§ Mr. ASQUITH
I beg to move, "That this House records its thanks to Mr. Speaker for his services in presiding over the Electoral Reform Conference, and is of opinion that legislation should promptly be introduced on the lines of the Resolutions reported from the Conference."
The present Parliament met on the 31st January, 1911, and its legal term under the Septennial Act would have expired on the 31st January, 1918. Early in its history it passed the Parliament Act, which reduced the maximum life of Parliament from seven years to five. Accordingly, at the beginning of the War, Parliament was due to come to an end, and a fresh House of Commons to be elected, at the latest on the 31st January, 1916. Immediately after the declaration of War, on the 7th August, 1914, an Act was passed to prevent voters from being deprived of their right to register through absence during the qualifying period on naval or military service. In the next year, 1915, Parliament decided to suspend the normal annual registration, and the existing register—that is, the register compiled in 1914 for 1915—was continued in force for the year 1916 and until Parliament should otherwise determine. In 463 January, 1916, when Parliament would otherwise have expired, its life was extended for another eight months, and the existing register was continued in force again till Parliament should otherwise provide. Later in the same year, August, 1916, a Bill was introduced, and ultimately passed, further extending the life of Parliament to 30th April of the present year. We have before us, as the right hon. Gentleman has just told us—and he hopes to pass the Bill this week, or at any rate before the House rises for Easter—the third prolongation—quite properly I think—of the life of this Parliament, Which, I understand, will be to 30th November of the present year. The result is that if a Dissolution were to take place, or a General Election were to be held, at the and of this last extension, November or December next, it would be on a register compiled in 1913, admission to which register depended upon a state of facts in regard to qualification which existed as far back as 1913. If, apart from the stale-ness of the register itself, you add the notorious fact of the absence of a large number of the electors on naval and military service, and the great shifting of the population which war work has involved, it is not too much to say, and I do not think I am using exaggerated language when I say, that an election on such a register would be an absurdity, and that any House of Commons so elected would lack from its birth even the semblance of real representative authority. In these circumstances various attempts have been made, or suggested, during the last two years to deal with the problem by the creation of some form of ad hoc temporary or special register. None of them were fortunate enough, as my right hon. Friend knows, and as I know well, to commend themselves to the House of Commons. Our failure to do so was naturally put down to the ineptitude of an incompetent Government. As a witty Frenchman once said, Jolie hypothese clle expliue tant de choses.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
Even if you had had a consensus of heaven-inspired councillors, which unfortunately in this place you have not, you would have been no better off for this particular purpose, because the embarrassments with which, not only 464 the Government, but Members of the House were faced were due to the inherent and irremovable difficulties of the situation. In particular, let me point out two circumstances. In the first place, there-was the unfairness, and manifest unfairness, of excluding, and yet the practical impossibility of including effectively, the men who are absent in the various theatres of war on land and sea and those engaged in munitions and other work. They were due, in the second place, to the fact that no measure—as we soon discovered, and as the House was very quick to discover—no measure for the desired purpose could be framed which did not directly or indirectly raise questions of franchise, and so open the doors to controversy about women's suffrage, about plural voting, and about a host of other highly disputable and contentious problems. The Amendment which I see is down to this Motion of mine in the name of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Salter) asks that Parliament should legislateto obtain an immediate register and to provide means of voting for those electors who are absent on naval and military service.I venture to say if my hon. Friend were to ask the War Office, or the Local Government Board, or the members of the Speaker's Conference, they would all tell him the same thing, namely, that that is an absolutely impracticable proposition. In these conditions, and speaking in the House on 16th August last, and supported by my right hon. Friend the then President of the Local Government Board—the present Colonial Secretary—I made an appeal which is set out in the fourth paragraph of Mr. Speaker's Report. I may, perhaps, be allowed to quote one of the sentences I then used. I said:Let us by all means use the time—those of us who-are not absolutely absorbed in the conduct of the War—in those months to see if we cannot' work out by general agreement some scheme under which, both as regards the electorate and the distribution of electoral power, a Parliament can be created at the end of the War capable and adequate for discharging these tasks, and commanding the confidence of the country.My right hon. Friend and colleague, the President of the Local Government Board emphasised what I had said, and suggested the setting up of a representative conference, not only of parties but of groups, a conference which would really represent opinion on all these subjects. The idea found, I think, a good deal of general favour, and at my request Mr. Speaker was good enough to consent to summon and to preside over 465 a representative conference of Members of both Houses. Everyone, I think, will agree that the Conference, as finally arranged, was constituted with admirable impartiality. It began its work on 10th October, and continued it until the end of January, having in the meantime, when the change of Government took place in December, been invited by the present Prime Minister to continue its work with as much promptitude and dispatch as possible. During that time it held, I think, twenty-six sittings. The first part of the Resolution which I am going to submit to the House asks the House to record its thanks to Mr. Speaker for his services in presiding over the Electoral Reform Conference. I am perfectly certain that that part of the Resolution will not only command universal, but the enthusiastic assent of the House. The task which I presumed to offer you, Sir, was, upon the face of it, a thankless, and, indeed, to many people it appeared at the moment to be a very unpromising one. There was, first of all, the difficulty of getting the right people together. There was what was perhaps an even greater difficulty, when you have got them together to keep them together. You, Mr. Speaker, succeeded in both branches of a very arduous undertaking. I am sure that all members of the Conference will agree—I know it is their universal opinion—that it wasvery largely owing to his tact and—I do not like to use such a word—Mr. peaker's "adroitness"—and—what is of not less importance—upon fit occasions to his initiative and driving power, that the successful result of the Conference was due. The House, I am sure, will only be too anxious to tender to you its gratitude for this, not one of the least of the many debts, which it owes to you. As Mr. Speaker points out at the close of the Report which he has made, we must not exclude from our consideration the members of the Conference itself. I should like to quote his language, because it is very material when we are considering this Resolution. Mr. Speaker uses these words. He says:They were convinced of the great desirability O amicably settling this thorny question, and of finding a solution for issues fraught with the possibility of engendering grave domestic friction and internal friction. They were desirous of rendering, at a time when the national energies were almost wholly centred upon the successful prosecution of the War, a service which might prove of the highest value to the State, and result in equipping the nation with a truly representative House of Commons, capable of dealing, and dealing effectively, with the many and gigantic problems which it will have to face and solve as soon as the restoration of peace permits of their calm and dispassionate consideration466 What is the result of these prolonged and arduous labours? The result is that we have in this Report what I confess I was hardly sanguine enough to hope for—thirty-seven resolutions dealing with all the thorniest problems which have divided parties and been the subject of embittered controversy during the lifetime of a generation. Of these thirty-seven resolutions no less than thirty-four were passed with unanimity. That is one of the most remarkable concordats in our political history. In my opinion it would not only be folly, but it would be something like criminal folly, if we were to throw away such a unique opportunity. None of us, it is true, wishes to distract attention from the War, or to divert energies which ought to be concentrated upon it to-purely domestic concerns. But in that connection there are two things which ought to be remembered. The first is that this is a matter which in one form or another you cannot avoid during the War. You must have some electorate to which you can appeal, an electorate which is not a sham or a simulation, but a real electorate which represents the considered opinion and will of the nation as a whole. The next point which is equally relevant when such criticisms are made is that the agreement come to in this Conference was really a microcosm of our political world; the agreement come to in this Conference encourages, certainly it does to my mind, the hope that a similar spirit will be shown in Parliament, and that with a comparatively small expenditure of time and of labour a settlement on the Conference lines can be attained. But if that hope is to be realised, it must be—and now I come to the second part of my Resolution—because the legislation introduced proceeds on the lines recommended by the Conference. Almost everyone of these Resolutions has been arrived at by a process of give and take, and both individually and together they must be looked at as part and parcel of an agreed compromise. I do not suppose there is one of them to which some of us—probably a considerable number of us—if it were regarded by itself on its own merits, otherwise than what I may call a dovetailed part of a composite scheme, would not be ready to take exception, and more or less serious exception.
It may be convenient briefly to summarise what is described in this Motion as the lines upon which the Conference has proceeded, and in the following of it 467 —and only in the following of it—is there hope for prompt' and agreed legislation. The main points appear to me to be five in number, and as to four of thern—I leave out the fifth for the moment—the Conference was unanimous. The first is franchise and registration. They agreed to get rid of the existing tangle of diverse qualifications, so that there should be only two grounds of qualification left—I leave out the university qualification—residential occupation and occupation of business premises, and that in all cases the qualifying period should be reduced to six months. Some of us would like to go even further; others, I am sure, do not wish to go so far. But it appears to me to be a very reasonable adjustment of the franchise aspect of the matter. Secondly, the question of plural voting, as to which there is the old Liberal formula, which we have proclaimed and fought for now for 30 or more years, of "One man one vote." Under the resolution of the Conference, no man is to have more than two votes—residential qualification, and, if he possesses it, either the occupation of business premises or qualification as a university graduate. That does not go as far as many people would have liked, but it is a great step in advance, and, coupled with it, you must take the recommendation of the Conference that all polls are to be held on the same day—one of the greatest reforms, I think, you could introduce into our electoral system.
Thirdly, there is the question—a very important one—of registration and election expenses. It is proposed by the Conference that the cost of registration should be shared between the localities and the State, and that in the case of actual elections, the raturming officers' charges should be paid by the State. Those are both great reforms, and equally important, in my opinion, is the proposal to cut off these outside influences and organisations which have enormously increased the cost of elections, and evaded the whole spirit and intention of the Corrupt Practices Act. The fourth point is Redistribution, where you come to—I will not call it the rival formula, because there is no incompatibility between them—the other formula of "One vote one value." The dual effect, as I understand it, of the recommendations of the Conference on that point is, taking 70,000 as the normal unit of representation, that 468 constituencies with a population of between 50,000 and 120,000, will return one member; between 120,000 and 190,000, two members; between 190,000 and 260,000, three members, and so on in proportion. It is no part of my purpose to go into any detail as to what the effect of those proposals would be. I believe the result would be that about sixty constituencies in Great Britain would lose their separate representation. The consequence is that the exaggerated representation which the present system gives to relatively small areas will disappear, and I imagine that the other proposals in this part of the Report dealing with what is called proportional representation—I express no opinion as to their value—are put forward by the Conference with the cognate object—not the same object, but the cognate object—of preventing large local minorities from being wholly excluded from representation. On all those proposals, I understand, the Conference was unanimous.
I come now to the fifth point, upon which the Conference report that they were divided, and that their recommendation represents the opinion of the majority. The majority—although, as Mr. Speaker tells us in his Report, in forming the Conference he had endeavoured to obtain on this point an even division of opinion—decided, first, that some measure of woman suffrage should be conferred, and next, to translate that into concrete form, any woman who possesses herself, or is the wife of a man who possesses the proposed new Local Government qualifications—that is to say, six months' occupation as owner or tenant of land or premises, and has attained the specified age, say, thirty, or perhaps thirty-five—shall have the Parliamentary franchise. Here we are upon much more delicate ground. The House will not be unprepared to hear that I myself, and I believe many others, no longer regard this question from the standpoint which we occupied before the War. During the whole of my political life I have opposed the various schemes which have been presented from time to time to Parliament for giving the Parliamentary vote, whether piecemeal or wholesale, to women, while it is only right I should say I have as consistently advocated, and done my best to promote, the opening-out to women of other spheres of activity, which have been in the past confined exclusively to men.
469 Why, and in what sense, the House may ask, have I changed my views'? There was in ancient Greece a poet named Stesichorus, who was ill-advised enough, in a fit of pervorted inspiration, to compose a lampoon upon the character and conduct of Helen, the wife of Menelaus. She was a lady who had the advantage of being connected by relationship with a god. The result was that Stesichorus was smitten with blindness. Thereupon, I think, after consulting the oracle, he conceived the happy idea of writing a Palinode, some lines of which are preserved by Plato, and in which he developed the novel theme that it was not Helen at all, but a phantom who had simulated her form, and whose elopement with Paris of Troy led to all the subsequent trouble. Thereupon, by way of reward, the poet had his sight restored. I am not going to follow the devious and not very candid procedure of Stesichorus. Some of my Friends may think that, like him, my eyes, which for years in this matter have been clouded by fallacies, and sealed by illusions, at last have been opened to the truth. In point of fact, as far as I am concerned—I do not know what is the case with others—there has been no occasion for the intervention of any supernatural agency. I am not the least ashamed—indeed, I am glad to have the opportunity—to disclose the process which has operated on my mind. My opposition to woman suffrage has always been based, and based solely, on considerations of public expediency. I think that some years ago I ventured to use the expression, "Let the women work out their own salvation." Well, Sir, they have worked it out during this War. How could we have carried on the War without them? Short of actually bearing arms in the field, there is hardly a service which has contributed, or is contributing, to the maintenance of our cause in which women have not been at least as active and as efficient as men, and wherever we turn we see them doing, with zeal and success, and without any detriment to the prerogatives of their sex, work which three years ago would have been regarded as falling exclusively within the province of men. This is not a merely sentimental argument, though it appeals to our feelings as well as our judgment. But what I confess moves me still more in this matter is the problem of reconstruction when the War is over. The questions 470 which will then necessarily arise in regard to women's labour and women's functions and activities in the new ordering of things—for, do not doubt it, the old order will be changed—are questions in regard to which I, for my part, feel it impossible, consistently cither with justice or with expediency, to withhold from women the power and the right of making their voice directly heard. And let me add that, since the War began, now nearly three years ago, we have had no recurrence of that detestable campaign which disfigured the annals of political agitation in this country, and no one can now contend that we are yielding to violence what we refused to concede to argument. I, therefore, believe, and I believe many others who have hitherto thought with me in this matter are prepared to acquiesce in the general decision of the majority of the Conference, that some measure of women's suffrage should be conferred. In regard to the form which their recommendation takes, I understand it has been prompted partly by a desire to prevent a preponderance of female as compared with male voters, and partly by a feeling that a discrimination by way of age was fairer than the setting up of any special class or business qualification. I say nothing on the delicate point of age or ages which are suggested.
