§ Debate on the Motion for the Second Reading resumed (according to order).
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS (EARL BEAUCHAMP)
My Lords, I think it will be generally agreed that the argument in support of the Bill now before your Lordships which has had most influence not only amongst your Lordships but also amongst the people of this country is the argument that, because the Referendum has been a success in other parts of the world, therefore it is likely to be a success in this country. That was the line of argument adopted by Lord Tennyson, who was at one time Governor of Australia, and who, on the First Reading, spoke with some personal knowledge of the subject. It was also, as a matter of personal experience, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who whilst in South Africa had seen something of its action there; and it was also, I think, one of the main points urged on the First Reading by the noble Lord who introduced the Bill. The noble Lord made so much point of it that I shall venture to remind your Lordships of the form in which he pressed that argument. He said—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.In the course of the remarks which I shall address to your Lordships this evening I am anxious, by reference to the various occasions upon which the Referendum has been used, not only in our Dominions but also in other parts of the world, to show that there is no instance to which the noble Lord can point of the use of the Referendum which can fairly be quoted as an argument in support of this Bill.
With regard to Switzerland, it is, happily, unnecessary for me to say very much to your Lordships. That matter was very fully, and, it seemed to me, admirably dealt with by Lord Willoughby de Broke last night at an hour when the Benches of the House were less fully occupied than they are at the present moment.
712 I was sorry, because although the noble Lord concluded by saying that he was in favour of the Referendum, his arguments one and all seemed to point to the fact that it would not be wise to adopt this Swiss system because our system in this country was so very different. I would point out to your Lordships the very important fact that although the Referendum exists in Switzerland the people of that country make very small use of it indeed, though there are three categories into which Referenda can be divided—subjects which must be referred, subjects which may be referred, and subjects which come to the Referendum under popular initiative. It will interest Lord Courtney to know that in Switzerland the system of proportional representation was refused under the Referendum, and the noble Lord who spoke last yesterday evening made very fair reference to the fact that so few people vote in the Referendum in Switzerland that in some of the Cantons it has been found necessary to inflict a fine upon those who do not record their vote.
There is one point to which I hope some of those noble Lords on the Government Benches who are in favour of the Referendum may direct their attention. We are told that it is a democratic system, and that therefore His Majesty's Government should be heartily in support of it. But I ask whether experience has proved that it is a progressive measure as well as a pseudo-democratic measure. A good many subjects referred in this way to the people of the country are not subjects upon which it is very easy for them to take a wholly scientific view. I have in mind such a question as vaccination. It is not difficult for a scientist to persuade an assembly of representative men such as the House of Commons of the value of vaccination, but when vaccination was referred to the people of Switzerland it was rejected in 1882 by a vast majority, and it seems to me that there does lie in that direction some danger lest in matters of this kind, which require a certain amount of technical training, reference to the people of this country will find them less prepared to adopt a new idea than the House of Commons. In Switzerland there is no Party system. The members elected to their Assembly are not as our members, of one Party or another. They are rather in the position of elected administrators—Civil servants rather than representatives 713 and the Bill which is referred to the people is an agreed Bill; no Budget is subject to the Referendum at all.
Then as to the United States of America. The noble Earl the Lord Privy Seal spoke for some time upon that subject on the occasion of the First Reading, and it is not necessary for me to say much now, except to point out to the noble Lord that if lie is anxious to use the United States of America as an analogy it would be fairer to ask us to adopt something more like their system than the system which he proposes in this Bill. There is no general system of Referendum in the United States. It is used only in the States, and not throughout the whole of the Federation. Therefore it would be a fairer analogy in this country to ask Wales to vote upon such a question as the Disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, Ireland to vote on Home Rule, and Scotland on their Land Bill. It is only by such a system that you really get an analogy.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
I do not suggest that. At the same time if the noble Lord is going to use America as an argument, I do not think it is unfair to point out that the Referendum in the United States is kept within a smaller area and is not used throughout the whole Federation. Your Lordships have heard the figures relating to Switzerland. I will give some interesting figures later dealing with Australia. But it is important first that we should know how large a number of people in this country vote at a General Election. At the election in January,1910, 90 per cent. of the electors on the roll voted, and it is more democratic to get 90 per cent. of the people to record their opinion at the General Election than under a system of Referendum to get less than 50 per cent.; and the municipal polls in this country show that it is very difficult indeed to get the electors, although their pockets are directly affected, to take sufficient interest in these matters to go to the polls. I always thought that the old school board system, with election ad hoc, was an admirable system, and calculated to interest people in the educational system of this country, but it also did seem to me that 714 the strongest argument against the election of a school board ad hoc was the fact that the ratepayers did not come in very large numbers to such an election. Indeed there seemed to be a tendency to tire the voters by giving them too many things to vote about, and it was not altogether unwise to alter the system. The figures with regard to the five cases which I have been able to get from the Local Government Board of polls taken under the Borough Funds Act; are instructive. In the case of Bicester 18.5 per cent. of the voters recorded their votes; in the case of Paddington, 16.5 per cent.; in the case of Exmouth, 68 per cent.; in the case of Little Hulton, 50.2 per cent.; and in the case of Llanelly, 24.2 per cent. Those polls did not refer to any matter of great importance except to those people who were asked to vote, and yet under these circumstances they were not found very ready to go to the poll.
Let us turn to the Dominions beyond the seas and see what assistance can be found to help us in discussing the merits and the demerits of this Bill. The Referendum has been used on the whole very little in our Dominions for any purpose whatever. I shall venture; for the sake of clearness, to classify the instances of its use and put them into three classes. I will deal first with the cases of great Constitutional changes—namely, the formation of the Federation of Australia and the Union of South Africa. I may remind your Lordships, in passing, that in the case of the formation of the Federation of Canada there was no Referendum at all; in only one instance was a General Election held, and the assent of the Parliaments was considered sufficient authority for the formation of the Union of the Provinces and the abandonment by the Provinces of their autonomy.
In the case of Australia, on the other hand, the greatest care was taken to secure the fullest consultation of the people. It was agreed at a Conference of Premiers held in January, 1895, that a Federal Constitution should be framed by a Convention which was to be popularly elected, and that when that Convention bad conic to a decision Bills should be submitted to the Parliaments of each of the Colonies to give effect to those Resolutions. Bills were so submitted and were passed, but the proportion of people who voted was 715 very small indeed. The percentages of the electors voting in the several Colonies when this great question of the Federation of Australia was brought up were: Victoria, 43.5 per cent.; New South. Wales, 51.25 per cent.; South Australia, 30.9 per cent.; Tasmania, 25 per cent. Then the terms of the Constitution were drawn up and referred to the people of Australia, and we find that even then a very small proportion of the people voted. I venture to say that it is very remarkable indeed that on a matter of such great importance as the Federation of the various Colonies you should find such a small percentage as this being content to go to the poll—namely: in New South Wales, 49.88 per cent.; in Victoria, 48.94 per cent.; in Tasmania, 46.5 per cent.; and in South Australia, 39.44 per cent. Those of your Lordships who are familiar with the rather remarkable history of the Federation of Australia will remember that there was a further Conference of the Premiers because New South Wales had not reached the requisite 80,000 votes, and after that Conference, the Bill having been altered, the matter was once more referred to the people of Australia, and on that occasion there was the highest percentage of votes that has ever been cast on a similar occasion—namely: New South Wales, 63.4 per cent.; Victoria, 56.3 per cent.; South Australia, 54.4 per cent.; Tasmania, 36.5 per cent.; Queensland, 64.8 per cent.; and Western Australia, 67.1 per cent. I venture to say that in all these cases of the use of the Referendum the proportion of voters compares very badly indeed with the number of people who go to the poll at a General Election in this country.
In the case of the Union of South Africa we find that the older precedent of Canada was followed except in the case of Natal, to which the noble Earl who was lately High Commissioner referred on the occasion of the First Reading of this Bill. But even there we find that the percentage of people who voted in Natal was only 58.2, although there was a great deal of excitement in the Colony and people were urged to record their vote. It is not too much, I think, to deduce from these figures the conclusion that people dislike coming in large numbers to a Referendum, and that certainly unless there is the excitement which attaches to a vivid personality people are less likely to vote than at a 716 General Election. So much for the first case, which has reference to the formation of great Constitutions.
The second category consists of alterations of Constitutions. The ordinary Dominion has full power to alter its Constitution, subject in certain cases to some formalities. This principle, however, obviously cannot be applied to cases of a Federation proper. A Federation is, generally speaking, a quasi Treaty between the various States who enter into the Federation, and any alteration of the Constitution demands a good deal of ceremony and must be carefully guarded with restrictions. In the case of Canada, so strongly is this recognised that the Constitution as a whole, and in particular the distribution of powers between the Provinces and the Dominion, cannot be altered except by an Act of the Imperial Parliament. They have no Referendum but are content with the one possibility of an alteration being made by an Act of the Imperial Parliament. In the case of the Commonwealth of Australia the makers of the Constitution are anxious themselves to be able to alter the Constitution, and they provide that in any case of an alteration of the Constitution there should be a Referendum to the people. But it is important to notice that they do not in Australia, generally speaking, apply the Referendum as the noble Lord who has introduced this Bill desires to apply it. They do not apply it in cases of deadlock between the two Houses, except in connection with a Constitutional Amendment; that makes a very great difference between the system as proposed in this Bill and the experience which we can gather from Australia. The Dominions beyond the seas do not use it for the purposes for which the noble Lord makes use of it in his Bill. In any case of a Constitutional Amendment, whether approved of or not by both Houses of Parliament, it has to be referred to the people as a whole.
Let me give the instances that have occurred of a Referendum taken under such circumstances. There have been two or three. The first occasion was in 1906, when a Referendum was taken contemporaneously with a General Election to the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth. The question which was submitted was an extraordinarily trivial one. Up till then a Senator's period of 717 office had always begun on January 1 or July 1—I have forgotten which—but it was thought more convenient that the period of office should open on the other date, and the whole process of a Referendum was necessary in order to secure that trifling alteration in the law. There was a large majority in favour of the change. The figures were for the whole Commonwealth: For, 774,011; against, 162,470; but no fewer than 112,155 ballot papers—more than 9 per cent.—were spoiled. Then in April of last year, contemporaneously with the General Election, two Referenda were taken on important questions. The first was to alter the Constitution so as to enable the Commonwealth to take over all the debts of the Constitution as existing at the time when they were taken over and not merely the debts as they existed at the time of the passing of the Constitution. On that occasion the percentage of voters was 57, although the Referendum took place at the same time as a General Election; and your Lordships will, of course, understand that you are far more likely to get people to vote at the same time as a General Election than if there is not that excitement going on at the same time.
