HC Deb 04 February 1919 vol 112 cc1-16

The House met at a Quarter before Three of the Clock, being the first day of the meeting of this Parliament, pursuant to Proclamation, Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert, G.C.B., K.C.S.I., C.I.E., Clerk of the House of Commons, and Thomas Lonsdale Webster, Esq., C.B., and Horace Christian Dawkins, Esq., M.B.E., Clerks-Assistant, attending in the House, and the other Clerks attending according to their duty, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery in Great Britain delivered to the said Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert a book containing a List of the Names of the Members returned to serve in this Parliament.

Hon. Members having repaired to their seats,

A message was delivered by Admiral Sir Henry Frederic Stephenson, G.C.V.O., K.C.B., Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, as followeth:—


"The Lords authorised by virtue of His Majesty's Commission desire the immediate attendance of this Honourable House in the House of Peers, to hear the Commission read."

Accordingly the House went up to the House of Peers, where the Lord Chancellor and other Lords named in the Commission, sitting on a form between the Throne and the Woolsacks,


"My Lords and Gentlemen of the House of Commons,

"His Majesty, not thinking fit to be here present this day in His Royal Person, has been pleased, in order to the opening and holding of this Parliament, to cause Letters Patent to be passed under His Great Seal, constituting us and several other Lords therein named, His Commissioners, to do all things, in His Majesty's name, on His part, necessary to be performed in this Parliament. This will more fully appear by the Letters Patent themselves, which must now be read."

The said Letters Patent were read, and then


"My Lords and Gentlemen,

"We have it in command from His Majesty to let you know that as soon as the Members of both Houses shall be sworn, the causes of His Majesty's calling this Parliament will be declared to you. And, it being necessary a Speaker of the House of Commons should be first chosen, it is His Majesty's pleasure that you, Gentlemen of the House of Commons, repair to the place where you are to sit, and there proceed to the choice of some proper person to be your Speaker; and that you present such person, whom you should so choose, here to-morrow for His Majesty's Royal approbation."

And the House having returned,

Colonel F. B. MILDMAY (addressing himself to the Clerk, who, standing up, pointed to him, and then sat down)

Sir Courtenay Ilbert, in accordance with the Gracious message just received from the Throne, I beg to move, "That the Right Honourable James William Lowther do take the Chair of this House as Speaker."

Let me first say how very greatly I appreciate the honour of being allowed to give expression to what I believe to be the unanimous wish of the House of Commons. I rise with some trepidation, for, in spite of long familiarity, with these surroundings, they seem almost strange to me this afternoon after all but continuous absence for four years. But I take courage when I remember how entirely acceptable to all will be the terms of this Motion. In selecting a Speaker we are choosing the custodian of the honour of this House; and it is because he has always so zealously, so irreproachably, guarded that honour in the past that we old Members of the House turn instinctively to Mr. Lowther in our desire that its great traditions of dignity and order may be maintained in the future. The apparent ease with which Mr. Lowther has, of old, controlled latent explosive forces in this Chamber must not blind us to the fact that, as said by Sir Michael Hicks-Beach long years ago, "the office of Speaker is the most difficult which a subject of the King can be called upon to fill." But, just as the most accomplished horseman, the strongest horseman, exercises an ideal control over the animal he bestrides with the lightest of hands, so has Mr. Lowther known how to guide and control the House of Commons without generating any sense of constraint. I believe that the accomplishment is traditional in his family. He has shown such tactful skill in handling us that we who have sat under him as Speaker have been unconsciously, or, rather, subconsciously, predisposed to accept his guidance, and to trust to his sound judgment to steer us through troubled waters. In short there has grown up between us a tie of mutual confidence, which has been quite invaluable in times of stress, and which is never likely to be broken.