A very able and energetic lady, a strong advocate of the cause, came to see me the other day and made a counter suggestion that it was the younger women who most needed enfranchisement, and if age was to come into the matter at all it should rather be at the other end of the scale. I do not pronounce any judgment as between those two views. I myself have always thought, and I have often said, I think in this House, that when once you have resolved to ignore the differentia of sex it was difficult to introduce any other discrimination between the case of women and that of men. That is pre-eminently a matter for adjustment and compromise, and I feel confident the proposal will not be allowed to founder upon that rock. I have gone through the various recommendations which are the result of the work of this Conference, and in this Resolution which I am about to move I invite the House and the Government, confident in both cases that my appeal is addressed for the most part to willing and sympathetic hearers, to declare that we should legislate and legislate promptly in regard to all 471 these matters. I have endeavoured to show their urgency, an urgency which, as I have said, is not removed and is not lessened, but is to a large extent created by the continuance of the War. No one would propose to introduce a Bill on the lines of these Resolutions, bristling as they do with what used to be considered highly controversial points, unless there was, as there is, a good prospect that it will be handled here on the Floor of the House of Commons in the same spirit which animated the Speaker's Conference. In no other way—that is my deliberate and considered opinion—can we make the next House of Commons, whether it is elected in consequence of a sudden dissolution, or whether it springs into existence by the effluxion of time, an authentic and authoritative exponent of the national will in the infinitely varied and complex array of problems both domestic and Imperial, which at the end of the War it will be its first duty to confront and to solve.
§ Mr. SALTER
I beg to move, to leave out the words "on the lines of the Resolutions reported from the Conference," and to insert instead thereof the words "to obtain an immediate register and to provide means of voting for those electors who are absent on naval and military service, but, save as aforesaid, considers that the attention of Parliament should be wholly devoted to the prosecution of the War."
In moving this Amendment, I will not attempt to supplement in any way the words which the right hon. Gentleman opposite used in recognition of the indebtedness of this House to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the members of the Conference. We are told that the Conference has made suggestions for legislation, but to my mind they are a great deal more than suggestions, for to my mind they are an augury for the future of the happiest kind. We are witnessing the dissolution of the old order, and as soon as the War has ended we shall look about us in a new world. It may be that we shall find old divisions meaningless and old controversies futile. It may be that the work of this Conference may aid and guide us to great reconciliations in the future hitherto undreamt of, and if it should have that effect it will, indeed, have been a work of great magnitude. But whatever else we do at this most difficult 472 time, confronted as we are by a problem the difficulty of which I think the right hon. Gentleman hardly fully stated, do not let us at any rate make the mistake of turning this great work from being a help to strength and union in the future to a cause of dissension and weakness in the present. In these Resolutions I find, as I expected to find, in so long and varied a list, some things as to which I would desire further consideration, as well as many things which are very welcome to me. These Resolutions touch at more points than one on a matter which comes close to us all at the present time, namely, the position of the sailor and the soldier and their relation to the State. I nave had the honour to represent in this. House in normal times now for eleven years a larger number of Regular soldiers than any other Member of this House, and I am hoping that, among the many good results of this War, one may be that the sailor and the soldier in the future may receive more consideration than they did in the past from the State. I have always thought, and I have often said that every sailor and soldier while with the Colours should be enfranchised by his calling. I should be very glad to see that a part of our permanent law, and if I could do it to-morrow, without opening the door to domestic controversy at a time like this, I would enfranchise for the purpose of this next register every sailor and soldier of full age, every mine-sweeper, and every merchant seaman. [An HON. MEMBER: "And every munition worker !"]
Whether what I have suggested is possible or not at the immediate moment I cannot say, but in any case, and whatever happens, so soon as this War is over, every sailor and soldier and mine-sweeper and merchant seaman who has served the country in this War must, for the purpose of the next register, be put upon that register before the election of the Parliament which will take our place here. It would be interesting, but I do not propose to do it, to go through the matters in these Resolutions, because I am here to protest against their enactment at the present time. The right hon. Gentleman has just addressed this House with his accustomed power and charm for three-quarters of an hour, and except for one perfunctory reference, he might have been addressing a country wrapt in the profoundest peace. Those of us who have decided to set down this Amendment and to support it have done so under a sense of responsibility, 473 and because we have felt that our duty left us no option in the matter and no other course. The Resolution recommends the immediate introduction of large measures of controversial domestic legislation. That demand is made under no compulsion of military necessity. The times are very grave, and in our humble judgment it is unspeakably essential that for the next few months, during which this legislation will be proceeding, there -should be the utmost concentration of every thought and energy and fibre of the mind and muscle of this country inside and outside this House upon the prosecution of the War. After the best consideration we can give to the matter, it seems to us that the course proposed would perturb our Allies. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Russian revolution?"] think that it would perturb all our Allies. I certainly made no exception of that great Ally. I think it would disconcert and discourage our fighting men, and I am quite sure that it could not fail to weaken and to divert the energies of our people in the country and in this House. The view that we respectfully present to the House is that this legislation should be introduced as soon as the public discussion of such matters can be conducted without detriment to the public safety. We think that such time will be reached, and not before, when the strain of this War is lifted from off the people. The late Prime Minister hoped that these labours would not be thrown away. If they are put before the country as soon as peace is with us, and if, instead of being considered by a harassed and burdened people, they are considered by a people relieved from this nightmare and able to apply their minds happily to the future, will that be throwing away the labours of this Conference? We are here to protest against the course suggested, and to back our protest with such force as we may have.
I see it suggested—the right hon. Gentleman did not suggest it—that we have desired to upset some settlement. When the time comes and these matters can be safely discussed, it will be found that we are not less conciliatory than those who now lecture us for our conduct, but we will be no party to dividing the people in face of such an enemy as confronts us. It never occurred to my mind, since this Conference was initiated, to doubt that of necessity any resolution reported from it must form the subject of legislation to be 474 introduced into this House and to be considered in Parliament like any other legislation. If the right hon. Gentleman's Motion had suggested the introduction of legislation on these lines, I should have thought it an unexceptionable but quite unnecessary Motion; but, under the small and specious word "promptly," the right hon. Gentleman is desirous that we should enter upon this course at the present time, and it is upon that point, so studiously avoided throughout the whole of his speech, that I challenge the decision. To our minds it is the present circumstances of the time and of the country that dominate the entire situation.
There was a courteous suggestion in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, which has been repeated in crude language in some organs of the Press, that we must agree—it appears to be addressed, as I understand it, to individual Members and to the House as a whole—to the decisions of this Conference, because, we are told, "Your representatives have agreed to these things." It is so much urged, and it is so important, that I ask leave to say a word about it. The members of this Conference were men of mark and of distinction. They were very fairly chosen. They were certainly representative in a very real sense of that word. They were representative in the sense that they were typical of the various groups and parties from which they were fairly chosen. They were good samples of our various bulks, but I am not quite sure, even in these days, that you can argue back from sample to bulk as if we were so much merchandise. They were not plenipotentiaries and they were not delegates, and, great as is my respect and affection for those political Friends with whom I have shared adversity for so many years, I protest for my part against the assumption that I am bound to agree in advance to anything any other typical Tory may accept. I have been sent here by my Constituency to use my own judgment, and, with great respect, I shall do so. This suggestion, when made to this House as a whole, borders, to my mind, upon the intolerable. The suggestion seems to be this: "Here is the Special Register Bill, which is a failure. Here is a matter which is too great for you. Therefore, a number of representative gentlemen shall discuss it in a parlour, and whatever they agree to the House must accept, and not merely accept, but must enact and fix as agreed upon." Looked at more closely, I suppose it 475 means this: Some draftsman must prepare a set of Bills enacting in detail what he supposes the general resolutions of the Conference amount to—and those Bills must be introduced in Parliament and passed through Parliament without substantial modification, whatever that may be, and therefore without substantial debate. Such a suggestion as that, if it were not fantastic, would be really insulting. The Constitution of this country is not to be thrown together in that sort of way, nor has this House been accustomed to abrogate its functions and to evade its responsibilities in that manner.
I have ventured to suggest in this Amendment certain immediate legislation. I think one is bound to do that if he challenges the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. It it not a case in which nothing can be done. The present register is most unsatisfactory, and an election during the War, of course, must be avoided, if it can be avoided, but it may be unavoidable. The quinquennial period has long since past, and the septennial period, I believe, will expire at the end of this year or in January next. A register prepared in the ordinary way, if undertaken now, can be ready, I am advised, in the early part of October, and therefore in ample time for the expiration of the now proposed extension of life of this Parliament. That will be a great advantage, and I think the preparation of a register should be immediately undertaken. It is quite obvious that register can bring the old register up to date, and can remove from it a mass of names which ought not to be there and place upon it a great number of names of people long since qualified under the ordinary law. It can at least do that, and it will greatly improve the position. I should be very glad if it were possible, even in a temporary and precautionary register, to make large additions. That involves difficult and technical questions of procedure. I should like to be able, for the purpose of this next register, precautionary and temporary though it be, to reduce the qualifying period for all civilians to three months. I should like to be able in the case of every sailor and soldier who has left a constituency to join the Colours to assume a qualification in the constituency which he has so left. I think most of us would desire to do that. We all remember, when the special Register 476 Bill was before this House, that you, Mr. Speaker, delivered certain rulings, and we all know how difficult it is and how impossible it may be to make such changes as I have suggested in a Registration Bill without opening the door to endless controversy. I desire to make my position—I think it is shared by others—as plain as I can. If this can be done without opening the door to general strife, then let us make these generous additions even in the temporary register which I immediately suggest. But I am clear, if you cannot do this without opening the door to those matters to which I will refer, that we must wait for the enfranchisement of those soldiers and sailors who are not now upon the register until this War is over; and as soon as this War is at an end we must put upon the register every sailor and soldier and every merchant seaman who has risked his life in the service of his country. That is a plain suggestion. I was sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman brush aside in a somewhat summary manner the suggestion I have made in my Amendment for a vote for absent sailors and soldiers. He referred to the War Office. I should like to be sure that the War Office authorities have considered the suggestion I now desire to make. I have discussed it with competent and experienced soldiers, and they have seen no difficulty about it. It is a scandal, to my mind, that our sailors and soldiers are disfranchised by their very calling, and, in saying this, I speak as a representative of many soldiers. I have spoken to an old soldier who held Queen Victoria's Commission for forty years. He told me in that time he was upon the register in countless constituencies, but he never once had a chance to record a Parliamentary vote. In my Constituency, where there is a military vote, more than half of the military electors are always out of the constituency before the register comes into force, and not one-tenth of them ever have a chance of recording their votes at an election. At the next election, whenever it may occur, large masses of our soldiers and sailors will be absent from the country because the country needs their services, and it will be an intolerable scandal that they should be disfranchised for that cause alone—I am assuming they are on the register—and that being so some means ought to be devised for escaping from that difficulty.
477 It largely becomes a mere technical question. I have heard two suggestions put forward—that they should vote by post or vote by proxy. I do not think a vote by post would be feasible or acceptable; there are great difficulties in that. Voting by proxy affords a much better chance of solution. I know enough about these matters to be aware how full of technical difficulty they are. My suggestion is that immediately a soldier has been placed upon the register he should apply to the proper authorities to have his name transferred to the Absent Voters list, that he should then be given a proxy form, which should be signed by him and countersigned by his proxy, and this would enable the proxy to record his vote. I have been advised by people of experience that such a scheme is perfectly feasible, and any Government which in these circumstances put the suggestion lightly aside, considering what our soldiers and sailors have done, would be incurring a grave responsibility. I would not give any general right of voting by proxy for people's personal convenience; it should be a right given entirely to the classes of whom I am speaking. There should be an option to the man to keep his personal vote if he pleases, but then the vast majority who did that would run the risk of not being able to vote. That is my humble suggestion.
