§ Sir C. HENRY
I think I am voicing the opinion of the House when I say we agree with the concluding portion of my hon. Friend's speech that his statement has not given satisfaction. I have not risen to pursue this matter, but I think it only right to say that the matter cannot be allowed to rest any longer where it is. I believe the majority of the House are in favour of block exchange. The subject, however, which I venture to bring before the consideration of the House is one which I think is worthy of consideration. For some time it has been apparent that the control of Parliament is being undermined, that the Executive and the permanent officials have assumed the power which, if not checked, threatens to become a menace to our Parliamentary life. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that the position of the rank and file of Members of Parliament of both Houses is an anomalous one, that the situation previous to the War was unsatisfactory, but that since August, 1914, the course pursued by different Governments has accentuated the position, and I state unhesitatingly that Members of Parliament are no longer able to exercise the function which the electorate rely upon them to do. I believe what I state would have received the sanction of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he sat on the other side of the House. I do not think I am stating anything that is not accurate when I say that he was at tunes most vehement in denunciation at the loss of Parliamentary control. But I have a more recent endorsement of my views from the Prime Minister, who, on 19th December, in the first speech he made after assuming his responsible position, said:The control of Parliament as a whole must, and always must, be supreme because it represents the nation. There is not the slightest attempt here to derogate in any particular from the complete control of Parliament. I do not think the present methods of Parliamentary control are efficient, but that is not a change which has come about through the new Administration. I have always thought that the methods of Parliamentary control, and I speak here as 1364 a fairly old Parliamentarian, rather tended to give undue prominence to trivialities—my right hon. Friend and I have talked over this matter many a time—and, on the other hand, that ft rather tended to minimise and ignore realities. Whether you can improve upon that I personally have never had any doubt, but I have always thought—I do not know whether I carry any one with me on this except my hon. Friend who sits there—that the French system was a more effective one, the system whereby Ministers have to appear before Parliamentary Committees, where questions can be asked them, and where they can give an explanation which they would not care to give in public. I think in many respects that system has helped to save France from one or two very serious blunders. I am not committing the Government to that beyond this, that we are investigating that question. It is just possible we might refer the matter to Parliament to settle for itself, because it is not so much a question for the Government as a question For Parliament itself to decide, subject, of course, to any criticism or suggestion which the Government might wish to make, as to the best and most efficient methods during a period of war of exercising Parliamentary control over the Departments.I do not think it can be denied that the power of the permanent officials of the Civil Service is becoming too prominent a feature. I should be the last to depreciate the services of our Civil servants, because they work strenuously and devote themselves seriously to the task which falls to their lot. At the same time, I believe it would be a source of disaster if Civil servants were allowed to extend the control which they already possess. A great deal has been said recently about the danger of autocracies, but I believe that an autocratic dynasty is even more desirable than a bureaucratic executive. How can a greater degree of Parliamentary control be assured and relied upon? My suggestion is that this can be done by the French system, and I would like to give a brief outline of how the system of French Commissions is exercised. The first Commission created in France was one to deal with finance, and since then twenty Commissions have been sot up to deal with the affairs of State. The number of members of these Commissions consists of forty-four, selected from different groups in the French Parliament, in the same manner as we set up the Public Accounts Committee, which is selected from different parties in the House, in proportion to their numbers, and these Commissions are reappointed in each year. A similar course is adopted by the French Senate. Every legislative proposal, as soon as it is introduced by the Government or by a private member, is forthwith sent to one of these Commissions, and the Commissioners after examination report their decision to the Chamber as to whether they favour its adoption or otherwise. That, however, does not in any way take away the power from the Chamber to deal with it, nor does 1365 it involve Government responsibility. The Government can accept or refuse the findings of the Commission, and the final decision rests with the House as a whole.
In order to arrive at a decision the Commissions have the power of summoning before them Ministers as well as officials, and they have every opportunity of obtaining all the necessary data on which they may base their report. Under our system Parliament has to rely entirely on the information that the Ministers are willing to give, and that information may be of an extended or a brief character, just as the Ministers think fit. It may be said that under our system opportunities are given to deal with legislation by our system of Grand Committees. I will not discuss the fact that I think the Government in recent years has made a great mistake in not sending more Bills to Grand Committees instead of to Committees of the Whole House because there they get a better supervision, and they are more or less free from the party Whip and the party machine, and decisions can be arrived at with a greater degree of impartiality and freedom. But even with Grand Committees we have to rely upon the Minister in charge of the Bill, and we have no opportunity of getting information from any other source. I am inclined to think that if the system of the French Commissions had been in operation in this country during recent years some of that legislation which has aroused a great deal of controversy and bitterness might have been passed under more favourable conditions. I believe that if the Home Rule Bill and the Welsh Disestablishment Bill, after being introduced, had been passed on to a Commission to report in order to see how far agreement could have been obtained, it would have been most desirable. If the Insurance Act had first been sent before a Commission which had opportunities for examining people directly, such as experts on insurance and actuaries, it would have been in the interests of that legislation. I do not think it can be denied that legislation can be consolidated and dealt with better upstairs than upon the floor of this House, where party feeling is the controlling power.
So far I have referred only to the French system as regards legislation, but what is of equal if not greater importance is the opportunity given to representatives of the French Parliament to investigate the policy of the Government. Previous to 1366 the War, and since, we have had to rely entirely upon having the policies of the Government of the day placed before Parliament, and we have had to abide by the statements they have made. That applies to the War Office, the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and the India Office. Only quite recently, in connection with the India Office, the Government came to a decision without the knowledge of Parliament, and when the matter was brought before this House for ratification we were told that the bargain had been concluded, and nothing more could be done. If that state of affairs continues, Parliament is absolutely losing all control. The French system does give an opportunity for Ministers and officials to explain and substantiate their proposals. The procedure of the French Chamber is not altogether foreign to our system. Before the present Government came into office last year the late Government set up the Dardanelles Commission and the Mesopotamia Commission, but what earthly use is a Commission to examine persons connected with those expeditions after the event, and after the mischief has been done? If you want a system of Commissions, the Commissioners should have the power to examine and investigate, not after the policy has been decided upon, but before it is embarked upon. In regard to the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia Commissions, they were carried out on much the same principle as the French system. They called witnesses before them, and, what is of great importance, those Commissions were conducted in secret, and no one can say that any of the evidence brought before the Commission was divulged by its members. The French Commissions during the War have been of great service. Let me again bring as testimony to this the Prime Minister, who said;I think that in many respects the system has helped to save France from one or two very serious blunders.This view is borne out, not only by the representatives of the French people, but by the French nation. There is no matter of more paramount importance than the necessity of Parliament again assuming control over finance. I do not think it will be denied that since the War Parliamentary control has been absolutely lost. Rightly or wrongly since the War began no Estimates in connection with the great spending Department of the War Office, or of the Ministry of Munitions, have been presented to Parliament. The prac- 1367 tice is that at the commencement of each Session a Token Vote has been taken, and each of these great spending Departments has been permitted to embark upon expenditure without any Treasury sanction or control, and there is no doubt that through that system, through the licence given to these spending Departments, millions and tens of millions of money have been spent which might have been saved. I consider that it is absolutely imperative, without delay, that a Parliamentary Commission or Committee should be set up to sit almost continuously to overlook and supervise the financial expenditure of the different Departments. The hon. Member for Greenock (Major Collins) has a Resolution on the Paper in connection with this matter, and I hope he will bring it forward at an early date, because I think Parliament, in spite of the War, cannot devote itself to a subject of more supreme or vital importance.
