HC Deb 08 August 1918 vol 109 cc1697-734
The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

In the first place I wish to say that the three Gentlemen whom I invited to form the Court of Inquiry in regard to the British Cellulose Company have accepted my invitation. They are Lord Sumner, Lord Inchcape, and Lord Colwyn.

I am sure the House will be interested to learn the latest information with regard to the attack which took place this morning. The attack was launched at dawn by the 4th British Army, comprising British, Australian, and Canadian troops, and by the 1st French Army, both of which are under the command of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. The attack was on a front of something like 20 kilometres, from Merlancourt to Montdidier.

We have just been in communication by telephone with headquarters, and the result, I am sure, will give satisfaction to every Member of the House. They had attained by three o'clock all the points which they had set out to gain as their objectives. At that hour we had already captured upwards of 100 guns, and 7,000 prisoners were already in the cages. The front, as I have already said, is about twenty kilometres. As far as I can judge from examining the map and the places we have reached, this represents an advance, on the average, of some four or five miles, and in one case it is an advance of seven miles. This ground is immediately in front of Amiens, and therefore its strategic importance will be obvious to everyone. I do not desire in any way to exaggerate the importance of this achievement. It is quite possible, and, indeed, it is regarded as probable, that the Germans, on account of previous attacks, had intended to retire, but this attack has come upon them as a complete surprise, and has upset whatever plans they may have formed. It affords me, as I am sure it will every Member of the House, the greatest satisfaction that, at this stage of the Session, a result should have been attained which, without exaggeration, is an indication of the complete change in the military position that has taken place in the last few weeks.


We have all heard with very great joy and delight the news which the right hon. Gentleman has given us. But many of us have those who are very near and dear to us who are in the fighting, and the joy which this great victory gives us must also carry with it anxiety and suspense and wonder how it goes with those whom we love. It seems strange to pass from that to the discussion of the Motion for the Adjournment of the House. But before I go any further let me say that every member of my family of military age is in khaki to-day. We all have the same human feeling for this great victory, and it makes me for one feel that we in this. House should be more united and see more squarely eye to eye, and sometimes merge our minor difficulties in the great cause of humanity which now bestirs the heart of every man with Christian sentiment brought up in a Christian way of life. Let me relieve my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Ireland of any anxiety as to what I am going to say. It will not refer to him; I shall make no reference to him. This is the only time perhaps in which one can speak on general subjects and can draw the attention of the House of Commons to the things which are passing before our eyes, and yet—and this is not in the slightest degree contradictory—are too obvious to be noticed. We have been talking of victories. Of course, victories give us an idea of the destruction involved in those victories and of the horrors of war. I think I am not guilty of exaggeration when I say that the British Constitution has been during the rule of the present Government quite as dismantled as many of the tenements in France and Belgium. What kind of Parliament are we? We are a very remarkable Parliament. There has been nothing completely like this Parliament in the long history of Parliaments. Take, for instance, the self-stultification. Having passed the Parliament Act in 1911, which curtailed its existence from seven years to five years it has stultified itself by bringing in Bills to prolong its existence on no fewer than five occasions for no fewer than five terms. There is no parallel to that. The only approach to it is the Long Parliament which passed the Triennial Act, and a few months afterwards passed an Act to perpetuate its own existence. But the Long Parliament has some satisfaction in contradicting itself. It passed an Act to perpetuate its own existence, and only allowed itself to be dissolved by itself. This Parliament, however, can be dissolved by the King on advice given by the Prime Minister.

