LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I rise, pursuant to notice, to present a Bill to provide for the taking of a poll of the Parliamentary electors of the United Kingdom with respect to certain Bills in Parliament and for other purposes connected therewith. I have given notice that I proposed to introduce this Bill because I thought that the proposals contained in it were of sufficient importance to justify me in explaining them to the House and the reasons which have induced me to present the Bill, and that it would be for the convenience of your Lordships that I should do so now rather than wait for the Second Reading. I have every hope that the. Bill itself will be in the hands of members of the House to-morrow morning. I wish to make it perfectly distinct that I, and I alone, am responsible for the contents of this Bill. I hope that it will meet with a certain amount of favour, but think it due to noble Lords who might otherwise be supposed to be responsible for it to say that, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent, whether it receives the favour of your Lordships' House or not, at any rate at this stage I, and I alone, am responsible for the course that I am asking you to take.
This is not a new subject. In one form or another it has been before the country for a considerable number of years, and I am sanguine enough to think that the ideas that underlie it have been gaining in public favour, and that I do not put matters too high when I say that in my belief something on the lines of this proposal will be found to be the best solution of many of the undoubted difficulties in which we find ourselves. To carry a change of this kind, which, after all, is a considerable change, into law may not be 254 altogether an easy matter, but it will solve a great many difficulties, and will, perhaps, create fewer difficulties than any other proposal which has been suggested. With me it is no new matter. As your Lordships know, I put a Notice on the Paper of the House last May winch would have raised in an abstract form a discussion on this subject, but on account of melancholy events with which we are all familiar, it was never convenient to bring that Notice to the test of public discussion. Personally I greatly regret, and I do not think 1 am alone in regretting, that events over which most of us had no control prevented any adequate discussion, not only of this question but of other matters, before the Dissolution of Parliament was announced to your Lordships.
I am one of those who can say with truth that when we were told that a Conference on the Constitutional question was agreed upon we received that announcement with unfeigned rejoicing, and hoped that it would lead to a successful result, and I am perfectly certain that we never realised that two things were going to happen: first, that when that. Conference failed a Dissolution would be sprung upon us without any opportunity for discussion; and, secondly, that we should be kept in absolute ignorance of the points discussed in the Conference. I venture to say that those who claim the title, which I arrogate to myself, of being moderate and reasonable in these matters, have been prejudiced by the fact that we have not been told what were the subjects which finally made agreement insuperable. I do not go further into that at the moment, but I do feel very strongly on that point.
I have thought it important to show in actual form what is meant by the measure hitherto designated by the somewhat barbarous title of the Referendum. I propose to call it reference to the people, and the Bill which I am asking your Lordships to read a first time to-night will have for its short title "The Reference to the People Act." I want to show how, comparatively speaking, simple and easy the machinery can be made for carrying this measure into effect. I am satisfied that a great deal of the difficulty which is honestly felt in many quarters with regard to it arises from the fact that it is not thoroughly understood how comparatively speaking simple it would be in operation. I was told the other day that a gentleman, who was probably 255 more interested in agriculture than in politics, went to a meeting to hear about the Referendum, under the belief that it was a new kind of turnip that would take the prizes at local shows in the near future. There have been many exaggerated statements made as to the difficulties surrounding this measure—its complexity, the disturbance that would be introduced into public life, and, what is also an important matter, the cost, which has been put in some quarters at a very large figure.
I am quite aware that it is viewed with distrust in opposite quarters and from opposite points of view, and that some think it will be a very violent innovation in our public life, while others oppose it because they seem to fear that it will put obstacles and difficulties in the way of some of their pet schemes of reform. It is not altogether without precedent. This system is in operation in Switzerland and in some of the American States and in some of our Dominions across the sea. I do not press these analogies too far. I am quite aware that there are differences not only in the Constitutional form of the Governments of those countries as compared with our own, but in their customs and circumstances; but I am entitled to make this point, that wherever it has been tried it has been successful and that no one in any country in which it is now part of the Constitution proposes to abandon it. I agree, however, that the real question for us is to see whether it will be good for us and will suit the circumstances as they now exist in this country.
Let me turn aside for a moment to consider what is the theory of the Constitution under which we live. I think I am right in saying that that theory is that the will of the people shall prevail. If all cannot meet and discuss matters of public interest they are to do it through their chosen representatives. Many of your Lordships will remember the passage in Tacitus, who, when describing some of the characteristics of the Teutonic races, said in his short and simple way—On smaller things the chief men deliberate; on greater matters all the people.That contains the very essence of the whole of our Constitutional theory. Our Constitution was never intended to deprive the people as a whole of real power in managing their own affairs, and all through our Constitutional history you find there has been a system of checks and balances 256 solely with the idea of securing that the people shall not be taken by surprise and have the real power taken away from them. We have three elements in our Constitution—the Crown, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons. At varying periods of our Constitution one or other of these has made aggression on the others, but in almost every case you find that two of the three have united together to keep the third in order. I need not elaborate that, because I do not think it is a statement that will be disputed.
The whole value in these days of our representative system is bound up with the fact that it ought to be a real and true reflex of the people whose business it is supposed to transact. I ask the question, Is it at this moment successful; is it improving? My Lords, I venture to say that he will be a bold man who will say that during the last quarter of a century our representative system has been growing in success. I venture to say it has not. Any one who studies the events of the last twenty years will see that from one cause or another the people have been losing power as compared with the Governments of the day and the Party managers who are responsible for choosing candidates for membership of the other House of Parliament. One result of the proposals I am about to explain will be that they would have the effect of restoring the reality of power to the people. In legislation the theory is that those who are elected as representatives are a sort of jury to hear expert discussion and then to decide. They are to be representatives in the true sense of the term and not delegates bound hand and foot to do, or not to do, certain things. Do the circumstances as they now exist correspond in any real degree with that theory?
I have no desire to be thought to be making an attack on the other branch of the Legislature. It was never my good fortune to be even eligible for membership of it. I was in the unfortunate position for seven years after I came of age of not being a member of this House and of not being eligible for the other House of Parliament, and perhaps if I had been I should not have been elected, but I have nothing but real admiration for the other House of Parliament at its best. But the point I want to press is, Does the House of Commons as it is now elected 257 really reflect beyond all doubt and possibility of doubt on all matters the current opinion of the day as it is found amongst the voters? We all give lip service to the doctrine that we want to make the people supreme, that we want to defer to their will. We all agree—this House has never disputed it—that the considered, the real, will of the people in all matters of legislation shall become law; but what is not certain, although sometimes the distinction is not sufficiently, in my opinion, borne in mind, is that what may happen to be the opinion of the majority of the House of Commons is not certain to be the real will of the constituencies.
If there is one doctrine which I dislike more than another it is the doctrine of "the mandate," and in this I know I shall have the support of the noble Viscount opposite, the President of the Council, because I have heard him speak eloquently on the same subject. Every one is apt to interpret the result of a General Election in the way that pleases him best. I am not saying it more of one Party in politics than the other, but we are both apt to think that when the side with which we agree is in a majority there is a mandate given, as it is called, upon practically everything which that Party is going to put before Parliament. In my humble opinion no General Election can be fought in that sense on a single issue. No General Election ever is so fought, and if you cast your mind back on the last three or four that have been held I think you will find that that is so. I will take, for the purpose of illustration, the election held in December of last year. It is part of the case of noble Lords opposite and of those who agree with them that that election was fought on the single issue of the Constitutional question and the Bill which was put before the country by the Government before the election. I am anxious to know how long that theory of the last General Election is going to last. The idea in some quarters is that if the Parliament Bill should become law, the Government, without any further appeal to the country, intends to pass a great variety of measures of very far-reaching consequences. But either the last election was fought on the Parliament Bill as the dominating issue or it was not. If it was it gives no mandate, so to speak, to the Government to pass all these other matters, whether it be Home Rule, Disestablishment, or any of the other things, 258 without a further appeal to the constituencies, whom, we all admit, are our common masters. The Government cannot have it both ways.
