§ Order of the Day read for resuming the adjourned debate on the Motion for the Second Reading.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
My Lords, I have listened to all the speeches upon this Bill with the close attention that the importance of the subject and the authority of the speakers alike compel, and I believe that your Lordships will agree with me in thinking that the debate has witnessed some striking and memorable incidents. The subject of the Bill is one which for upwards of a century has been the cause of the most acute political controversy. It has often been the clearest possible dividing line between the two great Parties in the State, and it has not infrequently provoked the most serious and unfortunate conflicts between the two Houses of Parliament. In these circumstances it is surely a matter that is worthy of notice and is a most memorable thing that a life-long opponent of the very principle of this Bill—I refer to the noble and learned Earl, Lord Halsbury, and in using those formal phrases I trust that your Lordships will believe that they have upon 267 my lips far more than a formal meaning—should feel it his duty to sacrifice what must be the unvarying conviction of a lifetime to the urgent necessities of the public good. That spirit has also found expression in the speeches of many other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, was animated by the same feeling, and so also was the noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin; and indeed, my Lords, it would be, I think, an unfortunate thing if the attitude of such men should pass by unnoticed, or should be misunderstood or unrecognised by people who like myself have spent the whole of their political existence in actively advocating the very principles which they formerly opposed.
It is, indeed, a striking thing to find that the speeches upon the Second Reading have really confined themselves to three important matters. The first, that this is not a convenient moment for the introduction of the Bill; and the second and the third, questions which I think would more appropriately have been raised in the Committee stage, but have none the less been elaborately and exhaustively debated upon the Second Reading. I therefore propose to say nothing at all upon the merits of the Bill, because if argument of that kind were needed I should be willing to adopt the sound, convincing, and radical arguments that were advanced by the noble Lord upon the Woolsack. The question as to whether this is the time for the introduction of the Bill is another matter and a very important one. I very strongly take the view that if this time be inopportune it is because the Bill has been too long delayed.
The other day, upon a question which I think was raised in this House by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, the noble Earl the Leader of the House made an eloquent statement which expressed in better words than I can the sincere anxiety that animates every one in this country to secure that when our men return home they may find a home worthy of their reception. What, in fact, is the home to which they will come? It is a home that will be darkened with sorrow, that will be burdened with debt, that will be uneasy with unsolved questions of great industrial importance, and restless with social discontent. It would, I think, be a most grievous calamity, at a moment when it is essential that the energies of every man should be given to seeing how these questions may be justly and wisely solved, that 268 they should be once more turned back to the old sterile political controversies, and should be engaged in the old tiresome arguments as to what is the system of government by which they are to be ruled. The question that they will have to ask themselves, or should ask themselves, is how the instrument that shall be ready to their hands may be best used for the national good, and not how that instrument may be constructed.
I think, as I said before, that if this Bill errs at all in its time it is because it has been too long delayed. I make no complaint against the Government at all for that, because I know quite well the extreme difficulties that they have had to face in its introduction. But the position in which we stand is surely a very serious one. It cannot be safe for the country, governed as we are by Parliamentary institutions, that there should be no alternative to an existing Government and no means of challenging its authority before the country. An Election on the present Register would, in my opinion, be not only a gross fraud upon the electorate of this country, but it would also be a grave insult to those men whose daily heroism and sacrifice no words of mine, and no words of any man, even if he had a tongue of fire, could fitly value and appreciate. I therefore am glad, even at this late hour, that the Bill is well on its way to becoming an Act of Parliament, and I propose to trouble your Lordships no further with any discussions about the reason why it should now be introduced.
Nor do I think it would be right to attempt to deal with arguments that have been brought forward, urgent and eloquent arguments, upon the question of proportional representation. I have heard all the speeches, but there was only one phrase in any one of them that carried any conviction to my mind on that point, and that was the statement made by Lord Burnham, that he thought the introduction of proportional representation would curb the licence of a certain section of the Press. If I thought that a system of proportional representation would do anything to cheek the coarse and conscienceless invective against the characters of great public men by which certain organs at once abuse the liberty of the Press and threaten the liberty of the nation, I would be willing to accept proportional representation or any other system of representation that might be devised. Indeed, it might be possible to 269 have another system of representation and to adopt a system which I believe in mathematics is known as the differential calculus, which consists in a process of ascertaining the accurate sum-total of an infinite series of negligible differences. But I do not think at the moment that this controversy, which is clearly open to the Committee to pursue, need be revived.
Neither should I have added anything upon the other and, to my mind, far more important question of woman suffrage, if it had not been argued so exhaustively by the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce. He examined with great moderation and great skill what he regarded, as the case against woman suffrage, and I do not think it would be fair that those who, like myself, are strong supporters of their claim should allow his challenge to pass by without comment. It was difficult, when listening to the speech of the noble Viscount, to think that it really was Lord Bryce who was delivering it. To any one who knows him, who knows his robust and vigorous optimism, who knows that each year that adds one unit to the large sum-total of his record of public service adds also to his perennial youth, it seems hard to believe that we should have heard from his lips phrases which appeared to me to be far more consistent with the jaded utterances of weary and disillusioned cynicism. They have hoped for a new heaven and a new earth, and the old heaven and the old earth have still remained. All the great expectations of the past so ardently entertained have been doomed to disappointment. Disappointment awaits you now, what is the use of pursuing this any further? I agree. No great hope has ever been thoroughly realised, and I trust it never will. I myself should despair of the whole future of the human race, and I should think that I had misread its purpose, if I could believe that there remained anywhere a rest for the children of men, and that there was something the accomplishment of which would be destructive of all future effort for the future improvement of the race.
Notwithstanding what the noble Viscount said, I am quite confident that he believes as strongly as I do in the wisdom of the great maxim of Emerson, and that if it were not that he had been dealing with a subject upon which he appears to entertain some strong prejudices, as I should call them in any one else, he would have felt unwilling to use such an argument as 270 that. There is no doubt that no section of our people has ever been animated by the same high desires, by the same bright hopes, as those that stir and animate the women to-day, who are anxious to be allowed to take their full share in discharging the heavy responsibilities of citizenship. The noble Viscount went on to say that he believed there was no sufficient evidence of any real desire for this measure at all. When a phrase like that is used, it all depends upon what you mean by evidence. I should have thought that if over there was evidence in support of this demand, that evidence was to be found in the circumstances which we know. From 1906 until the present time this matter has been the subject of periodic consideration in another place. It is quite true that on one of the most recent occasions the claim was rejected. Rejected why? Not because the people who voted in that Division had any doubt whatever about the inherent justice of the women's claim, but because they desired to show, in the most public manner that they could, their profound disapproval of the crime and disorder by which that cause had been disgraced. On every other occasion largo and substantial majorities were found in favour of the measure; and on this particular Bill the majority, as your Lordships may know, was constituted by the figures of 385 in favour and 55 against. Of course, it is easy to say that no Election turned expressly upon this subject. We get once more back into the old theory of the mandate. It is perfectly clear that, excepting one or two immediate issues, it is impossible to say that any man was returned with the express object of securing a particular measure. But this at least is certain, that all the Members who voted in favour of the Bill had publicly expressed their approval of this principle, and notwithstanding the public expression of that approval they had been returned to the House of Commons. I do not know how it is possible to obtain any better expression of the desire for this measure than the consideration of such figures as those.
But surely that is not the only evidence which we possess. There are twenty-nine, large women's societies, all of whom, I believe, are united and unanimous upon this question. I will not read to your Lordships the names of all of them, but I should like to mention three in order to show the character of those unions—the National Union of Women Workers; the 271 Association of Headmistresses in Secondary Schools, and the Incorporated Association of Assistant Mistresses; and the Society of Registered Nurses. Those represent, out of twenty-nine, three extremely striking bodies of women who are quite clear about their desire to obtain the vote, and who, I can assure your Lordships, are smarting under a very considerable sense of injustice at the fact that it has been so long delayed.