I now ask the House to consider briefly and to realise what the carrying out of the right hon. Gentleman's programme would result in. How long would it take to carry it out? It would mean three Bills at least—a Franchise Bill, a Redistribution Bill, and a Registration Bill. It would be an ambitious programme of domestic change and a complete review of our whole electoral law. A Redistribution Bill alone took twenty-eight days in this House in 1884. We are fairly busy on our ordinary work at the present time, and if this were to be undertaken it would mean that all through the summer and through the autumn this House would be meeting here—it would be dragged back to these domestic controversies with all the old familiar machinery—Whips, Divisions, Debates, and, indeed, the whole thing. I confess I was amazed when I came into the House to-day to see the benches so crowded. No doubt it was due to the fact that the late Prime Minister was going to speak, but I have seen only half the attendance when matters of real national emergency connected with the War were in 478 debate. It is the smell of the old arena. I ask the House to consider the questions that will be involved in these proposals. I say nothing about the Irish question; we have it with us; it is a war question, and we have it with us in its most dangerous form. Do we consider we ought to add to our domestic troubles?
§ Mr. SALTER
Then it brings to us the question of women's suffrage. I have always myself been an advocate of moderate suffrage for women. [An HON. MEMBER: "Rich women !"] The proposals of this Conference on that subject are very welcome to me. I am told that the opposition to women suffrage is shrinking. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] Well, I hope it is; but I am sure of this, that if it is shrinking in volume it is hardening in quality. It is an intense and bitter opposition. This question is one which divides the people with particular bitterness. It does not divide the people into large parties or crowds; it divides families; it divides individuals. There is another matter which has to be borne in mind: you cannot consider one part of the constitutional question in isolation. You cannot consider the franchise of one House without considering the franchise and constitution of the other. It is impossible to do so. Personally, I would be ready to accept the widest suffrage that any civilised country has, if I can have with it the constitutional safeguards which every civilised country except our own possesses. But in this particular case there has existed for the last six years this difficulty, that our Constitution has been incomplete and in suspense, and it has been so under a pledge that that abnormal state of tilings shall be corrected so soon as the opportunity for constitutional revision shall arise. That is an obligation of honour which brooks no avoidable delay. Four years of peace went by and no opportunity of constitutional revision happened to arise—four years of profound peace in the country. Two years of war with increasing strain followed, and no one will be surprised to hear no opportunity arose then. It is in the third year of the War, when this country is rocking in the grip of an enemy like Germany, that the first opportunity of constitutional revision since 1910 arises. At any rate this is undeniable: if there has now arisen an opportunity for consti- 479 tution revision, then the whole question of the Constitution confronts the House and comes up for decision.
I will say nothing about proportional representation. If we could confine our disputes to ourselves there would be something to be gained. But the disputes in which we shall be engaged will be shared in a miserable, half-hearted way by a harassed people outside. Have we not all of us been flooded with circulars and representations from extreme people on both sides of this question? At the very first note of the trumpet of domestic war these people are rushing to the fray and flooding us with their views as if this country was in a period of profound peace. I believe there are people who would argue with you about proportional representation were the last trump sounding. It was suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Sir J. Simon), in a speech in this House, that this matter would perhaps be best debated and with less acrimony under the chastening influence of war—a very seductive suggestion. But I feel sure these matters will be debated in exactly the opposite way; you see it in every indication that reaches us from anti-suffragists, and it is certain that the opponents of change on each of these questions will feel that they are not being treated with justice, that an unfair advantage is being taken of them by bringing this matter forward in a time of war and by making appeals to their patriotism.
Will the House consider at what a time these proposals are brought forward? The most dreadful suggestion I have heard about the War was made the other day in this House by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill). He spoke of the probability of what he called "a broken-backed war"—the thing going on indefinitely after both parties had reached the climax of their powers—going on with diminished forces but undiminished animosity. That is an awful prospect. We are standing upon the threshold of the greatest crisis of the greatest war in all history. We must win victory, if not peace, in the next few months. I wish it were in my power to put into words my sense of how the national existence depends upon utter, absolute, unreserved, complete, passionate devotion on the part of all men and women inside and outside this House to the purposes of the War at the present time. We have a great number, unhappily, of indif- 480 ferent people among us still. It seems impossible to rouse them. Are they likely to be brought to a sense of their country's position by seeing us betake ourselves to a task which suggests to every mind perfect leisure, complete detachment, and absolute security? I said that I had much to do with soldiers. I believe I am right in saying that if our soldiers have any fear in connection with this War, it is only one. I think they have a fear sometimes for the constancy of the civilians. Whether the civilian will stick it out, is the only thing that troubles them. Their only demand is that there shall be concentration at home to back them, and, above all, no sound of dispute. If, as they go forward to what awaits them now they look back at this House and see us counting votes and adjusting boundaries, they will say, "The politicians have got us unto this. We are suffering to get the country out, and when it comes to the push they lose interest in the War and go back to their old ways."
Look for a moment at the general body of the poor people at home—the parents, wives, and connections of the men at the front. Look at their position. They are beginning to bear pretty well all they can bear. It is not only privations, it is bereavement. It is not only bereavement, it is the worry and anxiety for those in danger. They see no end. They feel that the worst is yet to come. They have been told by a great soldier that if they can clench their teeth faster than the Germans and keep them clenched longer, they will win. They are going to try to do that as they go about their work. It is to these poor people, bowed down with these sorrows and anxieties and utterly absorbed in their share in the War, that the politicians wish to go. The politician is to go to them unabashed and complacent, and is to say, "This will be an admirable time to enter upon a discussion of many interesting matters of domestic concern. We propose to revise our electoral laws; we shall reconsider every boundary and every constituency. Do you think town clerks should have charge of the registers, and what are your views on woman suffrage?" I believe that the people will turn round, if this goes further, and will say to us, "For goodness sake, have you not had enough of party even now?" They will say, "Look at your handiwork ! Have you learned nothing in three years?" I believe that if we enter at this time upon the proposed course, we shall not have 481 gone far upon it before there will be a gathering tide of popular exasperation. We shall get clogged in all the difficulties of this ambitious programme. We shall be unable to go forward. We shall be unable to go back. We shall all be committed, there will be no more reconstruction possible, and there will be nothing for it but an appeal to the country. [An HON. MEMBER; "On what register?"] If the hon. Member will allow me, I will endeavour to make my position clear. I am struggling to prevent that appeal. Let us not be misled by those political specialists with whom we are in touch—these active local politicians. They do not represent the people at all. The general body of the people hate and loathe the notion of entering upon these domestic matters at this time. I desire to refer to the words used by the right hon. Gentleman the late Prime Minister in this House last August. He had been asked to touch the franchise. He declined, and he gave his reasons. He would not introduce domestic disputes, and especially he would not open the question of woman suffrage. He said:It seems to me, and it seems to all my colleagues—although I do not profess for a moment that we are in agreement on all these points as to whom ought or ought not to be enfranchised—that nothing would be more injurious to the beat interests of the country, nothing more damaging to the prosecution of the War, nothing more fatal to the concentration of the national effort, than that the floodgates should be opened on all those vast, complicated questions of the franchise, with an infinite multiplicity of claimants, each of whom can make a perfectly plausible if not irresistible case for themselves, and that at this stage of the War that that should be thrown on the floor of the House of Commons, and into the arena of public discussion outside, and that we should he diverted from that which ought to be our supreme and sole purpose to what is practically a review of the whole basis of our electoral constitution."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th August, 1916, col. 1451, Vol. LXXXV.]We ought to remember that we are not alone in this matter. It is not merely the country and the Empire of whom we have to think. There are countries who have been called upon to stake even more than we have, who have got their all staked in this issue, and they are looking to us in this great and dreadful hour. Friend and foe admit that we have become the keystone of the Alliance. All depends upon our cohesion. If we are divided, we must weaken. If we fall, all fall. We are the trustees of interests which transcend even the Kingdom and the Empire. In moving this Amendment I humbly entreat this House not so much as to look in the direction of any matter of internal difference at this time, seeing what great issues hang 482 upon the continued maintenance of unbroken unity and concord in this nation and in this House.
§ Sir FRANCIS LOWE
I beg to second the Amendment so ably moved by my hon. and learned Friend. In the first place, I wish to associate myself most thoroughly with the expressions which have fallen from the two previous speakers of appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Speaker and the members of this Committee for the very valuable services which they have rendered into inquiring into this difficult subject, and for the valuable Report which they have presented. I do not wish it to be supposed that, because I am seconding this Amendment, I am necessarily opposed to all the recommendations contained in the Report, or that I am so high and dry a Tory that I should always object to any extension of the existing franchise which might at any time be proposed. I can assure the House that the exact opposite is the case. I have long been of opinion that something equivalent to adult manhood suffrage, with electoral redistribution of seats, was bound to come sooner or later, and also that when it did come the claim of women to have some share in the franchise would have to be very seriously and sympathetically considered. I do not hesitate to say that personally I am quite ready to approach the consideration of these questions with a perfectly free and open mind, directly we are free from the pre-occupations of the War and are at liberty to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to matters of domestic concern. That, however, is a very different matter from considering proposals such as these at a time like the present, when our one aim and object should be to devote the whole of our thoughts, influence and strength to the prosecution of the War, and to avoid, as if it were the plague, any question which might by any possibility stir up strife and tend to lead to a difference of opinion or to interfere with our national unity in the face of the enemy who is still thundering at our gates. To act otherwise at a time like this would be to show a great lack of any due sense of proportion, and reminds one of the Emperor Nero fiddling among the ruins while Rome was burning.
Although I quite approve of some of the recommendations contained in this Report, we only had to listen to the speech of the late Prime Minister in order to be sure that a good many of these recom- 483 mendations are of a highly controversial character. I need only give a very few instances of what I mean in order to prove this. First of all, there is the question of Ireland. Ireland is excluded from these recommendations—Ireland is generally now excluded from any question which is at all inconvenient—but at the same time if we acted upon these recommendations the number of Members of this House coming from Ireland would remain just the same, and the disproportion existing between the representation of Ireland as compared with other parts of the United Kingdom would remain unremedied. Then there is the doing away with single-Member constituencies in large boroughs. I feel that very acutely, because I happen to represent a single - Member constituency—one of the divisions of Birmingham—and it seems to me that that is a retrograde and reactionary step, because these single-Member constituencies were set up in the year 1885, after a great deal of careful thought and inquiry, and they have remained established ever since, and now it is proposed that we should return to the old and cumbersome process of increasing the size of the constituencies, and having them represented by several Members. The only reason I can find for it is in order to enable the next suggestion to be carried out of proportional representation.
I do not quite understand what proportional representation means. It has often been explained to me, but I have not yet quite grasped it, I have always regarded it as a sort of fanciful theory which was held rather by politicians than by practical statesmen, and it seems to me it must have this effect—that if the number of Members of the House is to remain the same, and minorities are to be represented in the House, it must mean that some candidates who have obtained majorities in the constituencies will have to give way and surrender the position they have fairly won in favour of other candidates who have only obtained a minority of votes at the poll. Then there is the question of women suffrage. I do not think it matters what our opinions are on that question. I think we shall probably have to grant some measure of women suffrage, probably on the Local Government Board's system, or something of that sort, but I know there are a great many Members who are absolutely opposed to any form of women suffrage, and no one can 484 say it is not a highly contentious matter. The very fact that it has been frequently the subject of acute controversy and close division in this House has been quite enough to show that it is an undesirable thing to enter upon just now. Then there is the grouping of the universities. I am sure my hon. Friend (Sir P. Magnus) would not like his university to be grouped with a number of other universities and to have to join with them in returning several Members instead of being free to return its own Member. Then there is the total abolition of the property qualification. There are a great many Liberals who used to say that taxation and representation should go together, and I think there are some people who now hold that view. I do not say whether I do or do not, but it is a thing that ought to be seriously considered and debated. Then there is this new proposal to confer a dual vote on certain persons simply because they happen to have a business as well as a residential qualification. It seems to me it does not matter at all whether those persons exercise those votes in one constituency or the other. They may even vote twice in the same constituency, as far as I can make out, for the same man. I should like to know whether any sane person imagines that questions of this kind could ever be settled without the most prolonged and acute controversy—controversy which will probably last until the War was over, and in the meantime we should have wasted a good deal of valuable time which ought to have been devoted exclusively to the War.
Then I want to ask this other question: Is this House of Commons a suitable body, as at present constituted, to deal with important constitutional changes of this kind? It was elected on a register which was compiled nearly four years ago, and, therefore, it does not properly represent those who would be the electors of this country if it were brought up to date. Its existence has been prolonged on several occasions, and we hear it is about to be prolonged again. What for? Not for the purpose of dealing with questions of this kind, but simply and solely for the continued prosecution of the War. There is another unreformed and unregenerate Assembly which would be entitled to have a voice in the settlement of this question—of course, I refer to the House of Lords. We were told a long time ago that if we were to have another constitutional change he reconstitution of the House of Lords 485 was to form part of that change. That promise is long overdue, but there is no mention in these proposals of anything about the Second Chamber at all, and, therefore, under these recommendations the House of Lords, in its unreformed state, which in former times many hon. Members used to say was unfit to deal with anything, would have to have a final voice in the settlement of a question of this kind. It will be said if we do not welcome the whole of these proposals with open arms all the labours of the Speaker's Conference will be thrown away, and he and all the rest of the members of the Conference will have had all their work for nothing. I do not think anything of the kind. They certainly have investigated the whole of this complicated question most thoroughly and have considered it from every point of view, and have presented to us a most valuable Report, but I do not think we ought to consider ourselves in any way bound by the findings of that Conference. It was not even appointed by the House at all. It was appointed by Mr. Speaker, and, although we are very much obliged to it, I do not see that we should be precluded from holding our own opinions. I have the utmost respect for the rulings of Mr. Speaker, and if he told me to accept these recommendations I am not sure that I should not feel bound to accept them. But he has not told me so, and I feel perfectly-free to exercise a private and independent judgment on the matter.
