§ Paragraph (d) of Sub-section (1) of Section two of the principal Act shall not apply except in cases where the objector was, before the first day of June, nineteen hundred and fourteen, a member of a recognised religious denomination one of whose tenets was opposition to combatant military service.—[Sir F. Banbury.]
§ Clause brought up, and read the first time.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause be read a second time."
§ Sir J. D. REES
On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask if it is insufficient, in order to put an Amendment on the Paper, to pass in the Order Paper on which are the printed Amendments and to indicate that the hon. Member concerned wishes to adopt one as his Amendment, his own Amendment being previously ruled out of order on the ground that it would, if adopted, involve an alteration in the principal Act?
§ Sir J. D. REES
Then I will try again. Is it insufficient, in order to have an Amendment placed upon the Paper, to hand in the Paper on which are the printed Amendments, and to indicate that you wish to adopt an Amendment already on the Paper as yours in place of the one which has been ruled out of order?
§ Sir F. BANBURY
This proposed new Clause provides that the conscientious objector shall not be exempted from the operations of this Act unless he was, on 1st June, 1914, a member of a recognised religious denomination one of whose tenets is opposition to combatant military service. At the present time there is no definition of what is a conscientious objector. Consequently the tribunals are put in a very awkward position, and many have, in differing fashion, given exemptions to men who applied on the score of conscientious objection. One of the advantages of this new Clause is that it will give a definition on which the tribunals will act; and, if it is carried, all the tribunals will have to do will be to ascertain what are the recognised religious denominations one of whose tenets is objection to combatant military service, and, having ascertained this, to discover whether or not the applicant was a member of one of these religious denominations on 1st June, 1914. It may be said that there is no such thing as a conscientious objector. I myself rather hold that view. But I believe I am correct in saying that under the old Militia Ballot Act Quakers were exempted. That being so, I think it is reasonable that people who have always been exempted in this country under the old laws of military service should continue to be so exempted. One of the results of my new Clause would be to simplify the work of the tribunals, and to ensure that similar decisions would be given by them. That is a very great advantage even if there were no others. No one can deny that a very large number of men who have applied for exemption on the ground that 1149 they were conscientious objectors have only an objection to going through the hardships of a campaign. I do not think that anybody in any part of the House—of course, I do not allude to hon. Members who are against compulsory service altogether—but, leaving those hon. Members out, I do not think there is any hon. Member in any part of the House who would desire that a man, because he objected to fighting for his country, should obtain exemption by making a statement that he is a conscientious objector. When the first Military Service Act was passed, as the House knows, it applied only to unmarried men of a certain age. Now that every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one is to be brought in, the number of conscientious objectors will probably be very much enlarged, and as I gather that the Government desires to proceed quickly with this Bill, it shows that it is necessary to obtain for the defence of the country every man you can possibly get. Therefore, I think it is doubly necessary at the present moment to ensure that men who come forward and ask for exemption are really genuine conscientious objectors, who have been brought up during the great part of their lives under a religious denomination which says, rightly or wrongly, that combatant military service is, in their opinion, wrong.
The only objection I can see to my new Clause is that it might be held that, as it is not retrospective, it would create two classes of men, and that men who up to the present time have been exempted, who were really not members of a religious denomination such as I have outlined, would be in a better position than the men who would come under the operation of this present Bill. Of course, one way of meeting that would be to make the Clause retrospective. I myself do not propose to do that, although, of course, if the Government would accept the Clause provided it was retrospective, I would be quite willing to accept their suggestion, but I did not put that down myself because I am not a very great believer in retrospective legislation, and you cannot always avoid hard cases. I think we ought to have had a Clause of this sort in the first Bill.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
It was proposed und not accepted, and therefore we did not have it; but because we made a mis- 1150 take in the first Bill, that is no reason why we should not rectify it now. I think it would be fairer to the people who have been already exempted to allow them to continue to be exempted sooner than bring them in, but if there is any desire on the part of the Government to object to the Clause on that ground, I should be very glad, if this Clause is read a second time, to put in an Amendment which would bring everyone under its provisions. I think I have put my reasons clearly and shortly before the House, and I express an earnest wish that the Government will accept the new Clause, and if they will not, I sincerely trust Members on all sides of the House will support me by going to a Division.