The other proposal was a readjustment of the Commonwealth and the State finances. The total vote in favour of the law was 645,514; against, 670,838; and 82,437 papers were informal. The percentage of voters to the total number of electors enrolled was fifty-eight. It was not carried as a Constitutional Amendment, but in spite of that it became law within the next session of Parliament; and I ask the noble Lord whether he does not think that in these circumstances it may be necessary for him, if this Bill is allowed to proceed farther, to insert some provision which may prevent a measure which has been voted against by the people becoming law within a certain limited period of time. I am sure Lord Northcote, who has been Governor of Australia, appreciates the point that though it was rejected by the people of Australia as an Amendment to the Constitution it was passed as a general law and it was passed, I think, by a Labour Ministry. But in spite of that it does seem to me a very remarkable result of the Referendum that a proposal rejected at the Referendum shall become law within a year or within a very short time after- 718 wards. It is interesting, too, in this way, that it shows a certain unwillingness on the part of the Labour Party, with whom democratic measures are popular, to accept as desirable the making permanent and changeable only by the Referendum of any financial provisions; and their attitude is the more noteworthy because with the Labour Party the Referendum is a very prominent plank in their platform. I may add that in April of this year two very important Bills will be submitted to the Referendum by the Commonwealth Government quite apart from a General Election, and I am sure it will be interesting to all of us to notice what proportion of the people can be persuaded to go to the poll apart from the excitement of a General Election.
Now I come to the third category—definite cases when Parliament has referred questions to the people. Those are generally cases in which Parliament has preferred not to express an opinion of its own, but has definitely asked the people to decide the question for them. The first reference of this kind to Referendum was in South Australia in the year 1896. At that time the system of education was secular, and. those who were in favour of religious education thought that the introduction of female suffrage was a favourable opportunity to bring their proposals once more before the people of South Australia, and therefore the electors were asked three questions. They were asked, first, whether they desired the continuance of the existing system. In favour of continuing the existing system 51,744 voted, and 17,755 against. Secondly, they were asked whether they desired the introduction of undenominational scriptural instruction in school hours; 18,889 voted for, and 34,922 against. Finally, they were asked whether they were prepared to approve of State capitation grants to denominational schools for secular results; 13,420 voted for, and 41,975 against.. Those figures are a very interesting study. It is difficult without a good deal of knowledge of the local circumstances to draw any very definite conclusions from them except this, that a great deal must depend upon the shape in which questions are put to the people, and their answers must very largely depend upon the form in which the questions are put.
Let me turn to a somewhat similar instance of a reference to the people of 719 Canada. There had been in various States a movement in favour of the prohibition of liquor. It was found, however, that although the results were in favour of prohibition, a general law affecting the whole of Canada was the only way in which they could carry out their proposals. Accordingly a Referendum of the whole of Canada was taken under the Act of 1898, and the result was a majority of some 14,000 for prohibition out of a total vote of 543,049. No more than 23 per cent. of the electorate were in favour of a prohibitory law, and therefore, although you had a majority upon Referendum in favour of action of this kind, Sir Wilfrid Laurier stated in the Canadian House of Commons on March 21, 1899, that in his opinion the voice of the electorate as expressed was not such as to warrant the Government in introducing a prohibitory measure, and he indicated that unless at least one-half of the electorate recorded their votes in favour of the policy it would not be possible to expect Parliament to pass a prohibitory measure; and since that time nothing has been done.
Then there is the case which was referred to by Lord Tennyson on the First Reading of this Bill—the case of Queensland, where again there was a reference on the question of religious instruction in the schools. This action is interesting. At the Referendum the people voted in favour of religious instruction being given in the schools, and you had this curious result, that in the next session of Parliament the Premier for the time being introduced a measure to that effect, but said that he was hostile to it, and he and other Members of Parliament who voted in favour of the Bill said that although they voted for it they were entirely opposed to the principle, but that they supported it because it had been carried by a Referendum. I do not think it would be in accord with the traditions of our public life that members of the Government here in this country should introduce into either House of Parliament and carry a measure of which they declared themselves to be opponents. I do not deny that there seems to be a growing use of the Referendum in certain of our Dominions. There will be before very long, also at the same moment as a General Election, a Referendum taken in the Dominion of New Zealand upon the question of total prohibition. That, I think, takes place in the course of next 720 month, and if three-fifths are in favour of total prohibition the measure will forthwith be passed through both Houses of Parliament.
I now turn to a perhaps more important question—the use of the Referendum in cases of deadlock. As your Lordships may have perceived, no instances have yet occurred in which the difference of opinion between the two Houses has been settled by the Referendum. Provisions for settling such differences in this way form no part of the ordinary Colonial Constitution. South Africa definitely rejected it; Canada has no provision of the kind; and in Australia, though the Referendum may be used in eases of Constitutional Amendment, it is not used in cases of ordinary deadlock. There is that exception, the Constitutional alteration of the Commonwealth, and also the one isolated instance of deadlock which might take place in Queensland. The provision which has been made by these wise Statesmen, with the experience of the world before them, has been that in ordinary cases of deadlock there should be joint sittings of both Houses rather than a Referendum to the people; and I would spend, with your Lordships' permission, some little time in dealing with this special case of Queensland, because in it is also involved a question of, I hope, merely academic interest—the swamping of the Upper House of Legislature. In 1907 the Governor of Queensland, Lord Chelmsford, refused to add members to the Upper House at the request of Mr. Kidston, who was then Prime Minister, and who was anxious to secure enough supporters in the Upper House to pass two particular Bills. The Governor refused him the creation of these members, and he forthwith resigned. Mr. Philp took office on the resignation of Mr. Kidston, but he was refused a Vote of Supply by the House of Assembly, and, finding himself unable to carry on the Government, the Governor granted him a Dissolution.
But at the Dissolution he was decisively defeated, and the previous Prime Minister, Mr. Kidston, was returned to power. Mr. Kidston, however, was not satisfied with his position, which rested upon coalition, and he therefore proceeded to form a partnership with his former opponent, Mr. Philp. This he did after securing the passage of a couple of Bills, including the 721 Bill for the Removal of Deadlocks. This Act for the removal of deadlocks has not yet been put into force. Whether it ever will be is, of course, doubtful; but I think you will admit that the existence of that Act very materially alters the position of the Upper House in Queensland. Before the passing of that Act it would have been Constitutional and not unusual for the Governor to swamp the Upper House if thought desirable at any time. The thing had been done more than once in New South Wales. I am not sure that my noble friend Lord Carrington did not have the question put to him when he was Governor there; the principle was conceded in 1892 in the case of New Zealand, and it is interesting to note that Dominion Day in New Zealand is fixed on the anniversary of the day on which the Despatch was sent from the Colonial Office in this country approving of the creation of additional members to the Upper House in that Dominion. I think we may say that this review of what has happened shows that there is nowhere in any of His Majesty's Dominions beyond the seas an instance in which we can find that the Referendum is in favour as a method of settling matters of dispute between the two Houses.
The Bill now before the House goes a great deal further even than settling Parliamentary deadlocks between the two Houses. There is, as I have said, in the Commonwealth and in Queensland provision for a Referendum in eases of Bills being rejected by the Upper House, but these provisions differ considerably from those in the noble Lord's Bill. In the case of this Bill there is a provision for an artificial majority, which requires that the total affirmative vote in the United Kingdom must exceed the total negative vote by not less than 2 per cent. of the latter vote before a Bill can be presented for the Royal Assent. I would point out to the noble Lord that in all these cases a simple majority suffices. The figures which I have given to your Lordships show that it is rarely that more than 50 per cent. of the electors take part in a Referendum. I do not know whether the noble Lord is prepared to accept a vote carried, so to speak, by a majority of a minority. It is not an inconceivable thing. It is, so far as any experience in the Colonies tells us, not unlikely to happen in this country that so few will go to the poll—less than 50 per 722 cent.—that through the people not taking. the trouble to vote a measure may be carried by the majority of a minority.
There is another part of this Bill which is completely without parallel anywhere in the Dominions, and that is the provision proposed to be made by Clause 2 for the reference to the people of Bills which have been passed by both Houses of Parliament but against which a petition is presented to the Crown signed by not fewer than 200 members of the House of Commons praying that the Bill may be submitted to a poll of the Parliamentary electors. If we may judge at all from the example of what has happened in the Dominions, a minority of the people of this country might thus over-ride a majority in the House of Commons who had been elected with the full concurrence and the full approval of this country. Therefore we come to this conclusion. In Canada opinion seems on all sides completely opposed to measures like the Referendum; it has never been seriously proposed as a solution for deadlocks between the two Houses. South Africa deliberately rejected it as part of her new Constitution. In Australia the Referendum appears quite unable to secure adequate voting on the part of those to whom it is submitted, and the number of spoiled papers has been extremely large in the Australian cases. Thus, even in the case of the Referenda for the establishment of the Commonwealth Government, when the utmost efforts were made to arouse the interest of the electors, the vote was only about 50 per cent. of the possible voters—considerably less than the average vote at ordinary Elections. There are no figures available as to the cost of the Referendum apart from a General Election, but in view of the Referenda which are to take place in Australia next month a sum of £40,000 has been set aside. We cannot tell if that will be a sufficient sum or not, but it would not be an extravagant thing, considering the proportions of population, to multiply that and say that a Referendum on those lines in this country would cost something like £200,000. Therefore I venture to say that so far, at any rate, there is no experience in any of our Dominions to show that the Referendum is of use in any cases of deadlock.
The noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition last night provided us with 723 ,one of those surprises to which we are becoming accustomed on this side of the House. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has been making speeches about the country in favour of the reform schemes of himself and his friends. They include the Referendum. I am afraid that the noble Earl was insufficiently reported, because it was very difficult from the London Press to find the full effect of his various declarations. But I certainly gather from the speeches which he made in Glasgow and in Edinburgh that he and the Opposition propose in their new scheme to make a very large use of the Referendum in their great. scheme of reform. Last night, however, we learned from the noble Marquess that that would probably not be the case. He seemed to minimise as far as possible the opportunities for the Referendum, and I thought that he answered a speech which was made later in the evening by Lord Willoughby de Broke, who taunted His Majesty's Government with their unwillingness to trust the people. They on their side, he thought, were ready and anxious to trust the people, but it was His Majesty's Government who shrank from that ordeal. We find that, after all, noble Lords opposite do not wish to refer matters to the people of this country or to trust the people at very frequent intervals, but that it is to be used sparingly and on rare occasions.
