HL Deb 24 July 1905 vol 150 cc4-14

My Lords, I wish to ask the noble Marquess the Leader of the House whether he has any statement to make as to the position of the Government after the vote in another place last week.


My Lords, I take it that the Question which the noble Earl has addressed to me means this: Do His Majesty's Government, in consequence of the vote of the House of Commons on Thursday night, consider that it is their duty to advise His Majesty to dissolve Parliament, or do they think they are themselves called upon to place their resignation in his hands? I answer these Questions in the negative. We do not consider that there are any constitutional reasons for which we should adopt either of those courses. We believe that the precedents, which are numerous, point entirely the other way, and that our resignation or the dissolution of Parliament at the present moment would be attended by grave public inconvenience. We do not consider that the vote to which the noble Earl referred can be regarded as indicating the deliberate judgment of Parliament. The whole of the conditions under which that vote was taken, and the information which has reached us with regard to the circumstances in which that decision was arrived at, lead us to believe, on the contrary, that the vote was far from representing the deliberate judgment of the House. We consider, moreover, that there is a very easy way of testing our interpretation and of ascertaining whether the present Government has or has not lost the confidence of the House of Commons. I believe that in the business of the other House is included a Motion that will give to that House ample opportunity for expressing itself in clear and unmistakenable terms upon that broad issue. In these circumstances we propose to proceed with the remaining business of the session without reference to the incident to which the noble Earl has referred.


My Lords, I hardly like to leave the wards of the noble Marquess without some Answer. I conceive that the noble Marquess is not quite correct in saying that all precedents, or a great many precedents, are in favour of the course now proposed to be adopted by His Majesty's Government. I could quote numerous precedents where votes of the House of Commons taken in an even less deliberate way than that taken last week have led immediately to dissolution or resignation. If we refer to what passed last week we shall see that this was not a snap vote or one of inconsiderable importance. His Majesty's Government had to withdraw from their intention of proceeding with a redistribution of seats owing to the decision of the Speaker; that alone is an important fact. Upon that a meeting of the Party was held, and the followers of the Government were invoked to give their careful and constant support to the Government that they might not be taken at an unguarded moment. And yet on the very night of that meeting the Government had to keep the debate going by three or four speakers who were ready with their voices in order to avoid a division.

On the next day there were unusually strong methods adopted for convening the Party for both afternoon and evening sittings; and yet the Government were defeated by three or four votes, a serious matter, as showing the opinion of the House of Commons. It is not right, I think, to say, considering all the circumstances of the session, that that division does not show that the House has not confidence in the present Government. By elections in the country have gone steadily against the Government. It is well known that this Parliament was called together on one particular cry— namely, the Boer War— and upon that the Government majority was returned. The noble Marquess says there will be an opportunity in another place this evening for the House to decide upon a vote of confidence upon the Motion of my right hon. friend but perhaps the noble Marquess is not aware that this Motion was withdrawn in the other House in the sudden change of circumstances. That was a Motion to declare that before a Colonial Conference should be held there should be a dissolution of Parliament; but now circumstances have quite altered; and we say that the dissolution should take place immediately.


My Lords, I do not think that the weighty remarks of my noble friend should be met once more with the resolute silence which appears to oppress the Treasury Bench when questions of their honour are under discussion. The Prime Minister has said, advisedly, he should not care to carry on the Government of this country unless he were able to do so with due regard to his dignity and that of his Government. If he is able now to conduct the affairs of the country with such dignity as he thinks is fitting, he will be in a very changed position from that which he has occupied during the whole of the session. This vote of censure will mark a new departure. Never has a Government undergone so much indignity, so much loss of all that personal weight which should be dear to every Government of this country, as has been the fortune of His Majesty's present advisers.

