HC Deb 19 July 1916 vol 84 cc1039-75
The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Herbert Samuel)

I beg to move, "That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report whether it is practicable and desirable to prepare a new Electoral Register which would include adequate representation for those engaged in the War or in war work, and to conduct an Election upon such Register during the War; and, if this is found practicable and desirable. to recommend the changes in the electoral laws which would be necessary or expedient for the purpose:

"That the Committee do consist of Sir Ryland Adkins, Sir Frederick Banbury, Sir John Bethell, Lieutenant-Colonel Campion, Mr. Ellis Davies, Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Hazleton, Mr. Joynson-Hicks, Mr. Ronald McNeill, Mr. MacVeagh, Mr. Nield, Mr. Parker, Mr. Pringle, Sir John Simon, and Sir George Younger:

"That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records: That five be the quorum. The Members proposed to constitute the Select Committee on Registration and Election will, I am sure, be regarded by common consent as constituting a most representative and able Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I perceive that there are some Members who are not on the Committee who do not share that view. Within the terms of their reference they will find it necessary to consider a number of points which are of no small difficulty. At the outset, no doubt, they will give their attention to the question whether or not, if a register is constituted, the men serving in the Army and the Navy should be placed upon that register. It is difficult, indeed, as the House will unanimously recognise, to dispute the contention that, if anyone is entitled to a voice in the government of the country, the men who have been willing to risk life and limb in its defence are surely entitled to a share. It would be difficult to contemplate a General Election for the constitution of a new Parliament, to sit possibly for five years, from which the millions of men who have come forward to fight in the country's cause should be excluded. But if they are to be included it will also, I am sure, be generally agreed that they must be given effective inclusion—not merely the registering of their names upon a list, but an opportunity of voting when the election occurs. No one can contemplate a mere mockery of a register which would, on the one hand, place soldiers upon the voting list, but which, on the other hand, will not give them any opportunity of exercising their franchise. And when the Committee comes to consider this aspect of the question, it will no doubt turn its mind to the conditions under which the franchise could be exercised by men actively employed in military operations in such circumstances. They will consider what opportunities the men serving in the Army would have for acquainting themselves with the issues of a General Election and familiarising themselves with the personalities and capacities of the candidates between whom they are invited to choose. The Committee will no doubt take the opinion of the military advisers of the Government on the practicability and the desirability of inviting an Army in the field to turn its mind to political controversies. It is unlikely that during the War an armistice could be arranged for the purpose of enabling the British Army to poll, nor should we be in a position to invite the Germans to abstain from attacking our lines in a given week, or on a given day, for the reason that the Army was engaged in recording its votes. All this is quite obvious. The Ballot Act contains no provision to meet the contingency of a bombardment taking place while the voters are at the poll. Clearly, if the Army were on the move at the time when the General Election was fixed to take place, any arrangement which might be contemplated to enable the soldiers to vote would be put out of gear and would become impracticable. These are all questions which the Cabinet has been considering. These are questions to which the Committee necessarily will have to give its attention.

In the very forefront of this problem stands this dilemma, "Are you to contemplate a General Election excluding the soldiers, or, on the other hand, can you make arrangements effectively to include them?" Secondly, there is the case of the munition workers, many of whom have almost an equal title to claim inclusion in any special arrangements which are made with the soldiers. There are large numbers of them who have been most eagerly anxious to join the naval or military forces who have been forbidden to do so, or pressed not to do so, for the reason that the work that they are doing in pursuance of their vocations at home is as valuable to the prosecution of the War as service in the field or with the Fleet. Great numbers of these men have moved from one part of the country to another and have consequently lost their ordinary qualifications, and if they were to be registered it would need special provision to be made. Furthermore, you would have to define what is meant by a munition worker. Many Members, like myself, represent Constituencies containing great numbers of miners. Many of them have been forbidden to enlist for the reason that their work underground is essential to the nation. Are they to be regarded as munition workers or not? Where are you to draw the line between the person who is rendering service in the War and the person who is not? Can you draw any such line? You have only to look at the .list of reserved occupations which have been communicated to the Military Service Tribunals to see how vast is the variety of occupations of persons who, directly or indirectly, are rendering service valuable to the War. These are problems which cannot be put aside. When you come to the drafting of the Bill, everyone of them has to be dealt with in such a fashion that the provisions of the law may be translated into practice in the Registration Courts. But if you make special provision for the soldiers, the sailors, and the munition workers, the Committee will no doubt consider whether it is possible or desirable to avoid embarking Parliament on the great controversy of Women Suffrage. There are, I know, some who lightly assume that some magic change has been worked by the War, and that a proposal which has hitherto evoked, not only enthusiastic support, but also resolute opposition, we can now expect will be agreed to almost with unanimity. If there are any who have such a thought I think the wish is father to that thought, and I have no doubt the Committee, when they come to investigate the matter, will find that if the registration or franchise proposals raise the question of Women Suffrage, both Houses of Parliament will be involved in a very bitter political controversy at the present time.

Let it be assumed, however, although it is a very large assumption, that all these problems are satisfactorily solved that you have decided whether you will include the soldiers or exclude them; if you include them, how to enable them to vote; that you have decided what is a munition worker, and under what conditions he is to be registered; that you have also either avoided or solved the problem of Women Suffrage, the question then arises is there any justification for embarking upon the expense and the labour of preparing a Parliamentary register at the present time. The existing register, it is notorious, is greatly in arrear. We are advised that in order to bring it effectively up to date it would be necessary to have a house-to—house canvass, and that nothing short of that could really enable you to secure a thoroughly effective register. The cost which would be involved, from a Local Government Board estimate, would be at least £300,000, and very possibly more. We have just been celebrating a war savings week. Ought Parliament lightly to contemplate an expenditure of £300,000 on the preparation of a Parliamentary register unless clear necessity can be shown for doing so. Furthermore, it will probably be necessary to employ many thousands, possibly at least 20,000 persons, in the preparation of the register and in making this house-to—house canvass throughout the country, and the Committee will no doubt consider whether it is legitimate to take for a certain period so large a body of persons from the occupations in which they are now engaged in order to compile a new list of voters. All this might no doubt be necessary if an early General Election was contemplated or desired, and the Committee will, of course, have to weigh the probabilities and the degree to which it is desirable that a General Election should take place during the War, possibly at an early date. It appears to me that to hold a General Election, except in case of overwhelming necessity, during the progress of the War is open to the gravest objections. The whole country would, of course, be thrown into turmoil, the mind of the nation would be diverted to political controversies, Ministers would be prevented from carrying on the work of their Departments, most of which is essential to the operations of the War, and would be expected to visit their constituencies.


I understand the Government are bringing in a Motion to appoint a Committee. My right hon. Friend is making a speech against the Motion. Is that in order?


I do not think so at all. The right hon. Gentleman is pointing out some of the matters which the Committee will have to consider.