There is one matter which has been the subject of very real regret to most noble Lords on this side of the House in the course of the debates which have taken place on this question, and it is that it seems almost impossible for any noble Lord opposite speaking on the Referendum not to make at the same time an attack on the other House of Parliament. They frequently express their desire not to make an attack on the other House, but almost invariably they are betrayed into doing it before the end of their speech. That was so with the noble Marquess last night, who spoke of correcting the glaring and palpable defects of the other House. So also with the noble Lord who is the author of this Bill. And there is another point which I should like to put to noble Lords opposite, as to whether this Bill will not diminish the powers of your Lordships' House in respect to the compromise and the powers of revision and of amendment which we are anxious that your Lordships' House should possess. What is going to be referred to the people is not the Bill when 724 your Lordships have amended it or altered it; it is going to be the Bill as it left the House of Commons. Let us apply that to the Education Bill of 1906. Your Lordships spent a long time in altering that Bill. No doubt noble Lords opposite thought that it was much improved when it reached the end of Committee stage in this House; but the Bill which, under the noble Lord's proposal, would be submitted to the country would not be the Bill as amended by your Lordships, but the Bill as it left the House of Commons, and therefore the only alternative which would be before the people would be to accept the Bill as it left the House of Commons or to reject it altogether, without allowing them to take advantage of the Amendments which had been inserted in this House.
There is one aspect of this question which we welcome cordially from this side, and it is the extent to which the Referendum Bill admits the grievances of which we have complained for some years past. We are very glad, in the first place, that our grievances should be admitted; that the noble Lord should be ready, as I do not think he would have been ready eighteen months ago, to admit that the grievances exist. That is one step in advance. Then there is the matter to which Lord Willoughby de Broke referred last night with regret—the fact that plural voting is in theory now thrown over by noble Lords opposite, at any rate by the noble Lord who is responsible for this Bill. And, finally, there is another aspect which I do not think has been much touched upon. It is this, that the real chasm which divides noble Lords opposite from us on this great question is whether the will of the people should prevail within the limits of a single Parliament, or whether your Lordships shall always have the right to refer a matter to a General Election. That has been a claim which I think Constitutional theorists on the other side of the House have always made for noble Lords—that they should be able to refer a matter to a General Election for decision by the people. In that matter the noble Lord goes some way because under the Referendum a second General Election would not be necessary. He goes so far as to say that if there is returned to power a Government with the authority of the people of this country behind it, all the turmoil and the expense 725 and. the disturbance of a General Election is not necessary although your Lordships may not approve of the principle of an important Bill. There would be a power given to the Government to secure the passage into law of a Bill which had the approval of the House of Commons within the limits of a single Parliament, although your Lordships did not approve of the measure. That seems to me again to mark a very distinct advance towards the position of His Majesty's Government.
There is before us now as a House and as a Government the offer which your Lordships make of Reform and the Referendum. On the other hand, there is the Parliament Bill which has been discussed in two Parliaments, which in the shape of the Parliament Bill received a First Reading and. a good deal of discussion in the course of the last Parliament in another place, and which made a fleeting appearance upon the Table of your Lordships' House at the end of last session. What we say is that at the last two elections the policy of His Majesty's Government was fully before the people of this country. It was particularly before them at the last General Election. So also was your policy of the Referendum plus Reform, or, as I suppose we ought to call it, of Reform plus the Referendum. His Majesty's Government are now bound in honour to themselves and to the country to push forward their proposals and their Parliament Bill, rather than accept your solution which was refused by the people at the last election.
And there is this further, and perhaps less controversial, point. What we have to consider is whether the Referendum is a proper development of our Constitution, or whether it is being put on to it as an excrescence from outside having no organic connection with our Constitution naturally. Our opinion, your Lordships will have gathered, is that it is inconsistent with representative government in this country. We have always learned that the invention of representative government was one of the most valuable contributions to modern thought made by the Anglo-Saxon race. We are afraid that by substituting for representative government this device of the Referendum you add on a merely mechanical institution to the government of this country. We do not deny that the matter would be easy to do; but what we say is 726 that it would be wholly different from, and contrary to, the tendency of the Constitution of this country at the present time. In our opinion it would violate the traditions and cut at the very root of the theories which govern the Constitution of this country, and therefore His Majesty's Government will oppose this Bill as far as they possibly can.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
My Lords, there seems to me some apparent contradiction between the line of argument adopted by the noble Viscount yesterday and that adopted in the speech to which we have just listened. If I understood the noble Viscount rightly, he contended yesterday that what had occurred in other countries in connection with the Referendum was of little or no importance. On the other hand, the greater portion of the noble Earl's speech to-day has been directed to showing what had and what had not happened in those countries. I gather that the noble Earl adopted this line of argument under the impression, which I think is erroneous, that our main case rests upon the experience gained in countries where the Referendum has already been put in practice. That impression is erroneous. Casual allusion has, indeed, been made in the course of this debate to the experience of other countries, and it would certainly be unwise to neglect it. I am about, in the course of my remarks, to make further allusion in that direction. But it would be a mistake to suppose that our main case rests upon the experience gained in other countries. Our arguments are based on the present condition of this country, and we want to introduce something which is fitted for this country and for this country alone.
There was one passage in the eloquent speech which the noble Viscount addressed to us yesterday which entirely removed any lingering doubts I may have had as to the advisability of applying the system of the Referendum to this country. The noble Viscount gave us an imaginary but very interesting Parliamentary calendar of the future. He contemplated that a Home Rule Bill would be referred to the country in July, 1911, and that it might be rejected. That, I think, is highly probable. He then said that a Unionist Government would come into power, and that after an interval of a year they would refer a Tariff Reform measure to the country. He 727 contemplated that that; would also be rejected. That is, I daresay, not at all improbable. The noble Viscount drew from these imaginary facts a conclusion very adverse to the adoption of the system of the Referendum. What, however, would be the result if the noble Viscount's political horoscope turned out to be correct? It would be that the country would then have to choose between a Liberal Government purged of Home Rule and a Unionist Government purged of Tariff Reform. My Lords, from the point of view of a Unionist Free Trader, nothing could be better. I believe that this would be a consummation which would be regarded by a very large number of people in this country, not merely with complacency, but. with unmixed satisfaction.
My Lords, I think that. we owe a deep debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Balfour for introducing this Bill. Whatever may be its ultimate fate it will, at all events, form a convenient means for crystallising public opinion on the subject of the Referendum. This measure, taken in conjunction with the scheme for the reform of this House which will soon be introduced by the noble Marquess, must be regarded as a plan for dealing with the Constitutional crisis alternative to that proposed by His Majesty's Government. Throughout all the turmoil and confusion of recent discussions one point has been very clearly fixed in the minds of a large number of people in this country. It is that whatever solution be adopted it should be one that holds out a reasonable prospect of stability, and one which shall guarantee the country against the inauguration of an era of endless discussion and spasmodic change in the fundamental institutions of the country.
The noble Viscount quoted yesterday from the writings of Burke, that great mine of political wisdom. Whilst he was speaking there was another passage in Burke's writings which occurred to my mind, and which, although I have been unable to verify it since, I think I can quote from memory with sufficient accuracy for my purposes. Burke said that it was unwise to make the extreme medicine of the Constitution its daily bread. Now that exactly describes the danger to which the execution of the Government programme exposes us. The plan brought forward by His Majesty's Government is violently resented by an important minority, and is notoriously 728 viewed with great apprehension amongst many in t he ranks of the majority. Can it be supposed that such a programme will be accepted as final? Surely not. The prospect which the Government programme opens up must indeed fill the mind of any sober thinking person who can rise above the Party interest of the day with a feeling little short of dismay. It is a prospect of prolonged and acrimonious discussions on vital Constitutional issues—discussions which, whatever be the ultimate result, cannot fail to produce acute discord in our internal, and weakness and vacillation in our external politics. The noble Viscount yesterday alluded to the effect that was being produced abroad by the crisis at home, and I am very glad that he did so, for, although I do not view the subject in the same light as the noble Viscount, I entirely agree that this aspect of the case has not, in the course of these discussions, received nearly the attention it deserves. Every one knows that our proceedings are being watched with great attention by observers on the Continent, and any one who is at all in touch with the views held by Continental Statesmen and diplomatists is aware that an opinion is gradually gaining ground to the effect that we are so torn by dissension on matters of internal policy that our influence as a world Power is, to say the least, greatly diminished. I daresay that the importance of this aspect of the case is exaggerated now, as it was a century ago by Napoleon. I do not doubt that if any serious crisis in foregin affairs occurred, we should in the future, as in the past, be found a united nation. Nevertheless, the mere fact that such an opinion exists is calculated to do harm to British interests, and to weaken that wholesome British influence which, when hacked up by a strong Navy, is one of the best securities for maintaining the peace of the world.
It does not appear to me that considerations of this nature afford any reason for rejecting the principle of the Referendum. But they do afford a very strong reason for pausing before the last chance which will occur of coming to a mutual understanding is finally abandoned. I cannot agree with the view expressed by the noble Viscount and others that, because the Conference broke down, all hope of a settlement by mutual agreement should be abandoned. On the contrary, I think that if His Majesty's Government oppose an alsolute non possums to the programme 729 now put forward by the Opposition, of which this Bill forms an integral part, they will, I venture to think, be accepting a very heavy responsibility to their countrymen of the present and future generations. In that case, when future historians come to write of the events now passing under our eyes, they will, I think, stand amazed at the want of versatility—I might almost say the sterility of political conception—shown by the Statesmen of the present day.
