HC Deb 02 May 1957 vol 569 cc475-82

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this be the Preamble to the Bill.

Mr. Steele

Having come to the end, we now come to the beginning, and I should like to move the Amendment which stands in my name, to leave out the Preamble.

The Deputy-Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot move that Amendment. He can only vote against the Question. "That this be the Preamble to the Bill."

Mr. Steele

I am much obliged, Sir Gordon, The longer one is in this House, the more one realises that the procedure in these matters is difficult.

The Preamble reads: Whereas it is expedient to amend the law relating to the government of Her Majesty's Navy, whereon, under the good Providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the Kingdom so much depend: These words are very interesting, but we take the view that they are quite unnecessary. On reading the Select Committee's Report, one finds that one member indicated that it was advisable to have these words because they were a source of inspiration. It would be difficult to say who was going to read them. They are unlike the words of the Clause which the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) mentioned as being read periodically—the famous words which the Civil Lord of the Admiralty thought were certainly not ennobling, as these certainly are, though I hesitate to think that these words are read periodically.

9.0 p.m.

Nothing like this appears in any other Act. In many of the arguments used by Ministers to defeat arguments advanced from this side of the Committee they called in aid the fact that particular words appeared in the Army Act and that the proposal was to keep in line with the Army or the Air Force legislation. On this occasion that cannot be argued, because nothing like this to my knowledge appears in any other Act.

The Select Committee felt the words should be retained because of the traditions of the Navy and because these words have always been there. There was one amendment, because in the previous Act the words read: …under the good Providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the Kingdom chiefly depend.

It was claimed that the safety and strength of the Kingdom chiefly depended on Her Majesty's Navy. If tradition had to be maintained in this matter it seems to me essential to retain the old words and it would have been much better had the Committee argued that these words, "chiefly depend", should be retained. I think that the taking out of those words and replacing them with, "so much depend" weakens the Preamble and makes it rather spineless. It takes away the strong declaration which vas embodied in the previous words.

I must confess that the new Defence White Paper and the effect of the proposals of the Minister of Defence have "torpedoed" this argument and even the comfort of the words, "so much depend" has been taken away by what the Minister of Defence has stated in the White Paper, and the statement of the First Lord in the White Paper on the Navy Estimates. It would appear to me that rather than whittle away the strong declaration in the previous Act, it would he better to allow these words to fade into history containing some strength; and that rather than that they should be weakened, we should take out the Preamble altogether.

Sir P. Spens

I trust that these will be the last remarks I shall make during the Committee stage proceedings on this Bill.

I hope the Committee will not give way to the appeal of the hon. Member for Dunbarionshire, West (Mr. Steele). I feel extremely strongly about this matter. I was sorry that time after time during the proceedings of the Select Committee we had to do away with phrases and Clauses of great interest and importance which were bound up with the history of the Navy. This Preamble goes right back to 1666, and the very first Naval Discipline Bill that went on to our Statute Book. It is interesting to note that the wording of it then was: …whereon, under the good Providence and Protection of God, the wealth, safety and strength of this Realm is so much concerned. It was only at a later date that the: senior Service, as it was so justly entitled to do, altered these words to, "chiefly depend". When we came to consider the Preamble and make up our minds whether we should have a Preamble. we went back to the original words. I wish that we had gone back to the original words, "is so much concerned", but as the word "depend" had been used in the last Act, the majority of the members of the Committee preferred the phrase, "so much depend."

True, it is uncommon nowadays to have a Preamble to an Act of Parliament, but there have been hundreds of Preambles right down our history to all sorts of Acts of Parliament. It is only because there has been trouble in construing Acts of Parliament with Preambles, and because judges have found themselves in difficulties when what has been found in the Preamble conflicted with something in the Act, that the custom and practice of having Preambles to Bills has dropped out.

There is no possibility of anything of that sort happening with regard to this Preamble. It is an old-fashioned, historical Preamble which has been connected with the Navy ever since it came into existence at the time of James II, as we know him now. It will be a very sad departure from history if we give up the Preamble in the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will agree that the wording that the Select Committee approved has a proper connection with the history of our senior Service.

Mr. Ede

This is an unusual Preamble, although I understand that it does not appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele).

Mr. Steele

Is my right hon. Friend assuming that I am a practical person, being a Scotsman?

Mr. Ede

I understand that all the Statutes before the Act of 1707 are regarded as foreign legislation in my hon. Friend's native land.

I support the view advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), and for an additional reason. This Preamble is one of those which, in former days, declared the sense of purpose and mission that this country believed it had. Let us not forget that for a hundred years the Royal Navy preserved the peace of the world and that one great nation that now occasionally thinks it right to lecture us grew up to its present strength behind that shelter. There is no reason why any of us should be ashamed of that part of the tradition of the Royal Navy.

I do not share the regret of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that a slight alteration has been made in the wording the spirit has been preserved. Tradition has sometimes to be applied to the actual circumstances of the time in which appeal is made to it. Tradition is not a dead thing of the past but a living spirit of the present, growing, when it is wisely consulted, with the needs of the time. Can anyone doubt that the great Commonwealth of Nations of which we are now only the first among equals, could exist for very long without the Royal Navy acting, not in time of war but in time of peace, as a link between all the peoples who hold allegiance to Her Majesty either as Queen or as Head of of the Commonwealth?

