§ Mr. ASQUITH
I beg to move, "That a Select Committee of this House be appointed to inquire into the allegations of incorrectness in certain Statements of Ministers of the Crown to this House, contained in a letter of Major-General Maurice, late Director of Military Operations, published in the Press on the 7th day of May."
A good deal of misconception seems to prevail with regard to what is really a very simple matter. I think it right, first of all, to state what the Motion standing in my name, and which I am about to make, is not, before I proceed, as I shall, to give reasons which, I think, ought to secure its adoption by the Government and by the House. I am one of those who hold very strongly the opinion that it is not the business of Parliament during a war such as that in which we are engaged to be constantly inquiring by Committees, or by any other instrument of investigation, into the conduct of successive phases of the War. I am not sure that we have not had more than enough of such inquiries already. I know that our neighbours and Allies in France take a different view. According to their procedure—it is not for us to criticise—there is—I do not like to use the word coordination—a concomitance of Parliamentary inquiry, with administrative action which constantly goes on. It may be suited to their special conditions, but I for one am strongly of opinion that it is not desirable to introduce it into the procedure of the British Parliament. Still less do I think that this House should occupy its time by investigations into the truth or falsehood of statements often made by ill-informed and irresponsible persons, and reflecting, as they have done from the very first days of the War, either upon the good faith or upon the competence of those who are for the time being charged with its prosecution. Nor, again, is the Motion which I am about to make, either in intention or in effect, as I have seen it rather absurdly described, a Vote of Censure upon the Government.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
I have, since I occupied this Beat, now, I think, for nearly eighteen 2348 months, never so far as my memory serves me given an adverse vote on any question that has proceeded from the Government. I have done all that I could—all that it was in my power to do—not only in this House but outside, without withholding what I consider to be legitimate and helpful criticism—I have done everything that I could to assist the Government in the prosecution of the War, and in particular in the definition and the propagation of the great purposes, both of war and of peace, for which we and our Allies are contending. Some of my Friends I know—some of those I see around me—think that I have been in those matters unduly faint-hearted and mealy-mouthed. I am quite content to submit to that criticism. I know that there are people—not, I think, in this House, but outside—gifted with more imagination that charity, and with more stupidity than either, who think of me as a person who is gnawed with a hungry ambition to resume the cares and responsibilities of office. I am quite content to leave foolish imaginations of that kind to the judgment of my colleagues in this House and of my countrymen outside. If I did feel it my duty—if I were to find it my duty to ask the House to censure the Government, I hope I should have the courage and the candour to do so in a direct and an unequivocal form. I certainly should not have selected for that purpose a Motion like this, limited to suggesting the desirability of an inquiry which only two days ago was admitted from that bench to be appropriate and expedient, which, as far as its scope is concerned, would be confined to the examination of two or three very simple issues of fact, and from which the Government, as I am sure they think they would—I do not want in any way to prejudge that matter—emerge not with diminished, but with enhanced authority and prestige. Perhaps I may tell the House this. It may be that although I am more advanced in Parliamentary experience, I was still more innocent of guile than those who are younger when I putdown this Resolution. I honestly thought that the Government were prepared to accept and to adopt it.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
That observation seems to excite a certain amount of surprise and incredulity on the part of some of 2349 my right hon. Friends opposite, but I think I shall be able in a few moments to show the House that I had ample ground for that belief. How does this matter arise? It arises, as we all know, from the publication two days ago in the Press of a letter from a distinguished General who, I think now for two years, has occupied at the War Office a most important and responsible post—that of Director of Military Operations. In that letter the writer, in temperate language, but very directly and explicitly, impugns the accuracy of statements on very serious matters which have been made to this House, in the course of the last few months, by Ministers of the Crown. I hope it is not necessary for me to assert—but from what I am told is stated outside, I think I ought to say it—that neither I nor, so far as my knowledge goes, any of my political friends had any privity of any kind either in the composition or in the publication or in knowledge of that letter. It was a letter written by a general who must have known when he wrote it that he was committing a serious breach of the King's Regulation, and that he was really putting in jeopardy the whole of his military future. He, therefore, presumably, would not have taken a course so obviously fraught with possible and even probable disaster to his own prospects unless he was writing under a grave sense of responsibility and of public duty. That is not only an unusual, but I think I may say it is an unique, incident in the history of the War. I am speaking now in the recollection of the House, and I think it was so regarded and so treated by representatives of the Government. I put a question personally on the subject on Tuesday. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer used language in reply to me as follows:Inasmuch as these allegations affect the honour of Ministers the Government propose to invite two of His Majesty's judges to act as a Court of Honour to inquire into the charge of misstatements alleged to have been made by Ministers, and to report as quickly as possible.In reply to a further question, my right hon. Friend said:I would remind the House that in order to examine this question the most secret documents have to be gone into, and it would obviously be a very difficult, and, I think, a very unsuitable tribunal to appoint a Select Committee of the House for that purpose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1918, col. 1983.]In reply to a further question, put by the 2350 right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:"It must,"—that is the Inquiry—the necessity for which he had already admitted—I should think, obviously be held in private, for the reason I have given—that it involves examination of the most secret documents."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1918, col. 1983.]That was the position taken by the Government forty-eight hours ago—that is, on Tuesday last. The House will observe that, briefly stated and summarised, it came to this: First of all, that a case had been made out for an inquiry; and, next, that the subject matter was of such a kind not only that it could not properly be discussed on the floor of this House, but could not even property be discussed before a Select Committee. The production of secret and confidential documents of a kind which could not safely be divulged was so essential an element in the Inquiry, that it must be held before a tribunal consisting of, as was suggested, two of His Majesty's judges. Has the situation changed since Tuesday?
