HC Deb 04 December 1919 vol 122 cc778-87

  1. (1) At the expiration of ten years after the passing of this Act the Secretary of State shall submit for the approval of both Houses of Parliament the names of persons to act as a commission for the purposes of this Section.
  2. (2) The persons whose names are so submitted, subject to the approval of, and to any alterations made by Parliament, shall be a commission for the purpose of inquiring into the working of the system of government, the growth of education, and the development of representative institutions, in British India, and matters connected therewith, and the commission shall report as to whether and to what extent it is desirable to establish the principle of responsible government, or to extend, modify, or restrict the degree of responsible government then existing therein, including the question whether the establishment of second chambers of the local legislatures is or is not desirable.
  3. (3) The commission shall also inquire into and report on any other matters affecting British India and the provinces, which may be referred to the commission by the Secretary of State.


I beg to move, in Subsection (1), to leave out the words "At the expiration of," and to insert instead thereof the word "within."

Several Amendments proposed from this side of the Committee have been described by the right hon. Gentleman as being rather unreasonable in their character. I am quite sure he cannot apply that adjective to this Amendment. This matter was discussed at some length in the Joint Committee, and I believe that a feeling was shared by some members of that Committee that it was desirable something more elastic than the terms actually used in this Bill should be adopted. The proposal simply means that the setting up of this statutory Commission should not necessarily be deferred for a period of ten years. I cannot imagine that any argument on my part would be necessary to convince the Committee of the wisdom of this suggested alteration. After all said and done, this measure, which proposes to confer upon India a certain degree of self-government, is one which no one here can foresee the result of. There has been a good deal of speculation as to how this proposal is actually going to work in India, and no very definite evidence has been submitted to us to indicate that it is necessarily going to be a successful scheme. There have been critics on both sides of the House of the principle of diarchy, and there have been critics of other very vital matters which are raised by the Bill, and I am sure, in the judgment of reasonable people, there is a possibility that, before a great deal of time has elapsed, it may be necessary to make pretty considerable changes in the scheme that we are now dealing with. This Clause suggests that, having conferred this limited amount of control upon the country for ten years, nothing more shall be done. We have had abundant evidence during the last five years that events sometimes move with extraordinary rapidity. Changes in different countries occur not in the. course of years, but of days, and all who try to estimate the many forces which are at work in the world to-day—forces which are bound to be productive of immense changes and developments which none of us can quite foresee—must admit that it is in every way likely that within a comparatively short space of time there will be changes in India which will necessitate a revision of the scheme as it is now proposed. We have been told again and again that there has been in India an extraordinary awakening of the political consciousness of the people, and yet if this Clause is allowed to go, and if the limited franchise proposals are finally adopted, it will mean that it will be quite impossible for this House to make the necessary provision for a change either in the franchise system or anything else for a period of ten years.

Sir J. D. REES

The Government of India can make changes in the franchise.


There are those who believe that the passing of this Bill will do something to allay the political agitation that has been going on in that country during recent years. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the passage of the Bill will have precisely the opposite effect. There are those who hope—and it is a reasonable hope—that political agitation in India will cease with the passing of the Bill. If we are waiting to see development in that country, it is not desirable that agitation should cease. If it goes on, if we get an electorate increasingly educated in the exercise and use of political power, is it likely that that electorate, whether it be limited or extended by the Government of India within a shorter period than ten years, is necessarily going to remain content with the machinery we are setting up for their use? We have absolutely no right in any way to seek to tie the hands of future Parliaments. It is quite conceivable that within a short space of time there will be a change in the Government of this country. There are those who believe, and certainly those who hope, that the time is not far distant when there will be a change in the Government of this country. It is unwise on the part of this House and the present Government to fetter or in any way render more difficult the tasks that any future Government may have to perform. Probably it will be said that all that is necessary will be to repeal this Act and to introduce new legislation when such legislation is required. We are putting an unnecessary barrier in the way of possible development in the future if we carry this Clause as it stands. The right hon. Gentleman has not accepted a single Amendment that has been put forward. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am rather interested in these approving cheers. I do not know that they are an indication of the wisdom of those who voice them, for in legislation as in other things it is not wise to avoid elasticity, especially when we live in a world of constant change and under conditions when forces are operating the ultimate result of which no man can foresee. In asking the Secretary of State to accept the suggestion that instead of putting off the setting up of this Commission for ten years, he should provide that if the necessity arises it will be possible to set up the Commission at an earlier date. It may be that in two, five, or seven years a situation may arise in India which will demand action, and it is unwise to put anything in this Bill which will prevent the free action of Parliament. I want to look at this matter from the point of view of the people of India. There is far too much a tendency on the part of the present House to look at the matter simply from the point of view of Britain.


No, no!