4.0 P.M.


That is precisely my point. The Committee, under the terms of reference that I am now moving, will no doubt have to consider all these various points, and the reason why I am emphasising them and elaborating them is in order to show the reasons why the Government are proposing to the House the appointment of a Committee instead of placing upon the Table of the House a Bill such as some right hon. and hon. Members desire they should produce. The effect on opinion of holding a General Election in the midst of a great War ought not to be left out of account. What should we think here if in one of the belligerent countries of one of our Allies there should be held within the next few weeks a General Election? We should look upon the prospect—[Laughter]—I hope hon. Members will be patient—with some surprise, and we should think it rather unfortunate that a country which ought to be devoting the whole of its energies to getting on with the War should devote itself to prosecuting quarrels and controversies amongst its politicians, and taking the attention of the whole of the people from the object which it ought primarily to have in view. No doubt circumstances might arise—we all have to recognise that—in which a General Election might be inevitable as the only way out of some political impasse, but that it is undesirable I, for my own part, do not doubt, and I feel convinced that public opinion as a whole does not desire it. If that is so—and this is my point—ought the Government to come to Parliament and say, " We agree that a General Election is undesirable in the course of the War; nevertheless, we invite you to spend time on discussing and passing a Bill which would probably give rise to many contro- versial points. We invite the Treasury to provide a sum of one-third of a £1,000,000 for the preparation of a register, and we ask the political parties throughout the country, and tens of thousands of canvassers, to devote themselves for some weeks to the preparation of a register which, ex hypothesi, probably will never be used at all." These are the reasons why the Government does not come to the House to-day and make proposals for the constitution of a register.

The matter has been long under consideration by the Government. It is a subject which, by its very nature, is obviously surrounded by difficulties. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson) will tell us what his solution is for these several difficulties.


I will tell you what I think when you have finished.


Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give us an alternative, and give us an answer to the various problems with which the Committee will be faced, and with which the Government has been faced. If the Government had merely taken a negative attitude, and come to the House and said, "We regard these difficulties, as far as we are concerned, as insoluble, and we are unable, to use the words of the Prime Minister, 'to present to the House any scheme which is at once practicable and free from controversy,'" we should have been open to the easy accusation that our only desire was to make registration impossible in order that there should be no General Election and so that the present Government could retain its office. Consequently, we invite the House itself to decide whether any practicable scheme can be devised, and the normal and proper course is for the House to act through the organ of a Select Committee. I have heard, as we have all heard for many years past, the Cabinet continually denounced as autocratic, as absorbing in its own hands all authority, as endeavouring to reduce the House of Commons to a mere shadow, and as refusing to give opportunities for proposals to be spontaneously made by the House of Commons itself. That accusation, I firmly believe after nearly eleven years' experience of Government office, is profoundly untrue. But as soon as the Government comes to the House and says, "Here is a problem with which we wish you to deal," instantly the Government is accused of abdicating its duty of leadership, and possibly placing the House itself into difficulty. The right course, clearly, is for the House itself to decide. We give the opportunity now for the House to appoint a Committee, if it so desires, and for the Committee to make proposals for the solution of problems which, as I say, we have found surrounded by very great difficulties. As for the Government, we will naturally give the Committee all the assistance in our power in the way of furnishing all the information that may be desired and may be in our possession, and we shall watch with very keen interest the solution of these problems, which I have briefly sketched to the House, by the Committee whose appointment I now beg to move.


One finds some difficulty in characterising the performance to which we have just listened. After all, the encroachments that have been made upon the Constitution of this country since the War, probably necessary encroachments, are not to be treated as operabouffe. I doubt very much if any Minister, at any other time, would have dared to treat the House in the comical manner which we have just witnessed. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is an insult!"] It all arises from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is so conscious that he is an indispensable Minister of an indispensable Government. Did the right hon. Gentleman mean to recommend this Motion to the House or did he not? For my own part, I believe all he wished to do was to show that this great Government now in power are so divided amongst themselves that they can make no solution whatsoever of the question, and, therefore, he thought it best to ridicule the idea that a Committee of the House could do so. How does he expect us, after that speech, to approach the question seriously? What does it mean? It means that the questions that arise in this case are insoluble. I will show in a moment that there is a very practical course which I think is open if the Government will meet the matter in a businesslike way. He says, "Go, with all my blessings, and see what you can do, and see whether you are better than we superior people who sit upon this Front Bench." Yes, but when the Committee has taken all that trouble, what are the Government going to do then? Are they going then to treat the labours of that Committee as a farce, just as the right hon. Gentleman has treated his own Motion as a farce?

For my own part I refuse to be any party to such a pantomimic performance as this, and I shall oppose this Motion. I had a very strong idea the other day, when the Prime Minister made his statement, that this was merely a shelving performance, like so many other performances of the Government. Now I know. The right hon. Gentleman has put a Motion upon the Paper which, among: other things, submits this to a Committee of the House of Commons— whether it is practicable and desirable to prepare a new Electoral Register which would include adequate representation for those engaged in the War or in war work, and to conduct an Election' upon such Register during the War? Did you ever hear of a proposal beings submitted to a Committee of this House whether an election could take place upon a particular kind of register in the course of a War? I wonder whether this is the way the War is generally carried on? The worst part of this is that the Government, if the views of the Home Secretary are accurate, have been humbugging the House for nearly a year. I will trace in a moment the history of this question, and I will show the pledges that were made and the answers that were given to questions. It was not until we brought them to close quarters by putting down a Resolution upon the Order Paper of this; House, and asking a day for it, that they made up their minds that they were absolutely hopeless and helpless in the matter. The Government have no right to leave this country without a register. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] I will tell the hon. Member in a. moment. They have no right to leave this country without a register because at any moment a General Election may be necessary. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that himself. To carry out a General Election upon a register that is nearly two years old means that you go to the election with the disfranchisement of thousands and tens of thousands of people who are in this country, not to talk at all of the men in the trenches.


You do that at any time.


Why did you destroy the machinery of registration last year?


I will go through the history of that in a moment. Let us not mix up the question of enfranchisement for the moment with the question of the register. There may be great difficulties about the question of enfranchisement. The right hon. Gentleman, in a way certainly which I could not imitate, talked about raising the question of what is a munition worker, what is a woman, who is a woman, and should a woman have a vote, and all the rest of it. Let us leave all these terrible questions for the moment out of consideration. Let us not be frightened about them. Let us see what the history of this question is. In 1915 there was an Election and Registration Act passed which stopped the ordinary procedure of keeping the register. I am now beginning to doubt very much whether that was a wise course upon the part of this House. [An HON. MEMBER: "Of the Government!"] Upon the part of this House and the Government. [An HON. MEMBER: "You were a party?"] Certainly, I do not set myself up here as infallible at all. I frankly admit it. But I did not know at that time that in future you were to treat registration of voters as a farce. What were the provisions of that Bill? That the Election Register of 1915 as then in force was to remain in force until Parliament provided for a special register. But there was a promise that Parliament would provide for a special register, and it also went on to say that it was not to be in force for a later period than December, 1916. Then came the Parliament and Registration Act of December, 1915. I should like to ask the attention of the House to what was said then by the right hon. Gentleman who was the predecessor in office of the present Home Secretary, and see how his statements fit in with the impossibility of registration. He said: As the language of the Bill will be found to show we contemplate the preparation of a special register to be used when the General Election comes which will secure that those returning from the front do not lose the opportunity of voting because of the length of the present period for qualification. What is the difficulty of carrying that out? '' The House will understand that the proposal does not involve any change in the franchise law, and that it merely adjusts and shortens the period of qualification in order to meet a situation which we desire to meet if we can. The creation of such a special register is not as easy as it looks. It is a matter of some difficulty in more points than one, but this is a matter to which the Government is giving urgent attention, and it is our intention to make further proposals to Parliament hereafter under this head in order to secure that these citizens shall not be deprived at the next election of their votes. That was in December of last year. It involved no change in the franchise. There is nothing there about giving women votes. There is nothing there saying that because you cannot carry on an election in the trenches, therefore, thousands of people who are home in this country are to be deprived of their votes. On the contrary, what the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor said, and it was upon this he got his Bill was, "The Government are giving it immediate attention, and will bring in proposals." Where are the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman? The proposals have been asked for over and over again during the whole course of this year, and whenever a question was put we were always told that we were on the eve of having a statement made, and of the proposals being brought into this House. That went on until we were out of date for a register prior to the bringing in, I suppose, of a new Act to extend this Parliament in September next. The Government think that it is a very light matter for Parliament to extend its own duration. I think that it is a very serious matter. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that there has never been an election in war before? Why, there has hardly ever been a war in which there have not been elections carried on during the war.