I must put two questions to the Government. Do they still think, as they said on Tuesday, that an inquiry is called for? Secondly, do they still think that, for the purpose of making that Inquiry efficient and adequate, it would involve the examination of secret documents which cannot be disclosed to the public advantage These are important questions. I should like to hear them answered. I shall assume, until I hear the Government have receded from their position, that they still think an inquiry necessary—an Inquiry conducted under safeguards such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer laid down as absolutely indispensable. Upon that assumption the only question is: What form the Inquiry should assume, and by what machinery it should be conducted? My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested two of His Majesty's judges. We are not without experience of inquiries so conducted into matters of public and political importance. I suppose I am the only man here—do not see anybody else—who not only took part in the discussions in the House of Commons on the appointment of a judicial tribunal to inquire into the allegations made by a newspaper against the members of the Irish party, but, in 2351 addition to that experience, sat as advocate and counsel for no less than nine months before the tribunal which was then set up.
My memory is still very fresh about these events. Although I agree that this is not in all respects, or perhaps in many respects, analogous to that inquiry, I think everybody whose memory goes back to those times, and who had, I will not say the intimate knowledge that I have, but a general knowledge of what took place, will agree that they all came out—no matter what were our respective parts—with the conviction that it was an extremely unsatisfactory experiment. I am not, of course, making any kind of suggestion against the competence of His Majesty's judges in their own proper sphere. But when it is a plain issue, as is this, a pure matter of fact, with every respect to the judges, before whom I have practised for the greater part of my life, I do not think they are better judges—I doubt whether they are such good judges—as men of experience and men of the world. In addition to this, such a tribunal as was suggested, unless we are to equip it by Act of Parliament, as we did in the case of the Parnell Commission, is not the best for the purpose. It has no compulsory powers; it cannot summon witnesses; it cannot administer the oath; it cannot compel the production of documents; it is an impotent tribunal, except and in so far as it is fortified by statutory powers. Therefore, if it was admitted, and indeed asserted—as it was by the Government—that an inquiry was necessary, it appeared to me at the moment—and upon further reflection I was confirmed in that opinion—that it would be far better for a prompt, an authoritative, and a respected decision, that we should adopt the, to us, familiar machinery of a Committee of this House.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
Well, I do not know what the hon. Member meant. I do not see the relevance of the observation. I suggested a Committee of this House. What I have in contemplation is not a large, but a small Committee. I think five members would be quite sufficient for the 2352 purpose. We can easily select, from among the benches which I see so well crowded around me, five or more Members if necessary of this House, chosen without any regard to their party affiliation, whose judgment upon a matter of fact—and this is a pure question of fact—will be respected by this House and by the country. They will have all the powers latent and inherent in the House of Commons, which the suggested tribunal of judges would not have. They can compel the ' attendance of witnesses and the production of documents. They can administer the oath. What is more important— they can sit in secret. There is nothing whatever to prevent them closing their doors, and conducting their investigation—which, we are told, is of a most confidential kind—under conditions which would make publicity impossible. I need hardly say that I would as soon trust, and the House would as soon trust, five Members of this House to respect the obligations of secrecy as I would trust any of His Majesty's judges. Further, let me add this. I think an inquiry so conducted would be much quicker, and would arrive much more easily at a decision, than one that has to be preceded, if it were to be effective at all, by an Act of Parliament. I do not see why more than two or three days at the outside should be. occupied in the investigation. Finally let me say—and it is not unimportant—that this is a matter that peculiarly concerns the House of Commons. The statements which are impugned were made on the floor of this House by Ministers of the - Crown, addressed to Members of this House and accepted, and, as far as it was necessary, acted upon, by Members of this House. As an old Parliamentarian, I should be very jealous, if the question does arise, as unfortunately it has arisen, of the correctness and accuracy of such statements, of submitting it to any other tribunal than a Parliamentary tribunal. That shortly is the case which I have to put before the House. What is the alternative?