Let me put the matter a point further as to the representative character of the other House of Parliament. It is, and has been, elected for the last twenty-five years, speaking roughly, upon a system of single-member constituencies. Most of us recollect the arguments which were used at that time. Some of us, I think, myself included, were very sorry to see the breaking-up of the old historical divisions of the country. We thought, and I venture to say that experience has confirmed us, that a man would feel himself to be a bigger power, that he would have more sense of responsibility, if he were one of five or seven members for a large city or of six or eight members for a county or a division of a county, than if he had only the small and, comparatively speaking, sometimes petty interest of a particular division of a city or of a county to think of. But if I were to pursue that line of argument I should be trespassing in the domain of proportional representation.
It was urged twenty-five years ago as one of the main arguments for single-member constituencies that the inequalities which would appear in some places would be corrected by inequalities in another, and that, upon the whole, a proper representation of the country would be attained. At the best it was only a rough-and-ready method, but I venture to say that experience has falsified those prophecies and that the hopes of a successful result have not been fulfilled. But whether it is owing to single-member constituencies or to other causes, there can be no doubt whatever that, during these twenty-five years, the power of Party organisations has enormously increased. Personally, I think it is largely due to the fact that, in almost every constituency, there is only one member returned and that that member, as a candidate, is chosen by the Party organisations on each side. The Party organisation usually falls into the hands of the more extreme men, so that the result which is put before the great mass of the electors is a choice between a good Party man on each side—a Party man who, so to speak, toes the line to the satisfaction of the organisation; and the moderate, sensible, ordinary citizen is often confronted with what he regards as little else than a choice of evils at the poll because he does not altogether 259 agree with all the opinions of either of those between whom he has to choose.
The defects of our system do not stop even there. Our system has tended to place an altogether exaggerated measure of power in the hands of small minorities. When parties are more or less equally divided in a constituency the compact organisation of 100, 150, or 200 voters is a very important thing to one or other of the candidates. They are enthusiastic people, and they are organised in such a way that they can convey the impression to one side or the other that they and their votes can turn the election, and there is a great temptation in the heat of an election for a candidate to give pledges so as to secure those votes. And when he is returned he is apt, for the sake of pleasing these voters, to advance in some way or other the particular measure in which they are interested. Now if any considerable number of the members of the same Party find themselves in the same position, they band themselves together, and pressure is put by them on the Party Whips to give facilities to this particular item of legislation or even to place it in the Party programme. And when it gets there it becomes almost imposed on the Party as a whole, who do not like to revolt against their Party and feel that they have not an opportunity to give effect to their real opinions. So that it happens that perhaps a minority get a fictitious importance attached to the particular subject in which they are interested, because those who do not agree with it are deprived of the opportunity of opposing it, feeling that if they did so they would be charged with desertion of the Party and disloyalty to those with whom they honourably desire to act. There is also the pressure of the central funds, and the pressure which the organisation can put on an individual member, so to speak, to stand with the Party all along the line.
If I want to put the real argument for the proposal I am making I have to go to the admissions and even the arguments of those who are opposed to it. It is said by those who are anxious for some particular reform that there are many obstacles in their path—that the way of those who want reform is hard. United, they dislike a Second Chamber altogether, because a Second Chamber tends to be Conservative and as such is an obstacle, as they think, an undue obstacle in their path. Too often it becomes obvious that the idea of these 260 reformers is that the country is not so much to get what it likes, but is to take what these reformers think is good for it. There was a picturesque illustration given of this by one of the colleagues of noble Lords opposite—the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He drew a picture of a band of gentlemen roped together climbing a mountain side. They were roped together in case they fell over the precipice, the inference being that unless they were roped together they would not reach the top. My contention is that they ought not to reach the top unless there is a majority separately for each one of the things which they are advocating. The point is put with singular candour by a recent writer on the question of this reference to the people. I hold in my hand a small book which is by a Miss Stoddart. The writer is a strong opponent of the proposal which I am suggesting to your Lordships, but the arguments on both sides are put by her with singular fairness. Here is a short sentence [p. 104] which is supposed by the writer to be conclusive against the proposal—When the people vote at an election they vote-for a number of reforms, both social and political; the man who cares for one may be quite indifferent to another. The keen educationist may have given no thought to licensing reform; the zealous advocate of old-age pensions may detest Home Rule. The orthodox Liberal is ready, no doubt, at all times to subscribe to the many items of a Newcastle programme, but elections are won by the mass of waverers, who decide on broad general principles for or against a Government, and whose main desire is for efficiency at home and abroad.That is a large part of my case, that elections are won in this sort of way, and yet they are used for purposes which put separately to the people would not command a majority. That seems to me not an argument against the proposition I make, but an argument almost conclusive in its favour, because it restores to the people the power of voting an expression of opinion on the single issue and making sure that their will will be obeyed.
Then this proposal would separate to some extent the matters of administration and legislation. At present under our system they are bound to be put together. If the House of Commons rejects an important measure proposed by the Government the Government as a rule resigns, and therefore it may be said the House of Commons and the people whom they represent might prefer to accept a measure which they do not like rather than lose 261 a Government which they do like. I know it is said that no Government in this country would survive any one of its important measures being lost by a reference to the people. I do not see myself that it follows. I can easily understand some one, greatly impressed by the administration of the Home Office at the present day, by the sympathy extended to the Dartmoor shepherd, or perhaps the personal gallantry exhibited in the East-end of London, who would wish to keep the Government but do not want all their legislation. Now, this proposal would at any rate afford to the people the opportunity which they ought to have of distinguishing between those two things. At any rate, if fairly put to the country it would stop the sort of thing which Miss Stoddart describes, and which is sometimes described in even more picturesque language as "log-rolling," between the advocates of one reform and another.
It is a point in favour of this proposal that nowhere, wherever it has been adopted, do the people desire to get rid of it. A Swiss writer, M. Curti, says—The most absolute peace prevails over the whole country on voting day. The Referendum is therefore a very tranquil instrument for the arrangement of public affairs. A majestic calm is associated with it. … The minority cannot revolt against the decisions thus confirmed, Roma locuta est. The measures accepted by the Referendum, i.e., sanctioned by the majority of the people, have a greater vitality in the people's consciousness than the simple decrees of a representative council. The progress accomplished through the Referendum is an intellectual gain which can never ho withdrawn.The editor of one of the chief Swiss papers writes—From my personal experience I can tell you that nobody in Switzerland would dream of giving up the Referendum. The man insane enough to make the proposal would be stoned. The Referendum is undeniably conservative in its working. It acts as a brake on the legislative machine, and prevents its going too quickly ahead or doing too many things at a time.And Mr. Hobson, a distinguished member of the Party opposite, says—Critics of the Referendum fail to take account of one of the most valuable effects of thatrueasure—its reaction upon the nature of the Bills that are constructed. The temper and discretion of the House of Commons would dispose it to frame measures which the consultative Chamber would accept, and to adopt the amendments of a body that had no power to compel adoption.And he goes on to point out that it would work in this way, that if there was a re 262 ference to the people in the case of the two Chambers disagreeing it would be important that a Bill should not be framed of such a violent nature as to lead to hostility or to a chance of its rejection at the time of the reference.