Let us now turn from them to the men. There are 161 councils—city, town, county, urban district, and borough—that have passed resolutions in support of this measure. I have no doubt that some of your Lordships may ask, What has this Bill to do with local government? I think that is a very obvious and pertinent question; but whether it has to do with local government or not is another matter. The fact is that those bodies have passed these, resolutions; they have considered the matter; they are all elected bodies, and bodies upon which at least this is certain, that the influence of women is not predominant. Further, 134 different trade unions have taken the same step, and over 400 branches of those unions. Included in these trade unions are the National Union of Railwaymen, the Miners Federation, and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. I have taken those merely as three of the most prominent unions in the kingdom, unions upon whose good will and cooperation the country at the present moment so largely depends. I am not saying for a moment that your Lordships must necessarily accept views so expressed, but they certainly are views to which regard should be given, and they do most assuredly provide an answer to the noble Viscount who suggested that there was no evidence in support of women's desire for this measure.
Lord Bryce then proceeded to explain that there was no real reason for giving the vote to women. He stated that the laws were equal, and that women's rights were carefully and vigilantly guarded by men. I cannot help thinking that the opinions of the noble Viscount deserve to be discounted by the fact that he appears to have been unusual and remarkable in the women whom it has been his good fortune to meet. I must say that I have never encountered this large body of immobile, speechless, letterless women which, he said, represented, as far as I can understand, female society to-day. Nor do I know to what the noble Viscount 272 can be referring when he says that women do not attend political meetings. In all these cases, of course, one can speak only from one's own personal experience, and the noble Viscount, was no doubt speaking from an experience which must have dated before, 1906. I can only say that in my own experience—a thing which I always dislike to intrude upon your Lordships' House, but the necessity compels me—I have fought five of the most bitterly contested elections, and it was frequently difficult to know whether there were more women or more men at the meetings; in fact, so constant was the attendance of the women that I had repeated requests made to me to see whether it was not possible to take steps to secure, their exclusion in order that we might have those present who possessed votes. I need not say that I always resisted those requests, and in certain cases the result justified my action. Therefore it really is not right to assume that this vast body of active working women is content with a perfectly quiescent, news-paperless existence, and that, if they were given the vote, they would not have the faintest idea how to use it.
I think also that the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, about the equality of the laws need some little reconsideration. Are the laws equal as between women and men? Is it not true that if a woman dies intestate her husband takes the whole of her personal property, but that if a man dies intestate his wife takes only one-half, or, if there are more than two children, takes one-third? Whether that is wise or not is another matter; but to say that the conditions are equal is to say something which the briefest possible examination of the case disproves. Take the ordinary case of the descent of real estate. I say nothing at the moment to question the wisdom of primogeniture. An elder son will exclude a younger son, yes; but a younger son will exclude a whole bevy of sisters; and though if there be no son the sisters would take, yet if there were no sisters the property would not go to the wife, the dower being barred, for you instantly attempt to trace by some genealogical tree some paternal ancestor who may inherit against her. These may be laws of the utmost wisdom. I only say that they cannot be considered as laws which establish that men and women are in fact equal at the present time.
I do not desire to pursue it, but there are other similar rather dull and technical legal 273 instances which I could give to your Lordships to show that this equality does not in fact exist. But assume that it did, and assume that men were really the wisest and best custodians of the interests of women. Is that an answer to the claim of the women? If it be an answer, it is one which might very well be found on the lips of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Halsbury, because his view throughout has been consistent that a limited number of qualified and educated people are better fitted to govern the nation than the nation is fitted to govern itself; but how this answer can be appropriately found upon the lips of the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, is a thing which troubles me. I do not doubt for a moment that in your Lordships' House it would be possible to find twelve men who, upon hearing evidence and considering all the facts and the details, would be able to produce better and more skilfully prepared legislation than can be produced under our present system of government, But that does not prove that our present system of government is wrong, because there are two things essential in order to make government safe. It is not merely that your legislation must be prudent, but that your government must be secure. And if there is one thing that history proves, it is that men will not be legislated for; they will insist upon taking a share in the legislation for themselves; and when they grumble at misgovernment—as grumble they will until the end of time, whatever system of franchise may be introduced—they always like to reserve the right to themselves of saying that this is a Government which they will be able to displace. That is exactly what the woman cannot do. She is completely debarred from being able, by the proper exercise of the vote, to make her opinion and her influence, felt in legislation, and the fact that you might legislate for her is no answer to her earnest and passionate demand to be allowed to take her own share in the difficulties of the world, and contribute her suggestions to their best solution.
The noble Viscount then suggested that in many places you would find that women were inaccessible to the ordinary organs of public opinion, meaning thereby the newspapers. I dare say. But was that not true in 1884, when the, agricultural labourer was enfranchised? At that time, does anybody suggest that the agricultural labourer was in a position to obtain a daily newspaper day after day? I think that anybody who 274 has any knowledge of agricultural districts will know that their access to the ordinary public news at that time was extremely limited, and I am glad indeed to receive confirmation of that view from a noble Lord behind me. Many of the arguments used to-day against the women are nothing but a repetition of the arguments used in that day against the men—arguments which I was pleased to hear from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack might he regarded as entirely out of date. What is left? Why is it women are to be excluded? Is there some inscrutable decree of Providence which has inflicted upon the female sex an utter incapacity to know what they want and to express their desire through the vote? They may express different views from men, but it does not follow that man's view is right, or the best; and surely this at least does follow, that when you have this body of women anxious to express their view, it is impossible to refuse their demand excepting at the possible expense of creating such dissatisfaction and resentment among a very large and very valuable section of the population which I should have thought prudent legislation would try to avoid.
There have been many divisions into which this question has been attempted to be confined. It has been asked whether it is expedient or inexpedient, whether it is wise or whether it is foolish, but it appears to me that there is another great division—whether it is just or unjust. Is it just? At this moment we have 4,000,000 women who have incorporated themselves into the hardest possible work for the, national good, voluntarily. I agree with one of the noble Lords who scoffed at the idea that they had done so as a consideration for the vote. I believe that no such base idea influenced them. Their country was in need of service, and they gave it freely. Is that to be, used against them? Is it to be said that because they did not make a bargain the vote is not to be given to them now? It at least can be used for saying that they have as high a conception of the duties of citizenship as the men, and have been as willing as the men, to the extent of their power, to face its perils and bear its burdens.
The other questions raised upon this Bill I do not propose to embark upon, nor do I desire to detain your Lordships longer at this stage on this question, which must undoubtedly be fought out again in Committee. I have only made these observations for the purpose which I earlier stated 275 of avoiding its being thought that on the Second Reading of this Bill the attempt to reject the women's claims should pass by without challenge. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, in concluding the speech which he made upon the Bill, spoke in feeling terms of the fact that the old order and constitution of your Lordships' House will not long endure. I think he spoke with prescience, and he spoke with feeling. The feeling is one that it is easy indeed to understand. The constitution and the authority of this House is as old as our history, and through long unbroken centuries the name of the noble Marquess has been honourably associated with its work. It is not surprising that he should experience some feelings of sadness and regret when he regards this Bill as forming one of its closing scenes. My Lords, it is true. The old order is fast passing away, and no one can tell what shape the new order will assume. Perhaps, however, your Lordships will permit me, as one of the, youngest members of your Lordships' House and as one who has persistently and openly advocated his belief that change was urgent, to add that I shall always remember with pride the fact that I was privileged to take a small and an humble share in your Lordships' deliberations, and was present at the moment when peace was declared between this House and the democracy in the long-drawn battle of reform.
THE ADDITIONAL PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE ADMIRALTY (THE EARL OF LYTTON)
My Lords, I feel very diffident in following the extremely eloquent speech to which we have just listened, and with which I need hardly say I find myself in full agreement. But having taken a very active part for some years in the movement in favour of the political emancipation of women, I desire to lay before your Lordships a few arguments, which seem to me to be relevant to this stage of our proceedings, in favour of the incorporation of that principle in this Bill. I do not wish to enter at this stage into any small debating points, and I will try and avoid any argument used in the speech to which we have just listened.
