§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill is of considerable constitutional importance, but the issue is in itself clear, and I suggest that the circumstances which warrant its introduction are also clear. The Bill itself is short, and therefore I do not think the House will expect me to speak at length upon it, despite the fact, which the Government fully recognises, that it is a Bill of real constitutional importance, seeing that the prolongation of the life of Parliament is proposed. Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 1911, provided that the maximum duration of a Parliament should be five years, and Clause 1 of this Bill provides that that Section should read as though it were six years instead of five years. In consequence the life of this Parliament, which would ordinarily expire on 25th November this year, will be continued until 25th November, 1941. If the life of Parliament has to be further prolonged, it will be necessary for a new Bill to be introduced some time before 25th November, 1941.
During the last war the successive Acts of 1916 to 1918 which extended for a year the life of Parliament also dealt with the registration of electors. The House will remember that it agreed last year to legislation which continued the existing register in force and made provision whereby no new register is to be made. In view of that legislation, it is not necessary that this Bill should deal with registration matters. I think the House will agree, having regard to the stress and strain which now rest upon municipal officers and the local authorities, who would be concerned with the registration of electors, that it would be a very heavy burden for them to make a new register 1060 at this stage and to keep it up to date in the ordinary way. Moreover, there are considerable movements of the population consequent upon the war, so that in any case the register would shortly become out of date. Even in times of peace, by the time we get to the eleventh month of the registration year it is remarkable to what a considerable extent registers are out of date, and if that is so in times of peace it must be still more so in the circumstances of the present war. Therefore, the existing provision is that the register remains in force, and it is not proposed under that legislation, in fact it is not possible under that legislation, for a new register to be prepared while that Act continues in force.
The reason for the prolongation of Parliament is that a General Election, while it would not be impossible, would be exceedingly difficult in existing circumstances. I leave to the imagination of hon. Members who are as familiar with electoral battle as I am, the very great difficulties that would be involved in the active prosecution of a General Election in the circumstances that exist at the present time. I do not think it is necessary for me to dilate upon those practical circumstances, and, therefore, in proposing to prolong the life of Parliament, we are following the precedent of the last war when the case for it was not as strong as it is to-day. I have no doubt that the House will approve the Bill and that the life of Parliament will be extended for one year.
There is another matter of importance to which I would refer in a brief statement. In making this statement, I am doing so with the authority of the Prime Minister, the matter having been very carefully considered and a deliberate decision reached. An appeal to the electorate must always remain the final constitutional method of resolving grave issues of national policy. No one can foresee what circumstances will arise, but in normal conditions it will be the desire of His Majesty's Government, when a General Election again becomes practicable, to give sufficient notice for the creation of a new register, and this interval would also afford an opportunity for the House to consider, if it so desired, questions connected with changes of our electoral system.
1061 I do not think it is necessary for me to add to what I have already said. I think the Bill will be agreed by all, or at any rate the general body of, hon. Members, and I hope, therefore, that the Second Reading of the Bill will be agreed to.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith (Keighley)
This is a simple Bill, and, as the Home Secretary has explained to the House, its purpose is really self-evident. I cannot imagine that there will be anywhere any desire to oppose its passage into law, but the Home Secretary has raised one or two connected subjects, which arise out of the Bill and which I am rather surprised to find occupied in the last war not only days 'out weeks of Parliamentary time. I do not imagine that we shall find it necessary to spend the same amount of time on them during this war, but I would like to make one or two preliminary observations about these connected subjects. One of these, which was, perhaps, covered in the general remarks made by the Home Secretary, is the question of the re-distribution of seats. This question was urgent before the war and will be a great deal more urgent at its close.
§ Mr. Speaker
To debate the re-distribution of seats will be out of order on the Bill. This is a one-Clause Bill dealing with only one subject, which is the prolongation of this Parliament for one year. We cannot debate any other subject than that.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
Is it not possible for us to say that, although the House agrees to prolonging its life for another year, we should have some assurance that the Government will discharge their duty and provide proper machinery for the election of the new Parliament?
§ Mr. Speaker
That statement was made on behalf of the Prime Minister, who gave an assurance to the House that the question will be considered.
§ Sir P. Harris
Cannot we debate what the Home Secretary said on behalf of the Prime Minister? It is the key of the whole Bill. The right hon. Gentleman read a carefully and skilfully written statement; can we not say that we ought to have an opportunity to discuss it before we pass the Bill?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Home Secretary merely made a statement on behalf of the Prime Minister. He made no reference to it and did not debate it.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)
It is true that the right hon. Gentleman did not debate the matter. He merely read the statement, but he indicated that in his view it was satisfactory. Surely any hon. Member can say that, in his own view, the statement was unsatisfactory, and that something might be added to it.
§ Mr. Speaker
The Home Secretary made no comment on the statement; he merely read the statement on behalf of the Prime Minister.
§ Sir P. Harris
He made the statement part of his speech. The fact that it was written by a more skilled hand does not make it any less a part of his speech.
§ Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)
The Home Secretary emphasised the importance of the statement he read and said that it was a Cabinet decision; would it not be in order for us to ask for an amplification or explanation of the statement?
§ Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)
Will it not be in order for me to oppose the Bill on the ground that re-distribution of seats is immediately necessary?
§ Mr. Speaker
If the hon. Member likes, he can oppose it on that ground, but he cannot discuss the question.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
My remarks on re-distribution had come to an end. I merely wished to call attention to the fact that it was a connected question which would have to be dealt with before the next General Election. At this point I proposed to pass away—
§ Mr. Speaker
If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss that question, it must be done upon a Motion, a definite Motion, dealing with the subject, and not on the Bill, which is very narrow in scope.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
The Home Secretary closed his speech with a statement of the intentions of the Government regarding a number of questions which would have to be settled before the final Bill for the prolongation of Parliament was passed. I am afraid that this Bill will have to be regarded as the first of a series. It has been suggested, and I noticed the suggestion in the Press, that some of the subjects to which the Home Secretary referred might be put before a Speaker's Conference as they were during the last war. When I read the suggestion it was not clear to me what the Speaker's Conference would be about. In the last war the Speaker's Conference dealt with questions like votes for women, adult suffrage, plural voting and, I think, also with re-distribution; but, as a matter of fact, those questions were settled. There may be some scraps of them left now, but not enough, I should imagine, to justify the formality of a Speaker's Conference. One question to which the right hon. Gentleman referred that might eventually become the subject of some kind of all-party conference, is that concerning the register. My impression is that when we are preparing for the next election we shall find that it will not be practicable to take the existing register and merely bring it up to date. It was not practicable to do so in the last war. A special register had to be prepared for the election, and a special Bill had to be passed through this House.
§ Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)
If I may say so with deference, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate your Ruling, and that it would be quite wrong to go into detail on a subject matter which is outside the purview of this Bill. I appreciate that, and therefore I concur with it entirely, but surely this Bill, which produces a certain effect on Parliamentary elections, has a bearing on some of these other questions, and a slight reference to that matter—not long or detailed—is 1064 surely necessary when this Bill is being debated?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is exactly what the Home Secretary did in the speech which he made, and that is why I did not call him to order. To refer to these questions in order to debate them would be out of order.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
I do not propose to debate them, but part of the Home Secretary's speech was a fairly detailed examination of the registration problem which is involved in the prolongation of Parliament. That is why I have devoted some sentences to that part of his speech. With regard to his remarks on registration, I was giving it as my opinion that it would not be enough merely to bring up to date the present register to which he referred. A new register would have to be prepared for reasons to which he himself referred. That is to say, he said that there had been considerable movements of population. I would say that that is an under-statement. He himself, in this very City this week, is presiding over what I should say is the greatest migration in history, and under those circumstances I think the whole register would be so knocked to pieces, with parts of the population of London living perhaps in Devon and Somerset and quite possibly not returning, that we should have to have a new register with the new Bill. I agree with the remark that now to prepare such a register or a programme of redistribution would be a sheer waste of effort, because probably the migration that will take place during the rest of the war will be still greater than those which have taken place and which, as he has suggested, have put our last register already out of date.
I will not go into detail, but I will make this remark. At the end of his speech the Home Secretary referred to the War Cabinet statement that later on the House might desire to discuss electoral reform, and that in fact was one of the subjects which was discussed at the Conference under one of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker. If there is to be any kind of suggestion that electoral reform should be the subject of some all-party discussion, I would only say at this stage that the whole idea of a discussion of that kind, say, under the authority of Mr. Speaker or any other person, is that there 1065 should be some possibility of agreement. In my opinion, on a question like proportional representation, for example, there is less possibility of agreement now than there was during the last war. An attempt was made in the last war, and it ended in smoke. Disagreement is greater now, and many Members would find stronger objections to entering into such discussions now, after their experience of France and Germany, than they would 22 years ago.
The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary said that sufficient notice would be given of the preparation of a new register. Even at this stage I venture to hope that in the case of any notice that is given, the precedent of the last war need not necessarily be followed. The election took place three weeks after the Armistice, and that was one of the most demoralising influences in the whole of my political life. I hope that fact will be borne in mind. A Prolongation of Parliament Bill, whenever that may be passed, would usher into existence after the war a Parliament which would be confronted with far greater difficulties than those which confronted Parliament after the last war. At present we have a simple task intellectually—to drive ahead. But when the war is over and Parliament then meets, it will be faced with a series of problems more bafflng and desperate than any others that we have had to face in Europe. I hope that we shall avoid a Parliament created under such conditions. As a matter of fact, this Bill does not raise a matter between the House and the Government. It raises a matter between the people and Parliament. If the people wanted an election, if they had no confidence in Parliament, I do not think that, with all its difficulties, we could pass this Bill. But my impression is that those conditions do not prevail; I believe that Parliament stands very high in the estimate of the people to-day. It was never higher in my lifetime. Indeed, our Sittings are part of the means by which we are maintaining the confidence of the public. For that reason I cannot trace in the country a vestige of a demand for an election now, and I am satisfied that in passing this Bill this House will be reflecting the opinion of the people.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
This is apparently a very 1066 innocent Bill. It is very short, with two Clauses and very few words, and it was presented to the House by the Home Secretary in an extraordinarily brief speech, with the minimum of words and very little explanation. He said it all very fairly in that respect. But do not let us under-rate its importance. After all, this is said to be a breach of the Constitution to some extent. The Constitution now provides for a five years' Parliament, for a very good purpose—to keep us in contact with the electorate. But there it is, we have to be realists. I recognise, as no doubt the whole House and the nation recognise, that it is impossible to have an election at this particular moment. The black-out, the difficulty of holding meetings and of carrying on propaganda would make an election more or less a farce. Then, as the Minister said, there is the dead register. The register is completely out of date and the electors are scattered all over the country. I represent a small corner of London, a very overcrowded area, where people, normally, are accustomed to remain very much in their own homes and do not often leave their own district. Now, some of my electors are in Caithness, some in Wales, some in Orkney and a good number are even in Iceland. It is impossible for them to keep in contact with the political life of the country. Besides, I recognise that the nation wants to concentrate on the supreme purpose of winning the war and is conscious of the terrors which, by day and by night, threaten our great cities. We have to be realists. We have to recognise that a Bill of this kind is inevitable.
On the other hand, although it may sound like a contradiction of what I have already said, there is bound to be, sooner or later, criticism by the public of the fact that Parliament is prolonging its own life. Many people think that Members of Parliament have well-paid jobs and it will be said that in a Parliament in which we have already increased our own salaries, we are now voting ourselves additional security. There is also the fact, inevitable in the case of an old Parliament, that we are, to some extent, out of touch with the electorate. In normal times we have the healthy stimulus of by-elections. These mean that new Members who bring fresh minds to bear on our problems and who have been through contested elections come in here and bring 1067 a breeze, as it were, from the democracy outside to stimulate us. They let us know what the public are thinking and we are always interested to hear the views of a newly elected Member. But under the truce, which we all accept, they now come in without the test of an election and without having had any contact with the electorate. They come in very often at the nomination of a caucus and they cannot claim to speak with any more authority or to be in any closer contact with the great public outside than the older Members of the House.
It is also argued with some reason that we are doing very little work. We do not meet very often and when we do meet it will be said, we have not very much to do. I agree with what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) on the importance of what the House of Commons is doing. There are many vitally important committees at work and Members at Question Time do help to keep Ministers up to the mark. I attach great importance to the regular meetings of the House. But to the public outside, it appears that, as compared with normal times, there is no legislation, there are no Standing Committees and there is only routine work to be done. So, I say there is bound to be criticism of the fact that the House of Commons should, complacently, renew its own life for another year and that the Home Secretary should treat it as a matter to be dismissed in a few words. It is very difficult, apparently, under our Standing Orders to discuss, or to criticise, or to seek to justify by reason, what might almost be described as an unconstitutional procedure. I say that if we are to justify this extension of Parliament's life, we should be prepared to use the extra year in a profitable way and see whether we cannot do something to improve Parliament. Then people will understand. They will say "After all, Members of Parliament are doing their job like every one else and they are inquiring into the Parliamentary system."