I am perfectly certain, whether we accept these suggestions or not now, this Report will form a very valuable guide on this subject. It will form almost a monument of wisdom and research, almost a text-book for students of this subject, and I am sure, even if we cannot act upon it now, it is calculated to help us very much when we come to deal with this question after the War is over, and I hope we shall not deal with it before. If I may tender a piece of advice to the Government I should say, "Let sleeping dogs lie until the War is over." I am quite sure that if you once begin to meddle with the franchise you are touching a very thorny subject indeed, and one which is certain to bring a perfect hornet's nest of criticism and controversy about your ears, and I think that is what none of us want at present. But registration is a very different matter. I have said this all along. I have said it when Bills were being introduced by the late Government. You can 486 deal with registration without provoking controversy, but not with the franchise. I sincerely hope and trust it will not be necessary to have a General Election until the War is over; but a certain set of circumstances might arise which would necessitate a General Election being held whether we liked it or not. To my mind the idea of taking an election on the present worn-out register, from which soldiers and sailors are absolutely excluded, is well-nigh unthinkable; but I do not see at all why the Government should not introduce a Bill to have the register brought up to date on the basis of the present franchise without any alteration in the franchise whatsoever, and as far as I gather that is what this Amendment asks them to do—to immediately introduce legislation to bring the register up to date and to afford opportunities for soldiers and sailors to vote. At all events, that is what I want done. I think it is perfectly simple to have a new register, and that is all I ask for. I see no reason why it should not be made on the basis of the present franchise, and I do not see why, concurrently, legislation should not be introduced to enable soldiers and sailors, althougth they are absent on active service, to record their votes and to extend the franchise to munition workers. I do not profess to suggest any detailed plan—I think that is for the Government—but I am perfectly certain it should be done.
§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George)
There is one part of my right hon. Friend's Motion which will excite no controversy, and that is the sentence in which he expresses the thanks of the House to you, Sir, for the part which you have taken in conducting this Conference. I am sure there is general agreement with the right hon. Gentleman in the words with which he thanked you for the great services which you renderod on that occasion, and never have the great qualities which have distinguished Mr. Speaker in the tenure of his high office been so conspicuous as in the way in which he handled this most difficult problem. It is a problem bristling with difficulties. One has only to summarise these various questions which came under review in order to realise what a difficult task must have been that of anyone who presided over an inter-party Conference to consider them—women's suffrage, plural voting, university representation, redistribution, all the controversies which have provoked he most bitter dispute for a whole 487 generation. It is nothing short of a miracle that you, Sir, should have so piloted the proceedings as to achieve such a measure of unanimity at the Conference. In the judgment of the Government, on whose behalf I am now speaking, it would be a great misfortune and a national waste if the results of that Conference were thrown away without being utilised for the purpose of settling all these controversies. I am sorry to say that I have very little time for preparing speeches and, therefore, if the House will allow me, I will indulge in a little plain talk on this subject, in which I will try to make the mind of the Government as clear as possible on a very complicated topic. I agree with everything that fell from my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Salter) in an exceedingly able and eloquent speech. Whatever one may feel about his case, or about the arguments he advanced, no one can challenge the superb ability with which he presented that case to the House. I agree with him in all he said as to the desirability of avoiding all political controversy during the War. I can say for myself that I have certainly done my best during the last two or three years to avoid political discussions of every sort or kind, and when I have been dragged into them it has always been against my will. They divide and distract at a time when you want to unite and concentrate, and if it had been possible to avoid controversy I am entirely with him.
If I could see any way, if We could see our way—and here I am speaking the mind of all my colleagues—to settle this question without any controversy or to have a register without controversy, I can assure him that the Government would have neither lot nor part in supporting, and certainly not in introducing any measure which would divide the House of Commons into two sections. I want him to consider exactly what the position is. I want him to pass through the experiences which Ministers have passed through during the first few months when they have attempted to deal with this problem. First of all, there was the experience of the Government of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Asquith). We were confronted with the fact that we had a stale register. It is the War that has put us in this position. It is common ground that by some means or other you must bring that register up to date. The whole point is, what is that register going to be? We attempted, first 488 of all, to deal with it on the basis of merely a Registration Bill. Every effort-was made to eliminate anything in the nature of a franchise proposal. Why? Because we were afraid of provoking controversy. We found it impossible. The moment it was introduced on the floor of the House both parties started condemning our proposal on the ground that you were excluding men who had an absolute right to pronounce upon the kind of settlement you are going to make in England after the War. There are two reasons why you cannot merely have a renewal of the old register. The first is this. The War has forced us to confront questions; the War has compelled us to decide questions practically in a single Parliament after the determination of the War which in the ordinary course might have taken a generation to settle. There is no doubt that the Parliament that is elected after peace is the Parliament which will have-to settle questions which will practically determine the course of things, not merely in Great Britain and in the British Empire, but very largely throughout the world for generations to come. We are a country where questions of this kind take a long, long time to settle. We settle them very gradually, and under ordinary conditions practically every man before they are settled would have a voice, because they would get on the register. That is so far as the men are concerned. That is not the case now. These questions will be settled practically in one Parliament, so far as their outlines are concerned—there will be Amendments, there will be alterations, there will be modifications, but the general outline of the course that events will take will be settled practically in the course of one Parliament. Therefore, there is a special reason for having a different kind of register when you are going to elect a Parliament which is going to settle the destiny of your country for some time to come.
My right hon. Friend (Mr. Asquith) referred to reconstruction. That is a word which has become a commonplace now of political parties, if there were political parties. It is accepted that you must get something in the nature of reconstruction. What does reconstruction mean? One has only got to think of the sort of problems with which we shall be confronted—the problems we shall have to discuss, decide, and settle after the War. The trade of this country, the industries of this country, the relations of capital and labour in this 489 country, the relations—and this is very important in reference to one of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference—of one class of labour to another class of labour, questions of the conditions of life in this country, the health of the people, the housing of the people, the education of the people, the relations of this country to the whole Empire, and the relations of the Empire to the rest of the world. These are gigantic problems which will have to be settled by the Parliament which is elected on this register. You cannot have the old register. Why? Because by taking the old register you would be excluding the men that had made the new Britain possible.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
The men and the women that had made the new Britain possible. I will just show my hon. and learned Friend how impossible it would be to have merely a Registration Bill which would exclude problems of franchise. He saw it himself. Take two men. One of them has gone to the War, he has risked his life, and if he comes back with the loss of a limb he may count himself fortunate. He may have no vote under the old register when he comes back; he would not. Perhaps he is a young fellow who was too young to acquire a qualification before he went. [An HON. MEMBER: "No !"] He might be a young fellow who was too young to acquire a qualification before he started out. There are hundreds of thousands of them, and in all classes. They are not merely privates, but officers. What would happen to them? The England they have fought for, the Wales, the Scotland, the Ireland, the Empire they have fought for, when we come to settle the conditions under which they and their children are to live—the country for which they had fought would say, "We do not want your opinion; we are not asking for your voice." How could you say that? Take another class of man—the medically unfit. He is at home. He would have a qualification. I forget what position the conscientious objector would be in. I am not sure whether he would acquire a vote. Take the men you have got in every country—the men who successfully somehow or other manage to shirk—they would have votes. In this House of Commons let any hon. Member move an Amendment to say that the soldier, at any rate, shall be treated on the same level as the shirker; 490 that the men who are driving back our foes now, mile after mile, at any rate, shall be on a basis of equality with the shirker. That is all! How many men in this House would vote against that Amendment? Not many. [HON. MEMBERS: "None!"] No, I do not think so; I do not believe there would be one. The moment you do that you are in a Franchise Bill at once. I want to let my hon. Friends pass in the course of half an hour through the processes we passed through in six or seven months.
This is why we were driven—absolutely driven, perforce, by circumstances which were irresistible—to appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, to preside over a Conference in order to arrive at some measure of agreement between all parties. I understand there is perfect agreement that you must give the soldier a vote and a voice in the settlement of the new conditions. There was a suggestion that you might say that a soldier who was beginning to acquire a qualification before he left England shall be deemed to have completed it. That was attempted by us as members of the late Government, and it absolutely broke down. Why? Because the men who were too young then and could not have started to acquire a qualification, either as lodgers or as householders, would have been left out. Not merely that, but the machinery would have been absolutely impossible. A man may have started as a lodger in Newcastle and he may come back and become a householder in Birmingham. It would have been an impossible piece of work from the machinery point of view. The result is—and there is no doubt that here I can command common agreement—that the man who has fought must have the right to determine how the fruits of his peril are going to be dealt with.
I come now to the next point. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the sailors and the mine-sweepers. Their perils are great and incalculable. Of course, they have the same claim as even our gallant soldiers, whether they are sailors of the mercantile marine or sailors in the Navy; but that is not the end of it. Come to our miners and our munition workers. What is the position there? They are not in the mines, instead of being in the trenches, of their own choice—a very considerable number of them. What happened? When you had voluntary recruiting in this country, because the mines had been depleted and because the great engineering works had been depleted, we had practi- 491 cally to warn the recruiting officers on these places, and we had to make an appeal to them not to recruit, otherwise hundreds of thousands of them would have gone to the front. As a matter of fact, hundreds of thousands were going. It was becoming a serious matter. The first thing I had to do, as Minister of Munitions, was to appeal to Lord Kitchener to use all his power to get back men who had already gone. Otherwise, our engineering works would have been crippled. How unfair to say to them, "If you had only volunteered, if you had only fought I It is true you are rendering greater services where you are, and that you remained where you are at the request of your country because you are serving your country better there, but we cannot recognise that. Therefore, we refuse you the vote." That is absolutely indefensible. The moment you bring in your Bill to enfranchise soldiers and sailors with complete unanimity, if any one moves an Amendment—and an Amendment would be moved—enfranchising the people who had been asked to stay at home to do their work, I venture to say that it would be carried, if not unanimously, by an overwhelming majority.
Where are we now? That is in itself a measure which in every particular carries out the proposals of Mr. Speaker's Conference as far as men are concerned. There are two or three other very controversial questions which would arise in any Bill you introduce in this House, whoever introduced it. You could not avoid it. It is common ground that you could not settle the affairs of this country without consulting the people who fought for it. That means the Franchise Bill. You cannot bring a Franchise Bill in without raising all these other questions. The Government might not raise them, but somebody would raise them. My hon. and learned Friend's hypothesis is that you must not have any controversy. With all respect to him, it depends on 670 Members of this House. He might say, "Why do you not leave plural voting alone, or university representation, or women's suffrage?" but I think the majority of Members of this House would take a different view, and they are surely entitled to put forward their demand, and the moment they do that there is controversy. Is it not far better that we should try to settle that controversy by means of a reasonable agreement between the 492 parties so as to get substantial agreement? If you could avoid controversy, for heaven's sake do, because the task we have in hand is a terrible one, and we do not want to be taken away from it. The hon. and learned Member's Bill would provoke more controversy, the only difference being that he would have the majority of the House against him, and in the case of this proposal there will be, I think, probably a minority of the House against it. That is the only difference. The question for the Government is whether they are going to quarrel with the majority or the minority. Can anyone doubt the wisdom of our choice? It is inevitable when you come to settle this imperative question that you should have a certain measure, I am sorry to say, of controversy. What we want is to limit it as much as we possibly can.
I come now to two of Mr. Speaker's Conference recommendations on which I should like to say a special word. Here I also speak the mind of the Government. I do not put the proposals about proportional representation in quite the same category as the others. I express no personal opinion upon it. I have not got any. I never made up my mind, and I really have no time to make up my mind upon it. Unless I am really forced to do so, I do not propose even to study it during the War. It is an entirely novel suggestion; it is not an essential part of the scheme. I think that the feeling of the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference—if I am wrong here I shall be corrected—is that they would not imperil the rest of their plan by pressing this. I cannot imagine their doing so. The common sense they have shown generally in their conclusions proves to me that they are sensible enough not to press this at the expense of the whole of their scheme, and I earnestly trust that it will not be regarded as an integral part of the proposals, because if it is it will undoubtedly make it much more difficult for the Government to find the necessary time to carry this into effect.
I come to the other proposal—that with regard to women's franchise. Here, differing from my right hon. Friend (Mr. Asquith), I have always been a supporter of women's franchise, but what he said about the effect of the War is absolutely true. There is no doubt that the War has had an enormous effect upon public opinion so far as this question is concerned. I can see that in the effect of some of 493 my colleagues who are not above being influenced by public opinion. And rightly so. The facts have altered public opinion completely, and between facts and public opinion their views have been altered. Women's work in the War has been a vital contribution to our success. It would have been impossible to produce that overwhelming mass of ammunition which we had at the Somme had it not been for the work of these women, and they have shown a devotion and zeal, and may I say a courage, which are beyond challenge. In many cases I remember perfectly well that when I was Minister of Munitions we had very dangerous work. It involved a special alteration in one element of our shells. We had to effect an alteration. If we had manufactured the whole thing anew it would have involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, at a time when we could not afford it. But the adaptation of the old element to the fuse is a very dangerous operation, and there were several fatal accidents. It was all amongst the women workers in the munition factories. There was never a panic. They stuck to their work. They knew the peril. They never ran away from it. I remember that when the first Zeppelin raids were made, when bombs were dropped outside important munition factories—I do not want to say too much about the men: we had some diflieulty for two or three days afterwards with some of them in getting them to work at night in the munition factories, but we had never any difficulty with regard to the women. Why? They were rather pleased for the simple reason, they said, that "this is our only chance of participating in the dangers which our brothers run in France," and they were proud of it, and boasted of it, and they helped to save the situation at a very critical moment.
