HC Deb 25 June 1968 vol 767 cc252-8

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to strengthen the links which ought to exist between Parliament and People. I suppose that we all recognise how conformist is the influence of the Palace of Westminster and how rapidly even the youngest hon. Member begins to assume that what is now is what must be right. It is, therefore, good that sometimes these conformist opinions should be challenged.

For that reason, I was glad to see the Minister of Technology declaring that Parliament could not go on in its present form for ever and that marking a ballot paper with a cross every five years was insufficient. Indeed, he even said that if there was not a change there could be bloodshed, though I regret that he should have referred to bloodshed. However, I thought that the discussion was worth opening. I suspect that few of us, including even the Prime Minister, are friends of referenda. However, I range myself on the side of change.

We now have five-year Parliaments although, in the long eye of history, we have had them a short time. Following Stuart abuse of the system, it was in 1694 that three-year Parliaments were introduced. In 1715, there were seven-year Parliaments. Then there was the Parliament Act of 1911, which not only abated the power of the Upper House, but, as part of a package deal, also reduced to five years the length of a Parliament in order to restrain the Lower House. In the context of the Prime Minister's current proposals, when we are allowed to know what they are, I suggest to hon. Members that here is a precedent. In both Australia and New Zealand there are still three-year Parliaments, and the system works well. Tasmania has five-year Parliaments, reducible to three in certain circumstances. I suggest that that is a device which has much to commend it.

We must recognise that, since 1911, communications have strengthened and public opinion has become much more volatile. In 1968, there is evidence of growing dissatisfaction, world-wide in character but evident in England from by-elections, polls, strikes, student unrest and demonstrations, and Scots, Welsh and even Cornish nationalism. I suggest that each of these bears witness to the feeling of our people that they are too little able to participate in our decisions, that they feel remote from the nature of our discussions and, perhaps above all, are asked for their opinions too infrequently. We ought not to disregard that evidence, because an unrepresentative Parliament long continued is a mischief.

In the 19th century, the Queen had some influence on the date of a Dissolution. That is no longer substantially so, nor can it be revived. In the United States, there is the Supreme Court. We have no equivalent. There are those who believe that in certain circumstances the House of Lords has a large function in this context. That view is now opposed.

If we in the Commons deny influence to any other constitutional organ, then, in equity, the remedy must lie with ourselves. If the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) were pre- sent, I would say to him that those who are the first to wish to diminish the influence of the Upper House must also be the first to devise an alternative remedy. It is for them to attach to that ringing phrase, "representation of the people", a real meaning and show that we intend it in deed and in fact.

It might be supposed that those arguments would lead me to a demand to follow Australia and New Zealand and have three-year Parliaments. I do not altogether take that view. We all recognise the need for any Government to take firm and sometimes unpopular actions, and a wise Government of any party will face the nation with the less popular part of their legislative programme while their mandate is fresh and their image untarnished.

Mr. Gladstone took the view that, if mid-term by-elections or other evidence showed demonstrable unpopularity, it was the Government's moral duty to consider resignation. But Mr. Gladstone was considering only confidence at home. We now have to consider our credit abroad and our foreign policy overseas, both of which are weakened by a lack of confidence at home. Nor was it then necessary, as it now is, for a confident and strong Government to dominate in the sphere of industrial disputes. In this decade, a weak Government, because they are weak—whatever the reason for their weakness—can effect economic disaster.

There have been occasions when a British Government have sought a General Election not because of a Parliamentary defeat, but because their Administration has been discredited and because their continuance in office, with all the repercussions which I have tried to describe, was contrary to the national interest. Such occasions are rare, but they exist. How is such a point in time to be identified? That is our problem.

My Bill would provide that the normal run of a Parliament would continue to be five years, subject to one small proviso. If, during the first three years, there are no less than 20 by-elections in which the average swing away from the Government has exceeded 15 per cent., then, before the commencement of the fourth year, a new Parliament will be called. Such a position has not yet arisen and it may be that it never will. It has not arisen at any time in the last 50 years, and probably longer. But should we not take precautions? It could arise during 1969.

If it were to do so, it could only be because the Government have less support than any Government in living memory, that their discredit is total and that they have been discredited over a period of years, with all the dire results which would follow therefrom both at home and abroad. It may be argued that, if such exceptional circumstances were to arise, a Prime Minister could be depended upon to take appropriate action himself. Equally, it can be argued that so great a load of responsibility is too heavy for any one man to bear and that it should be removed from his shoulders. If my Bill were approved, the representation of the people, which we in this House all seek to maintain, would be reassured not by the decision of any individual, but by the impartial nature of statistical facts accurately computed.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher (Ilkeston)

I rise to oppose the Motion. I am still not very clear what it is that I am opposing. The rather sketchy outline of the projected Bill seemed to be nothing more than an elongated demand for a General Election more appropriate for a Question to the Prime Minister than for a Private Member's Bill.

If I were to give reasons why we should not have a General Election now, and do not need a General Election now, and why I think that the result of a General Election now might provide some shocks to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King), I should not be talking to this Motion, which I am rather anxious to do.