My Lords, the details of the measure proposed by my noble friend will, without doubt, form the subject of full discussion when the Bill arrives at the Committee Stage. We are now only discussing the principle, and what reason is there that the principle should be absolutely rejected? I have heard of none which carries conviction to my mind. The proposal, indeed, appears to have stirred to its depths whatever amount of latent conservatism exists in the minds of noble Lords opposite. It appears to be regarded as a dangerous innovation. It is thought. to be more revolutionary than anything proposed or contemplated by His Majesty's Government and their followers. My Lords, when a political Party which has already treated the whole of our fiscal system with but scant regard for the traditions of the past, and which avowedly contemplates other and more drastic innovations in the body politic—when such a Party warns us solemnly against being lured into the danger of revolutionary action, it is almost impossible not to receive their admonitions with a certain amount of amused scepticism. Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes? Without doubt, there are many of us who regret the necessity of having recourse to a measure of this sort. We should have preferred, had it been possible, to proceed on the old traditional lines of an unwritten and elastic Constitution. But such a course is no longer possible. A revolution of one sort or another has been forced on us. I care not to inquire who is responsible for its advent. Noble Lords opposite will say that the responsibility rests with those who rejected the Budget—a decision, I may remark incidentally, for which neither the noble Lord who introduced this Bill nor myself is in any degree responsible. Noble Lords on this side of the House may reply that the rejection of the Budget in no way justifies the introduction of a single-Chamber system, which they hold, rightly 730 in my opinion, will be the outcome of the programme adopted by the Government. Nothing, my Lords, is to be gained by bandying these half-truths and recriminations from one side to the other. The fact remains that, whatever be the cause or justification, proposals which may justly be termed revolutionary have emanated from the present Government, and the only effective way to check this revolution is by initiating other proposals which noble Lords opposite are quite welcome, if they choose, to designate as a counter-revolution.
And, my Lords, after all, considering all the circumstances in which we are now placed, is this proposal so very revolutionary? Is it not merely the natural and logical application of those democratic principles which are accepted by all in this country, and by none more than your Lordships, except perhaps by the extreme democrats themselves? The noble Earl the Leader of the House, whose temporary absence we all regret, twitted my noble friend the other day on the ground that he, a staunch Conservative, was enunciating the principles of the Contrat Social. My Lords, it is many years since I read the Contrat Social, but unless my memory plays me false Rousseau maintained that the British nation were under a great delusion in supposing they were a free people. He said that they were only free during a General Election, and that subsequently, having resigned their sovereignty, they were the slaves of the Parliament they had elected. When we consider the use which is avowedly going to be made of the majority obtained at the last election, when we reflect that that majority, returned not to abolish' but to reform the Second Chamber, is to be used to carry into effect drastic measures in other directions on which the country has not been consulted, I am not at all sure that Rousseau was not a true prophet.
The noble Lord who introduced this Bill has explained with great eloquence and lucidity why he and those who agree with him advocate the principles set forth in the Bill. We do not say that the representative system has broken down, but we maintain that its operation has undergone profound modifications. The absence of any system of proportional representation, the activity and ability of Party managers, and the impossibility of 731 differentiating between those questions to which the electors have and those to which they have not assented, have destroyed the practical guarantees which formerly existed that the majority of the House of Commons represents, in respect to any special issue of importance, the real opinions of the electors. My Lords, we want this Bill to stop log-rolling. Both the noble Earl the Leader of the House and the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack have pointed out the risks which would be involved in the acceptance of the principles of the Referendum. The noble and learned Lord asks what is likely to happen if the people are asked to give their opinion on a proposal to put an Income Tax of 50 per cent. on all incomes in excess of £5,000 a year. My Lords, I asked exactly the same question when the Parliament Bill was under discussion a few months ago, and I was told in reply that we could rely on the common sense of the people of this country not to approve of any such absurd proposal. I trust that that view is correct, but I maintain that under the proposal of my noble friend the people will have an opportunity of showing their common sense, whereas under the programme of His Majesty's Government no such opportunity will be given to them. Any fiscal monstrosity may be inserted into a Money Bill and passed into law without risk of interference from the Second Chamber when once the Speaker's certificate, which he will be unable to refuse, has been signed.
But then we were told by the noble Earl the Leader of the House, when he was pressed by my noble friend Lord Balfour, that we were not discussing the Parliament Bill. That is quite true; but, my Lords, I submit that it is quite impossible to discuss the present proposal adequately without instituting some comparison between the two systems. Moreover, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, on the occasion of the First Reading of this Bill, adopted a line of argument which is a virtual admission of the necessity of making such a comparison. If, the noble and learned Lord argued, the Parliament Bill is a bad one, that is no reason for passing another measure which the noble and learned Lord evidently thinks is much worse. My Lords, the relative merits of the two programmes is a matter of opinion, but I submit that, assuming the Referendum to be objectionable on its own merits, there 732 would be some force in the noble and learned Lord's argument if His Majesty's Government would submit the whole of their programme, including the reform of this House, to both Houses of Parliament, not merely for discussion, but also for amendment. But the plea falls to the ground when we are given to understand that no serious attempt at compromise is to be made, and that, if needs be, the views of the Government will be carried out by an extreme exercise of the Royal Prerogative. If this be the case, there is no alternative but to sketch out a general programme which may be laid before the country to take the place of that set forth by the Government.
Then, my Lords, another, and I readily admit a more serious, objection has been urged against the principle of the Bill. It is held that if it passes into law a fatal blow will be given to the principle of representative Government, because the adoption of the system known as the initiative must necessarily follow that of the Referendum. In fact, if I understand rightly, there is some apprehension that we may revert to the chaos and confusion which existed under the ancient Commonwealths before representative institutions had been called into existence. If it could be shown that the initiative must necessarily pass into the hands of the people if once the Referendum system were adopted, and that thus the sovereignty of the people would, as a matter of common practice, be asserted directly, and not through their representatives, I fully admit that the objection would be serious. But can this be shown? I think not. Whilst fully agreeing in what has been said as to the fallacy involved in endeavouring to establish too close an analogy between this and other countries, I think it is worth while to allude to the reasons which have led to the very tentative steps made towards the introduction of the initiative system in the United States of America. Mr. Bryce, who is nothing if he is not judicial, says that—the source of the desire of the people to take power out of the hands of the Legislature and wield it themselves probably lies, not so much in the eagerness of the masses to carry further the principle of popular sovereignty, as in a certain impatience with the representative Assemblies, which are supposed to be too largely the creatures of the Party organisations, and to be liable to yield to the influences which powerful financial interests can bring to bear.733 Now, my Lords, leaving alone the allusion to the powerful financial interests, a discussion of which would involve me in the meshes of the fiscal controversy, I wish to point out that what Mr. Bryce says in the passage which I have quoted exactly applies to our case at present. If the Party organisations be allowed to wield unchecked the predominating power of which they now dispose, the almost inevitable result will be that the people will become impatient, and that they will wish to assert their sovereignty in a manner which might, indeed, inflict a fatal blow on the representative system. Whereas by applying a timely remedy, by arranging, as I hope will be arranged, that resort will only be had to the Referendum on very rare occasions, there is every hope that any danger of this kind will be averted, and that the result will be the same as that which, in another passage in his work, Mr. Bryce has told us has ensued in America—that is to say, that the assertion of the direct sovereignty of the whole people "has tended to check revolutionary tendencies."
Moreover, my Lords, does not this plea that we are not to adopt the Referendum because it may lead to the demand for the initiative rather savour of the well-worn fallacy known as "the thin end of the wedge" argument; that is to say, the argument that we are not to adopt some relatively moderate and unobjectionable reform because it may lead to the demand of sonic far more drastic and more objectionable reform at a later period? No one will deny that in some cases the plea may be allowed to hold good. Personally I think that Woman's Suffrage is a case in point. But it is an argument which has always been regarded with much distrust by reforming politicians, and I have certainly always understood that it was particularly obnoxious to Liberal politicians; for, in fact, past experience has shown that if it had been habitually accepted some of the most useful measures that have ever become law in this country would have been nipped in the bud. I believe we may safely consider this question on its own merits as one that, under present circumstances, is calculated to strengthen rather than to weaken our existing institutions, and that we need not be frightened by the bugbear that it will deal a death-blow to the representative system. For these reasons, my Lords,I 734 trust that the principle embodied in my noble friend's Bill will receive the approval of this House. It is one which should, I think, command the assent of moderate men of all Parties, inasmuch as the measure, if passed into law, will constitute a barrier against the attacks of those extremists who, like the Jacobins of a century ago, have usurped the forms, but do not appear to have imbibed the true spirit, of popular government. On the other hand, if nothing of the kind is clone, I confidently anticipate after a short lapse of time the advent of a period when the inure moderate politicians on the Liberal side will be looking anxiously about for some barrier to save them from being carried off their legs by the extremists of their own Party.
My Lords, this question has not been presented in quite such a definite way as I should have liked in order to get a clear issue with regard to it. The noble Earl on the Cross Benches (Lord Cromer) said that the Referendum has been made a part of the policy of the Conservative Party in order to meet a revolution by a counter revolution, but we were told last night by the Leader of that Party that it was a proposal which they did not intend to support in the Division Lobby. I do not quite see how a Bill can be part of the Conservative policy and yet be a Bill which the Conservative Party, though extending to it. a sort of benevolent sympathy, are not prepared to accept on Second Reading.
I desire to approach this question from what I would call a moderate and Constitutional point of view. I quite agree with Lord Cromer that we are in a revolutionary period. In the debate on the rejection of the Budget of 1909 I ventured to say that this House had then entered upon an era of revolution. A revolutionary period was perhaps on its way, and could have been signalled by an approaching atmospheric depression; but we found ourselves in the centre of the cyclone when this House broke through the traditions of centuries and rejected the Budget. All politicians and Statesmen have recognised for many years that the House of Commons must be the supreme force in the Legislature and in determining what shall be the government of the country. Prominent Statesmen in this House—I need only mention the late 735 Lord Salisbury and the present Leader of the Conservative Party—have rendered lip-service to this principle. They have told us over and over again that. all they claim for the House of Lords is the power of delay and of appeal, not from Philip drunk to Philip sober, but from the hasty first impressions of the people to their deliberate and reconsidered decision. In that I go a great way with the Conservative Party.
I agree that in times of passion and excitement there should be an opportunity of calling a certain pause and of securing that the country should not be swept away by passion, but should have the opportunity of considering twice or even three times before determining on something which may be irrevocable. But is the Referendum a less revolutionary method of reconsidering than the proposal of the Government? The Referendum would, I think, in some cases work very harshly. The noble Earl who resumed the debate to-night pointed out by figures that, ordinarily speaking, the electors would not be much interested, and that it would require a much greater effort of the Parties to work them up than is the case at a General Election. As was said by the noble Earl, where we have the Referendum it has worked harshly. It was introduced into municipal government I think sixteen or eighteen years ago. Before then local authorities could promote measures involving loans pledging the credit of a town, but. since then we know that proposals which have been very desirable in the interests of the town have been repeatedly delayed for a year or more owing to the slackness and the indifference of the electors, which have led to a very light vote and sometimes to the rejection of a measure which the town really needed. In quiet times the Referendum might succeed in postponing legislation, though I do not think that is any great advantage, but it would offer no barrier to an excited and fierce people when there was some great crisis which roused the passions of the people to the utmost. What would have been the effect if, when the Lords threw out the first Reform Bill, they had had a Referendum and the Whig Government had presented their case to the country? There is very little doubt, not only that the rotten boroughs would have come toppling down, but that the House of Lords and the Bench of Bishops would have toppled down with them.
