insist upon the prosecution of this Bill, whilst we were bound to give it all the support in our power to enable it to pass into law. Yet at the same time I must point out, as was pointed out by my Noble Friend, that the withdrawal of the Bill does release them from the voluntary undertaking not to take any Parliamentary action in the direction of repeal. It is only fair that that should be recognised. [HON. MEMBERS: "After six months!"] The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned that, and I think that it is right that it should be mentioned, because it is not a complete kind of transaction unless both sides are fairly considered. I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree with me that that is so. I will not go into the calculation less or more. It is never desirable to do so when we have arrived at a compromise in which all parties—to their honour and credit—acquiesce. It would be most unfortunate that we should rip up what has been decided upon to see who has gained most, or who has lost most, in this transaction. I want simply to say on behalf of the Government, and I believe the House at large, and the country, that we believe that the proposal now made, and accepted, in the best spirit, both by hon. Members who have fought so long and so hard for Disestablishment and by the representatives of the Church, was dictated, not by any sacrifice or surrender of principle, but solely by a common desire to subordinate domestic controversy in the face of great emergencies with which the country is faced, and in the facing of which we are all absolutely united. That is a most admirable illustration of the spirit which now animates the country. I trust that no jarring note will be uttered to-day. I trust the House will acquiesce in the course taken with unanimity, and I am certain that when we come to look back we will all be glad that that course has been taken. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed, agreed!"]


I will obey the spirit of the appeal of the Prime Minister, and I can assure the House that I will not say a word more than necessary. All I rise to do is simply to protest against the attack which has been made upon the Welsh Members. I am not going to defend the Welsh Members, but it would be a pity if this Debate should end without a word, and that we should by our silence give a wrong impression. The charge is that we have acted in an unpatriotic way. That is what I really want to protest against. There was a party truce. We did not break it. Somebody else broke it. Who broke it? I think the patriotism is with those who did not break it. We simply resisted an attack. If resisting an attack is lack of patriotism, then we may be termed unpatriotic. I think, however, the House will see, if it looks fairly at the situation—without going into the merits of the main matter—that we acted in the only way we could act. It was not we who introduced controversial legislation. We only endeavoured to resist the controversial legislation which was forced upon us. Under these circumstances I think it cannot be right that it should be supposed in this House, or outside, that the Welsh Members acted in any other than a patriotic spirit.


I am certainly not going to say anything controversial. [Laughter.] I am not! I accept entirely the appeal of the Prime Minister. I had intended to speak on this matter, but I have decided not to do so. As, however, a speech was made on the one side, it is only fair that something should be said on the other side. Into the past action of the Welsh Members I do not desire to go. That is dropped out altogether. I merely say this—speaking as one who has for many years fought on this question—that, though I think we have been badly treated—that is no opinion—I am quite prepared to submit to what has been proposed by the other side. At the same time, I want to make it perfectly clear that we, all of us, retain absolute freedom hereafter, not only to think, but to say what we like—[An HON. MEMBER: "And fight!"]—and to make any proposal we may choose affecting this Bill. Subject to that, certainly I would be the last person to desire to raise a controversy at this grave crisis, and I will say no more.


I will only spend a couple of minutes of the time of the House, but I would carry the memory of the House back to what Lord Crewe, speaking in the House of Lords, said on 2nd February:— We do not propose to introduce any contentious business, but will confine ourselves entirely to such business as concerns, in one way or another, the prosecution of the War. That undertaking is the basis of our opposition.


When I came here to-day I had not the slightest intention of rising in regard to this matter, but there have been several provocative speeches made, therefore let me say clearly that my object is this: Welsh Disestablishment was debated in this House with a minuteness seldom accorded to any Bill brought into the House. It was passed, and the verdict of this House ought to have been conclusive. I wish to make the considered verdict of this House paramount; that the decisions of this House shall not otherwise be moved by a mobilising of influences from other quarters, or of back-parlour intrigues, or by any other influences which cannot face the light of day in a free discussion before this House, and tried by the judgment of this House. On that ground alone I put down an Amendment, and if the Bill had not been withdrawn I should have debated it on that wider and general ground.

Question put, and agreed to.

Order discharged; Bill withdrawn.