I stand myself in considerable awe of the personality of Mr. Speaker, as is only right, and I feel that it would be almost impertinent in me to analyse the methods which have contributed to Mr. Lowther's success in days gone by. But perhaps I may be allowed to say this much: All have marked—not only those in this House but throughout the country—his conscientious desire to serve the real, the true, interests of the House of Commons without fear or favour. All have marked his courtesy; all have marked his courage. He has shown that he has an inperturbable temper, an æquan mentem, a quite priceless asset to anyone in his position. His sense of humour has become proverbial, humour which never wounds, as does sometimes the humour of those in high judicial position, but humour which has always been used to soften the asperities of political warfare. He has shown himself to be so human in his sympathy; and, if I may venture to speak from personal experience, his invariable readiness to help the most insignificant Member with kindly advice has deeply touched those who have sought his assistance.

I have spoken of the difficulties attaching to the post of Speaker. Could there be more daunting difficulties? And assuredly those difficulties do not grow less as years go by. The exuberance, the evasive ingenuity of hon. Members, does not become more easy to control; and let us not ignore the possibility that the assistance in this House of the fair sex may add very considerably to the anxieties of the Speaker, to say the least, for, in the endeavour to escape the constraint of the rules of procedure, they may be trusted to call to their aid wiles in comparison with which those of "mere man" will prove clumsy and ineffective. But we have not the slightest doubt that Mr. Lowther's consummate tact will be equal to any emergency in this direction.

Faced by all the probabilities of an unknown future, Mr. Lowther might well have claimed the right to retire, and to enjoy a well-earned repose, because I think I am right in saying that it was as long ago as June, 1905, that he was first chosen as Speaker, and that this is the fifth Parliament in which his name will have been submitted for this high and responsible office. All the more grateful should we be to him that he is willing once more to place himself at our disposal, and to give us the benefit of his long experience in guiding the House of Commons—a guidance which will be quite invaluable now that, as a result of the War, questions of grave and far-reaching importance have to be considered. It has been well said that the Speaker ship is the highest honour which we have it in our power to bestow, and whole-heartedly shall we confer it upon one of whom it can indeed be said that he has compelled and secured not only the respect, but the genuine affection of all in this House with whom he has been brought into intimate contact.


Sir Courtenay Ilbert, I am fully conscious that it is to my Parliamentary seniority, and to that alone, I am permitted to exercise the high privilege of seconding the Motion so ably and so gracefully proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for the Totnes Division (Colonel Mildmay), to whom, on his safe return to this House after his arduous and perilous military duty, we offer a warm and a cordial welcome. If I may be pardoned for a further personal reference, I would say that it is not altogether infelicitous or inappropriate that the great-grandson of the great Earl Grey of Reform renown should, apart from his personal claim, be the first to address the Members of a new and reformed Parliament.

I whole-heartedly join with my right hon. Friend in expressing the deep gratitude and sincere gratification which we feel, and which I know is shared in all quarters of the House, that my right hon. Friend Mr. Lowther, at a time when, in accordance with precedent, he was, as as my right hon. Friend has said, entitled to that rest he has so fully and well earned, actuated by those high and patriotic principles which have characterised him throughout his long and brilliant public career, should be willing to place his unique Parliamentary experience and his unrivalled Parliamentary authority at the free will and pleasure of this new House of Commons.

I remember one of the greatest parliamentarians of my time—one of the worthiest of men—the late Sir William Harcourt, standing at that Table, and on an occasion in no way associated with the election of an occupant of the Chair, saying that he knew of no higher ambition to which any man could aspire than to have it said of him with truth that he stood well with the House of Commons. If that is true—and I humbly associate myself with that sentiment—if that be so, how lofty is the pinnacle of accomplishment to which my right hon. Friend has already been exalted. Not once, but on four previous occasions, the House of Commons has paid him the highest honour in its power to bestow, and by acclamation has called him to the Chair and it is no mere figure of speech to say that never in the course of his long services has he stood higher in the regard, esteem and confidence of his fellow-members than he does to-day. I was glad my right hon. Friend enumerated the many qualities possessed by Mr. Lowther. I associate myself with all that he said, and endorse every word of his well-expressed and well-merited eulogy. As a Scottish representative, I was particularly glad that he referred to his great quality of humour, if, for no other reason, than that a compatriot of mine, with an aptitude for genealogical research combined with a vivid imagination, has discovered that it was directly traceable to Scottish ancestry on his mother's side.