When we come to settle the conditions of labour with hundreds of thousands, running now into millions, of women in work in which they were never engaged before, when we come to recast the whole of our industrial system, are we going to fling them out without giving them a voice in determining the conditions? All I can say is it is an outrage, it is ungrateful, unjust, inequitable. I do not believe that the people of this country will do it. That is why the women's question has become very largely a war question. It was often said before the War that the moment you came to war women could contribut[...] 494 nothing, that they would pass out of the way and then men would come forward. That has not been the case. With regard to this, the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference are not quite in the same category as the other recommendations. For instance, they are not unanimous. In the second place, in one important respect they are indeterminate. That is the question of age. Here the Government proposed to leave this question, in so far as they have any authority or voice in the matter, to be determined by the House of Commons. I have not the faintest doubt what the vote of the House of Commons will be.
I now come to another part of my hon. and learned Friend's case. He said that if there was any controversy at all he would postpone even votes for soldiers until after peace. Has he really thought that out? Let him consider what it means. It means that you are to bring in no register for the election of Parliament that will settle these gigantic problems until after the peace. Does he think there will not be crying questions, questions you cannot put off for a moment, questions with regard to demobilisation, perhaps finance, perhaps unemployment. Questions will crowd upon us immediately after the peace. You will not have time, but suppose you had, suppose you had nothing to do but pass a Franchise Bill after the peace, you would have to keep this Parliament, or a Parliament elected somehow on a still older and more stale register, alive. What should we be doing in the meantime? My hon. and learned Friend said we should be free then to fight. We can fight all these questions, not in an atmosphere of War, but in the freer atmosphere of peace, a more encouraging atmosphere for political controversy. All the regrets, and all the controversies of the past, which have been kept under with great difficulty during the three years of war, will then have full and free play. What a prospect! My hon. Friend may call that peace.
And what must we settle before we begin the election of a new Parliament? We must settle plural voting, adult suffrage, and women's suffrage; but that is not all, for we must settle the roconstitution of the House of Lords, and all this while England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are panting for something better, thinking about their trade, thinking about their commerce, and thinking about the Empire and the condition of its people. It would be a waste of time to open 495 barren and wretched controversies about such a question as this. What a prospect! But that is not what my hon. and learned Friend says: he asks what will the soldier think of the politician, and we say to him, "We cannot give you the vote that you want, or if we can we will do all that after peace. Meanwhile all the problems that you are thinking of about your home and the conditions of your life for the future, we will put them all off whilst we are wrangling." I cannot imagine a greater disaster to this country than that. There has been a new temper created in this country. There will be a new temper created by the peace, a new determination, a new spirit, not the spirit of party-wrangling and conflict, but the unity which you have had during the War will be transposed to, will be infused into the efforts of peace. Is all that spirit to be thrown away? Is all that temper to be destroyed, merely in order to wrangle about these questions that my hon. and learned Friend is so full of? It would be a disaster to this country.
I know the suspicions that are in the minds of my hon. Friends. They have been in the minds of everybody who has ever considered the Franchise or a Redistribution Bill since the first dawn of popular election, thinking what will be the effect of this thing—I do not say my hon. and learned Friend does that—but there are always men who say, if you support this, or if you do not accept that, see what the effect will be on such-and-such occasion; we have always got calculations, but they have never been verified by the events. One of the greatest of party leaders and one of the greatest statesmen of this country (Mr. Disraeli) saw that in 1867, and he told his party that; and there is no doubt at all that the fact that he did so was one of the greatest assets of his party whenever they came to fight in the boroughs. As our party could say to the agricultural labourer, "We gave you the vote," so Mr. Disraeli and his followers could say to the town artisans the same thing. He saw it with wisdom and foresight. After the Reform Bill of 1832, a very short time afterwards, the very people who introduced it were thrown out by a great majority, and this at a time when they thought they were going to be in for a whole lifetime, while those who opposed them thought they would be excluded for a generation. In 496 1884 we introduced a Franchise Bill, and in 1886 we were out for practically twenty years. I am glad that Mr. Speaker has given us the opportunity of considering this outside the atmosphere of party. It is an opportunity such as we have never had, and it is an opportunity such as we may never get again, and I do hope that all these calculations will be put on one side. Unless I am mistaken in the temper of the people of this country, they do not mean that the tremendous question of the reconstruction of this country and of this Empire shall be entrusted to the control of any party machine. They mean-to take it into their own hands, and I am so glad that Mr. Speaker has, with unrivalled skill and wide experience, been able to get men of all parties and of all political faiths in this House to agree to recommend to us a basis for an electorate, millions of whom have faced sacrifices for their country, and the rest of whom were prepared to do it, and have contributed to the results which we have achieved; and I earnestly press that the House of Commons will show the same spirit not merely of consideration, but, may I say respectfully, of good sense, and carry through all these recommendations substantially in the form they were made, and without any of the bitterness of political controversy.
§ Mr. ARNOLD WARD
I wish to say a few words on the Amendment and to confine my observations to the question of votes for women, without prejudice to the rest of the scheme of electoral reform. I listened to the speech of the late Prime Minister (Mr. Asquith), and, speaking as a very great admirer of him and as an earnest supporter of his Government during the War, I believe that there will be many who will agree with me in thinking that, as we listened to him this afternoon, we witnessed a great lapse on the part of one of great intellectual qualities. The late Prime Minister seemed to be under the impression, as there are many under the impression, that the opposition to women's suffrage has ceased and has been practically withdrawn. I submit that is not the case, and if we are given fair play and a fair opportunity we shall yet show, both to the House and to the country, that the case against women's suffrage, so far from having been weakened by the events of the War, has been immeasurably strengthened. We cannot do it now. The opponents of women's suffrage, both men 497 and women, unlike the suffragists, who place their question first and foremost, having no other object in politics, have been absorbed in work connected with the War, and their organised opposition, both in this House and in the country, has been allowed to become disintegrated, while the work of education on the subject and of propaganda in the country has been very generally neglected, and rightly neglected, I venture to say, because the opponents of this change have put their hands to far more pressing national work.
Of course, for the time we have allowed our case for the moment not to be kept before the country, but to draw the conclusion, from that circumstance, that the opposition to women suffrage has disappeared and that there is no one left but a few bigoted opponents, is to draw an inference not worthy of consideration. On the contrary, at the proper time we shall show that we have drawn from the lessons of the War an entirely new series of overwhelming facts and illustrations of the principles on which our case was founded before the War, and we hold that the War supplies a world-wide demonstration of the truths on which these principles are founded. I ask the attention of the House for a few minutes to the arguments brought forward by the late Prime Minister this afternoon. He told us that there were two new facts which had caused him to change his mind, and the first was the work done by the women during the War—that, short of bearing arms in the field, women have been able to do practically every kind of work which men did before the War. I think that statement of the right hon. Gentleman was somewhat of an exaggeration. But, even if it were accepted as substantially correct, why did the right hon. Gentleman not deal with that all-important exception, namely, the fact that the women of this country have not fought, and have not asked to fight. Why did he not deal with the fact that in all the operations connected with the War the work of men has been decisive and the work of women has been auxiliary? Has the Prime Minister and the late Prime Minister asked himself the question and answered it, whether the work of women during the War, admirable as it has been, is really comparable to that done by the men? Our answer to the argument which the right hon. Gentleman adduced is that women's work has been shown in the clearest light to be auxiliary to that 498 of men, and that has been brought clearly to light by the War. The position of women in politics ought to continue to be an auxiliary one, doing indirectly more useful and valuable work, such as they did before the War, and that the men, who decided the issue during the War, should continue to be the masters in time of peace.
I turn to the second argument which the late Prime Minister brought forward, and which has undoubtedly influenced many minds, and that is that at the end of the War the interests of women in the industrial sphere, and particularly of those who have recently joined up in industrial occupations, will require special protection which can only be given by the Parliamentary vote. I wish to say with regard to that, we always maintained in opposition to women's suffrage that in the past the interests of women have on the whole been fairly justly looked after by a Parliament of men elected by men. I do not. think that that is seriously disputed by any historian of the nineteenth century. It is not disputed that in all industrial legislation the interests of women were most carefully protected, often in the very teeth of opposition from the advocate of the so-called emancipation of women. It is not seriously disputed that, to quote the words of Lord Loreburn, the law in England and the administration of the law is more merciful to women than to men. Why, having had that experience of the history of the nineteenth century of the fairness with which this Parliament elected by men has treated women's interests, should it be assumed beforehand that in the great settlement and in the reconstruction, Parliament at the present time will treat women's interests unfairly? I venture to think that the danger lies in the opposite direction, and that you have to consider the interests of those millions of men who are now serving overseas and who will, or the majority of whom will, probably still be oversea at the time of the next election. Have not their interests got to be protected, and is it wise to place upon the register a mass of necessarily inexperienced voters liable to be swayed by the arguments of hysterical agitators and consequently liable to use the vote to the detriment of the interests of our soldiers and sailors?
I pass to the third point which the right hon. Gentleman raised in his speech, and that was as to the propriety of including women's suffrage at this time and in this 499 scheme of electoral reform. The late Prime Minister said, and rightly, that this must be a matter of give-and-take, and that if there was going to be resolute and certain Parliamentary opposition it would make it extremely difficult and very invidious in this stage of the War to attempt to force a hotly contested measure through the House of Commons. That qualification, I think, applies to all the other parts of the Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference. You can have give-and-take upon registration, upon plural voting, upon redistribution. No one's political principles prevent him from negotiation upon all those points of electoral reform. But there cannot be any give-and-take on the subject of women's suffrage, and you cannot expect the opponents to offer to its inclusion in any scheme anything other than the most uncompromising opposition. I say it is very unfair indeed in this time of war, with many of us preoccupied with military duties, to force us into the position of having to come up here to indulge in a bitter, and what may be a very prolonged fight. For that reason, even more than any other at the moment, I ask the Government if they intend to proceed? We had very little light thrown this afternoon in the speech of the Prime Minister on the precise form the Government intend to adopt, and at all events I feel justified in asking the Government, if they do proceed with the Bill founded on those recommendations which were unanimous, to omit this majority resolution, which is bound to lead to the most bitter conflict both in and outside this House.
The last point to which I desire to refer is one which cannot have been absent from the thoughts of many hon. Members, and that is, the constitutional aspect of the question. Whatever may be thought about the arguments, the reasons, the new facts for or against women's suffrage, how can it be constitutionally right to pass such a momentous change as that at the close of a very long Parliament, which, under conditions of peace, at a time when all parties had fair play and plenty of opportunity of developing their views in the country, had twice rejected this very proposal. It can only be because the supporters of women's suffrage think they have a better chance of smuggling it through in this unfair way than they would have if it were placed properly before the electors of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister himself told us that it 500 would be an outrage not to include women, and ungrateful. But I notice that, speaking less than two years ago he spoke in a very different spirit. He said then:I cannot conceive of a revolution of this character being introduced into our Constitution without the opinion of the country being asked upon it definitely.And again he said:It can hardly be said that, the 400 Members of Parliament who voted for women's salirage have really consulted their constituents about it.That was in Glasgow on 11th November, 1907. While we bitterly resent the subject being brought up at this time and in this way, there are none of us who wish to shirk after the War a fair fight on the subject of woman suffrage. We do say that it ought to be presented to Parliament and the country in one of two ways only, namely, either by a Government united upon woman suffrage and prepared to stake its existence upon the success of woman suffrage, or else by means of a direct poll of the electors themselves. I have no authority to speak in this matter for anti-suffragists as a whole, but I know that I speak for the individual, and with the concurrence of a great majority of them and for many of the most eminent among them when I say that they would be heartily ready to submit the case of woman suffrage to a Referendum or poll of the people, and are willing to abide by the result of a vote of the electors, and willing to have that vote of the electors preceded by a consultative vote of the women themselves, so that the voters when they go to decide whether they shall take these new partners into the sovereignty of the United Kingdom may be guided by really knowing once and for all whether the majority of women desire the vote or not. That seems to us to be a fair solution of the question. If we are beaten we shall do our best to co-operate and make woman suffrage a success. If this proposal is to be forced on the House in this way, we will oppose it and fight it with every means in our power.