France is not the only country which has this system grafted on to its Parliamentary constitution. The United States Parliament has it to a lesser degree, and even to those countries which carry on their Parliaments under autocratic rule the system is not altogether foreign. I cannot imagine that the present conditions will be allowed to continue. I cannot conceive that Parliament will agree to remain a machine to endorse and sanction the policy of the Government without making itself better acquainted and without investigating the circumstances which have dictated either the legislation or the policy. I consider that no one who is in favour of real democratic government can oppose proposals such as I have outlined. The representatives of the people must and should have every facility to make themselves as well informed as possible before giving their judgment. Let me refer to the attitude of the Prime Minister. We all recognise that he is a man of considerable ability, but it seems to me on this matter, judging from the answers to questions given by the Leader of the House, that he has performed a complete somersault. What is the reason of this acrobatic performance'? I do not think I am wrong if I state that Ministers—I suppose the Ministers of the late Government are of the same opinion—think that the present system would not tend to their convenience, and would be likely to make great demands upon their 1368 time. I admit that it would make great demands upon their time, and for overworked men that is a consideration, but at the same time I think that would be counteracted to a great extent by them not being called upon to attend so closely here in Parliament. Under the French system it is the rapporteur of these Commissions who have the conduct of a policy through Parliament, and I believe great time and trouble would be saved to Ministers by the fact that the system of daily questions would be relieved.
The system of questions is a most unsatisfactory manner of obtaining information. Members ask questions. and Ministers, by the answers given by the different Departments, endeavour to make their replies as evasive as possible. It may be argued that the danger of these Commissions is that you cannot rely on complete secrecy. The Dardanelles and the Mesopotamia Commissions have proved the inaccuracy of such a belief. I go further and say that no responsible Minister is entitled to object to this procedure on the ground that secrecy cannot be relied upon. I hardly think either that Ministers can object on the ground that it would take away from their responsibility. They would be just as responsible for the conduct of the business and affairs of the House as they are at the present time. The only difference would be that the rank and file of Parliament would have greater control than they have at present. The objection might be urged that at this juncture, when the minds of Ministers are so occupied by the War, it is not opportune to bring this matter forward. Let me invoke the aid of the Prime Minister, who, on 19th December, said:We might refer the matter to Parliament to settle, because it is not so much a question for the Government as a question for Parliament itself to decide, subject, of course, to any criticism or suggestion which the Government might wish to make as to the best and most effective methods during a period of war of exercising Parliamentary control over the Departments.The Government has set up Committees to deal with the suffrage question. I believe that they contemplate doing so in connection with the question of the Second Chamber. I would urge them also to take into consideration whether the time is not opportune to set up a conference of Members to deal with this important matter. I consider that it should be dealt with promptly. I consider that Members of neither House are adequately 1369 discharging their Parliamentary functions under existing conditions, or participating in the work of the State to the extent that those they represent have a right to demand. I am certain that it is the desire of all parties in the House to support the Government to carry on the War, but it must be recognised that support is entirely of a perfunctory character unless opportunity is given to Members, which at present is not available to them, of sharing some measure of responsibility by giving their judgment on matters after they have had opportunities of examination and investigation.
§ Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL
I fear that anyone rising from this bench to take part in a discussion on this matter may be regarded with some suspicion. Yet my general view quite tallies with that which the hon. Gentleman has just laid before the House. I believe that the House of Commons, as a matter of fact, does exercise far greater influence than the hon. Member has given it credit for, but I agree with him in considering that its influence over the conduct of affairs is probably less in these days than it has been in previous times, and is certainly less than it ought properly to be. I should be disposed to invert the Resolution which was once passed by this House, in the time of George III., in relation to the Crown, when the House resolved that the influence of the Crown had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished. I should be inclined to say that the influence of the House of Commons had diminished, was diminishing, and ought to be increased. I should like to lay a few considerations before hon. Members with respect to the particular proposal which the hon. Member has made for effecting this desirable object before in their own minds they come to a final conclusion. There may be a good deal to be said, so far as legislation is concerned, for the adoption of some of the methods which are practised in France. My hon. Friend who has just spoken suggested that the House ought to have fuller opportunities of investigating the problems that come before it in the form of Bills, and of taking evidence upon them. He would like to see the system which has long been in existence here, the system of Select Committees—that is what it comes to—extended in the treatment of Bills. Possibly there may be a good deal to be said for an increased use of Select Committees, but I should be dis- 1370 posed to doubt the validity and usefulness of the French system in relation to executive action, and, after all, it is that which is most in question at the present time. In France you have these twenty-one Committees in the Chamber, and I believe a corresponding number in the Senate, each of them covering a certain province in the domain of Government action, and before which each Minister has to present himself, defend his proposals, and answer interpellations if he has not acted as the Committee might desire. The French Parliament itself, in effect, exercises to a great extent not only legislative, but administrative functions, and by administrative functions I mean executive functions.
The great danger always before a democracy is that it will not trust its executive sufficiently. The weakness of the Executive has in many cases been the cause of the downfall and of the inefficiency of democratic systems. When the American Constitution came to be framed this danger was so prominently before the founders of that Constitution, and especially before the mind of Alexander Hamilton, that great statesman to whom the present framework of the American Constitution is largely due, that they went to the opposite extreme and separated entirely the executive organs of the Constitution from the legislative organs. The experience of the time that has since elapsed has led most political students to the conclusion that they went too far, and that it is a weakness of the American Constitution to have separated so completely the Executive from the Legislature. That view, I believe, has been expressed by the very distinguished political thinker, who now presides over the destinies of the United States, President Wilson himself, in his political writings before he became President. If, on the other hand, you limit too much the power of your individual Minister, and if you require him to present all his proposals to Committees of Parliament, you may find that what you really intend to be a stimulus to executive action may become a clog. Those of us who have had the honour of holding office for a series of years know how strong are the forces that tend to inaction and how great is the vis inertice; in the Government machine. I think most of us who have exercised administrative functions will feel that if every executive act is to be submitted to a Committee of the House of Commons, and perhaps to a Committee of the House of Lords, the whole machine of 1371 government will be retarded, and the pace of administrative reforn will be even slower than it has been hitherto. There will be much more talk, and there will be even less action than there is at the present time.
I do beg hon. Members to have some pity upon those of their colleagues who are charged with governmental functions. The burdens of a great office of State are already overwhelmingly heavy. The health of Ministers is continually breaking down. We all know that in time of peace, and it is even more so in time of war, there is hardly any time to think or to plan, and if Ministers have the additional burden of carrying each of their administrative acts as well as their legislative acts through Committees of the House of Commons, I fear that the burden will become too great to be borne. If this system is adopted by the House of Commons, the other House of Parliament will naturally expect, and probably claim, that similar Committees should be set up there. Therefore, the burden that will lie upon Ministers will be double. I remember reading some observations of M. Briand which he made in the French Senate last December:How could he have time to prosecute the War with the energy demanded of him if on every day of the week he had to answer interpellations, either in the Senate or the Chamber, and when constant secret sittings demanded his prolonged attendance in Parliament? He pointed out that the Committees of Parliament had claimed of him no fewer than forty-one attendances—unfortunately he did not say the period covered—each attendance lasting the whole afternoon.