Never a war like this.


There is only a question of degree, but I know perfectly well what will happen. The moment the right hon. Gentleman comes down to propose an extension of the Parliament Act to prolong the life of this Parliament beyond that of any Parliament that has ever existed, certainly in modern times, he will then say, "What is the good of your opposing this? What is the good of your arguing about an election? You have got no register." We have got no register because the Government have not redeemed their pledges, and there is really no difficulty whatsoever in having a register. Why should not we register the voters who are here? Why should we not, as the late Home Secretary the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman said, " shorten the necessary time for those who come home, so as to enable them to be put upon the register"? Why should we not at the same time take care that all those who, in doing Government work have been moving from one place to another, have their names upon the register of the particular places to which they have moved 2 The truth of the matter as regards a register is that there is no difficulty whatsoever. The register may not be a perfect register, but no register ever is a perfect register. There are always necessarily large numbers away, but as regards the register itself, the position in which you are now is that if you have a by-election, as we have had by-elections during this year, you will find hundreds and thousands of people actually living in the constituencies who ought to be on the register and are not, because the Government does not prepare a register.

It is quite a different question whom you are to enfranchise. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there may be great difficulties when you come to enfranchisement. I put a Motion on the Paper at the request of a number of my hon. Friends for the enfranchisement of all sailors and soldiers who have served or are serving in this War. I believe that if you are to attempt anything you will have to draw a broad line somewhere, and I believe that the only broad line you can draw is this, that no possible sacrifice on behalf of anybody can be equal in any respect to the sacrifice by the man who is prepared, and whose duty it is, to go into battle, whether it be on sea or land, and risk his life for the preservation of his country. That is and can be the only broad division which you can draw. I am prepared to move the Motion standing in my name. I believe in giving the franchise to the soldiers and the sailors who are fighting our battles. That is the real property qualification—for what property would any man have in this country if it were not for the soldiers and sailors who are fighting our battles? And upon that broad principle I believe that if the Government had brought in such a measure this House would have carried it without any real division of opinion from any section of the House.


To enable a soldier to vote?


I am just going to deal with the right hon. Gentleman. But, as regards that question, how is the Committee to decide it better than the Govern— ment, and how do we know that the Government will accept the recommendation of the Committee? We cannot allow them to be broken up. That would be a catastrophe which no serious person could contemplate. But then the Government can best form an opinion as to whether that can be done, and I will tell you why. They are in daily communication with their own military advisers. The question whether a soldier can vote—though I myself can see a great compliment conferred upon a soldier in giving him the vote, even if he is not able to exercise it at a particular election. I hope that many of thems will live for many elections, and I hope that they will have a very much bigger voice in the government of this country than they have had hitherto. For myself, I believe that it would be an encouragement for men in the difficult tasks which they have undertaken in fighting for their country to know that one of the Recognitions of their country was that they were given, so to speak, the freedom of the country, just as a man is given the freedom of a city in which he may never exercise a vote at all. But the question which the right hon. Gentleman put to me, which he seems to think settles this matter, is, Can he vote at an election? The only persons who can decide that are the Government. They are the Executive. They are in daily contact with their military advisers. This is a military question. The right hon. Gentleman says, "Can they vote while a bombardment is. going on? Is there any provision in the Ballot Act allowing them to do so?" Is that the kind of thing which he is firing at the head of a serious Committee? Yon may not be able to have them all vote. You may only be able to have some of them vote, but the Government have the advice of their military authorities. They, and they alone, are able to determine this question, and, after all, it cannot be so very insoluble, and it cannot be such an absolutely difficult one, because it has been solved in Canada, where they have given a vote to the men who have gone. Nobody thought that very ludicrous in Canada. It has been done in Australia.


It has not been exercised.


They have given them the power of exercising it. It was done during the American War by a number of the American States. One would think 'we were talking of something which is absolutely ridiculous, but, if it is as ridiculous as the right hon. Gentleman says, what right has he to say to a Committee, "You are going to do it." But even if you settle none of these questions you can still have a register, as I have already pointed out. Then the right hon. Gentleman goes on to say, "No General Election is possible during the War." Well, perhaps he did not say it as frankly as that. But he did not contemplate a General Election during the War. I take exception to that view altogether. On the contrary, I believe a General Election must take place during the War—certainly at some period of the War. Do you "think that this is the proper House to determine peace questions, when peace arises? When that time comes this will be a House so stale that its Members will represent nobody but themselves. Already it is a House in which a number of constituencies have repudiated their own Members. Is that the kind of House that is going to settle and determine the whole future of this country on the question of peace? What was this House elected for? It was elected to abolish the House of Lords, or, so far as they could abolish the House of Lords, and, curiously enough, to abolish armaments. It is not so very long since some one hundred and fifty Members of this House tried to persuade my right hon. Friend here (Mr. Churchill) that he should reduce the Navy.


Not so long ago he was trying it himself.


The hon. Member will recollect that he did not do it. That is a very curious kind of House for my right hon. Friend—if I may call him such—to say of it that it is the only possible House that we can have during this War to settle questions of peace. No, Sir; the moment peace begins—and Heaven knows we all hope it may be soon, so long as it is honourable and victorious—the moment peace begins to foe talked of, I mean seriously talked of, not by mere faddists and cranks, that moment you will have to ascertain the real views of th8 country, and not merely the viwes of this House. And are you, then, when the question arises, going to say either of two things, "We cannot consult the country because we have not got a register," or, "if we do consult the country, we must consult it upon a register by which thousands and thousands of people who, otherwise are here to vote cannot vote"? That shows to my mind at all events, conclusively, that however else you deal with enfranchisement or anything else, you must have a register, and it is the duty of the Government to have a register as complete as they can possibly make it. There is another argument which is sometimes made upon this point, on which I will say a word. My Friends say to me, "What is the good of an election with a Coalition Government in power; one caucus is bad enough, 'bat you cannot beat the two." All I can say is—and I suppose I am as strong a partisan as most men in this House—that in my opinion it is indecent to use the caucus at any election of either side during a war of this kind, which brings about such a set of circumstances as necessitates a Coalition Government. Why should the caucus be used at all? There is a political truce, and you want to maintain that truce. If that is so, what right have you to use the political caucus on one side or the other? For my own part, speaking as a member of the party to which I belong, I resent either the money or the organisation of that party being used at by-elections or any other elections for electoral purposes at the present moment. The Government have no right to abrogate the duties which are put upon them to bring in a Bill for a register. This Committee will lead to nothing. This Committee is a farce. The right hon. Gentleman has proposed it as a farce. He has thought that was the best way of dealing with it. He is not in earnest over this matter. So far as I am concerned I hope the House will refuse to agree to this farcical Committee being set up, and will tell the Government to go and do their own business.