I do not contest for a moment that they are right in saying that it will be a matter of no difficulty to them to appeal to the House of Commons for a deliberate vote of confidence and to receive that vote. It has never been impossible at any period during the last two years, after many of the best of their Cabinet had left them, to obtain such a vote, and I presume it will not be difficult until this Parliament comes to an end. There is, however, something which is even more valuable than the confidence of Parliament, and that is the confidence of the country. You have the confidence of this House, you have the mechanical confidence of the other House, because as between the votes of hon. Members in the other House and occasional expression of opinion and criticism there seems to be a pretty wide discrepancy. You have the confidence of 1,200 individuals within the walls of Parliament, half of them never subjecting themselves to election at all, and the other half elected under an issue false at the time, and which has absolutely ceased to have any effect or any foundation at the present moment. But outside the House the case is very different.

My Lords, His Majesty's Government refuses to-night, as it has constantly refused before, to appeal to the sense of our fellow-countrymen— that is to say, to voluntarily appeal to the sense of their fellow-countrymen; for in the course of the last two or three years they have been compelled involuntarily to take the opinion of their fellow-countrymen in various parts of the United Kingdom, and with one uniform result, which has never varied except in degree, that the reply has been invariably the utterance of want of confidence in His Majesty's present advisers. What are the consequences? One is temporary, another is permanent. The noble Marquess says there are many precedents for the course the Government propose to take and which guide the Government in their administration of the affairs of the country with dignity and honour without an appeal to the constituencies. You have these constitutional precedents, but it would be more gratifying to us if we had the opportunity of examining these precedents upon which His Majesty's Government rely.

I am not here to dispute what has been done under the procedure of the House of Commons, and as the precedents have not been brought forward we cannot criticise them. But how is it as regards the spirit of the Constitution? It seems to me the Government by their action are straining the spirit of the Constitution, they are straining the very structure of the Constitution in a manner that threatens its foundations. Every day there is piled up in the country a feeling of animosity and distrust against the present Government, and every day that follows, while the Government do not choose to take the sense of the country, will increase that feeling with compound interest; and if it be delayed— as it appears to the Government consistent with honour and dignity to delay the appeal to the country— if it be much longer delayed, who can tell what will be the result, how violent will be the reaction, and what kind of Party may be returned by a majority representing a feeling of revolt against what has taken place, a Party that may even have instincts which I will not further characterise? I am glad to see noble Lords opposite smile, conscious of their honour and dignity. I wonder whether they will smile after the next election? But, at any rate, whether that be so or not, depend upon it, by refusing to dissolve alter a vote of the House of Commons— not so deliberate as a vote of censure, but sufficiently deliberate to characterise the opinion of the House of Commons— they are violently straining the spirit of the Constitution. That, I believe, to be a large issue, and it will come home to the mind of the nation in time.

But there is another question I venture to urge— no doubt it has been canvassed in the councils of the Cabinet. What is the position they will occupy in the face of the Empire and the world, as representing, not the sense of the country, but of a Parliament elected five years ago? The noble Marquess said, with that unconscious humour of which he has an occasional flash even in the gravest deliberations, that the Government did not think it would be for the public convenience that they should resign. I do not think a change of Government is ever, in one sense, for the public convenience; but is it for the public convenience that they should continue? They are dealing with vast international issues. They have, I believe, hugged to themselves the solace that they alone are able to deal with them. That may be. They may, indeed, be a collection of Solomons, of disregarded Solomons in their own country. But it is not a question of how the Government consider themselves, it is a question of what other Governments think of them; and when they are negotiating, and negotiating in the name of a country which loses no opportunity of repudiating them with all the power of which it is capable, they are negotiating on a weak foundation, or rather on no foundation at all.

I may say that I have some personal experience of that matter. I have negotiated on behalf of a weak Government. I have known what it is to feel that while I was negotiating the Röntgen ray of diplomacy was looking through my poor body to the body of the Minister who was about to succeed me; and I cannot flatter His Majesty's Government that in the belief of the country their disappearance will be the loss they credit it to be, and still less can I flatter their delusion that in the eyes of those Governments with which they think they alone are competent to deal they represent the true feeling and the true sense or the true power of Great Britain. I am not going into further detail in this matter; I think, if I had time, or if this were the occasion, I could show cause why His Majesty's Government is not peculiarly worthy of confidence in the matters in which they think themselves strongest; but that is not my purpose to-night. I have only risen on the highest and broadest public grounds to enter my protest, not against their unwillingness to resign, for that has long been familiar to us, but against their unwillingness to renew this Parliament and once more by an appeal to the constituencies to put that fresh life and vigour into Parliament which must, after all, be the foundation, and the only foundation, of strong government in this country.