These words, which, after all, cannot give rise to anything like the trouble that has recently been caused to the Law Officers of the Crown with regard to an Act of Queen Anne which has baffled the courts and had to be taken to the House of Lords, do not affect any of the enacting provisions of the Bill.

I hope that they will he continued to express what I believe is still the great mission of this country, to give a leadership to the world in accordance with the tradition of freedom that the Royal Navy has stood for increasingly as the years have gone by as the finest example in the world. It managed, during the century between Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War to impose apax Britannica,on the world far greater than thepax Romanaof which a former great world nation was proud because, in the main, it stood to prevent slavery and the carrying of slaves from one stricken part of the world to another when human beings could be sold. In the main, it imposed beneficently a peace on the world which, to the great distraction and despair of the world, we have now lost.

I see no reason why we on this side of the Committee should not be proud of the fact that men of very humble birth, throughout the centuries, certainly since 1666, have maintained with others this high tradition of this country in the affairs of the world.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I would not have intervened in this debate but for the extraordinary nationalist and sentimental outburst of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), with whom I usually agree, but I cannot say that he expressed an objective view of history in what was a typically English speech. As a Welshman, representing a Scottish constituency, I can take an objective view of the English.

I believe that the English are inclined to be far too sentimental in regard to the history of the Navy and that that is expressed in this Preamble. I could not quite understand the reference of my right hon. Friend to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steel). The history of Scotland goes much further back than 1666, although there is not a great deal of history about the Scottish Navy.

Commander Maitland

I would point out that in Scottish history there was someone called Sir Patrick Spens, and that the Chairman of the Select Committee which decided on this Preamble has the same name.

Mr. Hughes

That is certainly the most convincing argument I have heard yet. We can quite understand an Englishman getting excited about the British Navy, That is according to the tradition of this place, but those of us who are able to take a more objective point of view are not quite so sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has not rather exaggerated it in his speech in favour of the Preamble.

9.15 p.m.

It may be true that the English Navy ruled the waves for a very long time, but it did something else besides keeping the peace. History tells us that the Scots were in alliance with the French, and during those years when the English Navy was keeping the peace it was also used, for example, to destroy a good deal of the influence of the French Revolution and to build up imperialism. I therefore suggest that, in addition to this romantic view, there is another one which is not expressed in the Preamble. Of course, we are entitled to allow the English in this place their prejudices, but I suggest that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has rather romanticised the rôle of the English Navy. While we do not think that this Preamble is a very important matter, we yet think that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) has expressed a far more objective view than has my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Soames

Perhaps I may be allowed to say at this stage what a very interesting discussion we have had on the various Amendments, and to thank those who have put them down and so enabled many points to be discussed, I think with advantage.

As to this Amendment, I must confess that I am a little disappointed that it should have been thought necessary to put it on the Notice Paper. The point made by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) is that the fact that the words "so much" have been substituted for the word "chiefly" takes both the punch and the tradition from the Preamble. It was met most effectively, I thought, by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), who pointed out that from the traditional point of view they were, in fact, the words used in the Naval Discipline Act, of, I think, 1662.

As to the punch, when the last Naval Discipline Act was passed in 1860 there was, of course, no Royal Air Force. As I have just moved over from the Air Ministry, the last thing I should like to do would be to say that the safety of the realm depends only upon the Royal Navy, but, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said, in a speech that was listened to with great attention in this Committee, and which will, I know, be read with the greatest interest and gratitude by the Fleet, the Royal Navy has played a tremendous part in building up the greatness of the United Kingdom and of the British Commonwealth.

At Greenwich, at this moment, there is going on a Commonwealth Naval Conference, attended by the Chiefs of Staff of all the Commonwealth Navies. It is a most impressive conference, and the power of all the navies of the Commonwealth is a great feature for stability within the world today. If we are to take out of the Bill this Preamble, which does no harm to anyone, but merely points out the extent to which we look to the Royal Navy to protect the interests both of this country and of the Commonwealth, it would be the greatest pity. I am quite certain that the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West put down his Amendment in order to get discussion on the point, and I hope that he will now feel able to agree to the Preamble.

Mr. Steele

I am sure that Members of the Committee would not imagine for one moment that anyone speaking from the Front Bench on this side of the Committee would try, in any Amendment or in anything that was said in connection with the Navy to do other than pay a high tribute to its work and also to its history. Anything that I have said or anything that I shall ever say will have nothing at all to do with criticism of the high tradition of this Service and the great part that it has played in the past.

It may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) feels that we Scotsmen north of the Border are not so emotional in these matters as our colleagues south of the Border. I can assure him that we are just as sentimental, perhaps more sentimental in many of these matters, than our English colleagues. It is fitting that one Scotsman, one Englishman and one Welshman should have taken part in this debate. However, in view of the speeches that have been made, I have no hesitation at all in withdrawing my Amendment.

The Deputy-Chairman

No Amendment has been moved. The Amendment was out of order. The Question is, "That this be the Preamble to the Bill."

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, to be considered Tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 81.]