736 Another reason why I object to the Referendum is that I believe in the voice of the people uttered through their representatives and through a deliberative Assembly, but not in the voice of the people collected by a plebiscite. There are many measures which Parliament has passed and which Parliament ought to pass for which if you took a Referendum you would very likely not get a popular majority. My reading of history is that at the time when every Statesman and every political leader was convinced that the day had passed by for any further opposition to Catholic Emancipation and that the time had come for surrender to the claims of the Catholics there was so much anti-Popery feeling in the country that if the question had been put to the people Catholic Emancipation would have been rejected. There are many occasions on which it becomes a Parliamentary duty on the part of the Statesmen who have been chosen to govern the country to display courage and independence of thought and action, and to bring forward measures although at the time they may believe the people would not support them. Then I have heard it urged by Conservatives as an argument in favour of the Referendum that it would destroy log-rolling. It is represented that the Party now supporting the present Government is a composite Party, and that the Government is a composite Government, and concedes something to A, something to B, and something else to C, and that by their combined force they carry their measures. I would remind your Lordships that it is the duty of Liberals—I will say it is the duty of Statesmen—to deal with reforms though they know they only appeal to the interests of a particular section and may not appeal to the general mass of ignorant or indifferent opinion, and to pass them by an appeal to the reasoned allegiance of their supporters in Parliament and not to trust to an appeal to the public, many of whom care little or nothing about the matter. Take, for example, the question of the Scottish Land Bill or of Welsh Disestablishment. If these things are right, then I think it is for thoughtful men who have studied politics and come together in the House and heard debate and talk in the Lobbies to thrash out the question, and, if they make up their minds that the time has come to carry those measures, to carry them without caring whether they interest their electors in the constituencies or not, and avoid getting the electors excited over matters which really do not touch them.
737 My Lords, when we consider the intricacy and the diversity of the problems with which our Government have to deal, our world-wide interests, our Colonies, our trade, and so on, I think it would be a miserable abdication of responsibility if any Government were to clutch at the Referendum and entrust the determination of important questions of national policy to the ill-considered and ignorant voice of the people as it might be when stirred up. If you want to avoid revolutionary changes when public feeling is excited, you must make it easy for the popular body in Parliament to carry small changes bit by bit, and to readjust the machinery of Government, and make your revolution piecemeal instead of in the gross. The whole world has gone through a process of revolution, and is not the question whether you will take the revolution by degrees or in the lump? Take the history of France. Every one knows that if there was such stupidity in the governing forces of that; country during the whole of the eighteenth century as to make no reform possible they were bound to have the bloody and revolutionary change which came at the end of that century. I suppose that every important reform that has been made has been grudged by the Conservative Party, but how many of those changes would noble Lords on the Front Opposition Bench now say they regretted Your Lordships have been educated by the experience of the past, but you do not allow that education to enlighten you as to what your conduct should be in the future. I say it is the maddest recklessness, it is not Conservatism, to try and convert the responsible and deliberate Government of this country into a mere plébiscitary Government, to be sluggish in quiet times and revolutionary in excited times.
I do not go into the details of the noble Lord's Bill. I do not care to pick up the little crumbs of comfort to be found, the little concessions that are made, in the recognition of our grievances and the admission that the relations of the Lords to the people have been for some time unsatisfactory. Of course, they have been unsatisfactory. They were bound to be unsatisfactory from the moment you emancipated the House of Commons from subjection to the territorial classes whose dominant place is in the House of Lords. It takes a generation for people gradually to realise their strength and what their wishes are, but these things must come and 738 do come. The House of Lords might have jogged on, I do not think very happily because the relations were unsatisfactory, had it not precipitated this conflict by accentuating the impossibility of working on the traditional unwritten understanding by breaking that understanding. The weaker Party broke it, and they have to make up their minds now what they are going to do. The weaker Party is the Party which have not got the mass of the electorate of the country behind them. Occasionally the Conservative Party in this country accidentally get a majority of the electorate, largely by the jettisoning of a number of their old principles and sometimes outbidding the Liberals in democratic and even Socialistic proposals. Noble Lords opposite who went up and down the country during the last election must have seen that you were face to face with a growing democratic spirit in the country, and that the existing House of Lords is absolutely inconsistent with that spirit. Your Lordships are good and kind and humane men enough individually, but what strikes me when you get together collectively is the utter want of touch between your Lordships and the country outside; and as you have not chosen to quietly acquiesce in the changed relations between the two Houses and between this House and the country, you have to accept now what is the beginning, in some respects at any rate, of a written Constitution. But, my Lords, personally I should still wish to go on as far as possible by means of understandings and gradual adjustments of matters of difference, because the merit of our Constitution is that it is an unwritten Constitution, the good sense of the people being content to use old forms, from time to time putting new spirit into them, so as to secure that those who govern the country should be in sympathy with the mass of the people.
§ LORD NORTHCOTE
My Lords, as one who has been in Australia more recently than the noble Earl, Lord Beauchamp, perhaps I may preface the few observations I have to offer on the Bill in general with one or two comments upon the speech with which the noble Earl commenced our proceedings to-day. In the first place, I cannot agree with the noble Earl in what he appeared to consider a fatal objection to this Bill—namely, that the proposals in it did not coincide precisely with the systems adopted in the United States, in Switzerland, or in our oversea Dominions. Surely 739 the Mother of Parliaments is great enough not only to accept the principle, but to regulate the manner in which that principle should be applied according to her own wisdom and understanding. With regard to the special quotations which the noble Earl made from Australian history, he undoubtedly gave them with that perfect accuracy which I should have expected from him, but I should like to make one or two comments upon the lessons which he drew from them. He spoke first of all of the small percentage of votes which were cast at the elections in Australia, and referred to the indifference which that showed on the part of the Australian people towards public questions in general. I agree with him that it is deplorable that so small a percentage of votes should be cast in Australia upon public questions, but I must remind him that this was equally the case at Parliamentary Elections; the apathy was not confined to special questions connected with the Referendum, but was general. I fail to recall any single election in Australia at which eighty per cent. of the electors voted.
Then the noble Earl referred to the trouble of putting the machinery of the Referendum into motion for the purpose of effecting a very slight change. If I thought that in this country the Referendum was to be applied to very small questions I should consider his objection a very serious one, undoubtedly so with regard to this country. But I would remind the noble Earl that the Australian Constitution was entirely a new one. Slight imperfections had crept into it, and the Referendum was the only machinery by which those imperfections could be put right. That would not apply in a Constitution like our own, where the Referendum would not be put into force except in cases of considerable gravity. Then, again, the Bill of my noble friend Lord Balfour, if I read it rightly, would expressly exclude any financial proposals being submitted to a Referendum, pond that question, which is a difficult one in Australia, would not arise in this country. The noble Earl made special reference to the case of Queensland and to the position in which the Premier of Queensland was placed in having to carry through legislation in consequence of the expressed will of the people, although he was personally opposed to that legislation. That was, he said, a position in which Ministers in this country 740 would never place themselves. But I do not know that there is anything peculiarly degrading in such a position. We on this side of the House who are in a majority have from time to time to acquiesce and tacitly assist in the carrying of measures in which we do not believe, because they are thought to be desired by the people at large. I have never considered that in so acquiescing we were acting in a dishonourable manner. My noble friend made a perfectly true statement with regard to the practice in Australia in the case of a deadlock between the two Houses. It is undoubtedly the case that when there is a deadlock between the two Houses, the Referendum is not invoked to settle the difference. What is invoked is a Dissolution. If the noble Earl prefers that when there is a similar difficulty here the Government should submit the matter to the arbitrament of a General Election so be it. I do not think the Opposition would have very great objection. The noble Earl taunted the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition with his alleged curtailment of the number of subjects to which he would wish to see the Referendum applied. But, however limited that number may be, the number is greater than that suggested by His Majesty's Ministers, for they do not intend to consult the people upon any occasion at all.
My Lords, general questions have already been so fully discussed that I will not detain the House with more than a single word upon them. It has been said that there is something un-Conservative and un-Constitutional in our action in favouring the principle of the Referendum. I must say that I have never been able to see upon what ground that charge is based. Our principle is that we desire to ascertain and carry out the will of the people when it is once plainly expressed, and, as I take it, the Referendum is merely intended to be a comparatively easy, simple, and cheap method of ascertaining what that will is. I need hardly reiterate what previous speakers have said, that so long as the far more revolutionary proposals of His Majesty's Government are before the country we are not very much moved by their tender concern for our possible lapses into Radical legislation.
Now I wish to deal a little more in detail with sonic of the principal objections raised to the Referendum. I think they are 741 mainly three in number. In the first place it is said that by its adoption the responsibilities of Members of Parliament would be seriously diminished, and, indeed, transferred into the hands of a plébiscite So far from that being the case, my contention is that those responsibilities would be materially augmented. I say that for this reason. Under a Referendum every Bill will have to be introduced into both Houses of Parliament and go through the whole of its stages in both houses—First Reading, Second Reading, Committee, Report, and so on, and the votes of every Member will be very keenly watched and criticised by his constituents. He will vote under the knowledge, if the Bill be one that is to be submitted to a Referendum, that his constituents will have an early opportunity of expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way in which he has acted. Therefore I certainly do not think that he will escape any responsibility by the adoption of the Referendum. Then a second complaint is that the electors will be bemused and puzzled by a number of catch questions which it is supposed will be put to there, or by a confusion of the issues upon which they are called to vote. As I understand it: there will be no catch questions of any sort or kind. The elector will have the Bill presented to him, and he will be asked, "you, or do you riot, wish this Bill to become law?" I cannot conceive that any simpler question can possibly be put to an elector, and it must anyhow be a simpler matter than the multitude of questions upon all possible subjects of foreign and domestic policy upon which at a General Election he is at present supposed to be amply qualified to express an opinion. Then there is the third objection, the question of cost. It is possible to spend money upon anything, but I do not see that there need be any very great difficulty in materially limiting the cost of the taking of a Referendum. In the first place, it would be perfectly easy to pass some amending Act of the nature of the Corrupt Practices Act by which expenditure upon bill-posting, pictures, and so forth 'should be prohibited; and, in the second place, I think that the common sense of the people would preclude the expenditure of a great deal of money. When a General Election takes place, A. and B. are candidates for seat. They have a very keen and direct ersonal interest as to who shall occupy 742 that seat, and they spend all the money they legitimately can, and I am afraid sometimes a great deal more, in the endeavour to secure the seat. But when it is merely a question of endeavouring to ascertain the views of the electors as to whether a particular Bill shall become law or not, there will be no occasion for anybody to spend any particular money upon it, and I think a poll of the people could be taken without any excessive cost.