§ Sir GEORGE YOUNGER
I am sorry not to be able to support the new Clause for this reason: Either the new Clause ought to have been entirely to get rid of the conscientious objector or this particular legislation ought not to have been proposed. The position is this, as I take it: Parliament has deliberately decided and put in a statute that a certain class of people ought to be treated in a certain way. This particular class, so long as that statute remains as it is, is entitled to have the same treatment whether or not it belongs to a religious denomination having for one of its tenets the particular object in view. We have had, I can say, at the Central Tribunal not a very large number, hut a certain number of cases of conscientious objectors, who were obviously quite conscientious, who had held those opinions for a very long time, and who had proved by independent evidence that they held those opinions, but who, belonging in one case to the Church of England, in other cases to no church at all, we felt, were entitled as the Act stood to exactly the same class of exemption and treatment as those who belonged, say, to the Society of Friends, or the Christadelphians, or the Plymouth Brethren, or any other body whose tenets are perfectly well known, and the basis of whose good faith is quite clearly understood. It might be quite right for the House to consider whether it was wise in having any conscientious objection exemptions at all. That, I agree, is quite possible. I express no opinion whatever about that. I am not dealing with that point now, and it would be out of order, I imagine, but if my right hon. Friend had gone the whole hog, as I should have rather 1151 thought he would, as is his habit on these occasions, I might or might not have supported him.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
That may be, but I should have liked to have seen the principle in the new Clause itself, and then we should know exactly where we are. The new Clause imposes a limitation, which I do not think ought to be the case, and, so long as the conscientious objector Clause stands in the original Act, this limitation would be unfair.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BARNES
I have voted for nearly all the stages of this Bill, and I am not going back upon what I have done. But it may be of interest to the right hon. Baronet to know that, if there is any point of the Bill which has given me some little trouble and misgiving, it is this point, and I have come to the conclusion, and did at the beginning, that the door ought to be wide, rather than narrow, to the real conscientious objector. I am not troubled about the application of the principle of compulsion, because I know of no greater principle than the safety of the State, but I think that, while we have regard to the safety of the State, we should also have regard to, I will not say the rights, but the peculiarities of the individual, because, after all, the person of strong conscientious convictions, or of strong intuition which generally precedes intellectual convictions, is a very valuable asset to the community. It keeps us going, so to speak; it keeps us from getting stagnant. Therefore, I want to have the utmost regard for that, and, while I have been in favour, since the first day of the War, of prosecuting the War with all the material resources under our control, I have been at the same time always glad that there are some amongst us who, at any cost, and at any sacrifice, are willing to keep the spiritual fires burning in preparation for the dawn of a better day. That is to say, I am having regard only to the real conscientious objector, the man who, deep down in his nature, feels the impulse of some law which he, perhaps, cannot understand, or even explain, but which he knows in some mysterious way is going to be, at some time or another, a guiding light and beacon to a troubled 1152 world. Under his shield many have crept more quaking than Quakers, but with them I am not concerned. Let us, take the position now of the real conscientious objector. What is his position under the Bill? He is at the mercy of a multitude of tribunals who may give, and do give, conflicting decisions in regard to him, who do not understand him, and I am afraid in some cases do not try to understand him. The position was put in a nutshell by my hon. Friend beside me. Three brothers were brought up in the same family inheriting the same characteristics, all going into the world at the same time. We may assume their conscientious convictions were pretty well all of the same sort, but one is exempted, one gets conditional exemption, and the other is relegated to the Army. We all know of representations every day of men with really sincere consciences being sent to prison. I saw a picture the other day which was revolting to me of two conscientious objectors being tied together. A system which admits of that being possible cannot be considered satisfactory, and the country and the public will not stand it, and it is up to those who think, like I do, to stand up here and voice their conscientious objections. The conscience of the country would be against that sort of thing.
What is the proper remedy? Whatever else it may be, it cannot be the remedy which is now put before the House, which is not new because it was propounded a few weeks ago from the same bench, and, to my amazement, a night or two afterwards was endorsed by the Minister of Munitions. It was proposed that, certain questions should be formulated in the same way as the right hon. Gentleman proposes, and that a man should be treated according to the answers he makes. The man had to state how long he had belonged to a certain sect, and his exemption would depend upon whether or not that sect had as one of its tenets an objection to combatant service. I submit that that is no remedy, and I object to it on two grounds, one being fundamental and the other practical. First of all, I want to remind the House that a conscientious objection, or conviction, is a personal attribute which cannot be organised into sects, or churches, or bodies of any sort. In the second place, we may have 1153 a multitude of tribunals throughout the country, each one of which might give a different meaning and value to the same answer that might be made. I think either of those two grounds is sufficient to condemn the proposal now before us. What was aimed at in the Bill, and by the majority of the House at all events, was not to give heed to a man as part of a lump, but to give heed to the men individually to ascertain what their conscientious convictions were, and deal with them in that way, and therefore this proposal is quite outside that proposition.
In the second place, the practical objection is no less strong. This proposal would introduce an element of unfairness as between man and man. It would give an advantage to the Christadelphians, although I am not quite sure about it, and I do not think the Christadelphians object to combatant service. What the Christadelphian objects to is placing himself under the control of the military or anybody else; therefore, so far as I know, this proposal would roughly divide those claiming to be conscientious objectors into two classes, Quakers and all others. [An HON. MEMBER: "No!"] Unless they could show that they were members of the Quaker body, one of the tenets of which is objection to combatant service, then, under the provisions of this Amendment, they could not get exemption. That is unfair to a member of the Church of England, the Wesleyan body, or any other body who may not object to combatant service. A man may none the less be sincere in his conscientious objection to combatant service, and what we have to do is to have regard to that particular man and not to the particular church or organisation or anything else to which he might happen to belong.