The heavy and ever-increasing responsibilities of the Chair have, not prevented my right hon. Friend from undertaking important national work of an extra-Parliamentary character, where his great qualities of constructive statesmanship have had full play. Governments in difficulties have often been glad to avail themselves of his sage counsel and advice. He has presided over many great conferences with supreme credit to himself and of great advantage to the nation. I will refer only to one conference in which his great abilities had full play with conspicuous results—the Speaker's Conference—over which he presided, and which is the foundation of this present House of Commons. He presided over that with marked ability and triumphant success. It was not a conference to make investigations. It was a conference to bring together the irreconcilable, and to endeavour, if possible, to obtain common agreement.

My right hon. Friend, as if with a magician's wand, succeeded in making men subscribe to propositions which their whole political existence had been devoted to attempting to destroy. Hew he succeeded has never yet been fully explained. The last House of Commons never discovered it, and I am afraid it is one of those mysteries which will have to be left to time to unravel. I remember that just after the Conference presented its Report I asked an Irish friend of mine, who was a member of that Conference, to tell me the methods which were employed by Mr. Speaker, as he then was, to bring about harmony out of what appeared to be chaos. He said to me: "Would you have me tell you?" I said I would, and looking me straight in the face, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, Checking the crazy ones, Coaxin' the aisy ones, Helpin' the lazy ones on wid a stick. I do not know whether this is a historically accurate review of the methods employed by my right hon. Friend on that occasion, but I know that he succeeded in one of the most difficult tasks which any statesman was ever called upon to perform, and, by his constructive ability and his limitless reserve of parliamentary resource, he was able to produce that epoch-making Report.

I think I may say that, in a true and broad paternal sense, he is the father of this House, as at present constituted. I hope that he may always have reason to be proud of his offspring. If I were asked to describe what is the most characteristic feature of my right hon. Friend's administration, as the result of almost daily observation ever since the first day he was called to the Chair, I would say that, no matter how friendless, no matter how forlorn may be the cause which he represents, no matter how unattached a Member of this House may be, no matter how unpopular the cause with which he is associated, no matter how unexceptionally opposed he may be to the vast majority of which the House is composed, no matter how provocative is his manner of expressing his views, if he observe the rules laid down in this House and accepted by us for the governance of our discussions, so long can he count not only on having a full, a fair and an adequate opportunity of expressing his opinions, but that he can at all times count in having in the Chair in my right hon. Friend a firm friend and protector. In commending this Motion to the unanimous and cordial acceptance of this House, I know, and his old colleagues know, that, in his charge, the honour, the dignity, the impartiality of the Chair, the free play of debate, the protection of our privileges, the rights of minorities, the glory of our great parliamentary traditions, are his safe and sacred trust.

Mr. LOWTHER (who was received with general cheers)

Sir Courtenay Ilbert,—In accordance with the ancient custom of this House, I rise at this moment to submit myself to the will of the House, and in doing so I should like, first of all, to tender to the two right hon. Gentlemen who have proposed and seconded my nomination to the Chair my very heartiest thanks for the extraordinary kind and eulogistic terms in which they have submitted my name. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Totnes Division (Colonel Mildmay) is an old college friend of mine. His presence in this Chamber reminds me from time to time of how "the noiseless step of time steals swiftly by," for it is about forty years ago since we were at Cambridge together. My right hon. Friend has won his laurels in many fields. He is one of those gallant men who left the House of Commons to do service in France and Flanders. There he has won distinction, for which the House will ever be grateful to him. His modesty in debate is the only fault which I have to find, and it is surpassed by the gallantry which he has shown both in South Africa and in the Great War. My right hon. Friend behind me (Sir H. Dalziel), who was kind enough to second my nomination, has won distinction in other fields. He has preferred the Senate to the Field. He has won distinction in our Debates, in which he has taken a frequent and most important part. The weight of his observations, the attractiveness of his speech, always secure for him a full House. He is one of those who believe that "the pen is mightier than the sword." Yet he has always carried a lance, and his lance has been the freest of free lances, couched at one time in this direction and at another time in that. Both right hon. Gentlemen have referred to my long service in this House, both at the Table and at the Chair. I would like at once—I am afraid that on such an occasion as this I have to deal with personal matters—to say that if the House be willing and prepared to call me to be the occupant of the Chair, I shall be glad again to place my services at its disposal; and in order that all doubt on the point may be set at rest, I should like to add that I am prepared, if no unforeseen circumstance should arise, to remain there for a year or eighteen months, or possibly two years.