My Lords, the noble Earl has given us some advice, and has intimated that it will be much worse for us to delay our appeal to the country. He has suggested that as a matter of prudence we should invite an early opinion of our countrymen on our conduct. While expressing gratitude on behalf of my colleagues and myself to the noble Earl, I would say that, although I am aware that the noble Earl is very confident as to the wisdom which guides his views, he had better leave to us the question of deciding what is prudent and best for us. And in an even more emphatic manner I would suggest to the noble Earl to leave to us the preservation of our own honour, of which we think we are very much better judges than a partisan on the other side.

It could not really be supposed that we would take the noble Earl's advice on that subject; and it would have been better if the noble Earl, before turning to topics of that sort, had been better historically informed as to one or two examples which I will presently cite. It is not calculated to add either to the dignity or to the usefulness of our debates to suggest topics which can only be offensive, and can only be intended to be offensive when you come to observations about the necessity for the preservation of our honour, because we do not pursue the course which, in a partisan view, it is thought we ought to pursue. This is a somewhat inconvenient period to engage in the discussion, because at this moment I believe the House of Commons is discussing the same question, and, except on the presumption that the desire to make a speech about this question is overwhelming, it is a little premature to discuss it here. One would have thought the House of Commons was the proper place to discuss this question, at all events in the first instance.

With a degree of candour which I always attribute to the noble Earl who leads the Opposition, it is suggested that perhaps the noble Marquess is not aware that a vote of want of confidence, which stood for discussion in the House of Commons, has been taken off the Paper. Why is it withdrawn? I should have thought that, if it was really believed that the division of Thursday night was not a snap division, they would have been eager to bring it forward in order to emphasise that point. But the last thing in the world they want to do is to take a vote, lest they should find that the majority of three was only a colourable majority because some people had not come down to vote. Rumours have reached me that when there was a discussion in the House of Commons which it was feared would lead to a division, an hon. Member was howled down because he was endeavouring to make some protest, and he was not allowed to speak, lest even upon that the vote should be reversed.

What is the constitutional course? If on a vote of want of confidence there had been a majority of three, although that is not a very decided indication of opinion, I could understand that on a trial of strength on a recognised battleground it would be undesirable for any Government to retain position and place. But what is the case here? Did anybody suppose there was going to be such a division? Everybody knew that there had been slack attendance. It was one of the topics of the Party meeting to which the noble Lord referred; and the idea of its being a vote which would determine the fate of the Government I do not believe had occurred to anybody, except those who, in some way or another, were absent from the House of Commons until the division bell rang, and then from various quarters the great number of persons not supposed to be there were there in time for the division. In that sense it may indeed be called a snap division. I do not think it would be called anything else by any one who knew all the facts, who knew that it was manifestly intended to be a surprise, one of those Party expedients which people have a right to adopt. To treat a small triumph, due to thus taking advantage of your opponents being away, as a high constitutional question is an exaggeration manifest from the mere statement of it

Coming to precedents I am sorry to say I can myself remember Lord John Russell being defeated in May, 1841, by a majority of thirty-six upon the sugar duties; and although it was part of his Budget Resolution he declined to go out, and did not go out until June on a vote of want of confidence proposed by Sir Robert Peel. If the noble Earl will turn to the debate of June 4th of that year and read Lord John Russell's long historical account of the mode in which those things happened and his protest against the idea that even upon a Government Bill a Government must needs go out because they are defeated, he will, on the next occasion that he addresses your Lordships, have a better idea of the constitutional theory. I might also refer to a vote concerning an allowance to Prince Albert when a Liberal Government were defeated by a majority of over 100; but, coming to more modern instances, in 1859 Lord Palmerston was more than once defeated, and in 1868 Mr. Gladstone was defeated nine times, without resignation.