I believe absolutely the best case of a conscientious objection put before the tribunal of which my hon. Friend and I are members was that of a man who said he belonged to some small dissenting Wesleyan body and had administered to the spiritual needs of an eastern town for eight or ten years. He did not belong to any particular denomination, one of the tenets of which was objection to military service, and he was absolutely the strongest case we had had, and we have had a great many. Under the operation of this Clause that man would have got no consideration at all. I feel sure that the Member for West Leeds (Mr. Edmund Harvey) and those voicing Quakers in 1154 this House do not ask for preferential treatment for Quakers, but they ask that every man should be taken upon his own individual bottom and treated accordingly. There is, however, one practical objection which seems to me absolutely fatal to this proposal. We are dealing with young men, many of them in their teens, who have not made up their minds what they are going to do in life, and what does my right hon. Friend propose? He proposes to go back to June, 1914. We are now nearly in June, 1916, or at least we shall be when this Bill becomes operative, and under this measure we seek to take young men of eighteen years of age, and it is actually proposed that if a lad before reaching the age of sixteen has not found himself, so to speak, and made up his mind what his attitude is to be upon this the greatest question we have to deal with in this life, if that lad before he is sixteen years of age has not made up his mind, he is dragged into the Army—
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The point of that is simple. Too often the man who desires to shirk suddenly becomes a conscientious objector, but under my proposal he must have been a real conscientious objector.
§ Mr. BARNES
That does not touch my point. Whatever else the right hon. Gentleman may seek to to do, his Clause means that unless the young fellow I have mentioned had made up his mind upon these greatest problems in life before sixteen years of age, willy-nilly you are going to drag him in and compel him to be a soldier. On that ground alone, as well as on the other grounds I have mentioned, I say that this Clause is absolutely impossible. It narrows the scope of the Bill and defeats its object, and in addition, it introduces an element of unfairness. I think the House would be well advised to take absolutely the opposite course. The ideal, to my mind, is that we should have one tribunal, and that all cases should be sent forward to that tribunal. By that means you would have like weight given to like evidence, and you would have every man getting something like fair play. In giving like weight to like evidence and treating men individually, weight should be given to the representations made to the tribunal whether a man's conscience is regulated by religious, moral, or social inspirations.
I admit now that that is absolutely impossible, and it has been made impossible 1155 by the many fraudulent claims to conscientious objections. Instead of their being some 2,000 or 3,000 really conscientious objectors, they have now been magnified out of all proportion or relation to the facts, by a large number of people coming before the tribunals who have discovered a conscience within the last month or two in order to escape doing their duty. Therefore my ideal is absolutely impossible, largely because of that fact. We might, however, do a little in the direction I have indicated. There is an Amendment following this which proposes to give a man who has been treated by an Appeal Tribunal differently to similar cases which have been treated by the Central Tribunal a right to claim to have his case reheard. I think that is a step in the right direction, and I do not know whether we could not go a little further. The Central Tribunal might claim to bring a case before the Appeal Tribunal. I am not going to commit myself at this moment to that proposal, but I do commit myself to the other, because I think it is reasonable. If a man has been treated unfairly by the Appeal Tribunal, and if he finds that the Central Tribunal has dealt with cases similar to his more generously than he has been dealt with, I think that man has obviously a right to have his case reheard whether by the Appeal Tribunal or the Central Tribunal. I have an open mind as to whether I shall go further in this matter, but, at any rate, I shall go in a direction quite opposite to the proposal which is now before the House.
§ Mr. HOLT
I want to say a word or two about the proposal of the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) because it does appear to me to be as near as possible the exact opposite of everything I hold to be right. The right hon. Baronet denies the right of any person to have a conscience at all. The proposal of the Bill is that the State shall substitute its collective conscience for that of the private individual in order to decide whether you ought to serve in the Army or not, and the right hon. Baronet comes forward with a proposal that only those persons may be exempted from following the direction of the State who happen to belong to a church which gives them a contrary direction. In other words, the only excuse he would admit for not accepting the direction of the State rather than that of the in- 1156 dividual conscience is the direction of the Church. In this Protestant England, because after all it remains a Protestant country, the right hon. Baronet comes forward and says, "You must be a slave, either to the State or to the Church, and, if the two conflict, then the Church is to be the master. That is the doctrine put forward by the right hon. Baronet. As for the philosophic doctrine, I think it is about as bad as any doctrine could be, and I do not think it will obtain very much acceptance in this country.
The right hon. Baronet has shown himself to be exceedingly ignorant of the constitutional principles of Nonconformist bodies. There are a large number of Nonconformist Churches which have no tenets on this subject at all. Every religious body is not exactly like the Church of England. Every religious body has not got a set of tenets like the Thirty-nine Articles laid down by Act of Parliament telling him exactly what he has to do in every conceivable circumstances. It may be interesting to the right hon. Baronet to know that one tribunal, at any rate, has decided that no member of the Church of England can be a conscientious objector, because of the provisions of the Thirty-seventh Article. Those Nonconformist bodies with which I am associated, and others, have always deliberately refused to lay down tenets on this and similar subjects because they believe that they are essentially matters for the judgment of the private individual. How can you go to people who have joined an organisation which leaves these things to the private conscience, and say, "You cannot be granted exemption because you belong to a body which has left it to the private conscience"?