I will make a confession, and that is that I am moved by two considerations, first a personal consideration, which is of comparatively little import, and, secondly, a public consideration. The first consideration is that, as my right hon. Friend has kindly said, I took some small part in bringing about the existence of this House, with the aid of my colleagues. I can reveal at once to my right hon. Friend the secret of our success in the Electoral Reform Conference, and that was the determination of my colleagues to arrive at some unanimous conclusion. Therefore my task was not so arduous a one as is popularly supposed. Having had some small part in bringing this House into existence, it is only a natural desire, and I think the House will agree that it is not an ignoble or an improper ambition on my part, to preside over it, at all events, for some little time.

I should like also to add that having sat in that Chair on the occasion of the momentous meetings of the 3rd and 4th August, at the commencement of the War, having presided during all the strenuous and trying times of the War, and having been in my place when the announcement was made of the signature of the Armistice on the 11th November last, I do cherish the ambition of being there when the announcement is made from the Treasury Bench of the signature of Peace.

For one moment may I deal with the public consideration? The genius of this country and its spirit leads it, I think, ever to desire to graft new shoots upon old stocks—to erect new buildings upon old foundations, to continue the old historic traditions, and yet to build upon them such structures as may be required by the new problems and necessities of the times. We are wont to retain, as far as we can, the old methods, but to adapt them to new wants. What is true of the country generally is true, I think, particularly of the House of Commons and of its procedure. While we keep the best of the old rules in this House, we are ever ready to adapt new rules to the old, and to carry out the old rules in a modern spirit. That, at all events, has always been my desire, and I believe that it will be for the convenience of the House, on such an occasion as this—when its personnel is so largely altered—that in the Chair there should be one who is imbued with the old traditions, and who yet (I think I may fairly claim) is filled with the modern spirit. I think that there should be one to whom the new Members can look as to one having authority and one who is prepared to administer the old rules, and to adapt the old rules to the new circumstances.

Something has been said with regard to the general position of this House, and to the endeavours which I have made to obtain a hearing even for those whose views were most unpopular. That I confess has always been before me. I have always aimed at that particular ideal, and, whatever criticism may be passed upon the House of Commons in respect to the last four and a half years, I confess that to my mind it redounds immensely to the credit of this great Chamber that it has permitted views, unpopular with the vast majority of this House and, as now appears, with the overwhelming majority of this country, to be uttered here and listened to, I will not say with respect, but I will say with interest and with patience.

I take to myself no particular credit for what has occurred, but I shall always look back with satisfaction to the fact that the small knot of Members whose views, as I say, were quite out of harmony with the views of the majority of this House, were allowed to express these views freely and openly not once or twice, but repeatedly. I do not intend, on this occasion—it would be improper for me to do so—to detain the House any longer, especially as the particular topic under discussion is myself. I will only say that I am exceedingly grateful to the House for the confidence which, during fourteen years, it has reposed in me. Without that confidence the tenant of the Chair would find himself in an extremely difficult position.

The Chair is not at any time a bed of roses, but, at all events, where the Speaker has the confidence of the House the House may be assured that the Debates will be conducted in a fair and an effective manner. And I feel convinced that, if the House be willing again to accord to me the confidence which it has shown in the past, for my part I will do my best to maintain the high honour, the dignity and the ancient traditions of this great assembly.

