HL Deb 17 February 1914 vol 15 cc220-9

had the following Notice on the Paper— To move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into certain charges and allegations made in the public Press against a member of this House, the Lord Murray of Elibank, and into all matters relating thereto; and that the said Committee be authorised to hear counsel and to examine witnesses on oath; and that the evidence taken from time to time before the said Committee be printed for the use of Members of the House.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, submits his Motion I would ask your Lordships' leave to make a personal statement, since in any case, as your Lordships are aware, it had been my wish and intention to make such a statement at the earliest possible moment. I am indebted to the courtesy of the House for permitting me to do so. It is not necessary for me to recapitulate the whole story which was stated to the public last year. The facts are known—there is nothing new to be revealed; and I can do no more than entirely confirm the evidence as to my share in the American Marconi transactions which was given by my brother, Captain Murray, and by others before the Select Committee of the House of Commons. Let me assure the House that, with the exception of the transactions concerning myself already given in evidence and known to the public, I have never been interested, directly or indirectly, in any form whatever in any other American Marconis, and never at any time in the English Marconi or in any other Marconi or wireless company.

I feel, however, that there are certain actions of mine which I should explain. Perhaps I may remind this House that, however open to criticism may have been my actions, the members of the Select Committee of the House of Commons and the members from both sides of that House repudiated the suggestion that those who had purchased these shares were guilty of any dishonourable or corrupt intention. May I remind your Lordships that when I bought these shares in the American company there was no suggestion against the bona fides of the negotiations between the Government and the English Marconi Company, and whatever suspicion may have been subsequently engendered either by rumour or public controversy it certainly did not occur to me at the time that there could be any doubt as to the propriety of my being interested in the American company. It was some time after the Government had accepted the tender of the English company for the contract—a fact which was published in the newspapers—that I first heard of the American company, and, convinced as I was that the American company had nothing whatever to do with the Government contract, it did not occur to me that my conduct in purchasing these shares could be open to blame. It may be that the name "Marconi," common to both the English and the American company, caused some confusion in the public mind, although there was in reality a clear distinction between the two companies. Looking back upon all these events I think it might have occurred, and ought to have occurred, to me that my action would be open to criticism. I deeply regret that I did not give more consideration to the matter and view it from all its possible aspects instead of merely in the light in which it then presented itself to me, but my error, such as it was, was an error of judgment and not of intention.

I now come to the other suggested ground of criticism. My action in having purchased American Marconi shares for the Liberal Party has been much attacked. I freely admit that there is good ground for criticism from those in whose favour the fund was to be used. I bought these shares in the open market, and, although not a Trustee Stock, I had every reason to believe that the purchase would prove sound and remunerative. I fully admit that this purchase was an error of judgment. I regret this purchase as well as the purchases on my private account, and, so far as in me lies, I have myself assumed the burden by taking over the shares at the price paid for them at the date of purchase, and, as the House will appreciate, at a very large personal loss. Here I must emphatically state that none of my colleagues were acquainted with this purchase. I never had at any time mentioned investments of Party funds to them. I must also say that I did not inform my successor, Mr. Illingworth, of these particular transactions or mention the shares to him when handing over in August, 1912, as in view of the criticisms which had then become current I did not feel it right to saddle my successor with any responsibility whatever for this purchase, for which I accept entire and exclusive responsibility. The only person I informed was one of the solicitors to the Party, in order that there should be a record of this transaction.

Further, it has been said that but for the failure of a stockbroker nothing would probably have been known by the public about the Party fund transaction in American Marconis. I admit to your Lordships that that is so. I must, however, remind the House that I knew in August that the Committee was to be appointed—in fact, I made the public announcement myself on behalf of the Government—and that my private transactions with my late colleagues would be stated to the Committee. I certainly never proposed that it should be withheld from the Committee that I had had transactions in American Marconi shares. If, as I was sure, there was nothing dishonourable in my private transactions, equally free from dishonour were the transactions with the Party funds. On reflection, I consider that the course of action which I took was not wise or correct, and I deeply regret it.

May I now touch this personal note and say that always amongst the deepest of my regrets will be the thought that my action should have caused any embarrassment to the Party with which, over many years, I have worked in such intimate relationship. There are moments in most men's lives, if not in every man's life, and more especially in the lives of very busy men, when all the possibilities of some action are not so clear as they become in a calm retrospect or under the light of a searching, and perhaps not too friendly, scrutiny, and I trust that those who may have committed themselves to strong, and, perhaps, harsh comment, will recognise that it is difficult to avoid making mistakes. The mistakes I made in both cases I freely and regretfully admit, but I venture to feel that when these mistakes are understood there is nothing in them which a fair judgment will hold to reflect in any degree upon the honour and integrity of our public life.

Perhaps I may be permitted to conclude by saying that, as it has been suggested that my resignation of my post as Patronage Secretary in August, 1912, was in some way associated with the transactions to which I have referred, I have the authority of the Prime Minister to inform your Lordships that as far back as February, 1912—before I had ever heard of Marconis—for private and business reasons I had intended to retire from active political life and had placed my resignation in his hands. I am authorised to say that it was in compliance, and only in compliance, with the Prime Minister's urgent request that I remained in office till the close of the summer session. These facts were known to many of my friends, including the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe. I beg to thank your Lordships for the indulgent hearing which you have given me.