I want to make it quite plain that I have no sympathy whatever with the fraudulent person, whether it is a matter of conscientious objection or anything else. Fraud is bad whatever the motive may be. When you are dealing with the real genuine conscientious objector you have got to recognise that a man may object on political and other grounds as well as religious grounds. I do not think it occurs in the case of this particular War, but take the case of the South African War. The Minister of Munitions (Mr. Lloyd George) would have been a conscientious objector then. I should have been and a great many other persons in this House would certainly have been 1157 conscientious objectors. There were persons who were conscientious objectors to the Crimean war, and who objected to that war, not on religious grounds, but because they thought it was a wicked and a. foolish war. There were conscientious objectors to the war against the American Colonies, not because they objected to war on principle, but because they thought—and there were those who resigned their commissions—that war was wrong. I do not believe there is a single person who objects to this War, because they think it is a wrong war. I very much doubt if there is such a person, but, if there is, he is just as much entitled to exemption as the person who objects on religious grounds.
I listened with very great admiration to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes), but there was one statement which he made which seemed to me to be exceedingly dangerous. He told us that he recognised nothing superior to the safety of the State. Does he remember that is precisely the reason the Germans gave for invading Belgium? If that doctrine of the safety of the State is to be put above the rights of individual conscience it may lead you in the long run to the greatest abominations. We are in this War to fight Prussian militarism, and you could not have a better example than this Clause on the Paper. It is Prussian militarism in its very worst and final form. I do not think those who have no sympathy with the conscientious objector quite realise how miserable the position of a genuine conscientious objector is. That man is being dragged into a war with all its horrors, which he has got to suffer as much as other people, ex hypothesi against his judgment. He is made to suffer what I think is one of the most unpleasant circumstances that can occur, the feeling that the nation to which you belong is engaged in committing a great wrong. I do not know a greater humiliation than that. It must not therefore be assumed that he is not suffering in his objection.
I believe the existence of the conscientious objector and the necessity there is for making provision for him is really fundamentally a denial of the right of Parliament to pass this Bill. When it is necessary for the State to make provision for the conscientious objector, that is in itself a proof that the State is going beyond its true and proper functions. 1158 Therefore, I should like to deal with the conscientious objector by taking his public declaration made before the justices of the Petty Sessions that he is a conscientious objector, and letting that settle it. If the man is a liar and a coward his neighbours will know it, and it will lead to well-merited punishment in the loss of his friends. There is no other logical settlement of the difficulty of the conscientious objector. If that cannot be done, surely it ought to be possible for the Government by administrative action to make quite certain that none of these unpleasant scandals ever occur. Surely it is possible to make quite certain that the person whom they are satisfied, after he has been two or three days in prison, is really a conscientious objector, and is going to persevere in his objection, comes out of prison and returns to private life. There are plenty of ways of getting rid of a person who is not suitable for the Army without conceding any principle at all. I hope therefore that we shall find some Amendment which will materially improve the very wrong position in which the conscientious objector is now placed, and in the meantime I heartily support my right hon. Friend in opposing this new Clause.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
I want to say one word upon the extraordinary argument of the hon. Member who has just sat down. He seemed to think the Clause made us all slaves to the Church, and that it was only those people who were slaves to a Church who would be exempted. The hon. Member is entirely mistaken in the meaning of the Clause. The Clause does not do that; it provides evidence of a man's conscientious objection in that he voluntarily belongs to a Church which has those particular tenets. It is not at all that the Church places those tenets on his shoulders and makes him a slave of the Church. It is an attempt on the part of my right hon. Friend to find some means of sifting the honest from the dishonest conscientious objector. The hon. Member, however, is perfectly correct when he says that the only logical way of dealing with this question is by a public declaration before a magistrate that the man has a. conscientious objection. But if that is so, why have a Compulsory Bill at all? What is the object of having a compulsory Bill? Everybody who can come in and who has not any keen feeling against the War may 1159 come in, but under the hon. Member's proposal anybody might go before a magistrate and say, "I have a conscientious objection, not on any religious ground, but on some other ground." He might, as two Constituents of my own who came to me to-day, have a conscientious objection, not because he believed the War was wrong or because of any religious reason, but because he had a shop and was married and had children, and there was nobody else to look after his business. Those men have a conscientious objection, not for religious or political reasons, but for other reasons, and their objection, from my point of view, has just every bit as much justification as the objection of a large number of whom we have heard this afternoon. We cannot possibly pass a compulsory Bill which is to be open to all these kinds of loopholes such as has been suggested this afternoon.