In spite of the fact that this is a fight for democracy and for Parliamentary government there are critics of our machinery of government and of what is called our slow and clumsy method of legislation. I happened to be a member of the last war Parliament and I had 1068 the great advantage of listening to the sonorous words of one who is, I fear, very much forgotten nowadays, the Prime Minister of that day, Mr. Asquith. He was a great Parliamentarian and a very wise leader, and he was Prime Minister at a time when it was found necessary to pass a Bill similar to that now before the House. I do not like quoting in the House but he put the matter so much better than I could put it that I think his words should again be recorded in the "Parliamentary Debates." He said:With regard to the Parliament which is going to undertake the work of reconstruction after the war, it is eminently desirable that you should provide an electoral basis which will make that Parliament reflective and representative of the general opinion of the country, and give to its decisions a moral authority which you cannot obtain from what I may call a scratch, improvised, and make-shift electorate. Let us by all means use the time—those of us who are not absolutely absorbed in the conduct of the war—in these months to see if we cannot work out by general agreement some scheme under which, both as regards the electorate and the distribution of electoral power, a Parliament can be created at the end of the war capable and adequate for discharging these tasks and commanding the confidence of the country.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1916; col. 1906, Vol. 85.]Those were wise words, and if they applied to that Parliament, they apply ten times more to the difficulties which will confront us when this war is over. Mr. Asquith as the Prime Minister of those days did a very wise thing. He was anxious to avoid political controversy and as most of us do when we are in a difficulty—that is go to you, Mr. Speaker, for help and advice—the Prime Minister of those days approached your predecessor and asked him to summon a conference.
§ Mr. Speaker
The right hon. Baronet spoke of approaching me when in a difficulty for advice, and I would point out to him that he is now going beyond my Ruling as regards the scope of this Debate. The conference to which he refers had some connection with the Bill which was introduced at that time, but it has no connection with the present Bill.
§ Sir P. Harris
I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that what I said was said from the heart and I would not for a moment try to get round your Ruling. I will not pursue the subject therefore except to say that the precedent to which I refer is a 1069 good one and if the present Prime Minister should approach you, Mr. Speaker as Mr. Asquith approached your predecessor I hope you will receive that approach with equal sympathy. If you decide to hold such a conference, I am sure that our Parliamentary institutions will be safe in your hands and in the hands of any conference which you summon. Under your Ruling I cannot go into the character or scope of such a conference, but if we are to pass this Bill, I think we have a responsibility not only to ourselves and the electorate of to-day but to future generations and to the great populace which looks to us for leadership. If ever there was a war of ideas it is this war. It is a war not between nations, not merely between countries and peoples but between Parliamentary government and democracy on the one hand, and dictatorship on the other. It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, that we as trustees of democracy and of our Parliamentary system should occupy the coming months inquiring into the whole machinery and organisation of government. I have quoted the words of a former Prime Minister of whom I was a great admirer. Equally I am an admirer of the present Prime Minister who follows in his footsteps both as an orator and as a believer in our Parliamentary system. In January, 1934, the present Prime Minister used these significant words:We hear a great deal about the reform of the House of Lords. Surely both Houses of Parliament should be strengthened not only for constructive purposes but to enable them to resist the dangers of dictatorships. Those enormous political landslides which occur, now one way, now another, after some stunt election campaign, are harmful both to our trade and livelihood and to the House of Commons.Now we have this confidence in our Prime Minister, and that is why we are giving this Bill such an easy passage. We know—we feel convinced—that his instincts are democratic and that we can safely trust him not to take advantage of any great wave of emotion to have another "khaki election," as it is sometimes called. After the last war, in 1918, we did have, as my hon. Friend has said, a stunt election. What was the result? An observer coming to the House shortly after that election said that the House of Commons gave an impression of being composed of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out 1070 of the war. We do not want that. After all the sacrifices made not only by our soldiers, sailors, and airmen, but also by the civilian population, and after all they have to do and to suffer in the coming winter months, we do not want merely a recurrence of what happened in 1918.
I cannot elaborate what I would have liked to deal with—some of the ideas and theories I had at the back of my mind—but in passing this Bill, do not let the Government feel that they have fulfilled the whole of their responsibility. The House of Commons is satisfied that something should be done in the coming months to see that our Parliamentary system is strengthened by a full examination of the whole problem of Parliamentary government.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha (Devonport)
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend who has made so eloquent a speech in the difficulties he has met with in examining the advisability of a redistribution of seats and the question of proportional representation. These are undoubtedly subjects of very great importance into which apparently it is not permissible to follow him. This Bill is no mere formality. It is, in fact, a revolutionary proposal. It is a proposal which, were it not for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, would rightly be regarded as an attempt by Parliament to usurp the prerogative of the people—the source and origin of all power in this realm—to select periodically the representatives of its choice. For the duration of this Measure which we are now discussing, the representatives of the people are not to be selected by the people. They are electing themselves. That, on the face of it, is a strange and paradoxical proposal. It is true that for some time past, by agreement between the party organisations, new Members of this House have been appointed not by, but to, a constituency, and the sole title deed which they have brought here has been the imprimatur of some party headquarters. They are in no sense chosen by those whom they purport to represent. This has undoubtedly been one of the causes of the decline of Parliamentary vitality, and I think it is a most regrettable pr0ocedure which, if the war continues, I hope will be revised.
In this Bill, however, we go still further. We ourselves assume the 1071 functions of the elector. To-day, the 615 Members of Parliament sign their own nomination papers; there is no canvass, there are no addresses; there are no speeches advancing arguments for the consideration of the electorate; there are no polling booths. We constitute ourselves our own returning officers, and proudly announce our own election to a new Parliament. It is true that there are certain conveniences in this method. There are no election expenses, there are no lost deposits, and none of us is disappointed. All this, Mr. Speaker, is perhaps inevitable. At any rate we like to think so. But the whole point is that from the moment when this Bill becomes law this will be a new Parliament, a Parliament new in character if not in personnel.
If we have deprived the electorate, through force majeure, of its rights and opportunities, and have arrogated to ourselves a new authority, we ought in recompense to act in all respects as if we had been revitalised and refreshed, like any other new Parliament, by contact with the polls. No longer is it relevant for us to refer to our old mandate. That is out of date. We are giving ourselves another mandate, which is, presumably, to play our part conscientiously and wholeheartedly in the winning of the war, and to see that it is conducted thoroughly by every means. That is from now on our mandate.
It is perhaps difficult for us to rid ourselves of our old preconceptions and to recognise that not only is this becoming a new House of Commons but one which is operating under a different principle, a principle entirely different from that which prevailed when we were elected five years ago and under which this Parliament has lived the greater part of its life, which is now ebbing. When we first took our seats in this place there were a Government and an Opposition. That is the historic character of Parliament. The Government sits here, and the Opposition sits there. The Parliament which we are just closing attached a greater importance to Opposition—to Opposition, which has always been a feature of our Constitution—than any previous Parliament. It endowed the Leader of the Opposition with a formal status equivalent to that of a Minister, and paid him a corresponding salary. 1072 My right hon. Friend has neither discharged the duty nor drawn the salary. It seemed to me that at the time when we elevated the right hon. Gentleman who sits in that place, whoever he may be from time to time, to so high a constitutional status we were making an effective critique of the totalitarian States. Whereas they suppressed criticism, we were giving it an important, and even a subsidised, place in the State. That is all gone. We still have a Front Opposition Bench; we have a right hon. Gentleman who goes through all the motions of the Leader of the Opposition. He asks questions about business; he follows the Prime Minister whenever he speaks, and says—if I may be pardoned for saying so—with inevitably less eloquence and with greater brevity, what the Prime Minister has already said. He goes through all the motions of the Leader of the Opposition; but he has by his side—and this is a strange development—one of the Government Whips, who keeps him under the most rigorous control. Why cannot we give him back his salary and have his function fully discharged? The right hon. Gentleman who occupies this position now gives an automatic approval to all the proposals of the Government. There is no Opposition as we have known it, and as we are entitled to know it, for the proper scrutiny of Measures in this House. This is a serious matter for the working of Parliament.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
Will my right hon. Friend explain, in the course of his most interesting speech, what there is to stop him or anybody else from constituting himself Leader of the Opposition?
