HC Deb 24 November 1931 vol 260 cc355-62

"It shall not be lawful for any alteration in the law touching the succession to the throne or the Royal style and titles to be made without the consent of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and the Parliaments of all the Dominions."—[Mr. Atkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The complaint which some of us have against this Bill is its want of courage in putting its provisions into clear language. We have just had one example in connection with the last proposed new Clause. No one intends or wishes to impair the legal basis of the Treaty; yet the Bill dare not say so, and here we have another example. The position of the Crown in connection with this Bill is obviously one of vital importance, and yet it is only dealt with in the Preamble, and there is nothing about it in the enacting part of the Bill. I want to point out a contrast. There are two recitals of importance in the Preamble. The second is And whereas it is in accord with the established constitutional position that no law hereafter made my the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall extend to any of the said Dominions as part of the law of that Dominion otherwise than at the request and with the consent of that Dominion. That finds its place in Clause 4, where it is enacted in precisely similar language. The first recital, which is of far greater importance, deals with the position of the Crown. Again, we have the same curious language that it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members of the Commonwealth in relation to one another that any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. That recital finds no place in the Bill, and I and the other hon. Members whose names are attached to this Amendment raise this point because we want an explanation. It is a matter of great importance, and if it is meant to be part and parcel of the constitutional law of the Empire, we want to know why it is not so stated in clear and definite language. Why is there not a Clause definitely making that the law, as has been done in the case of the other recitals? It may be said that the preamble recognises it to be the law. Well, does it? The language is very curious. It speaks of: the established constitutional position. Why cannot it even there say "the established constitutional law"? We all know what constitutional law means, but I do not think any of us know what is meant by constitutional position. At any rate, the phrase is there, and I suppose it is intended to mean something, and if it really means something, if it is meant to recognise this as part of the law of the Empire, I submit it ought to be embodied in a Clause framed in clear and definite language.


I beg to second the Motion.

Either the words in the preamble are intended to mean something or nothing. If they are intended to mean nothing, then not only have the Government been afraid to put into the Bill a definite Clause enacting what these words purport to represent, but, in putting the Bill forward in its present form, they are really misleading the House. Those not acquainted with decisions in the Courts of law as to the validity of words that are merely included in the preamble to an Act, might think that by this solemn recital we have really established something which has some measure of validity. A layman myself, I am assured on the highest authority that words recited only in the preamble and not enacted in the Act itself have no validity whatever. If that be so, I cannot help wondering why these words are here at all. Unlike the last Amendment, which proposed to do something definite which was not contemplated in the Bill, this new Clause only puts into the operative part of the Bill what the Government have put into the preamble. It puts in clearer and shorter language exactly what is in the preamble. If the Government meant anything by inserting these words in the preamble, how can they resist this Clause which would put them into the body of the Bill? That is really what we want to know.

If, on the other hand, they mean nothing, why should they be put there in order to give the appearance of mean-something when we all know quite well that they mean nothing at all in law. On the grounds of necessity and plain dealing with the House and the country, we ask that these words should be put in the operative part of the Bill or left out of the Preamble altogether. If the Government resist this new Clause—I cannot see how they can on its merits—we must assume that they want the country to think that there is some protection given to the succession to the Crown, and to the principle that the different parts of the Commonwealth of Nations or the British Empire should recognise His Majesty and his successors or not. If they really mean that there should be some security given to the great bond of union which exists throughout the Empire, there is nothing more important than that we should insert these important words in the new Clause.


I hope my hon. Friends will not press this new Clause. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) said that either the words of it should be inserted in the Bill, or they should be left out of the Preamble. I do not think there is a single Member of the House who would be more disappointed than the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple if those words were omitted from the Preable. The hon. and learned Member for Altrincham (Mr. Atkinson) founded his criticism on the assumption that in Statute law there had been an abandonment of the old habit of prefacing the Bill with a, Preamble, and he stated that all lawyers know that the words of the Preamble are never looked at by the judge. That statement is right with reference to an ordinary Act of Parliament, but a study of constitutional law will show that some of the classic cases dealing with the Constitution of the Realm are to be found in the Preambles of great constitutional Statutes.