I pass from that topic to a still stranger phenomenon in constitutional history. In former times our practice was that the House of Commons should control the Executive; now, on the contrary, the Executive controls the House of Commons. We have not a Prime Minister; we have a kind of dictatorship placed in commission. Perhaps, before I go further, I ought to say likewise that the Prime Minister, from the time he entered office on the 2nd December, 1916, have revolutionised the Constitution in a way it has never been revolutionised since the time of the Tudors. In the first place, he destroyed Cabinet government as we know it. At the present moment there is no Cabinet—no proper Cabinet government for us. If we look at the War Cabinet we do not find three conditions which ought to obtain, that its members should be members of the House of Commons, members of the Cabinet, and likewise heads of Departments. Mr. Gladstone said that the absence of these conditions would be utterly fatal to constitutional methods. Who are the Ministers without portfolios? One of them never had Cabinet experience at all in his life. In former days it was held that seats in the Cabinet should not be held by Ministers without portfolios. But this has been a year of transition. What about Cabinet rank? There is no such thing as Cabinet rank now. In the past all these positions have been held by Cabinet Ministers, of whom the Lord Chancellor was the most important. Then, again, a Secretary of State is the constitutional medium for communications between the Sovereign and the House, and he should hold high office in the counsels of the Sovereign. But this War Cabinet is a kind of gerrymandered construction. There was never anything approaching it in constitutional history or practice. There has been no parallel of such an administration in any Government. You cannot come into this House without rubbing shoulders with Ministers of the Crown—some placemen and others pensioners. There was a Parliament known as the Pension Parliament in the time of Charles II., but it was a respectable institution as compared with the present Parliament, because in it there were only a moderate number of placemen and pensioners. But in this present Parliament, out of 670 members, there are no fewer than 288 who come under those categories, and I believe there are no fewer than seventy Ministers. The Prime Minister when he appeared for the first time in December, 1916, said that you could not run a war with a Sanhedrim. Why, he has got a Sanhedrim in the House of Commons alone, all ready to vote according to order. There is an old Statute, which they embodied in the constitution of the United States, which did not allow any placeman to sit in the House of Commons.


Would the hon. Member mind defining a "placeman"?


A placeman is one-well, really I am sure that I am not enlightening my hon. and learned Friend—who holds any office of place or pension under the Crown. Of these Gentlemen, whom we usually call the Ministry or the Administration, there are at least sixty-seven in the House of Commons at the present moment. Under the ordinary Place Act not one of them could be in it at all. There was an Amendment to the Place Act whereby certain holders of certain offices could be Members of the House of Commons if they submitted themselves again to their constituencies. Then there were several Acts passed by obsequious Houses of Commons enabling them to sit in the House without facing their constituencies or the music. The Administration as a whole consists of ninety-seven. I believe it is now about 102, but the last tot I made was ninety-seven. Lord Salisbury's Administration was the nearest thing possible to a Noah's Ark of relatives. He provided for his own family in a way which was a perfect realisation of the ideal of the scriptural command, but in that Cabinet composed of Cecils and relatives of Cecils there were only forty-one, whereas we now have ninety-seven. We are able, with our placemen and pensioners alone, to constitute a quorum of the House of Commons on any subject whatever. It is only in the nature of things that they are there to support the Government, and the Government itself is the master of the House of Commons because it can dissolve it when it will.