I will come at once, my Lords, to what the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, called the only argument which deserves careful examination. The noble Viscount told us that in his opinion the women of this country were not qualified by the circumstances of their life, by their training and experience, to exercise the vote wisely, either in their 276 own interest or in the interests of the country. The noble Viscount then went on to refer to the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, and he argued that by these Acts the franchise was only granted to such persons as Parliament regarded as fit and qualified wisely to exercise it. It may be the wish of the noble Viscount that fitness to vote should be the basis of the franchise; it may, indeed, be his opinion that it is so; but I think he would find it extremely hard to point to a single clause in any of the Reform Acts to which he referred to justify that opinion. I have not the advantage of the ripe experience of the noble Viscount. I did not myself take part in the debates upon those Bills, but I have read the proceedings and I agree entirely with Lord Bryce that in the speeches that were made upon these Bills, both in favour and against them, the argument of the fitness or other wise of those whom it was proposed to enfranchise figured very largely; but it figured only in the speeches that were made, and no consideration of that kind ever passed into the Acts themselves.
Your Lordships may, perhaps, remember that in the years preceding the Act of 1867 many attempts were made in Parliament to introduce into Reform Bills that were then under discussion various clauses and franchises in order to ensure some test of responsibility. They were all rejected by the House of Commons, and when the Bills finally became Acts there was only one qualification for the voter (apart from a small property qualification which still remains), and that was the qualification of residence. Why, my Lords? Because our Parliamentary system and Franchise Laws are not designed in order to secure the best House of Commons, the most efficient, the wisest, the most patriotic House of Commons; they are designed to secure a representative House of Commons. Any arguments which ignore that basic fact are really irrelevant to this discussion. Now a Government may be good or bad, but it cannot be representative unless it is produced by some elective machinery, and when elected it is only representative of those persons who are qualified to elect it. Therefore the Parliaments that existed from 1832 to 1867 may have been good or bad Parliaments; they may have been very considerate or otherwise of the interests of the working classes of this country, but they did not represent them. In the same way the Parliaments that existed from 1867 to 1884 may have had scrupulous regard 277 to the interests of the agricultural labourers, but they did not represent them. And so at the present moment our Parliament to-day may, as the noble, Viscount thinks, be scrupulously considerate of the interests of women—but it does not represent them.
What is the object of the Bill that we are discussing? It is to ensure the better representation of the people. What is its title? Its title is not "Qualification of Electors Bill." Its title is "Representation of the People Bill." and if it should pass into law in anything like the shape in which it was first introduced, it will be the first Bill to deserve that title. Every other Reform Bill which has gone before it can only be called "Representation of Some People Bill." This Bill for the first time will be an attempt to secure the representation of the people as a whole. That, my Lords, is the theoretical argument for the inclusion of Clause 4 in this Bill. I will leave theory now, and come to facts.
The only argument that I have heard in the course of this debate—what I will call the only Second Heading argument—against the novelties introduced by this Bill is that which has been used by many noble Lords, namely, that the Bill goes far beyond the necessities of the case, and that this is an inopportune moment to introduce it. With regard to the latter point, I would only say, in passing, that to those who are in favour of any legislation all times are opportune, and to those who are opposed to them no time is opportune. I remember this argument was very strongly enforced on the first night of the debate by Lord Sydenham. I do not see him here this afternoon, but I would like to remind him that a short while ago he and I were both members of a deputation which waited upon the Home Secretary in order to urge upon the Government the early introduction of a Bill which would produce a very radical alteration in the Marriage Laws of this country, and that piece of legislation was advocated strongly by Lord Sydenham because he regarded it as in the interests of the country that it should be passed. I am sure the noble Lord will not claim that that would not have been controversial legislation, and he will hardly, I think, claim that it had a closer connection with the war than the Bill which we are considering to-day. For, my Lords, this Bill which we are discussing is vitally connected with the war; it is wholly wrapped up in the war, and it is certainly and strictly war legislation. That has been, I think, 278 conclusively proved already by the noble Earl who leads this House.
But I will give one other reason for the opinion which I have expressed. A reference was made on the first night of this debate to Russia. I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, who reminded us that Russia was the only Great Power which had introduced manhood and womanhood suffrage, and he said it was an example we should not imitate. Yes, my Lords, But does any one of your Lordships doubt that if the late Government of Russia, the Government that was in power when this war began, had found time to devote a few months to the consideration of a Bill of this character, Russia would have been saved from the humiliating spectacle which she presents to the world at the present moment? What is it in the example of Russia that we should not imitate? Not the fact that she has introduced manhood and womanhood suffrage, but that she did not do it in time. "Too late." is a motto which may be found written over the victims of every revolution. We do not intend that it shall be found written over the ruins of this House. The noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, said, What did it matter whether this Bill was introduced this year, or next year, or a few years hence?
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
Pardon me, there is an Act now which prevents so long a period as, that elapsing. It cannot be more than two years, I understand, after this Parliament ceases.
THE EARL OF LYTTON
True, but I think—I am in the recollection of the House—that the noble Viscount said with regard to the urgency of this Bill that he could not see that it mattered whether it was introduced now or at some future date.
THE EARL OF LYTTON
I do not want to misrepresent the noble Viscount. Let me accept his words. It is unimportant, he thinks, whether the Bill is introduced this year, or next year or the year after. All I 279 can say, my Lords, is that I thank God it has been introduced in time. I do not think it has been introduced a day too soon. I believe, with the noble Lord who has just spoken, that if there is any criticism about the period at all, it is that the Bill has been introduced only just in time.
I want to say a word about the work which women have done in the war. In addition to the four or five millions of women who are engaged in carrying on their usual industries and occupations, there are at this moment over a million women who are exclusively replacing men in the work which they are doing, or are now doing work connected with the war which was previously exclusively carried out by men. Your Lordships will probably remember chiefly the work which women are doing in the manufacture of munitions of war, but that is only a very small part of the war work which women are performing all over the country in countless different ways. I have seen them myself working in the workshops of the Royal Dockyards, helping to make guns, hammering out torpedo tubes, undertaking a whole host of duties, and engaged in work of a very manifold and arduous character connected with the construction and equipment of His Majesty's ships. I do not want to go through the whole category of work on which women are engaged during the war, but I think no one will contradict me when I say that without the services which they have rendered you would have found it impossible to carry on this war as you have done for the last three years. You would not have found the men, the guns, the ships, the munitions, or the supplies for your forces; you would not have been able to keep up the food supply of your population at home, or have been able to keep going the administration of Government.
What is the argument which I base on this fact? Of course, no suggestion has ever been made in any quarter that this work was undertaken with any expectation of its being rewarded by the Parliamentary vote. It was no more undertaken with any such expectation than was the work of the Mercantile Marine to which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack yesterday paid so well deserved a tribute. Nor are women asking for the vote to-day because of the services they have rendered in the war. They have been asking for the vote for the last forty years, and it is not suggested by anybody that the vote should 280 be given them as a reward for the services they have rendered. But the argument is this—that those who have seen the work which women have done during the war cannot any longer deny their capacity to exercise this masculine advantage of voting. I think in face of the facts which I have brought before your Lordships' House it is really grotesque for the noble Viscount to assure your Lordships that in his opinion women are not qualified to vote because the "tweenie" in his establishment does not read the newspapers. Those who have realised how vital and how indispensable has been the part which women have played in the national life during the war cannot, in justice, refuse to allow them to take an equally close share of the responsibilities of Government in times of peace.
Are you going to say to these women, "We refused you the vote which you agitated for in times of peace because we disapproved of your methods of agitation, and now that you have laid aside agitation for service we still refuse it, to you because we always knew you were patriotic and would come forward if called upon; therefore, your patriotism and services are no argument in the case"? Are you going to make this Bill the last word in electoral reform; are you going to make it the latest method of machinery for setting up representative government in this country, and at the same moment deny any distinct representation to the women upon whose patriotism, labour, and devotion to duty you are making such large demands at this moment? It is technically possible, but I do not believe your Lordships would wish to be the authors of an act of such political injustice. That is only one side of the argument; the side of the argument from the woman's point of view.
