§ Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Mr. G. Strauss (Lambeth, North)
My speech will not necessitate the prolonging of the Debate. I think my view of this Bill is probably shared by very many Members. I feel there can be no doubt 128 that, under present conditions, an election would be so difficult—while it would not be impossible it would be extraordinarily inconvenient—that we must avoid it if we possibly can. Therefore I support the Bill but I want to state definitely my disagreement with a qualification which has been placed on the Bill by the Government through the Prime Minister.
Speaking the other day in the House the Prime Minister said:This present House of Commons, which has so long exceeded its normal constitutional life and will shortly be asking for a renewal of the lease—a matter which does not rest entirely in our hands alone—has no right, except with a very general measure of agreement, to step outside the one function by which its continued existence is justified, namely the prosecution of the war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th October, 1943; col. 924, Vol. 392.]I disagree entirely that the one function which justifies us continuing our life for another year is the prosecution of the war. I agree entirely that it is our chief function but this Parliament, if it is to continue and be worth while, has the general function of looking after the welfare and future of the people of the country. I maintain definitely that, at the present stage of the war, one of our main functions should be during the coming year to discuss our future and our post-war plans and what sort of country we are to have when the war is over. I maintain that unless we accept that as our attitude during the coming year, we shall be leading the country into great danger. Because if the war is over at the end of the year, or shall we say in 18 months' or two years' time, and we have accepted the injunction of the Prime Minister that our sole function during the coming year is to discuss and consider the prosecution of the war, and we have not laid our plans for the post-war era, then this country will be in a very serious position. We shall be completely unprepared, we may find ourselves in an almost chaotic situation, and we shall not be able to play our part in post-war Europe, because our own house will not be in order. In such circumstances I think this House would then have betrayed its duty to the people of this country who have elected it.
If that really is the view of the Prime Minister, that because we have a Coalition Government this House is inhibited from discussing other matters and settling other 129 matters except the prosecution of the war, then I think the House ought to consider whether that is not too high a price to pay, for the time has come, I think every Member will agree, when we must be discussing and settling these problems. They could be discussed and settled if there were one party Government, so why in the world, because the parties are co-operating at the moment in the prosecution of the war, there should not be at the same time co-operation in hammering out the future policy of the country, I cannot understand. Therefore, I say most definitely—and I am sure I am expressing the views of very many Members in this House—that we accept this Bill because it is quite plainly necessary, but we do not accept the qualification put upon it by the Prime Minister when he said that the one function of our continuing our life is the prosecution of the war. I, and I think many others, believe, we now have the almost equally important function of discussing the very important problems which will arise out of the war and the victory that will follow it.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
I think that, like many other Members of this House, I shall support this Bill in the hope that it is the last time we shall be asked to do so. When in 1940 the country was placed in a great crisis it seemed a wise and spontaneous act for a Coalition Government to be formed. That crisis in its intensity has passed. Now victory is reasonably within sight, and the problems of post-war development are closer and more urgent all the time. Therefore the real reason for maintaining this Parliament another year is to maintain the Coalition Government. I wonder whether we think enough of the effect of this upon the country. For decades upon decades the government of this country was carried on by the principle of the Government and His Majesty's loyal Opposition. It worked through great crises, it brought and developed human liberty to its present state here, and was an inspiration in the outside world. Then we said, "Here is a crisis; a war which cannot be handled on that basis. We do not want His Majesty's loyal Opposition, we do not want an Opposition at all, save by a band of guerillas who have got in here as Independents." That to my mind is a denial of the very strength of our Parliamentary system.
130 What is happening in Canada? There is a Liberal Government under Mr. Mackenzie King which is carrying out a very fine war effort indeed. The Conservative Party in opposition spurs the Government on to greater and greater efforts. It does not oppose the Government, it helps them. Are there not going to be great problems after the war? Shall we then have a request and a demand for the continuation of this Parliament after the war and the continuance of Coalition, because anyone who imagines that when the fighting stops there will not be important problems of great magnitude imagines a vain thing. Even when this war ceases, are we to say that these probblems are so vast that the British Parliamentary system in its normal condition is not strong enough to face them and therefore, "On with this Parliament, on with the Coalition"? When the time comes to return to party Government—and party Government is the great guarantor of our political liberties—by party Government alone can we choose a Government and reject a Government and give the people the expression of their own wishes and demands—are we to say to the people, "Now times are so good, can we not return to the easy ways of the past; now we can restore parties to their natural position"? What will the young people say who came of voting age in 1935? Year after year we have said to them, "You have inherited the franchise won by the efforts of our ancestors, but you shall not exercise that franchise. You are old enough to go and die, you are old enough to help work in the factories. Now you are old enough to be married and have children, but the franchise won by the people of this country through many years shall not be exercised by you."
Are we to say to them when the time is up, when this condition of holy matrimony between the Socialists and the Conservatives ends, are we to say, "Here is your discredited system; you can have it back again"? Do you not think that throughout the country, especially among the young, there are doubts about the efficacy of Parliament and parties? Are we not by the very vacuum which we are creating inviting something else to take its place? Talk to any young people. Every hon. Mem- 131 ber knows that what I say is true. They are worried, they are impatient, they doubt our system of Government. We are storing up great trouble, and the spectacle of this House willing itself another year of life is not an impressive one.