The House certainly finds itself in an extraordinary position with regard to the Motion which is now before it. And certainly I am bound to agree with the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down (Sir E. Carson) that the speech in which the Home Secretary introduced this Motion was one calculated to cover the proposal with entire ridicule. Either the House is asked to appoint this Committee in order that it may face the difficulties—and there are difficulties undoubtedly—and if possible overcome them, or else this is being proposed as a refuge, and is put before the House because the Government cannot make up its mind upon some kind of policy either with regard to a General Election or with regard to the register upon which that General Election is to be fought. For my part I am indeed surprised that the Government should have sought at any rate this refuge out of its difficulty. Undoubtedly the whole problem is difficult. Even the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down will admit that the problem is a difficult one. He himself, when a member of the late Government, saw that it was a difficult one—even the keeping of the register under the old conditions, and the conditions are much worse now. I think the initial mistake was made when the right hon. Gentleman himself was a member of the Government, which did not keep up the register.


I agree with the hon. Member.


I accept the right hon. Gentleman's statement, but I think it detracts very much from his criticism. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!" "Why?"] May I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends behind me not to always indulge in running comments. I do not know how hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite find it, but anyone sitting here finds it exceedingly difficult, and anyone trying to speak here finds it still more difficult, because of the number of running comments from behind, of which he perhaps catches part and loses other parts. All this makes it exceedingly difficult to follow a consecutive argument, and therefore I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends, who will have the same opportunity of speaking as other Members will, at any rate, refrain from making these running comments. With regard to the whole question, I do not think that this House, with all respect to the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, can lightly contemplate the prospect of a General Election during the War. But surely, if that be the position, we should face, so far as it is possible to do so, the question as to whether there is or is not to be a General Election; and then the right hon. Gentleman might have proposed a Committee to prepare some kind of register upon some such lines as might be suggested to the Committee. They might have done that when the first question was settled one way or another. But as to this present proposal—really is it seriously meant?—that the question of whether there shall or shall not be a General Election is to be remitted to a Committee of this kind. Who is to decide it when that Committee makes its report? The Government itself. And I think that is one of the first questions which the Government itself ought to take up. I think this is one of those opportunities—and I desire to make an appeal to the House in this connection—which can be used for settling many long outstanding questions. For my part, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the question of enfranchisement should not now be considered either by this Committee or by the House. I do not see how it is possible to avoid consideration of that question.


I did not say that the question of enfranchisement should not be considered, but I said that a register should be made, whether you enfranchise or whether you do not. I said that, in my opinion, our soldiers and sailors ought to be on the register.


That I can quite understand; but surely, the two things seem to me to be part of the same question. If you are going to have a register, the question of who are to appear on that register is a question of enfranchisement; otherwise, if you put soldiers and sailors on the register, then you enfranchise them; and, therefore, the whole question of enfranchisement comes under the purview of the Committee, or ought to do so, and under the purview of the House. I want to make an appeal to the Government to take a definite line, and I want to make an appeal to the House, on this occasion, that we should try and settle at this time many of these outstanding problems with regard to the franchise while there is a Coalition Government in power; while there is a so-called political truce—I will put it, a so-called political truce.


It is a truce between parties.


It is a truce between parties, but while there is this political truce we should face this question of enfranchisement and see if we cannot get it out of the way. [An HON. MEMBER: "And Redistribution."] And Redistribution, too. I am for the full programme of registration, enfranchisement, and redistribution while there is a Coalition Government, and that an agreement be reached, so that we may have one of the matters of political controversy cleared out of the way. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the War?"] There, again, we haye a running comment, "What about the War?" Surely it would not add much to the labours of the Committee, if it is a serous Committee, if it is supposed to settle the problem, to let it face the whole problem and bring it before the House, and then let the House decide on the Report of that Committee when that Report has been received. I quite agree there are difficulties. I think the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has minimised those difficulties. There is even difficulty in creating the register at the present moment. There is the very, very serious difficulty of finding the labour; there is the difficulty of placing the contracts; there is the difficulty of getting the printing done, and there is also the great difficulty of providing the paper. When the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Government I believe there was no restriction on the use or import of paper. All these difficulties, or many of them, have arisen since the War, and, for my part, I would have been glad if the Government, in making a proposal of this kind to the House, had made it in what seems to me the right spirit, in a serious spirit—not in a spirit that would simply load the Committee with difficulties and make it almost impossible to do its work—in order that we might have a solution of this problem. For, let me say this, some solution must be found. It seems extraordinary that the Government should say hat the position is insoluble and then send it to a Committee with the statement, "We cannot settle it; you please settle it for us." I do really think, with regard to this question, that we might ask the Government to withdraw this Motion for the Committee and to bring down another Motion to the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO, no!" and "Yes!"] If hon. Gentlemen behind me like to have a General Election, then let the people settle it, but there is a difficulty, and that is where we come up to the proposition that the right hon. Gentleman put before us. He said that there was a political truce and a political caucus. What would a General Election be taken now, under the conditions which prevail, or which would prevail, even if a register were prepared, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, with the Coalition Government and a political truce? If the Coalition Government goes to the country it would practically be an agreed election. Nothing would prevent, and nothing could prevent, the caucuses on both sides, and in regard to both parties, practically deciding the issue of that election. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that any such General Election as that upon any kind of register, no matter what it was, would practically be a farce. What I want to get at is this: Cannot the Government make up its mind as to what' its policy ought to be with regard to a General Election, and cannot the Government make up its mind to come down to the House and to quite clearly, fairly, and definitely, state what that policy is, and then we shall know exactly where we stand? So far as I can see at present, at any rate, I do not think that this Committee is any way out of our present difficulties.


I confess I find myself in very considerable agreement with the right hon. Gentleman opposite in the view that this not a Motion which ought in its present form, at any rate, to be passed by this House. The right hon. Gentleman who moved it did not make a very helpful speech. It was not a speech which was very respectful to the Committee whom it was proposed to appoint, and I should think that everyone whose name appears on this list, as proposed to be a member of the. Committee, would be justified in feeling considerable resentment at the subject being thrown to them in this way, like a bone to a dog. I think, also, that in his speech the right hon. Gentleman showed a complete failure to appreciate the very great seriousness of the subject which we are discussing. It is not a light matter: it is not a mere incidental detail in the conduct of government. It is not a mere question of a list of a few names. What is the register? What part does it play in our Constitution? The register is the very foundation of democratic government. It is the ark of the covenant in representative government, and if we have no register, representative government, or democratic government, is a complete farce—a hollow sham and mockery. The right hon. Gentleman pointed to the cost, £300,000 or so, for maintaining representative government in this country, but when he represents a third of a million as a sum which we cannot afford to pay in order to keep alive the principle of representative government in this country, he shows, I think, a complete and hopeless failure to understand really the nature of the subject which we are discussing to-day. In another way the right hon. Gentleman cut away the ground from under his own feet in one sentence. He said that a General Election under these circumstances was undesirable and inexpedient. The right hon. Gentleman says that the test of an election may be necessary before the end of the War when we come to consider the terms of peace—that this House is not representative. If our men are continuing at the front I do not see how this House is going to be any more representative. I should think that there was general agreement that, all things considered, a General Election was inexpedient, and as far as he contended that it was inexpedient I think he carried the House with him generally. But he did recognise the fact that a General Election may be forced, however inexpedient it may be, and that it may be inevitable and unavoidable. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the decision does not lie in our hands. The decision lies in other hands and in hands which are not too favourably disposed to the Government, and in the hands of those who have already passed a vote of no confidence in this Government which, if it had been passed in this House, would have forced the resignation of the Government. It lies in the hands of those people to say whether or not there shall be a General Election.