Mr. EDMUND HARVEY
Was he not overthrown because he objected to Parliamentary control, exercised by the system of Commissions?
§ Mr. SAMUEL
Precisely. I believe that some of his colleagues objected to it, but it does not follow that the Parliamentary system of Commissions was not truly described by him as imposing so great a task upon the energies of Ministers that it was impossible to perform efficiently and successfully the executive duties demanded of them. Let it be remembered also that in France, where the Ministry of M. Briand has lately been overthrown, no fewer, so I am told, than sixty-one Ministries have been overthrown in a period of forty-seven years since the present French Republic was established. I have not 1372 been able to check those figures, but they come to me from a source which is apparently reliable. We all know how great has been the instability of the Executive in France owing to the continual change of Governments due to Parliamentary action there.
§ Mr. A. WILLIAMS
Is not that true of a good many years ago, but nothing like true to the same extent in recent years?
§ Mr. SAMUEL
No, Sir. Ministries are changed continually in France. The average life of a Ministry there still is to be measured in months, not in years. Great as is our admiration for the French nation and for many features of French life, an admiration never so great, of course, as it is at the present moment, when we have the honour to be their Allies in war, still, I think there are few impartial observers who would say that, taken as a whole French Parliamentary institutions are really superior to British Parliamentary institutions. Owing to the extreme instability of Governments, it is found that effective power in France—I make this observation with much diffidence, but I think many hon. Members will agree with me—is transferred not really to the legislature but to the bureaucracy. Ministers change so frequently that it is impossible for any individual to get a grasp of the affairs of his Department, with the result that the permanent officials have far greater authority in France than they have in this country, in spite of the fact, and partly, I believe, because of the fact of the existence of Parliamentary Commissions, which themselves tend to make the tenure of office of each Ministry insecure. French administration as a whole, compared with ours, I venture to think, is slow, cumbersome, and inelastic. That is largely due to the fact that the Minister has not time to get full knowledge of his Department, that the matters are left too much to the Civil Service, and that, in turn, is due to fact that the Minister continually has to present himself before Commissions, which Commissions frequently consist of his own opponents and are presided over not seldom by some member of the French Chamber or Senate who himself has ministerial ambitions and whose bias is to criticise and frequently to thwart and upset the administrative proposals of the member of Parliament who chances for the moment to hold ministerial office. These are the considerations which 1373 I would venture to lay before hon. Members, and ask them to bear in mind before they come to any final conclusion.
Before sitting down, I should like to say that even if a negative view is taken in regard to this particular proposal, that is not to lead us to the conclusion that nothing should be done in order to increase the power of the House of Commons. The opinion which I have been led to form by my experience here, now covering a good many years, is that the real cause of the comparative ineffectiveness of the private Member of the House of Commons, viewed in relation to what it used to be in earlier times, is that every question nowadays is regarded as a question of confidence in the Government, that even in minor matters, such as the details of Bills or the details of Estimates, the question which an hon. Member has to ask himself and has to answer as he goes into the Lobby is not, "Is this proposal good or bad?" but, "Do I wish to see the Government resign or do I wish to see this Government continue?" The consequence is that the old control by the body of the House over the details of Ministerial action is no longer effectively exercised. If you read the records of Parliament of thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, you will find that in each Session, on two or three or more occasions, the Government suffered defeat in the House of Commons in matters where they displeased the House of Commons, but they went on just the same as before and nobody dreamt of suggesting that the Government ought to resign or that a General Election ought to be taken. I should like to see in this House the same practice prevailing which now prevails in its Standing Committees, that proposals of Ministers should be viewed impartially and with a free mind by hon. Members, and that where the vote went against the Minister—except on an important matter of policy, or on a Vote of Confidence or on some matter upon which the Government had announced that they would stand or fall—that on all other minor occasions the House should express its opinion freely, and that its decision should be accepted by the Government, without it being considered in any quarter as involving their resignation or a General Election. If that were done the life of this House would become much more 1374 real, and every individual Member would feel he was taking a living and effective part in the government of the country.
It would be difficult, of course, in days of party controversy for any Government to take this step and say that they would proceed on these new lines. It would be taken, perhaps, as a confession of weakness and expose them to attack or derision. But in these days, when we have a Coalition Government, and when party controversies do not exist or are in suspense, it is an occasion upon which the Government of the day might declare that it would not consider itself obliged to resign if the voice of the House rejected minor proposals of a departmental or even of a wider character, but that the procedure adopted in Standing Committees might well be adopted in the House of Commons as a whole. Secondly, in matters of foreign policy the course proposed by the hon. Member is not the only one possible, but it should be regarded as a definite rule that no treaty which would involve important consequences, certainly no treaty involving peace or war, should ever be made by the Executive of the day behind the back of Parliament. Any such treaty should be definitely laid before Parliament and an opportunity given to it to express its views. It appears to me that those large and grave matters are too vast to allow them to be dealt with in any country that claimed to be self-governing without an opportunity being given to the representatives of the people as a whole to express their views. Lastly, with regard to finance-, the considerations which I have mentioned, which rather deter one from favouring the proposal for Parliamentary Commissions, do not apply in the same degree. I feel there ought to be far more effective control than now exists in the hands of the House of Commons over financial expenditure. The Treasury, in its effort to control expenditure, does need more support than it now gets. At present the control exercised by the Treasury depends a great deal upon the personality of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. I speak in the presence of no fewer than three Chancellors of the Exchequer or ex-Chancellors of the Exchequer. I am sure they will all agree with me when I say that it does make a very great difference in the effectiveness of the control of the Treasury over Departments who is the individual who presides over the Exchequer and what is his general attitude of mind towards pro- 1375 posals for public expenditure. The Chancellor of the Exchequer would, I believe, often be very glad if he could have had the support, frequently against his own colleagues, of a Committee of the House of Commons and could quote some Mr. Jorkins, so to speak, in the background, who had to be taken into consideration whenever any of his colleagues proposed a large expenditure on projects which, at first sight, might seem exceedingly desirable. The late Government some years ago did propose to the House the setting up of an Estimates Committee. That Committee was established, but it is now in abeyance because there are no Estimates. It cannot examine Estimates which do not exist.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for INDIA (Mr. Chamberlain)
No Parliamentary inquiry ever resulted in a reduction of expenditure, except in trifles. Generally the result is the reverse.
§ Mr. SAMUEL
I believe that the Estimates Committee in some matters did propose it. The very existence of a Committee of the House of Commons which might be likely to investigate and criticise expenditure would, apart from direct, have an indirect effect upon proposals put forward by the Ministry of the day. I do not believe it is beyond the wit of man to devise some scheme of Parliamentary control more effective than that which now exists over finance, with at least the hope and, perhaps, some slight expectation that the outcome might be some further restriction upon the vast expenditure which the country is called upon to make.