Well, hon. Members may differ from me, but certainly it is the opinion I hold, and an opinion which has been strengthened during the course of the two days' Debate. There is a tendency to look on that point of view of England. Let us take the kindliest view of this Bill that we possibly can. Let us say that it is—and after bearing some of the speakers I am quite prepared to believe that it is—a very sincere and honest attempt to help the people of India into a larger liberty, and that it is a sincere and honest attempt to give them the beginnings of a system of self-government. Let us hope that they will accept it in the spirit in which I am suggesting it is being given by this Committee. But, if they find included in this Bill the proposal that for ten years no. further progress is going to be possible, how are the people of India going to receive that? I do very strongly urge, and I ask with the utmost sincerity, that my right hon. Friend should give way on this one point, and should say that this Commission shall, if necessary, be set up within a shorter period. It does not mean that it will be, but, at all events, the door will be open. I am quite sure that any attempt to make this in any sense anything but a merely transitory measure, or, at all events, a measure to deal with transitory and changing conditions, would be a very unwise one. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman if he cannot accept the Amendment? He knows the point that I am raising, I am quite sure, without any argument on my part. I merely state what I do in order, if possible, to secure the sympathy and co-operation of other members of the Committee in a suggestion which, I believe, is eminently reasonable.


I should like very much to respond to the request of my hon. Friend opposite. He accuses me of not having accepted any Amendments. I had flattered myself up to the time of that remark—although, of course, it does not rest with me to accept or reject Amendments; that is a matter for the Committee —that I had convinced the Committee that the Amendments should be resisted. Each Amendment has been discussed honestly, and I have tried to do my best to answer the arguments that have been brought forward. In this particular case, the reason I cannot accept my Friend's view is that he still believes that this House of Parliament alters the Indian Constitution in response to Indian agitation, and he says he hopes that agitation will continue. Well, I do not. I think the one thing that has been demonstrated to India to-night, and throughout the last two days, is the great willingness, despite an insignificant minority, to grant with enthusiasm to India as soon as may be, the stages of the surrender of her trusteeship to a well-qualified Indian Government. Where is the room for agitation? They have only got to do the work that is in front of them. They have only got to bury the old hatchet and then come again to Parliament, and I am quite sure that Parliament will act, when the allotted time comes, in the same spirit that we have adopted. It is not a question of agitation that will alter the appointed path of India. It might delay it. Why ten years' delay? You must choose some time, and some definite date. I believe that the father of this Act—the man who really made this Act possible—was the illustrious chief under whom I first served at the India Office—Lord Morley—when he and Lord Minto promoted an Act about ten years ago. It seems to Parliament, I hope, that India is ready for the next step forward, ten years after the coming into existence of the Morley-Minter measure. What does it mean? It means that before this Commission goes out there will have been held three elections on the new electorate. Is that too long a time to judge whether the electorate can hold the Ministers serving it to be responsible in the proper way? After all, it is no use judging it in one Parliament; you must have two, and are you not safer when you have three?

If there is a remarkable and unforeseeable development in Indian conditions in the short space of ten years—because ten years is a very short time—my hon. Friend is quite wrong; it does not he the hands of Parliament in any way whatever. There can always be a Commission appointed in the interim. What this Act says is that there must be a Commission appointed at the end of ten years. My hon. Friend knows, surely, that some of his colleagues on the Committee thought the ten years too short. It seems to me as good as any other time; it is no use leaving it vague. What we want India to know is that at the definite and appointed time—unless unforeseeable circumstances arise—by Act of Parliament there will be an investigation to see whether there can be another step forward. It does not and cannot mean that in no circumstances whatever will there be an investigation, although, I believe that ten years is the right time to hold an investigation, and although I am perfectly certain that the success of that investigation depends upon my hon. Friend's hope being falsified, and that India really settles down to work and not to agitate.


I hope, in spite of his excellently-phrased speech, that my hon. Friend will see fit to withdraw his Amendment. Let us compare the probable development of India with the development of this country. I cannot tell how many stages this development may take. Suppose it takes four or five or ten years; suppose the whole development of constitutional government takes fifty years. That same development in this country has taken 700 years. Will not India be doing very well, and shall not we be doing one of the greatest works that the British Empire has ever done in carrying a country towards complete self-government, if we do it in that time? As the Secretary for State has said, we do not want any loophole in this Bill for people to think that they can help forward development except by making a success of the powers they are given. No agitation or anything of that kind will hasten it. The only thing that this Committee and Parliament can look to will be the success of the actual powers we are now giving.


There was a time when I was inclined to look at this proposal somewhat in the spirit of my hon. Friend, but having heard his speech to-night I am absolutely opposed to the Amendment which he has put forward. His speech has strengthened my determination to adhere to the proposal as it stands. For what has been the outstanding feature of his speech? There is a determined attempt to minimise the value of the concessions which are embodied in this Bill. Not only now, but throughout the whole of the Committee stage of this Bill, the hon. Member has sought to minimise and belittle every effort that is being made to extend the liberties of the Indian people. He speaks of a "mere five" "a mere 2 per cent." who are enfranchised. Has he forgotten—I am sure he knows well that, by the Reform Act of 1832, 500,000 electors were added to an electorate, roughly, of 5,000. Yet we put 5,000,000 of people in India politically on their feet, and it is nothing. Further, he speaks of the possibility of agitation, not merely as a thing to be looked forward to with misgiving, but he hopes to see the agitation. He has used the words of one of the most extreme of the witnesses before the Committee, who said that if they were not perfectly satisfied they would go on agitating. It is no part of my duty to endeavour to teach my hon. Friend what his duty as a patriotic Englishman is. But I contemplate the duty of an Englishman, standing in the House to-day, whose words will be heard in India, as being to say to the people of India: "England is making an honest effort to set your feet forward in the path of progress. We have done our best, extreme men and moderate men. We have had the most representative Committee that could possibly be put together; we have done our best to do fairly and justly and generously by India. Now, take advantage of the machinery we are enabling you to set up; take it in the spirit in which it is offered, and endeavour to make a, success of it." Had the hon. Member spoken in that way, he would have done a real service to India. But I do hope we shall have, even from those benches to-night, a disavowal of the desire of the hon. Member to see the agitation, which has prevailed for some years past, continue. It is very largely owing to the way in which the hon. Member has envisaged the near future in India that I feel it my duty to vote against his Amendment.