I desire before I sit down to explain in a few words the method by which I should like to see this proposal put in force. The Bill proposes that there shall be a reference to the people under two different sets of circumstances, hi the first place, in the case of a difference between the two Houses of Parliament. The words of the clause which deal with that are as follow—When any Bill for a public general Act of Parliament (in this Act referred to as a 'rejected Bill') is passed by the House of Commons and is sent up to the House of Lords before the 1st day of July in the Session in which it is so passed, but the House of Lords rejects such Bill or fails to pass such Bill within 40 days after it is so sent up to that House, or passes such Bill with any amendment to which the House of Commons will not, agree, such Bill shall be, on the demand of either House of Parliament, submitted to a poll of the Parliamentary electors of the United Kingdom.I have thought whether it would be possible to frame a schedule of Bills, either Constitutional or other, which should of necessity in the case of difference of opinion between the two Houses be referred to the people. In some respects such a proposal would have advantages, but it would also have this crowning disadvantage, that it would necessitate the creation of some tribunal to decide whether or not any particular Bill came within the category. In our unwritten Constitution and in the circumstances in which we are placed the formation of such a tribunal will be one, I will not say of insuperable, but of very great difficulty. Clearly we cannot put the duty in the hands of the Government of the day. Equally obviously we cannot refer it to an outside authority of a purely legal nature. That would not be suitable, having regard to the position of Parliament in our Constitution. The suggestion has been made that there should be a certain number—a small number—of members of both Houses of Parliament, with a neutral chairman, appointed at the beginning of each session, and that this tribunal should decide whether or not the reference to the people should take place. But the difficulty of finding an impartial chairman of sufficient position and standing is very great. I do not go further into that matter at this moment.
263 I know it will be objected that this proposal will tend to too many references. But surely the discretion of either one House or another of Parliament may be trusted not to ask for a reference upon all sorts of frivolous and unimportant questions. There would still remain that part of our Constitution which implies the right and duty of conferences between the two Houses. Personally I think it is a great calamity that that has been abandoned so much as it has. I believe that if in the past there had been more of these conferences a good many Bills would have been saved which have been lost.
With regard to the provision allowing a majority of either House to ask for the machinery to be put in motion, obviously that does not afford a means of escape from the difficulties under which we are suffering. Noble Lords opposite, not without some reasonable ground, complain of what is described as the partisan majority of this House, and I frankly admit that if there is only to be a reference to the people when the Houses disagree, they would not have a fair and reasonable chance of getting the reference they might desire when a Conservative Government was in power and had more or less command of the majority in this House. I propose to get out of that difficulty by saying that a certain number of members of the House of Commons—I fix it at 200, but it does not matter to me whether it is 150 or 250—may also demand that the reference to the people may be put in motion. The essential point is that there ought to be a provision made to make sure that a Party minority of the House of Commons should have equal power to have a reference to the people should they see fit so to desire.
Again, the criticism may be made that the Liberal Party might be wanting to have a great many references when the Conservative Party was in power. I believe that difficulty would be best solved as we go along. The people of this country are not so foolish as not to see who is making a factious difficulty in working a matter of this kind. And even if there were at first one or two more references than were necessary, I believe it would be a valuable experience, and a great education, and I do not think it would tell badly on the working of our institutions as a whole. I have not com 264 mitted myself in any way in regard to the thorny question of a Reference in relation to fiscal matters. If there were to be a great reversal of the fiscal policy of this country, I should say myself it would be fair that the people should have an opportunity of pronouncing upon it on its merits. I see very great difficulty in the point made by noble Lords opposite that the finance of the year cannot be made the subject of such a reference with all its attendant delays. I think that the power of 200 members of the other House of Parliament, the House which is mainly concerned with finance, will be a sufficient guarantee that nothing arbitrary will be done behind the backs of the people.
So far as the machinery of the Bill goes I propose to apply all the provisions as to Parliamentary elections, such as writs notices, corrupt practices, and other subjects. One point, however, needs to he mentioned. I propose to say that the votes on the affirmative side shall be 2 per cent. more than on the negative—in other words, I do not propose that if you have millions of electors voting, that the odd man, so to speak, should carry the day. But 2 per cent. is an arbitrary figure, and it is not worth discussing at the moment whether the figure should be 1, 3, or 5 per cent. There are seven millions of voters on the roll at the present time. Five millions voted at each of the elections of last year; a great deal of the balance is made up by the fact that there were a great many uncontested seats whose voters would not be counted; but supposing that four millions were to vote under the reference in this Bill, a 2 per cent. majority would mean that there would be a majority of 40,000 in favour of the proposed measure. That does not seem to me to be an extravagant proposition. I suggest also that all the pollings should take place on one day. Other clauses provide for the abolition of what is known as plural voting in the poll of Parliamentary electors. In other words, no person shall vote in more than one constituency at one and the same poll. This provides not only for one man one vote, but also for what is known as one vote, one value. The poll of University electors shall also take place on one day. There would be none of those anomalies of a very large constituency returning a member whose voice and vote in the other House are overbalanced by three or four very small constituencies.
265 I will now glance at some of the objections winch have been taken to the proposal. It is said to be an appeal from knowledge to ignorance. I do not think we have any occasion to be too proud of whether or not our appeals at a General Election are or are not from knowledge to ignorance. I dare say that both Parties are guilty, but those among the colleagues of the speaker at Limehouse can hardly say that the appeal under this proposal would be more of an appeal from knowledge to ignorance than it is under the existing system. I am told also that the cost will be extravagant. According to the best information I can get the cost in Switzerland ranges from a Id. to 2.½d. a vote, while the average cost for the reference in Switzerland where there are 600,000 electors is about£10,000. But if the cost were 2d. a vote it would be only something like£40,000 or£50,000 for each reference. The advantages which could be gained from the proposal would be, in my opinion, cheaply bought at such an expenditure.
Another objection urged against this proposal is one which, if I thought it were true, would lead me to abandon it and say no more about it. It is alleged that this proposal would tend to destroy the House of Commons and its sense of responsibility, that it would even impinge on the majesty of Parliament and reduce both Houses of Parliament to the status of mere debating societies. If the House of Commons is now a debating society it is very often not allowed to debate. I believe that this proposal would have precisely the opposite effect. I believe that, so far from preventing, it would put a premium on much fuller discussion in both Houses of Parliament on important matters than you have now. I believe that it would operate against the closure and the guillotine, because I think it would lead to the efforts of those who sincerely believe in any of their proposals to convince instead of to coerce their opponents. So far from destroying our institutions, the proposal would tend to restore fidelity to our discussions and to Parliament. I believe also that it would increase the powers of the ordinary citizen and the amount of interest he will take in public affairs; and beyond all question it would give him a control over his own and his country's destiny which at the moment he does not possess. It would clear the way for wise and moderate Constitutional reform, because the changes that would be 266 made would have to rest on the solid foundation of the people's will, and only those changes would be made which would command the general sense of the nation as a whole. I beg to present the Bill and to ask that it should be read a first time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read la—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (THE EARL OF CREWE)
My Lords, in the first place. I have to thank my noble friend for his kindness in informing me beforehand of the contents of the Bill which he has presented to-day. In ordinary circumstances 1 should have merely said the fewest possible words on this occasion. but the circumstances are somewhat peculiar. My noble friend has told us that he has brought this Bill forward entirely on his own responsibility, and he has taken a course which is not very usual in this House—though I need not say that I take no exception to it—of discussing, not merely the Bill, but the whole subject at length on the First Reading. My noble friend said nothing about the Second Reading of his Bill, and I am inclined to suppose that he would regard it as being something of a. matter for the House as a whole to decide if and when the Bill should proceed to its further stages. In view of that uncertainty and in these circumstances I think it right, the subject being so important, to trouble your Lordships at greater length than I should in the ordinary circumstances of a First Reading, and I can only promise that if the Bill goes on to its later stages I will not trouble your Lordships by repeating anything that I may say to-day.