§ Mr. ASQUITH
A very irrelevant interruption. If you want to get on with the War, the first thing is to clear away misconceptions and misunderstanding, which may have no foundation whatever, but which create doubt in the minds both of civilians and of military men. The hon. 2353 Member says, "Why not get on with the War?" Let me remind him of what I said a moment ago, that, as lately as Tuesday last, the Government agreed that this was a necessary or, at any rate, an expedient step.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
It was suggested by them. It was not suggested by me; it was suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on behalf of the Government.
It would, in my opinion, be most undesirable and unfair to prejudice in any way the conclusions at which any tribunal, be it Parliamentary or be it judicial, would arrive. I have seen it stated, I think, in some organs of the Press, which appear "to have a certain amount of anticipatory inspiration, that it is proposed—I do not know whether it be true or not—on the part of the Government, to make a statement in the House to-day as to their view of the facts. Of course, they are quite entitled to do it if they wish, but let me point out that if that course be adopted, it means that if a tribunal of any kind is going to be erected, you are already anticipating its conclusions. Such a statement—I do not care what it is—would of necessity be an ex parte statement—a statement made in the absence of, or without any representation of, those who are impugning the accuracy of what has been said. And if, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us, it is absolutely essential to an effective inquiry into the matter that secret documents of a confidential kind should be produced at the Inquiry, it is quite obvious that an essential ingredient of the ascertainment of the truth will not be provided. As I have said—and I hope I shall carry with me here the united judgment of the House—we are not in a position to discuss, and still less to prejudge, the conclusions in this House. I say most emphatically that in this House we are accustomed to accept—we are bound to accept—statements made by Ministers of the Crown upon their authority as accurate and true, unless and until the contrary be proved, and I hope we-shall always uphold that well-founded Parliamentary tradition.
It is not necessary for me to say that, as far as I am personally concerned, I hold no brief of any sort or kind for military as distinguished from civilian and, what is 2354 called, politicians' opinion. Nothing of the sort; but, in view of this situation, which. I have said, and the Government have themselves acknowledged, is in many ways unexampled; in view of their own deliberate statement, made only two days ago, that an inquiry was, I will not say necessary, but expedient and desirable; in view of the limitations and conditions which they themselves, of their own motion and upon their own initiative, prescribed for such an inquiry, I do suggest to the House that, in the interests of the Government, in the interests of the Army, in the interests of the State, in the interests of the Allies, in the supreme interest of all, namely, the unhampered prosecution of the War itself, it is our duty to setup a tribunal of inquiry which, from its constitution and from its powers, will be able to give to Parliament and to the country a prompt, a decisive, and an authoritative judgment. I will say only one word more. I hope—I more than hope, I believe—that in regard to some of these matters there has been genuine and honest misunderstanding. It is quite possible. But the clearer the case—and I am speaking upon the assumption that it is a clear case—that His Majesty's Ministers have for asserting and reasserting, establishing, and proving to demonstration, the accuracy of the statements which have been impugned, the more cogent seems to me the argument that an inquiry should take place under conditions which no one can suspect of partiality or prejudice.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
Well, does the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggest that a Select Committee is not an un suspect tribunal?
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I could not name a single Member of this House who is not either friendly or opposed to the Government, and who must, therefore, start with a certain amount of prejudice.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
I am very sorry to hear that from the Leader of the House of Commons—the custodian and trustee of its great traditions. Is it right, or is it even decent, to suggest that you cannot get five men in this House not so steeped in party prejudices that, upon a pure issue of fact, they cannot be trusted to give a true decision? I will say no more.