I will conclude what I have to say with this. I sincerely hope that this is the last time we shall be asked to support such a Bill. I hope this Parliament will renew its life by the only way in which it has the right to renew its life or should renew its life, by the mandate of the people. They have done it in Canada, in the United States, in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Not one of these elections has resulted in upheaval or a lessening of the war effort. On the contrary, by the very opportunity of the people to express their determination at the polls they have revitalised their Governments and Parliaments in the process. We say in this tiny Island that it is too complicated. We can have a by-election, which does not disturb people unduly, but if what happens in one constituency happens in 600 it becomes an unworkable problem. I cannot see why, if by-elections can be held, an election cannot be held in 600 constituencies. It would do the people good to express the power which should be in their hands. I am much obliged to the House for being patient with me, but I feel strongly on this point. I would like to think that, before another year elapses we may not only see victory for our arms but that we will reconstitute the authority of the people. May we give back to this House the dignity which we ourselves are taking from it.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)
I am grateful to the last speaker and to the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), without whose speeches the Bill, so far as it applies to England, Scotland and Wales, would have gone without anybody noticing that Clause 1 is important. I regard it as extremely important. I do not think that we should take a step which means usurping to ourselves the rights of the electors for another 12 months without considering the fundamental justification for it. I do not regard the speech of the Home Secretary as justification on this point. He seemed to me to say that it would not be con- 132 venient to give the electors their rights any time during the, next 12 months or so. That may be so, but why? I commend the speed with which the Home Secretary acted on the Report of the Departmental Committee which started sitting about 11 months ago, but this problem of Parliament renewing its life throughout what we knew from the start was to be a long war, has been envisaged since some time about 1940. If some preparation had been made from then on, we might now be in a position to do something. If steps had been taken to inform the soldiers abroad of the issues on which they would have to vote, and so on, it would have been something. I need not enlarge upon this aspect of the matter. It is sufficient to say that if we had started this job early enough and put the same will behind it as did Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we could have done it. It is not enough for the Government to say that if you did not prolong Parliament, you would face an impossible situation created by the negligence of the Government, and therefore you must give this negligent Parliament and Government another 12 months of life because it has been too negligent to create the machinery for renewal.
Until we heard the speech of the hon. Member who last spoke, it did not seem that anyone appreciated the fact that democracy pays. This thing that we are fighting for yields results. Moral forces do count. When workers and fighters are given an opportunity of realising that they are important, that they count in deciding policy, then they become better workers and better fighters. The idea is that it would take a lot of trouble to run elections, and mean diverting efforts, and that we should get nothing for it. But it is not the case that we would get nothing for it. We would get higher morale and clearer understanding of what we are fighting for. I wish it were possible to show hon. Members some of the letters received from members of the Forces and from workers in industry, saying how grateful they are to the tiny little organisation with which I am associated for keeping some of the political issues in front of as many people as we can reach with such very limited means as we can employ. They do say that our almost universally—but not quite, universally—unsuccessful efforts in this direction have made all the difference to their ability to 133 carry on their war effort either in the fighting line or in the factory, with enthusiasm. So this thing pays.
We come to something more important. Apparently the Home Secretary did not feel it necessary to discuss the fundamental justifications lying behind the Bill, and the fact passed by almost unnoticed, that the grounds on which we are being asked to renew our life, have changed in the last two or three years. I have not got the actual speeches with me, so I am not sure whether it is two or three years that has witnessed the change. At any rate, one, two or three years ago we were asked to renew our life on the ground that hon. Members of this House were, by and large, adequate receiving sets, receiving the ever-changing and developing opinions of the electorate as a whole and expressing them here, not only on issues confined to the strictly military war effort but on all the issues, post-war prospects and so on. That picture of this House as a receiving set for finding out and interpreting the will of our population, has been completely changed, largely by a speech made by the Prime Minister on the subject of coal. The Prime Minister justified his determination to dismiss, in advance, the views of those citizens who believe that the mines should be nationalised, on the ground that this House had not been given a mandate to do it. In my view, the Prime Minister in making that speech was talking constitutional nonsense, and, in my view, he ought to have known it. It is nonsense.
§ Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)
The hon. Member is on the wrong wave length; that is what is the matter with him.
§ Sir R. Acland
I hope that that remark will be recorded, to show how people will intervene with trivial points like that. It seems to me nonsense to say that this House cannot do this, that or the other thing because it has not got a mandate. This House has a Conservative majority four times as big as it ought to be, on the votes cast in the 1935 election. On those votes the Conservative Party is entitled to a majority of 50 members over all other parties put together, but it has a majority of several hundreds. So the whole set-up of the House is wrong, and it has been from the very start of this Parliament. It does not reflect the opinions of the people and never has. I am not going into the varying admissions 134 extracted from Lord Baldwin in debate, which showed how the issues had been falsely put before the country in 1935. But let us look through the list. This House voted—and I and others with me in the party I was associated with then voted—for an enormous expenditure on armaments, without a mandate. This House had no mandate for anything more than filling up gaps. This House decided to drop the League of Nations as the sheet-anchor of our policy, without a mandate. This House decided to introduce conscription in time of peace, without a mandate. This House declared war, without a mandate.
§ Sir R. Acland
I am not giving way to cheapjacks! I am sorry. This House passed a Bill giving to the Government powers of conscription over all life and all property—and I am not going to say that that was without a mandate.