§ Mr. POLLOCK
The House has listened to a number of powerful speeches. I think one of the speeches which deserves that description in particular is the speech that was made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Basingstoke Division of Hampshire (Mr. Salter) who proposed the Amendment which is now before us. He spoke with all that precision and weight to which I am able to testify, and also with that force and effect 501 which I, for one, know to be all too powerful. But as I intend to vote for the Motion and not in support of the Amendment. I desire to say on what grounds I feel that it is quite impossible to support the Amendment. Up to a certain point, both his speech and the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) travelled on much the same ground. My hon. and learned Friend was very careful to emphasise the fact that in his view the necessity for granting the franchise to soldiers and to sailors was a question of pressing importance, that it was urgent, and one which it was essential should be tackled without delay. He also felt the great difficulty of dealing with that subject, and he also felt that some largo questions would arise as to whether or not certain classes ought to be placed among the number of what we call soldiers and sailors, a number of munition workers, and a number of others who have assisted, and who are undoubtedly entitled to the same privileges and the same rights for which he pressed so urgently for what we call soldiers and sailors. After all, it is a question of what your limitation will be. We all believe "he also serves who only stands and waits." That is the problem which the hon. and learned ember pressed upon the attention of the House.
Am I right or am I wrong in saying that during the course of the last twelve months we tried to settle that question on two occasions, if not on three, and was not that the very difficulty which led to the Conference over which you, Sir, presided, being appointed. Was at not because of the impossibility of finding any sort of solution of that difficulty? But now, says my hon. and learned Friend, you must not deal with the subject which has been surveyed by the Conference in isolation, and if you are going to deal with this question at all, you must throw in the question of the whole of the Constitution and the question of the House of Lords, and I think one or two others of the old controversies which have divided us. But my hon. and learned Friend desires to deal with this difficult problem of votes for soldiers and sailors in isolation, and he urges us to go so far for the soldiers and sailors, and says you must not go further. But he says, if we do go in for a comprehensive scheme, then we must add to it a great deal more. He really shares with us the view that it is 502 quite impossible to stand at any one particular point, and that if you wish to withdraw one of the keystones of your bridge you must be prepared to rebuild the bridge entirely. When he was dealing with that question he foresaw a great danger of discord arising. The very reason why we are asked to pass this Motion, is because the Conference both records and demonstrates the possibility of unanimity, and, for my part, as I hope this Motion will be carried by a very large and substantial majority, I think the discord that my hon. and learned Friend foresaw may be reduced to very small limits, and, after the Debate has taken place in this House, I hope it may pass away altogether.
At the present time we are endeavouring, in regard to all the old controversies that have divided us, to try and seek some way out of them; and instead of, after the War, coining back to the old difficulties of Ireland and of party controversy we have endeavoured, by means of a committee, or a commission, or an atmosphere of unanimity, to try and raise them out of the rut of party politics. Is this difficult subject alone to be one which is to be left until the War is over and until party controversies arise again? I think that would be most unfortunate, and I ask all those who are tempted to vote for the Amendment, to consider where they are leading the House by such a course? This question is one which has always evoked controversies. There is no subject which has evoked so much controversy for two generations as the questions which you, Sir, were asked to deal with, namely, the questions of the reform of the franchise and a basis for the redistribution of seats, the reform of the system of registration of electors, the method of elections, and the manner in which the cost of elections should be borne. My hon. and learned Friend seems to think, supposing the War was over, we should be able at once to concentrate our attention and devote our energies to working out, I will not say with unanimity, but certainly without bitterness, some of these problems. If he will look back to the history of the last sixty or seventy years, he will find he is expecting the impossible, and that during that period no controversies have been so bitter or so keen as those which deal with the four subjects which were debated by your Conference, Mr. Speaker.
My hon. and learned Friend allowed himself one or two purple passages. 503 There was the purple passage as to what the soldier thinks of us now, and what he will think of us if we devote our energies to some useful purpose, such as passing an electoral reform Bill. He said the soldier would look back and see the horrid spectacle of Members of this House talking about woman's suffrage, the franchise, and so on. I think the soldier may find that we are devoting our energies to a more useful piece of legislation than he sometimes finds us occupied with at the present time. A little time ago I had the opportunity of reading a letter from a soldier who wrote from Mesopotamia, and BO far from his being satisfied with What was going on in this House and looking at the way in which we are peacefully fulfilling our duties and supporting him, his observation was a remarkable one. He said, "As for Westminster, if only Robertson would march a battalion or two and shut the whole place up, he would have done a real service to the War and to the nation." That is a not infrequent, if impatient, observation which is expressed by persons engaged in the War. I believe, for my own part, that if we could explain to those who are fighting for us that while they are fighting we are engaged in giving them something which will be useful to them when they return home, and that we are providing them with the means of recording their votes after the War, we should earn their gratitude and not their obloquy.
This is a question which, as I say, has always been of a most highly controversial nature. The Franchise Bill of 1867 was preceded by one in 1854, one in 1859, one in 1866, and then ultimately came the one which was passed in 1867. I observe that one of the Amendments to-night says that it is essential that Ireland should be introduced into any measure. Why should it be? If we go back to precedent, in 1867 Ireland was specially excluded, and so was Scotland, The franchise at that time for Scotland and for Ireland was dealt with by separate Bills passed in the subsequent Session of the year 1868.
§ Mr. POLLOCK
If you please; and let me remind the hon. Member that if you pass a Franchise Bill, in accordance with the doctrine of our Constitution it is the 504 immediate duty then to have a Dissolution, because there is no foundation for sitting on and continuing a Parliament which has been elected by persona who, after a new Franchise Bill has been passed, are not the only persons who ought to be represented in the House. Therefore you come to this vista: If you reject this Motion to-night and say you will not deal with the matter until after the War, what is it that you are doing? You are putting back the clock by saying you will only take up this subject as and when peace has been declared, and that you will then enter into what have proved to be some of the most bitter controversies that have ever engaged political energies. Then, as soon as you have passed your Bill, you will have to have another Dissolution in order that a Parliament may be elected in accordance with the new franchise and redistribution of seats, and during that time you will have to leave alone the many questions which I believe the people at large urgently desire to see settled. That the old problems which we had before the War ought to be settled is the view of the people at the present day. So far as I can judge their attitude, I think they have gone far beyond this House and that they regard the sort of questions that we deal with here with a certain amount of lassitude and want of interest. They have made up their minds what they do mean, and I think they are determined to have it.
I believe that as soon as the War is over we ought to be equipped to deal with Imperial problems. We want immediately to deal with Imperial questions, with the maintenance of the alliance between our present Allies, with the severance from Germany as far as we possibly can, and with the prevention of all German taint and the possibility of German penetration in the future. That is what the people mean to have, and if you are going to tell them you cannot deal with these questions until you have settled the franchise, and then got a new Parliament, the impatience will be extreme, and so far from us having a peaceful opportunity of adjusting these delicate matters, I believe the people will turn from us in disgust. These questions of Imperial preference, and all Imperial problems, are urgent and momentous, and we ought to be ready, by a new Parliament elected on a wide basis-—and we all agree it must be widened—to deal with these questions. I have carried the matter as far back as 1867. Does anybody think 505 at the present time that you are going to carry a Bill in this House brought in by one side or the other without the assent and without the unanimity of the other? Does anybody in this House, who has studied the question, believe that you are going to deal with this from one side only, and carry your Bill by gag and guillotine? Is that what is suggested? Not at all! Ultimately you will have to follow the method adopted in 1884. The most violent controversy had then been aroused. I was a young man, but I well remember the controversy, and there are those in this House who remember it accurately and are able to advise us upon it. I have refreshed my memory to some extent, and I think it was the present Foreign Secretary who was the instrument or messenger who ultimately acted and brought all parties together to avoid what was then going on. So far from the matter being then peacefully adjusted and carefully considered by a House of Commons in repose, matters were then discussed, not in this House, but there was an appeal by demonstrations in the streets, and, as Lord Salisbury said, "They are attempting legislation by picnic," because of the protests which were made all over the country.
Does anyone expect that any legislation of any sort on these subjects will be carried not by one side or the other? No, Sir ! It can be done by a Conference and by securing a compromise, and only by a compromise; and the Conference that you have presided over, Mr. Speaker, has offered us a compromise which it would be madness, in my opinion, to throw away. That was the history of 1884. In 1905 the Unionist party attempted a system of redistribution, and from the Unionist point of view it must be said that that question is twelve years overdue. How are you going to get redistribution? Are you going to oppose your will on the one side or the other on this question? No, again! That is a matter which must be dealt with only by bringing both sides together. You then ask the question whether one party gain or lose. I believe that is an entirely wrong touchstone to apply to this question. It is a false standard—it is wrong, it is constitutionally wrong. You have got to try and see what system will give the fairest representation, and what redistribution will make most effective the wishes of those voters to whom you have entrusted the franchise. That is the sole consideration, and to those who, like myself, under this scheme would lose their seats I say, 506 "Be it so." At least you would be in this position, that you would have secured a fair mirror of what the thoughts and feelings of the people are. There is another difficult question, so difficult that you may find traces of it throughout more than a generation, but you have dealt with it, Sir, and you have got a large measure of agreement upon it, and that is the question of the method of elections and the manner in which the cost of elections should be borne. You will find six, I think seven, Bills which have been passed dealing with methods of election concentrated in that Bill that we pass every year, the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. You will find we have carried forward some half a dozen measures which have been so controversial in the past that they have only been given one or two years of life; or like the Ballot Act of 1872, which was given eight years' life, because no one party or the other has ever ventured to make it a permanent Bill for fear of once more arousing controversy. I look upon this Expiring Laws Continuance Bill as a sort of Madame Tussaud's legislation—as a place where persons who have aroused controversy in their lifetime, and are famous of infamous, can be found. We have got to remember that neither side have been able to tackle questions like these because they can be tackled and dealt with only by general agreement, and by that course only. I desire to call the attention of the House to one more point. It is said that you have got no right in an old Parliament, a Parliament which has outlived its time, to deal with these questions of franchise. My own view is this: I do not hold very strongly as to mandates of Parliament. For my own part I believe I stand here as a representative, but with freedom to exercise my own judgment and discretion, and to pay attention to the trend of feeling, views, and thoughts in my Constituency. It would, however, be idle for me to say—and they would never expect me to say—that because this matter was not mentioned between us in 1910 that it was impossible for me, after the War has brought new features into prominence, to deal with this question according to my discretion and according to the views that I have learned and know that they hold. You can listen and hear an audible expression of feeling in the country, and that expression is this: People desire to see the whole of these controversies moved out 507 of the way; they desire to see the country equipped in as strong a way as possible to deal with vital questions of recovery after the War; the conservation of the energies of the Empire, and the advancement of our trade.
It is because I feel so strongly on this matter that I am unable to vote for the Amendment. I venture to hope that those who may have done me the honour to listen to what I have said will think more than once before they vote against this Motion. Think of what the past has taught us? What possible hope is there of succeeding by one side or the other unless you have agreement? Let them pause before they cast aside the chance, Sir, which you have given them. The fact that many persons dislike either one limb or another of the Resolutions which have been passed is a matter which counts for nothing. In a proper compromise there ought to be some persons in a body who dislike every portion of the Resolutions that have been reached. A compromise is not a compromise unless there are portions which are distasteful as well as others which are acceptable to those who have been engaged in it. It is because I find a certain number of portions of it which I dislike, and also certain parts with which I can agree, that I recognise that this scheme partakes of the true character of a compromise. May I close my speech by a short passage which has been drawn from the close of a very old religious controversy some fifty years ago, and which was concluded in these words:-And now, if some shall complain that these changes are not enough and that wo should have taken this opportunity of making things as perfect in all respects an ever they might be made, or if others should say that these changes have been unnecessary or excessive, let them on the one side and the other consider man's judgments of perfection are very various, and that what is imperfect with peace is often better than what is otherwise more excellent without it.
§ Mr. MACKINDER
It is not very likely that there will be an opportunity for me to move the Amendment which stands in my name. I should, therefore, like to say a few words on the Amendment now under discussion, which has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. I want to -say these words from a point of view which has not been put forward, I think, in this Debate. Hon. Members no doubt will have noticed the Amendment which stands in my name is set down to six Scottish Unionist Members. I will not say that there is unanimity in the Scottish Unionist party, but there is a very large 508 body of feeling, as expressed, at any rate, by one of the great newspapers, and as expressed in one of the great councils of the Unionist party in Scotland, a very considerable body of opinion, which, so far as we have been able to put it into words, is indicated by the words of my Amendment. That body of opinion is not satisfied with the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend. For this reason: For the moment, and often in the past, the Scottish Unionists are one of those large local minorities to which the ex-Prime Minister referred. It may be because there is a difference of political atmosphere in Scotland, it may be because of the fact I have just stated, but those who are engaged on the Unionist side of politics in Scotland wish to get put forward in any future contests after the War, substantive questions, questions which affect the life of the people; they do not wish to be fighting upon questions of mere political machinery.