I take the view that a solemn recital of these words in the Preamble of the Bill will be most valuable and impressive. They were put there at the Imperial Conference in pursuance of the recommendations of the Committee on Dominion Legislation, and it would be contrary to the decision there arrived at to put these words in the operative part of the Bill. For these reasons, I hope that the Committee will feel that happily the Crown does not want this protection at least in this country, and that the firm foundation upon which the loyalty of the people of the country rests is well secured by the Preamble. I hope therefore that the Committee will not be so small-minded as to insist upon legal pedantry by putting these words in the Statute of Westminster. I hope my hon. Friends will not think it necessary to press the Clause to a Division.

10.30 p.m.


As one of those who think that it is better, so far as is possible, to have an unwritten rather than a written Constitution, it seems to me that it would be far better to leave these words in the way that they are, rather than to remove them into the Statute itself, and thereby make this declaration more rigid than it otherwise would be. I desire to call attention to some interesting observations with reference to the Crown that were made in the course of the Debate in the Canadian House of Commons when the Statute of Westminster came before it. During that Debate, Mr. A. R. Lavergne took rather a different line. He said: The Dominions, or self-governing Kingdoms of the Empire, should now place upon their Statute Books a law providing that they should contribute their share to the Civil List of the King and the Royal Family. That would be a far better way of recognising the benefits of the Monarchy than in indulging in protestations of lofty sentiment. I hope that these words used in the Canadian Parliament may echo round the Parliaments of the Empire, and that some progress, perhaps on these lines, as a united Commonwealth of Nations, may be made with regard to the Crown.


I should not have intervened but for the fact that the Government have been singularly unpliable to-night. As far as I could follow the arguments of the Solicitor-General, the only argument against this proposed new Clause seems to be that it is merely legal pedantry. Far be it from me to decide who are the greatest authorities on legal pedantry among the various lawyers in this House; I should never dream of interfering in such a matter, but, if that be the only reason, and apparently it is, I do not see why the Clause should not go into the Bill. I agree, on the whole, that the Preamble lays down the whole position. We know that possibly this Measure is not really quite as important as some might assume it to be, but, at the same time, this proposed new Clause does not offend anyone, none of the Dominions have asked—as we have been told on other occasions has been the case—that it should not he put in, there has been no petition from the Prime Minister or the Government of any of the Dominions that it should be left out, and, undoubtedly, a good deal of feeling has been exhibited that certain things should be inserted in an Act of this kind. Is there any reason why one section of the British Parliament should not be responsible for a little bit of the Bill on its own account?

Again the proposed new Clause makes no distinction between this Parliament and some other Parliaments of the Empire or Commonwealth of Nations, such as has been used as an argument against other Amendments. The whole Clause might quite well be accepted by the Government if, as I understand, its acceptance would at any rate give some pleasure and consolation to those who have worked very hard and spent a great deal of time in looking into this Measure. While this particular Clause is not one on which I should desire to vote against the Government, I say quite frankly that there seems to be no earthly reason why it should not be put into the Bill, and, as I think it would be welcomed by many Members who will not take any part in the Debate, I should have thought that the Government might for once have met the desires of that section of the House who would like to see the Clause added to the Bill.


I desire to submit one consideration to my hon. Friends in regard to this matter. I am not sure that this Clause, if it were introduced into the Bill, could apply to any other Parliament than this Parliament. I do not think it has been suggested that legislation affecting the succession to the Crown, would be likely to be introduced in any other Parliament than this, and, if that be the case, this Clause would be ineffective, because no legislation passed here could bind this Parliament against again legislating on the matter. Therefore, I submit that in law the Clause would be inoperative.

On the other hand, this whole Measure deals, not with a question of law, but with a great question of constitutional usage. If we look at the Report of the Constitutional Conference, we see that they dealt with the whole question as one of constitutional convention. They suggest that proper recognition should be given to the position of the Crown, as commanding the equal allegiance of all, by means of a convention similar to that which in recent years has controlled the theoretically unfettered powers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. They go on to say that such a Convention could not derogate from the position of the Dominions. They suggest words which have since been adopted, and they suggest that the appropriate place would be a formal recital or Preamble in the proposed Act. I submit, not merely on the ground of conforming to what was definitely recommended by the Imperial Legislative Conference and endorsed by the Imperial Conference of 1930 but also on the ground that the appropriate place in which to embody a constitutional principle, but not a matter of constitutional law, is in the Preamble, which is for that sort of purpose not the least important, least solemn or least binding part of a great constitutional Statute, that the present text should stand.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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