But there is another side to the argument which I think is stronger still, and it is the argument from the point of view of the State. I have shown, I think, that we could not effectually have carried on the war without the help which we have received from women; and we shall have to make larger demands and a further use still of the services of women before we can bring this war to a conclusion. I think it is no less true that we shall not be able to make the best use of our opportunities, that we shall not be able to deal with the enormous difficulties which will arise when peace comes, unless we are ready to make 281 the same large demands upon women when that time arrives. For just as this war has been the greatest; military achievement ever undertaken by any Army, so the work of reconstruction which will arise when peace returns to us will also be the greatest political work ever undertaken by any Government. Like the noble Lord who has just spoken I look forward with the utmost anxiety to the problems with which we shall be confronted when the war is over. And just as you have had to mobilise all your forces, call upon the services of your women as well as your men to deal with the problems of the war, so I think you will be well advised to mobilise all your resources and summon to your assistance, not only the men, but the women of this country if you are to grapple effectively with the problems of peace.
The only consolation I have in looking forward to the conclusion of this war is the feeling that, when that time comes, this Bill will be on the Statute Book. Therefore the Bill is not only an unavoidable consequence of the war; it is an essential preparation for peace. You may call it a leap in the dark if you like. The future is certainly dark, impenetrably dark and uncertain, and the only light by which we can be guided is that which we carry in our own hands, the nature of which was indicated to us by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—the light which comes from faith in out cause and confidence in our people. Guided by that light, we intend to go forward and shape our course from day to day towards the accomplishment of the purpose on which we have set our hearts. We mean to be better prepared for peace than we were for war, and this Bill will help us to be so. When I am asked why it was introduced at this moment, I say that the Bill is a trumpet call blown in the midst of the battle to the democracy of this country. It is at the same moment an expression of confidence and an appeal for help. To the 9,000,000 men and 6,000,000 women, if those are indeed the numbers that will be affected by this Bill, we say in this supreme crisis of our history, "We trust you with the destinies of this country; and as for the future, though we cannot see, we need not fear what it may bring, because we shall face it as one people with united efforts and with a single purpose."
My Lords, I do not propose to enter into the question of 282 woman suffrage, nor, like the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Buckmaster), do I wish to enlarge upon the question as to whether the present moment is an opportune one for this Bill. I feel very strongly that though this Bill contains many controversial points, at the same time it must be universally admitted that the present Parliament in the opinion of the public has lasted too long. I think that I might go further and say that there are many constituencies which are anxious to have an opportunity of expressing their views upon the conduct of those members of the House of Commons who represent them. While some of us might be prepared to argue that it might have been better if a year or two ago a fresh Register had been made for the old constituencies, coupled at the same time with some arrangement by which our gallant sailors and soldiers at the Front might have voted, still I think it is idle to argue now about what might have been. What we have to consider at the present moment is the Bill before us.
There are two points which I think may be referred to in the course of a Second Reading debate. They are important points, and they will demand careful consideration when they come before the House at the proper time. We are all aware that if the authors of a Bill, or the draftsmen, begin to hesitate as to how their scheme is to be carried out, they are inclined to resort to what is to them a very convenient thing, and to delegate it to be done by an Order in Council. In a Bill like this, which I hope will always be regarded as the carefully considered measure of both Houses of Parliament, we do not desire that hereafter any changes should be made to it by means of Orders in Council. The one thing that the British public dislike is that they shall be governed by a bureau instead of by Acts of Parliament. It is this government by bureau that has brought about the postponement of the Education Bill in another place.
Both Houses of Parliament, I think, are firmly determined that our soldiers and sailors shall have every opportunity of recording their votes at the coming Election. If you look at this Bill, you will see that an Order in Council is required to extend the time of the counting of votes. There are to be other Orders in Council regarding the question of area. If these Orders in Council are for some reason not issued in time there may be delay, and our 283 scheme for giving the vote to our soldiers and sailors at the Front may be very seriously interfered with. I am quite aware that Clause 35 states that any Order in Council should be laid before Parliament when it is sitting, and that, if Parliament so choose, within twenty-one days that Order may be negatived. But Parliament is not always sitting. There may be a long interval when it is not sitting, and it is carefully stated in this Bill that whatever is done under an Order in Council, if it is not annulled in Parliament, shall hold good, and cannot hereafter be negatived. It seems to me that the votes of our soldiers and sailors are too much dependent upon Orders in Council. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Peel, whom I should like to congratulate upon his speech, will look carefully into this matter, and remove the cause of any doubts that may exist in the minds of many that Orders in Council prevail too much in this matter of the franchise to our soldiers and sailors. I am quite sure that it is the full determination of both Houses of Parliament that every possible step shall be taken to ensure that our fighting men get the vote. If necessary, compulsory powers should be taken to see that this is so. There may be some hesitation, as the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury suggested, on the part of some of the military authorities, and I trust that any possibility of such a thing happening to prevent our men at the Front exercising the vote will be swept away.
There is another point, and it is this. I think that we have all felt that the greatest possible consideration must naturally be given to any measure that was unanimously recommended from the Speaker's Conference. I want to allude to one thing which did not have a unanimous recommendation from that Conference, and that is the question of the alternative vote. I do not wish to enter now into the merits or demerits of that question. The proper time to do that will be when it comes before us in Committee. All I wish to point out now is that the alternative vote has, to put it mildly, had a very checkered career in the House of Commons. It was carried in the first instance by one vote. It was then amended, but I think that Mr. Speaker had to announce that it was practically unworkable. Further Amendments were then put in, and I really do not know whether it is workable now. Whatever be the case, it seems to me that it is such a dangerous principle to introduce that it 284 ought not to be put in, especially as it was arrived at as the result of a compromise, or—which would be a better Word To describe it as the result of bargaining. I am sure that it is the wish of both Houses that when this Franchise Bill is passed it shall be one which shall do everything that is possible to prevent any corrupt influence or bribery. When a clause is put in which does lay itself open to the word "bargain," you are introducing a very dangerous precedent so far as future Elections are concerned. I sincerely hope that your Lordships will be prepared to deal drastically with this matter in Committee. I trust also that when this Bill becomes law it shall not only express the united wish of both Houses of Parliament but shall be a measure which will do justice to all and be free of bribery and corruption.
§ LORD STUART OF WORTLEY
My Lords, I hope it is not too late, before the final summing up on behalf of the Ministry, for a few words to be uttered on the Speaker's Conference itself, of which the House knows that I was a member. I support this Bill and I consented to join the Speaker's Conference because I hold very strongly to a particular principle, especially with regard to questions concerning the franchise and the representation of the people. I hold it to be of the greatest possible value and importance that questions of that kind should, so far as possible, be prevented from being manipulated by the transient Party majority in the elective House itself. And for that reason I think that more attention should be given than perhaps has been given in this debate by opponents of this Bill to the history of its genesis and the process by which it has been given the form in which it comes before the House.
This is a Second Reading debate, and there have been some speeches addressed to the main principle of the Bill. But the Bill is at the same time what may be called an omnibus Bill, relating to the extension of the franchise. Of such sorts of Bills it is by far the most comprehensive that Parliament has ever seen. It deals with the franchise; it deals with registration; it deals with the conduct of elections, with the boundaries of electoral areas, with women's votes, with proportional representation, with soldiers' votes, with absent voters, with conscientious objectors, with the Poor Law disqualification, and probably with other specific matters which 285 I may nut have included. Small wonder that most of the speeches in this debate nave been directed to what may be called matters for clause discussion in Committee.