My Lords, the House has listened with rapt attention—I do not think the expression is too strong—to the statement which the noble Lord has just made, and it is indeed impossible to exaggerate its significance and importance. The gravity of the matter is proved by the fact that the noble Lord should have thought it necessary to come down to your Lordships' House this evening and to offer an explanation of his own conduct, and that explanation may surely also be taken as showing that, in his opinion at any rate, the matter could not be left where it had been left by the Committee of the House of Commons which investigated it. I think the general feeling of the House will be that the noble Lord did well to come here with this explanation to-night. It would, indeed, have been impossible for him to ignore charges as specific and as damaging, not only to his own reputation but to the reputation of others, as those which were freely made against him; and I think your Lordships will also be of opinion that, in the first instance at all events, this House was the proper place in which to meet those allegations.

We take note of the noble Lord's desire to take this House into his confidence and the frank admissions which he made during the course of his observations. He told us that he realised that his actions needed explanation. He said that it might have occurred to him, and ought, indeed, to have occurred to him, that the part which he had taken was open to criticism. He expressed deep regret that he did not give more consideration to his acts before they actually took place. He admitted that the purchase of these securities for Party funds was an error of judgment on his part; and he concluded with the observation that the course of action which he had taken was not wise nor correct, and that he deeply regretted it.

My Lords, in the frankness of these admissions the noble Lord will certainly have the sympathy of your Lordships' House. But if we are to go further, are we in a position to say this evening either that the noble Lord's explanation was wholly satisfactory to us or that it was unsatisfactory, or, if so, what further action would, in our opinion, be adequate to the case? I have risen for the purpose of suggesting to your Lordships that it would not be fair to the House, or indeed fair to the noble Lord himself, that we should here and now pass judgment upon the statement which he has made, and I am confident that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, who will no doubt follow me, will not press your Lordships to arrive at a premature decision upon so important a matter. When we came here this evening none of us could have foreseen the nature of the statement which the noble Lord was going to make to us. It was conceivable that he might have come here to tell us that he was going to seek redress in the Courts of Law. Again, it was conceivable that he might have come here to ask that these charges should be investigated by his brother Peers. The noble Lord did neither of these things, but he has given us, and given us with some fulness, his own account of these different incidents. That account had reference to a number of very intricate transactions extending over a considerable period of time and to some extent not readily intelligible by those who are not familiar with what I would call the mysteries of Stock Exchange operations. I suggest to your Lordships that it would be unwise of us, having these matters in view, to declare to-night the conclusions to which we are inclined to come with regard to the noble Lord's statement.

My noble friend Lord Ampthill has, we all know, a Notice on the Paper asking for the appointment of a Select Committee of this House to investigate the charges and allegations which have been made against the noble Lord, and I readily admit that my noble friend's Motion, made on his own initiative, was a perfectly natural one in the circumstances. The course which he suggests is one which to many people would appear prima facie the most appropriate course in circumstances of this kind. But again, I say that even to this extent, I would prefer that your Lordships should not, this evening at any rate, finally commit yourselves to a decision. I desire very earnestly indeed that this question should be dealt with by your Lordships deliberately, in a judicial spirit, and if possible in a manner which will commend itself to both sides of the House, and I would even add, if possible, in a manner to which the noble Lord himself could not take exception. The questions at issue involve not only his own reputa- tion, but the character of his colleagues and the honour of your Lordships' House. We cannot be too careful in dealing with such an issue. For that reason, my Lords, I propose to offer no comments this evening upon the statement of the noble Lord, and I would appeal to my noble friend behind me and ask him whether, for the reasons which I have given, he will not agree not to press his Motion this evening but to withdraw it, of course upon the distinct understanding that it holds the field and that after a short interval he will be at entire liberty to bring it forward again.


My Lords, before the noble Lord opposite responds to the appeal just addressed to him, it is, perhaps, advisable that I should say one or two words on the various points raised by the noble Marquess. I need only occupy a very few sentences in doing so, because I think it will be clear to the House that I could not, even if I desired—and I certainly do not desire—resist the suggestion which has been made by the noble Marquess, that discussion on this important matter should be deferred for a short time, until the House has had the opportunity of considering fully the statement which my noble friend behind me has just made. I have no doubt that on both sides we shall be easily able to come to an identical conclusion as to when the further discussion should be proceeded with, perhaps on the motion of the noble Lord opposite or in some other way.

The noble Marquess has asked the House to suspend its judgment. At the beginning of his observations he stated that my noble friend behind me, by making the statement he did on his own account, had shown clearly that he thought that the matter could not be left where the House of Commons left it. That is no doubt quite true so far as my noble friend is concerned. But the noble Marquess, as he has himself suspended judgment on the point, will, I am sure, not take us as thereby agreeing that the particular course suggested by the noble Lord opposite in his Motion is the one which, after discussion and consideration, it may be most wise to adopt. Upon that we, too, should desire to suspend our judgment.