The advantages of such a reference to the people and to the Government of the day are manifest. So far as the Ministry of the day are concerned, let me take such cases as those of the Licensing Bill and the Education Bill, both of which the present Government failed to pass through Parliament. I am bound to assume that they very keenly regretted the loss of those two Bills. At the same time they did not consider that their loss was sufficient to warrant them in putting the country to the cost and trouble of a General Election, and consequently the two Bills had to go. But had a Referendum been adopted. it would have been possible to put those two measures to the country, and if approved they could have been passed into law. The advantage to the electors would, I think, be equally great. Take the case of a constituency or a body of electors who are well satisfied with tile general fiscal and domestic policy of their Government, who have no particular wish to change the Ministers, but who object, let us say as an instance, to the Declaration of London. They do not wish to turn out the Ministry, but they do wish to say that on this particular question the opinion of the majority of the electors is not represented. They could do so by means of the Referendum. Ministers would then know that in that particular direction the country did not go with them, and they could proceed with tie other portions of their policy with regard to which they might still retain the confidence of their supporters. If I may venture upon a very domestic parallel I would say that the position is very much like that of one of your Lordships who may have occasion to reprove a servant but may not consider his offence serious enough to justify giving him a month's notice.
The noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition when expressing approval of the general principle of the Bill said that 743 he was glad that it was not the intention of Lord Balfour to press the measure to a Division or attempt to carry it through Committee. I entertain precisely the same view. I agree with the principle of the Bill, but I consider that there are very serious drawbacks to this measure. As was said by the noble Earl who resumed the debate, the first clause of the Bill does not make sufficient distinction between rejected and amended Bills. The Government of the day would be perfectly justified in referring to the country the text of their original Bill which was rejected en bloc by this House; but in the case where the Commons do not agree to Amendments made in this House and the Bill is to go to the country, I think opportunity should be given to the people to say whether they prefer the original Bill or the Bill as amended. I take objection also to Clause 2. I consider that the theory of Parliament is that the House of Commons represents the immediate views of the electors; it is in closer and more immediate contact than this Chamber can possibly be with the electorate, and can be taken as representing their views on any question at the immediate moment. On the other hand, this House, not having the fear of constituencies before its eyes, is at liberty to give rather calmer consideration to hasty legislation than the Lower House, and to delay, and refer if need be to the people, any measures upon which they may think that the House of Commons does not truly represent the feeling of the country. But when we have a case in which both Houses—the directly representative House and the more deliberative Assembly—are of opinion that a measure is good, I think we must take it that that represents the deliberate judgment of the country for the time being. Therefore I am entirely averse to giving any minority, whether 200 or any other number, the power of inflicting frequent Referenda upon the country by appeals against a decision arrived at by both Chambers. Of course, I agree that there is one contingency under which the absence of this provision might possibly act somewhat unfairly to the Party of noble Lords opposite, and that is where possibly reactionary legislation might be imposed against the will of the country in the event of a Conservative or Unionist majority in both Houses.
In this democratic age anything in the nature of serious reactionary legislation 744 is in the very highest degree improbable, and I do honestly believe that the advantages the Government of the day would derive from the adoption of the Referendum would be more than an equivalent for any risk they might run under the contingency I have alluded to. I must also remind your Lordships of an additional advantage which the Ministry would have—namely, that it would be only the Ministry of the day who could decide whether the Referendum was to be applied or not, because they would always have the alternative of putting up with the rejection of a Bill if they did not see fit to consult the country upon it. In those circumstances, my Lords, I can only express my gratification with the main portions of the Bill that my noble friend Lord Balfour has introduced, and my confident hope that sooner or later its main principle, a principle which has already been adopted and approved by many foreign countries and by some of our own Colonies, will become a permanent portion of the legislative machinery of this country.
My Lords, this debate, initiated as it has been by the introduction of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, has, in consequence of the attitude of noble Lords opposite, and I think of the admissions of the noble Lord himself, degenerated into rather an academic discussion of the principle of the Referendum. I therefore desire to intervene at this stage in order to give utterance to the belief of a growing section of advanced Liberal opinion that the introduction of the Referendum in a limited form in connection with the settlement of our Constitutional difficulties would be to the advantage and for the protection of the democracy. That is the standpoint from which I desire to discuss this question.
I regret that, holding the opinions I do, I should, so far as my side of the House is concerned, have had occasion to listen only to speeches presenting adamantine opposition to the principle of the Referendum. There was the speech on the First Reading of the noble Earl, Lord Crewe, whose absence we all deeply deplore; there was the speech of my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack—and, if he will allow me to say so, my Radical friend of former days in the House of Commons; and there was the speech of the noble Viscount who spoke with such effect yesterday upon this question. But, happily, I am somewhat 745 comforted, because I know that the Prime Minister has not shown quite that pertinacious opposition which has been manifested by his colleagues who have spoken in this House. He has confessed that at an earlier stage—I do not quite know when—he had a flirtation with the Referendum, and, what is very unusual, I think, with my right hon. friend, he has abandoned his early love, and all he is content to say is that he will not bar and bolt the door against the introduction of this principle, in a limited form, perhaps, on some future occasion.
My Lords, I will now deal with some of the objections which have been raised by my noble friends on this side of the House to the Referendum on any terms whatever. The first objection, and it appears to me the most important, is that the Referendum is destructive of representative government. The Lord Chancellor said that it would be fatal to representative government, and the words of Lord Morley were that it would do a great deal to abolish the representative system. I should like to ask not only noble Lords in this House but everybody concerned in this grave Constitutional crisis whether at this moment we really enjoy representative Government. I have been long in political life, and I have had the advantage denied to sonic of the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate of sitting for many years in the House of Commons. I have had, perhaps, not quite so long an experience as some, but I have had an experience of eight contested elections on behalf of Liberal principles, and I can remember the time, before the introduction of the caucus into our Party system, when the House of Commons offered a reasonable field for the exercise of independent judgment. I am not quarrelling with the caucus; it was, perhaps, a necessary introduction into our political system; it came to us from America, and I believe it was introduced by a right hon. gentleman who has not been particularly successful in his importations, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain. But having been introduced, what has been its effect?
We all know now that a candidate who presents himself has to undergo a most searching examination on the part of the Party caucus, and sometimes a competitive examination. He then has to submit to an endless variety of questions and give a number of pledges before being accepted, and 746 after he has been accepted as the candidate the same process is gone through with all sorts of outside associations, with the result that by the time he reaches the House of Commons and takes his seat in that Assembly he is almost as much tied and bound as a modern lady in a bobble skirt. That is the situation. I listened with some astonishment to my noble friend Lord Carrington last night when he accused me of sharing in the dreams of Rousseau, and threw cold water, as did the noble Viscount, on the statements of a Member of the House of Commons, Mr. Snowden, who takes the same view as I have ventured to lay before your Lordships as to the present position of private Members. When bound and pledged, his independence half gone, a man reaches the House of Commons he finds all kinds of restrictions placed upon his actions. They have the gag, they have the guillotine, they have the persistent demands of the Government of the day—and one Government is just as bad as another—upon the time of private Members, and I venture to state that there is not one single Member of the House of Commons to-day outside the actual or presumptive officials who will not bear me out in saying that his boasted independence is gone, and consequently he has become in a great majority of instances a mere machine who has to do as he is told. We heard something also last night of the utterances of a former respected Whip, my noble colleague Lord Marchamley. I am sure Lord Marchamley's experiences are those of every other gentleman who has been in his position. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that if a Member is recalcitrant, if he ventures to have the slightest independence of view, the Whip has immediately to exercise all the pressure and persuasion possible. What does he do He goes to that Member and says—and very often, I regret to say, he says it with truth—that half or perhaps all his election expenses were paid out of the Party funds, and he must remember that or they would remember it when the next election came round.
§ LORD MARCHAMLEY
I was a Whip for three years and I do not think I ever said such a thing, and I do not believe any other Whip has ever said such a thing.
I do not say the noble Lord used Those actual words. What I say is that Party Whips give it to be understood, and it is within my knowledge that they have said 747 it. In the same way it is said that if the hon. Member who is thus addressed will be good enough to support the Government, the Government will think of him, and that there are certain preferments and certain advantages which may be conferred upon him if he will do so. Now, my Lords, I frankly say that a House, for whose great traditions I have profound respect, where so many of its Members are in that position of fettered dependence is not in the true sense of the word a really representative House. It is all tending to one end, and that end is the general strengthening of an official oligarchy called the Cabinet. I am not referring to one Cabinet more than another, but what. I say is that under a system of this kind it is the Cabinet and not Parliament that really governs the country, and it is in order that some sort of check should he placed upon what might prove to be an oligarchy of a most tyrannical character that I want to see a limited form of Referendum introduced which will give some security to the free and independent electors of this country.
We had a speech to-night from my noble friend Lord Sheffield. He will excuse me for referring to that speech, because it represents the frame of mind of a certain class of Liberal. He told us that lie thought it was the duty of a Government to carry such measures as might commend themselves to their judgment, even it they were only acceptable to the minority. He said, "I do not see why any attention should be paid to the ignorant, ill-considered voice of the people." That is the position at which we have now arrived, that it is the view apparently of Liberalism of the official type that the Cabinet is to he empowered, no matter what may be the subject under discussion, to carry into law measures in the interests of a particular minority without any reference to, and in fact in total disregard of, the wishes of the people. I quite agree the noble Lord did not perhaps intend to give expression to such sentiments, but that is the natural and logical outcome of what he said.