Some noble Lords have complained that the Bill did not contain enough. My noble and learned, friend Lord Parmoor objects because it does not include proportional representation. The noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, objects because it does include female suffrage. The noble Earl who spoke from the bench behind me (Earl Russell) objects because it contains the disfranchisement of conscientious objectors. Just let us consider what are two of the main phenomena out of which this Bill arose. Let me take first perhaps the most significant. In all our recent strikes—and there have been all too many of them—who is there who has not observed how greatly they have sprung out of a widespread distrust of Government itself, distrust not merely of Ministers, but distrust of Government officers, distrust of arbitrators, distrust even, we may suspect, of trade union officers, and certainly distrust of all Parliamentary government. I think that something was wanted which should show that Government was not worthy of that distrust. Something was wanted which should show that Parliament was prepared to meet discontent half-way, and anticipate by reform a discontent which might by agitation compel us to take measures that we should regret.
There is another point of view—the Franchise Conference point of view. It is objected to this Bill that it is a breach of the Party truce. Well, how did this Bill come to be even thought about? It is just a year ago that the House of Commons was discussing the absolutely necessary matter of providing a Register out of which you could get, should it become necessary, a General Election which should make some distant approach to a representation of the people. In the course of that debate it became absolutely inevitable that you should be brought up against questions of something more than registration, for undoubtedly it is the fact that a great deal of the popular discontent to which I have referred arises from the fact that many and many a working man in this country say, "You give me the [...] with one hand, but you take it away by the residential qualification (practically eighteen months, and almost twenty-four months) 286 which you exact from me as an almost in possible condition of the attainment of that franchise." While discussing registration it was inevitable that you should be brought up against questions of franchise. Being brought up against questions of franchise, was it possible to envisage anything but a large and liberal extension of the franchise? Having your attention thus engaged, was it possible to conceive that the claim of women to share in the franchise could be excluded or longer postponed? And was it supposed that the advocates of proportional representation would not put in their claim?
I am not going to discuss any of those questions. If I do not discuss them, let it not be supposed that I am not an advocate of female suffrage—as I am; or that I am not an advocate of proportional representation, for I am sorry that it is not in the Bill; and let it not be supposed that I shall not support, as I mean to, the disfranchisement of the conscientious objectors, upon grounds which I shall give if necessary.
What I do want to do is to associate myself, so Car as I humbly can, with the elevated sentiments so eloquently given expression to by the noble Earl (Lord Lytton) who has just spoken from the Government Benches. Some noble Lords have said that if a Bill of this kind was brought in and I hope I have shown that it was bound to partake of this character—it would do two things; it would create discord in our ranks and dissipate the energy wanted for the prosecution of the war. The Bill comes before us as a piece of blazing evidence that nothing of the kind has happened. Far from dissipating our energy, far from producing discord in our ranks, it has provided for the whole civilised world the most splendid evidence of our national strength; evidence, too, that this country is still devoted to those political ideals which have placed it in the lead of all free peoples in the world, and is determined that even in the great discussions that are before us there shall be the fewest possible number of unenfranchised citizens taking part in those discussions and in reaping the reward which they so richly deserve for the splendid way in winch they have supported their country in this war.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, if there is no other noble Lord who wishes to continue the discussion, it is, I 287 suppose, my duty to make some observations in concluding it. This debate has now occupied several hours on three successive days. I agree with the noble and learned Lord. Lord Buckmaster—who opened our proceedings this afternoon with what I thought was a singularly powerful contribution to the debate, although with much that he said I was not in personal agreement—I agree with him in thinking that this debate has been conducted on a consistently high level, and that it has been marked by the dignity and seriousness of tone which characterises so many of the important discussions which take place in your Lordships' House.
I think that I have heard, with scarcely an exception, every speech that has been made in this discussion, and I note that these speeches reflect very varying attitudes towards the Bill itself on the part of noble Lords. There are those who have given the Bill a whole-hearted support. Among them I would specially note the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, to whom I have already referred, and the two members of the Speaker's Conference who have addressed your Lordships—namely, Lord Burnham, two days ago, and Lord Stuart of Wortley, who has just resumed his seat. They speak with the authority acquired in the Conference, and their support of the Bill in its essential features cannot, I think, fail to leave an important impression on your Lordships' House. Then there is a second class—those who have given a general approval to the Bill while they strongly object to some of its individual features, an objection to which they will, no doubt, find an opportunity of giving effect when we pass into Committee. Then there is a third class—those who have I damned the Bill with rather faint praise, who look upon it as a necessity, but who, at the bottom of their hearts, secretly regard it as a necessary evil. Finally, there is the class so well represented by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Halsbury, who regard the Bill with unconcealed dislike. That noble and learned Earl told us yester day that in his opinion it was a very bad Bill. I really did not ascertain from his speech whether the Bill was a very bad one on account of its particular contents, because, he did not go on to say. I was rather disposed to think that it was a very bad Bill in his judgment because it was a Bill for the extension of the franchise on a large scale. But, whatever may be our opinions about that, I am sure that there 288 was not one of us in this House who would not condone that hostility to which the noble and learned Earl gave such vigorous expression for the splendid exhibition of physical and mental virility which the noble and learned Earl showed us from those benches, and also, I may add, for the robust patriotism which characterised his concluding remarks.
I am not here to contend that this is a perfect Bill. There are certain features of it to which I myself entertain strong objection, to which I may have an opportunity of giving expression at a later date. But I am here to contend that, on the whole, with the reservations that each one of your Lordships is entitled to make on his own behalf, it is a wise and statesmanlike attempt to solve one of the greatest difficulties of the time. I am here, further, to ask your Lordships to approach the Bill, as indeed you have already done, not in a spirit of carping or ungenerous criticism, but in a spirit of magnanimity and toleration.
There is one misconception which I should like, in passing, to remove. Several noble Lords—I think Lord Halsbury in particular—have argued as if this Bill were a Government Bill in the ordinary sense of the term—that is, a Bill framed by the Government, or its technical advisers, and representing the point of view of the Government alone; a Bill upon which the fate of the Government depends. That is not the case. All that the present Government assumed was the responsibility of giving legislative form to the Resolutions of the Speaker's Conference, and, further, of placing a Minister in general charge of the Bill in another place—and how well that Minister, the Home Secretary, assisted by Mr. Hayes Fisher (who has a unique technical knowledge of these matters), performed his task was a matter of universal recognition in the House of Commons. I believe I am correct in saying that the non-Governmental character of the Bill was demonstrated by the fact that in the greater part of the discussions in another place no pressure whatever was put upon hon. Members to vote in this or in that direction. They voted as they pleased. Certainly on the two most controversial subjects which are raised by the Bill—namely, those of woman suffrage and proportional representation—no such compulsion existed, and hon. Members in the other House were just as free to vote according to their views or 289 convictions as will your Lordships be when you reach the Committee stage in this House. The fact is that the Bill has never been regarded, at any rate by us, and I do not think by anybody else, as a Government Bill in the ordinary sense of the term It is rather a Parliament Bill, a People's Bill, a Nation's Bill, in which the Government have given such assistance as they can to enable Parliament and the people at large to carry into effect the views which at any rate a very large number of them are believed to hold.
In the course of this discussion several misconceptions of the position and attitude of the Government have been noted. I am sorry that the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, is not in his place, but there were two points raised by him on which I should like to say a word in reply. Both the noble Marquess and Lord Halsbury, and also the noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, who sits opposite me, argued throughout their speeches that this was an ill-digested measure which was being thrust, almost as it were by a ramrod, down the throats of Parliament. And Lord Salisbury said that Parliament had been suddenly presented with a vast congeries of Bills which the Government were trying to "smuggle" through the two Houses of Parliament. What are the facts? It was in August, 1916, that Mr. Walter Long, then the President of the Local Government Board, in a debate in another place upon the Second Heading of the Special Register Bill—the Bill so often mentioned here, which had a somewhat unfortunate fate—threw out the idea, with, of course, the authority of the Government, that the whole of the question of electoral reform might profitably be reviewed by a powerful and impartial Committee. That view was espoused in the discussion by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith. It was received, I ask noble Lords to note, with universal favour both in Parliament and in the country; and it was in consequence of that, the assistance of Mr. Speaker having been invoked and having in the most patriotic spirit been given, that the Conference proceeded to meet in the month of October, 1916. The Conference continued to sit in the succeeding months, and the date of its Report is at the end of January, 1917. In the month of February the Report was in the hands of the public and of Parliament. And let me remind your Lordships of this—in answer to the suggestion that this Bill has been suddenly introduced to or pressed 290 upon Parliament—that on March 28, 1917, Mr. Asquith, no longer Prime Minister but Leader of the Opposition, moved a Resolution in the House of Commons conveying the thanks of Parliament to Mr. Speaker and to his Conference, and calling upon the Government to introduce legislation in accordance with the findings of that Conference. That Motion was carried by 341 to 62. The Bill was introduced, and passed its Second Reading on May 23 of the present year by a majority of 329 to 40; and it passed its Third Reading without a Division on December 6 last.
The noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, in his speech yesterday, spoke of an ideal, to which we had failed to subscribe, of a previous Reform Bill—I think he must have been referring to that of 1867, which occupied six months, from February to August, in its passage through another place. That is exactly the period that has been occupied by the present Bill—six months from May to December. Finally, the Bill comes to your Lordships' House. Are we really to be asked, in view of this calendar which I have placed before your Lordships, to deal with this as a Bill which has suddenly been presented to Parliament, or as a Bill which the Government are trying to smuggle through its various stages here? I have always understood that the operations of the smuggler were in the first place clandestine; secondly, that they were pursued with as much haste as possible; and, thirdly, that they as a rule involved some direct evasion of the obligations imposed by the law. I fail to see that in any of these particulars we are open to the charge of having done anything to smuggle this Bill through Parliament.
As Lord Stuart of Wortley indicated, your Lordships' House is the last body of persons who have any right to complain of the introduction of a Bill of this nature. Before coming here I looked up what passed in this House on the Report of the Speaker's Conference. I find that, the Report having been in the hands of noble Lords in February, the first discussion took place on March 8, 1917, and on that occasion the three noble Lords in this House who had seats in the Conference—Lord Burnham, Lord Stuart of Wortley, and Lord Southwark—all called upon the Government to draft a Bill and to present it to Parliament at once. That was the occasion when my noble friends opposite—Lord Salisbury and Lord Chaplin, with 291 Lord Sydenham—if they had an objection to the introduction of legislation of this sort, ought to have risen and warned or censured the Government. They were silent. Not a word did they utter. In the discussion the whole sense of the House was in favour of immediate action by the Government in accordance with the findings of the Conference.
Further, my Lords, on the subject of the action of your Lordships' House, could anything less hasty be imagined than the proceedings upon which we are now engaged and which we contemplate in connection with the treatment of this Bill? We had a full exposition of the features of the Bill, on the First Heading, by my noble friend Viscount Peel. A week elapsed. Your Lordships then took the Second Reading. You have had three days for the Second Reading. You might have had more if you had chosen. You are now going into the country for the holidays, where ample opportunities will present themselves for considering what you propose to do at a later stage. Three weeks are to be passed in that operation, and then we shall come back and take the Committee stage. No restriction will be placed upon you in the Committee stage, and you will conduct the proceedings in the manner you choose. Therefore as regards this House it does not seem to me that any charge that there has been undue haste, or pressure, or compulsion, can be sustained.
There was one other point made by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, to which I should like to refer, because it enables me to pay what I consider to be a well-deserved and necessary compliment. The noble Marquess spoke of this Bill and of the enormous number of pages of print which it occupies. I am astonished at their fewness. This great Bill, dealing with all these questions, is actually compressed within thirty-nine pages of print, and the remainder of this somewhat bulky Paper which we have in our hands is occupied for the most part with Schedules covering 100 pages of print, of which eighty-six refer to the redistribution scheme. There has never been a more remarkable feat of concise drafting in the history of Parliamentary draftsmanship, and the credit for it lies—I am glad to be able to say it in his presence—with the distinguished official [Sir Arthur Thring] who now sits at my right hand, at the Table of your Lordships' House.
292 Lord Salisbury further twitted the Government with their fondness for Committees, Conferences, and Conventions, meaning thereby, I suppose, in some way or other to disparage Mr. Speaker's Conference. I should like to say, with regard to these Committees, Conventions, Conferences, and so forth, that they are the only instruments by which, with a small and over-burdened Cabinet, you can possibly effectively conduct the business of this war. If it were not for these Committees, Conventions, and Conferences, we could not carry on from week to week, and I resent any disparagement of their work when I know well from experience how many men, not merely the ordinary politician but men with large stakes in the life of the country and large business interests and with immense personal pre-occupations, have devoted their whole time and abilities to carrying on the work of Government by means of Committees. That is their contribution. They are not in the Government but they are just as much subserving the purpose of the war by acting upon Committees as any of us who are in the inner circle of the Cabinet. And I would point out to Lord Salisbury that he is the last person who should level that taunt against us, because there has been no more valuable member of Committees than Lord Salisbury himself. If he entertained this objection, why was he willing to serve upon the Speaker's Conference? We had him as Chairman of the Central Tribunal for dealing with claims for exemption, and he is also on the Reconstruction Committee, and along with many other members of your Lordships' House he has been engaged in this respect in placing his services at the disposal of the nation.
I pass to another charge which has been made frequently with emphasis, but, as I think, with great injustice, against the Government in connection with this Bill—that is, the charge that in asking the assent of Parliament to a measure of this kind we are breaking some pledge entered into by the Government. Lord Halsbury, although he used very strong language in the greater part of his speech, spoke of this alleged pledge not as a treaty but as an understanding, but Lord Chaplin was much more precise and definite. Two or three times he spoke of a pledge "solemnly given" which "cannot be denied," and which he accused us of violating. Where is this pledge, and to what is he referring? I have made search of everything said by 293 this Government and its predecessor and by the one before, because there have been three Governments since the war, and what does it all amount to? On February 2, 1915, in Mr. Asquith's Government, the noble Marquess who is now the Leader of the Opposition spoke as follows on behalf of that Government—So far as regards the conduct of business, and so fur 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.On the succeeding day, February 3, 1915—that undertaking was repeated in almost identical language by Mr. Asquith, the then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons, and in the remarks with which they were followed by Mr. Bonar Law, then Leader of the Opposition, the latter statesman accepted the declaration of the Prime Minister. That is the pledge to which the noble Viscount refers, and it is the only pledge, if it is a pledge, to which he can possibly allude. No such pledge was given by the Coalition Government which succeeded Mr. Asquith, and no such pledge was given in any form by the present Government, for which alone, I must remind the noble Viscount, I stand here to speak in the House this afternoon.
Now, my Lords, are we to be told that a Government is to be bound by the pledges given, not by its immediate predecessor but by its predecessor last but one? The answer to that has been given on a previous occasion in your Lordships' House very effectively by Lord Buckmaster. I should like to read what he said. It was in a speech that he delivered on the Enemies Titles Bill. He said—No manner of responsibility is cast upon the present Government by what was done by the late Government—That was the Coalition Government—and I am sure that the noble Earl—That was myself—would himself be the first to repudiate the idea that any pledge given by the late Government, however solemn and however important, bound the present Government.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I know that that represents the view of the noble and learned Lord, and I believe it to be the sound and constitutional view; and 294 although I do not desire to lay particular stress upon it, I do feel entitled to make these remarks in answer to what was so repeatedly said by the noble Viscount (Lord Chaplin) and about which I feel extremely sensitive, when he more than once accused the Government of what amounted to a breach of faith in bringing this Bill before Parliament.