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I was just coming to that point. I say that the absence of a right hon. Gentleman to discharge an historic function of Parliament in leading the Opposition is a serious matter for the working of Parliament and makes the deliberations of this Assembly less virile. It is another of the reasons why Parliament has degenerated in the public esteem.
§ Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)
Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the very facts that he has outlined mean that the Opposition is there in reserve should it be necessary at any time to utilise it?
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I think that they have a foot in each camp, and that that 1073 is a disadvantage. I like to see both feet where they profess to be, discharging their functions. I am dealing with Parliament as a whole, and I hope that no hon. Member thinks that I am dealing with any particular party. I am saying that it is vital to have an Opposition. I hope hon. Members accept that, not as a partisan statement, but as a general view. I think however, that there may be advantages to be drawn from the present position. It is because Parliament has an Opposition as a recognised part of its structure that the Whips' Office has acquired a growing authority. As one part of the House is pitted against the other, all the supporters on either side have to be rallied. Under the system as we knew it, it was important for the Opposition to try to displace the Government, and it was equally important for the Government to remain in office. It had to be pointed out to wayward Members that if they gave expression to their views on some particular subject and carried their convictions, however strongly those convictions might be felt, into the Lobby, they risked defeating their own Government, in which case a General Election would ensue. That was the sanction behind the Whips' Office. That a General Election would ensue was a very important consideration, and it justified in many cases the disciplinary control of the Whips' Office. That explains how it has come about that the Whips' Office is the real repository of power in this country. The repository of power is not the electorate or the House of Commons, but the Whips' Office. At any rate, that was the case. But it can all be changed now, because, if we pass this Bill, there is henceforward no possibility of a General Election for the duration of the Act.
Mr. McKie (Galloway)
It merely extends the life of this Parliament for another year.
The right hon. Gentleman will agree that during the currency of the Act which prolonged the life of the last War Parliament, a General Election took place.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
This Bill is to extend the life of Parliament for another year. [Interruption.] Do not let us be 1074 in any doubt that this Bill is to extend the life of Parliament, and that the life of Parliament will be extended throughout this war, for the reasons which have been given in support of the Bill. There is no fear of a General Election during this war—or, at any rate, for another year. This means that Members in the discharge of their conscientious feelings can without compunction give effect to their convictions on the conduct of the war. The Government can be changed without any fear of dissolution. We can, therefore, should the efficient prosecution of our cause require it, obtain a series of Governments throughout this war which will be more responsive than ever before to the will of this Assembly. It has recently been represented by the predominant party in this House that its members experience a lack of contact with and influence over the Executive. It is not a party which should have those privileges, but Parliament as a whole. Henceforward, this Government should not conform to purely party affiliations. As we have become the electorate, it becomes our duty to represent not merely a party or a section of the community, but the country as a whole. Parliament can thus acquire a real power, and make its contribution to the winning of the war more effectively than ever before, because the sanction of a General Election, which was held over its head, is now removed.
And we have so much to do towards the winning of this war. It is our bounden duty to reverse the abysmal series of disappointments which we are suffering. This Bill seems to me to be the real opportunity of Parliament. We say that we are fighting for Parliament; it is that which distinguishes our cause from that of our enemies. If that be so, it is important to make this institution effective—and that cannot be done if we confine ourselves, on the old party lines, merely to endorsing the Acts of the Executive. Recognising that we are not elected by parties or constituencies or majorities, but by ourselves, we can all the more frankly and fully express our views and the feeling of the nation generally. There is a sensitiveness to criticism in certain quarters—I think that that is most deplorable—but we should not be silenced. That, indeed, would be the ultimate frustration of Parliament. We say that we are fighting the war for democracy, which this House embodies. 1075 Therefore, let us from now on make this Chamber work in a more actual sense. This Bill is our opportunity to merge our party loyalties, important as they are, into greater loyalties—loyalties to our country, to our history and to our liberties—and we shall afford a real dynamic example and impart a liberating hope if we can justify our professions of adherence to freedom and render practical our reiterated dedication to democracy.
§ Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)
In present circumstances it is, unfortunately, necessary to prolong the life of Parliament. I personally wish that it had not been so, for in my view, and no doubt in the opinion of many others, there is a great deal upon which the electors ought to have the opportunity of passing judgment. But before agreeing to this Bill, it is right and proper that we should survey the scene. Previous speakers have touched upon various aspects of it, and I think that possibly the great majority of us are in substantial agreement with a great deal of what has been said, especially as to the importance of the Constitutional aspect. I want to touch upon one or two other conditions and consequences which ought to be plainly stated at a time like this, with the leave of the House and of the Chair. I imagine that we shall all agree that the first essential of any action that we take to-day is that it should be plainly to help in winning the war. As has been said, this is not a war between nations; it is a war between different conceptions of life and between two systems of government—democracy and autocracy. In the last resort the value of either of these two systems must be judged by results, and I think we must frankly admit within these four walls that democracy has not so far in the war cut too good a figure.
There are some satisfactory features in our present situation, but there are many unsatisfactory ones upon which I could touch if the occasion were appropriate. One question which does arise is as to whether Parliament, which is the very cornerstone of the edifice of democracy, is really playing its full part in the present world-shaking events. I would be the last person in the world to cast any reflection upon this House. I need hardly say that I mean no disrespect either to 1076 it or to Parliament, but we all know that while undoubtedly very great services are being rendered day by day and hour by hour by Parliament, we meet much less frequently than normally, and shall probably meet less frequently still in the future. We have our Questions, our Debates and our great occasions, and there are very valuable committees sitting, but it is the fact that at the moment this House is largely a mere instrument for registering the decisions of the Executive. It will also be agreed that it is difficult for it to be otherwise in war time and at a time when national unity is paramount. We are engaged in a war. I remember that one of the frequent interjections in this House made by the late hon. Member for Silvertown, Mr. J. Jones, was, "Is this a private quarrel, or can we all join in?" I think that that would not be an inappropriate comment to-day. One of the troubles of democracy is that there is not enough of it, and greater opportunities ought to be given to all, and not merely to some, voluntarily to take part actively in the affairs of the country.
