§ 11.18 p.m.
I beg to move, in page 6, line 39, to leave out from "by," to the end of the Clause, and to insert "Resolution of the House."
671 Under the Bill as it stands, in certain circumstances, the onus of selecting who is to be the Leader of the Opposition rests upon Mr. Speaker, and the Amendment proposes that the decision shall be by a Resolution of the House. The reason for the Amendment is twofold. I think that Mr. Speaker is put in a wrong position by the proposal of the Bill, both as regards the constitutional position and as regards the position of Members in the House of Commons. As regards the position in the House of Commons, we vote and control Supply, and there is machinery whereby we should dispute the position of the Leader of the Opposition; and, if the circumstances which would require a decision as to who was the Leader of the Opposition should arise, we should, by inference, be criticising Mr. Speaker's action, Mr. Speaker's conduct of affairs. As regards the constitutional position, while there is theoretical freedom on the part of the Crown, in the event of a Government defeat, to send for whomsoever the Crown likes in order that he may form an administration, the Crown sends for the person whom his advisers, say is most likely to form an administration, and this theoretical freedom is in effect translated into sending for the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, in certain eventualities we are putting on Mr. Speaker the duty of selecting the next potential Prime Minister. If the Amendment were accepted, the responsibility for such a nomination would devolve upon those to whom the person selected would have to look for support and confidence in order to form an administration.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Sir J. Simon
I think I shall be able to satisfy the hon. and gallant Gentleman that his ingenious suggestion cannot be adopted. We are dealing with a rare case in which doubt arises. If we only remember the part that Mr. Speaker plays every day in dealing with the affairs of the House,. I do not think we shall doubt that he is qualified to remove this doubt. In fact, he is removing it by his own action almost every day. Before I put these words before the House, I thought it proper and respectful to communicate with Mr. Speaker, and he informed me that, if the proposal 672 were approved by the House, he would accept the task. I think this is the proper way to do it. There are other purposes analogous to this for which Mr. Speaker sometimes certifies. He does it under the Parliament Act, and there are other matters in which we are accustomed to call upon him in his official capacity. I do not think it would be proper for the majority of the House to decide this on because, after all, they would necessarily be deciding it at a time when the individual to be selected was leader of a minority.
§ 11.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
The Home Secretary has failed to point out a fact which applies equally to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's proposal and to the proposal in the Bill which he wishes to stand. This brings us to the second impossible position the first of which I referred to earlier. We have a Member very gravely rising in his place and proposing that the leader of a minority party shall be chosen by the majority of the House as a whole. If we conceive the position that there are two candidates for the leadership of this party, one with views that approximate to those of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Thanet (Captain Balfour), he will be entitled to canvass his friends under his proposal to secure a majority for the candidate of this party of whom he most approves. Nor is the position any better if we leave the Clause as it stands.
The Home Secretary told us that he had secured the assent of Mr. Speaker to carry out this invidious task. We shall find ourselves in this position: We shall be returned one day afer a general election. There will be neither a Speaker in the Chair nor a Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Speaker will be contemplating whom he will appoint as Leader of the Opposition, and the would-be leaders of the Opposition will be contemplating whom they will appoint as Speaker. I cannot think that that will be a satisfactory position. Even if the Speaker were appointed and there was a cleavage of opinion as to who should lead this party, it would be an absolutely impossible and invidious position if a decision were left to Mr. Speaker or anybody else except this party or that party. There is no provision here that Mr. Speaker should be guided by a 673 majority vote. Under this proposal, if 200 Conservatives voted for the present Chancellor of the Exchequer and 199 voted for the present Home Secretary for that leadership, Mr. Speaker, perhaps preferring the good looks of the Home Secretary, might choose him in preference to the leader chosen by the Conservative party.
As we go further we shall find that this is a farcical proposal. It is an impossible proposal to put upon the shoulders of Mr. Speaker, who is not competent to exercise it. If he exercise it rightly there may be no criticism, but if he exercises it wrongly or even in a case of genuine doubt, he will create for himself endless doubt and dissatisfaction, which ought not to be placed upon the actions of one whose prime duty is to be impartial in his functions in the House of Commons. He will arouse the gratitude of the man whom he choses and his followers, and he will arouse the animosity, if not the anger of the minority leader and those who support the leader whom he does not choose. I still hope that this proposal will find its way to the Statute Book.