But the noble Earl says you must not only consider the question of being defeated, but consider the question of by elections. There is the awful spot which shows how wicked you have been and how abominable it is for you not to resign; but let me remind the noble Earl that from 1871 to 1873 there were twenty-three by-elections in which the Liberals were defeated, and Mr. Gladstone's Government did not think it then necessary to resign. If some wicked Tories had then come down to this House and talked about honour and prudence and all the rest, I wonder what would have been said on the other side. No, I do not wonder at all I know the noble Earl, if he had been there, would have got up and said it was one of those things which might happen to any Government from time to time, that they were coming to the end of their tether, and that it did not much matter, only he would have said this in more flowery language than I can use.

This vote was obtained by the skill and acuteness, in a great measure, of the Members of the Irish Party. Perhaps the noble Earl will go on and tell your Lordships whom His Majesty ought to send for. If I were asked as an impartial spectator, I would say that Mr. Redmond should be sent for at the present moment. But there might be difficulties about that, for if Mr. Redmond were sent for the question of Home Rule would arise, and, if it did, I will not conjecture what would happen at the happy meetings of those who would have to settle it. I protest against this sort of extempore debate, and I am sorry the noble Earl has thought it necessary to speak. I think it would have been better had the noble Earl left the matter in the hands of the Leader of the Opposition rather than have entered into this sort, of combative debate.


My Lords, I do not think the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack has sufficiently answered the criticisms of my two noble friends by simply scolding them for the action they have taken. To scold is no argument. The noble and learned Earl says that the Government themselves are the best judges of their honour and dignity. Well, undoubtedly they should be. But the honour and dignity of the British Government are the affair of the whole nation. They cannot assume the care of their own honour and dignity; they must leave that in the hands of the nation at large as represented at the polls. The noble and learned Earl quoted the period of 1871– 1873, when the Government would not resign after having been beaten in twenty-three by elections. I think the result of the election of 1874 was a pretty good proof that that Government was very wrong in the course it took, and I do not think the present Government can take a better example than the fate which befel that Government.

The noble and learned Earl declares that the division of last Thursday was a s nap division. I claim to know I something about snap divisions in the House of Commons, and, in my view, if ever a division was deliberately taken after all Parties in the House had been fully warned, it was the division of Thursday night. On the Tuesday the Government held a meeting of their Party. The meeting was supposed to be called in order to inform the Party of the reasons for the withdrawal of the Redistribution Resolutions. All they were told was that they were to be in the House regularly at half-past two, to stay there continuously, and to vote like men. Well, my Lords, what happened? A whip was sent out by the Chief Whip of the Party in which it was stated that Thursday night was likely to be a lively one, and that the Liberal Members had withdrawn their pairs. What ground he had for making that statement I know not, but I believe it not to be the fact. But in spite of the warnings and exhortations addressed to them the Tory Members did not come down to the House. Surely that was ample proof that they were not very anxious to support the Government. I contend that it is impossible to treat this incident in the light way in which His Majesty's Government have treated it. I protest against it being treated in such a manner, and I can assure the noble and learned Earl that the country will agree with me in the view I take.


My Lords, it is not as a politician but as an historical student that I venture to say a few words before this debate concludes. I wish to call the attention of the House to a precedent which has not been quoted in this House or in the other House of Parliament, but which is, I think, an important one. In doing so I wish to say that my own feeling is that His Majesty's Government would have consulted their own honour and the interests of their Party better by resigning than by adhering to office; but that is their affair, and the precedent which I wish to quote I am bound in honour as an historical student to say is entirely in their favour. On June 14th, 1844, Sir Robert Peel, the then Prime Minister, was defeated by a majority of twenty in the House of Commons, not on an unimportant Vote, but on the question of the sugar duties. Did Sir Robert Peel resign? No. Did he dissolve Parliament? No. What he did was this. On June 17th he induced the House of Commons to reverse the vote which it had come to on the 14th. I think the precedent is one which should not be lost sight of when the question is being considered; but I am not to be held, on the strength of that precedent, to agree that I think His Majesty's Government have acted wisely or discreetly in the course which they have taken.