§ Sir R. Acland
That demonstration suggests to me that some of the things I am saying are of importance. Otherwise, a silly little point of that kind, to which there is an overwhelming answer, would not have extracted so much pleasure from hon. Members, who know that they are in the wrong. Without any mandate, I changed my party. I went back to the people I am responsible to, the 100 or so elected people who worked for me in my election. There is no other body of men with whom any Member can consult between elections except the men or the association by whom he is supported in his contest.
§ Sir R. Acland
I just wanted the hon. Member to come off the boil, that is all. I put it to these people in my constituency whether it was their wish to have a by-election right away or whether they would support me until the end of this Parlia- 135 ment. By a 10 to 1 majority, I had their support. That being so, who was there left to challenge me to go to a by-election?
§ Sir R. Acland
On that point my hon. Friend is mistaken. He is constitutionally mistaken because, if he will listen to me, it is the constitutonal fact that each one of us is elected for the life-time of his Parliament and if any one of us received a postcard from all the electors in our constituency saying, "I disagree with you and want you to resign," on a constitutional issue we have the right to say then and there, "I will not resign and between now and the next election I am going to show you I am right." That is the constitutional position of every Member and is purely a concession from our cast-iron and indisputable constitutional right. Most of us would find it very difficult to remain as Members, if those individuals on our supporting associations who had worked for us at the previous election, by a majority asked us to resign. Their rights are purely moral but very powerful. To give an example, there was not one of the Liberal Members who criticised the Boer War who had a mandate for doing so. There is not one of them who would not have been rejected at the time of the Boer War—including the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George)—if he had gone to the electorate. Those Members would have had the right to say, "You elected me for the period of this Parliament to keep my promises on issues on which I made promises, to use my judgment on other issues and to speak and to justify myself or to fail to justify myself when the next election comes."
I immensely regret this personal digression that has been forced upon me. I was saying that this one act of conscripting life and property did get a mandate from the people subsequently. It was that Act, I believe, almost as much as anything else which gave the people the feeling that things were all right and which resulted in the prodigious efforts that followed at about that time. That was an overwhelming mandate for an overwhelmingly popular Act. What has this House done? In interpreting that 136 Act for which it obtained a mandate this House has conscripted life in no uncertain manner. In my view this action, taken by itself, was right. But when, within three months of the passing of this Act to conscript property, a court of law so interpreted this Act—on which so many of our citizens had set their hopes—to mean that the Government's rights, except the case of iron railings, were limited to the right to purchase property at the full price or lease it at the full rent this House, without a mandate, did nothing about it. What is left of the Prime Minister's plea that this House cannot consider the nationalisation of the coal mines because it has not a mandate?
At the same time the Prime Minister said that the House was governed not by unanimity but by a majority; and there are 400 individuals who were elected into this House eight years ago and nothing can be done to which they, as individuals, can object. That is the position we have reached. Nothing can be done in relation to the political development of the war itself, or the preparation of post-war plans except what 400 hon. Members on the opposite side of this House, as individuals, think to be right. This is an increasingly intolerable situation, particularly because the Prime Minister is gravely wrong in thinking this House is primarily concerned with the military prosecution of the war. That is one subject with which we can hardly be concerned at all, because it is absolutely impossible for the Government to give us information on which we can exercise an effective decision. There are few hon. Members who now want to criticise the physical conduct of the war. What we are all concerned with is making plans for the welfare of our country as a whole, and with the political conduct of this war. I say that the 400 hon. Members opposite, whose individual opinions now govern this country, without any check from the electors, are in every way improper persons to be charged with the political and moral conduct of this campaign against Fascism. Is there any hon. Member opposite who would dare to read "The Trial of Mussolini"? Is there one who can face it and take his medicine? This book, written by "Cassius," is published by Gollancz at 2s. 6d.
§ Sir R. Acland
When the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. J. Beattie) was speaking on Clause 2 Mr. Speaker ruled that he was entitled to state, as a ground for opposing Clause 2, his belief that the Parliament of Northern Ireland was, in effect, a pretty bad show. Therefore, I submit that I am entitled to do the same thing now by saying that if hon. Members will consult the source of wisdom to which I have referred they will find that one Conservative leader after another specifically endorsed every crime that Fascism has committed. The destruction of democracy, the browbeating of the workers' organisations, the tyranny, the connived murders of political opponents, the acts of international aggression, the preparations for war, the glorying in war—all these crimes were committed by Fascism away back in 1923, 1924, 1925 and 1926, and after that the great leaders of the Conservative party and of Conservative opinion went over to Italy and fawned on this thing. There is hardly a Member opposite who is not morally implicated in this condonation of the thing that we are up against.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Some of the hon. Baronet's remarks are really irrelevant to the Bill. I must ask him to be relevant.
§ Sir R. Acland
I should very much dislike to come into conflict with you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I have virtually made my point, but I must protest all the same, in order to safeguard future occasions, against what appears to be your Ruling. When I am discussing the renewal of the House of Commons by the uncontrolled will of a majority of that House, it must be relevant to produce any and every argument we may choose, in order to support our view that the majority of this House is not qualified to reappoint itself for another 12 months to run the moral and political—because that is all that we do run—the moral and political struggle against Fascism. The military struggle is not in our hands, and every time any Member of the House has tried to affect the military struggle against Fascism he has been told, rightly, "Little boy, you know nothing about it, so keep out where you cannot do any good." It is the moral and political struggle against Fascism with which the House is concerned. I say, and I claim to have the right to say, that there is not a Member opposite who is not implicated up to the 138 hilt in the repeated condonation of Fascist crimes committed by his leaders. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] What am I asked to withdraw? [HON. MEMBERS: "What is false."] What is false in what I have said? I have said that your leaders condoned Fascism up to the hilt from 1923 to 1938 and you endorsed their condonation. Now you claim to be fit and proper people to run the moral and political side of this struggle against Fascism. You claim to be fit and proper people to take this thing under your sole discretion.