The House having again unanimously called Mr. James William, Lowther to the Chair, he was taken out of his place by Colonel Mildmay and Sir Henry Dalziel, and conducted to the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER-ELECT (standing on the upper step to the Chair)

Before taking the Chair, once more as Speaker of this House, I should like to express to it my deep sense of the high honour which the House has done me for the fifth time.

Mr. SPEAKER-ELECT sat down in the Chair.

Then the Mace (which before lay under the Table) was placed upon the Table by the Sergeant at Arms (Sir Colin Keppel K.C.I.E., K.C.V.O., C.B., D.S.O.).

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

Mr. Speaker-Elect,—In the unavoidable absence of the Prime Minister, it is my privilege to congratulate you on the honour—the highest in their power to bestow—which has again been conferred upon you by your fellow-Members in selecting you, to use the old-time phraseology of the Royal Message which we have just heard, as "a proper person to preside over our deliberations." I remember well the first occasion when you were elected as Speaker in this House. The duties of your position are so responsible and so difficult—they require a combination of so many rare qualities—that, however great may have been the success of a Speaker-Elect in other fields, there is always some, if not anxieties, some uncertainties, as to what his success will be in his new sphere. Before you were chosen for this office you had long filled the post of Chairman of Committees. In that position you had so won the confidence of the House of Commons that in your case there was little, if any, of the uncertainty to which I refer. I express, I think, the opinion of every Member of the House who has served under your Speakership when I say that the high expectations which were then entertained as to your success have been more than justified by the event. As you have pointed out, the position of Speaker would be impossible unless he could rely always on the unswerving support of the House of Commons; but the wholeheartedness and enthusiasm with which that support will be given must depend always upon the personality of the occupant of the Chair, and must depend on the extent to which he succeeds in securing and maintaining not only the respect, but the good will of the Members of the House of Commons. That respect and good will you secured at the beginning, and every succeeding Session has made that feeling more marked on the part of Members of the House.

As has been pointed out, you have had a long and varied experience. My right hon. Friend behind referred to the body, which you have not only to guide but to control, as an animal. I have had some little experience myself of that animal. I know that there is never anything vicious about it, and I am sure, at least I think, that it is hardly possible for it to develop any tricks to which you have not already been accustomed. None of us can doubt, as was indicated in the speech which you have just delivered, that if you had consulted your own wishes you would have been glad to be relieved of those duties. Is there anyone who doubts that you have earned that relief? But, Sir, in this, as I believe in your whole public career, you have obeyed a higher law than that of your own wishes. You have presided over one of the shortest of our Parliaments. You have presided also over the longest except one—over that Parliament which saw the beginning and the end of the War, a Parliament which year after year reflected in its every phase the hopes and fears of the masses of the people of this country, a Parliament, too, which in its own person shared the suffering and anguish that were necessary to win that struggle. It is but natural that you should desire to preside over it when the final Peace Treaty is signed, and of this I am sure, that the longer you occupy this position the more shall we feel that it is not a case of congratulating you, but of congratulating the House of Commons, and of expressing on behalf of the House of Commons our gratitude to you that you have found it possible still to continue to fill the great office which you have occupied so long and with so much distinction.


I should like to say, Sir, before I endeavour to express in such way as I can the congratulations of those with whom I am associated, that I rise to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker-Elect, without my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Labour party (Mr. Adamson) also rising, by understanding and agreement with him. I am an older Member of the House, and senior to him in the great office, of Privy Councillor of His Majesty the King. Let me say this, that imperfect as my qualifications must be for following the Leader of the House, I have one qualification which even he does not possess, and that is the fact that for seven years I had the very great privilege of being associated with you in the conduct of the business of this House, in a minor capacity, in both the Chair at the Table and the Chair which you now so worthily occupy.