Everything one sees in the House of Commons bristles with what were formerly illegalities and unconstitutional acts. One does not need to move one single step to see the various ways in which we have progressed from one stage to another. In 1910 we were elected to curtail the privileges of the House of Lords. Have we not done so? Have we not passed a Bill which in matters of finance makes the House of Lords impotent. Although they may retard legislation, it still renders them in anything on which the House of Commons has set its will absolutely impotent. The House of Lords has been a good Samaritan to this Government and to this Parliament. They have returned good for evil. They have not, as they easily could have done, refused any one of the Prolongation Acts. They have passed them, and we are all sitting here by the good pleasure of the House of Lords. That is, again, another wonderful instance of the Prime Minister's destructive energies and of his power in the transformation of parties and in bringing together all sorts and classes and conditions of men in his Government. Many of us rejoice and others of us lament that the grille of the Ladies' Gallery has been abolished, but on the Treasury Bench, when we consider the various parties and creeds and classes combined together, we have a political mixed grill, nothing more and nothing less. We see there the rich and the poor meeting together. Such an Administration was never heard of. Lord Chatham set himself with great zeal and with only moderate success to destroy parties. He did not succeed though he went very near it, but the present Prime Minister succeeded. He has destroyed all parties. We do not know where we are, except the Irish party. It is very difficult to tell what a man is, and when I gaze at the Cabinet and at members on the Ministerial Bench I really do not know how to describe them. I see the Prime Minister, who ought to be Prime Minister of a homogeneous Government, surrounded every afternoon by persons who a couple of years ago were on anything but friendly terms with him. I do not know at present what are the politics of the Prime Minister. I could not describe him except in that beautiful little verse which we all learned in our childhood: Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are! Now we come to his destruction of parties, and likewise his absolute destruction of the ordinary system of administration. Formerly the Administration and the administrative Departments were mostly under the control of the Cabinet. At present they cannot be so. They are not co-ordinated, and they are extremely too numerous. At present there are only twenty-five of them. These twenty-five Departments of administration, created for the War and for war purposes, form a cumbrous, absurd, and expensive administration. Out of this comes a matter in which I have, perhaps, some little personal interest. What I see now is what was never seen in the House of Commons since the time of Walpole—that is, an introduction of business statesmen. Some twenty-five years ago, when many Irish Members were poor, as they are still, it was common to deride them because their constituents, out of affection, gave them what is called subsistence money, or what is, according to the new Ministerial pabulum, some slight honorarium, to enable them to live in London. They were bitterly reproached for that. At length I took it into my head to see how Ministers were placed themselves. I found out that these Gentlemen were largely engaged in company promoterships and directorships. I brought this again and again before Parliament, and at last Mr. Gladstone—

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Donald Maclean)

I cannot perceive the relevance of the hon. Member's remarks to anything within the scope of the Motion for Adjournment.


I always thought we could speak at large on the Motion for Adjournment and introduce any subject.


The hon. Member can speak at large on any subject for which a member of the Administration can answer. I have previously refrained from interrupting the hon. Member, but I would point out that a very large number of his remarks are on a subject for which no member of the Administration can answer.


No; because they are unanswerable. I tried to get an answer to-day on the matter on which I am speaking. It is a thing to which I strongly object, namely, that a man should be a Minister and a company director together. The only answer I could get from the Leader of the House was that it was owing to the War. I thought, "Oh, War, what deeds are perpetrated in thy name!" I am glad to be allowed to direct attention to these matters, which are of great and even permanent interest. We see in the destruction by this Government of Cabinet government and the destruction of parties a dictatorship of the Adminis- tration over the House of Commons and the invasion of the House by a great number of gentlemen in offices and places under the Crown. I would say one word more on a subject which touches the Administration and the exercise of the greatest prerogative of all which is exercised by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister—that is, the creation of honours. We have all read that Danaë was wooed by Jove in the form of a shower of gold. Surely the country has been wooed by the Government in a shower of honours. In all history there was never such a shower as the list of 3,000 honours in one day. They rained and rained. We have been cheering the German defeat. I am afraid that the practice of giving so many honours was taken from Germany, because there is a very popular Order there known as the Order of Rats. I am afraid the new British Order has been taken from that. This matter should be considered by the public at large. This profuse distribution of civil honours is not consistent with the due exercise of the prerogative of the Crown. I have spoken on this subject at this time at considerable inconvenience, but these Motions for the Adjournment of the House are the only opportunities one has to consider the general administration of the Government, and when one can ask the House as a whole to consider the various developments which have taken place in the last couple of years—developments which are far more revolutionary and startling than any of the constitutional developments which took place between the Revolution of 1832 and 1916.