This Amendment itself requires only two words. The whole necessity of the Amendment arises from the fact that the Labour party may be in power in this country in four years' time. We wish to make our position quite clear. If that should be so, we hope we shall not regard ourselves as bound by this first Sub-section. We wish to protest now that when, and if, we propose to send out a Commission to India to inquire into the working of the Act some five years from now that it will not be a sufficient reply to say that we have said we have already agreed to an Act which says that the Commission shall not be sent for ten years. That is the whole object of the Amendment. I am also led to say something more by the remarks which have fallen from my right hon. Friend (Mr. Acland) and hon. Members during this Debate. The right hon. Member for Camborne took up an attitude which, I think, requires some comment. He said, "Oh, this is going quite quick enough. What are ten years in the life of a nation? We had to wait twenty or thirty years between our Reform Bills. It is all going all right." But I wish the right hon. Gentleman could have some of that capacity for putting himself in other people's shoes that is possessed by other members of the Committee. Suppose he was an Indian and was being governed by Europeans, would he look at the question in quite such a complacent light? Can he wonder that when that sort of thing is said by a man in a responsible position that Indians feel somewhat indignant?


I said the 95 per cent. were still illiterate, and had not any sort of training in democracy, and that they have to be gradually brought forward.


He should put himself in the shoes of the 5 per cent. who are literate, as he is literate himself. Then the hon. Member (Mr. Bennett) talked about the continuation of agitation, and alluded to this Bill as a concession. It is exactly because you will allude to this Bill as a concession that there is likely to be a continuation of agitation. It is not a concession to agitation, or anything of that sort, but because the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench, who used to be a Liberal, although he is in a Coalition Government, does genuinely believe, I am quite certain, that India ought to be self-governing in the British Empire; and because of that he has brought in this Bill. It is not a concession to agitation. It is because it is the right thing to do; it is our duty; but the hon. Member has, regarded it as a grudging kind of concession to the Indian people, something. to bribe them to be good children. It is because we have a right to do it, not because we are conceding anything to anybody.

As regards the talk about agitation, I think it is the duty of every Indian subject, their duty to their country, to continue agitation for justice and freedom as long as they are alive. We do not, by passing this, that or the other, put an end to agitation; if agitation ends, death supervenes. We want people to agitate to better their conditions, and for freer conditions, continually, in every country. What we do want to secure, we on these benches, is that agitation shall be carried on upon constitutional lines instead of unconstitutional lines. That was the- object of the speech of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Spoor). He wishes that agitation should continue; so do I, on the right lines. We believe that this step will involve other steps, and when the results of these steps are brought to fruition we shall satisfy India and this will be achieved partly by agitation, continuous efforts of agitation, and partly by efforts of real Liberalism by Members of this House, so that the Indians, so we think, may be fitly regarded as our fellow-subjects in the British Commonwealth.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not altogether agree with the hon, Member who has just spoken as to this not being a concession and the result of agitation. We quite accept the statement that it is not altogether the result of agitation. It is really the result of a pledge given during the War, given by the Council and the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Council during the War. We made this declaration, and it was received with great acclamation in India. It is simply to carry out that pledge. It is simply carrying out that pledge to put this Bill on the Statute Book. But one or two of us think it does not go far enough, and we are now being told we are extravagant and so on, but it is only carrying out some of the things promised by all the statesmen of the Allies about giving freedom to all subject peoples. The Secretary of State for India said there was an insignificant minority in India who were agitating for self-government. I wonder if he has read some of the speeches of the Secretary of State for War, one in introducing the Army Estimates, and his references to India and the Empire?


The question before the Committee is the omission of the term of ten years, and the hon. Member should address his remarks to that point.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

I think the minority referred to as "insignificant" is a rather larger one. If the words proposed were accepted it would be useful to the moderate party in India. A considerable minority who are called extremists, I do not know whether justly or not, say that this Bill is not sufficient to meet their legitimate aspirations. I have been urged by some of my friends, Englishmen and not in India, to try, if possible, to get the Bill rejected, and they say the Bill will do more harm than good. I met those views—


That is more suitable to a speech on the Second or Third Reading. It seems to be a general speech.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 42 (Modification of Section 124 of Principal Act) and 43 (Signification of Royal Assent) ordered to stand part of the Bill.