A General Election may be forced, and, unconstitutional or not, it is the fact which is unconstitutional, and the fact remains that the election may be forced. This Parliament expires in a month or so, and the House of Lords have it in their power, if they so desire, to force an election. Therefore, whether the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Front Bench desire it or not, this election may be forced upon them. Are we to face it without a register? Let us have at least the best register that we can have. There is no one who denies that there are thousands of people in this country in the constituencies who are disfranchised at present and who, if there was a General Election or even a by-election, ought to be able to vote, but who at present are deprived of a vote. Surely it is obvious, if an election is forced upon this country, there ought to be ready at any moment the best register which it is possible to devise. The right hon. Gentleman suggested many difficulties about forming a register or the holding of an election. I agree with the difficulties about holding an election. I think they are very great, and so great as to make an election inexpedient; but as to the difficulties of making a register, there are none. I could suggest a dozen prac- tical ways of making a register and of putting on the names of soldiers and sailors on that register. There is no difficulty about it, and if there is the will to do it a register can easily be formed. But the taking of an election, on it afterwards would be a more difficult business. There is a serious question raised here as to whether it is desirable to depart from our ordinary registration law, and to create a new kind of franchise and give this franchise to those who are soldiers and to those who are engaged in war work. That is a question which might properly and desirably be referred to a Committee, and I think it ought to be referred to a Committee. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should amend his Motion and confine it entirely to the question of forming a register, and let it have nothing to do with an election. The right hon. Gentleman opposite made a strong and invincible point when he said what a ridiculous thing it was to refer to a Committee the question of whether we should have an election or not. It is not for a Committee, and a Committee could not decide it, because whatever the Committee or the Government resolved an election may be forced upon us. Therefore I suggest that the Government should withdraw this Motion or bring it up to-day in a different form and confine it solely to the question of the methods of forming a register and the principles on which that register should be formed.


I really do not quite know what the object of the Government is in putting down this Motion and in recommending the appointment of this Committee. Surely during this strenuous period of the War it cannot be the object and policy of the Government to waste the time of the House by this Select Committee which they propose to appoint. If they wanted to show the House and the country how they do business and the way in which they do business, and also the way in which they are out of touch with realities they have done so. The reception which has been given to their proposal by the House shows that the Cabinet are completely out of touch with the Members of this House, and I am perfectly certain they would find that they were equally out of touch with the people of the country. I venture to hope that my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir E. Carson) will carry his opposition, if necessary, into the Lobby, and that if the Government do not withdraw their proposal that they will be compelled to do so, as I feel perfectly certain they will be defeated by an overwhelming majority of the Members of this House. I do not wish to say too much of the tone in which this proposal was introduced, because, after all, the right hon. Gentleman was only following the tone set to him by the Prime Minister the other day. When the Prime Minister told us what the policy of the Government was he treated it as the right hon. Gentleman has done, as a joke. Therefore it is not surprising to find that we should have the same tone of levity to-day.


I did nothing of the sort; no more did the Prime Minister.


It was quite a long sneer.

5.0 P.M.


I can only say that my impression, listening to the Prime Minister, was that there was a tone of levity running through his speech, but I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says on this point. There is not only the question of an election during the War, but we also have to consider the possibility of an election after the War is over. Are we to make no preparation in anticipation of peace?Are we to find peace coming and no means whatever of having an election? The right hon. Gentleman admitted that although in his opinion an election was undesirable, still that it might take place and that circumstances might compel the Government to face an election. It is quite certain that very soon after the War there must be an election. Are we to deal with this question of the register and of the franchise when we are negotiating peace terms and bringing back the Army? The question of preparing a register and of the franchise obviously must take time. Are we to continue the life of this Government indefinitely during peace time while we are discussing how we are to carry on an election. One of the first duties of the Government surely is to carry on the ordinary routine of administration of the country, and by routine of administration I include such forms of legislation as this. After all, we are a democracy and not a bureaucracy, and, as the last speaker has pointed out, it is absolutely essential that we should get an electorate. We should remember that there is an electorate, and see that the people to whom Parliament in the past has given the right of exercis- ing the vote shall not be deprived by the action or inaction of the Government from exercising that privilege. It is essential also that the Government should rot only do that, but that it should try to keep abreast of the development and of the times. I feel certain that there is a general feeling in this House, and I am sure there will be the same feeling outside, that the men who are serving in His Majesty's Forces and who are doing war work should be rewarded by being given the opportunity of registering their vote. Perhaps not everyone will be able to do it, but of registering the vote as a whole on the issues of war and peace if they should come before the country in the shape of an election. After all, this is not a new problem. It is not a problem which has suddenly come before the Government now in July, 1916. The present Parliament was due to end some time last winter, in January or February; therefore during the whole of last year the Government did not know whether they were indispensable or not. The Government during the latter part of 1915 had to face the possibility of an election in January or February. It was up to them during that time to see that there was a register, and to see that there was an electorate to which they could appeal if necessary in case of an election. As my right hon. and learned Friend has said, not only had the Government the whole of last year in which to consider it, but they had repeatedly, in reply to questions in this House, announced that they were considering this question. In fact, on 22nd May, the Prime Minister, I think, said that within a week he was going to announce the conclusion to which the Government had come. Now did these replies mean anything or nothing? Were the Government, in fact, considering the question all that time? And when the right hon. Gentleman said, on 22nd May, that within a week the Government were going to announce their conclusion, surely it meant either that they had come to an agreement or that they had very nearly come to an agreement and that something had happened to upset their agreement. If they had not come to an agreement, why did not they come down and tell the House that they could not come to an agreement? Why did they wait until now before telling us that they could not solve the question, which, after all, cannot be so insoluble. This question is one which has got to be settled. The Government may think that they cannot settle it now, but they have got to settle it at some time during the War or just after the War. Do they propose to postpone coming to a decision now in the belief that the question will be more soluble in six months or twelve months' time? The hon. Member who leads the Labour party has asked if the Coalition Government does not settle this question what better form of Cabinet can we find to settle it? It is a question which affects all parties and all classes of the community. As to the giving of votes to soldiers and sailors, I certainly think that men who are prepared to lay down their lives in the War should have the opportunity of registering their views on the terms of peace, or for the great principles for which they have been prepared to lay down their lives, or the way in which this country shall be governed in the future—the country for which they have fought. Of course it is difficult, and of course an election may come at a moment when you cannot register any large proportion of the men who are in the fighting line; but, on the other hand, an election may come during the winter, during the time when things are comparatively quiet at the front. Moreover, there are large numbers of men on the other side of the Channel who are not always in the trenches; in fact, you have always got a large number of men not in the trenches; and although you may not be able to collect the votes of 100 per cent. of the Army and the Navy, surely, if you can get 75 or even 50 per cent. of the men who are fighting, you will have done something.


What about Mesopotamia?