§ Mr. T. P. O'CONNOR
I do not think that any argument against the suggestion of my hon. Friend opposite (Sir C. Henry) could have been weaker than the argument that they should not be set up while we are in a state of war. As a matter of fact, if proof were required of the necessity for these Commissions, it has been supplied most amply by the events that have occurred since the War began. I will give two instances. My right hon. Friend who has just spoken (Mr. H. Samuel)—he will forgive me for saying so—is not quite accurate in his statement as to the French facts. He spoke of the short lives of the Ministries there, whereas, in fact, they have had three Ministries in France and we have had three in this country since the War began. The right hon. Gentleman pushed his analogy too far, as I will show 1376 presently. I will take one of his own suggestions, namely, that treaty powers should more or less be reserved to the House of Commons. Was ever a fact of our political life brought home more tragically than the fact that the House of Commons has no control over the treaty-making powers of the Executive? I do not want to go into controversial matters, but I remember the speech that was made by the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—a very able and very respected Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Everybody who was present in the House will remember the speech he made which committed us to the War. The main fact in it was not that we had entered into treaties, but into understandings and communications. When I and every other Member of this House heard those things we could not help feeling that we were bound in honour, unless we were to be regarded as a nation untrue to our undertakings, to stand by France when she was attacked. Of course, I think we were also bound by our interests. I never had any doubt from the first moment that, so far as this country was concerned, apart altogether from understandings, communications, and the like, that when the existence of France, our neighbour, close to our shores, was threatened, it was in the interests of our own preservation that we were bound to stand beside her. The fact remains that behind our backs, behind the backs of both Houses of Parliament, and, if gossip is true, behind the backs of the colleagues of the late Foreign Secretary, we had entered into such relations with France as bound us to go to war.
§ Mr. SAMUEL
May I remind the hon. Member that the French Government was specifically told in terms that we had an entirely free hand.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
The right hon. Gentleman must not suppose that my memory is so bad as not to remember that. I know these qualifications by which understandings can always be protected, but if you begin to discuss great questions of common defence and common interest, whatever qualifications you make you thereby bind yourselves to be the Ally of that nation. I do not say it is wrong. What is the use of talking of democratic control, or even Ministerial control, when a great nation like this can be practically bound for years to war and the representatives of the people have no knowledge of the facts? 1377 Some allusion has been made to the French analogy. I think that can be pushed too far. I do not see that we can accept the analogy as complete. I speak with some reserve, as one ought to do when discussing the affairs and institutions of another nation, but in the French Parliament there is one feature which I fervently hope we shall never have in this country, and that is the system of groups. I dare say that I shall surprise some Gentlemen when I say I do not know anything in the political life of this country which has a more healthy influence than the party spirit. I know it can be carried too far, but party spirit, by making men act with discipline and with organisation, together, is, in my opinion, the very greatest safeguard against personal appetite, personal vanity, and personal interest, and when you have a group of forty or fifty men, more or less under the control of one individual, you deal a deadly blow at the effectiveness and independence of Parliamentary government. I have some experience, perhaps more than my right hon. Friend has, of how the French system works. I am a member of the Franco-British Parliamentary Committee. Let me state my experience. We went over there and met our French colleagues. We had to lay some bill of fare before them. We puzzled our heads to find out what we should say. We could say nothing because we knew nothing, and in the end we managed—if the expression be not too familiar—to cocker up a number of papers, which we were enabled to do by some consultation with some of the Departments. How were we met by our French colleagues? I give the case of the head of the Commission of Munitions. That gentleman got up and told an astounded and shamefaced body of British Parliamentarians that every morning there was delivered to him a list of every rifle, every shell—I think I might even say of every cartridge—which had been produced the day before, or the second day before, in the French factories. He described the different suggestions which had been made by his Committee. He described the evils which they had been able to anticipate and to prevent. We listened shame-facedly to the knowledge of all the details of administration shown by this member of the French Parliament in the presence of the absolute, unrelieved ignorance of the British Members of Parliament with regard to our own adminis- 1378 tration. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bonar Law) was not, during the first twelve months of the War, in a responsible position except as Leader of the Opposition. He heard, both in Opposition and as a Minister, discussion after discussion I night after night in this House and attacks made every night upon the Government—some of them mere personal attacks and some mere futile attacks. But I will tell you what he did not do. I heard nearly every one of those speeches, and I think everyone will bear out my recollection that in all these criticisms about the alien enemy, the hidden hand, and all the rest, I never heard one syllable with regard to munitions, and does not everyone know that in order to enable our troops to have any chance against the German troops opposed to them, when they were sending ten or twelve shells to our one and our men had to be withdrawn from positions because they had no munitions, when our men were told that only a certain number of shells could be exploded every day, if it had not been for the creation of the new Munitions Department and the energy and daring and courage of the present Prime Minister, our troops to-day would be in the same position, without munitions, and the splendid advance we are now making would have become impossible. All through these long Debates, with criticism of every kind, no one laid his finger upon the real cancer in our military system, namely, the insufficient supply of munitions. I put it to any Member that if there had been a Commission of twenty Members of this House, with even a quarter of them business men, they would have found out this difficulty in munitions in three weeks' time by examining officials, and, if necessary the Minister, and we should have saved many months, and perhaps many thousands of lives.
I know it will be said this would lead to the weakening of the Executive. I do not want to weaken the Executive. I like our great party system. I like a strong Government. I detest seeing a Government in office which has a small majority. I have gone through that experience, and I never want to repeat it. I know very well that brings in the personal element, personal appetite and personal ambition, in a way which does not exist when you have a strong body of men well organised, well disciplined, and following a great cause. I do not think that need necessarily follow. It is absurd that a Government should go out of office because of a 1379 reduction in one item in the thousand items that make up the list, I remember the time when by a majority of seven a Government was turned out on a reduction of £100 with regard to cordite. If those Estimates had been put before a Committee of this House the question of the cordite would have been probed thoroughly by business men. They would have decided it, the cordite would have been produced and a Ministerial crisis would have been avoided and the business of the country would have gone on much better than ever. I know there is a certain difficulty raised with regard to Ministers. I think it was a most unfortunate thing that the right hon. Gentleman met M. Briand one afternoon. What happened was this, as I have heard. One of the results of having no Commission is that a Member of Parliament has to rely on gossip. There was an appointment between M. Briand and the right hon. Gentleman, and I think the present Prime Minister, at four or half-past four one afternoon. Four came and no M. Briand. Half-past four came and no M. Briand. Five came and no M. Briand, and at last a pale and rather draggled figure turned up—I believe about six o' clock—and he said, of course with tears in his voice, that he had been at the Commission all day, and ever since that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister are dead against Commissions. I put my personal experience against his. I have met these men who are the heads of Commissions, and I make this statement on their behalf, that the French Commissions have saved France on many an occasion from disaster by probing into the administrative affairs of the nation. They did certainly get rid of a Ministry. It is not for me to pronounce an opinion whether they were right or wrong, but if their statements to me were correct the Ministry ought to have gone down, and unless it did France would not be in the splendid military position she is in to-day.
