HL Deb 02 February 1915 vol 18 cc413-20

My Lords, I have given private notice to the noble Marquess opposite that I should ask him a question to which I wish to add a few words of personal explanation. A good many of us on this side feel that at the earliest possible moment we ought to obtain from His Majesty's Government some indication of the kind of conditions under which our business in this House is likely to be conducted during the present session. Those conditions obviously cannot be normal conditions, and people are asking what conditions are to take the place of the normal conditions, and what is to happen if the official Opposition finds itself precluded from discharging the usual functions which an Opposition is expected to discharge. I think the public mind is a little puzzled. I see it constantly stated—it has been so stated in the last day or two—that the whole situation will be governed by the fact that the truce between the Opposition and His Majesty's Government still continues. We remember very distinctly the circumstances under which that truce was proclaimed. It was, I think, on July 30 that the Prime Minister made to Parliament his memorable appeal that during the grave crisis through which we were passing anything like acrimonious discussion of domestic affairs should receive no encouragement. We have never concealed our regret that in the session of 1914, towards the close of it, His Majesty's Government seemed to us to depart from the understanding which we thought had then been arrived at; and we are naturally anxious to know whether during the session of 1915 similar departures are to be looked for.

On the other hand, let me assure noble Lords opposite that we have no desire on this side of the House to break the truce or to revive Party hostilities. We realise very deeply indeed that this country is engaged in a colossal struggle, and that while that struggle is in progress we should endeavour so to arrange that our proceedings should be animated by a spirit of unity and concord. I think I am right in saying that in the case of the Parliaments of our Allies arrangements of that kind have been come to; and I noticed only yesterday that in the Dominion of Canada the leaders of the Opposition and of the Government have met for the purpose of discussing a plan for a non-controversial session of the Dominion Parliament. We want to know how we stand here. We want to know how we stand with regard to the terms of the truce, and what measure of responsibility we who are parties to the truce can be held to have assumed. Some responsibility we must assume, because an Opposition which desists from performing the normal functions of an Opposition does ipso facto incur responsibility for its conduct.

I will venture to run over in a very few words what would seem to be the obvious and appropriate conditions of the kind of truce into which we have entered. Such a truce would surely imply that the Opposition undertook to abstain from anything that could be properly called obstruction, and from any criticism opposed to the public interest. It would, I think, also imply that members of the Opposition should assist His Majesty's Government so far as persons who are not members of the Government and who consequently can have no voice in determining the policy of the Government can assist it by their co-operation. On the other hand, whilst such a truce prevails it would be expected that the Government would be absolutely frank and sincere in its relations with the Opposition, and would embrace every possible opportunity of taking the Opposition into its confidence. In the second place, it would not be unreasonable to expect that while the truce lasted the Government of the day should abstain from taking advantage of it in order to advance the interests of their Party in any way which would not have been open to them in different circumstances. We on this side are perfectly ready to be tested by those criteria. I think I may say with confidence that no one can point to any occasion since the outbreak of the war when we have in any way obstructed or impeded the legislation or the proceedings of His Majesty's Government. As to criticism, we have resisted the temptation to criticise although it would be idle to pretend that there have not been episodes when the temptation to criticise was not inconsiderable. As to assistance, His Majesty's Government have received the ungrudging aid of conspicuous members of the Opposition both in regard to Departmental inquiries and investigations and upon the public platform.