§ Sir R. Acland
Hon; Members opposite are doing this thing and can only defend themselves by silence in order to escape from arguments which they know perfectly well cannot be met. Because it is absolutely impossible to deny the fact that the whole of the Conservative Party machine endorsed Nazism, and liked it, and endorsed Fascism, and liked it, as long as they regarded it as a great bulwark against Soviet Russia. [Interruption.] There may have been one or two Conservative rebels against the machine, but I was talking about the machine. Rather than face that charge, from which they cannot escape, they will meet us with an absolute, stony silence. There will be no reply. But the British people know and they are absolutely sick and tired of the party opposite.
§ Sir R. Acland
The reason why the party opposite are not swept out in the existing by-elections is simply that they play up the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Sir R. Acland
No. The Conservative Party are winning by-elections because they simply play up to the single name of the Prime Minister. The other reason they are winning, and here I address myself to hon. Members above the Gangway on this side, is because the forces that want something different from that party over there are only at the moment firing 139 on one out of a possible 16 cylinders. That is not my fault, because I am taking part in the only cylinder that is firing; it is in their cylinder that the sparking-plugs have got sooted up. That is why those people opposite are getting away with this thing. I beg hon. Members above the Gangway to recognise in the coming 12 months that that is true, and that is why we have this country's policy of A.M.G.O.T. and playing about with a little king and a Fascist General and why all the war criminals who are down on the Yugoslav patriots' list are being put into high positions. This question has to be taken seriously in the next 12 months, otherwise, while our fighting men and working men win this war, we in this House may lose the peace.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)
The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) is always complaining that Members on this side do not answer his arguments. The reason is that his arguments are all mutually destructive. He begins by complaining that the Government do not consult democracy. He says that democracy always yields good results. I agree with him, if that is his contention, but I thought it was very much more than a debating point when an hon. Friend below the Gangway pointed out that the hon. Baronet failed to consult democracy himself. He has changed his party, he has changed almost all the political opinions he has put forward, but he will not dare to face his electors. It is true that he is legally entitled to take that attitude, but what is morally wrong cannot be politically right. If I had been guilty of that conduct, I should not talk about consulting democracy. The second point which he made was that this House has got a mandate, in spite of what the Prime Minister says, to nationalise the coalfields. On that, opinions may or may not differ but, if the House has a mandate, then clearly, it has a mandate to prolong its own life. His fourth point was that it had not. So his points, one by one, are all mutually destructive.
I want to say only one other thing about his speech. There are few people who entered political life as early as the hon. Baronet, who dare face the Hansard reports of the period before the war. There are very few parties in this House 140 that dare face real impartial criticism of what took place before the war. There are few of us who can honestly say, in our own hearts, that we did not commit some error or some mistake, and when the hon. Baronet points to one party rather than another he is doing his own intellectual integrity rather less than justice. The real fact of the matter is that many mistakes are made by men of good heart, and good friends of democracy on all sides of the House, and the hon. Baronet, in his hatred for the Conservative Party, reminds me of the dislike of the lunatic for something which is really sane.
§ Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon Hull, East)
I listened with great interest to the hon. Baronet, and as one who is at least a sparking-plug on this side of the House, I should like to give the reasons why I support the Second Reading of this Bill. The hon. Baronet gave us a very interesting discourse upon mandates, but I believe, and I say this with all sincerity, he tripped himself up because he justified a mandate, when it suited his own outlook and what he himself agreed with. I do not wish to speak at length upon constitutional issues but for the last 100 years Parliaments have been elected and have very quickly done things for which one could say they have no mandate. But I want the House to pass the Second Reading because when we do have an election, I, at any rate, want it to be a real reflex of the opinion of the electors of this country. The one drawback I see in the Bill as it is drafted, is that it does not give about 3,000,000 men and women who are in the Fighting Forces abroad, a chance of registering their opinions in the election of a new Parliament. That is, I think, most regrettable because if there is any section of the community entitled to have a real voice in the election of a new Parliament it is the men and women who, as I understand the Bill, will not be able to vote at all. [An HON. MEMBER: "Which Bill?"] The Bill we are discussing, for the prolongation of the life of Parliament.
I do not wish to enter further into any discussion with the hon. Baronet or even his co-partner, the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) except to say that this Parliament, with all its deficiencies, has endeavoured to interpret the will of the people so far as it could be ascertained. That is the reason why we have 141 enjoyed the confidence of the great mass of the electors, and I say that advisedly. We have enjoyed the confidence of most of the electors because, if there was in this House a keen and considerable minority opposing the war and all that it meant, this House would be bound to be dissolved, and there would have to be an election.
Therefore, I am not afraid of an election when it comes, but I hope it will be a real reflex of the opinions of the country. The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) mentioned what the young people are thinking; I can tell the hon. Member that he is out of step with the modern trend of affairs, because young people are thinking on new lines and in new ways, and some of us are going to have the surprise of our lives if we endeavour to be merely stand-pat politicians. We are going to vote ourselves a little bit longer life, but that does not mean that we have to sit back and do nothing. It is our duty to prepare for the election, and it is our duty to the new electors to see that they get a square deal whenever that election comes along.
§ Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)
I did not intend to take any part in this discussion, important as it is, until I heard the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) hold forth in his usual way. I wondered then how the leader of the noble party of two had the audacity to stand up and tell this House that it did not know what it was thinking or talking about. He said he is in receipt of letters from young people serving at are front; so am I, and my own flesh and blood. They write to me from all the Services and in the plainest terms. Their advice—it is the province of young people always to advise, and that is why we are so well behaved and well conducted—is that the first thing we have to do is to support the Prime Minister in the winning of the war. How the hon. Gentleman can say anything else is beyond me and beyond, I should imagine, the intellect of any man and woman in this country. This camouflaged Communist—because that is all he is—
§ Mr. Gallacher
No. On a point of Order. I have been the subject of many attacks from one direction and another in this House, but I think you should draw the line, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and say that this attack is uncalled for.
§ Mr. Magnay
I am quoting the law and the testimony. I have seen the pamphlets issued from tile office of Common Wealth, a name they have pinched. People think they are something to do with the great Empire policy, but they are nothing of the kind. It is just camouflaged Communism.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)
The House is not discussing the principles of the Common Wealth Party.
§ Mr. Magnay
I am very glad to hear it. It will make my speech shorter. I thought that the hon. Gentleman's remarks were of slight moment, and I am glad to note from your observations that it is not at all necessary to say anything more upon the speech of a man who dares to stand up and declare that the country is in his favour when I, who have taken part in every by-election, know that all his candidates are well beaten and have lost their deposits. That is what a cross-section of the country thinks of his party.
§ Sir R. Acland
I want to correct the hon. Member on one simple question of fact. We have never lost a deposit.
§ Mr. Magnay
Then you should have done. After all the money you have spent and the lies you have told, you should have done far better than you have.
§ Mr. William Brown (Rugby)
On a point of Order. This Debate at present is doing us little credit. Is it in Order for a Member to accuse another of lying?
§ Mr. Magnay
I did not accuse him; I accused his party. There are some respectable Members of his party, and I did not blacken the whole lot.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If in fact the hon. Member did accuse another hon. Member of lying, he should certainly withdraw.
§ Mr. Magnay
I never intended to accuse him of that. I said that his party did it. If I have said anything personal, of course, I apologise to the House and to 143 the hon. Member. What is the purpose of this Bill? It is to see that as soon as possible the electors of this country have the opportunity of expressing their free vote, secretly. What alternative have we to the Bill? In my opinion, buttressed as it has been from all over the country, those who think the country will go Left are far mistaken. The country is going right, as it always does in times of crisis. I am certain, not only from letters I have received from young people, my own kith and kin at the front, but from opinions I have heard all over the country, that the Prime Minister has public opinion behind him. I am convinced that the Coalition Government will be kept in power by the women of this country. We men are sentimentalists, but the women are realists and know on which side their bread is buttered. You cannot argue with a prophet; you must either believe or disbelieve him, and I say—mark my words—the women will say "If it took Coalition Government to win this conflict, it will take Coalition Government to win the peace."
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)
I have—[HON. MEMBERS: "Is this the reply?"]—I have no power to stop the discussion, of course, but it seemed to me that it might be to the convenience of the House if I said a few words at this stage. This Bill is very apt, as we saw to some extent last year, when a similar Bill was before the House, to start discussions of a general character, on which it is impossible for the last word to be said in the course of the Debate. But if one comes back to the Bill, I believe that the vast majority of the House think that this is a right Bill for us to pass at this time. I also believe that the general opinion in the country is behind the House in taking measures to see that we are not forced to have a General Election at this time. That really is a question which falls to be considered on the Second Reading of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) dealt with a number of topics. He said at one stage that we were not prepared to face the issue. I cannot myself quite follow what the issue was, but I gather he is against the Bill. He is entitled to his own opinions, and one thing is clear from his speech—nothing that I could say in a few minutes would lead 144 him to alter his opinion. On the other hand, I think that the vast majority of the House are in favour of the Measure.
I would like to say a word or two about the speech made by the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) and would like to join in what my right hon. Friend said in introducing the Bill, that the Government, and I am certain every Member of the House too, regard this Measure and its proposals as being of a very serious nature. We realise fully, and it is right that the country should know, that neither the House nor the Government regard it as anything lightly to be done. In this, as in other matters, you have to look at all the circumstances, and the arguments on one side and the other, and, looking at both, we have come to the conclusion that in the circumstances, at this time it is the right course to take. There is no reason that you can pick out as final and conclusive. There are a number of reasons. The hon. Baronet reminded the House of what I was very familiar with, because I have been present at all these Debates, that the reasons to some extent have changed. They have. You have to look each year as the time comes near at the then circumstances; they are not only purely physical circumstances, such as the black-out. But the question the House has to decide is whether the country wants to be forced into a general election by the passing of time.
I would like to say a word or two on Clause 2, dealing with Northern Ireland. It arose last year when this Clause came up, and it seems again that this is really a simple question. The Clause does not, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Belfast (Mr. J. Beattie), by a slip once or twice, said, in itself extend the length of the life of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.
