HL Deb 27 August 1907 vol 182 cc279-83

My Lords, in accordance with private notice, I rise to ask the Lord President of the Council which of the following statements most accurately describes the policy and intentions of the Government in regard to Scottish small holdings—the Lord President's statement in reply to Lord St. Aldwyn, the Scottish crofter Members' letter, the Prime Minister's statement, the letter of Mr. Weir and Mr. Morton to The Times, or the letter of the Master of Elibank of 24th August. I hope that in putting this Question I shall not be thought to be in any way doubting the honesty or straightforwardness of the Answer which was given to the noble Viscount by the Lord President. The Question was asked across the floor of the House and the answer given on the spur of the moment, possibly at the very time the letter from the crofter Members was being sent in to the Prime Minister. The noble Earl the Lord President stated, in his reply, that the crofter Members supported the policy of His Majesty's Government in withdrawing the Bill. We then had the crofter Members' letter, signed by Mr. Harmsworth, Member for Caithness; by Mr. Morton, Member for Sutherland; by Mr. Weir, Member for Ross and Cromarty; and by Mr. Ainsworth, Member for Argyll. In this letter these gentlemen stated that it was their belief that the open door should be taken advantage of, and they definitely supported the view that the Government were to proceed with the crofter legislation. On the subject of the Government's tactics with regard to the House of Lords no opinion was expressed. Next came the statement of the Prime Minister, who, although he had received the letter of the crofter Members, declared that those Members agreed with the policy and with the tactics of His Majesty's Government. I would venture to press this point. The tactics of His Majesty's Government must necessarily refer to their tactics as regards the House of Lords. These crofter Members had only the day before sent the Prime Minister a letter in which they said they approved of going on with this Bill, and it would have been, of course, impossible for them to have made the volte face suggested. Then we had the letter of the two crofter Members Mr. Weir and Mr. Morton, absolutely standing fast to what they had said; and, finally, as the last act in this drama, we had the letter of the Master of Elibank, in which he stated that the Prime Minister and Lord Crewe had considerable ground for feeling that the policy of the Government had met with the approval of the bulk of the northern Members. The introduction by the Master of Elibank of the term "northern Members" and what he calls "non-Highland Members" constitute the drawing of a red herring across the trail with the object of leading people in the south of Britain to believe that the crofter Members have either gone back upon their letters of last week or that there are other crofter Members who believe in the policy of the Government. I submit that the crofter Members are opposed to the policy of His Majesty's Government, and I beg to ask my Question in view of the great firework display by Members of the Government which took place in the country on Saturday last on the question of the House of Lords.


My Lords, my noble friend has made full use of the powers which your Lordships freely grant to those who desire to raise a subject which is not on the Paper, and he will, I am sure, excuse me if I reply somewhat briefly to his Question. The form of the Question is rather singular, because the noble Lord asks me which of several statements most accurately describes the attitute of the crofter Members. I should have thought that that question should be addressed, not to me, but to the Members themselves. But, so far as I can, although I must say the question does not seem to me to be one of great public interest, I will endeavour to reply to it. In my judgment all the five statements to which the noble Lord has alluded represent with perfect accuracy the general situation. The first of those in point of time was the letter which it is said was addressed to the Prime Minister by various Members of Parliament. I have personally no knowledge of that letter. I do not know whether the noble Lord has seen it. It was mentioned in one of those columns of the newspapers devoted to political gossip, of which there are now so many; but I take it that it was a private communication, and I confess I know nothing whatever about it. But if such a letter was written—and I dare say it was—it seems to me very natural that it should have expressed, on behalf of those qualified to speak for those counties, the desire that it might be possible to pass the measure so far as it included the provisions relating to the crofting counties. We all agree with that as an abstract proposition. We would all, I presume, have certainly desired to see those provisions become law; but it is important to point out that when noble Lords opposite made what, I suppose, was a kind of offer to pass those particular provisions, their offer was qualified by the statement that those provisions would be passed with some alterations; and long and bitter experience in this House has taught me what the effect upon a measure is of the slight alterations which noble Lords opposite are accustomed to make in Bills which we bring in. Therefore, I think it is important to observe that whatever may have been the views of the Members for the crofting counties as regards the bringing in of this measure, it by no means follows that what would have been done in your Lordships' House would have satisfied them. The next in point of time was the reply which I gave to the noble Viscount, Lord St. Aldwyn, who asked me— Did the Members for the crofting counties who waited on the Prime Minister complain that the Bill had been eviscerated, or did they ask him to proceed with the crofter clauses of the Bill? To that I replied— I believe, so far as my information goes—it is not very extensive, though I hope, so far as it does go, it is accurate—that those who are most qualified to speak for the northern parts of Scotland are quite willing to combine with those who represent other counties of Scotland in supporting the action of His Majesty's Government. I still believe that to be a perfectly accurate statement, and it is not in any degree incompatible with anything that may have been written by these gentlemen to the Prime Minister. Then came the Prime Minister's statement, and my right hon. friend was good enough to confirm what I said on that occasion. Then two gentlemen—Mr. Weir and Mr. Morton—wrote to The Times stating their views. There, again, there is nothing incompatible with what I said in this House. On the contrary, their statement, if it does not actually bear out, is, at any rate, not incompatible with, the particular words which I used in describing the opinions of Members for the North of Scotland on this subject. Lastly, there is the letter of the Master of Elibank, which speaks for itself, and which, so far as I am aware, is perfectly accurate. In fact, if I may say so, it appears to me that the various statements made by the five people, or more, none of whom had compared notes on the subject, are quite remarkably compatible and accurate for a discussion of this kind. I hope I have given the noble Lord the information he requires.