I turn to the case of His Majesty's Government. We very gladly admit the invariable courtesy with which they have treated us during these trying times. They have invited our co-operation, and it has been loyally given; and they have supplied us with information. My right hon. friend the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons and I have been permitted to see many interesting confidential documents, some from the Foreign Office and some from the gallant Field-Marshal who is in command of our Armies. But let me say—and let me say it as emphatically as I can—that in the case of these communications there has been nothing of the nature of preliminary consultation as to the conduct of the war or as to the preparations either for the naval or military operations connected with it. We desire, therefore, to emphasise the fact that we do not regard ourselves as having accepted in this respect any responsibility whatsoever, and we desire that that should be placed on record. I feel sure that the noble Marquess when he gets up will not complain of me for saving this, because he has said something very like it in his place in this House; but the fact remains that a letter which he wrote to The Times newspaper on January 8 has been regarded in many quarters as implying the existence of a somewhat different state of things. The noble Marquess will remember that he spoke in that letter of a kind of partnership between the Government and the Opposition, and suggested that the result had been that we had acquired a preliminary knowledge in regard to a number of subjects of the most importance. There seemed to be a certain ambiguity in that statement, and my right hon. friend and I thought it desirable that we should at once disclaim having had any such preliminary knowledge, at any rate with regard to the great measures connected with the prosecution of the war.

With regard to His Majesty's Government abstaining from taking advantage of the truce in order to push forward controversial legislation, I have, I think, already said enough. I will only add this, that if in our opinion there were in 1914 strong reasons why legislation of that kind should not be persevered with, those reasons appear to me to be very much stronger at the present moment. Neither House of Parliament is, in our view, at this moment so constituted as to be fit to take up questions of controversial Party legislation. I see it stated that of the House of Commons no fewer than 200 Members, of whom 150 are said to belong to our Party in politics, are absent from their places owing to the war, and in the case of your Lordships' House no fewer than 180 Peers are unable to attend to their Parliamentary duties. Those figures, of course, do not include the vast number of members of both Houses who are usefully engaged at this moment in work which, though civilian, is indirectly the outcome of the war which is now in progress.

My Lords, I have said these few words not with the slightest idea of suggesting that we wish to recommence Party hostilities, but there are certain things that we desire to make abundantly clear. In the first place, we wish to say that we on our side are prepared to observe the truce loyally. In the next place, we must add that we cannot altogether abandon our right of criticism. The Government may depend upon our using it with the utmost regard to the public interest, but the right belongs to us and we cannot abdicate it altogether. Then we desire to add this, that any assistance which we are able to give to the Government—and we are glad to give it—any abstention on our part from criticism of the Government, any confidence which we receive at the hands of the Government, must not be interpreted either in or outside Parliament as implying that we have accepted any responsibility either for the ordinary current business of the country or for the measures which are being taken to prosecute naval and military operations against the enemy. I do not think the noble Marquess will really differ from me in essentials, because he has, I think, virtually admitted the greater part of what I have just said; but I think the House will see that our position does lend itself to misrepresentation, and that it is most desirable that in the country generally there should be no misconception as to what our attitude is at the present time.


My Lords, first of all I hope I may be allowed to express very cordially, on my own behalf and also on behalf of those who sit behind me, our extreme satisfaction at once more seeing the noble Marquess in his place, restored, as we hope, to a full measure of health, and, as we have seen, with his power of Parliamentary expression altogether unimpaired. I have no complaint to make either of the matter or the manner of what the noble Marquess has just said. So far as regards the conduct of business, and so far as it is possible for us to look ahead, we do not propose to introduce any contentious business, but to confine ourselves entirely to such business as is concerned in one way or another with the prosecution of the war.

The noble Marquess made some observations upon the Parliamentary and political truce which is reigning between the two Parties, and he hinted—in fact, he stated—what has already been quite candidly stated by himself and by his friends both in and out of Parliament, that he considered that that truce was in some degree departed from by the action which we took last year in relation to the Bills which were subject to the Parliament Act. I have no wish to argue the merits of the action which we then took. It was due, as the House will recognise, to the different view taken by the two Parties of the effect of the previous passing of those measures by Parliament, and also of what the effect of action or inaction on our part would be towards producing the ultimate result of leaving each Party as nearly as possible in the position which it would have enjoyed if the war had not taken place. But, as I say, I have no desire to reargue this particular question, on which, I am aware, we are not likely to arrive at an immediate agreement.