There is another category of noble Lords who, without charging us with a breach of faith, have nevertheless argued that a great war is a most unsuitable time for dealing with legislation of this description. Lord Sydenham, for instance, quoted the speech of Mr. Asquith on February 3, 1915, to which I have referred, and in which Mr. Asquith said—It would not only be idle, I think it would be offensive to the good sense of the nation, to proceed at such a time with controversial legislation.Yes, my Lords, but what did the same statesman, Mr. Asquith, say nearly two years later, after Mr. Speaker's Conference had reported?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
On March 28, 1917, in another place. He was alluding to the agreement arrived at by Mr. Speaker's Conference, and he said—This is one of the most remarkable concordats in our political history. In my opinion it would not only be folly, but it would be something like criminal folly, if we were to throw away such a unique opportunity. None of us, it is true, wishes to distract attention from the war, or to divert energies which ought to be concentrated upon it to purely domestic concerns. But in that connection there are two things which ought to be remembered. The first is that it is a matter which in one form or another we cannot avoid during the war.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
May I be permitted for one moment to say that I most certainly do not want to accuse the noble Earl or any one else of breaking pledges. First of all, I think I used the expression "Party pledges," but that is neither here nor there. These speeches which the noble Earl has quoted have no reference to what I said. What I said was this. I did not take my seat here until 1916, some period after I had vacated my seat in the House of Commons. I referred entirely to what was the clear and unmistakable understanding at that time, according to the very words quoted from Mr. Asquith by the noble Earl. 295 My statements were made entirely in reference to that period. That is all the charge I made.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Very well. The charge made by the noble Viscount is clearly a charge against the last Government but one. It is not a charge against this Government, and consequently I am absolved from answering him; still less is it a charge against the Coalition Government of which I was a member, and therefore we may dismiss the matter. I hope that in the subsequent stages of this Bill we shall not have, either from the noble Viscount or from any one else, any charge that there has been a departure from or rupture of—I do not care twopence for the distinction between the words—any pledges, or undertakings, or understandings entered into by the Government for which I have the honour to speak in your Lordships' House.
But, my Lords, is it not the case, and must we not all recognise, just as Mr. Asquith recognised in the speech to which I have referred, that, pledge or no pledge, the whole situation has altered since then, and that undertakings entered into three and a-half years ago could not possibly be held to be binding on the Government at the present time? What I said a little while ago is surely quite true, that when this war was entered upon not one man in five hundred, not one man in five thousand, expected it to last to the fourth year; and the fact that Lord Kitchener, speaking from this Bench, said that he had accepted office as Secretary of State for War for three years or such less period as the war might last, is really not fairly to be twisted either into the proposition that he foresaw a war lasting into the fourth year, or, if he had the prescience to do so, that every one else agreed with him. It is notorious that this was not the case. May we not boldly recognise the fact that we are not now living, speaking, acting in the month of August, 1914? We are living, speaking, and acting in the month of December, 1917. Vast changes have swept over the whole scene, and it is not statesmanlike to shut your eyes and imagine that you are living in a past which has passed away for ever.
And, my Lords, might I—it is only a passing observation—point out to the noble Viscount who is so much vexed at the prospect of any controversial legislation being introduced in your Lordships' House, 296 that a little later in the same speech he was to be found complaining bitterly that the present Government had taken no steps to carry out Mr. Asquith's famous promise in the Preamble to the Parliament Bill, and to introduce—I hope not to smuggle through Parliament—legislation dealing with the reform of your Lordships' House. The noble Viscount, I think, did not altogether remember that we are actually engaged upon that task.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
A Conference has been set up to deal with it, and no doubt the proceedings of that Conference will come in due course before your Lordships' House. I was, I must confess, a little amused that the noble Viscount should press us earnestly for the introduction of this measure than which a more controversial matter cannot possibly be conceived.
There are other forms which this line of criticism has taken, to which I need only briefly allude in passing. One was the contention of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, based upon the obiter dictum of some anonymous writer in The Times newspaper, that pressing war questions had to be thrown on one side until this Reform Bill was out of the way. He assumed that it had been constantly engaging the attention of the Cabinet, and that people like myself, who ought to be busy about the war, were really consumed in wrangling about the Representation of the People Bill. My Lords, that picture has no corroboration in fact. This Bill was based on the findings of the Speaker's Conference. We accepted those findings. We did not trouble ourselves further about them. And as to the House of Commons, I cannot conceive anything worse than that that House should devote itself with uncontrolled energy to the discussion, every hour of every day, of the purposes and conduct of the war. I do not know that the proceedings in another place at Question time give us any great confidence in the manner in which they would discharge that responsibility. For my own part I cannot imagine anything better than that, in the intervals of discussing the war and not always in assisting the efforts of those who are trying to carry it on, space and time should have been found in that place for the consideration of an 297 important legislative proposal of this description.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, while admitting the need for this Bill, asked why we had not confined it within what he called necessary and inevitable limits. I wondered what those "necessary and inevitable limits" were, and I regret that the noble Viscount did not inform us. Would he have had us provide an extension of the franchise and not provide for a Register? But it was out of the absence of a Register, out of the intolerable staleness of the present Register, that the whole question arose. Would he have had us deal with the franchise and the Register and omit altogether the correction of those minor anomalies and abuses connected with the method and the cost of Elections about which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack discoursed so powerfully yesterday afternoon? If you deal with the question of the franchise, you cannot ignore the question of a new Register; while redistribution is the inevitable concomitant to an extension of the franchise. No one knows that better than your Lordships' House. In the year 1885 you declined to pass a Reform Bill because it was unaccompanied by redistribution.
But the franchise, the Register, the other anomalies, and redistribution, are the substance, and almost the whole substance, of this Bill. How truly it has been more than once stated in this debate that each one of these stages flows from the other. You begin by enfranchising a large number of men, and by adding them to the Register; that is the basis and fulcrum of the Bill. Then you come to the question of the soldiers and sailors—the unanimous desire of the nation—and when you mention sailors you cannot forget the gallant fellows of the Mercantile Marine. When you have dealt with the Army, the Navy, and the Mercantile Marine, you suddenly remember that millions of people are engaged on munition work. You take the munition workers and embrace them also; you find that many of them are women. Whatever your views may be about female suffrage, you cannot help remembering that many are women, and therefore women come in. The truth is, the moment you introduce a new qualification and deal with this question you have opened a door which it is impossible to shut; and, as far as I can see, the only feature in this Bill which would satisfy 298 the definition of the noble Viscount (Lord Bryce) as not inevitable and as not necessary, strongly as many people are in favour of it, is the question of proportional representation.
§ VISCOUNT BRYCE
May I say to the noble Earl that I remain of the same opinion. I regard the question of women at the moment as entirely separate from all the others. I will say no more than that, because we shall have an opportunity of referring to it in Committee.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I agree with the noble Viscount on that point. I hope I have said enough to convince the House that, one by one, each of these main features of the Bill flows inevitably and indispensably from the other, and that, whatever may be the final decision of Parliament, there was no alternative but to submit the whole to the judgment of both Houses.
May I add one other word? Let us suppose there had been no Speaker's Conference, no agreement at the Speaker's Conference, and, in consequence, no Bill introduced into Parliament. Let us suppose we had then proceeded with our Special Register Bill, or, that having failed, the Government had been compelled, as they would have been compelled, to introduce another Register Bill in its place. Do you imagine that you would have escaped these additional controversies? Every one would have been raised in Amendments—sailors, soldiers, women, munition workers, proportional representption; every one would have been raised, and you would have had exactly the same complaint as now. Therefore to charge the Government with responsibilities which must have been incurred in any case does not seem to me to be altogether fair.
Not only do I challenge the argument that has been advanced, but I go much farther than any speaker, except Lord Lytton, has done in this debate. I argue that there never has been a time, and it is impossible to imagine a time, more favourable for dealing with this important matter than during the progress of a great war. That may sound a paradox. Let me explain what I mean. Do you imagine for a moment that any Speaker's Conference could have been held, or, if it had been held, would have resulted in an agreement under the ordinary conditions of Parliamentary 299 life? No. It was because the war was going on that the Conference could be summoned and could come to an agreement. Imagine what would happen in ordinary times of peace. Look at what has happened on previous occasions—1832, 1867, 1884 and 1885; a whole session, and sometimes more than a session, has been devoted to this internecine conflict, and very likely a General Election forced upon it. There is an enormous and useless consumption of energy and money and time.