My noble friend said that this was an important measure. It is, indeed, in my opinion a measure of the very greatest and most far-reaching importance. It seems to me and I think to a number of other people that it involves a more abrupt departure, a wider deflection, from the Constitutional path on which we have marched in this country for the last 600 years, than almost any other measure which could be proposed. It is a far wider departure from the established practice of this country than is the Parliament Bill—I almost apologise for making that comparison. I say far more than that. I say it is a far more abrupt departure from the Constitutional practice 267 of this country than would he a Bill, which no one proposes, for the establishment of a Single Chamber. How can I support what noble Lords opposite consider that rather bold statement? All through, this measure is an attack upon the representative system under which we have lived so long, and, indeed, the noble Lord devoted a considerable part of his speech—the whole of the earlier part—to a long, searching, and acute analysis of the defects of our representative system. I am far from saying that the results of that system are or ever have been absolutely perfect, but it is not sufficient to show that the present system is not a perfect one in order to induce either House of Parliament, or the country, to accept this tremendous change. There is nobody in this House whom I conceive to be more different both in character and opinions from Jean Jacques Rousseau than is my noble friend Lord Balfour; and I certainly never supposed the day would come when I should see him standing at the Table eloquently addressing to your Lordships the views enunciated in the Control Social.
The noble Lord has said that he does not wish to press too strongly precedent. But at the same time he has used precedent to support his arguments to no little extent. He naturally devoted some attention to the most marked and familiar precedent of Switzerland. I have no doubt that in the main the system suits Switzerland, but I think my noble friend was beyond the mark when he said the Referendum had no opponents there. I have information showing that there are many critics in Switzerland who object to it for some of the reasons which the noble Lord enumerated and which are familiar to your Lordships. I may remind the House that when the Referendum in Switzerland first began to be applied to national affairs it was strongly opposed by many Swiss Statesmen on the ground that the representative system might be and was equally democratic and not open to the disadvantage of the popular poll. But can we draw any useful analogy from Switzerland so far as this country is concerned? The noble Lord went back to the description by the Roman historian of the habits of the early Germans, and it is quite true that from that day to this all down the centuries the habit of government of the descendants of those Germans 268 of whom Tacitus wrote has been in effect government by show of hands. In every village community it has been the custom in Switzerland, and the custom still survives in some cantons, in small places in those cantons, of direct government by public meeting and by show of hands.
From the Fifteenth Century onwards the larger districts have been subject to these polls, and, as I have said, in the last century after years of gradual formation of the Swiss Confederation the principle was finally applied to national affairs. Even now polls are held in Switzerland in the smaller areas of government. In Berne between the years 1897 and 1903 thirty of these polls were taken on matters of varying importance, and the effect both on municipal and Parliamentary life in Switzerland has been what you would expect—that you have a form undoubtedly of popular government, democratic government in which those men who are here expected to exercise, whether on a small or a large scale, whether in parish council, county council, or in Parliament, the varying virtues of statesmanship, are there far more analogous to our Civil servants and our permanent officials who act in the different areas of our municipal life. Here everything is different. Here we have gone on from time to time giving more self-government to localities, county councils, parish councils, and so on, and even in quite recent years we have adhered to the representative system because that is the system which has become ingrained in our public life. We have been proud of the progress of Parliament to greater liberty during the 600 years of the formal existence of the House of Commons. I repeat that we work on entirely different lines, and to attempt now to step on to the path which a country like Switzerland has followed for as many years is as immense a Constitutional change as your Lordships could possibly be asked to accept.
The noble Lord has said that there are other instances of a poll of the electors in Australia. It is true that in Australia, where there is a written Constitution, arrangements are made by which amendments of the Constitution have in certain circumstances been subjected to a popular poll. That may or may not be the necessary concomitant of a written Constitution, but it is not in itself an argument for the 269 general application of the Referendum as proposed in this Bill. Australia, however, offers one instance—the only instance in the world of the possible application of the Referendum to a deadlock between the two Houses—and that is in Queensland, where an Act was passed in 1907 authorising a referendum in certain circumstances in the case of a deadlock between the two Houses, but it has never yet so far been applied, and therefore the noble Lord cannot get much comfort from that with regard to the practical effect of the system in dealing with a deadlock between the two Houses. Other polls have been taken in Australia. Two were taken in different States on the subject of religious instruction in schools. The issue was presented in a very simple form, and I quite admit—and I make a present of the fact to the noble Lord—that, although the results in the two States were different, the operation of the Referendum in those instances was not unsatisfactory.
Then you come to the United States. The Government of the United States itself knows nothing of the Referendum, but in many of the States, for the purpose of altering the State Constitution, the. Referendum is used. But there is a curious fact attaching to its use. When it is used for the purpose of Constitutional amendment it is used at the same time for the election of a Governor and the other State officials, and the curious result follows that comparatively so little interest is often taken in the amendment of the Constitution that although the voting takes place at the same time as the election of Governor, the poll on the Constitutional question is often remarkably smaller than that in the election of the State officials. That, I think, is not very encouraging to those who suppose that it will be possible to bring people to the poll with all the ceremony of a General Election for the purpose of the Referendum.
But there are other instances in the United States. The State of Oregon is now governed almost entirely by the Referendum and by its sequel—it is, perhaps, the inevitable sequel in the long run—what is known as the Initiative. In Oregon 80 per cent. of the voters can introduce and pass legislation on any subject, or an amendment of the Constitution, over the heads of their Legislature. When a Referendum is taken in Oregon on a Bill a copy of the Bill is deirculate to every elector, and attached 270 to the Bill are the rival arguments of the two parties for and against the measure, these, however, being supplied at the expense—the expense of the printing and paper—by the members of the respective parties. Is any analogy to be drawn for this country from the proceedings of the State of Oregon? It cannot be disputed that the institution of such a system can only be based on a profound distrust of the Legislature by the community in which it exists, and although the noble Lord in moderate terms criticised the composition, constitution, and actions of the other House, he certainly would not, I am sure, use such a phrase as profound distrust of the Legislature in speaking of the House of. Commons.
I said just now that the Initiative was likely to be, the inevitable sequel of the establishment of the Referendum. In Switzerland the Initiative—that is to say the demand for the introduction of a particular measure, with, of course, the possibility of passing it after it has been discussed by the popular vote—is applicable, I think, only to alterations in the Constitution; but there is a strong body of opinion in Switzerland, increasing, I am told, which is anxious to apply this principle of the Initiative to legislation of all kinds. And when you come to think of it it is not unnatural. My noble friend provides for two cases. He provides for the case when one House wants something done and the other does not want it done. The people may want it done, and he asks the people to decide. The other case is where both Houses want something done and the people may not want it, and he again asks the country to decide. But there is another case, for which he does not provide but for which in the long run if he starts on this course he will he asked to provide, in which neither House wants a thing done but the people may want it done, or a considerable number of electors think they do, and they are determined that Parliament shall undertake the consideration of it; and when you have reached that point you start on a downward career, and your representative system will have gone by the board altogether.