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes), and, if I understood him rightly, he based his arguments on one or two grounds. First of all, he said the tribunals were not uniform in their decisions. He found one tribunal letting a man off in one part of the country, and another tribunal in another part of the country making a man in precisely the same position serve. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct, and this Amendment is a means of guiding the tribunals and making them give uniform decisions. If you can go before a tribunal and say, "I claim exemption because I belong to a particular Church, and because I believe in the particular tenets of that Church," there is some guidance to the tribunal. But the moment you get outside some form or regulation of this kind, the door obviously must be open to the different varying views of the chairmen or members of the tribunals. My right hon. Friend went further, and complained of unfairness as between one conscientious objector and another, because the decisions of the tribunals were not uniform. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) has said one word about the unfairness as between the conscientious objector and the man who is fighting. Surely it is equally unfair on any man who is taken under the provisions of this Bill. I do not say a word as to the man who has gone voluntarily, but surely it is unfair that one man 1160 should be taken compulsorily under this Bill and that another man merely because he has a conscientious objection should be let off. What is the difference between, the conscientious objector and the man who is brought in under this Bill? Each, of them has got the benefit of the Army, and of every provision of the State. What right—I want to go a little deeper into this matter of conscience—has a man to set up his own conscience unless he can prove that he has held it for a long time-past on some particular religious ground? I know the argument used by a lot of hon. Members who are not particularly keen on any particular religious denomination. I agree, and I said, on a previous occasion when I spoke, that this is only providing a loophole. Logically, there should be no such thing as a conscientious objector. Logically, no man when the country is at war, fighting for its very life and existence, has the right to stay in the country and not take his part in its defence. He has no right whatever. The man who is a conscientious objector and who will not fight for his country is in reality fighting for the Germans.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
In France, as everybody knows, the clergy go. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not here!"] I should be perfectly willing. Hon. Members cannot quite catch me on that ground. My views, at all events, are logical. If hon. Members; will look at the Order Paper three months ago, they will see that I had an Amendment down.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
I was speaking at a recruiting meeting, and there are occasions when it is not possible for a Member of Parliament to break his engagements. These men not merely get the benefit of the Army and Navy's protection, but they also get the benefit of the protection of men who are compulsorily made to fight. I say that they themselves are fighting for the Germans in: refusing to fight, and any able-bodied man who refuses to fight under the provisions of this Bill is doing just as much good to the German army as if he killed one of our own soldiers, for he reduces the number of men available for the defence 1161 of this country. I want hon. Members who take these very strong views, and who issue circulars throughout the country with regard to the conscientious objector, to realise that we have conscientious objectors in our ranks, and that many of us are just as conscientious in our view that every single man ought to fight. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that there might be two or three thousand honest conscientious objectors. But there are many thousands who are not honest in their objections. An hon. Friend near me suggests there are 17,000. The No-Conscription Fellowship, in a circular which they have issued, claim to represent 15,000 conscientious objectors, men who object not merely to combatant service, but who object to all kinds of service, and would not even take the post of a man in order to release him for combatant service. These men, in fact, will do nothing for the Army, they will not make munitions, and they will do no kind of work in order to help their country in this time of war.
What feeling can we have for men of that kind? What feeling can we have in this House of Commons when we are imposing compulsory service right and left up and down the country on married men as well as single men? What feeling can we have for men who say that for conscience sake "I will not even make munitions; I will do nothing whatever to help my country in its time of trouble"? There was a man before the Central Tribunal only the other day who claimed exemption and admitted he was being kept by his father, who makes his money in munition work. I think the tribunal did quite right in declining to allow his exemption. Why will not hon. Members opposite leave these conscientious objectors to put forward their own views? Why do they take part in this bogus agitation throughout the country? I would like to draw their attention to one of the pamphlets issued by the No-Conscription League. It states that the country must be flooded with literature from headquarters in the course of the next few weeks, that no public men or women must be left in ignorance of the situation, that the Churches much be made to realise by organised picketing what is happening, that the Press must be bombarded with letters from the conscientious objector, that resolutions must be submitted to every possible organisation, and that the strongest pressure must be brought to bear by deputations and other methods on Members of Parliament. Ap- 1162 parently they think that by bringing pressure to bear on Members of Parliament they can make us feel that there are certain votes which may be cast against us if we do not fall in with their views. I would sooner lose those votes than give way to the conscientious objector in my Constituency.
§ The PRESIDENT of the LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. Long)
I hope we may be able to decide this question without embarking on the more controversial aspect of the subject, because that will not help us. The Government cannot accept this new Clause for reasons which I will give very briefly. Some have been given already; one was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir G. Younger) and another by my right hon. Friend the Member for the Black-frairs Division (Mr. Barnes). Whatever the views of individual Members may be as to the conscientious objector, what we all desire is to dispose of this very serious difficulty. You are not going to dispose of it by this Clause. You are not going to dispose of the conscientious objector by laying down a hard-and-fast rule as to the way in which decisions shall be arrived at. The greater part of the trouble which we are suffering under now is caused not by want of guidance for the tribunals, but by the fact that the men upon whom the tribunals have pronounced their decision refuse to accept the decision and to be governed by it. That is the cause of the trouble, and you are not going to remove that by laying it down as the right hon. Gentleman proposes, that the only conscientious objector to be exempted is he who holds certain religious views. I do ask my right hon. Friend how this Clause is to be worked. He suggests that no man is to be admitted to make a claim of this kind unless before the 1st day of June he was a member of a recognised religious denomination. But a great many of the tribunals would have the utmost difficulty in deciding what is a recognised religious denomination, and therefore in seeking to remove one difficulty from the tribunal you will simply be imposing upon them another. Taken altogether the tribunals have done their best. I have had a better opportunity probably than most hon. Members of reviewing their action. I have reviewed their decisions not only in cases here and there, but it has been my duty since they were established to watch their working 1163 and follow their decisions, not in a limited number of cases, but very generally all over the country, and I say without any hesitation whatever that, taken altogether, they have done their work admirably and with a single-minded desire to do their duty of the country. They would certainly object very strongly if their existing difficulties were added to, and if they were called upon to satisfy themselves that the claimant belonged to what is really a religious denominations, which comes within the Clause moved by my right hon. Friend.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Only this morning I was talking to the chairman of one of the tribunals, and he told me that if he had not had a pressing engagement he would have come down and voted for my Clause, because he thought it would render their work more easy.