Therefore I am able to say from personal knowledge how quite adequate, and indeed in some sense not sufficiently adequate, were the terms used by all those who have previously spoken in praise of your qualifications for this great office. It is perfectly true that the difficulties which await us are unique. There has been an upheaval in the electoral part of this country which has never before been experienced by any Speaker or by any Member of this House, and, therefore, we are entitled not only to congratulate you, but also to congratulate ourselves that, in the really difficult times which must await us, we have your unique and long parliamentary experience, your wide human sympathies, and our intense sense of fairness to minorities to guide us in the difficult days that still await us. We were more than delighted to hear that there is a prospect of our being able to sit under you for, perhaps, two years. The physical qualities that are necessary for the duties of the Chair to be carried out are, we trust, with you in full measure, but there are some physical defects in a Speaker which are of advantage. An ideal Speaker must not only have good vision, but be sometimes quite blind; not only have acute hearing, but occasionally be almost stone deaf. In saying that, it simply suggests that you possess a full knowledge of that essential quality of sympathy with human nature in all its wisdom and all its weakness of which this House is so truly representative.

There is another part of your speech which we are very glad indeed to hear, and that is that you look forward to the time—the absolutely necessary time—when this House will have to adjust its ancient forms to the new claims of modern business; and in so doing there is, after all, one great qualification which you possess, and that is you have always linked yourself to the spirit of this House. This House is crowded, as one sees it now, but there is another House of Commons which we cannot see—that House of Commons which is composed, as Disraeli once so splendidly said, of Members "who are independent of the caprice of constituencies and of the flight of time"; and their influence and their spirit are with us still. They are with us, I am sure, to-day, and will be with us in the difficult times that await us. But you, Sir, have that spirit, and I am quite convinced that, in the administration of the dry and technical forms of this House, which are necessary, it is no less necessary that they should be administered in full and complete communion with the great traditions of the past.

We have that splendid advantage in your promise, and the hope you hold out to us, that we may have you, at least, for two years to guide our destinies. And may I say this in conclusion? There have been many Speakers of this House of Commons. There is a very select class of the great Speakers. I think with the accord we acclaim you to-day as one of the great Speakers of the House of Commons. In doing that we are conscious—and proudly conscious—that we have one of the great Speakers of the House of Commons presiding over an assembly which is the power-house of that community of self-governing peoples we call the British Empire, the sounding-board of the world, the Mother of Parliaments.


Mr. Speaker-Elect,—It is my privilege, on behalf of the Labour Party, to tender to you our sincere congratulations on your re-election to your high office. As you know, the Labour Party is now the largest Party in Opposition in attendance in the House. That undoubtedly raises the question of precedence. But this is not the time for that to be discussed, and it should in no way interfere with the flow, or with the sincerity, of our congratulations to you, Sir, on this auspicious occasion. And I can assure you that in no section of the House is your re-election agreed to with greater confidence than by the members of the Labour Party in this House. We recognise your sterling qualities, your fair-mindedness and your helpfulness to all sections of the House, and it is indeed a privilege for me to have to rise and tender on their behalf our sincere and hearty congratulations on your re-election to your office.


On behalf of the group I represent, I desire, Sir, to add a few words to what have already gone in congratulation to you upon the House again re-electing you as Speaker.

You have a large spirit of liberty. You have a lofty sense of the dignity that belongs to this ancient Chamber. You have an acute and searching sense of humour. Above all, you have a great understanding of the composite humanities that go to make up this assembly. It is because you embody these qualities that you will take your place in the long tradition of Speakers as one of the greatest of them. We congratulate you, Sir, and shall be glad to uphold you in that fair and dignified interpretation of the rules of this House that we have seen from you in the past. On other grounds we shall always find it discreet not to come into conflict, more than we are obliged to do, with your ruling. Again, on behalf of the group for which I speak, I desire to tender you our hearty congratulations and the felicitations of this House in again securing your services.

Motion made, and Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.—[Mr. Bonar Law.]

Mr. Speaker-Elect thereupon put the Question, which being agreed to, the House adjourned accordingly until tomorrow, and Mr. Speaker-Elect went away without the Mace before him.

House adjourned at eight minutes before Four o'clock until to-morrow (Wednesday), at a Quarter before Three o'clock.