Speaking still on the conditions of the Referendum, I think it can hardly be disputed that there are two conditions which, if it is to be exercised at all, must 271 be fulfilled. One is that the issue should be a simple and direct one, so far as a political issue can be simple and direct, and the other, to which I would call the noble Lord's particular attention because he did not touch on this difficulty, is that the subject to be voted on should be one which in some considerable degree affects those who vote upon it. How many measures are there of the ordinary kind which come before Parliament which could be submitted to the country in the form of a simple issue? Take for example our Bills of 1906—the Education Bill and the Licensing Bill; in what form does the noble Lord think that those Bills would have been presented to the country? His Bill, I understand, provides that they would have been presented in the form in which they came up from the House of Commons. Your Lordships remember the Education Bill of 1906, and some of you may remember generally the form in which it came from the other House. Here we were prepared to accept a considerable number of Amendments, and after we had made concessions the form in which you would have supposed the matter would have been submitted to the country would be the remaining points of difference, but those remaining points of difference, as your Lordships will remember, were of an exceedingly complicated kind turning apparently on matters of small detail. But if the Bill were presented to the country in the form in which it came up from the House of Commons, your Lordships would have lost all the benefit of the concessions which we were prepared to make, and in the circumstances it is not quite clear to me why we should have offered to make those concessions. The Bill presumably would either have been thrown out or would have been amended by your Lordships, and then it would have gone to the country in the form in which it left the House of Commons. That does not seem to me from the point of noble Lords opposite an instance in which your wishes would have been carried out by the Referendum.
Then I come to the second difficulty, which to my mind in some respects goes deeper in a country like this. What would be the effect of submitting to the electors of the whole of the United Kingdom such a measure, for instance, as the Scottish Land Bill? When a measure of that kind is discussed in the other House the Members who sit for Scottish constituencies 272 and when it is discussed in this House noble Lords who come from Scotland give opinions which are listened to with respect and which in the one House or the other according to its complexion influence the decision that is arrived at. But take such a Bill as that—a Bill which your Lordships thought changed in a disastrous manner-the land system of one part of the United Kingdom. How are you going to interest the individual voter in Connemara or-Cornwall or the East-End of London on the details of a Scottish Land Bill? I will take another instance. Suppose a Bill were brought in—an unfair Bill l should call it—and passed through the House of Commons to divide up demesne land and untenanted land of noble Lords and of landlords generally among tenant-purchasers. I am bound to say I do not think that if a Bill of that kind were sent to the Referendum the interests of those who own land would get fair play.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
In a case of that kind under the Parliament Bill a measure passed by the House of Commons would become law over the heads of your Lordships.
§ THE EARL OF CREWE
What the noble Lord says is perfectly true; but we are not discussing the Parliament Bill at the present moment. I am trying to show that the hopes which the noble Lord himself as a moderate man holds and the hopes which he desires your Lordships to entertain of the effect of the Referendum being always moderating in character are unfounded. I think there are certain questions, in a complex society like ours containing so many different classes and with such abrupt distinctions of rich and poor, on which the interests of owners of property and others would stand an infinitely worse chance of being fairly weighed than they would be by a deliberative Assembly—even by the House of Commons without a Second Chamber.
That brings me to two remarkable deductions from the Bill of the noble Lord. If all I have stated is well-founded, if it is impossible to take a popular poll all over the United Kingdom fairly on matters affecting only one part of the United Kingdom, it really looks as if the noble Lord were in disguise an apostle of the system of Home Rule all round. I do not think there is anything which brings home to thoughtful people the meaning of and the reason for what is 273 known as Home Rule all round than this proposition of applying the popular vote. The second deduction is the remarkable fact that the noble Lord abandons the system of plural voting. I do not know precisely why, and I am not sure that all the members of the Party opposite will thank him or the leaders of the Conservative Party for having so lightly thrown away the principle of plural voting in order to introduce this system of the Referendum.
There are two other points to which I should like to allude. One is the question of finance, over which the noble Lord skated rather lightly. As I understand, he treats all finance, even the Finance Bill of the year, as an ordinary Bill, and any financial measure or the financial clauses of any measure will be liable at the desire of your Lordships to be subjected to the Referendum. That seems to me an advance, in the way of encroachment, upon anything which your Lordships have so far suggested. It is true that your Lordships threw out the Budget on one occasion, but you implied that you did not wish that practice to become a habit. But if every financial measure is liable to he subjected to this popular vote, it seems to me a very short step, indeed scarcely a step at all, for your Lordships to claim the power of amending the Finance Bill or the financial clauses of any Bill; for surely the greater ought to include the less, and if your Lordships are to drive a measure to the country it seems to me logical that you should have the power to amend the Bill so as to express the form in which you wish it ultimately to become law.
Then there is the question of the 2 per cent. majority. Under the Bill the majority must be 2 per cent. greater than the minority, or the measure to which the Referendum is applied will not become law. Is the noble Lord prepared that a Bill of very far-reaching importance should become law by the popular vote of a very small proportion of the electors? That might easily happen. Take a case of this kind. Say that out of every million voters 200,000 voted against a Bill and 205,000 for. That would be a vote of 40½per cent., which is quite as much as you are likely to get in a great many cases. That would mean that a measure would be carried by the active support of only 20½per cent. of the electors. I should have thought that 274 noble Lords would have hesitated somewhat to have put important measures to that sort of hazard. because it is generally agreed that in taking the Referendum you act on the principle that you must be content with the votes of those who are willing to go to the poll, and that those who stay away must be taken as assenting to whatever decision is arrived at.
I ask another question. Why is it that a rejected Bill should be sent to the country at the instance of the rejecting House? When I saw that provision in the Bill I assumed that it could be only for the purpose of "rubbing in," so to speak. the unpopularity of the Government, and of giving, them a blow. Now the noble Lord says he sees no reason why the rejection of a Bill after a Referendum should damage the Government or be treated in any case as a reason for the resignation of the Government. If that be so, I confess I do not understand what the object can be of the provision which allows the rejecting House, after a Bill is lost, to demand a poll of the electorate concerning it.
Then, on the question of cost, the noble Lord has cited the Swiss figures, but if you are going to have an election on English lines—and the noble Lord has very wisely found it necessary to adopt all the surrounding proceedings of the Corrupt Practices Act—you will have to pay for it in English figures; and I think you will find that, quite apart from the official expenses, a Referendum on a subject of any importance must involve a great deal of the personal and private expense which is involved in a General Election. Noble Lords opposite have always asked that Home Rule should go to the Referendum. Is Home Rule going to the Referendum in the pastoral silence which the noble Lord tells us reigns all over Switzerland when a Referendum is taken? Are you going to take a Referendum in a spirit of complete silence on Home Rule in Belfast or Portadown? If the measure is at all a large one you will have to go through the greater part of the paraphernalia and the expense of a General Election; if it is of so little importance that you do not think it worth while to go to that trouble and expense then nobody will come to vote.
Where you have a written Constitution such as the Constitutions that some of our self-governing Dominions possess, I can conceive that the Referendum may not uselessly be included in it, and that it 275 should be applied to Constitutional change and amendment. The noble Lord, with great fairness and power, pointed out the extreme difficulty of limiting the Referendum in this country to Constitutional changes. He showed that it would be absurd to leave the initiative to the Government of the day and equally objectionable to place it in the hands of an outside tribunal. He has therefore abandoned the attempt at definition, and in doing so has, I fear, fallen over the precipice by including all subjects of every kind, financial as well as others.
My Lords, I cannot help thinking that the introduction of this Referendum plan must be regarded rather as an expedient, as a counter-stroke to the policy of the Government, than as a settled act of policy of the Party opposite. There were two remarkable letters by a great Constitutional authority, Sir William Anson, in The Times in the month of January. In the first of them Sir William Anson seemed to me to state that he had been driven into acceptance of this Referendum plan by the action of His Majesty's Government. In the second he dealt with the objections to the Referendum, and it is difficult to read that letter without seeing that those objections weighed very heavily in his mind.