The next point I make is this: I believe that one of the tragedies of this House, not realised, perhaps even not known to all Members of the House, is the waste of the time of Members of the House. I remember that Mr. Gladstone once made the statement, which struck me with some astonishment at the time, that if he had to begin life again he would not choose a Parliamentary life. We all know what a 1380 miser he was with regard to time. He used to enter the House of Commons just after his walk was finished by a certain entry because he calculated that he would thereby save about thirty-five seconds. His criticism of Parliamentary life was that it wasted too much time. I said many years ago about life in this House that the life of the House of Commons was boredom tempered by Divisions. We have the boredom still. Some of the best brains in this House and some of the most eager and patriotic spirits are lying fallow and idle because they have no means of taking their responsibility and their share in helping the country in this great hour of its peril. I give one instance. I will not mention names. I was talking to a man in the Smoking Room. He is not of my opinions. He is regarded as the greatest authority on local government, on education, and on many other subjects in his county, and although he is a stout Conservative he has the respect and good will and confidence of every Liberal in his county. I regret to say that, like the Leader of the House, he was addicted to the odious vice of smoking, and he was smoking. I asked him, "Where do you spend most of your time in this House?" "Here," he said, pointing to the seat on which he was sitting, smoking and reading a paper. Here is a trained intellect, the head of a great county, and yet he is left here absolutely idle when he might, in the War Office or on a War Office or some other Committee, be bringing to the guidance of the bureaucrats and the soldiers of that great office many lessons of wisdom which might have prevented us from many of the follies and disasters which we have experienced. It will be urged that there should not be a Committee on the Foreign Office. I believe that in regard to the Foreign Office there must be a certain amount of secrecy, but I think there is great danger on the other side of allowing a certain number of high officials and one or two men to make great and tragic decisions. For my part, I would be willing to set up beside the Foreign Secretary a body of sane business. men, carefully selected by this House, who would bring to the discussion of proposals affecting foreign affairs the joint intelligence of the House. We have a heritage in this House of customs extending over generations and centuries, and in many respects that is a good feature, and I would be sorry to do away with it: but, on the other hand, we are still under a system of 1381 rides which were necessary in the days of the Stuarts as barricades against the usurpation of the Crown which are not necessary to-day. This House of Commons is losing its power, its authority, and its effectiveness, because in the twentieth century of express trains we are doing our work with the diligence of the eighteenth century.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
My hon. Friend the Member for the Wellington Division (Sir C. Henry) is to be congratulated upon a powerful and deeply interesting speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) has sustained and supported and almost vindicated the proposal which he brought before the House. But the test that we must apply to this and all questions at the present time is what practical step can be taken during the course of the present. War. That is what is in all our minds, and that is what underlies the speeches of the hon. Member for the Wellington Division and the hon. Member for the Scotland Division—a desire that the House of Commons should take a more real, active part in the War. No one can say, looking at the French experience and the French system of committees in force in the Chamber, prevents the effective waging of war, because France has shown herself almost unmatched in her power to realise the whole resources of the nation and to direct them with effect against the enemy. Still, I cannot help feeling that the objections which have been stated by my right hon. Friend on -this bench, and which have evidently carried conviction to the hearts of the Prime. Minister and the Leader of the House, rest on very serious tacts. The strain on Ministers in war is one of the most formidable factors we have to contemplate. Almost everything is capable of satisfactory solution at the top, but lower down in the hierarchy of Government and power the most immense difficulties stand in the way of concerted, clear-cut, powerful action. It is only the heads of Departments, the responsible, authoritative heads of Departments who can really produce and evolve and carry into effect a coherent and vigorous war policy.
The concentration of power in a few hands and the integrity of executive action are two lessons which have been steady borne in upon everyone who has been concerned with the course of government during the progress of the present 1382 War, and I view with the deepest apprehension any serious exhaustion of vital power, mental energy, and precious time of those whose every hour is of the utmost consequence to the solution of the difficulties in which we stand at the present time. One of the greatest dangers is that men should consume their strength and energy in arguing and convincing others and then when they have convinced them they have neither the strength, the time, nor the energy left to take the action upon which all are agreed. Between the ! French Chamber's scrupulous, detailed, meticulous control, not only of legislation ! but of administration and of executive ! action, and the almost total abdication and neglect which has grown up in the House of Commons in regard to war matters, there is, it seems to me, a wide interval in which there is room for many forms of wise and useful solutions, and of practical and immediate solutions. Certain I am that the present failure of the House of Commons to watch with the severe attention the course and the management of the War has been responsible, as my hon. Friend (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) has pointed out, for serious military and administrative failures, and is very detrimental to the interests of the House itself. The House ought to follow war questions, particular administrative war questions, with the same attention and energy and with the same constructive knowledge and dash which they are wont to show in the details of controversial domestic legislation in times of peace.
I think also that in addition to the close attention which the House should pay to all these matters it will be necessary if discussions in the House are to have a real value, that there should be sometimes discussions which are held in private. I have on many occasions advocated the holding of what I call Secret Sessions, but I notice there some misunderstanding in some quarters as to the purpose for which a so-called Secret Session is needed. It is usually thought sufficient to use as an argument against the Secret Session that you cannot trust all the Members of the (House of Commons. I may point out to those who are the opponents of a Secret Session that that argument is not tolerated in France, and that the mere use of it by a Minister produced immediately a ministerial crisis. I do not advocate Secret Sessions for the purpose of telling secrets or of being told secrets. By secrets I mean real secrets. The House 1383 knows very well that there are secrets and secrets. I do not advocate a Secret Session for that purpose. I feel that we need to consult together in private and in secret, not for the sake of receiving the most secret information at the disposal of the State, and not because we want the Government to tell us anything which the German headquarter staff do not know, and which the Government do not know that the German headquarter staff know. There would be no need for anything to be told us that is not well known to the intelligence departments of the great belligerent Powers. Nearly all great matters of war can be fully discussed on the basis of the facts which are known to the enemy. Of course, there are some things which cannot be told, in fact; but, broadly speaking, an intelligent, instructive, real, vivid discussion might be maintained on nearly all the great questions now pending before the country if that discussion were confined solely to facts which are known to the enemy. But hardly any question can be discussed properly and completely if every word is to be made public and to be read forty-eight hours afterwards by the enemy, by our Allies, and by our own soldiers in the trenches. Why cannot I or other hon. Members have the opportunity of speaking to our fellow Members in the House of Commons on some of the great, vital, urgent questions of the hour, without having it all printed in the "Berliner Tageszeitung" and the "Hamburger Nachrichten" two days later.
I cannot see why we cannot rid ourselves of this irritating incubus, and why we cannot have the opportunity and the freedom which are vitally necessary for a frank and honest exchange of views in regard to the great matters upon which our fortunes depend. It is not the facts alone which matter, but the point of view which a Member holds, the mode in which he approaches the question, and the emphasis which he lays on this or that set of facts. These are matters on which it is intolerable that we should be forced to take the enemy into our confidence. There ought to be room even in time of war both for the Press and Parliament together. They both have their duties to perform; but one of the greatest evils we have suffered during the War has been that the practical elimination of the platform and the abdication of Parliament have given an altogether disproportionate 1384 power to the Press, which, working in its proper balance in the Constitution, would discharge only beneficial functions. If Parliament is to discharge its duties in war-time it must occasionally debate war matters without having reporters present. Time was when this was the invariable rule. It was so for generations, and I submit to the Government and to the House that it should now be not an infrequent practice that the Motion that strangers should withdraw should be put, and that it should be a fairly commonplace institution of our war-time Parliamentary procedure. The Government must be very careful that they do not put Members of the House in the position of having to choose between saying things which might excite despondency or alarm among our own people or our Allies, or might give information to the enemy on one hand, and, on the other hand, absolutely losing all means of controlling or influencing or warning the Government in regard to matters of public policy.