§ The Attorney-General
We are not by this Bill extending the length of life of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, but we are giving them the chance to do it themselves. I understand there may be differences inside the Parliament of Northern Ireland whether it is the right thing to do or not. There are some differences in this House. The hon. Member for Barnstaple thinks we ought not to do it. Like every other matter, this has to be discussed and debated and, if necessary, 145 decided by a Division. It may be that in Northern Ireland there are a larger number of people who are against the continuance of the Northern Ireland Parliament's life. That Parliament, like this, must discuss the matter, if necessary vote upon it and take their decision. If we had a considerable minority here against extending our life, we should discuss it and if necessary divide, and the majority decision would prevail. Why should we withold from the Parliament of Northern Ireland power that we should certainly claim if we had not got it—and we have—and can exercise ourselves? This is a step we are taking ourselves, a step which we considered and decided on, and all that the Bill does is to see that the Parliament of Northern Ireland has the same right of debate and decision.
§ The Attorney-General
The minority in this House is always at the mercy of the majority. That is the only way a democratic Assembly can work.
§ The Attorney-General
No, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was not elected 23 years ago; it was elected in 1938, five years ago. By this Clause we are giving the Parliament of Northern Ireland power which they would not otherwise have to take the course which we think right in the present circumstances. If they think it right, they will no doubt take it.
§ Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)
I wish to intervene in the Debate because I and my colleagues represent the Opposition to the Government and have done so from the formation of the Government. I recognise that with the electoral roll as it is at present there is need for the prolongation of Parliament, at least until the new roll comes into operation. I think that the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) would agree that it would be a great mistake to have an election on the old roll. The country would not have the opportunity of sending to Parliament the people they wished to send. The special point I wish to make, however, is that a General Election is coming near. Not so very many months will pass before this country will have a General Election. In those circumstances 146 I claim that the Opposition should at least have the same opportunity of putting its case to the country. The Opposition has been denied this opportunity since the formation of this Government in 1940. Indeed, since 1939 it has been denied the chance of going to the microphone and using the B.B.C. as it has been used by the Government to forward their own policy. I was anxious to intervene before the Attorney-General concluded the Debate on behalf of the Government to ask for an assurance that the Opposition to the Government should have its opportunity of presenting its criticism of the policy and administration of the Government in view of the possibility of a General Election at no distant date. It is intolerable that the people of the country should not have an opportunity of knowing the point of view of those who feel that the Government, from the day they took power, have acted wrongly and have needlessly prolonged the war because of the way in which they have conducted the political side of it. It is intolerable that they should not have an opportunity of having presented to them the way in which the Government have betrayed them in refusing to make the necessary social reforms.
There are all the old people who have been denied decent pensions, there are the soldiers, sailors and airmen, who could have had an improvement in their conditions if the Opposition had had its opportunity of going to the microphone and making its case. I ask that the Government should relax the rule they have made that no one who is in opposition to the Government shall be allowed the privilege of going to the B.B.C. and stating the case that is to be made against them.
§ Mr. Stephen
Surely, if this House is to take the decision to prolong Parliament for another 12 months, the Opposition should at least have an opportunity of asking the Government whether, if they agree to the prolongation of Parliament, they will have an opportunity of presenting their criticism of the Government through the one instrument which gives an opportunity of reaching the millions of the country. Much has been said with regard to the records of various parties in the past. I think my own party has acted and spoken consistently throughout these 147 years. We were strong opponents of Fascism. We brought to the attention of the Government the dangers that would accrue with the development of Fascism in the world and the need for the adoption of a policy for its overthrow. We have taken a line that has been consistent throughout. We believe that the Government have been a complete failure, and I hope they will no longer adopt the mean, cowardly policy they have adopted but will allow the Opposition to state their views freely to the people of the country and let them decide between us.
§ Mr. Loverseed (Eddisbury)
I am not apologising, as on the last occasion I spoke, for intervening in the Debate, because I feel on this occasion that I am one of the very few Members who have received a mandate from the electorate during the war. I came into the House believing and understanding that the House was very tolerant of sincerely held views. For that reason I was very disappointed at what I consider to be a disgraceful exhibition of partial affection from the other side while my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) was speaking. No one can say that his views are insincere. I cannot help feeling that this House does not represent the mood of this country to-day. The present House was elected in 1935, which was a year of moral cowardice, when the mood of the country was "Keep out of war; peace at any price." I cannot help remembering that in 1936, when I and thousands of others were in Spain fighting Fascism, this present House of Commons was by its non-intervention policy supporting Fascism in that country. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) rightly stated that many views have changed since those times. Almost in the same breath he claimed that the hon. Member for Barnstaple should have gone to his electors to seek a mandate from them for his change of views. Has the hon. Member for Oxford sought a mandate from his electors if his views have changed?
§ Mr. Loverseed
There can scarcely be anyone in this country who does not seek a most vigorous prosecution of this war to a successful conclusion against Hitler 148 and Nazism—no one can hold that against us. We feel that for the successful prosecution of the war certain measures are urgently necessary. In 1940, when the Labour Party entered the Government, a pledge was given that property would be conscripted equally with lives. We claim that the time is long overdue when certain things should be taken over and used in the interest of the nation at war. The Prime Minister stated the other day that he cannot do that without a mandate. Did he ask for a mandate from this country to conscript lives? Lives have been taken in abundance. As regards the present Bill, we in this country have the Mother of Parliaments, and yet in every one of our Dominions a general election has been held since this war started. I do not think anyone can say that has brought about a lessening of the war effort in those Dominions, and it is utterly wrong that-we in this country should lag behind those Dominions, to whom we seek to set an example. I cannot conclude without a reference to the speech of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Magnay), in which he made what I consider were some most unjust statements against the party to which I belong. He stated that we had lost our deposits in one or two by-elections.