I am quite certain that nobody on this side of the House, including my noble friend behind me, could in any way resent or object to the reception which the noble Marquess gave to my noble friend's statement. Without expressing any critical opinion, I consider that his reception of it was as generous as we on this side or my noble friend himself had a right to expect. I am sure that we should all desire to fall in with the spirit of the appeal which the noble Marquess at the conclusion of his observations presented to the House—namely, that this question, or series of questions, which has not in all the public comments that have been made been considered in anything approaching a judicial spirit, should receive in this House criticism of a fair, even though it may be on the part of some of a hostile, kind, and given utterance to in the manner to which we are accustomed, in our belief in the dignity of this House, to expect all discussions of the kind to be conducted. I therefore offer no objection whatever to the form of the proposal which has been made by the noble Marquess.


My Lords, the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, has not convinced me that it is necessary to postpone my Motion. But let me say at once that I feel bound to obey his wishes, which are endorsed by the Leader of the House. If I rightly understood my noble friend, he asked me to withdraw my Motion, but I do not think that can have exactly expressed what he intended. I stand subject to correction, but if I rightly apprehend the procedure of the House, a Motion withdrawn cannot be revived. I imagine that what the noble Marquess wishes me to do is to stand aside in order that the meeting of the House may be adjourned and that the Motion may remain on the Notice Paper until a more convenient day. If that is the case, I am naturally in the hands of the noble Marquess, and I hope it will be convenient to the House that I should proceed with the Motion either to-morrow or on the following day.

But having said that the noble Marquess has not persuaded me that it is necessary to postpone this Motion, I feel under an obligation to explain why that is so. The only object of this Motion is to give Lord Murray the same opportunity as was given to his colleagues in the House of Commons—the opportunity which they themselves demanded, and which the House of Commons thought it right to give to them; and if I understood Lord Murray rightly, it is the opportunity which he himself fully expects to have, because in one part of his speech he stated "when these mistakes are understood." Clearly he was anticipating that a time would come when he would have the opportunity of "making the mistakes fully understood." Now, my Motion which stands on the Notice Paper does not ask your Lordships to sit in judgment here and now, and either to condemn or condone what Lord Murray is alleged to have done. The Motion has only this object—to ensure that an opinion on all these charges and allegations should be formed in a clearer, calmer atmosphere than that of debate in this House. The object is that the truth may be ascertained in the only way in which the truth can possibly be ascertained in this matter—that is to say, in some place where a statement can be made on oath and tested by cross-examination—and that the truth so ascertained should be put down in black and white in the form of a Report to your Lordships' House. If and when such a Report comes before your Lordships, then I should well understand a demand for more time to consider it before it was taken under discussion, but I cannot see why the suggestion that the truth should be ascertained requires any lengthy deliberation. Indeed, I had hoped that your Lordships had already made up your minds to give Lord Murray of Elibank this opportunity; for to do so would not commit this House to any judgment whatever on the charges and allegations. It seems to me, and it seems to those whom I have had the opportunity of consulting the only possible and the only fair course. But I am, of course, quite open to persuasion that there is a better and a fairer course, and if that is so I should naturally stand aside.

Surely, my Lords, there can be no two opinions in this House that these charges and allegations cannot be ignored without inflicting irreparable discredit on the House of Lords. They have to be either proved or disproved, and I do not hesitate to say even now that the statement to which we have just listened has not had that effect one way or the other. That is why I cannot see why we need hesitate to decide that the truth should be ascertained in whatever way may be most convenient. But since the noble Marquess and the Leader of the House wish it, I will, of course, not proceed with my Motion to-day. But I must add this, in order to explain why I think that the matter cannot rest here. Now that Lord Murray is in our midst we have got to express an opinion as a corporate body on transactions which have actually taken place and concerning which there is no question or doubt whatever—transactions which, whatever you may say about them, are in the opinion of the public at large demoralising to the Public Service, discreditable to the Government, and dishonouring to Parliament. If any one thinks otherwise than that let him say so, and let him see what people outside these two Houses of Parliament have to say about his opinion.

If Lord Murray had chosen to go before the Select Committee of the House of Commons we should have had nothing more to say. We should have had no right to say anything more. The whole matter would have been at an end, and he would have shared in the lenient verdict which was passed on his colleagues. But since Lord Murray has by the action of the Government, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, been transferred to this House, the responsibility is placed upon us of doing that which has been left undone. I am bound to say that if this House were to do nothing it is absolutely certain that your Lordships would be held to condone every one of the offences which are alleged to have been committed by the noble Lord and his colleagues. What we want is the opinion of this House based on a fair and careful establishment of the facts and of the circumstances; for that opinion will affect matters infinitely more important than the personal reputation of Lord Murray. The opinion of this House will affect great matters of principle vital to the good government and the welfare of the nation; and, therefore, my Lords, I shall feel absolutely bound to persist with this Motion without any avoidable delay.


I understand that the noble Lord postpones the Motion?


If that be the right form, yes. I move to postpone it until Thursday next.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion postponed until Thursday.

House adjourned at five minutes past Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter-past Four o'clock.