HC Deb 06 March 1918 vol 103 cc1984-8

I have to make a short personal statement arising out of questions yesterday. I trust the House will give me its indulgence, and I will make as short as I can what I do say. On Thursday last the Home Secretary, speaking in the Debate, used the following words: At the meeting which Mr. Litvinoff addressed it was not he who recommended the people of this country to follow the example of Russia, but a British Member of Parliament.. I wish he were in the House now that he might justify that advice." —[Official Report. 28th February, 1918, col. 1627.] Yesterday a question was put to the right hon. Gentleman as to who was the Member who was reported to have urged the workers of this country to adopt Bolshevik methods, and start a revolution in this country After being pressed upon the point, the Home Secretary said: It was the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Morrell) who made the statement that it was desirable that the people of this country should follow the example of Russia. I did not think it worth while to take any action." —[Official Report, 5th March, 1918, col. 1825.] The House will see that that is a very grave and a very serious accusation to make of any Member of this House — probably the most serious charge that can be brought against a Member of Parliament. It imputes to him, not merely conduct for which he might be prosecuted in a Criminal Court, but it imputes con duct which, in my judgment, is certainly unworthy of a Member of this House, because it suggests that I used my position and such influence as I have as a Member of this House to advocate a course of con duct which would tend to subvert the Constitution upon which this House depends. I think the right hon. Gentle man, before making so serious a charge against one of his colleagues, would have treated him more fairly if he had given some notice of what he was going to say, or, at any rate, have waited until I was present, so that I might at once have replied to that charge. As it is, as the right hon. Gentleman will see, he has got at least if I may put it so — twenty-four hours' start. I see my self branded to-day in every newspaper as the man who openly advocated revolution by physical force. The denial I am about to make — and I am sure the House will agree — cannot possibly be published until to-morrow. morning. That alone puts me at a great disadvantage. Let me at once say that the charge is false — wholly and absolutely! I do not think any man who knows me would for an instant believe it. Never in my life, in public or in private, have I ever desired to see, or advocated revolution by physical force in this country. Never! And that is the charge against me! By temperament, by training, by conviction, I am utterly opposed to any such method.

On the occasion in question I was invited by a personal friend to attend a lecture which was to be given by M. Litvinoff on the Russian situation. Being desirous of hearing as far as possible authoritatively about the Russian situation, I accepted the invitation and received two cards of admission. Later I was asked if I would consent to propose a vote of thanks to M. Litvinoff at the conclusion of the lecture. With some reluctance I consented to do so. I proposed the vote of thanks, as I most expressly stated, to M. Litvinoff, not as a representative of any special faction or any special party, but as the only accredited envoy of the Russian people in this country.