§ Mr. LONG
I do not claim to speak for every member of the tribunals. I do not suggest that there are not chairmen or members who hold views similar to those entertained by the gentleman referred to by my right hon. Friend. But I am convinced that the great body would object to the proposal of my right hon. Friend, I hope the House will not accept this Amendment. Our difficulties are very great. The House knows what line the Government have taken all along. It knows what line I have taken as representing the Government in this most painful controversy. I entirely share the views expressed by some hon. Gentlemen to this extent, that I am wholly unable, although I have done my best, to understand the position of the conscientious objector. I cannot understand the position of a man who claims all the rights and privileges of citizenship and yet is not prepared to defend those rights. In some cases, no doubt, he is absolutely conscientious and sincere, and he may have proved the sincerity of his convictions by the life he has lived and the work he has done. But, unhappily, as I have stated before, and I regret to have to repeat it—yet it is necessary it should be repeated—unhappily, at a very early stage of the consideration of this measure there grew up an agitation in the country on behalf of what were called the conscientious objectors, and no trouble was taken by many of those who took part in the agitation to make it clear that there must be the strongest possible evidence of the sincerity and reality of the views held by these claimants. The result has been— 1164 and I speak with full knowledge—that you have multiplied the number of these objestors a hundredfold.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackfriars has expressed an opinion, which most of us held at the time when we first approached the consideration of this, question—namely, that an ideal solution would be the selection of some particular tribunal. But that ideal has been rendered absolutely impossible by the fact that you have got the conscientious objector multiplied more than a hundredfold, and it would therefore be beyond the power of any single tribunal to deal with all the cases. My hon. Friend who has just spoken has made an appeal to the House. Judging from the speeches we have listened to, both here and in the country, people hold his view pretty strongly. My hon. Friend said he wanted people to think more of the men who are in the trenches. I do not believe that anybody except those who have been in the trenches—even those who have visited the trenches as onlookers —can really appreciate how bitter is the trial that these men undergo and how thankful they would be to be released from it. Hon. Members have been talking in this House as if the whole population were divided into two classes: the conscientious objector with very high motives, who does not want to fight, and everybody else who does want to fight. Fighting is not a pleasure, it is a duty. It is a sacred duty in defence of citizenship. If I thought that the adoption of this Amendment would simplify the work of the tribunals in coming to a decision, I would support it. But that is not our difficulty. The difficulty is not in coming to a decision; it is in sifting the wheat from the chaff, it is in separating the real from the false; and this Clause is not going to help us to do that. You cannot do it by laying down a hard-and-fast rule. My right hon. Friend's theory is that men who did not hold these views before the War cannot honestly hold them now.
§ Mr. LONG
I know that. A great many of them can prove it, but how in every case can it be proved? I ought to have 1165 said in many cases. What I meant was that you want to sift the real from the sham, because I regard it as a sham, a hideous sham. The hon. Baronet (Sir G. Younger) speaks with great experience, because he is a member of the Central Tribunal, and he says that in some cases they are able to prove by the evidence of their lives that they have held these convictions for a long time. That may be so, but there may be men who hold such convictions quite sincerely but who were never faced with this problem before and who never realised that a time would ever come when they might be called upon to interfere in military matters.
§ Mr. LONG
What are you going to do? You cannot settle this thing on the floor of the House of Commons. I beseech my right hon. Friend to realise that we who have had to administer this thing are talking about what we know when we speak of the enormous difficulties which we have had to face. You are only going to add to them if you refuse the right of application to men whose views are just as sincere as the views of those who belong to a religious denomination. There are plenty of men who belong to no religious denomination at all, or who profess these views, not as the result of a particular faith they may possess, but who hold them for different reasons. If they are sincere in their opinions you have no right to apply to them any religious or theological test. You have no power to do it. It is quite true that by doing it you might facilitate the work of the tribunals. I can quite understand the chairman of the tribunal quoted by the right hon. Baronet being in favour of the Clause, because it would certainly make their work easier. Of course it would, because it would cut out so many cases. But would that be reducing our difficulty of dealing with the conscientious objector? You would only multiply the number of men who would complain that the State had treated them unjustly. My right hon. Friend the Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes) had good reason to warn us, as he did, that we must realise that what we want to avoid, if we can, is the creation of an opinion among people who are not conscientious objectors, and who have no sympathy with them, a feeling that the State is not dealing justly or fairly with these cases. I believe that, on the whole, 1166 the State is dealing fairly and justly with these cases, and that these difficulties are likely to become not greater, but less. An Amendment of this kind, however, would have no practical effect in solving the problem, and I hope the House will accept the advice of the Government and will reject the right hon. Baronet's proposal.