When we in this House debate how we represent the people, the precise machinery by which we are elected and the forms in which we carry out our duties as representatives, we seem to go through cycles lasting about 30 years. The last occasion when this House was really excited about the problem was in the 1920s, when there was a rash of Private Members' Bills. Some of them were very peculiar Bills and could not be anything other than peculiar being sponsored mainly by Conservative hon. Members.

There were proposals to restrict the franchise, to deny the vote to former conscientious objectors, to deny the vote to people who were naturalised citizens, and I believe that there was one proposal, considered in 1928, at Cabinet level, to deny the vote to paupers. Many of these Measures were instigated by private Members, but only one succeeded. It is rather an interesting commentary on the way that the House tends to produce results to note that a Private Member's Measure in 1927, which was accepted by accident by the very Conservative Home Secretary and nearly produced riots in the Cabinet, extended the franchise to women at the age of 21.

Most members of the then Cabinet were as agitated as the hon. Gentleman seems to be agitated now. Certain members of their Lordships' House were even more agitated. Early in 1927, Lord Birkenhead wrote to Lord Irwin saying: The Cabinet went mad yesterday and decided to give votes to women at 21. It was argued in Cabinet—we have Sir Winston Churchill's testimony to this effect—that the other members of the Cabinet strongly objected to the undue influence exercised upon Sir William Joynson-Hicks by that dynamic character Lady Astor. Hypnotised by that remarkable lady, Sir William conceded what his Cabinet colleagues said he should not have conceded. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, never was so great a change in the electorate achieved so incontinently.

I rather think that when we debate a Motion of this kind—in view of my attitude to the next business, I should be happy to debate the Motion for the next two days—we should try to avoid the eccentricities of those who occupied the House in the 1920s.

The basic charge that the hon. Gentleman levelled against this side was that we are unpopular. If unpopularity is a crime it carries with it its own punishment, and, therefore, there is no need for any other. If unpopularity alone is an indication that those who incur it and who perhaps deserve it are no longer fitted to exercise effective authority anyhow, it is a very strange doctrine indeed and it comes even more strangely from the Opposition. I might take it and argue against it if it came from Mr. Cohn-Bendit, or even Tariq Ali, but it comes rather strangely from a Conservative Member.

Consider the record. Sir Winston Churchill was not always as popular as he eventually became. In 1922, he suffered a terrible misfortune in his own eyes: he was defeated at Dundee by what Sir William Gilbert would have called that singular anomaly, a prohibitionist. I could imagine that Sir Winston must have considered this the most unkind cut of all. Two years later Sir Winston sustained a similar defeat in rather ignominious circumstances not too far away from the Palace of Westminster itself. Throughout his life he had to face those two imposters—triumph and disaster— with equal fortitude.

If popularity is the only thing that confers legitimacy either on a Government or on a member of a Government, let us consider this unpalatable fact from history. Probably the most popular Member who ever sat in the House was Mr. Horatio Bottomley; he enjoyed enormous popularity until an enterprising journalist revealed that he was a swindler. Another highly popular character in British political history was Lord George Gordon, who enjoyed the undiluted enthusiasm of the London mob until it had to be pointed out that the man was totally insane.

If we are to adopt the criterion of popularity as the only one we shall have some very mysterious figures indeed occupying both Front Benches. We might see Mr. Mick Jagger exercising authority as the Minister of Transport and Mr. Engelbert Humperdinck acting vigorously as the Foreign Secretary. We might, indeed, have to endure Mr. Tom Jones as Prime Minister.

If popularity is the only thing that matters, it is a very bad guide, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, very often unpopular decisions are the right ones. I wish to introduce in evidence the ex- perience of his own right hon. Friend, who from time to time, by permission of Lord Salisbury, is permitted to lead the Opposition. There was a time, when the right hon. Gentleman the titular Leader of the Opposition was in office, when he introduced a Measure to abolish retail price maintenance. It was not popular in his own party. It was not popular in the country. But it happened to be the right thing to do at that time, as we have subsequently seen.

If it is validly argued that only popular measures are valid measures, that only popular Governments are legitimate Governments, we are faced with an entirely different proposition: the hon. Gentleman is arguing for no Government at all. This may be what is concealed within this innocuous Motion and in the Bill which the hon. Gentleman has in draft. I say deliberately from this side of the House that I am to some extent speaking from the cumulative experience and the traditions of the House itself—a rather unfamiliar posture for me. I accuse the hon. Gentleman not of interpreting the ideology of the six separate leaders of the Opposition in his Motion and in the projected Bill. There is no such ideology. There is nothing specifically Conservative, there is nothing specifically Liberal, there is nothing specifically democratic, in trying successfully to do by this Measure what Mr. Guy Fawkes signally failed to do by other measures in 1605.

I accuse the hon. Gentleman of presenting to the House not the ideology of Conservatism, not the ideology of tradition, not the ideology of the evolving organic society, but the ideology of Guy Fawkes; and as such I ask the House to reject the Motion.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business), and negatived.