I come now to another branch of the question. We talk of representative government. Representative government no doubt in principle existed at the time when there were only two political Parties in the State. But what have we to-day? First we saw the growth of a Third Party, the Irish Party, in the days of Mr. Butt—a small one which afterwards grew to be a 748 large and important Party under the leadership of Mr. Parnell. And side by side with that Party we have seen, happily I think, the growth of the Labour Party; and if, as I hope, we are near the day when Home Rule will be granted not only to Ireland but to other parts of the country under the scheme of Home Rule all round, we shall also have a Scottish Party and a Welsh Party. Therefore, my Lords, the whole conditions are changed. We have now a Government which is dependent on the support of groups. It is no longer the Party system we have to deal with; it is the group system; and although I for one am exceedingly satisfied that the present Government have been able to come to terms with the Irish Party and the Labour Party, and although I am entirely in sympathy with their views with regard to Home Rule, the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales, and plural voting, yet, my Lords, I do say that it is perfectly possible, looking into the future, to see how great will be the danger unless you have some kind of safeguard against what I may call immoral grouping to the prejudice of the real interests of the country as a whole. Therefore it is that I am in favour of the principle of the Referendum on a limited scale, surrounded by the greatest safeguards, and operating only in the rarest instances.
The noble Viscount quoted as an instance of the difficulty of passing measures through this House the Irish Church Bill, which no doubt only became law after a good deal of resistance by the Tory Party. But I would suggest to him that the existence of the Referendum in a limited form might serve the cause of progress much better than any scheme which has yet been propounded for dealing with the relations of the two Houses. Suppose, on the other hand, that during the last Conservative Parliament there had been, as the Bill proposes and as I entirely approve, the power of an imposing minority to refer a Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament to the judgment of the people, what would have happened with the last Education Bill passed by the Tory Government? Everybody knows that the passage of that Bill raised a storm of resentment throughout the country; its evil effects are apparent still to-day; the country teems with passive resisters; and yet we have been unable to redress the evil. If the Referendum had been in existence, that Bill might have 749 been referred to the people and the whole matter left open to a wider and happier solution.
I pass from that branch of the question to one or two others. First of all, I should like to make a few observations upon the objections that have been raised, and rightly raised, with reference to the stability of Government. It is said that supposing a Government referred to the people a Bill which they were unable to pass through the Upper House, and that the country refused its approbation of that Bill, it would immediately involve the resignation of the Government. I dissent front that view. I do not believe that it would involve the resignation of the Government. It might conceivably involve the resignation of the Minister principally concerned; it might also possibly mean the reconstruction of the Government itself; but I do not for one moment believe that in the great majority of instances it would mean the resignation of the Government. But, more than that, if the Bill were really a Bill which met with the firm resistance of the country when referred to it, is it not right and proper that the Ministry should resign? surely the moment they find that they have lost the confidence of the country it is desirable that they should give place to others.
I know that objections have been raised to the principle of the Referendum by various friends of mine representing different classes of opinion. In the first place, it is strongly resisted by the Irish Party. I believe myself that the Irish Party would have nothing to fear front the establishment of the Referendum. My own opinion is that a Home Rule Bill drawn on fair lines safe-guarding the Imperial interests of this country would not fail to receive the acceptance of both Houses of Parliament, and, if it did not it would certainly be accepted by the country at large upon a Referendum. My own impression is that the country is beginning to be sick of the controversy over the Irish question and is only too anxious for a settlement. Then there is another large body of opinion that I would refer to—that of the Labour Party. My friend Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, for whom I have the highest respect, has spoken disparagingly of the Referendum, but I would remind him and those who agree with hint that the Labour world—not the Labour Party in Parliament—has already accepted the principle of the Referendum in all its 750 local concerns. It has accepted the ballot, and I would point oat that the value of the ballot from the Labour point of view has been manifested extraordinarily during the last few months. In the West of England only a few days ago strikingly so, when the advice of the most respected Labour leaders was rejected by the men by enormous majorities. The truth is, my Lords, that deep down in the minds of the people there is a distinct desire to preserve their right to say the last word on all matters that affect their welfare and their destiny. It is not enough to tell thorn that they have their representative in Parliament. It is not enough to tell them t hat a measure has been sufficiently discussed in Parliament.
And, my Lords, we see that in other countries the same sentiment is growing on all hands. It. is growing in America; it is growing, although the signs may not be so apparent to-day, on the Continent both in Belgium and in France. In Belgium particularly there is a movement on foot for the establishment of the Referendum for precisely the same reasons that I argue in its favour to-day. It is really the due protection and the fair protection, as I conceive, of democratic progress that all these partisan combinations which sometimes unfortunately distort our representative institutions should have some restriction placed upon t hem, so that the wishes of the people should really prevail in the settlement of the affairs of the nation. I regret to have had to intervene in this debate, and to give expression to certain views which are not, perhaps, sympathised in by many of my noble friends; but I conceive it to be the duty of every member of this House—as I conceived it to he my duty when I sat for so many years in the House of Commons—to speak his mind with sincerity and courage. I did so, my Lords, in the midst of much heated controversy at the time of the South African War, when many of my right hon. friends deserted us, I regret to say, in the hour of distress. I have done so to-night, and I shall ever be prepared to give utterance to the opinions I hold without any fear of what the consequences may be.
§ LORD NEWTON
My Lords, I cannot help wondering what kind of reception the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down would have met with had it been delivered in another place. As the noble Lord truly observed, a good deal of the importance of this debate has diminished 751 in consequence of the very broad hint which was given by the noble Marquess to my noble friend who introduced this Bill, recommending him not to press it to a Division; and although the noble Marquess with his habitual modesty, disclaimed any special control over the actions of this House, I have always observed that the hints of the noble Marquess exercise pretty much the same effect upon the Benches on this side of the House as the nod of Jove exercised upon the denizens of Olympus. My Lords, although we shall not conclude this debate with the excitement of a Division, the debate has at all events been productive of considerable interest. The main interest, so far as I am concerned, consists in the fact that it has displayed a. most curious inversion of political principles. I learn, I confess somewhat to my surprise, that we on these Benches are the only true representatives of the democracy. Noble Lords opposite apparently do not represent the genuine article. I hope I am not using an offensive expression when I say that they are apparently, in the opinion of some of the supporters of the Bill, a kind of political hybrids who at one moment are revolutionary single-Chamber men and at another moment little better than rusty reactionaries.
This Bill is recommended to us as the legitimate outcome of a democratic principle, and I am not ashamed to confess that so far as I am concerned that recommendation does not carry very much weight. I do not profess to he a democrat. It would not be any use trying to make people believe that I was one, and I am afraid that I entertain a profound conviction that if the country really wants democratic measures it would be more inclined to go to the Party represented by noble Lords opposite than to apply for them to this side of this House. My noble friend Lord Balfour puts forward this Bill as a sort of panacea, a modest panacea I admit, for all the political diseases front which we are suffering at the present moment. In the first place, this Bill is going to solve the Constitutional deadlock. Upon that point I own that I am in considerable agreement with the noble Lord, and I think that any impartial person will at once admit that his proposal is so far much the most practical that has hitherto been advanced. But this is not the only benefit which is going to be conferred by this Bill if it ever passes into law. It is going to restore the idea of our Con- 752 stitution—that the people should govern. It is going to make the House of Commons more careful as to what Bills it passes; it is going to be a check upon extremists; it is going to constitute a premium on moderation; it is going to establish fair dealing between the two Parties; it is going to prevent people being taken by surprise, and it is going to imbue Members of Parliament with a greater sense of responsibility. The multifarious benefits which are attributed to this Bill remind me of an implement which my noble friend Lord Wemyss, whom I am sorry not to see present, was always associated with in my mind. That implement was at once a spade, a knife, a saw, a razor, a chest protector, and a utensil upon which you could cook your dinner. The reception accorded by the War Office to my noble friend's invention was certainly not more sympathetic than that now accorded by the Government to Lord Balfour's Bill. When I consider the multifarous benefits which this Bill is going to confer upon the people of this country, I feel inclined to ask why it was not proposed long ago.
With regard to the history of the Referendum so far as it concerns British politics, the first mention of this nostrum occurred, if I am not mistaken, in that despised Report of what is known as the Rosebery Committee. The proposal of the Referendum occurred in one of the final paragraphs of that Report, somewhat in the nature of a lady's postscript to a letter. After that it disappeared from view, except in the columns of the Spectator and organs of that kind, in which its advantages and disadvantages were discussed at interminable length by professors and dons and people of that kind. It reappeared on the threshold of the last election, and now it emerges under the œgis of my noble friend as a full-grown article in the programme of the Unionist Party, and it is recommended by my noble friend and by countless speakers upon public platforms as being not only a solution of the Constitutional deadlock but practically of everything else. I must confess, and I confess it very reluctantly, that I have been considerably impressed by the arguments of noble Lords opposite. There is one argument, however, which they made use of which did not impress me in the very least—namely, that the Referendum if adopted in this country would sap the independence of the Member of Parliament. According to the fancy picture which is 753 habitually drawn of a Member of Parliament by noble Lords opposite—not, I admit, by my noble friend Lord Weardale—the ideal Member of Parliament is a proud, fearless, and untrammelled being, who is practically as free as air. I am not going to say anything half so uncomplimentary about Members of the House of Commons as has been said by my noble friend opposite, but I think I may say without any offence that this is an entire misconception of the ordinary Member of Parliament. Instead of being this proud and fearless and untrammelled being, he is, in many instances at all events, a well disciplined gentleman who is at the beck and call of the Party Whip, and who passes a not inconsiderable portion of his time in tramping the Lobbies and voting the salaries of gentlemen whom he does not believe to be any cleverer than himself, and to whose speeches he has perforce to listen in discontented silence. Further if he ventures to show any independence at all he very soon finds, as the noble Lord pointed out, that the House of Commons is no place for him, and unless he is lucky enough to find a University to offer him hospitality he has to seek a more retired form of existence. Therefore the less talk there is about "loss of the independence and dignity of a Member of Parliament" under a proposal of this kind, the better. I maintain that he would not lose any independence or dignity under a proposal of the kind, but I think he would lose a good deal of something else.
I cannot help feeling convinced in my own mind that if this proposal ever took place it would have a very unpleasant and possibly disastrous effect upon political life. Projecting my mind into the future, and assuming, as one ought to do, the worst—assuming, for instance, that the Parliament Bill becomes law and, that the Referendum prevails in this country—what will be the future of the Member of Parliament? He will, in the first place, have everybody in his division of the male sex over the age of twenty-one years with a vote, and in addition to that he will, in all probability, have a lot of females who will have a vote too, and much of his time will be passed in trying, probably without any success, to explain to these people how thoroughly he has earned the salary which they are good enough to pay him, and then he will have to face the contingency of several miniature General Elections during every session. It certainly appears to me from my experience 754 of political life that conditions of this kind will deter what we are fond of calling the best class of men from entering politics, whilst the voter, gorged and satiated with continual political discussion, will in all probability only be brought to the poll in the course of time by force, and it will be necessary probably before long to inflict upon him those penalties which are already imposed in other countries when the voter fails to take advantage of his power of voting.