I think that the House should sometimes discuss in public and sometimes in private in war-time. It should discuss in public when it has made up its mind and wishes to guide, reassure, arouse, or instruct the country, and it should take counsel in private, or in secret if you like the word better, when it wants to inform itself upon any great matter of policy or when it wants to put itself into true and intimate relationship with the executive Government. Let us look at this fact quite clearly. The House can take no part in the vital business of this War unless it is either willing to create a scandal or else is willing to debate sometimes in private. There are a great many people who say that we do not want the House to take any part in the War. That is a very popular and widespread opinion among people not particularly burdened with intellectual apparatus Let us be quite clear. Influence and power are going to be exercised somewhere by someone, and if the House abrogates its position, do not suppose that the gap will be allowed to remain unfilled. Why, it has not remained unfilled. Already newspaper editors are given information which is withheld from Members of the House of Commons. They observe strict confidence in regard to the information which has been given. But is it not an extraordinary thing that one party after another holds relations with the Press 1385 which are more intimate than Ministers hold with the representatives of the people on whose support they depend?
Naturally the newspapers do not very much admire the idea of a Secret Session; they are naturally very content with the policies and developments which are taking place. But I venture to express, even in these latter days, a firm belief in Parliamentary institutions and in Ministries responsible to representative assemblies. Not only do I plead this question in view of the better conduct of the War—I think that is a most important aspect—but I plead it also for the position of the House of Commons after the War. That is a most serious position. Depend upon it, that if the House of Commons is not immediately and helpfully associated with the work which is now being done, if it has not played a useful and valuable part for the British people in the greatest crisis of their existence, there will be inflicted a wound on the repute and authority of this House from which recovery will be very slow, and from which, possibly, it may never recover in our time. The main difference—let us never forget it when we are discussing these Parliamentary and Constitutional forms and remedies—between the British and Prussian Constitutions consists in the House of Commons. There are plenty of people in this country, quite worthy people, whose views would unconsciously lead them, stage by stage and step by step, to just that kind of autocratic, militaristic, Imperialistic government the extravagances of which have wrought the sorrows of Russia and the crimes of Germany. We must be very careful that in the processes of war we do not contract the contagion of the disease of those against whom we are striving. We have certainly not gone to war with Prussia in order to capture its Constitution. It would indeed be the irony of fate if we liberated Germany and enslaved ourselves, and if at the same time that we were Anglicising Prussia we found that we had Prussianised England.
It all depends on the House of Commons exercising a real, vital, earnest, active, vigilant influence upon the conduct of public affairs. I shall be asked, What good came from the last Secret Session? I have heard that question put several times. I am of opinion that great good came of the last Secret Session. Let us just remember what happened. The Government of the day had made up its mind 1386 that further conscription was necessary, but it was not sure whether the House of Commons would agree, and so it held a Secret Session to appeal to the House of Commons and convince the House of the seriousness of the position. What was the result? The result was that after the Secret Session the House of Commons was so convinced and so aroused as to the seriousness of the situation that it would not have the modest proposals that the Government wished to put forward, but threw them out and insisted on much more drastic proposals being carried, and even these drastic proposals have been proved by the logic of events and the unfolding sequence of facts to be far less than was actually needed at the time. It is not only in war matters that the House is abrogating its power and its functions. It has not been considered a great factor even in the questions connected with the change of Government. Let me take the two Coalitions which have been formed. The House took no part in the elaborate processes which led to those two important changes, tout submitted to the decision which had already been taken. I hold that it will be proved historically that the first Coalition was one of the greatest disasters which happened in the whole course of the War, and that it was accompanied by a lamentable interruption in the conduct of war measures which led directly to a serious military disaster. I deeply regret—I am not expressing new views, but views which I hare held for a long time, when I say it—that my right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister did not at that time appeal boldly to the House of Commons on his own record and his own position. I am confident if he had done so he would have found ample support to enable him to continue to carry out his policy in its integrity.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I hope that the new Prime Minister will look to the House of Commons as the foundation of his power.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
Let him take every opportunity of bringing the House into friendly confident association with him during this terrible time through which we are passing.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I think that very rightly he is devoting his attention to the conduct of the War. I would certainly never support the demand for his attendance frequently upon this House, sitting listening to our discussions. I am putting forward a proposal of a very different order. I am saying that I hope that at intervals, not too frequent, but when convenient, there will be occasions when the House will be taken as fully as possible into the confidence of the Government when free discussion can take place, and I hope that on those occasions there will be an opportunity for the Prime Minister to come down and to offer to the House the explanations which after all come best from the head of the Government. I have never seen an occasion on which a Government on a national matter has laid its case before the House of Commons and dealt fairly with the House, when the House has not dealt fairly with the Government in return. Therefore there are these three points, which I submit respectfully to hon. Members: First, the constant attention of Members to war problems; second, the occasional free discussion of important questions of policy without reporters; and third, the close and loyal relationship between the House and the Government. All these are matters of extreme consequence and importance to us during the months which lie immediately before us.
I am going very briefly to give one or two instances of some things which I think have suffered, suffered terribly, and to the immense detriment of a large part of the people, through lack of sustained Parliamentary attention. The first is the question of man-power. If the House had pursued this question, which, after all, was a matter well within its competence, not a matter for generals, but a matter for the representatives of the people, vehemently, carefully, and efficaciously for the last two years since it became an important question, I am confident that we should be in a far better position today in regard to the supply of men, that many cruel injustices and anomalies would have been avoided, that we should have large numbers of Indian and African soldiers and labourers assisting our own Nationals, and that from every point of view our position would have been better. Why, do you think that a Bill like this Bill which you are discussing during the last few days would have been ever intro- 1388 duced into a House that had been continuously studying the problem of manpower? It would have been evident from the very beginning that only a much wider scheme, on a far more scientific scheme, much more carefully considered, much more accurately proportioned to our real needs, and much fairer between man and man and place and place, would have any chance whatever of passing through a House of Commons that had been frequently discussing measures and matters of this kind.
Here I may give illustration of the kind of topics which you ought to discuss in private session. My right hon. Friend told us the other day that 100,000 men were wanted for the Army, and that 100,000 men might make the difference between victory and defeat. Does anybody suppose that that is a statement which would stand an afternoon's investigation in the House of Commons if we were free to say what we know? No. A 100,000 men bears no relation to the needs of the Army at the present time, and I say that even if we had no question of 100,000 men making the difference between victory and defeat in the course of the present year, the House is bound to discuss these matters which are coming in the future. It is far better to discuss it first of all, at any rate, in private. Then there is the question of Salonika. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire raised this question the other day. He offered arguments with which I do not wholly agree, but which most certainly are being put forward daily all over the country, and which unquestionably require an answer. I have no doubt that the Government could make, I will not say a very convincing or reassuring answer, but a very solid answer. But they cannot possibly make it and talk freely about neutrals and other interests if it is all going to be written down, and extracts are going to be passed from one enemy hand to another, so that opinion may be prejudiced against us. It is quite impossible.
Then I take questions connected with transport and food supply. Members of the House of Commons cannot evade their responsibilities on that. What answer can we make to our Constituents as their responsible representatives, if not merely dearth but an actual starvation came to the people of this country? I have watched with minute care the approach of this disaster, and sat up night and day to try 1389 and ward it off Would not the Constituents say, "We are looking to you, what are you doing"? I say it is for the Government to decide what the country shall be told, and the House is bound to insist on knowing exactly where we are and being told, at any rate, all that the Germans know.