I ask you to contemplate another contintingency. Let us suppose that no effort had been made to deal with this question now; let us suppose that a Reform Bill of this character had been brought in by a Liberal Government—and remember the prevailing sense of the House of Commons is still Liberal—either after the war or at any time independently of the war; let us imagine that that Bill had been furiously contested in your Lordships' House, in the spirit of hostility displayed by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Halsbury. What would have happened? Your Lordships might have thrown out the Bill. For three years, year after year, that Bill would have come back and would eventually have been passed over your heads by the Parliament Act. Conceive the cauldron of heated controversy into which we should have been plunged over this matter. All that dark and dismal prospect we have escaped by the fact that this measure is being undertaken in the course of the war.
What are the facts? Is it not the case, and had we not better recognise it at once, that all these great controversial issues of the past have fallen into a new perspective in consequence of the war? They have been reduced to what are probably their real proportions by the compelling influence of the war itself, There has been developed an atmosphere in consequence of the war, a spirit of patriotism, a high conception of civic duty; there has been a drawing together of men of all types and Parties under the influence of the common danger with which they are confronted and the common sacrifices which they have endured. All these phenomena have combined to predispose men to a settlement of questions upon which they have fought for years, if not for generations, and upon which under other conditions they might feel disposed to fight again.
The noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, argued that this settlement of the franchise question might very well have been postponed 300 to a later date, whether one year two years, or three years hence, when, in the leisure that will ensue after the cessation of hostilities we might have taken up the question with more time at our disposal. I agree with those speakers—there have been more than one—who have argued that peace abroad, whenever we attain it, will not mean repose at home. If we are at the end of one epoch we are also at the beginning of another, and if the epoch which we are closing has been darkened by all the horrors and tragedies of warfare, the epoch that is coming will be disturbed by convulsions and agitations, not less remarkable and very likely destined to shake even more profoundly the whole machinery of State. When the war is over do you imagine that Parliament would, in any conceivable conditions, have had time to settle itself down to the discussion of franchise reform? Important as that is, any one of us could name a dozen questions far more important that will shake their hands in our face—the relations of Capital and Labour; the part that female and male industry is to play in relation to each other in the industrial life of the future; our fiscal policy; meeting the necessary burden of taxation; the whole subject of Imperial and national defence; education, for which the country is clamouring; health; housing; the part that is to be played by the State in the future regulation of the life of its citizens—all these questions will brook no delay. And with regard to them I would say two things. In the first place, that it would be impossible—or, if that is too strong a word, that it would be most ill-advised—to attempt to deal with these questions by a Parliament elected upon the old basis. Secondly, how could you have dealt with them if a Franchise Bill had blocked the way; and if for the first two or three years the whole energies of the country were absorbed in a conflict over Reform, how could you have taken in hand the solution of these great problems? You would have had to say to the people, "No, gentlemen; we are sorry. You must wait a bit. We cannot take these matters in hand, because we have first and foremost to provide the machinery to deal with them. Then when we have spent one, two, or three years in constructing the machinery we will proceed and try to make you more comfortable and happy in your homes." Therefore I am arguing that, even if this measure is in a sense a controversial one, there was never a better time for taking it up.
301 But if I may state my own view, it would be that it is hardly fair to describe this as a controversial measure. Proportional representation, yes; woman suffrage, yes—the one moderately controversial, the other, if you like, intensely controversial; but they are the precise two subjects upon which the members of both Houses of Parliament are left to vote as they please. What you will do when you come to these two questions I have no idea, and I certainly am not going to direct you this afternoon. I do not think that it would become me at this stage to express any opinion or to give any advice upon the matter. We have three weeks of time in which to consider what will be our action with respect to both of these subjects at a later stage, and no small assistance will be given to our labours by the speeches that have been made upon them with so much force by different, noble Lords on both sides of the House. It is perfectly possible to say—I might say, but I think that it would be an unworthy taunt—that they were Committee speeches rather than Second Reading speeches. That has been very true. But I think it was quite right that the main lines of thought and conviction, both about proportional representation and about woman suffrage, should be stated in the Second Reading debate. We shall have time to pursue the matter more closely at a later stage when we pass into Committee.
A question was asked just now by some noble Lord as to the exact mathematical effect of this Bill. I do not know that it has been very clearly stated in any of the speeches that preceded, but perhaps I may give your Lordships the figures as I believe them to be. The male population of the United Kingdom above the age of twenty-one—and it is they only who are concerned for the purposes of my argument—is now about 13,000,000. The number of electors (excluding plural voters, who, of course, appear on the Register several times) in 1915, the last date for which I have been able to procure the figures, was about 8,000,000. Now we are going, as Lord Peel tells us, to add a new total of men above the age of twenty-one of something like 2,000,000. That means that there will be upon the new Register about 10,000,000 out of the 13,000,000 of adult men above the age of twenty-one in this country; and you can imagine that this proportion, already very large, amounting almost to adult suffrage, would itself be considerably increased if the period of qualification were 302 less than six months. To that 10,000,000 the Bill proposes to add approximately 6,000,000 women if that part of this measure passes into law. You will then have a total electorate of 16,000,000 persons, or exactly double the existing voting strength of the country. That is a fact which your Lordships will do well to bear in mind.
I do not deny for one moment that this is a great extension and much beyond anything that has preceded it, that it is a vast experiment, that it is, to use the words which were quoted by Lord Lytton and which date from the controversies of 1867, "a leap in the dark." I may say, however, in regard to both the Act of 1867 and that of 1885, that the dark turned out upon subsequent examination to be rather less black than it was supposed to be at the time. Still, my Lords, let us not minimise the scope and consequences of this Bill. It will destroy to a large extent the balance of our old Constitution. It will—even if I do not go nearly so far as Lord Salisbury in what he said—profoundly affect the future and the fate of your Lordships' House. It may possibly have far-reaching consequences upon the future of the Party to which, along with so many members of your Lordships' House, I myself belong. Nevertheless, I agree with Lord Burnham in the powerful and most refreshing speech which he made on the first day of the proceedings in your Lordships' House. Speaking as an old member of the House of Commons, as a present member of the Party with which I and he are associated, and with the experience of the Speaker's Conference behind him, he asked us to look at this problem not in its narrower but in its wider aspect. My Lords, I think that he is right. We are living in great times, and we cannot attempt to solve great problems by petty prescriptions. We must approach this question, I venture to urge upon your Lordships, without misgiving and in a spirit of tolerant hopefulness, and with an earnest desire to mould this Bill for the benefit of the generations that will come after us.
Some noble Lord, at an earlier stage of the debate, said that he did not think the public were taking much interest in the Bill. I do not agree with him. It is true to say that the eyes of the public are directed for the most part upon the war, and it would be a sad and disappointing thing if they were not. But from the corner of its eye the public is keeping a watch upon this Bill, 303 and is noting what will happen in your Lordships' House. Many times during the last few years we have heard the phrase employed with regard to the wider field of diplomacy that nations are seeking to find for themselves "a place in the sun," and the pursuit of that ideal has been the cause of many diplomatic controversies and some wars during the past quarter of a century. I think that those noble Lords are right who have argued in this debate that the great masses of the people in this country are also seeking "a place in the sun," after this war. I do not say that they have hither to been excluded from it or have been living in darkness, but they want a larger measure of sunlight than they have yet secured; and if we made to their voting strength the addition of the males alone, the two millions who will be added to the Register by this Bill, they would move substantially forward in that direction. I hope that when we come to the Committee stage of this Bill your Lordships will act upon the considerations which have been placed before you, not only by myself but by many other speakers in the course of this debate, and that you will by your action do something 304 to lift up the blinds and to allow a larger share of the sunlight to fall upon those in whose hands will rest the future destinies of this country.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday, January 8.