I do not propose to follow my hon. and learned Friend into the wide field of Constitutional learning on which he is so great an authority, but to ask the House to return in thought for a short time to the great subject which was before us at the commencement of this Sitting. It may seem difficult to do so after the announcement that has been made to us by the Leader of the House, which was heard with so much satisfaction in all quarters. But the fact that we rejoice at the recovery of yet another strip of occupied territory from the German invaders and at the capture of prisoners and guns should not turn our thoughts from the wider purpose of it all, and all the more so, as we know that, however warmly and heartily we rejoice at that success, it has been won at the cost of great suffering and loss of life on the part of brave and devoted people. Therefore, it is right that we should yet again consider the subject which was before us at the commencement of the Sitting, because at this time we may approach it in a different way than we did at almost any other period, unless, perhaps, it be the period which immediately followed the Russian Revolution, since the War began. It is a period when the German Armies have been checked, and when it must be evident not only to the population in these countries and amongst neutrals, but also widely evident in Germany and Austria and in their allied countries that the aggressive aims of the party which at present seems dominant in Germany cannot be attained, at any rate to the extent to which they hoped they would be. We may say that the extreme hopes of German militarism have already been defeated and checked, and it is therefore surely possible for us to approach this subject in a very different mode from that which was possible a few months ago.

9.0 P.M.

I wish to refer to two points in the speech of the Foreign Secretary which struck me as calling for a response from these benches. He maintained that it was impossible to arrive at a satisfactory position in which peace could be negotiated until we had eradicated German militarism, and that in order to do that the method which was necessary was that the German people should be shown that war does not pay. My hon. Friends and myself join with the Foreign Secretary in desiring that German militarism should be eradicated. We want it to be eradicated in Germany, where it is seen in its worst form, far more serious to humanity than anywhere else, but in every country, too. Where I differ is in he way in which we are to show the German people that war does not pay. I agree, again, that it is necessary that the German people should realise that, but it is necessary that all the peoples of Europe, and of America, too, should realise that war is a method that does not pay. But every thinking man must admit in a calm hour that the vast multitude of men and women who imagined a few years ago that war was a method that paid have already learnt, to their terrible cost, how costly that method is, and how difficult it is to achieve by it the results which were promised at the outset of the War. I believe in their hearts the majority of the German people already would admit, if they could be got to discuss it in a cool hour, apart from the turmoil of battle, that war does not pay and has not paid, and that even for the great successes which at one time seemed to be crowning their arms the price they have paid was infinitely too heavy. The Foreign Secretary gave as an instance of the greatest success that had hitherto been attained by the German methods the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. So far from agreeing with him there, I feel that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is an instance not of success, but of the failure of German methods. It is full of the seeds of decay, and we are already seeing the seeds ripening to their bitter fruit. We see it in Russia and the other countries which are suffering under that Treaty. It has brought forth no such results as the Germans anticipated. It has resulted in estranging from them sympathies that they might have won, and producing an indignant revolt culminating in terrible acts of assassination. Not only in Russia has it been a failure. In Germany itself the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk has produced the utmost division and dissatisfaction. We are only allowed here to read a little bit of what the German papers say, but even in the twilight of our ignorance a certain amount of news comes through to us, and we know that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk has been denounced not only by the German pacifist party, by the Minority Socialists, but by the Majority Socialists, who hitherto have supported the War ardently. They have said it is a most unjust and wrong Treaty, and they cannot consent to it permanently, and German Liberals outside the Socialist ranks have also joined in expressing their protest, and there can be no doubt whatever that, left to themselves, there is such a volume of opinion growing in Germany against the injustice of that Treaty, that the German people themselves would before long be compelled to attempt a revision of what is at most only a temporary war measure.