§ Mr. Magnay
I proved all those assertions from the speeches made by the hon. Baronet and a pamphlet issued from your headquarters, and there is no question about it.
§ Mr. Loverseed
I deplore that those things should enter into a Debate of this sort. I can only conclude by saying that if the electors of this country do not feel as many others on this side of the House feel, that a change is necessary, then we would, as the hon. Member for Gateshead said, lose our deposits at every election we fought, as would every Independent candidate. I feel that I cannot do otherwise, in view of the mandate I have received from the electors, than to oppose this Bill to-day.
§ Mr. William Brown (Rugby)
I am afraid that ale remarks I shall make today will not commend themselves to the acceptance of the House, but it is the first characteristic of a democratic Assembly that it should be willing to listen to unpopular views and to regard as equally sincere as the majority those who express a minority view. I wish to oppose the 149 Bill and to do so on four grounds. I will state these grounds at the beginning, in order that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may be aware of the ground I would desire to cover and that the House may more easily follow the arguments I would like to address to them. The four grounds on which I oppose this Bill are, first, that this Parliament is out of touch with and utterly unrepresentative of the people of Britain to-day; the second ground is that a continuance of this Parliament in the light of the recent pronouncement of the Prime Minister in the coal Debate would in my view be dangerous to the prosecution of this war to a successful conclusion: the third reason is that a continuance of this Parliament would result in our facing the problems of peace abroad and at home utterly unprepared for them; and the fourth reason is that there is a grave risk that a continuance of the life of this Parliament will result in social upheaval in Britain within a short period of time.
Those are the four arguments I desire to advance and to which I would wish to speak. In the Debate on the similar last year I elaborated the first of these four points. I pointed out that this Parliament was elected eight years ago, that when it was elected it was elected largely under false pretences, that is to say, it was elected on a programme to which everyone of its subsequent actions gave the lie; thirdly, out of the large number of vacancies, altogether some 220, which have occurred in this House since the General Election a very large proportion has been filled without a contest by a process of nomination by tile party caucuses. Those three reasons are as true to-day, or rather more so—they are one year truer than they were a year ago. But there has been an additional piece of evidence as regards the unrepresentative character of this House deriving from the results of recent by-elections. In the last 18 months we have had a number of elections. Newark, Rugby, Wallasey, Malden and Eddisbury may tell only part of this story, but there are five or six seats with great Conservative majorities, predominantly agricultural, the kind of seat that was regarded as safe for the Tory Party for ever—gone, either to Independents or to Common Wealth candidates. That is only half the story. The other half of the story is that in all kinds of other seats like King's Lynn, Peter- 150 borough, Chippenham, if those seats, had been fought on an up-to-date register those seats would have been lost. I venture to assert that granted two conditions to-day, an up-to-date register and a reasonably good candidate, there is hardly a seat in Britain to-day which is safe from the Government point of view. The silence with which that remark is treated is the best evidence of its truth.
So much for the first argument, that this House is an unrepresentative House of Commons. I want to say that the House is not the same as it was last year or even a month ago. Since then we have had a declaration from the Prime Minister as to what this House without an election may or may not do. In order to avoid getting into hot water in any way, I want to make it plain that I am not going to discuss the coal issue, on which the speech of the Prime Minister was made, so far as it relates to the problem which we are discussing to-day, which is, Should the life of this Parliament be extended or should it not? The Prime Minister's speech has a very great bearing on that point. What did he say? I do not pretend to quote verbatim, but I give the sense, which was, "On anything which is essential to the war we will do whatever is required, controversial or uncontroversial. On anything which is not essential to the war, we will do nothing controversial, and we may only proceed with the general consent of the House of Commons." I think that is a fair summary, although it is not a verbatim quotation, of what the Prime Minister said. I am not going to quarrel with that statement.
Far be it from me, an Independent, to quarrel with the Prime Minister on the interpretation of the deal between the party caucuses which this House to-day represents. I shall merely take that statement at its face value. What does it imply? It implies that in the mind of the Prime Minister some issues can be distinguished from others in the prosecution of the war. Some are essential to the war and some are not. That is the implication. That is a complete denial of the premise of totalitarian war. The essence of the conception of totalitarian war is that there is no phase of the national life and activities which is not essential to the war and which does not better its prosecution. Therefore, I say 151 that if it follows from the Prime Minister's statement that there are many phases of this war that we cannot deal with, the domestic phases, because they are controversial and because this House cannot be controversial without an election, I say that that establishes the case for a General Election at the earliest possible moment.