Well, if we cannot include Mesopotamia or German East Africa, we can at least include the Balkans, Egypt, and France. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the fact that there is already a precedent for carrying out an election during war time. During the American Civil War an election was actually carried out, and a large number of the soldiers who were fighting registered their votes. As far as I have been able to ascertain that election was carried through with complete success. I agree that an election at the present time would be a great nuisance and a hindrance, but we must realise the fact that an election may come whether we think it desirable or undesirable, and whether we are for or against a General Election. An election may suddenly be forced upon us, and it is surely the duty of every Member of this House to see that if we have an election there is a register and an electorate which can give the views of the people outside this House as to the way in which the War should be carried out. Let me say one further word of protest against the way in which the Cabinet are trying to get rid of their responsibility. Why should they put their responsibility on the shoulders of a Select Committee of the members of the rank and file? It is surely for the Cabinet to decide this question. That is what they are there for; and what guarantee have we that, supposing this Committee were to agree unanimously on a Report, the Government would accept it, and, supposing the Committee did not agree unanimously, suppose you had a minority Report, or two minority Reports, what would happen then? The Government would be no better off than at present. In times of war none of us like to go out of our way to criticise the Government unnecessarily. We have a great deal to do. I myself do not very often get down here, but I do feel that owing to the way in which the Government are treating the House to-day, it is necessary for those of us who are interested in this matter to come down and register a protest against the way in which the Government are doing the business. I certainly intend to oppose the appointment of this Committee.


I rise to ask my right hon. Friend whether he will not announce the decision of the Government at once on this matter, and let us get on with the other business on the Paper. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is a sufficiently old Parliamentary hand to know that he cannot carry out this matter, and if he did carry it out it would be stillborn, because the members of the Committee whose names are on the Paper would not serve with any success, after the Debate that has taken place. The difficulty about this Motion, as about so many other things connected with this Government, is that it is much too late. It is brought forward at a time when no Committee, even if it sat night and day and every hour, could present any Report which would be any practical use as far as this year is concerned. The Government have not meant business about this matter. If they had, they would have appointed this Committee a year ago or more. They should have appointed it at a time when they proposed an extension of Parliament. Instead of appointing a Committee then to advise them on their policy, they actually took the responsibility of stopping all preparations for a register. The responsibility is clearly the Government's, and they should bear it, and they ought not to ask the House and any unofficial Committee to do so. I think to appoint a Committee with such a reference is without precedent when there is no member of the Government upon it. The Cabinet are shirking the responsibility of their own blunders. I think we are entitled to know what the result of the Cabinet's deliberations were with regard to this matter. The right hon. Gentleman said they had been considering the matter for over twelve months. I think we are entitled to know what the result is. They must have formed some views after all that deliberation.

I speak as one of the most severe critics of the Government on many points, and, speaking quite frankly, I say that I do not desire to change this Government at this moment. What we want is that the Government should get on with the War; therefore the question of an election is not really raised. The question which is raised is whether the Cabinet should ask the House to take the responsibility of exercising powers which really fall to be exercised by the Crown and the Prime Minister. You are asking the Committee to say whether a General Election is desirable during the continuance of the War. As to the practicability of an election, we know that if it really suited the Government to go to the country, and if they were sure that they had a majority, the fact that the register was imperfect would not deter them, in spite of any recommendation that the Committee might make. It is not the duty of the Committee, and not even of the House, to decide when an election should take place. The responsibility lies with the Cabinet and the Crown; therefore any report that the Committee might make would not necessarily be treated with any respect by the Government. We have to consider whether it is worth while asking Members of this House to spend their time on a Committee upstairs endeavouring to arrive at a Report which, when it is presented, we have no guarantee would be taken any heed of by the Government. The Government must recognise that they themselves must decide the policy in regard to this matter. I take upon myself, as we have had no statement from the Government, to move "That this Debate be now adjourned."


I beg to second that Motion.

Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."


Are we to have no reply from the Government on the question of the Adjournment of the Debate?


I trust that my right hon. Friend will not at this moment press his Motion. I am anxious that the Prime Minister should come in, and make a statement of policy, but at present my right hon. Friend is engaged on a very important deputation.


In view of what my right hon. Friend has said, I will ask leave to withdraw my Motion, on the understanding that some other Member may move it later on, if necessary.

Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned," by leave, withdrawn.


Before we proceed to a Division on this Motion for the appointment of the Committee, we ought to know whether the Government are now in favour of a General Election or not, and what is the meaning of the reference to this Committee. The question as to whether an election is in contemplation or not surely governs the whole situation. Do I understand the reference correctly, that the question whether there should be a General Election or not is referred by the Government to a decision of a Select Committee of this House? If that is so, and I think it is plainly so, from the terms of the reference, then I say it is the most extraordinary constitutional departure in the whole history of this country. That the question of a General Election should be referred by the Government to a Select Committee of this House, on which no member of the Government sits, is a proposal absolutely without precedent in the history of this country, or I venture to say, of any other country that enjoys constitutional Government. It appears to me that that question governs the whole situation. Do the Government contemplate a General Election or do they not? The great mistake was made by the Government last December in consenting to certain proposals that were made as to alterations in the Bill for prolonging the life of Parliament. They have now passed an Act which brings the present Parliament to an end in the month of September. I ask hon. Gentlemen: Can there be a greater farce than to ask us to discuss the question of the appointment of this Committee without any declaration from the Government as to what is their policy in regard to the life of this Parliament? Is this Parliament to end in September? If it is, what folly, and what nonsense, and what contempt for the House of Commons is contained in the Motion of the Government to set up a Committee to consider the methods for setting up a register when we do not know whether an election is to take place in September or not! Surely, if the Government had wanted to treat the House of Commons with decent courtesy and consideration they would have begun by telling us practically what is their proposal in regard to the life of Parliament; having done that, they could base any further proposals that they had to make upon that declaration.

I wish, however, to say a very few words on this question of the prolongation of the life of Parliament. When, in December last, the proposal was first made to prolong the life of Parliament for a specified time, I ventured to protest in the most solemn manner against that departure. These actions are always broadened into a precedent. I pointed out that no such Motion had been made in Parliament since the days of the Long Parliament; that to propose to prolong the life of Parliament by an Act of the House of Commons, or the two Houses, for a specified period was a totally new departure from the settled practice of this House for 250 years. So long, at all events, as the party who may be in power can control the action of the House of Lords, it really amounts to a destruction of the Septennial Act, or the later Act shortening the life of the House of Commons to five years. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear!"] Yes, we have reduced the period to five years, and that makes my case much stronger, and not a worse case. By an Act of Parliament we have reduced the life of this Parliament to five years; then, when it suited our convenience, we added six months to our life. The argument I then used was, " No man in this House supposes that he is going to see the end of these operations." Now we are in the month of July, and the life of this Parliament expires in September. Does any man in this House suppose that we are going to have an election in September? Are we in the next few weeks to have a hurried Act passed to prolong our lives again, say, for three, six, or nine months, and then, if the War lasts, are we to have a third Act? [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh, yes!"] I think the hour has come when the Government should disclose their hand and let us know what are their intentions. What I say is this: If this kind of system goes on there is an end of that security which in the old days of the history of the British Parliament was looked upon as one of the most important protections for liberty that was ever won in the constitutional history of this country—and that is the Septennial Act! You have whittled it away, because if you get into the habit—and we have done it already!—and you have set us a precedent—of prolonging the life of Parliament for a fixed period, then the Septennial Act, or the Quinquennial Act, loses all its protective influences, so far as the people are concerned. I ventured upon that occasion to say there were two courses open to the Government, and the House, which could be defended consistently with our constitutional history and precedent.