§ 11.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Buchanan
The proposal of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Capt. Balfour) does not meet the case. The Opposition only are entitled to select the Leader of the Opposition. The House of Commons has no right to say who shall be that leader. In considering the position with which the Clause is meant to deal of two parties nearly numerically equal, I remember that when I first entered Parliament the Labour party for the first time were the official opposition. There was a considerable section of Liberals who thought that they should be the official Opposition, and I remember the struggles that used to take place for seats on the front Opposition Bench. The late Lord Oxford, the right hon. gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and several other ex-Cabinet Ministers belonging to the Liberal party sat there, and there was daily a good deal of amusement among hon. Members in watching who was able to get nearest that Box. At that time the Liberals were fewer in number than the Labour party. There were about 20 of them, and there was a good deal of feeling among Conservatives that the 674 Opposition were really the Liberals. If one assumed that the numbers of the Opposition parties had been more equal, the Speaker, under the terms of this Bill, could have picked out the leader of the party he believed to be the right one.
What happens? The party whose man is not picked as Leader of the Opposition will never forgive Mr. Speaker. Immediately, he will cease to be Mr. Speaker to that party. To them he will become a party man. He will have gone on the party basis. That party might be 100 strong and it could give the Speaker a very uncomfortable time. Even a smaller party can be very active in this House—even a party of four. [Interruption.] I have contributed my portion as much as any of my sneering critics. I have done my job with as much cleanness as other people. When I hear about the Opposition keeping their record clear, I remember that the one man belonging to their party who brought discredit to it always had a considerable income. The men who never brought discredit to it had no income. Under this proposal Mr. Speaker will be called upon to select a particular man. He will do so, and there will be a powerful group who will never forgive him, because they will think that their man should be the Leader. They will make Mr. Speaker's life intolerable. I remember one occasion when the hon. Member who now represents Gorton (Mr. Benn) took an active part in certain proceedings affecting the Speaker. Mr. Speaker had done something which the Liberal party thought was wrong and they put down a Motion censuring him. That Motion was backed by two Cabinet Ministers, Sir Alfred Mond, who became Lord Melchett, and the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). From that day Mr. Speaker Whitley ceased to be the Speaker he was before. You could feel the change in the atmosphere. Within a short time he passed out.
That is what would happen under this proposal, and everyone knows it. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr. Garro Jones) said, it is an impossible position, and the more you examine it the worse it becomes. It means Mr. Speaker making a party decision which in a few weeks might be upset. We have had recently a record number of by-elections. Such elections might change the strength 675 of two parties in Opposition; the largest one day might become the smallest the next. In those circumstances is Mr. Speaker's choice, already made, to stand for the four years or so of that Parliament or will it be necessary for him to make another choice? The Leader he may have selected will have ceased to be Leader of the largest Opposition party. The Clause says:'Leader of the Opposition' means that member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to His Majesty's Government having the greatest numerical strength in that House.The Speaker decides. The Leader of the Opposition is to be appointed by the edict of the Chair. It is an impossible position. Without being offensive I suggest that they may not always be the largest party. There was a time when the late Keir Hardie was here alone, and the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) and the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) may one day be the leader of a bigger party. And if we have proportional representation it may alter entirely the present grouping of parties. These are consideration which should be borne in mind.
§ 11.42 p.m.
§ Sir Irving Albery
We are dealing with important constitutional matters upon which we have not had sufficient guidance from the Government. This is a proposal under which Mr. Speaker is to be responsible for designating the Leader of the Opposition in writing.
§ Sir I. Albery
The Subsection says:If any doubt arises as to which is or was at any material time the party in opposition to His Majesty's Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons, or as to who is or was at any material time the leader in that House of such a party, the question shall be decided for the purposes of this Act by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and his decision, certified in writing under his hand, shall be final and conclusive.It is not long ago that a right hon. Gentleman ceased to be the Leader of the Opposition and another right hon. Gentleman took his place. What would happen in such a case? And suppose there were a split in the Opposition, and the Leader 676 no longer represented the entire Opposition or even half of it, and was not willing to resign, saying that he held his office under the authority of Mr. Speaker. I want to know what Mr. Speaker would do in such an event? These are important issues and we are not giving sufficient consideration to the serious nature of the alterations we are making.