We believe that the past century has seen far too great a time in the total of Parliamentary time given to questions of political machinery. We believe that not a little of the trouble which has come upon us in this War is due to that fact. It-has been at the root of a very great deal of the party bitterness which has existed at various times. It will be noticed that we suggest that this is a time not merely for arranging a compromise in the matter of electoral reform, as applied to this House, but also for the arrangement of a more general compromise affecting the whole political machinery. My feeling is that at the end of this War you will have a perfect torrent of great substantive questions affecting the daily life of our people, the relations of the various parts of the Empire, the relations of this country to foreign countries, and so on, and if you dam that torrent by great controversies of the ordinary kind in regard to political machinery you will get this country into a very restive condition and one which will threaten us with trouble such as we have not experienced for the last couple of centuries. That is my cool opinion: that is an opinion which I feel perfectly sure in uttering. I have lately been among those of my Constituents who have not gone to the front. I think it is an entire mistake to imagine that they have lost interest in politics. But they are taking quite a different interest in politics. They will say, "A plague on both your houses" if at the end of this War we have to go 509 before them with questions concerning franchise, redistribution, the House of Lords, ay, and with Home Rule. Somehow or other it seems to me we have got to get an arrangement on these matters. Politicians are interested in these questions. They are not. Many of those immediately surrounding us in our different constituencies, the chairmen and secretaries of the organisations, are interested; but the general mass of the people of this country are not interested in the political machinery; still less will they be interested if they become anxious about the huge questions which affect their lives and those who are dear to them at the end of this War. We shall then be in this position if we have the ordinary bitter controversies on these questions- and they will be long—for you cannot settle three or four of these great questions of machinery without spending two or three Sessions of Parliament upon them. If we devote ourselves to that work, then, indeed, the contempt for the politician which is said to characterise our young men in the trenches will become rooted in this country, and we shall tend to be swept away, and with us, perhaps, some of the old and valued institutions of the country.
It is vital, I feel, that so far from limiting arrangements of compromise amongst ourselves, we should go further. We ought to arrange compromises in regard to the whole political machinery—in regard to the House of Lords, in regard to Home Rule. Then we should have weapons in our hands, and there will be weapons in the hands of the country, of adequate power to enable us to settle these tremendous questions which are coming upon us at the end of the War, as I say, like a torrent. I believe the atmosphere of the present moment is an atmosphere in which we politicians should join in conferences presided over by Mr. Speaker to arrange matters and settle our differences, ay, Sir, and to compromise in regard to the deeply cherished convictions that we may have held in the past. I do not believe that we ought to trouble the country at large with these great controversies, even if they must be raised in this House. My feeling is that we have got to adapt our Constitution to the new time.
Questions of this sort can only be settled by agreement, by sinking differences, by compromise. If need be, let us do the whole thing, and then at the 510 end of this War, if the laboratory work, as I call it, has been done, I feel quite certain of this, that very quickly you will put into force the whole of that well-thought-out scheme arranged among us, because the pressure of all the other questions which will be upon us will be such that we shall willingly agree at that time to carry out what we have thought out previously. That is the broad idea that we have in our mind—the broad idea that, however much we may differ upon this or that detail, we hope and expect that this compromise which has been arranged by Mr. Speaker's Conference will be accepted. We see, however, that there are certain great difficulties connected with it, and for that reason in the Amendment I have put down I have indicated the difficulty of dealing with such questions at the present time in a legislative and effective sense. But there is not the smallest reason why yon should not be dealing with them, and so arrive at compromises such as we have arrived at in this matter. It is because we want to go further, and not because we do not want to go as far as Mr. Speaker's Conference has gone, that we wish to differ from the Amendment which has been moved by the hon. and learned Member for Basingstoke. That Amendment says nothing in regard to the Report of the Speaker's Conference itself. It leaves it open, therefore, to be said up and down the country, as it is being said, and as it will be said, that, for some reason best known to ourselves as a party, we wish to shelve this matter, and have left it to be settled in the future because it is not convenient to settle it now.
My view is: Certain work has been done; let us accept that work. Whether this is the convenient moment for putting it into effect is another question. You will raise certain great questions. Well, my belief is that you settle this question more easily if you settle it with other questions, than if you try to settle it alone, for this reason: We all know by this time the difference between tactical attack and strategical attack. If you attack in a frontal way you meet the whole opposition of your opponents, but if you attempt a flank attack it is often much easier. There is a difficulty in regard to this question because of Ireland. Ireland on any system of equal representation is frankly over-represented. If you can arrange a compromise in regard to Ireland, you will have taken that difficulty by 511 a flank attack. It will have ceased to exist. Then there is the question of the balance of the Constitution. I am strongly of opinion that, far more effective as a safeguard against hasty legislation than any small checks in your electoral system, is an adequate Second Chamber, and if you can have an adequate Second Chamber I will go further than this permits, and will be as democratic as ever you will in regard to this First Chamber, but I do feel that all history shows that a nation can form hurried decisions just as an individual, and that there must be an appeal, if I may venture to put it so, from the nation drunk to the nation sober, that you must have a Second Chamber representative of the people, capable of saying to the First Chamber, "We too, represent the people," but elected in some different way, so that they represent other moods of the people than the mood of the moment. I believe that in equipping ourselves with the machinery that is necessary for the future you have got to face that question.
Now you have the atmosphere of compromise, the atmosphere which is not embittered in these questions, the atmosphere in which a conference could sit down and consider that matter. If you can once get an adequate Second Chamber, and a Chamber adequately placed in our Constitution, then many of these points which some people are inclined to regard as being granted to this party or that in this compromise, cease to have this importance. My belief is that half the difficulties that are seen by some hon. Members and supporters in the -country would disappear if you attack this whole constitutional question boldly during the months in which we can devote? our thoughts to these matters to prepare a compromise which is important to us far more than it is to the masses of the people of this country. It is we politicians, we who know the workings, the checks and the wheels of the Constitution; it is we who follow the checks and balances and all the intricate working of the Constitution. The mass of the people care for the output, for the amelioration of their condition, and for the sane management of their country's affairs in the face of foreign countries. They only say to the politicians, "Manage your own machine, arrange your own machinery, but secure to us efficiency and the various needs of a modern State." That is the view we take in this matter. We believe that you 512 should go further. We believe that this is the very atmosphere in which you can arrange these questions of machinery. We believe that when you have got them carefully thought out, and when we politicians have arranged our differences, then quickly, when you need that machine, you will be able to give effect to it, and the country will be equipped with that which it will then need. But I certainly feel that if we leave the thinking, the balancing, the compromising to be done in the atmosphere that will become embittered after the War, we shall run very great risk in the unparalleled conditions which then prevail of finding this country do sweeping things in order to get forward somehow, in a way we have not thought in the past to be very British.
We all admit that we are coming to a time without parallel. We have had to adopt very powerful, and perhaps arbitrary, rough, crude methods in order to render this country capable of dealing with this great crisis of war. We have to face the fact that the crisis after the War will be equally difficult, and that there will be equally crude methods of equipping us with machinery, unless we do what we did not do before the War, and that is, think out the matter beforehand, and, as a body of politicians, do our expert work as a contribution to what the nation will then need. That is the reason why we have set down this Amendment. That is why I desire to speak on this other Amendment, because what matters now is not so much the particular Amendments that may be carried, but the views that are held among us and exchanged among us, in order that we may seize the opportunity, not in a party spirit, but in a spirit of harmony for the purpose of thinking out what we have got before us. I personally feel that I cannot vote for the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend, and, though I feel that the Resolution moved by the ex-Prime Minister is inadequate, and though I would very much hope that more things might be done than are there indicated, yet, as a choice between the two, I certainly shall vote for the Resolution and not for the Amendment.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Long)
I desire to take a part in this Debate for a short time, not speaking as a member of the Government, although as a member of the Government I desire to say later on that I from the very 513 beginning, when this Conference reported, have felt—and I do not think anybody will dispute the orthodoxy of my original opinions, which belong to my own party—that the recommendations which have resulted from this Conference ought, by a wise House of Commons and a wise and prudent country, to be accepted, if necessary in full, rather than we should run the chance of future trouble and future difficulty by a rejection of them now. There is one difficulty in connection with this Debate which is not altogether strange to our experiences in this House. It is that those who rose to criticise have appeared to me to have made some of the most forceful speeches which have been made in defence of the policy of my right hon. Friend the ex-Prime Minister. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Basingstoke made it perfectly clear that he and his Friends would not tolerate the continuance of the existing register, and he went further. He wanted a register which would not only include all those who have worked for the country on sea or land, whether it be in the fighting field or other forms of national labour, but he desired to provide special facilities for them to record their votes. Does my hon. and learned Friend realise that he is really asking the House to embark upon an even larger programme than that indicated by my right hon. Friend's Motion, and that he has not got the advantage that my right hon. Friend and those who support his Motion have—namely, that behind their recommendations is the mature examination of these questions by a representative Conference, and, in regard to seven of them, unanimous recommendations by men who were so opposed to each other's political views that I have no doubt many people thought when the Conference first sat that they would never arrive at any agreed conclusion?
My right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister has reminded the House of his action as Prime Minister. Serving under him it was my privilege to be also connected in a minor degree with what was done, or attempted to be done, at that time with regard to the vexed question of the register, and while I make no complaint of the action of those who are criticising us to-day, I do venture to say that their action is extremely belated. What are the facts of the case? Speaking as the Minister in charge of the Regis- 514 tration Bill of that time, and not by any means to a thin House, I threw out, on behalf of the Government, a suggestion that a Conference of this kind should be summoned, and when I made that suggestion I made it perfectly clear—my language is in the White Paper which has been circulated with the Report—speaking for the Government, that that Conference was to consider not a branch of this question, not a portion of it, not merely soldiers' and sailors' votes, but the whole system under which the electorate of this country is constituted, the way they are registered, and the whole procedure in connection with elections. There was no question at that time raised; there was no opposition in this House; there was not a single critic who rose to say, "You must not do this." Let me remind the House that there was no haste over our proceedings. We did not rush the thing. After this Debate in the House of Commons, when, as I say, not one single voice was raised in criticism, and nobody got up and said, "You must exclude this or that subject. If you have a Report on that we shall not be prepared to accept it," this House agreed, if ever a House did in my long experience of it, sub silentio, perhaps, but they agreed to our recommendation. I confess, being an old Parliamentary hand, I was rather suspicious of this appearance of general unanimity. I have been concerned on both sides, as we say in connection with what is known as vested interests in this House, and I know how bitter that kind of controversy is, and I know in these electoral matters there are vested interests, small boroughs, particular kinds of franchise, and, above all, the exercise of that highly-trained ingenuity which is devoted to securing a man the vote, or preventing another man getting a vote. I thought to myself, "This consent of the House of Commons is only transitory, and when I wake up to-morrow morning I shall find the newspapers criticising and attacking." The newspapers next day contained no criticism or attack. On the contrary, there was some support, and the curious thing is that, as day followed day, the support given to the suggestion made by me, with the approval and sanction of the Prime Minister, increased in volume. Newspapers had articles, letters were written, and hon. Members came to me and begged me to go on. Hon. Members spoke in this House expressing their hope that action should be taken. Therefore, I 515 say, the criticism to-day is rather belated, because I am not going to suggest that hon. Members allowed us to start that policy, deliberately intending that, if the Conference came to an agreement, they would then raise objections which they were not prepared to raise at the moment. I am not going to suggest anything, because I do not believe it to be true, but I say that their criticism to-day is belated, and in common fairness and from a business point of view, if we are ever to make progress and get anything done by compromise or agreement, criticism of this kind should not be made to-day, because it was not made at a time when it could have really been effective. You might have said, "It is no use; we are so divided, and whatever your recommendations are we cannot support them." But this has not been said, and it is too late to tell us that we are opening up this vista of bitter controversies. But that is not all. The Conference which did me the honour to ask me to take part asked me to say a few words at their first meeting, and I appealed to Mr. Speaker and the members of that Conference, and I tried to make it as clear as my small powers would permit that the issues were great, the problems difficult, complicated, and numerous, and further that their solution was indissolubly bound up with the future strength of the country and the Empire. It was in that spirit that I begged the Conference to approach their labours, and if possible to find an answer to the questions addressed to them. Therefore I say that the action of the Government at that time was deliberate and that it was taken in face of Parliament and the country; that it had general consent and assent, and to-day it would be folly, indeed it would be criminal folly, to turn our backs on the possibility of settlement which the Prime Minister said if we reject now we shall never have at our disposal again.
I know that some of those who have been the most severe critics in connection with this policy in regard to the adoption of this Report say that we cannot deal with these questions in war-time. The Prime Minister has already replied to that criticism, and therefore it would be superfluous for me to say anything further. In regard to what has fallen from the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Mackinder), he is not satisfied with our policy, and he says that it does not go far enough, and he 516 made a suggestion that I most cordially endorse. He said that we did not go far enough, because we are not dealing with the unsolved problem of a second chamber. I gather from his Amendment and his speech that he would rather the Government held their hand and did not proceed because we have not the solution ready for that problem, and that we should hang up this other question until we are ready to deal with the Second Chamber. I do not see much wisdom in a policy of that kind. The Conference has been successful in making recommendations, and it seems a strong argument in favour of the adoption of a similar policy in regard to the Second Chamber, but that is no argument for staying action in regard to a question with reference to which we have found a solution. I have no authority to speak for anybody but myself, but I hope with all my heart that this will prove to be a precedent for the treatment of other questions, and there is nothing that I should like so much as to see a representative Conference, under the presidency of Mr. Speaker, endeavouring to find a solution of this question of a Second Chamber. But because we have not got this solution ready it would be foolish on our part to throw away the heritage we have received as a result of these long, patient, and exhaustive counsels.
