HC Deb 12 February 1924 vol 169 cc746-51
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald)

I beg to move,

"That this House do now adjourn."

No Prime Minister has ever met the House of Commons in circumstances similar to those in which I meet it. For the time being no party in this House has a majority. The party opposite is the largest, of the three, but on account of the circumstances of the Election, it is impossible for this House to ask them to remain in power. As the second party, the Labour party has accepted the responsibility of office. I think that that will necessitate some alteration in our House of Commons habits. I think that we will have less to say- about party and less to think about party than we have had hitherto, and that we shall lay more and more emphasis upon the responsibility of individual Members of this House of voting as responsible Members of the House and not merely as party politicians. That is all to the good, as far as this House is concerned. It puts me in this position, however: I have a lively recollection of all sorts of ingenuities practised by Oppositions in order to spring a snap division upon a Government, so that it might turn it out upon a defeat. I have known bathrooms downstairs utilised, not for their legitimate purpose, but for the illegitimate purpose of packing as many Members surreptitiously inside their doors as their physical limitations would allow. I have known an adjoining building, where there happens to be a convenient Division bell, used for similar purposes. I have seen the House, practically empty when the bells began to ring, suddenly transformed into a very riotous sort of market-place by the inrush of Members, doing their best for their nation, for the House of Commons and for their party, to find a Government napping, and to turn it out upon a stupid issue.

I am going out on no such issue. I am sure that no one would enjoy the engineering of those snap divisions more than my hon. Friend opposite (Commander Eyres-Monsell). He could do it. On this occasion he will not bag his prey. The Labour Government will go out if it be defeated upon substantial issues, issues of principle, issues that really matter. It will go out if the responsible leaders of either party or any party move a direct vote of no confidence, and carry that vote, But I propose to introduce my business, knowing that I am in a minority, accepting the responsibilities of a minority, and claiming the privileges that attach to those responsibilities. If the House en matters non-essential, matters of mere opinion, matters that do not strike at the root of the proposals that we make, and do not destroy fundamentally the general intentions of the Government in introducing legislation—if the House wish to vary our proposition, the House must take the responsibility for that variation—then a division on such amendments and questions as those will not be regarded as a vote of no confidence.

In some respects my difficulties are unique. Supposing another Election were to return to this House parties divided somehow as we are now? —it does not matter how much the variation in numbers might be, but if no one party has an absolute majority in the House, then whoever may take my place here, whoever makes himself responsible for the Government, will have to claim the privilege which I have just enunciated. Therefore, so far as that is concerned, although my position is the first of its kind up to now, it may not be the last of its kind even in our own lifetime. In some respects, however, my position is unique. For the first time the Labour party has made itself responsible for the Government of the country. We were suspected. The most violent efforts were made to create a panic as soon as it looked likely that we were to ft come in. I want to offer my most sincere thanks to those calm-minded, sane-minded and responsible men of business who told the country and investors not to make fools of themselves by playing into the hands of merely mischievous panicmongers. The result is that the security that my right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Baldwin) tried hard to get, and failed to get, has been given to us. [Laughter.] If that laugh mean disagreement, it also indicates that no hon. Members opposite are possessors of gilt-edged securities in this country, for if they were, they would know perfectly well that since the Labour party came into power the value of their securities has substantially risen. But it is not ended yet.