The plan has been accepted, as I believe, without much examination by noble Lords opposite and their friends in an easy, lighthearted belief that the action of the Referendum in this country, if adopted, would be of a purely conservative kind. As to that nobody can say. I have attempted to give reasons why in my judgment and in some cases, such as where taxation is concerned, its operation might be of a kind most unpalatable, not merely to noble Lords opposite, but to all persons who entertain at all moderate views. I confess that it is an astonishing thing to me that noble Lords opposite and their friends should have thus, without consideration, engaged in a game in which so much is put to hazard, and should thus have struck at the very roots of our Constitutional life.
My Lords, let me say that in Australia the Referendum has proved on the whole a success. In the Convention called together to frame the Constitution in 1890 the Referendum was first mooted and then rejected. Seven years later, after a trial of the Referendum in South Australia, it was adopted unanimously. Under the Referendum the 276 Commonwealth Constitution was voted on by the people of Australia and adopted. The franchise for the Senate was put to the Referendum in 1906; and last year, on April 13, Referenda were held on the financial arrangements between the Commonwealth and the States, and on the transfer of the State debts to the Commonwealth. Thus in ten years we have had three Commonwealth Referenda. There have also been States Referenda. There was one in New South Wales in 1903 on the reduction of the members of the House of Assembly. There have been Referenda, too, as to whether there should be religious instruction in schools, and perhaps your Lordships would wish that I should give you a. sample of the ballot paper. I hold a copy of one in my hand from Queensland on this subject. The question submitted was—Are you in favour of introducing the following system into State schools—namely:—''The State schoolmaster, in school hours, teaches selected Bible lessons from a reading book provided for the purpose, but is not allowed to give sectarian teaching.Any minister of religion is entitled, in school hours, to give the children of his own denomination an hour's religious instruction on such day or days as the school committee can arrange for.Any parent is entitled to withdraw his child from all religious teaching if he chooses to do so.This Bill was carried by a large majority, about 50 per cent. of the electorate voting.
Yes. I know that some of your Lordships think that the Referendum would diminish the authority of the representatives of the people. That is not the case. It enlarges their responsibility. It makes them responsible, not merely to the Party caucus, as they are in this country, but to the people at large. It also has another good result. It renders Ministers more open to reason, and more open to compromise. This is partly owing to the uncertainty of the Referendum, and partly owing to the fear of the cost, though the cost in Australia does not seem to be excessive. The cost of a Referendum, in that huge Continent of large distances, difficult communication, and high salaries, taken together with a General Election, is£6,500, and taken apart front a General Election the cost is computed to be£40,000. I earnestly desire, more especially if the Lords' Veto is abolished, that some sort of Referendum should be tried here, for 277 it isolates any subject on which the decision of the people is desired, and prevents friction and bars violent Constitutional change. Therefore, my Lords, I am certainly in favour of my noble friend's Bill.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, I desire to say a few words on behalf of the Front Opposition Bench in the, absence of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, who is unfortunately confined to his house by a slight cold. The noble Lord whose Bill we are asked to read a first time to-day has explained to your Lordships that he alone is responsible for its details. That is so. I myself have not even had the advantage which the noble Earl the Leader of the House has had of seeing the Bill. Nevertheless I thank my noble friend, on behalf of my side of the House, for having brought the subject forward; for, whether we can agree to all the details of the Bill or not, it, is greatly to the public good that this question should now be launched on the threshold of Parliamentary discussion, and that for the first time in the history of the British Parliament we should discuss the application to our Constitution of an instrument which I thoroughly believe is destined to have a permanent place in it. I can, of course, express no opinion on the details of the measure, but I do most cordially agree with Lord Balfour of Burleigh that every one of the details can be adjusted. They should be, and will be, discussed, not only in the Houses of Parliament, but on the platform and in the Press; but on the threshold of our discussion. I register my complete agreement with my noble friend that there is nothing here that cannot be adjusted in detail.
I do not propose to copy the noble Earl the Leader of the House in that close examination which he has given to the Bill, but 1 desire to examine some of his observations. Unless I misunderstood him, the noble Earl seemed to regard this proposal for the application of the Referendum to our Constitutional difficulties as a, much more revolutionary proposal than any contained in the Parliament Bill, and, with the perfect gravity which so adorns him, he added that it would be far more revolutionary than any proposal for the establishment of single-Chamber government if anybody were ever to make such a proposal. Let us examine that. It is, in his view, a comparatively moderate 278 proposal to abolish altogether the effective influence on legislation of a Second Chamber. It is a comparatively moderate proposal to enable the House of Commons. of its own will and without the consent of any other legislative body, within two years to effect any change in the laws or the Constitution. It is a comparatively moderate proposal to deprive the electors of the certainty they now enjoy, that no great or sudden change can be made in the Constitution without their being consulted. All those are comparatively moderate proposals. But the moment we say, "Submit one single question of gravity to the electors unentangled with half a dozen other questions and unconnected with a General Election," we are told by the noble Earl that that is a drastic, revolutionary, and immoral proposal.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I cannot go into the ethics of the case as to whether revolutions are moral or immoral. It must depend a good deal on the motives of those who make them, and the manner in which they are carried out. But, at any rate, the noble Earl will not contradict me when I say that the extraordinarily violent and radical character of the proposal shocks his innermost conservative sense.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I am content to put that contrast before the people of this country. It will be put in far more eloquent language than I can command and from a thousand platforms—which is really the conservative policy, which is the revolutionary policy. It seems to me that a more apt illustration of one of the parables of Scripture we have seldom had in the history of our Parliamentary struggles. The Government strain at the gnat of submitting an isolated issue instead of a complicated one to the people, and they swallow without the slightest hesitation the camel of single-Chamber government.
The noble Earl discussed the working of this system in the United States of America and in Switzerland. I think that we shall derive great profit from a careful study of the way in which the Referendum is worked in those two countries. But I quite agree with him 279 that perhaps its working there is not the illustration most applicable to our peculiar conditions. I was glad that my noble friend Lord Tennyson drew pointed attention to the success of this system in Australia, because the noble Earl opposite evidently felt the difficulty of that example. He could not say that what happened in Australia was wholly inapplicable to our conditions, and therefore he a little slurred over the illustration. Remember that not one single amendment can be made in the Constitution of Australia without a reference to the people. It is not a question of an occasional reference. The Constitution cannot be amended, even when both Houses are agreed, unless the majority of the electors in a majority of the States confirm it. It is quite true that that is the only permanent application of the system yet in vogue in Australia, but it has been used, and used with great success, as the noble Earl himself told us, in Victoria and Queensland to settle the difficult question of religious education.
I can give from my own experience an interesting illustration of the working of the Referendum. When the South African National Convention had agreed upon their Constitution three of the Colonies expressed their adhesion to the plan by Parliamentary action, but in Natal there was a public demand for a Referendum, and the Parliament of Natal passed an Act putting to all the electors on one day the one question, "Are you, or are you not, in favour of Natal joining the Union of South Africa under the Constitution as published in the Gazette," of such and such a date. There was, I believe, a record poll, and every single constituency in Natal voted "Aye," and adhesion was affirmed by a great majority. This was the most complete affirmation possible by the people of Natal of their readiness to join the Union of South Africa under the Constitution which had just been made. I ask, Is there anything revolutionary in that? Is there anything undemocratic in that? Is there in that anything not consistent with the spirit of our Constitution that the will of the people shall in the last resort prevail? And if a measure of that kind can be worked in Natal and Australia, why cannot it work in the United Kingdom? Are the people of the United Kingdom less instructed in politics? Are they less patriotic or less intelligent? There is 280 not a member on the Government side who will say that there is any such distinction. I say, therefore, that although this proposal is new so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it is not new so far as the British Empire is concerned.