The second point with which the Foreign Secretary dealt which I wish to answer was his challenge to these benches as to whether we would be prepared to hand back the German colonies to Germany as she is now. He coupled that almost in the same sentence with an ironical sneer at the hon. Member (Mr. Snowden), because he had failed to recognise that people have souls. I think the right hon. Gentleman has answered himself by that remark. When he speaks of Germany as she is now, he has no right to think, and he ought not to make us think of a people as being possessed of an unchanging character, like some great building which goes down from age to ago unaltered. Peoples have souls, and Germany as she is now comprises not only the party which is unhappily dominant at the moment, the Junkers and the militarists, but it comprises the Germany of the future, which is a better Germany. It comprises the toiling masses, who are suffering most bitterly under the War. It comprises a large number of noble-hearted intellectuals, who protested against the worst features of the War party, and who are increasing in numbers, and when he speaks of Germany as she is now, he must surely remember that that is not a fixed quantity and that it is part of our task to call out the better Germany, the Germany that some day will help in the partnership of Europe, in which she will have her legitimate share, along with other peoples. Why should it be necessary for us always to appeal to the worst on the other side, always to see the worst in our opponents, never to try and call out the better self that is hidden at the back of every nation, however bad that nation may appear to be, however far it may have sunk from the level on which we would have her. There is a better Germany in the background, and it is to that that our statesmen ought to address themselves, and not always to the men who are at the forefront, who do not represent the real soul of the people.

The Foreign Secretary spoke of the two possibilities of achieving the end we have in view, the possibility of a change of heart in Germany, and the other possibility, on which he dwelt more fully, of achieving a result by a military victory so great as to convince the German people that they have failed and must submit. I think the failure of the Brest-Litovsk agreement ought to be an answer to those who think that the old way will ever convince a people of the justice and rights of their opponents' case. We have seen how the Russian people have revolted, in spite of that Treaty, against its unjust terms, and we know that it can never continue. A treaty that was merely imposed by force on a reluctant and unconvinced nation would never carry conviction or guarantee security. It is the other alternative which the Foreign Secretary named, but which he did not dwell upon, which presents the only hope for the future—a change of heart in Germany—it is most necessary there—and in all the nations of Europe. What we want is a change of heart involving our passing from this horrible method, which is irrational and unchristian, to a more civilised, better, and nobler way. We must appeal to the instincts in our opponents that make for better things; and if we do that we have with us the forces of labour throughout the civilised world working increasingly towards a just and enduring peace, protesting increasingly against the burden and the sacrifice and the irrational and unchristian method of settling our disputes. We have with us the forces of religion, little thought of and often perverted, but still at work in the background.

Is it not possible in the months that are coming for our statesmen to be willing, however firmly they adhere to the objects they have before them, to try for once this other method in approaching our foe. Why must we always regard every advance that is made in public on the other side as if it were therefore a bad thing? The Prime Minister the other evening spoke about the peace tentacles of Germany. That suggests a horrible octopus. It suggests that every effort for peace on the part of Germany has nothing in it that is good, that it is wholly made with an evil intent; and yet the Prime Minister must know quite well that, though there may be many things that we cannot agree with in the German proposals, there is in the heart of the German people a real desire, although it may not be as strong as we wish, for peace. We have to appeal to that and to strengthen it. Surely it should be possible for the tone of the speeches of our leaders to be different. It should be possible, without any relaxation whatever in our military effort while the War continues, for statesmen of different sides to meet together round a common table and to discuss the possibility of entering into the preliminaries of peace negotiations. You cannot discuss these things satisfactorily, speaking at intervals of time, across hostile barriers and through the Press. Just imagine what the position would be in a labour dispute if in the bitterest labour dispute employers and employed only addressed each other by speaking to meetings of their own supporters. We know quite well that they are prepared, however bitter the division, to meet round a table and discuss their differences; and we know that when it is said that it is impossible for us to meet during the War men whose hands are stained with the blood of innocent people we know that the Home Secretary has only just come back from a successful conference with German officers in which he met the official representatives of the German Government and successfully negotiated an exchange of prisoners. We have trusted the word of Germany in that. We have not been frightened to negotiate with them while the War goes on. Therefore, while the War goes on it ought to be possible, without any interference with military plans or military efforts, for statesmen to meet without disguise, not in secret meetings in Switzerland, but openly and honestly as was the case at The Hague, and to find out facts which we do not know and which we cannot know until the representatives of the different countries are prepared to meet each other.