This Bill, if it is to be a mere prolongation, and in that way involve the stabilisation, of our existing system, is surely purely negative; it contributes nothing positive to our war effort. Some suggestions have been made and I do not propose to repeat them but to advance one or two other suggestions of, I think, some constitutional and practical importance. In present circumstances the Government are a national government. They comprise all parties, and, in my submission, it is our plain duty to see that both the Government, and the House and its Members are made a living and vital element in our organisation, with every Member taking his full part in the national effort, leading, directing, participating or setting an example in all things and in all places. We must also bear in mind that had there been an election, it is extremely probable that many changes would have been effected. If we prolong this Parliament, and those changes not having been effected, we have to aim at maximum efficiency in everything, and I suggest that one of the considerations that the Government and Parliament ought to bear in mind should be not to hesitate to make those changes which it might be thought an election might have effected or solved.
1077 We know that in the Government, and in many other positions of authority, we have capable leadership to-day. We have many that are masters at their job, but we also know that there are many others who are passengers and add nothing to our ideas, initiative or driving force, or it may be that they are rooted in tradition or in prejudice, with very little relation to the changed scene which is now before us. In the Government itself, notwithstanding the prolongation of Parliament, there ought not to be any question of party balance or any fixed proportion of parties in office ad infinitum, as in some quarters has been thought to be the intention up to the present. I do not myself know whether that is so or not. Then we must all admit that the back benchers in this House are very largely frustrated to-day. They have had few opportunities. They are told but little of what is going on, or of what is projected, and they are given no direct part to play in this momentous period in our history.
At some little risk of being misunderstood I want to point out that they are even barred by the continued operation of the Succession to the Crown Act, 1707, from the acceptance of work or duty under the Crown except in the Armed Forces, though there are scores of positions which Members of this House who are not otherwise fully employed could fill at least as well as those who are now appointed. There are some indeed in this House, as we know, who fill such positions. I am reminded—and I have not exchanged a word with either of the hon. Members on the subject—that quite recently the hon. and learned Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) was appointed to a most important position as one of the Commissioners in London, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) was also recently appointed to a most onerous duty in connection with salvage. Both these offices are presumably unpaid, and I imagine that had these Members not had the means to give their time and efforts in these positions, we should have lost their valuable services. The continuation of that Act deprives the country of the services of many who, on the ground of means, are unable to give their services voluntarily to the country.
I would like to make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend that consideration 1078 might be given to the suspension, at any rate during the war, of that Act which has, indeed, in part, already been suspended in relation to Regional Commissioners and other offices. That would give every suitable man, not otherwise employed, the opportunity to play a more active part than is possible at present and to do so irrespective of his private means. In my submission, we should thereby set a standard for all, and the complacency and frustration which undoubtedly exist in some quarters would vanish. All would be taking an active part, and the resources of our country from one end to the other would be revitalised and extended by our example.
Something was said by the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down with regard to the question of the "touchiness" of certain Members, presumably of the Government. I would like to make another suggestion, not quite on all fours with that, but I think it necessary that you should confide in people if you are to inspire confidence in them. That has not always been done in this House. No sensible Member desires to know the disposition of troops, the position of ships or the precise strategical or tactical intentions of the Higher Command, but the fact remains that from time to time we are fobbed off with all sorts of excuses which may be all very well in normal times of party Government, but are wholly inappropriate in the present circumstances, when we are all united in the common cause. There are Ministers and Government Departments who are willing to state the facts whether they are good or bad, but there are others, and I could give instances if challenged. I am much tempted to say in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the Department over which he has recently come to preside is one of the worst offenders in this respect, and I hope and believe that he will effect an alteration. At present in that Department and some others everything is secret and nothing is disclosed, however small it may be, even to those who are as much concerned with the national interest as the Minister himself. There is no reason, as my right hon. Friend will admit at once, for this "mumbo jumbo" which simply creates division and doubt, nor is there any reason why Members should not be fully trusted.
1079 It is a commonplace to say that we must win this war, but to do that we have to make democracy work, and it is still far from appreciated in some quarters that a much greater effort will be required to win the war. Nothing less than a complete mobilisation of our resources, men, material, brains and skill, with every man making an active contribution as a preliminary to the enlistment of Allies, whoever and wherever they may be, will suffice. It would be well if Members of Parliament would make a start and set an example by being given an opportunity to contribute their quota in the positions for which they are best fitted.
There is a number of other things I could say, but I would only add, in conclusion, that this Prolongation of Parliament Bill should not be used merely to stabilise the present position, but that with every recognition of all that the Government are doing in a situation of unparalleled difficulty the active co-operation of all, and not the least of Members of Parliament, should be sought, so that the nation may be in truth a nation in arms, and not only save herself and Europe by her example, but lay the foundations for the broader, happier, and more widespread civilisation of the future of which much is being said but little done.
Mr. McKie (Galloway)
I should not have ventured to intervene had it not been for the two speeches just delivered by the right hon. Members for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) and Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha). I am the only county Member of Parliament who has yet spoken in this Debate, and as a Scottish Conservative Member, representing a very large area, I should like to say this with regard to proportional representation and redistribution of constituencies—
I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and would only say that redistribution cuts both ways. The two speeches of the right hon. Gentlemen brought out many points of substance, but, I think, were rather strained. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport made very heavy weather with the fact that this was both a revolutionary 1080 and unconstitutional proceeding. [Interruption.] I think that if their respective speeches are studied in the OFFICIAL REPORT, whenever it is published, they will be found to contain those words. At any rate, the right hon. Baronet used the word "revolutionary." The reason I think the speeches were overstrained is that the electorate as a whole does not view the Bill to which the House will shortly give a Second Reading in the same light as do both the right hon. Members. If the right hon. Member for Devonport will allow me to say so, I am continually in very close touch with my constituency, which is very large in area, although its electorate numbers only some 41,000. It does, however, contain a large number of Liberal electors, and I would like the House and the right hon. Gentleman to take that to heart.
I have not heard one suggestion—and I have discussed the matter with quite a few representative people—that this procedure is in any way unconstitutional or revolutionary. The right hon. Baronet appealed to the House to be realists; I say, Let us be realists, and let us also realise that at this time of grave national and Imperial danger the electors, as well, take a realistic view. Of course, there is bound to be criticism, but I do not think it is the kind of criticism which the right hon. Baronet suggested was to be heard in connection with the prolongation of this Parliament. Parliament takes this step because it is a regrettable necessity, and I hope the House will take that view. I cannot view this Bill as bringing in a new Parliament. There is no possibility of coming into direct contact with the electorate. The right hon. Member for Devonport regretted that we were not pursuing the normal course of by-elections, but it is certainly up to the electors in any constituency who think they are being deprived of their rights to pursue that course. In fact, I have in mind an interesting election in Scotland recently where the Scottish National Party candidate came forward and challenged the Government. The fact that in so very few constituencies that course has been pursued is not due merely to the dictates of the party caucuses but because the electors realise that it is impractical and impracticable to discuss questions of party politics. The one thing is to get on with this huge task. If we 1081 bear that in mind as being their wish, we shall be well advised in a few minutes to give the Bill a Second reading.
§ Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I am not quite clear that I follow my hon. Friend in his suggestion, but I cannot conceive any deadlier blow to the prestige of Parliament than that, at the very moment when we are prolonging our own existence without consulting the people, we should seek further powers to add to the emoluments which we should like to receive when rendering public service. Whether there are good or bad reasons in support of my hon. Friend's suggestion, I certainly do not think this would be a proper moment to consider them. On the other hand, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) that this is a revolutionary proposal. Unlike him, I dare say, I have no objection to revolutionary proposals provided only that I am satisfied, first, of their necessity in the interests of the nation as a whole and, secondly, that they can be carried through without causing more trouble than the trouble that they are designed to remove. This is a revolutionary Measure the necessity of which I suppose every one of us, if we were saddled with the responsibility of deciding whether it should be introduced or not, would have to admit, but I most emphatically deplore the method that has been adopted in presenting it to the House. I think it is inevitable that this House should at this moment deprive the people of the country of the constitutional right which, but for this Measure, they would have enjoyed of passing judgment on the work of the Parliament which was elected in 1935, but that it should be done in what I can only describe as a somewhat furtive, clandestine way, as though we were doing nothing which was in the least important, as though this was a mere formality which required no special justification and no special recommendation to the judgment of the people, seems to me to be a profound mistake to make in the middle of a most critical fight for the preservation of democracy in the world. [Interruption.] I know there are precedents for it, there are precedents for every evil thing in the world, but that does not prevent us from trying to remove them. Let us consider the cir- 1082 cumstances in which this Parliament was elected, and where we now stand. The man who led the successful party—because it was a party and not a National Government—in the General Election of 1935 confessed at that Box that in order to achieve his victory he deliberately misled the people of the country. I am sure he thought it was necessary to take that course, but here we are at the end of the five years period for which this Parliament was elected by a kind of false pretence, and we have seen the result of the policy pursued by the then Prime Minister and his immediate successor.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)
The hon. Member is now endeavouring to create an imaginary background for the Bill on issues on which I cannot allow debate.
§ Mr. Silverman
I do not seek to debate with the Chair, but I deprecate the use of the word "imaginary."
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That was the wrong word for me to use. The election of five years ago and the issues thereof are not relevant to the Debate of to-day.
§ Mr. Silverman
I hope I can make the relevance of what I am saying perfectly clear to you, Sir, and to the House. I am criticising the prolongation of the life of Parliament and the way in which it is recommended to the House. The least that ought to have taken place was for the Prime Minister himself to review the work that Parliament has done during the past five years, to point to the results that have been achieved and to recommend, if he could, the virtues of this Parliament to the country on the basis of its record.
§ Mr. Silverman
He might have suggested what the policy was to be that the Government intended to pursue in the prolonged period of the life of Parliament. I do not think there would have been anything improper in that. On the contrary, I suggest that it would have been more appropriate to the important thing that we are doing. It would have been more appropriate to the importance of the occasion. It would have shown the country that we ourselves appreciate better the importance of what is being 1083 done than to do it in this mere cursory way.
§ Mr. Silverman
The very last thing that I want to do on this important occasion is to have any kind of conflict with the Chair. A very important Measure has been recommended to the House in an extremely short and cursory speech. My point is that that was the wrong way to approach the matter, and I am giving reasons for that. I do not propose to discuss any of the matters to which I have referred. I should fully agree that this is not the occasion for that. I am only saying how very much better it would have been, in making a revolutionary proposal of this kind, to deal with the matter in a fuller way, to review the work that Parliament had done, to point in some way to the work that Parliament is going to be asked to do with the extra time that it was giving to its own life. I think, and the country will think, that if this House was being asked to do something which is in a sense extra constitutional, they were entitled to have from the Prime Minister himself fuller and better reasons than those which have been given, a fuller and better review of why this Parliament, with its record, should prolong its own life, a fuller and better explanation of what it proposed to do with the extra time it was voting to itself without any appeal to the country. It would have been a more dignified w ay of doing it, and it would have avoided the reproach that we were dealing with the constitutional liberties of the people in a lackadaisical kind of way. I am pot suggesting there need, or could, have been any different result, but I am suggesting that we ought to have been far more careful in avoiding the reproach that w e were taking this kind of thing as a matter of course, as if we had an absolute right at any moment or under any circumstances to prolong the life of any particular Parliament.
In that way, Hitler, in Germany, could claim, and claim with some justification, that he has preserved the forms of democracy in his seizure of power. He could say that he has a Reichstag elected by the people of Germany, that he 1084 summons them at any time, and they agree with what he does and accept his policies, and that therefore he is as good a democrat as anybody. Many of us are very anxious indeed that we should not give the entirely false impression that we too are preserving the mere bones of democracy and paying lip service to its spirit and its life. I say that it was wrong for the Prime Minister to embark upon such a Measure as this without making some kind of formal review of the past and some kind of prognosis as to the future. He should have made some kind of statement to the people of this country to reassure them that we were not to become a mere rubber stamp, prolonging our own existence for the convenience of executive acts by the Government. I think the opportunity might well have been taken at this moment in the war to define our peace aims, what our ultimate aims are and what reward the common people of this country may expect for the devotion and heroism they are showing in every street and house in the country.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I am afraid the hon. Member is going beyond what is in order on this Bill. He is discussing the question of war aims and general policy. This Bill is very limited in its scope.
§ Mr. Silverman
I am sorry if I did not make myself clear, although I did my best, but such are the limitations we all have. I do not propose for one moment to embark upon a discussion of war or peace aims, or any policy of the Government. That is not my point at all. I have no such idea in my mind. At the moment, when the life of Parliament is being prolonged without consulting the people, I was pointing out that the Prime Minister might be expected to state in this House what he would have been compelled to state to the country if an election had been held in the ordinary way.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If the Prime Minister had been here to make that speech, he would have been out of order in making it, and therefore it is quite out of order for the hon. Member to make it.
§ Mr. Silverman
The Prime Minister could or ought to have engaged in a review of the whole series of questions I have indicated, but I venture to suggest that it is hypothetical because he did not attempt to do it, and no one knows therefore whether it would have been in order 1085 or not. Indeed, if the Prime Minister had taken the opportunity afforded in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, and he had made a review of the past, I find it very difficult to believe that anyone would have found it out of order. I am certain that the House would have accepted it gladly, and that the country would have been equally glad to receive it.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The Chair is bound by Rules, and the hon. Member must not suggest that it is not.
§ Mr. Silverman
I was suggesting what the Speaker might have done if the Prime Minister had made the speech which he did not make. Therefore, it remains hypothetical.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Then there is no reason why the hon. Member should try to make the Prime Minister's speech for him.