The last illustration I am going to take of the need of Parliamentary attention being concentrated on these topics is the Air Service. The right hon. Gentleman quoted a passage from the OFFICIAL REPORT in his speech, to the effect that in March, 1916, there was a Parliamentary agitation on the subject of the better organisation of the Air Service. A strong Committee was formed in the House of Commons of Members of both sides; the First Lord of the Admiralty was interviewed; a debate was demanded, and at last the late Government decided to act, and they quieted this awkward agitation, by setting up an Air Board, at the head of which was placed Lord Curzon, a member of the War Cabinet to-day. I know the public Departments, and especially the greater Departments of this country well, and I know what their attitude is towards the body which has opportunity to severely criticise, to offer advice, and to make complaints, and which have not to bear allegiance and obedience to orders. I said, "Perhaps it will not lead to anything effective, and I say quite frankly that it seems to me that it is likely to lead to a first-class row." I am not going to quote my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he may put his mind to rest at once.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
That was a wholly ineffective and valueless proposal for our protection which created high expectations, and Lord Curzon in the House of Lords made a speech on the subject of the Air Board, treating it as if it was a constitutional, new and International Republic. The House was delighted and entirely satisfied, and that put off the whole question. My right hon. Friend made the usual appeal about giving new men a fair chance, and so on, and the topic dropped for four or five months, then it became apparent that what had been expected too long did happen- The Admiralty had stifled the Air Board, which had been confined to petty and trivial details. There 1390 had been no real grip or control of the Air Service, and as I ventured to predict there had broken out a first-class row between the First Lord of the Admiralty and Lord Curzon. Then, as this became an open scandal when it had become an absolutely open scandal, and feeling that there was to be a first-class row, the Government fell and there was a complete reconstruction. New arrangements were made, but still half-hearted, still imperfect, still vitiated by most serious flaws of administrative principle, and a new Minister was appointed to have a new and fair trial, and I am sorry to say he has been ill nearly ever since. What I may call the "Curzon" period covered some months of vital consequence to the Air Service, and the results of that period are now manifesting themselves.
We are told that our advantage in machines has passed very largely to the Germans. I cannot say whether that is so, but we are told it is. I do not know how that may be, but I have heard from many quarters complaints to that effect. Certain I am of this, that the inferiority is not due to any defect in our pilots. There is no more daring class, no more enterprising, no more gifted class of flyers in the whole world than the heroic young men who represent us at the front. But it is freely stated that they are at a disadvantage at the present time in respect of some of their machines, and certainly the casualties have been terribly severe, and out of all proportions to their numbers, and I cannot feel satisfied that they are in proper proportion to the losses suffered by the enemy. But it is not only the question of casualties at the front, but the very large number of casualties that have taken place during training at the present time. Then there is the Royal Naval Air Service, which at present and for a long time past has given no adequate fighting return for the enormous number of pilots and the great proportion of material and skilled labour which it has gathered together, and which has been fettering enterprise. Practically no serious effective measures have been taken against the torpedo bases at Zee-brugge, Ostend, and Bruges. I do not hold Lord Curzon to blame for all these results, because he had not the power. If he had possessed the power I have no doubt the results would have been avoided. But I do blame him for taking the responsibility without proper power and authority. It is a very serious thing for a man in the 1391 great situation he was and is in this country to take up a position like that when, after all, he had not got satisfactory control and authority, which alone could justify him in assuming this very formidable responsibility. I also blame the House of Commons for relaxing its vigilance, for being so easily put off, for being so easily content to let the question drop without pursuing it and insisting on a periodical discussion of these subjects, many of which no doubt would be much better discussed in private without being reported all over the world. I thank the House very much for having listened to me. I would not have brought these subjects before them if I had not felt that the situation is very serious indeed. Never at any moment since the victory of the Marne has the situation been more serious than at present. But for the entry of the United States in this War no prudent man could have said that the issue of this War was finally settled, and that the questions which remain were only questions of duration. Even as it is, there must be a most formidable and oppressive situation before us, and there must be the most vehement effort, the closest co-operation between the Government and the House, and between the House and the nation in the terrible months of war which are coming, more terrible than we have experienced, and it is only by the highest wisdom and the utmost daring and the utmost comradeship, that we can come through those struggles safely, and for that great work I am sure the House of Commons would be failing in its trust to the people of England unless it played a constant and active part.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I have listened to most of the discussion this afternoon, including the speech of my right hon. Friend, with a good deal of agreement and still more of sympathy. My right hon. Friend dealt in the main with the subject we have been debating the last few hours, and it is to that I wish to devote the few remarks which I intend to address to the House, but before doing so, I wish to refer to the three subjects which the right hon. Gentleman brought forward, and into which he imported all that activity of thought and expression to which we are accustomed in a more controversial atmosphere than that which we have had so far this afternoon. The first question which he raised was that in relation to the first Coalition Government, which he described 1392 as one of the most disastrous events of the War. I think it is rather difficult to be sure of that. I think that every Member of the House in his own mind should try to make the forecast of what would have happened without it, that I had to make before I decided to agree to that arrangement. I wonder if my right hon. Friend has made that forecast. I will tell the House exactly what I think would have happened. I feel perfectly certain, in spite of the appeal which my right hon. Friend suggested the late Prime Minister ought to have made, that within a few months the Government of another party, and that the party to which I belong, would have been responsible for the conduct of the War. I do not suggest for a moment that because I happen to be. the Leader of that party in this House, that I would shirk any responsibility which might have fallen upon me, but I took the view that I take now, that if that had happened we should at once have been faced with the question of compulsion. We as a party would have tried to carry it immediately, but we could only have done it by dividing the country from top to bottom at that time [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"], and we should have found, possibly that with greater vigour of action we should have had against us far more disunion in the nation, and the result would have been worse for this country in the struggle in which we are engaged. The right hon. Gentleman suggested I had said we needed 100,000 men. I did not say that. I said that the recruits had fallen 100,000, and that that was the excuse and justification for the Bill being introduced. The right hon. Gentleman went on to prophesy again, and he said that no man could possibly say that 100,000 men would make all the difference between a decisive and an indecisive result. How in the world could one make a statement like that? Who can foresee? It may be true. The probability is that it is true, but this at least is certain, that in this struggle it is the last man that tells, and the absence of this 100,000 men might just have made the difference between success and failure. The last point raised by my right hon. Friend was as to the Air Board. I do not enjoy reading my speeches any more than other hon. Members, but I have looked through this one, and I cannot find any of that optimism in it to which he referred. What I pointed out, and it is as true to-day, was that you had to choose 1393 between leaving things as they were, between setting up a compromise and trying to get two Departments to work together, and between establishing a fully-fledged Air Board. Of the three I believed then, and I believe now, any attempt to do the last would have caused dislocation of the Service, and was not the best plan. My right hon. Friend says the Board has been a complete failure. I say it has not.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
If my right hon. Friend could see the difference in numbers and the efficiency of the machines and men we have now, as compared with what they were at the end of the last campaign, he would realise that a great deal has been done. It is much too soon to say that the arrangements have been a failure. I may say for myself there is no branch of the Service in which, from the beginning, I have taken so great an interest, and I say this further, we had plenty of warning of the need for more airships, and we should have been much to blame if we had not done all we could to secure them. It is quite true that we have not now the ascendancy which we had at the end of the last campaign, and it is true also the same thing was the case at the beginning of the campaign last year. I think the House of Commons would be wise to wait a little before coming to the conclusion that we may not again completely regain the ascendancy which we had at the end of the last campaign.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The hon. Gentleman puts to me a question which I will answer at once. I do not say that we can. That depends not only on what we have done but on what the enemy have done. I say we have made great improvements, and whether or not they are adequate events only can show. If I may, I will leave these subjects and come to what was the most important discussion of the last few hours. I listened with great interest to the somewhat gossipy speech, if I may be allowed to so term it, of the hon. Member for the Scot- 1394 land Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor). I do not complain of it. It so happens I was not long a Member of this House before I got on to the Government Bench. In spite of that, if I have any small merit for the position I now occupy as Leader of the House, the reason is that privately I have a much more vivid recollection of, and much more sympathy with the two years or thereabouts when I was a private Member, than I have for the period I have occupied a seat on one or other of these Front Benches. My hon. Friend spoke of men of talent who come here and find there is no use for them. I remember very well looking at the crowded benches in this House when I first came here, and saying to myself, "I wish Edison or somebody would invent a machine which would measure the intellectual capacity of the different individuals," for I felt sure that such a machine would produce one of the biggest revolutions that has ever been experienced. I am not at all sure I desire that machine now. I remember also, in those late sittings which we had then, I used to look up to the Press Gallery with absolute envy of the men who had something to do, as compared with the men on the floor of this House who, or at any rate the bulk of whom, had nothing whatever to do. The House will therefore understand that I do really desire to see the House of Commons take a more active and effective part in the Government, if it can be done.