The Government in the months which are intervening before this House meets again should encourage every unofficial effort that is being made to call out the best in our opponents and to put before them and all the world a vision of what this awful calamity means, a vision of the suffering, the desolation that is being caused to thousands and millions of homes, the agony of the battlefield, the misery of broken lives, the misery of homes destroyed, and a vision of Europe as it ought to be and as we must help to make it, united in the fellowship of nations along with our kinsmen and friends on the other side of the Atlantic, to keep the laws, and to help each other in that real comity in which every nation shall have its positive contribution to bring to the well-being of mankind. We need to help, and we ought to help every effort that is being made in that direction, the efforts that are being made on behalf of labour to get a united labour programme, and the efforts that are being made on behalf of those who are trying to reunite divided christendom in the name of their Master. Even now it may not be too late for men to hear the echo of the apostolic appeal that has been made by the Pope, in which, in the name of the Master, whose representative he is, men are asked to turn aside from this wrong way, with its cruelty, its suffering and its loss, and be willing to meet each other, to discuss their differences, to explain their positions, and to see if there be not, indeed, a better way.


In rising to refer briefly to one topic not dealt with in this Debate, I desire to associate myself with what has been said so eloquently by the hon. and learned Member for South Donegal. Field-Marshal Haig's brave troops, French as well as English, have given us a really good send-off for the Recess. The topic that I wish to refer to is the railway superannuation funds. These funds, which amount to £15,000,000 sterling, are subscribed partly by the men and partly by the companies, and in the period before the War they were, as a rule, invested with the companies at a good rate of interest. That is to say, the railway companies not only added to the subscriptions of their employés, but they found them investment at the rate of 4 per cent., which, in the case of the Midland or the North-Western, was a good thing before the War. Circumstances have changed, and these funds are still invested and still only bearing 4 per cent., when the British Government, with the finest security in the world, has to give 5 or 5¼ per cent. The pensions which are given to a most deserving body of men, on the basis of these superannuation funds, are actuarially worked out on the capital available. It is quite unnecessary to point out that a pension of £30, or £60, or £100, before the War represents something very different from what it does to-day. I am speaking to-night on behalf of the older men, who, in the evening of their days, are enjoying these well-earned pensions of, say, £80 or £100, which have come to be worth less, however, than one-half of their face value.

I know I shall be accused of making another raid on the Treasury. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was good enough to inform me that he would come in to hear what I was going to say, but he has been called out, and no doubt is better engaged than he would be in hearing my observations. I hope that he will read my remarks in the OFFICIAL REPORT. This money is lent to the British Government at 4 per cent. Supposing there had been no War, and supposing the railway companies had been carried on without State interference, and that there had been a rise in the cost of living and in the value of money, is it not certain that the railway companies would have given an increase? If the rate of money in the market was 5½ or 6 per cent., they would not have been content to give only 4 per cent. on the savings of their employes. Unfortunately, the position that exists to-day precludes railway directors from taking any course such as suggesting an increase in the charges at which the Government is working the railways, and precludes them from doing anything to help their employés in this matter. An increase in the rate of interest from 4 to 5 per cent. on £15,000,000 would be £150,000 a year. It is not a question of revising the rates of pensions because that would mean calling the beneficiaries together and changing the rules. But it would be well for the Government to realise that there is a moral obligation to increase the rate of interest on these funds to something like the rate which the British Government is paying for money. The difference between the 4 per cent. hitherto given and the 5 per cent. which I suggest, or £150,000 a year, would go a long way towards providing a war bonus in the really deserving cases—in the, cases of people who have not been able during the War to increase their incomes, including the old and infirm who are having a difficult existence owing to the increased cost of living. That sacrifice of £150,000 a year is one which the country could very well afford to make. I throw out the suggestion and I hope it will be favourably received by those in authority. I am sure, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks he can do anything in the matter, he will do so, in order that these funds may be put in a more satisfactory position—at any rate while this period of stress and urgency continues.