§ Mr. MACMASTER
One great blight upon military matters is the fact that so much recognition has been given to conscientious objectors. It has had the effect of creating a great number of people who have taken advantage of the cry of being conscientious objectors, whereas in reality they are mere frauds. I am quite willing to concede that there are men, such as Quakers and the Society of Friends, who honestly entertain these views. The Amendment proposed by the right hon. Baronet makes ample provision for them. The Amendment proposes a test by which the tribunals may determine who has a conscientious objection and who has not. What could be more reasonable, when a man comes before a tribunal and says, "I have a conscientious objection to combatant service," than to say to him, "Is that part of your religious creed that you have held in the past; do you belong to a denomination of which this is one of its fundamentals? If so, we are willing to hear you." The form in which the matter is now presented before the tribunals enables anyone to come forward and say, "I have a conscientious objection to combatant service." The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) suggested that it need not necessarily be a religious objection, and that it might be an objection of a political character or an objection to a particular war. If objections of that kind were allowed, what would arise? Any man could come forward, no matter how great the national emergency, and say, "I object to this or that course, to this or that war," and the nation would be at the mercy of a number of people who would say they would have nothing to do with combatant service.
The opinion of the State, whenever its destiny and existence are at stake, must be the supreme test, and the State must decide in regard to its national existence what shall be done when it is at war with a foreign nation. For any individual to come forward in these circumstances and say, "I object to fighting; I object to shedding blood, although the nation says it is a national necessity," seems to be a perfectly preposterous and untenable 1167 position. However much we may be disposed to respect people who for generations past have given their adherence to the tenets of the Quakers and the Society of Friends, we must draw the line closely, and it does not by any means follow that it is an unfair test to say, "Has this been part of your religious faith? Has it been part of your religious creed in the past? If so, we will accept that and exempt you." But to allow anybody to come forward and say, "I object to combatant service on the ground of my conscience as against the national interest and against the national conscience," is to put the State in the position of making it impossible for it to carry on the War. In the face of the great War in which we are engaged and taking into account those who are fighting so gallantly for us on sea and land, it appears to me that the conscientious anxiety of men should be to come forward and not to shield themselves behind the miserable excuses that so many devise in order to take advantage of the exemption provision.
§ Mr. THOMAS
The hon. Member who has just spoken would certainly have no right, based upon the logic of the case he has just presented to the House, to condemn Germany for any acts in this War. He laid it down clearly that his view of the question is purely one of the State, and that the State in all matters must be supreme. There must be no liberty of conscience and no individual is to have the right to think for himself! That was the essence of his case, as I understood it. If that is so, what right have you to complain of anything that Germany may do, because Germany herself will say, "As far as we are concerned, the State is all supreme."
§ Mr. THOMAS
I do not know whether there are or not. It has no immediate connection with my argument. The hon. Member stated clearly and definitely that so far as he is concerned his view is that the State should be supreme. The hon. Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) gave the House certain definitions of conscience. He lectured the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) on not understanding the real question of conscience, and went on to give an illustration by saying that there were two of his constituents in the Lobby 1168 who were so concerned, not about their consciences, but about their financial losses, that they wanted him to vote against the Bill.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
That is not quite correct. They want me to vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Yeo).
§ Mr. THOMAS
Exactly. You said it was their conscience, and you went on to say their case was on all-fours with that of the conscientious objector with which we are now dealing. Does the hon. Member or does this House admit that in dealing with this question you can buy them off with an Amendment like that of the hon. Member for Poplar? I want to put the matter on another ground. The hon. Member and many of his Friends in this House declared that no matter what the law said, no matter if the King signed a Proclamation that Home Rule was to be put into operation, they would defy it. The present Secretary of State for the Colonies, in answer to a question of mine across the floor, said that so far as he was concerned he knew many officers whose consciences would not allow them to take up arms in defence of the law. I put the question whether that was to apply to a private soldier, and the right hon. Gentleman's answer was—Certainly if his conscience tells him to do it.If that is the position, what becomes of the claims of hon. Members who do not under stand what conscience means? Does it really mean that it was not conscience, but a political opinion? Does it really mean that all the exhibitions that were made and all the threats of armed force that were made were not actuated by the dictates of conscience, but were purely party politics? Because, if it does not mean that, and if that is what you do not mean, then I put it to you—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I would put it to the hon. Member, is this a desirable moment to open up all these old sores? It must lead to a reply and the reply will lead to a rejoinder, and we should be back again where we were three years ago. I would put it to the hon. Member whether there is not ample material for him to deal with this Clause without opening up all these old sores, which we are all at present anxious to salve.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. THOMAS
I should be very sorry if any of my remarks were regarded as reopening the Irish question, but it did 1169 appear to me to be an illustration. I will take another case—I hope it will not be ruled out. It arose when the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University (Lord Hugh Cecil) was dealing one Friday afternoon with another highly controversial question. I remember that the whole House was immensely impressed, not only with the speech, but with the sincerity of that speech. He made it perfectly clear that in his judgment what was morally wrong would never be legally right, and he developed it to an extent that, I believe, impressed many Members of the House. This is clearly a question of conscience. I am not a conscientious objector—I have never opposed this Bill on those grounds—but I know many conscientious objectors who are not cowards, men who will risk anything, men who would say to you to-morrow, "If the penalty is to be placed against the wall, then shoot me." We cannot argue with these people because they immediately say, "My conscience tells me," and it is unfair to assume that it necessarily follows any religious conviction. I remember when quite a young man hearing a great argument on religion, and I heard a man arguing with another and persuading him that religion was all rot. His knowledge of the Bible was far superior to that of the other, and in argument and debate he was simply tearing the other one to pieces, but the other man innocently turned round and said, "You may argue and you may have all your knowledge, but there is something here that tells me I am right. It is my conscience." That has always impressed me, because I am satisfied we have to place ourselves in the position of these men to really understand the situation. After all, from the practical standpoint, will they ever make soldiers? Are we at this time rendering public service or assisting our country by having armed guards overe these people? Would it not be much better to face the issue practically and honestly and say, "If you will do work which is of real national service we will give you an opportunity to do it." [An HON. MEMBER: "What work?"] I would put them to agriculture. I know a man at this moment who is in gaol. He has had practical experience of farming. He was brought up on the land and he is quite willing to go back to the land. Would it not be better for this man to be working on the land than to be in gaol? I have no sympathy with the humbug who has just 1170 developed a conscience—I do not want to deal with these people—but we ought to deal fairly and honestly with people who undoubtedly are some of the best citizens in this country.