A definite proposal has been made that we should imitate the Commission system which exists in France. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was a great believer in that system, and the words which were quoted earlier in the afternoon show he thought it was one we might adopt here. But two things have changed his mind, and influenced mine also. The first is we had on the part of the Government a very careful and impartial examination made into the working of the French system during the early period of the War, and it did not suggest itself to us after examining it that it was a system we would find useful. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] I cannot recall all the reasons, but I will give one. What influenced me personally more than anything was my intercourse with the French Ministers. The hon. Gentleman told us of some experiences of mine with M. Briand. It was something which I do not remember 1395 having repeated, but I suppose I must have done so. It was an experience of having had to wait for an hour or two for M. Briand, because he was late on account of having had a rather vigorous time before one of the Commissions. But that was one half the story. M. Briand told me on that occasion that, for the last thirty days I think it was, he had had to make at least one speech and oftener more than one speech on every one of those days before one or other of these Parliamentary Commissions. I say this, the power of work of any man is limited. No man can really work all his waking time for any length of time without breaking down. I remember a saying of Burke, something to this effect—and I profoundly believe it—that a man who is always working can never have a sound judgment, as he never gives himself time to come to one. I say that if a Minister. charged with a great Executive Department, is to spend a large part of his time in defending himself from criticism his power of doing his work is diminished, and it must be bad for the work.
I would like to say—it is a very wide subject, and it is really impossible to deal adequately with it, for the whole question of our Constitution is involved—that I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Herbert Samuel) that the danger of a democratic form of government is the jealousy which prevents the Executive from having sufficient power to carry on. I remember at the very time Lincoln was engaged in what I believe under different conditions in a struggle not unlike that in which we are now engaged, at that time President Lincoln said something like this, that he was suffering from the disadvantage of free government. This War is going to decide whether or not a democratic Government will allow the executive to have sufficient powers to enable it to exist. In a time of war the executive Government must be given more rather than less power than in ordinary times, or it cannot carry out the work in which it is engaged. A great deal has been said about the loss of authority by the House of Commons, and my hon. Friend behind me told me he had heard me mention that from the Front Bench opposite. Indeed it has been said by almost everyone in opposition in my time about the Govenment of the day. There is a great deal of truth in it. The loss of power of the House of Commons was de- 1396 claimed against very largely before the War, and it was due to two things. One was that, possibly because parties were cast in large numbers, the House concentrated itself as often as not on trivial things, and not on things of great moment. But the real reason for it was the growth of the party system which compelled Members to sink their individual feelings in the fortunes of the party to which they belonged, and that was a growing feeling which was reflected in the House of Commons. In my own experience, and I am sure it is true of every Member of the House, the party machine all over the country has been growing in power, and there was a reflection of that on these benches. The hon. Member for the Scotland Division said that this system should not interfere with a strong Government. I do not agree with him. Either these Commissions would not be free to exercise their judgment or they would always have in view the effect it would have on the party to which they belong.
Instead of believing the House of Commons has lost control during the War, I take and I have good reason to take an exactly opposite view. What happened before the War I The Government on this Bench immediately before the War—it would have been the same if it had been a different kind of Government—had not a very strong majority. They had not a majority belonging to its own party. What was the result? It was absolutely sure of itself on any occasion, because it knew that every Member would support it, right or wrong. Since I have been Leader of this House and it was true of the last Coalition Government—what we suffer from—I am looking at it from a purely selfish point of view- is that there is no party on which we can rely to support us when we are wrong. I do not mean there is no party which will support us if it is a question of turning out the Government, but what occurs is that in regard to every subject which comes up Members look upon it on its merits, and if an Amendment is suggested it is not merely the men of one party who vote for it. The result is that the pressure of individual Members of the House of Commons is greater now than it was when the party system existed at its full strength.
But that is only the fringe of the subject. It really would be an advantage for the House of Commons, and, in the long run, for the Government of the day, if 1397 some means could be found by which the House of Commons could take a more direct and more intelligent interest in the business being carried on. I entirely agree with that. I agree also with what my right hon, Friend said about the basis of the difference between us and our enemies being the House of Commons. That really is true. It is the free institutions that make all the difference. But I do not agree with him that the minds of people are gradually moving towards a system when they do not wish any House of Commons at all and that in time of war those who say so are not overburdened in intellectual apparatus. That is not my experience. The test is not intellectual apparatus. It is a question of temperament more than intellect, and so far as I am concerned, and I think the great bulk of us are at one on this, while I recognise that despotic Governments in a time of war have an immense advantage over free institution, I recognise also that if free institutions can survive, and they will, I would rather have their success than success under any other form of government.
I do believe that something can be done on the lines suggested by my right hon. Friend I have never, as far as I know, been opposed to the idea of occasional discussions in private. I do not at all think that it is a drawback to the Government. On the contrary, while it is perfectly true there are some things no member of the Government could say, you could, in private, if it was not reported, and that is the essence of it, give in a general way reasons for your course of action which I found in practice it was impossible for me to do when every word was being reported next day. I do believe that occasionally a frank discussion of that kind, when the Members of the House of Commons at all events saw the reasons which made it difficult for us to take a course which seemed easy—I do believe that in the long run that would be quite as much advantage to the Government as it would be to the country. My right hon. Friend said that the Government ought to rely upon the House of Commons. He would be a very foolish man who did not know that this Government and every Government, and this Government perhaps more than most because of the novelty of its constitution, depended absolutely on the support of the House of Commons. It is the machine with which we have got to work, and one of our first duties is to work that machine in a way that makes 1398 things go smoothly. But it means something more than that, I think. It ought to mean something on the part of the House of Commons also, and that is this, that if on the whole they do make up their minds that they do not wish a change of Government, that this is the Government they wish to carry on the War, then whatever criticism they indulge in or whatever efforts they make to improve their aim should be to stimulate and not to hamper the Executive Government of the day.