§ THE EARL OF CREWE
Perhaps I might explain. What I said was that it was new in its use for the removal of deadlocks between the two Houses of Parliament.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I will come to that in a moment. We do not believe that the expense would be prohibitive, and it does seem to us surprising that the same Government which is about to propose a large salary for members of the House of Commons should grudge the expenditure of money necessary to enable the electors of the country to have the final say in what may concern the vital elements of the Constitution. We do not agree that questions cannot be put in a simple and clear-cut form. We agree that they must be so put, but do not agree that they cannot be so put. Then the noble Earl uttered a Cassandra-like warning to those who sit on this side. "Beware," he said, "how owners of property may be treated under the Referendum." "Are you quite sure," he asked. "that the Referendum will always work in the way which your Party would prefer?" No, my Lords, we are not sure that it would so work. We have no idea in our mind, in proposing this, of a scheme which will work only and exclusively to our advantage. We are prepared to take the risks with the advantages. We adopt the scheme because we believe it is the fairest and the safest. It is quite true that under the Referendum a Bill which some Conservatives might think unfair to owners of property might be passed. Well, but so it might be passed under your system. Under the plan we propose it could not be approved by the people until it had been approved by the House of Commons. Therefore, instead of the Referendum being an additional danger in the case of such legislation, it is in the nature of an appeal and an additional safeguard. There is nothing that could happen under the Referendum that could not much more easily and probably happen under the system which would be set up by the Parliament Bill.
I agree with what Lord Tennyson said on the subject of responsibility in the House of Commons. I do not believe 281 that the Referendum would impair that sense of responsibility. Are we not—I say this without personal reference to my noble friend opposite—are we not apt to use cant phrases a good deal in this connection from both sides? Do we not know that to-day a member of the House of Commons is not as free a voter in the House as he was twenty-five years ago? Do we not know that the Party machine has established a grip over members on both sides which was not the case when my noble friend Lord Eversley, for instance, first entered the House of Commons? Is it possible for a man on either side of polities to remain in the House of Commons if he opposes his Party on some great vital question? We know that it is not. Therefore I maintain that, so far from impairing the sense of responsibility of Members of Parliament, the tendency of the Referendum would rather be, as Lord Tennyson said, to revive it, especially as it would deal a fatal blow at that system of log-rolling which has been imported from across the Atlantic, and which seems so likely vitally to affect the actions of the other House of Parliament.
The noble Earl said lie suspected that the adoption of the Referendum on our part was simply a counter stroke to the policy of the Government and not a contribution of set policy, and he expressed surprise at the easy and light-hearted way in which the Conservative Party had adopted it. I can say for myself that the criticism falls wide of the mark, for in the comparative seclusion from the stormy sea of home politics in South Africa I have studied this question so far as I was able for several years past. I admit that the Resolutions passed in this House were somewhat suddenly brought forward. But why? Was it our fault? Were we masters of the course of business and of the conduct of the Government last year? Was not the whole of last year taken away from us by the curious concurrence of circumstances? The whole of last year, when we would have been discussing this question and formulating our policy, was taken away. When the King died and the Conference of the two Parties was held, was there one single man on this side who ever dreamt that he had parted then with his last opportunity of discussing these questions in the House of Lords? Was there one single man on the other side of the House off the Govern 282 ment Bench—I question very much whether I might not include the Government Bench—who dreamt at that moment of going into Conference that a Dissolution would ensue the moment the Conference broke down, if break down it did? Therefore I say that the taunt, courteously put as it was by the noble Earl, is undeserved, because the apparent haste and suddenness of our action was forced upon us by events over which the Government, and not we, had control.
I have already said that I do not express any opinion on the details of a Bill I have not seen. How the Referendum is to be adjusted, how it is to be applied, how the question is to be put, what the authority shall be to invoke it, are all matters of great importance and fair questions for consideration and adjustment. We believe absolutely that they can be adjusted, and adjusted so as to settle the Constitutional difficulty which we admit exists. We agree that the Constitution is deficient in machinery for settling differences between the two Houses and preventing the existence of deadlocks. The Government have their plan. They call it the Parliament Bill. We call it, and we shall be here, in our place, prepared to prove that it is, single-Chamber tyranny. They tell us that under the Referendum we may be running risks. Yes, we may; but in the grave issues which lie before us we would far sooner take the risks from the hands of our fellow countrymen in whom we believe than from a temporary majority in the House of Commons which may utterly misrepresent the feelings of the nation. We take that deliberately and finally as part of our plan and as our choice—the Referendum to the electorate rather than the House of Commons and its temporary majority. It is our permanent contribution, and from it we shall not recede.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD LOREBURN)
My Lords, I will not say anything about the Parliament Bill because we are now upon the First Reading of a perfectly different Bill; and if the Parliament Bill is a bad measure that is no reason for accepting another bad one. I gather from the noble Earl that he and his friends approve the general principle of the Referendum. I am not quite sure whether they approve the general principles of this Bill.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
I quite admit that the Opposition are not bound in a great Constitutional crisis like this to propound their alternative policy. I think the doctrine was laid down by Sir Robert Peel that the physician is not required to prescribe until he is called in. It is not, perhaps, a doctrine of a very lofty character, but I do not complain of it. But if you do keep on dangling before the country and the two Houses of Parliament one lofty and noble alternative and then another, far better than anything which the poor Government has ever thought of—if you do choose to propound an alternative policy or a series of alternative policies for yourselves—pray do us the favour of making it intelligible to the ordinary human being. It is not sufficient to say that the Referendum is a splendid thing and capable of adjustment. We all understand what that means. It means that the noble Earl and his friends when they come into office will then put themselves to the task of recommending some proposals. But, in the meantime, if you are going to put forward alternatives at all and claim the credit of being able to say that something which is admittedly necessary you can propose better than we can, pray tell us what it is. I shall not say anything about the adoption of the Referendum in Australia or Switzerland or elsewhere, because that has been dealt with by my- noble friend the Leader of the House. But the noble Earl who has just sat down introduced a new illustration, and referred to the case of Natal. I think I am right in saying that the voters in Natal number about 7,000, or thereabouts.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
And I think I am also right in saying that the plebiscite which was taken in Natal was taken in pursuance of an Act of Parliament passed by the Natal Legislature. Well, that could be done now in this country without this Bill. If both Houses of Parliament agreed, a Referendum could be taken in this country on any point; at all events, it is unnecessary to bring in this Bill for the purpose of enabling to be done here what was done in Natal.
I am inclined to form a picture of what the Referendum is, because it is so little known in this country that, as Lord Balfour told us, some of the electors supposed it to be a new species of turnip. Let 284 us see how it works. We should have to set up all the machinery of an election, with returning officers and so forth, all over the country. If the Bill was one of importance we should have public meetings and literature on the walls and all the paraphernalia of a General Election without the candidates. There would be all the expenses incurred except those of the candidates. Who is to pay for all that? I suppose there might be conflicts between interests that arc wealthy and interests that are poor. Apart from the merits of the particular case, what an advantage the rich interest would have against the poor one.