When this Bill was introduced the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said that if both parties were agreed the Referendum might he taken at any moment on any question. There is only one question upon which I can conceive that there would be any agreement between the various political Parties as to the taking of the Referendum. That question. I need hardly say, is the question of female suffrage. I can very well believe that the various Parties in the House of Commons might combine to demand a Referendum for the purpose of jockeying women out of the vote, but I cannot conceive there being any agreement between the various Parties for any other purpose. My Lords, our great difficulty—when I say "our" I mean the Unionist Party—is that we have not got reasonable people to deal with in the shape of the present Government. If we had reasonable people to deal with something might be done under the proposals of my noble friend. If the Government, for instance, really wanted to settle the Constitutional question instead of settling this House, which is, of course, their object, the Referendum would gladly be accepted as a means of escape from the Constitutional deadlock. I am entirely in sympathy with my noble friend as far as regards this particular portion of his Bill. As a final resort for the purpose of settling disputes between the two Houses it seems to me a perfectly fair and logical solution, and I fail to see where the unfairness to either side comes in. But beyond this very limited point I, personally, am not prepared to go. I cannot get it out of my mind—noble Lords on this side of the House may say what they like—that the Referendum, applied as is suggested by my noble friend, is nothing but a sort of glorified version of that local option which we were always taught to believe one of the most pernicious proposals that ever was made; and when I hear noble Lords expatiating eloquently on the beauty of the 755 system and upon the benefits which it will confer upon this country and how admirably it will work, I cannot help also bearing in mind speeches made by gentlemen holding very different political opinions, who also contend that, worked properly, nothing would suit their purpose better. On these grounds I certainly am not prepared to commit myself without much further consideration to a measure of this kind, which may have very different results from those anticipated by its supporters.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
My Lords, as a new member of your Lordships' House I must ask for special indulgence on this occasion because it so happens that I cannot see eve to eye with the noble Marquess who leads this side, and I fear that if the Bill were taken to a Division I should be compelled to vote against it. I must confess that in coming into the atmosphere of this Chamber there is great relief in the feeling that there is no longer any Party force or Party Whip to whip you into the Lobby, and that there is freedom of speech. It is held by some noble Lords that because something may be said in favour of a principle, even if the details are bad, you should vote for the principle. I entirely differ from that view. Take as an instance the case of Home Rule for Ireland. I may be quite convinced that the idea of Irishmen managing their own affairs is in principle excellent, but if the Bill to carry that out is in detail full of things of which I could not possibly approve, then I hold that it is better to sacrifice the principle. As to the Bill introduced by Lord Balfour, I am bound to say that I have not found a single detail to which I am not absolutely opposed.
Opinion on the Referendum has grown at a most alarming rate, and it is interesting to review the commencement and the present position of this question. As far as the Conservative Party is concerned, the principle of the Referendum was not adopted as part of their programme until the Albert Hall meeting. Mr. Balfour then announced that the Referendum was the means he would suggest for getting over differences of opinion between the two Houses and for settling deadlocks. There is a great deal to be said in favour of the Referendum being used on those occasions. But it was pointed out, and rightly pointed out, that it would work unfairly for the Liberal Party, that as soon 756 as they were in office there would be perpetual Referendums, but that when the Conservative Party held office there would be no Referendum whatever. Mr. Asquith challenged Mr. Balfour to say whether he would subject Tariff Reform to a Referendum, and the reply given, I believe, was that he would do so if the Liberals would permit Home Rule to be similarly treated. The controversy did not go much further than that at the election.
This Bill, however, will carry us like an avalanche over a precipice, because now we have got a great deal further than that. By the main provision of the Bill—I refer to Clause 2—a Referendum can be granted if it is demanded by a minority of 200 Members in the other Chamber—a most dangerous proposal. I do not know the origin of this Bill, whether it is a trial balloon sent up to see which way the wind is blowing, or whether it is introduced by Lord Balfour of Burleigh as the result of his mature consideration and therefore is practically the Bill of a private Member. If it is the Bill of a private Member I can quite understand that in framing it the noble Lord naturally considered that in order that the Bill should be acceptable as a solution of this great Constitutional question it ought to carry the element of fairness to both Parties. I have no doubt he was confronted with the difficulty of framing a measure which would do this, and I therefore conclude that that is the reason for this clause. Not only was the noble Lord confronted with the enormous difficulty of deciding what Bills should be subjected to the Referendum, but with the equally difficult problem as to the size of the minority of the House of Commons which should be allowed to demand a Referendum. The noble Lord told us that he was not wedded to the number of 200. I think that is lucky, for I feel perfectly certain that if a minority of 200 Members of Parliament were accepted as the number the country would be in a perpetual condition similar to that at General Elections.
The noble Lord who preceded me referred to the question of Local Option and the direct vote, which has been opposed by the Conservative Party in the past. It has certainly adopted that attitude with regard to the liquor laws; and we have all of us appeared on many platforms and said it is a disgraceful 757 tyranny that if one man wants a glass of beer he should be prevented from having it because two other people say he should not have it. And that is still my opinion. If the Referendum is to be put into operation on every single petty Bill when demanded by a minority of 200, we should be living in a state of tyranny in this country which could not be supported by a free people. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour, said that he did not believe the Referendum would be frequently used, and that the 200 Members who could demand a Referendum would use that privilege very rarely and with great care. But I cannot agree. The moment a Bill is the least unpopular, I believe that enormous pressure will be put upon those 200 Members. It might, of course, be that there was not a minority of 200 in the House of Commons to demand it, but that is a very exceptional circumstance. It occurred but once in a very large number of years after the Conservative Party had suffered such a severe defeat at the polls. But even if the minority in the House of Commons of the regular Opposition was only, as it was then, some 160 Members, it would be certain to lead to log-rolling and to bargains with other Parties in the House of Commons. A Party finding itself in a small minority would certainly make terms with some other Party—perhaps the Irish Nationalist Party or the representatives of the trade unions—to obtain support in demanding the Referendum on reciprocal conditions. Therefore, instead of this privilege being used only on rare and special occasions, I believe that it would become a frequent practice, and be fraught with very great danger to this country.
And now that Peers are able to take part in General Elections and in electioneering, if this Bill passes I believe that every year, from the beginning of July to the middle of August, we should be engaged in something like a General Election, three village meetings a night, explaining to the electors what a disgraceful Bill it was which was being referred to them, or expressing our entire approval of that Bill. That state of things would be perfectly intolerable, and it would tie up all the electors of this country because there would be this frequent disturbance of things upon, in many cases, minor questions. To those who hold the view that this Referendum would not be frequently used, I would ask them to take 758 the question of Church schools. Let it once be known that a Conservative Opposition had allowed a Bill which dealt drastically with Church schools to go through without demanding a Referendum, and I am sure that at every Church door they would be pilloried as traitors to the cause, as having deserted their faith and religion.
I am perfectly certain of this, that if the Referendum is to be worked, it cannot be worked by any such scheme or proposal as that now before your Lordships. When we see the proposals of the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition with regard to the reform of this Chamber and the means for Referendum, it may be found—I hope it will—only to concern those questions and deal with those points where a deadlock has occurred between the two Houses. Although I acknowledge what was said by the noble Lord opposite, that there is less and less independence amongst Members of the House of Commons, vet I do feel that the introduction into our Constitution of the Referendum, to be largely used, would be a very grave danger, and would be altering the whole form of government under which we have lived for past centuries. I do not believe that a permanent solution of this problem can be found—and we all wish to work for a permanent solution—in any drastic or far-extending system of Referendum such as has been placed before us.
The noble Lord who spoke last from the other side of the House was strongly in favour of the Referendum. I rather agree with him from his point of view. I believe that a question such as Home Rule itself would be more likely to be passed under the Referendum than if it were hung up for two or three years, during which time it would be liable to be shot at and to have holes picked in it. I have always felt that if we could be sure that there would be some definite pledge, something written down in our Constitution to the effect that the Parliament Bill, if passed, was not to be altered, some scheme could be found to compromise on those grounds. But as one who was very nearly as long in the House of Commons as the noble Lord who preceded me, my fear arises from the system of curtailment of debate, and allowing measures of taxation to pass through the House of Commons after perhaps one week's discussion. One day you have the First Reading; the Second Reading takes one 759 day; for the Committee stage, one day; one day for Report, and in a week the Bill is law. Beyond that, I say that the Government scheme can be used, and can be made so that it would not be a delusion and a snare to the electors. If the Parliament Bill is fairly used and fairly worked, I, for one, would be more in favour of it than I would be in favour of such a Referendum as is proposed by this Bill. In conclusion, I do hope, when the Opposition Bill is placed before us in this House, that as regards this question of the Referendum it will only deal with those questions where conflicts arise between the two Houses, as I feel certain that if it becomes the common practice of Parliament to refer every petty question to the people at the demand of a small minority in the House of Commons. it will be the end of Party government and the end of freedom in this country, and absolutely destructive of all our preconceived notions of government.
THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE
My Lords, I understand it has been agreed that it would be for the general convenience that the debate should be now adjourned. I beg so to move.
Moved, That the further debate be now adjourned.—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, may I say a word on that Motion? I certainly do not intend to oppose it because I believe it to be the general wish of the House, but I hope it will not be understood that the adjournment of the debate means that the House will not again resume at a more convenient time the discussion of this Bill. It is perfectly reasonable that the House should see the proposals of the Leader of the Opposition before being asked to come to a definite decision about this Bill. I am precluded, of course, from discussing the merits on the question of the adjournment, but I would like to say that I should greatly regret if the House were to be precluded from seeing what Amendments would be made upon this Bill by those who are, in principle, in favour of reference to the people. Of course, the last speaker is an open and declared adversary of the whole scheme, just as some noble Lords opposite are, but I think it is only fair that those who are in favour of the principle of reference to the people as a possible means of solving some of our difficulties, should have an opportunity of discussing in detail the 760 provisions of the Bill and of putting down Amendments in order that we may see what the trend of opinion is. The question is undoubtedly one of the greatest possible complexity, and on that ground it is of importance that we should get to the Committee stage and see what the differences of opinion really are. Therefore though I cordially agree to the proposal to adjourn the debate, I hope it will not be understood that that means that the House will not be asked again at a more convenient stage to resume the debate where it has left off to-night.
§ On Question, Motion for the adjournment of the debate agreed to, and the further debate adjourned accordingly sine die.