I was grateful to the noble Marquess for drawing the very clear distinction that he did between co-operation with the Government on the part of the Opposition and any undertaking of responsibility by them. That is a distinction which I have always desired to bear in mind and to express, and I was sorry, after a statement which I made on January 6, that, as the noble Marquess has pointed out, some of his friends appeared to misapprehend the position that I was taking up. I was replying to an observation made by the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, who at that time was leading the Opposition, and I desired to point out that while he was quite accurate in stating that the Opposition underwent no responsibility, yet I thought he had somewhat overstated the case in describing them as not possessed of any information. These were the words which the noble Earl used. He said— Many of us—myself for instance—know little more about it [the war] than the man in the street. I do not complain of that. It is an indispensable corollary of the Constitutional system under which we exist in this country. I endeavoured, in answering the noble Earl, to lay some emphasis upon what the noble Marquess has mentioned to-day—the fact that certain of the most eminent members of the Opposition have been from time to time in receipt of information through the co-operation and assistance which they have rendered in different departments of His Majesty's Government. But I am sorry to say that the drift of my observations, probably through my own fault, was not very clearly apprehended, because both Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Mr. Bonar Law wrote to the public Press complaining that I had mis-stated the case.

In the case of Mr. Bonar Law he, I think, in his turn misapprehended what I had said. I had stated in the letter which I wrote in reply to Mr. Chamberlain in The Times that several of the leaders of the Opposition had been in receipt in this manner of information—more than one of the leaders. The word "leaders" may, of course, be used in more senses than one. Mr. Bonar Law took it as referring only to himself as leading the Opposition in another place and to the noble Marquess opposite. I had used it in the larger sense, in which the term is sometimes used, as including, roughly speaking, those who sit on the Front Benches in the two Houses. And the case, I admit, which I had particularly in mind, and the name which I had mentioned in the debates here, was that of Mr. Balfour, to whom I should certainly never dream of apologising for describing him as a leader of the Party opposite, and who has been giving to us the most unstinted and the most valuable co-operation in the deliberations of the Committee of Imperial Defence. That is not a case which I think ought to be forgotten. We are highly indebted to Mr. Balfour for his assistance upon that small body, and although it is quite true, as the noble Marquess has pointed out, that the information of a military character which he has received in no way makes him, or indeed any of his friends or former colleagues, responsible for the conduct of the campaign, yet Mr. Balfour's position as a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence is one which, of course, admits him to the most intimate knowledge of everything connected with the war.

I took note—and, of course, with satisfaction—of the categorical statement made by the noble Marquess that he and his friends desire to maintain in the strictest degree the terms and the spirit of the political truce and that they also desire to continue to render us all that assistance of which I have spoken. And I ought to mention that, besides those prominent members of the Party opposite that I have mentioned, there are others—private Members of Parliament and others—who have in their turn given the most ungrudging and unadvertised help in various departments to His Majesty's Government. I also take no exception to what fell from the noble Marquess on the matter of criticism. It is clear, of course, that the terms of the truce, joined to the agreed absence of responsibility on the part of the Opposition, render it proper and reasonable for them to criticise within limits the actions or the policy of His Majesty's Government, and I feel quite certain that both noble Lords and hon. Members in another place will continually bear in mind what those limitations are—limitations in the interests of the country, partly owing to the necessity of not stating in public a number of facts and circumstances which may be known in private, and partly because any excess of criticism is likely to be regarded outside as an evidence of disunion within the country. I should only add this, that while I am convinced that responsible members of the Opposition will fully bear these things in mind, I would beg them to remember that all their supporters outside, in the Press and elsewhere, may not be quite so scrupulous as they are themselves, and they, therefore, may in some cases consider it wise to abstain from public criticism which they might make in altogether unexceptionable terms, bearing in mind that similar criticism might be repeated in a very highly coloured form by some who do not entertain the same notions of moral responsibility that they do themselves. But, speaking generally, I thank the noble Marquess for the terms in which he has put his Question, and I hope he will consider my reply to it not altogether unsatisfactory.

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