HL Deb 03 June 1915 vol 19 cc5-12

My Lords, we are meeting again after the recess in somewhat novel circumstances, but I do not think the House will expect from me after this interval anything like a long or detailed statement on the subject of the war or of the Army abroad and at home. My noble friend the Secretary of State for War will, of course, when occasion arises be prepared to come down to the House and make a statement of the kind which he has made on previous occasions. But at present I will not enter into any of those questions.

There is, however, one matter affecting the war upon which I desire to say a word, all the more since during the temporary absence—which I hope will not be very long continued—of my right hon. friend Sir Edward Grey I have been deputed to undertake his duties at the Foreign Office. Since we last met a most important event has occurred in the intervention of Italy in the war. The Prime Minister has already communicated to the Prime Minister of the Italian Government an expression of our satisfaction and of our good wishes, and I have no doubt that in his place in the House of Commons my right hon. friend will make some further allusion to the subject; but I am sure your Lordships would not wish the subject to pass by altogether unnoticed in this Chamber. The Italian statesmen have fully described the reasons which have driven Italy to take this course, and it is not necessary to attempt to repeat hue what has been said with so much greater authority by them. But one is tempted to make one general reflection. It is this, that the intervention of Italy in the war shows that alliances such as that in which she was engaged, founded on political exigencies and not based on national sympathies or on the pursuit of similar ideals, cannot be expected to stand the test of a crisis such as this.

See for a moment what occurred. Austria, in determining to address to Serbia the Note of the 23rd of July which as we all know was the prime cause of the war, did not vouchsafe to extend to her Ally, I will not say the confidence which was demanded by the actual terms of the Agreement between them, but even the merest portion of information upon this overwhelmingly important subject, and we see what the result has been. But now that we are engaged in concert with Italy in this war, the connection between the two countries rests on a far firmer basis. As with persons, so with nations, there are some that exercise an attraction—quite independent of material relations or of positive benefits which can be conferred—depending upon character and upon individuality. For the best part of five hundred years Italian art and letters, Italian architecture, the Italian genius in general, have exercised a most peculiar fascination upon Englishmen. During the whole of that time we have never been drawn into conflict with Italy, although we have stood side by side on the field of battle. But, my Lords, that is not all. During the nineteenth century the noble struggles of Italy for unity and liberty were witnessed always with sympathy and often with actual political support by this country and by its statesmen. No more popular figure ever passed through the streets of London than that of Garibaldi after the Italian Liberation, and the successive Sovereigns and Princes of the House of Savoy have always won here recognition for their brave and manly characters—qualities which, as we know, are conspicuous in the present generation. I believe, therefore, that in this conflict in which we are both engaged the auguries are happy, and that the two nations may look forward to achieving side by side jointly a great final success.

To come nearer home there is no need, I feel sure, for me to speak at any length of the circumstances in which the present Government has been formed and which have led to the joint occupation of this Bench by noble friends who a few weeks ago I should not have ventured to describe by that term. The Prime Minister stated the general reasons which had actuated him in proceeding to take this step, and my noble friend Lord Lansdowne, in addressing his political friends, also clearly stated his view of all the circumstances; and therefore it is by no means necessary for me to utter my view of the situation, which, indeed, would be similar to those which have been already thus expressed.