We are told that we ought not to deal with this question in war-time, but every speaker, and even those who have criticised these proposals most severely, have realised, as the Prime Minister said, that that is not the choice before the Government and it is outside our powers. The late Prime Minister told the House his experiences, and very unpleasant experiences they were for any Prime Minister; but it is no fault of his, and, if anybody was to be blamed, I was. But the late Prime Minister is always loyal to his colleagues and subordinates, and he stood up in this House and took the blame when I was really to blame, because I was the Minister in charge. It fell to my lot to draw up a Bill. Do my hon. Friends say, as is stated in the Amendment, that there ought to be some interim register or some temporary measure? Do they think that we did not try to find a measure of that kind, or that we did not examine the question in all its bearings? I say that at the Local Government Board there are to-day men with greater knowledge and experience in regard to these questions than you would find anywhere else, and I believe 517 they are men more capable of dealing with them than there has ever been in any public office for a very long time. There is Mr. Jerred, the Assistant-Secretary to the Local Government Board, and I am confident that I may be allowed to include him in what I have said, because I know him to be a distinguished Civil servant, and there is no man who understands these questions so well as he does, and no one so able to find a way out of these difficulties, if there is one to be found. When speaking to the Conference, I pointed out that the Bill which was introduced was universally condemned, and it is all very well now for my hon. Friends in this House, in conversation, to say that we had better have your Bill, and their support for my Bill is as belated as their criticism, although their support would have; been valuable at the time. But where were they? Some of them told me they did not succeed in catching Mr. Speaker's eye; but I did not observe any great desire on the part of any of them to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and those who did succeed, and I expect they were a fair sample of the bulk, adopted language very different to that which they are adopting now.
It is the same with regard to women's suffrage. Like the late Prime Minister, I have been a lifelong opponent of that question, but I am sure many of those who opposed it, and many who supported it, would have been glad to have got a solution, but once you throw those opportunities away they do not come back to you. I confess I listened with amazement to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Salter) when ho told us that in his belief the soldiers who are fighting in the trenches will criticise us because we take a partial step in the enfranchisement of women. There may be critics in the Debates which will follow on this question, but they will not be critics of those who are giving some recognition to the women who have meant so much to our soldiers in the trenches, and who have suffered so much with our soldiers. I am convinced that, whatever the general opinion may be about this question, if you ask the soldiers to say whether women should have a voice in the government of the country, there would only be one side to the cortroversy, and a soldier would not criticise the Government because it takes advantage of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference to make this change in our Con- 518 stitution. I for one do not want to discuss these particular proposals, and it is not necessary for me to do so. They were discussed by the present Prime Minister and by the late Prime Minister, who are more competent for a task of this kind than I am. But I want to say one thing more about the women question. I have been all my life a consistent opponent of the extension of the franchise to women. It is not the first time I have spoken in this House, and I imagine I am pretty well known. Therefore, I need not tell my right hon. Friends and my hon. Friends that I am not very rich in finding arguments and making attractive speeches on different questions.
I frankly confess that I came down to the House absolutely beggared in my supply of material for criticising and attacking the extension of the franchise to women, and I am almost driven back to the single argument—man is man, and woman is woman. I firmly believed that women were physically prevented from performing most of those tasks which are closely connected with government, and therefore you could not fairly ask them to govern, because they could not take their share in maintaining and enforcing the government of the country. No man can say that now who follows what women have done. I frankly confess that I still believe that it would be better that the franchise should not be extended to women, and I believe it for reasons that I have already given to the House; but whatever my views may be, and even if I still held the opinions I held in the old days as to women's franchise, I would vote for the recommendations of this Conference wholly from beginning to end, much though I dislike some of them, rather than raise my voice to-day against the granting of recognition to the women who have not only, as the Prime Minister said, suffered and died for their country in many of the fields of war, but, let there be no mistake, without whose heroism, self-denial, skill and physical strength and endurance, this country could never have successfully faced the crisis through which we are passing. If all my views were unchanged, and I were still unconvinced in face of all that has happened, I would still give my vote for these proposals as they are, rather than run any risk of losing what is to me a golden opportunity.
May I say a word about another aspect of this case? I was rather sorry to hear 519 my hon. and learned Friend indicate that those who support the Motion of my right hon. Friend are the politicians coming once again on to the scene, and, as it were, obliterating the soldiers. I do not believe you will find anywhere in the country, and certainly not in this House, men who are prepared to introduce politics into our discussions at this moment if they can help it. Surely my hon. and learned Friend must know that this House has given proof enough, individually and collectively, of its willingness to sacrifice in order that the State may live to make it perfectly clear that nothing would induce them to bring in controversial subjects if they could keep them out! In the first place, as has been said already several times this evening, you cannot keep them out. They are there. You have got to have a register, and, whether you like it or not, you must put on to that register a vast number of people whom you cannot get on unless you introduce a new qualification, and the moment, you introduce a new qualification you open the door to every kind of proposal. Remember what that means. It means exactly what the late Prime Minister indicated in a speech which I thought my hon. and learned Friend quoted most inadequately. My right hon. Friend was talking of the time before the Conference, when you had not got any agreed Resolutions. Discuss your questions of women suffrage, discuss your questions of a new franchise, discuss your questions of the present franchise, have nothing behind you in the shape of agreed Resolutions, and what would be the Bill that would ultimately emerge from this House? It would take weeks to decide, and when it emerged do you think that it would be a more moderate proposal than that found in Mr. Speaker's recommendations? No, I am sure that anybody who thinks that makes the greatest mistake in the world.
I speak here as an old Conservative, and I think most of my Unionist friends will admit that during my life I have been a fighting politician. I am going to fight for a good cause to-day. I have been told by some of my hon. Friends that I am betraying a cause to which I have been devoted all my life by the course I am taking to-day. I understand some of them to say, "We would rather see you fight a series of rearguard actions for twenty years than give in now. I am not a soldier, and I do not know much about 520 military tactics, but I have always understood that rearguard actions are only fought for two reasons: One to cover an Army retiring in face of superior forces, and the other to cover a retirement which is to enable your Army to take up a better position from which it will be able to fight with better efficiency. I leave it to my hon. Friends who want to fight these rearguard actions to decide whether they are retiring in face of superior forces, but, as one of the oldest of their members, I am sorry to say, counting years of Parliamentary service, I venture to say to them that if they fight a rearguard action to-day, or during the time that these proposals are before the House, in order to take up a better position they will find that they have miscalculated, that their position will be one in which they will be not only exposed to frontal attacks but also to flanking attacks, and that their last condition will be infinitely worse than their present condition. Therefore, speaking frankly as an honest and, I believe, sincere Conservative, I say that if I looked on this, as I have never done, purely as a party man I should say, "I have an opportunity to-day which is never likely to recur." It may be said that if it is a good thing for us it is a bad thing for those who are opposed to the Unionist party, but those with whom I have been associated are surrendering things to which some of them attach great importance.
What are the reasons why I beg this House to make up its mind to abandon this meticulous criticism and vigorous fighting and to join together to effect a settlement? As we get something and give up something, so every party who joins in this compromise is getting something and giving up something. It is to my mind a real compromise. As a rule, the compromise we expect is one where we get what is called the best end of the stick. That is the kind of compromise which most people like, but I believe in this case it is a fair compromise. It gives to and takes from all, and I hope that it will be accepted in that spirit by the House of Commons, as I am satisfied that it will be by the country. I think my hon. and learned Friend is wrong when he says that the country will criticise us for dealing with this question. The country is fully alive to the prospect that lies before us. The country sometimes is inclined, I think not quite justly, to blame political parties and Governments for the unprepared con- 521 dition in which we were found when this War began. The country is waking up—I am not sure that it has not already awoke—to the fact that the sword will hardly have been sheathed before we shall be engaged in another and as bitter a conflict in some ways with the country with which we are now at war. In the future we shall have to face them in competition of the most bitter character, and we shall need to be ready. (Do we mean to learn nothing from the experience of this War? If we mean to be ready, are we going to refuse that electoral reform which is an essential precedent to any action? What about our Dominions overseas? What are they doing and what are they asking us to-day? They are looking anxiously to the old land. They know that some part of our Constitution here is old, and as they think, worn out. They are asking us this: "Are you going to put yourself on the same solid foundation on which we rest? Are you going to clear your decks so that the moment this War is over you can face and settle those great Imperial problems," to which the Prime Minister has referred?
We have been, thank God, immune in this War from that desecration of our soil from which other lands have suffered. Do not let us take undue advantage of that great blessing. Storms are raging throughout the world. Great events have happened. If we are wise, we shall retain all the blessings that we have got, and we shall, I believe, get many new ones. But if we are going to face and settle these great problems, Imperial and domestic, it will only be possible if we make this House, so far as it is possible, really representative of the people of this country. Let them feel that they have a grievance, let them feel that you have refused a reform of a moderate character when that reform was possible, and you will have a discontented House of Commons, and, what is worse, a highly discontented people, who will refuse to recognise your right to act in their name or decide these great issues for them. It is for that reason, above all others, that I pray the House not to listen to the advice which has been given to it in the powerful and eloquent speech of my hon. and learned Friend, and that I beg those who are acting with him to think twice and thrice before they commit themselves to this policy of destruction. I implore them to join with the Government in a policy of construction and progress—not of rearguard actions, but of forward actions. 522 We shall have an enemy to meet. Let us meet that enemy in the field, and let us make ourselves better able to meet him by taking this great opportunity to do, as friends together, this great common service for the country, rather than prepare for ourselves a renewal of those bitter controversies over which we have wasted so much time in the past, and which do nothing but breed bad blood and weaken this House and lessen its power for good. It is because I believe it will strengthen the House and the country, and because I believe you will do a great service to the Empire, and therefore to the world, that I implore the House of Commons to put aside controversy and criticism and to pass the Bill, which in due course will be introduced as rapidly as possible.
§ Colonel CHALONER
I regret that for the first time I am not able to follow my fight hon. Friend, and I must go still further, and say that I feel bound in self-defence to protest against his suggestion that our criticism is belated because we did not criticise at the time. We did not know what there was to criticise until the Conference met and had reported. There was no report, and until there was a report there was nothing to criticise. We were quite prepared that the Conference should sit and report, and we were prepared to consider its report, but, speaking for myself, if I had had any idea that so highly and contentious a matter as women's suffrage would be introduced I should have opposed it at the time as well as opposing it now. It was stated by the late Prime Minister, and a good deal of weight has been added to that statement since, that the Report of the Conference would be unanimous. Was it unanimous? I read the Report, and at least three members, and I believe there was a fourth in agreement with them, had to retire, because they objected either to the way in which the Conference was being carried on or to the way in which they were allowed to state their case. I do not know what the reasons were, but the fact remains that three members did retire, and a fourth member, holding a high position, was in agreement with them. I think that discounts to a certain extent the technical statement that the Report was unanimous. According to the Report itself, the recommendation regarding womens suffrage was not carried unanimously. It is stated that it 523 was only carried by a majority, and I should think probably only a bare majority. It mystifies me, therefore, why they should bring in a contentious question like this, and in my opinion it is a most deplorable thing to have done.
Several of those who have addressed the House up to now have been beating the air. The Prime Minister, the hon. and learned Member opposite (Mr. Pollock), and several others attacked a point which we had never put at all seriously, namely, that the thing should be shelved. It was suggested by my hon. and learned Friend that if you could not keep out contentious matters it should be shelved, but he and I and those who agree with us, say that you can keep out the contentious matters. On several occasions Bills have been introduced in this House on the understanding that no Amendment would be accepted, at any rate at certain stages, and if they had confined themselves to non-contentious questions the Government would have been justified in bringing in a Bill and saying that no Amendment would be accepted, and the whole House would have supported them. I do not see why they should not do it. Why should we not have a Franchise Bill? I do not care whether you give the franchise to the sailors, soldiers, and seamen so long as you adhere to the present principle of male suffrage only and do not go beyond it. What is to prevent the Government bringing in a Bill of that character? What is to prevent them bringing in a Bill on non-contentious lines, and, if necessary, forcing it through? If it is understood that the Government will not accept Amendments on contentious questions, who is going to oppose it? I do not think any party would agree to have it go out to the country that they had endeavoured to prevent the Bill becoming law because they wanted to introduce contentious subjects. We want to avoid those subjects. We want to keep them out. This is not the time for introducing them in a House which is self-elected. The House of Commons has extended its life by its own vote, a very questionable proceeding. It has no mandate for these things that are being proposed. There has never been an appeal to the people on these questions. What right, then, have we to carry legislation on questions on which we have never consulted even the existing electorate, to say nothing of the 524 electorate which we would like to see substituted for it? In view of the fact that the War is on, we want to concentrate all our efforts in order to bring it to a successful conclusion. But how can that be done if you are going to have these highly contentious questions thrashed out on the floor of the House in times such as these? I venture to hope that the Government will reconsider their intention, and not include in their proposal any of these highly contentious matters. Let us have-Redistribution by all means; let us have a shorter qualification by all means. I think everybody will be agreed on those points. We shall also all be agreed on-giving the franchise to the sailors and soldiers and others who are doing war work—