§ 11.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
As things are at the present time in the House there would be no difficulty at all, and because there would be no difficulty the Government are inclined to treat this matter too lightly. I remember the time when there used to be trouble on the front Opposition bench and appeals to Mr. Speaker as to which party was the Opposition. I remember that we were asked to be early in our seats to keep the Liberals from occupying them. The point I wish to put to the Government relates to the words:the party in opposition to His Majesty's Government.We have had so far no definition of that phrase. One can conceive the possibility in the future of there being certain people who are associated together and who take general action together, although they may not belong to the same organisation. For instance, above the Gangway there was the Socialist league and there is the Cooperative party, as well as the Labour party. Are the members of the Co-operative party to be deducted from the numbers of the Labour party? We ought to be clear about this.
Moreover, there is in the House a growing number of independent members. The Universities have gone in for independent representation. There might be an occasion when two opposition parties were fairly evenly balanced: would the independents in such a case be taken as the determining factor if they could give the majority to one of the rival leaders of the Opposition? There have been movements on the Continent with regard to the popular front. In such a case, it is conceivable that, while the individual parties might remain, they would all be working in co-operation as the members of a party of the popular front. In a situation of that sort, who would decide? If Mr. Speaker said he was going to treat them as individual parties and have no 677 regard to the fact that they acted together co-operatively and considered themselves as a party of the popular front, the position would be an impossible one.
I believe one of the difficulties is due to the fact that there is no definition of what is meant by "party." In the normal course of events, that has not created great difficulties. In the 1923 Parliament it might well have been that the Liberal party might have decided not to put the Conservative party out of office. In 1923 there was a sufficiently near balance; some Members who took the Tory whip generally speaking might quite well have said they were going to take the whip of the Liberal party. What evidence are we to have as to the numbers of a party—Is acceptance of the whip to be regarded as entitling a Member to be regarded as a Member of the Party? I think that the previous Prohibitionist Member for Dundee received the whip of the Labour party. I think the Nationalist Member, Mr. Joe Devlin, received the whip of the Labour party; I know that he was always informed by the Labour party of the proceedings in the House, and I think he regarded it as getting their whip. This is a matter that has to be cleared up. We are not legislating for this particular minute of this particular Parliament, but for the future, and the Government ought to make this matter much clearer than it is at the present time.
§ 11.50 p.m.
The Attorney General
I need not say that we appreciate any anxieties which have been expressed by those who have spoken as to the question of putting new duties on Mr. Speaker and the important points raised in the discussion. I would, however, like to point out what is the exact position in the Bill. We have already passed the principle that there shall be a salary or allowance to the Leader of the Opposition.
The Attorney General
I think that there were 41 members who thought that there should not be a salary, and more than 200 who thought that there should be. We have already passed the definition of the Leader of the Opposition:'Leader of the Opposition ' means 'that Member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to His Majesty's Gov- 678 ernment having the greatest numerical strength in that House.'
We have come to art Amendment in the Clause which is past the passage to which the hon. Member refers.
The definition cannot now be amended, though the Committee can refuse to order the Clause to stand part of the Bill.
§ The Attorney-General
He has never exemplified that the learning which he and I both possess in common is needed more than in the speech which he has just made, because, when one comes down to the practical application of this Clause, I seriously suggest that not only is there no difficulty about it but the burden which it is said is imposed on Mr. Speaker is of exactly the same character as that which he is performing daily in the conduct of our business. On every Thursday afternoon, for example, he calls on the Leader of the Opposition. After Question time he frequently calls on the Leader of the Opposition to put a private notice Question. There is occasion after occasion when Mr. Speaker performs, not exactly the same, but analogous duties in the day-to-day conduct of business. Towards the end of every Debate, when other hon. Gentlemen may rise, Mr. Speaker calls on one particular right hon. or hon. Gentleman.
The Speaker calls on the already appointed leader, the leader appointed by the Official Opposition.
§ The Attorney-General
I quite agree that the hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway may look forward to a time—
§ The Attorney-General
We all look forward, but you can take any Clause in a Bill and with academic ingenuity find a hypothetical case where its application will cause difficulties. When, however, we consider the daily conduct of our business and the duties which Mr. Speaker performs, and realise that in an Act of Parliament it is impossible to provide in words for the kind of cases which are extremely unlikely to arise, I suggest that this Sub-section makes provision for every eventuality.
In view of the remote possibility of the contingency arising, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clauses 11 and 12 agreed to.
§ First and Second Schedules agreed to.