There is one subsidiary matter on which I might be allowed to say a word. So far as Party politics are concerned, this House is now entirely composed of Cross Benches. It was thought by some of us that there would be a certain convenience and less disturbance of habits if we all retained our usual seats without making any change in respect of the formation of the new Government. But we found that in another place it was understood to be the simplest course that the Ministers should sit on what is ordinarily the Ministerial Front Bench, and that in that House right hon. gentlemen whose privilege it is to sit on one or the other Front Bench but who are now not actually holding office should occupy what in ordinary times is the Opposition Front Bench; and a similar course can, of course, properly be pursued here. I understand that in the House of Commons the members of the House, speaking generally, will retain their ordinary seats, no distinction of Party attaching to a particular seat on which a member sits. That equally, no doubt, will be the case here. But I think I ought to say clearly for the satisfaction of those who are not actually seated on these Benches that we shall consider it to be our duty, in spite of the fact of the disappearance of any regular Opposition, to afford the House all information on all subjects, whether immediately connected with the war or not, which can properly be given. That I hope noble Lords will take as coming from my noble friends behind me on this Bench as well as from myself, because it is quite clear that the formation of a Joint Government of this kind and the consequent abolition for the time being of Party might be conceived as leading to a possible withholding of that information which is due to the House as a whole. I can assure your Lordships that so far as we are able to compass it no such result will follow in this instance.

There is only one other matter which I have to mention. A Bill will shortly come up from another place dealing with a matter which is of more direct concern to the House of Commons than to us—namely, the re-election of Ministers, which, as the House knows, is obligatory on certain changes of office, and with which it is desired to dispense on this particular occasion. I do not know exactly when the Bill will have passed through all its stages in another place, and I am unwilling, therefore, to suggest that your Lordships should remain sitting until it appears. I think I may assume that the measure is not one which is likely to receive any opposition in this House, partly because we are not directly concerned with it, but more because, on the merits, it is not easy to see that objection could be taken to it even by the most factious class of politician, of whom I know no representative is to be found within these walls. Perhaps, therefore, I may be allowed to state to the House beforehand what the provisions of the Bill are, and in the absence of objection I will assume that the House can be kept and the Bill passed through all its stages to-day or to-morrow, as the case may be, in order that it may receive the Royal Assent at a Royal Commission which is to be held to-morrow.

Before stating the general effect of the Bill, perhaps I might say first what the existing position is. There are six members of the Cabinet who have lost their seats by acceptance of office. The position of my right hon. friend the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Lloyd George, is a very peculiar one, because he has been appointed to an office which does not yet exist and therefore his Parliamentary position is exceedingly obscure. He has lost his seat and he has accepted a new office which does not yet exist; he is incapable, therefore, of being re-elected to Parliament. That, however, is a position from which I hope he will shortly be relieved by another measure. The Re-election of Ministers Bill operates retrospectively as from May 1 last, and it is to apply to any future Ministerial appointment made during the duration of the war or before the first dissolution of Parliament which takes place after the end of the war. I think the House will see that this provision is free from all objection which anybody could be disposed to make to it on Party grounds. I hope, therefore, that this explanation will be sufficient to induce your Lordships to give us authority to pass the Bill through all its stages as is convenient. At the end of the Bill there is a short schedule, which I suppose is legally necessary, to the effect that the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds or of the Manor of Northstead are not offices to which this provision applies—for obvious reasons; because if it were made law that the acceptance of those offices should not involve a re-election it would be, I take it, impossible for any Member of Parliament to leave his seat in any circumstances whatever.

THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE (rising from the Ministerial Front Bench)

My Lords, a few days ago I should, I suppose, have been expected almost as a matter of course to follow my noble friend who has just addressed you with such observations as the circumstances seemed to me and to my friends to call for. But that is all at an end, and situated as we are at this moment I might, I think, have sat still and not attempted to say anything. Yet considering the length of time during which I have been permitted to speak in the name of noble Lords on the other side of the House I feel that I may, perhaps, be excused if I say two or three words upon this very interesting occasion.

It has seemed to me, ever since this war began, that events were moving steadily in the direction of a Coalition between the two great Parties. It seemed to me that from the moment when the official Opposition desisted from performing the task which properly belongs to it in normal circumstances, from the moment when it ceased to oppose or even to criticise effectually, from that moment something of the nature of a fusion between the two great Parties had become inevitable. That fusion has now taken place. I will not attempt to investigate the circumstances which provoked or precipitated that rearrangement of Parties. My own firm conviction is that even if the particular incident which brought matters to a head had never occurred the fusion of Parties would have taken place all the same. It was clearly required by the events with which both Parties were confronted. In these circumstances I venture to say, speaking perhaps for the last time in the name of noble Lords with whom I have acted for so many years, that we shall whole-heartedly give our support to the Prime Minister and to the noble Marquess who represents him in this House in whatever measures may be found necessary to bring this war to a successful conclusion. For myself, I should be made of sterner stuff than I am made of if I did not cast a lingering look back at the Benches where I have sat for so long, and did not recall with gratitude the invariable indulgence and kindness with which I have been treated by noble Lords on the other side of the House.