I made my speech on that occasion, as is my general practice, without notes, and therefore it is impossible for me at this distance of time — although my memory is quite clear — to state, with precision the language I used. But before I went to the meeting I happened to jot down a few notes, which I did not use. of what I intended to say. [A laugh.] That is really unworthy of the House. I am going to deal with what I actually said, and I will not pursue the other point, even although the only evidence I have is in the notes I put down beforehand which are open to any hon. Member. Still it is quite indifferent to me what view the House chooses to take of my word on that point. I will now deal with what I actually said, and as to that I depend not only on my own recollection, but on the memory of at least eight or ten Members of this House who were present either on the platform or in the body of the hall. I think I am right in saying that every one of them will bear me out in my assertion that, at that meeting I said nothing that could be construed as in any way justifying the charge which has been made against me. I will read to the House what I believe are the words of the sentence upon which this charge is based. I said I was extremely anxious to show that my attendance at this meeting did not imply any sympathy with revolutionary propaganda in this country. What I said was: ''There are I believe those who desire to see this country follow the example of Russia. I then went on to say: I cannot, agree with any such view.'' Further, I said, in the most emphatic way, as my hon. Friends will bear me out: The only revolution that I desire to see in this country is a revolution of opinion. I further went on to say that by our constitutional means a revolution of opinion would be sufficient to effect a change of Government, all that I desired to see, and I say frankly that I do desire it. That is the beginning and end of what I said on that occasion. Immediately after the meeting it happened there was an air raid. A lot of the people waited for shelter, and some of my friends came up and remonstrated with me on the way I had, as they expressed it, let the meeting down, because I did not give the sort of incitement which apparently some of the meeting required One of my hon. Friends said: I admire your courage; you had the courage to let your audience down. I am confident that my recollection of this matter is perfectly correct, and that from beginning to end of that speech, although I admit I said some strong things about the Government, and about the administration of the Defence of the Realm Act, and about prosecutions for opinions, as I consider them, which have been going on under that Act — although I admit I said some strong things, I ask the House to believe that I never, on that occasion, and never have in my life, said anything that would justify such a charge as has been made against me, on the evidence of his own agents, and not on any impartial evidence, by the right hon. Gentleman. I have nothing more to add, except this: I have endeavoured to give the House a perfectly plain statement of what occurred; I do not think I have anything to withdraw; I do not think I have anything to apologise for. For twelve years now I have been a Member of this House. During that time I have taken part in a good deal of controversy, and I have endeavoured to live on terms of personal good will and of respect with Members, even those who differ from me. Never before have I had any occasion to make any complaint of misrepresentation; certainly not of misrepresentation so grave as has been made here. Never before have I been able to say, as I do to-night, not only that the right hon. Gentleman has misrepresented me, but that he has attributed to me precisely the reverse of what I said on the occasion in question. I hope that the right hon Gentleman, now that he has heard what I have to say, will accept my statement, and will withdraw the charge which he has made against me.

4.0 P.M.


I hope the House will allow me to say a few words, not from any desire to controvert what the hon. Member has said, but in order to explain precisely the facts as they were reported to me. I was informed that M. Litvinoff, who I knew to be engaged in revolutionary propaganda, was to address a meeting in Lon don. I did not feel justified in prohibiting the meeting, because I had no reason to believe that there would be any breach of the peace, but I directed that a short hand writer should attend with a written authority which he could produce if challenged, and take a careful note of the proceedings. From his report it appears that after M. Litvinoff had given his address in praise of the Bolsheviks, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Morrell) made a speech, expressing strong sympathy with the Russian revolution, and, after attacking, by name, members of the War Cabinet, and the Prime Minister, whom he described as knowing nothing of freedom, he made use of this import ant sentence: '' There are people who feel so strongly the shame of this business in this country that they are already beginning to see that it is time that we followed the example of the Russian workmen. That statement was received with great applause, and the hon. Member added: I wish to say that I am only here, and I am only in favour of the sentiments so far as it means we should have a revolution of opinion only. I confess I attached small importance to the sentence last quoted, as I cannot see how it is possible, without violence and bloodshed, to follow the example of the Bolsheviks, to take forcible possession of the churches, the banks, the factories, and the land, to destroy a throne, a navy and an army, and to ruin a great Empire.

I admit that I was indignant — first, that when we are fighting this peril Members of Parlia- ment should listen to and applaud this man who is its instrument; and, secondly, that a Member in the position of the hon. Member for Burnley should use words such as I have quoted —


Do not read your speech.


— and should have no word of serious condemnation for the brutal murders of gallant men by which the second revolution in Russia was disgraced. While I was considering what action I ought to take it happened that I was challenged in this House about Litvinoff, and having just read the account of the meeting to which I have referred, I said on the spur of the moment that it had been left to a British Member of Parliament to say that we should follow the example of Russia. I was asked then and there for the name. I said I would rather not give it in the absence of the Member concerned, but yesterday I was pressed by many Members, and in the end rather reluctantly I gave the name of the hon. Member to whom I had referred. Having now heard the hon. Gentleman's statement, I am glad he repudiates the meaning which I gave to his words. I, of course, accept what he says as to his opinions and as to the intention with which he made the speech. If any statement of mine has given him pain I very much regret it, but I think he will admit that the statement as reported to me was of a very grave nature, and that having regard to the information which I had I did not go beyond my duty in calling public attention to the matter.