The one course was to say boldly, "This is a wholly unprecedented War, and an election during a war would be a great national catastrophe and danger; therefore, we will prolong the life of Parliament until it is past." There you make a precedent of a not very dangerous character, because it could only be drawn into a precedent again if we were involved once more in as dangerous a war. That course would, therefore, not be open to so grave an objection as the course which the Government actually adopted. But I confess I should very much have preferred, and I think it would have been a far sounder course, if an agreed election had been decided upon. That would have been the proper course. That would have been consistent with constitutional practice, and would have set up no other precedent. What difference would it have made if there had been an agreed election? There was really no real issue to fight upon as regards the general body of constituencies in the country. When we have a Coalition Government I know no party issue to divide us. I believe both the greatest safety and the least danger would have been to have had your election in last December as an agreed election, between all parties in the House. The argument was used, I remember, that it was impossible to deny any particular constituency the opportunity to deal with this matter. I quite agree. It is quite true that you might have had ten, twelve, or perhaps twenty contested elections, though I do not believe you would have had so many, because I think—and I differ here from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College—this was a cause in which for the safety of the country it was perfectly legitimate to use the two party machines in pursuance of the policy of this House to have an agreed election throughout the country. The result would have been that if you had had even ten, or twelve, or twenty contested elections, which I very much doubt if a general appeal had been made, they would not have seriously disturbed the general political peace of the country, and they would only have been fought on personal issues. There would have been no broad issues dividing the people in such an election. The result of that would have been to clear away altogether from the path of Parliament the troubles which now beset us.

I have heard hon. Members stand up in this House and profess to look forward to a contested election. Really, a contested election in the midst of a great war is, I confess, a thing I cannot understand at all. Can any man really and seriously, with a sense of responsibility, propose that we should plunge into a contested election, into all the political issues which divide us—that they should be laid open in the midst of this War? I confess that such a man would be one of the most dangerous enemies of his country. Therefore, I dismiss that idea that it is possible for the Government to throw open the gates, and let all the controversies be aroused. Once you open the gates and let one controversy out, you cannot bottle up the others. If you are going to have a party election in the country, you must have the whole field of controversy open. That is an unthinkable thing. It would be an act of treason and treachery to the country. Passions would be aroused. What I really rose to say was this: That I think the hour has arrived when the Government should open their hand, and let us know what is their policy, and what they intend to do. Are they going to introduce a Bill to prolong the life of Parliament? If they are, for how long? What is their proposal? Do they really look forward to a General Election? If they do not, what is the use of dividing us upon smaller issues?


I am one of those to whom it would be the greatest regret ever to do anything to possibly inconvenience the Coalition Government. I know the importance of their work. I know how overworked they are in carrying on the War. I know that the Debates in this House ought to be curtailed to within the. shortest and smallest possible limits. But here we are in a difficulty which I do not think any Government ought to have put us in. I do not for a moment think they intentionally did it, or could possibly realise the difficulty into which they have put this House. I agree with my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mayo when he says that the mistake was some time ago. None of us foresaw it. Very few of us realised that it would have been much better to have an agreed election then and there. We thought the War might be over. No doubt that would have been the way out. At the present time we are in a position that I think few people realise, and I think the Governmen do not. I think if the Prime Minister had been here through the whole of this Debate he would have realised that there are other points possible on which this House may get out of hand. In that case an election would be compulsory. What machinery is there for having an election? None at all! It is the duty of the Government at once, and without delay, not to appoint a Committee to consider, but to do something; to make ready in case an election is forced upon us.

In the first place, let us look at the wording of this Resolution. It says: "Whether it is practicable." Well, the necessity has got to be got over whether it is practicable or not. We have got to do something which will enable the register to be made. Is it desirable to have an election? We all know that it is not desirable to have an election so far as the Government work is concerned. So far, however, as this House is concerned, I do not suppose there are half a dozen Members, except those who have had notice given to them by their constituencies, that do not think that they would be in a better position, and that the country would be in a better position for having a Parliament that could be recognised as representing the people of England. Few Members of this House, I hope, want to prolong their existence and be coupled with the limpets of the past, or the Rump of Oliver Cromwell, or the bits of the Long Parliament, struggling on, decrepit and ineffectual, nominally carrying on the Parliamentary Government of the country, without power, without honour, and without efficiency! We want to have life and vitality and a Parliament renewed! If this War goes on—which I pray God may not happen—for one or for two years, then Parliament will not be the Parliament to make the peace—or ought not to be! The people ought to be better represented. I think it is the duty of everybody to ask that the machinery for the election of a new Parliament should be brought into existence at the very earliest possible moment. I do not want to find fault with this Committee. Even if it were necessary to have a Committee I think it ought to have had upon it members of the Government. It ought to have had men who sit on the Opposition Bench. They may not be the Opposition, but the strongest men of this House ought to have been put on such a Committee. But I do not complain. Any Committee might carry out the wishes of the House, but if you give the House all this power of recommendation, surely it would be better to leave it a little more in the hands of the House to choose the Committee to make the decision.

One thing I do think is pretty clearly established by the Debate, and that is that, however inconvenient it is, the desirability of an election has been expressed by all those who have spoken It might not be convenient, and it might be deferred for that reason, but that it is desirable in the interests of the country and the House that there should be a new Parliament is not a thing to refer to a Committee. In the second place, there is another fact I think the Government might take as almost a universally agreed principle, and that is that when the register is made there should be a short qualification, so as to enable people who have been away, in consequence of the War, at munitions, to be put on, and also that our soldiers and sailors shall be given a vote, whether they are able to use it or whether they are not, and I do not think the Government need fear that they are encroaching on any new principle in putting the voters of the country on to the register. The very germ of our national and democratic institutions is the old Saxon meeting of the whole nation, when the Army were the first to vote, and I do not see that we should treat the fighting men of to-day differently from, those who fought in the days when our early freedom was established. I do plead with the Government to withdraw this Resolution, and to introduce, if possible, some machinery on their own responsibility that will enable them, if they are driven to it, to have an election with some semblance of the voice of the people being represented.


I do not know whether I ought to offer any acknowledgment to the Home Secretary inasmuch as my name appears on the list of this Committee to which he is willing to commit this very important business, but [ must confess that if I ever felt inclined to feel any gratitude to him for his nomination of me to that Committee, that gratitude was very considerably diminished by the speech he addressed to the House in introducing the Motion. It appeared to me, even before hearing the right hon. Gentleman, that the Committee which was to be appointed was to perform a task which, though honourable, is always rather melancholy, and sometimes rather tragic—that of sacrificing themselves to cover a retreat. The Government, as my right hon. Friend in front of me has already reminded the House, have been long pledged to propose to the House a method under the peculiar circumstances of the day of forming a register upon which an election might be taken. Owing to circumstances, no doubt, which have arisen in their own ranks, they find it necessary to retreat from that position, and now they are asking a Committee, of which, if formed, apparently, I was to be a member, to sacrifice themselves in order to cover the Government's retreat. I for one, however, much as I might be disposed to object to the policy as a whole, would have been perfectly willing to take whatever part I might be able to in that work if I saw the slightest prospect of any useful result. But after listening to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, it is perfectly clear to me that the right hon. Gentleman himself does not expect any result from the work of this Committee, and, not only that, but he made it quite clear to the House that he does not want the Committee to have any result. In other words, this Committee is formed as a mere expression of the Government's contempt, first of all for the policy to which they themselves were pledged, and, secondly, of the House of Commons itself. Under those circumstances, I will ask to be excused from the honour which the right hon. Gentleman was anxious to press upon me.