If I may pass for one moment to much more matter-of-fact affairs, I venture to express my agreement with what was said by the Leader of the House as to the best mode of dealing with the somewhat difficult problem of the seating of your Lordships. Like my noble friend, I was at first attracted by the proposal that we should all retain our old places, but it became evident to me that there were two fatal objections to that course. In the first place, it is almost inconceivable that Ministers who are colleagues and who are engaged in passing through Parliament measures of importance in which they are jointly interested should be, during the discussion of those measures, divided by the impassable barrier of this Table. But, quite apart from that, I doubt extremely whether the public outside would have realised that the Coalition was a real Coalition if they had not seen the members of the new Government sitting, as colleagues ought to sit, side by side on the same Bench in both Houses of Parliament.

I will say nothing more unless it be to associate myself entirely with what was said by my noble friend as to the adhesion of Italy to the cause of the Allies. I believe every one in this country will rejoice to think that in this great war our soldiers will fight in the same cause as the gallant soldiers of Italy, and it cannot be doubted that the adhesion of so important a Power will tend to hasten what we all so much desire, an honourable and satisfactory conclusion to this war.


May I put a question to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House? It is as to what arrangements will be made for the future to give the House information as to forthcoming business from day to day. The old custom was that the Leader of the Opposition inquired of the Leader of the House, and of course the information was given. I would suggest that one of the Government Whips, either at the commencement or at the close of a sitting, might tell us what the business for the next few days would be.


I understand that in another place, where, as nobody knows better than the noble Lord, a weekly question is always put from the Opposition Front Bench as to the course of business, it has been arranged that the Chairman of Committees should put that question. I have not communicated with the noble Earl who is Lord Chairman in this House, but if he would undertake that office I believe the solution would be a satisfactory one to us all.


My Lords, the noble Marquess the Leader of the House courteously gave us information that a Bill of some importance was to be passed through all its stages on an early occasion. I am sure we shall all concur that the Bill in question concerns another place much more than it does your Lordships' House, and that there is not likely to be any opposition to it. But on a purely technical point, I should like to ask whether it will not be necessary for the noble Marquess to move that Standing Order No. XXXIX be suspended before we adjourn.


I take it that the Bill will come up in clue course from another place and be read a first time here this evening. There will be a meeting of the House of a small and formal character to-morrow morning at which the Motion will be made to which the noble Lord has just drawn attention. A Motion for the suspension of the Standing Order will be placed on the Paper for to-morrow. The noble Lord is quite right in stating that without the carrying of that Motion it would be impossible to take the Bill through all its remaining stages at that sitting.


I should not have intervened at all but for some passages in the noble Marquess's first speech which seemed to imply that it might he contemplated to pass the Bill through all its stages to-night.


The noble Marquess was good enough to say that it would be the desire of His Majesty's Government to convey to Parliament as full information as they possibly could. I do not know whether that is a suggestion that the information will be forthcoming without the necessity of putting questions. I am sure it would be our wish in this matter to consult the best interests of the country, and to leave it to His Majesty's Government to afford us such information as they think it right to give. But I should like to ask whether the noble Marquess can give us any idea when lie proposes that the House should meet again.


I was going to suggest that the House should meet on Monday. The House of Commons sits on that day, and I think it would be desirable from all points of view that we should do the same. Perhaps after next week and for the remainder of the session it may be possible for us to recur to the practice of sitting on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays only.