My third argument is that the continuance of this Parliament will result in our being, as a country, quite unready to deal With the problems of peace, that is to say, the problems of peace abroad and at home. The nearer we get to victory, the more plain it is that there is a difference between ourselves and our Allies, and a difference within this country, as to the war for which we are fighting. I shall not attempt to discuss the merits of those differences, because I should be out of Order. It is enough for my purposes to demonstrate that they exist and to argue that only a new Parliament can deal with them. Russia is not fighting this war to put a Darlan in place of a Pétain or a Badoglio in place of a Mussolini, to fulfil the Prime Minister's expressed desire to put King Peter back on the throne of Yugoslovia or King George back on the throne of Greece. Russia is not fighting to put back the obsolete and decadent monarchies of Europe. I venture to say that seven-tenths of the people of this country agree with Russia on that. Only a general election can give us a new House of Commons and a new Government in harmony with the will of Britain in regard to the objects of the war and the making of the peace. This present Parliament, three-quarters of whose seats are still occupied by the men of Munich, cannot act as the interpreter of the will of the people of this country in the making of the peace. No one can doubt that the transition from war to peace is going to be a graver and more difficult problem even than that transition was at the end of the last war. This war has eaten more deeply and in more directions into our national life than the last war did. Some of us remember how badly the boat was rocked in 1921. We have on record the present Prime Minister's statement and the statement of Lord Birkenhead as to how grave the position was in 1921 and how near we were to shipwreck. Our problem at the end of this war is going to be still more difficult and dangerous.
152 Is there one among us, Conservative, Liberal, Common Wealth or Labour, who can affirm that we are ready for the problems of peace? Dead silence is the answer. Is there one who believes that this Parliament can prepare for the problems of peace? There is no reply. My answer is, "No." I hope Members on all sides will agree with me here, because I do not believe that on these matters any one of us has a monopoly of vice or of virtue. I listen to Members on all sides asking for a statement of Government policy on the Scott Report, on the Uthwatt Report, on post-war agriculture, on housing; and no one, on whatever side of the House he sits, gets an adequate reply. We do not get a reply because, within the limits of this Government and of this Parliament, no reply is possible. This is not a Government; it is a perilous disequilibrium, a thing which has no roots; it is an illegitimate union; and it can give no answer whatever to the questions of post-war reconstruction at home any more than it can to the problems of peace abroad. Labour Ministers know that this is true, and I challenge them to deny it. If it be the case—I do not say that it is: I ask the question—that in order to get a proper post-war settlement there must be radical change. If that be so, it follows that there is some vested interest or other injured by the proposed change. As soon as an interest is injured by the proposed change, it becomes a controversial point, and this House under the dictum of the Prime Minister cannot deal with it without first having a General Election.
My fourth and last reason is that a continuance of this House threatens this country with a grave prospect of social upheaval. I do not want to be misunderstood here. I do not want to see social upheaval in Britain. I do not know how many shared the experience with me, but I had an experience in Russia of war, revolution and civil war, and whatever tribute I pay—and I do pay it to the tremendous contribution of the Russians in this war—I do not wish to see in England what I saw in Russia in 1927.
§ Mr. Brown
I could reply to that, but if I did, I should be out of Order. I can only say that I hope and believe that there is a more excellent way open to the people of this country than to go through that ordeal. I do not want to 153 see such an upheaval and therefore I am not making this argument because—
§ Mr. Gallacher
The hon. Member says in 1927. Is it not the case that, however difficult the situation was, the people of Russia were provided with opportunities for advancement, that never could have been given to them under Czardom and therefore the Russian people had a big advantage?
§ Mr. Brown
I am not going to attempt to pursue that argument. I am not denying that there have been very great advantages in Russia. I am only postulating that I hope we shall get the same or even better results without going through what I saw with my own eyes in that country. I hold the view that the people of this country as a whole are averse to social upheaval and that there are two trends in our own people which, so long as they do not get too divorced, are an effective guarantee against violence and upheaval. The first strain is the Saxon strain, which does not know very much about formal law but rests upon a rough equity between man and man. [Interruption.] There is no need for my hon. Friend to proclaim the obvious. There is a second strain, derived from the Romans and the Normans—the love of law and order. As long as these two things march together, this people is perhaps the most peaceful and law-abiding people in the world, but when the gap between those things gets too wide, there is no people in the world capable of more explosion than the people of this country. I argue against the continuance of this Parliament and for an immediate General Election because I believe that the continuance of this Parliament will result in the gap between rough equity and law and order becoming so wide that at the end you may face the prospect of social upheaval.
Those are the four arguments I have advanced, and I hope the House will agree that they are at least relevant and worthy of serious consideration, whether the House agrees with them or not. What is the case for the Bill against the serious and grave arguments I have advanced? We are told that we cannot have an election in war-time. But this is only in Britain. We can have an election in 154 America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and even Northern Ireland, but we cannot have an election here in Britain. It is nonsense.
§ Mr. Brown
One can understand that a change of Government might be very distressing to the occupants of the Front Bench. A pyramid looks very good if you are sitting on the top of it, but it does not look half so good when that pyramid is sitting on top of you. Every change of Government we have had in war-time in this and the last war has, on the whole, been a change for the better. In 1916, when there was a change in wartime, it was a change for the better. The change in 1940 was a change for the better as compared with what existed before and I see no reason to suppose that if Britain now had the opportunity of a General Election and decided upon a change of Government, the result need be worse than what we have to-day. If Britain did decide on a change of Government, that would prove up to the hilt the point advanced during this Debate, namely, that this House has ceased to represent the people of Britain. I have spoken longer than I intended, but against the grave argument of policy which I have tried to advance here to-day we have had what I can only describe as "mechanics' defects." We have had a tradesman's argument, a narrow, limited argument that we cannot have an election in wartime. Nonsense, Of course you can have one if you want one, and whether you want one or not depends upon whether you think there is need for bringing the House into line with popular opinion in Britain and beginning to face the problems of peace. I believe that is necessary, and, therefore, I oppose the Bill which is before the House.
§ 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. Beechman.]