The noble Lord estimated the expenses of the Referendum at, I think,£40,000 or£50,000. He has never had the advantage of paying returning officers' expenses. Some of us here have. I remember on one occasion in a one-member constituency the election officer's expenses were£330. It was not a very large constituency; about 9,000 in all polled. If you apply that, yon will find that£1,000 would only take von over three constituencies, and there are 670 constituencies throughout the country. The Referendum would cost about a quarter of a million for returning officers' expenses alone at that rate, though I quite agree there are a good many constituencies in which a great deal less would be charged. Suppose it is an unimportant Bill or one that does not interest the whole of the United Kingdom; and here again I will take the illustration of the Scottish Small Landholders Bill. Who cares about that in England? Who knows about it? Or take Welsh Disestablishment. Who knows about that in England or Ireland? Does anybody imagine that the voters in England or Ireland would go to the poll about a thing of that kind? If they did, they would go uninstructed. The probability is they would not vote at all except upon important measures and grave occasions.
Then how often would they be invited to vote? The Bill, as I understand—I have not seen it—says that if the House of Lords refuses to pass a Bill sent up from the House of Commons, then the House of Commons can claim the Referendum. That would have happened at least five or six times in the four years between 1906 and 1910. When a Conservative Government was in power no such conflict would arise and that part of the provision would become a dead letter. That is manifestly unfair. But if the House of Commons refuses to pass a Bill 285 which the House of Lords has sent down, I do not know whether it is contemplated that the House of Lords may ask for an appeal.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Then comes the further proposal that 200 members, or a more suitable number, could ask for a Referendum, as I understand, in the event of the House of Lords and the House of Commons both agreeing upon the Bill.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
That seems a very strong thing, though I agree that it is a mitigation as far as the Liberal Party is concerned. But what is most likely to follow? What has always tended, I think, to follow in such cases is that an initiative is given—not merely a power of appeal—against both Houses of Parliament, an initiative and an opportunity for individuals—the 200 members if you like—to claim that the two Houses of Parliament having refused to pass a Bill they shall be able to go over the heads of the two Houses of Parliament and ask the country to approve the Bill. His whole argument rests on a foundation leading to that; and, therefore, this experience shows that those who once begin to touch this thing find that they cannot stop short. What would be the result of that? It is not only that they are crude proposals; but supposing that the Liberals are in power, proposals might be made over the heads of the two Houses to tax certain imports or manufactures, to separate one kind of tax from another, or even to tax land; and their popularity might tempt a good many people to vote for them. Supposing a proposal were made that everybody should pay 50 per cent. of his income over£5,000 a year. No doubt a great part of the population would disregard it, but there would be a considerable temptation to a great number of people to support it. The noble Earl, however, is ready to take risks. He refers to the risks we are supposed to expose the country to in our Bill, which is not yet before us, but he cheerfully takes risks of the kind I have ventured to suggest.
There are two deep rooted objections, in my opinion, to the proposals of this Bill and to the principle of the Referendum, or to any Constitutional change which shall enable the Referendum to be had 286 recourse to otherwise than it can be at the present moment. This country needs, and I think generally possesses, stability of government. There is need, if you can get it, of Ministers who should be men of independence and of character, of some degree of moral courage. What would be the position of Ministers when a Bill is carried or rejected over their heads that may strike right athwart the whole policy they are endeavouring to. pursue?—because the noble Lord does not limit the scope of Bills which may be so referred. They must resign, surely, and a General Election will probably ensue; and then the other side conic in to be exposed to the same fusillade on the part of the 200 Members who might be entitled not only to protest against refusal, but to initiate Bills themselves.
The temptation to the famous 200 Members would be irresistible. They would endeavour to turn out the Government, to discredit it, to expose it to rebuff or humiliation, even if the Ministers were not independent-minded enough to resign. The noble Earl knows both Parties in the House of Commons, and he knows that whenever Members think that a favourable opportunity arises they are not averse from taking advantage of any chance to. damage a Government whose general policy they disapprove. We should have these Referendums—I suppose I ought to, say Referenda, though I disapprove of the dog Latin introduced in this controversy—these references to the people as often as an opportunity arose. There will be always 200 gentlemen who will be prepared to sacrifice themselves by demanding that the reference shall take place. There would be gusts of passion or of dissatisfaction, say, against a Government which was not popular in respect of its Navy Estimates; and then an opportunity would be taken to discredit them.
The Referendum would also be fatal to representative government. The political genius of the English people was the first to discover, and after great difficulty to develop, the real basis of liberty and of self-government in this country—a system which has been copied all over the world. Every Referendum is an attack on the representative system. That method which was discovered by the Englishman centuries ago was found out, as indicated by Tacitus in the "Germania," through the 287 chief men deliberating on smaller things while all the people deliberated on the greater matters. But the principle would not work in a great population. It is all very well in the small tribes, but in this country representative institutions mean that the people who have not the time to look into every detail of this or of that Bill should choose men who are honourable, whose judgment may be trusted, and with whose opinions they are in harmony. They are sent to Parliament for the purpose of discussing these matters. I do not say that the system at the present time is working altogether satisfactorily. The position in the House of Commons is one of such congestion that it is almost impossible to do business satisfactorily there; but I say that this method of proceeding, not by direct election, but by representatives is the earliest characteristic of our Constitution. It does ensure the criticism of a Bill and it enables amendments to be considered; it allows postponement for reflection. I wonder how much of that would be present under the Referendum.
The noble Earl spoke with considerable warmth of the defects existing in the present constitution of Parliament. All the difficulties are due to the congestion of business in the House of Commons, and are due to the fact that there is much more to do than there is time in which to do it, and if by some scheme of devolution, such as I hope we may see introduced, the House of Commons has more time and more leisure to attend to its business I am perfectly certain these complaints will disappear. What is to be substituted? The people are busy; they have abundant common sense in this country, but no time for detail. They have no opportunity of following arguments, such as we have in Parliament, and they have still less opportunity of considering points and counter points appropriate to the Committee stage of a Bill. You would not have a deliberate and considered opinion of the constituencies. You would have their opinion in big things, on big measures; it would naturally be hasty, it would be naturally crude; yet this is the proposal which is made for the purpose of adjusting the relations between the two Houses. The only result of its use would be as an engine of obstruction. There would be constant references. It would not give you a judgment on the simple issue, such as the noble Earl says it ought to do.
288 As I understand it the Bill is to be referred, and I think it is the only way in which you can work your Referendum to refer the Bill as a whole. The whole of the Finance Bill, the Education Bill, and the Licensing Bill would thus be referred; and I speak in no sense with disrespect of the electors, whom I sincerely respect, and whose opinion I am always prepared to accept, when I say that it is a false piece of flattery to pretend that in considering a big measure of this kind, without the opportunity of investigating and discussing its provisions, they are as competent to settle the controversy as the House of Commons and this House under our ordinary forms. I will not express surprise. I have long lost the faculty of being surprised at political matters. I am content to await the next development. My own opinion is that the Referendum will shortly cease to be the popular idol of the noble Earl and his friends, and then, no doubt, we shall have some other proposal, perhaps not so surprising, but, at all events, I hope a little more definite and intelligible.
§ On Question, Bill read la, and to be printed.—(No. 26.)
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, the noble Earl the Leader of the House asked me my intentions with regard to the Second Reading of the Bill. I do not propose to name a day now, but will wait a little and endeavour through the ordinary channels of conversation to ascertain what day would best suit the general convenience of the House. I should like to take the Second Reading discussion within a reasonable period, but I will not fix a date without consulting fully with noble Lords on both Front Benches. As to the statement of the noble Earl, Lord Selborue, that he had not seen a copy of the Bill, I should like to explain that I sent a copy to the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition, who is unfortunately prevented from being present to-day. I only mention that to prevent its being thought that I supplied a copy of the Bill only to the noble Earl the Leader of the House.
§ ALICE COURTNAY CLARKE—Petition for redress of grievances; read, and ordered to lie on the Table.
§ House adjourned at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.