§ Lord HUGH CECIL
I am glad the Government do not propose to accept this Amendment, because I am sure it would not be found to work well. Apart from the other difficulties which have been mentioned, it would be almost impossible to discover in every case whether the teachings of a particular denomination were or were not inconsistent with military service. I have listened with great interest and respect to the various speeches which have been delivered from different points of view, and it seems to me that on both sides there is, if I may say so without disrespect, a little confusion of thought. I do not think the State ought to extend indulgence to the conscientious objector because of sympathy with him That is not the point. Even if he is perfectly sincere he may often be a very wrong-headed person. The reason why it seems to me indulgence ought to be shown to the sincere and genuine conscientious objector is because it is wrong to force a man to do what he thinks sincerely is immoral or irreligious. It is not sympathy. I do not think that with my hon. Friend (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) it is a matter of sympathy. The point of view is what is right for us to do. It is to us a familiar problem of government all over the British Empire. A Mahomedan thinks it wrong to eat the flesh of a pig. We think that to be a very unreasonable prejudice, but we should act very wrongly if we compelled Mahomedans to eat the flesh of pigs, because it is wrong to force a man to do what he thinks is wicked, however foolish his opinion.
§ Lord HUGH CECIL
That is a religious objection, but it really does not matter. What is wrong is to force a person to do what he thinks morally wrong. That is really the essence of it. It is wrong to make him go against his own sense of right so that he feels that if he conforms to the law he is defiled and polluted. It must be a serious moral objection. I do not want to release a person who merely says, "I am a conscientious objector," but really means he does not approve of the policy of the War, or something of that kind. That is not a true, moral or religious objection. It must be an objection so 1171 intense that he feels actually within him that he would be behaving wickedly if he conformed to the law. I believe this to be a very limited class of person. I do not believe there can be a large number of them. I quite recognise that it is difficult to ascertain which they are and which they are not. The only suggestion I can make is that, first of all, the obligation should be thrown on the objector to make good his case. The presumption should be that his objection is not well founded. He should have to show that it is. Secondly, I would throw, as I do not think is done in the principal Act, the express obligation on the tribunal of finding, aye or no, whether he does sincerely think that what he is asked to do is immoral or irreligious or not, because I think a good many tribunals have approached the subject in a hopelessly muddled-headed frame of mind. They have entered into long casuistical discussions, and put hard cases in order to show the objector what a fool he is. We do not set up tribunals to play the part of a modern Socrates, and go about teaching people they are something when they are really nothing. That is not the function of a tribunal. The function of a tribunal is simply to determine, what is essentially a question of fact, whether a man sincerely thinks he is going to be forced to do what is immoral or irreligious.
The final suggestion would be that there should be some power, not in the conscientious objector but in some authority, to order a rehearing where it is manifest that a mistake has been made. I cannot see that there will be any objection to that, and I believe if you had some machinery of that kind, and if you insisted on the conscientious objector doing some work of public utility which he is willing to do—a few are not I know—and those had better be detained or deported somewhere. The proper course with a man who refuses to do anything is to deport him, and to say, "if you feel it impossible to do any duties you are called upon to do, whether civil or military, appertaining to the society, you cannot belong to the society any longer." You would say it to a person in a club. Even if it were a club formed for an immoral purpose, like a gambling club, and a member had a conscientious objection to gambling, he could not complain of being expelled 1172 from the club. Therefore strictly, in logic, the ultimate solution of the difficulty of the conscientious objector would undoubtedly be to deport him. But for the commoner case of a person who will do some other work, after the matter has been fully investigated in the tribunal and it has found expressly whether he is sincere or insincere, and with the power in some authority to order a rehearing in an extreme case where a mistake has been made, I believe you would find a practical solution, and that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred you will exempt the person who is conscientious and compel the person who is insincere.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
As it is perfectly evident that the Government will not accept the Amendment, and that the majority in the House are against it, and if I do not ask leave to withdraw the Debate will go on probably until the dinner hour and much valuable time will be lost, and my desire is to get the Bill passed, although I do not think the case for my new Clause has been met by the arguments of my right hon. Friend, in order to assist the progress of the Debate I ask leave to withdraw it.
§ Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.