§ Mr. Silverman
I am not trying to make the Prime Minister's speech for him, but I am entitled, as any other hon. Member is entitled, in Debate in this House to criticise omissions from speeches. It may be that my opinion is not shared either by the Chair or elsewhere, but that is irrelevant. I do say, and I say it because I think it right, that at a moment when we are doing something which many people believe to he revolutionary in its nature, it ought to be fortified, not by a mere few formal sentences, but by a speech made in accordance with the importance of the occasion. One of the things to which people's minds have been directed is the existing situation and its probable outcome if this House should grant the Government an extra length of life. I will not attempt to prolong the argument any further in support of my views. When the history of these days comes to be written, providing the right sort of people are still alive to write it, the regret which I feel will, I think, be shared. It will be felt that an opportunity was missed, that a mistake was made, and that something had been done in a mean and small and in a furtive and almost clandestine way which did not need that kind of procedure. The occasion could have been made the same kind of appeal as the Prime Minister would have had to make had he been 1086 leading a Government composed of almost all parties in the House on the hustings in a General Election outside the House.
§ Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)
I oppose this Bill. Since the beginning of the war, stage by stage, every democratic right of the people of this country has been abrogated until we come to this Bill, when the people are completely cut off from anything which is going on. I know there are all kinds of terrific difficulties, but if next month the Prime Minister felt it desirable to go to the country, he would go to the country according to the statement which has been read out.
§ Mr. Gallacher
If there was a desire to get the will of the people, these difficulties could be overcome. I heard it said that this Parliament was more popular now than it has ever been. Parliament may be popular, but I am certain that Members of Parliament are not so popular. When the Minister of Information was supporting his "snoopers" he told us that the reason for them was that Members of Parliament were completely out of touch with the people of the country. Most of the Members of the House are not representatives of the people and they make no attempt to carry forward the desires of the people.
It has been said that there is no feeling in the country for an election or any opposition to the Government. That shows that Members are not paying attention to what is happening in the country. There are big conferences, representing all kinds of organisations, passing resolutions against the Government and demanding an election. There are conferences and mass demonstrations demanding a people's Government, a different Government from the present Government. Last Sunday night in Glasgow the great St. Andrew's Hall could not hold the crowd which wanted to hear an hon. Member speak on the question of a people's Government. Two weeks ago the Free Trade Hall in Manchester was packed with an audience enthusiastically in support of a people's Government. The right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) said that we were re-electing ourselves and giving ourselves a new mandate, and that, therefore, nothing should be said about 1087 the old mandate. Before we give ourselves a new mandate, however, we should carry out our old mandate. I am not giving myself a new mandate and nobody else will give me one. I came here, as did other Members on all sides, with a mandate against the household means test. Has that been carried out?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
We cannot discuss the means test or the Government's record since the last election.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I want to make it clear that there is every reason why this Bill should not be passed and why we should go to the people because they want to abolish the means test.
§ Mr. Gallacher
Will the hon. Member take his mind back to the statement made by the Home Secretary informing us that, despite this Bill, the Prime Minister was holding to himself the power to have a Dissolution at any moment. Of course, a General Election would have a different character from any in the past, but I say that the opinion of the people should be taken and that we should test what the people think with regard to Members of the House and the Government. The people are against the means test, but it is carried on. They are against the Purchase Tax, but it is carried on. The people have no chance of speaking about these things. Are they not to be allowed to express themselves and to ask the Government to carry out what they desire?
One thing that demands that we should consult the people is the fact that nobody in the Government or around the Government has any perspective as to how this monstrous war is to be brought to an end. I go round the country all the time, and from the Lobbies of this House to the furthest part of the country the question that is being asked is, "How is all this going to end?" What is the answer? The Government are not prepared to give an answer. We are entitled to have a Government that will. Therefore, this Bill should not be passed and we should take, however difficult it may be, whatever measure is necessary for getting the opinions of the people on the important questions before the country, such as the 1088 means test, the treatment of soldiers' dependants, the Purchase Tax, bomb-proof shelters, and how to bring the war to an end at the earliest possible moment with peace and freedom for the peoples of Europe.
§ Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)
Everyone who has spoken on this Bill has in different ways emphasised its serious nature. We may not think it revolutionary, but we must recognise that it is a Measure which can only be justified by very grievous national necessities. Even in these circumstances I should have been unwilling to see such a Bill passed were it not for the carefully worded statement which was read on behalf of the Cabinet by the Home Secretary in introducing the Bill. We are, in passing the Bill, taking the place of the electors who sent us here in prolonging our own life. We are insisting that we are trustees for them, and we are only justified in doing that in consequence of the national emergency and only justified if we use the interval that we have created by the artificial prolongation of the life of Parliament in a way that is worthy of the spirit of democracy. That is of immense importance. It has been said that the House of Commons has never stood higher in public opinion than to-day. Yet we have also heard voices expressing grave dissatisfaction at our unrepresentative character.
I believe that throughout the country there is a profound belief in the value of Parliament, and yet everywhere there is a knowledge that it might be far more representative than it actually is. It seems to me that we shall only justify this grave act if the interval which is so secured can be utilised to make Parliament even more representative, far more representative in future, than it is to-day. The promise of that is contained in the guarded statement that was read by the Home Secretary. I hope we may have an assurance from the Government that on some future occasion, not far distant, we may have an opportunity of a fuller explanation of the Government's mind on this subject and an opportunity of discussing it. I would like to recall in that connection some words that the Prime Minister spoke some years ago in this House:It is our duty to strengthen the House of Commons. Parliament is all we have, and the House of Commons is the main part of 1089 it. … Surely the care of this central instrument ought to he a sacred trust? Surely the building up of practical, trustworthy, living organs of government ought to be one of our chief cares?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1931; col. 109, Vol. 253.]If we can in this interval, whether by a Speaker's Conference or by some other method, carry out the great object which the Prime Minister expressed so admirably in those words, we shall be worthy of our trust. An attempt was made during the last war, when the life of Parliament was prolonged, to get agreement on some of these questions, but it did not succeed. To-day we have a fuller sense of community than we had during the last war. Under the stress of national danger we can realise more fully the things we have in common, the great things which unite us, that are greater than the things that separate us; and if we could have a conference meeting in that atmosphere, I believe it would be possible to build for the future a structure which would endure and that would be worthy of the spirit of democracy which we endeavour to serve.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)
The right hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) pointed out that our only justification for passing this Bill was our belief that the people of this country continue to give their confidence, to this House. I want to mention one very important thing which I think should be done by this House in order that that state of affairs should be retained, or perhaps I should say restored. The right hen. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) said that this House was giving itself a new mandate to win the war. Yes, but not only that, because by the very measures we take in war, and by our continued existence during the period of peace while the register is being revised, we shall be forming the character of the peace. I think, therefore, it is relevant for this House, which is renewing its life in war, to realise that in 13 months of war we have never once discussed the really great issues which lie underneath this war and how we hope they will develop in the future. I do not want to discuss that point, as I see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the action which you are about to take, but I want to point out that we really cannot go on without discussing it. Take that fine sentence at the end of the Prime Minister's speech: 1090Long live the forward march of the common people in all lands towards their just and true inheritance.What does that mean? I am not going to say what it means, but if this House is to be sure that it is in touch with the electorate and is really united within itself it must discuss that question not just for one day but for several days. We shall not reach agreement in one day. We must come back to it again and again. I believe it is the question which more people in this country are asking themselves than any other. It is for lack of clear leadership on this question that I suggest that there is grave danger—I do not put it as high as grave danger, but a danger—of a spread of apathy and taking the edge off the enthusiasm of the people, which I am sure finds itself reflected in the meetings which the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) finds himself addressing from time to time.
§ Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)
The meetings to which I referred at the Free Trade Hall and St. Andrew's Hall were not addressed by me. Another hon. Member of this House addressed the latter.
§ Sir R. Acland
Then I should substitute the friends of the hon. Member. We are united in the determination to fight, as the Prime Minister has said, for the maintenance of our existence. But behind that, what is to come afterwards? What are we going to do afterwards? Do we know, even in this House, what different Members think about it? Are we going on without ever discussing that point? Ought we not rather to find out to what extent we can agree? If we cannot agree, let us at least find that out in time, so as to know that we have to make an appeal to the electors to find out which of our various views truly represent what they think.
May I say one other thing, and I say it with the greatest diffidence, because I appreciate that it puts me very largely into an invidious position? May I make an appeal to the older Members of this House? If the House prolongs its existence in this way—and it is obviously foreshadowed that it will prolong it right through the war—for Heaven's sake restore to us in this House the younger Members of the Conservative party. It will be seen at once how this puts me 1091 personally in a very invidious position. I know that I shall receive the hatred, the ridicule, the contempt of certain Members, if not of some Members—there are none of them here now—for having remained in this House. I quite understand that. I accept it. I respect their views. Perhaps they will respect mine, which is that a Member of Parliament is like any other citizen; if he is a pacifist he should appear before the tribunal at the proper time, and if he is not he should be called up at the proper time, and if the opinion of the House remains as it is at present that is what will happen to me.
But just consider what is happening. We are losing the services in this House of one of its most vital elements. The Prime Minister spoke to his own party of the need for continuity in our national life. All right. I will speak, and I do not believe anyone will challenge it, of the need for drastic changes in our national life which must be made by this Parliament, which is now renewing its life in war. I will not discuss them in detail. If we are to combine continuity in national life and the need for drastic changes, I maintain that there is no group of men who are so essential to this House as the younger members of the Conservatime party, who by their political origins, can stand for continuity and by their youth can stand for change. Therefore, I would appeal to the older Members, if we are to pass this Bill, that before we have to pass another Bill like this they should get the younger members of the Conservative party back into this House.
There is one circumstance which makes it possible to say this thing which would have made it impossible to say it even three months ago, namely, that from the point of view of danger there is not very much to choose between being in the Armed Forces and being a citizen who has to conduct his business from day to day in this town of ours. I therefore commend that point to the older Members of the House, as well as to the House as a whole, and I ask the Minister to convey it through the usual channels. If this House is to prolong its life from time to time as the war proceeds we must find out by earnest discussion—it would not require much of the Government, who 1092 could leave it to the back benchers—what we mean by the rousing sentences of which the Prime Minister spoke.
§ Mr. David Adams (Consett)
I venture to intervene in this Debate because a certain point of view has been put forward to-day which I think ought to be corrected. There is apt to be a feeling in the country, from the speeches which have been delivered, that, by extending its life, Parliament is in some way robbing the public of the rights of public controversy and removing from this Parliament questions which are of paramount importance to many of us. The question of peace and war aims has been mentioned as being, as it were, set on one side of the ambit of politics, but no such idea can exist in the mind of the Government. I feel it is necessary for the Government to correct any impression that, in some way, Parliament is using an extension of its authority and power for a further 12 months as a cloak to cover future political controversy in the country and in Parliament. There is no question of the unanimity of the nation and its confidence in the Prime Minister and in the Government, and in the great tasks to which they have primarily set themselves.
Nothing could be more outrageous than to suggest in times of peace that we should extend our life by a Parliamentary Bill, and there is a plausible argument that Parliament ought to consult the electorate at every opportunity; but a profoundly different situation prevails at present. What problem would we submit to the verdict of the ballot box if there were to be a General Election? Would it not be as to the continuation of the war or not? But Parliament is unanimous in that decision at the present time, and we could search every constituency and submit to it that question, assuming there was an obligatory appeal to the ballot box; the answer would be in favour of a continuation of this war, under the aegis of the present Government. In pursuit of that aim the country is resolved to make every sacrifice in order to carry on to victory, at any price which may be demanded of it. If this statement be incontrovertible, as it undoubtedly is, what justification could there be for making an appeal at the polls? One result of an election at the present time would be a diversion of the interest of the nation from the prime purpose to 1093 which the nation and Parliament are committed. For that reason, it is imperiously necessary that nothing should impede the nation's will to victory, and that we give unanimous support to the Bill.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)
I will not detain the House for more than a few minutes, but, in view of the number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, it will perhaps be appropriate that there should be a short speech from this Box. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been criticised on the ground of the brevity of his speech. One seldom hears that criticism of a speech. I am reminded that one wise old hand is said to have advised a young speaker that no one has ever complained of a speech being too short. My right hon. Friend made clear what is plain on the face of it, that this is a serious Bill, affecting what we call our Constitutional structure, but he assumed—and every speech I think, except one, has entirely justified his assumption—that it would be agreed on all sides of the House that a General Election is impracticable at present and that the Bill is inevitable. In addition to the argument as to impracticability, we have listened to a very interesting speech from the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams), who gave other reasons why a General Election would be futile in one sense and possibly dangerous to our national effort. It is, therefore, true to say that the Bill, which is simple in what it proposes to do, and which has a precedent in the last war, is one which the House and the country recognise as necessary and inevitable. I hope, therefore, that we shall give it a unanimous Second Reading.
During the Debate a number of speeches have been made in what, without disrespect to the Chair, I might describe as the penumbra of Order. They have made a number of suggestions, some of which were exhortations to Members of the House rather than to the Government. There have been suggestions to the Government. In the speech of the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) there were exhortations to the older Conservative Members regarding the usefulness of the younger Conservative Members of this House. We also had a speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha), who analysed the situation, as 1094 he thought it arose as a result of the Bill. While he lamented, so far as I could gather, the disappearance of the Leader of the official Opposition, he found some comfort in what he regarded as the diminished powers of the Whips' Office, and gave his suggestions as to how he thought Parliament might work in the new situation. I neither want, nor would it be tolerable, to make a general survey at this moment of all those suggestions. They are all matters which those to whom they were addressed can consider. I am sure that, if they be in order, the House will wish, when it so desires, to make a survey of them. I think we must all agree that it should be the constant endeavour of all who sit on this and on other benches individually and collectively to do their best to see that Parliament works with the maximum efficiency and national usefulness at all times, and in particular these times in which we now find ourselves.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting day.—[Mr. Whiteley.]