HC Deb 02 March 1915 vol 70 cc757-9

Section one (c) of the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, 1914, shall be read as if the words "cause disaffection to His Majesty or to" were taken out; and any regulations issued or to be issued thereunder shall be altered or framed accordingly.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time." In doing so I wish to say that there is no intention on my part, or on the part of those voting with me, to interfere in any way whatever with legitimate efforts to secure the defence of the realm. I wish also to observe that although the Clause may not exactly provide for the intention we have in view, it is an intention which I am sure the Attorney-General will perceive from the text of the Clause. As the law stands at present, as laid down by the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, 1914, it would be easily possible that persons, whose intentions were quite innocent, and whose desires were of the best, and who would not for the world do anything against the interests of their country, just because they criticised the Government or indulged in some language, although it seemed perfectly innocent to them, might, under the present state of public opinion and in the midst of so much prejudice, which the world is full of at present, be looked upon as being likely to cause disaffection, and in that way to bring them within the scope of the law as laid down by that Act. I wish to appeal on behalf of those who share those feelings to the Attorney-General to consider whether he can so amend the Defence of the Realm Act to meet what I am sure he will easily perceive to be the object of the Clause which I now propose.

9.0 P.M.


My hon. Friend has explained with the greatest clearness what he has in mind in proposing this Amendment. In doing so he is raising a very large, very difficult, and very important subject. It is one thing to make regulations in order to punish statements of facts which are false and which are prejudicial to the success of our cause; it is a different thing to make regulations which deal with statements likely to cause disaffection. He is quite right in pointing to that distinction. I sympathise with him very sincerely and warmly when he says he hopes a great deal of care and caution will be exercised before we pass from one of those things to the other. That we should prevent misstatements of facts which are prejudicial and injurious to our cause is a thing about which nobody will dispute. Statements of opinion, however foolish they may be, and however far from wise in judgment, are a very different thing from statements of facts, and I hope in any regulations we make, and in any administration of them, we shall always draw that distinction most sharply. I can assure the hon. Member that, so far as I have had anything to do with it, or those with whom I am working, we have always had that distinction in mind. It is a very tempting thing to try and suppress statements of opinion with the genuine belief that that is the way to assist the national cause, but I think the national cause is far more likely to be successful if we see that state- ments of opinion, however wide of the mark they may be, are recognised as being, within proper limits, the privilege and right of everybody who takes it upon himself to make them.

I might give one example which shows that extremely well. At this moment in Austria the best known Socialist newspaper in that country has had to appear on two or three occasions with large parts of its edition blotted out by the censor, but ultimately it got an edition through—I have seen references to it—in which there was an article saying what a strange country England is because in England discussion as to the rights and wrongs of the War is still permitted. The article ended by saying that surely a country which does not even prevent people from discussing that question in the midst of the War is not the sort of country that can ever win. That article was written, I have no doubt, satirically. I consider that we are wise when we treat expressions of opinion in a different way from that in which we should all agree to treat wilful and dangerous misstatements of fact. Having given this assurance to my hon. Friend, I hope he will not ask us now to alter the whole framework of the main Bill; but if the occasion arises, as it may do, for revising the regulations from that point, of view, this matter will certainly be borne in mind.


Under the circumstances I ask leave to withdraw the proposed new Clause, but I hope that in any Amendment of the regulation this matter will be borne in mind.

Proposed new Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered to-morrow (Wednesday).