Therefore, I do not want to discuss at any length the more general subject about which debate has taken place, but I would like to say one word with regard to the question of whether or not a General Election is necessary or desirable. I agree with the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. Dillon), and I think, with every Member in the House, that, other things being equal, it is very undesirable that we should have the turmoil of a General Election. But what strikes me as the peculiarity of this Debate, and of the whole subject which has excited this Debate, is that, on the one hand, we were always being told there was no necessity to form a register, because nobody contemplates having an election, and at the same time the converse proposition was fired at us that you would never think of having an election because there is not a register. Those propositions are mutually destructive, and both of them appear to me to be untrue. I agree entirely with what the hon. Member opposite said a little time ago, that whatever the House of Commons may wish, or whatever the Government may wish, circumstances might at any moment arise which would make it absolutely unavoidable to have a General Election, however much we should all wish to avoid it. The hon. Member to whom I am referring spoke of the possibility of the action of the House of Lords bringing it about. That, I believe, is quite true, but there are other circumstances than that. Surely it is of the very essence of our whole Constitution that, in the last resort, in the case of disagreement among the Government themselves, that one party or other, one statesman or another, should have the power of appealing to the country to decide whether or not a policy has the confidence of the country.

However indispensable this Government may be—I do not want to discuss that—is it inconceivable to this House that there may be from time to time matters upon which all the members of the Government are not absolutely in agreement? It appears to me to be quite possible that such cases might arise. We have had, during the last few months, more than one example, in which rumour reaches the outside world. of matters on which the Government disagree. Supposing, in the course of carrying on the War, some very important matters come up for decision in the Government, the nature of which I do not in the least attempt to forecast, but we can all undersand that there may be a matter of policy either with regard to carrying on the War or with regard to bringing the War to a close, about which it would be impossible for the twenty-two or twenty-three men who are gathered in the Cabinet to agree upon a policy. Under those circumstances, after the usual constitutional struggle was gone through, and an endeavour to arrive at an agreement, perhaps an occasional resignation of one or more of the Ministers, it is quite conceivable—and there are numerous precedents in our history—that the time might come when it would be absolutely necessary either for the Prime Minister or for someone, at all events, when the Government has come to that impasse, to go to His Majesty the King, and say that it is necessary to go back to the people and get a new mandate for the policy of the Government. If we have not a register upon which an election can be taken, the whole of that constitutional process is put out of gear altogether. It cannot work, and the consequence seems to me to be that the longer we drift along without reforming the electorate, on which this House rests for its authority and power, the more incompetent not only does this House become to represent the people, but the more incompetent does the Government become to lead this House and lead the country, because it is not merely, as I think, a question of whether or not at any given moment you want actually to take an election. Unless the House of Commons has tacitly recognised behind it an electorate upon which it can fall back, and which it represents—unless that is going on at all times, it appears to me that the very backbone is taken out of our Constitution, and we need no longer regard ourselves as a merely constitutional Government according to our accepted notions.

With regard to the comparatively side issue of enfranchisement, which, I agree with my right hon. Friend, although extremely important, is not necessarily essential to the question of a register, I believe the real reason, or one of the main reasons, why the Government have tried to shuffle off their own responsibility on to a Select Committee is this: The Government find themselves confronted with a demand not only in this House, but outside this House, that the services to the country of the men who are now fighting our battles by sea and land should be recognised by enfranchisement bringing them inside the Constitution. Now the Government do not like to take upon themselves the odium of refusing that request. They know that if they were to say, " We will not grant that demand," they would be incurring a responsibility in the country which, some day or other, would rest very heavily on their own heads, and, therefore, knowing they could not grant that demand without creating a great deal of dissension in their own ranks, and without opening the doors to similar demands for other claimants for the franchise who, although they have not got the same real right in virtue of their service to the country, could not be rejected by any reliance upon strict logic—feeling the difficulty of that position, the Government have said to themselves, " Well, we shall best escape this by saying that this is a matter for the House of Commons to decide, and to appoint a Select Committee." That seems to me to be a very halting policy, devoid altogether of courage and decision, and especially characteristic—for I am afraid we must call it characteristic—of the present Government in that lack of leadership which the nation has a right to expect from a Cabinet at a time of such a crisis as this. I only wish to repeat, after what has occurred, and after the contemptuous manner in which the right hon. Gentleman has treated the whole matter—not merely treating it with levity, but making the whole idea of this Committee a farce—so far as I am personally concerned I do not consent to have anything to do with it.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I very much regret that, owing to other duties which I could not avoid, I was not able to be here during the greater part of the Debate, but I gather from what has been reported to me that the Motion my right hon. Friend moved has not met with much favour. The view which, I am told, is prevalent to some extent, and has been indicated by some speakers, is that the words of the Motion, "to conduct an election upon such register during the War," are intended to relegate to this Committee the examination of the question whether there should be or should not be an election. I need not say that nothing was further from my intention than that. It was intended that the Committee should suggest machinery. The only speech which I have heard is the speech of the hon. Member who has just sat down (Mr. E. McNeill), in which he indulged in some reflections upon the weakness and vacillation of the Government, which are now familiar in other connections. I should like to say in regard to this Motion one or two things which are quite obvious. The first is that under the existing law the present Parliament must come to an end in the month of September unless its existence is prolonged. Secondly, if it is to be prolonged, it cannot be prolonged indefinitely, and therefore some form of register must be devised for the election of its successor. Those are elementary propositions. Now we come to the question as to what form that register should take. The existing register is already out of date, and I suppose does not represent more than 50 per cent. of the electors. When we come to the creation of a new one we are face to face with the inevitable problem of how you are to secure representation meanwhile for those who are fighting for their country at the front. A large part of our male population are now beyond our shores engaged in the performance of a great patriotic duty, and I quite understand and sympathise with the view that a Parliament elected upon a register in which they had no representation would be one which might fairly be described as wanting in moral authority, and not representing the opinion of the nation at large.


Parliament elected upon a new register of even the people at home would represent the country better than this Parliament.


That, of course, is a matter of opinion. In the consideration of this problem we are confronted with a number of other corollary suggestions of very great difficulty and perplexity, because it is almost impossible—I will not say it is impossible—but, at any rate, it is very difficult to create a new register under conditions such as those in which we are now living, without raising the question of the franchise, and when you do that you let in a number of other questions of a highly controversial character, which we all agree it is desirable, if possible, to avoid raising at the present time. The Government, after most carefully considering the matter in all its aspects and finding it exceedingly difficult to arrive at a practical solution, thought this was a matter concerning primarily the House of Commons, and they thought that the assistance and advice of a Select Committee might constitutionally be invoked. If the House does not think so I certainly shall not press the Motion. We are not yet in the position of having any guidance which the work of a Committee of this kind, consisting of those who are not engaged" as we are day and night in the consideration of other questions, might have facilitated. If the House does not think that is a desirable course and desires to throw the whole responsibility upon the Government to make propositions, we will accept their judgment; we will consider the question, and if we are able to do so, as I hope we shall be, we shall make proposals of our own. I very much regret that we shall not have the assistance in this matter of the advice and researches of a representative House of Commons Committee, but it is a matter clearly for the House, and I should not dream of endeavouring to put any pressure upon the House to accept this Motion, because I understand the general opinion of the House is averse to it. I therefore ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Original Question again proposed.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.