§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE had the following Notice on the Paper—
To call attention to the words used by Lord Curzon of Kedleston in the House of Lords on 6th February, when the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments to the Franchise Bill were under consideration, in respect of the appointment of Commissioners to select constituencies for an experiment in Proportional Representation—
Supposing the Government, after due consideration of that Report, feel that they are favourably disposed towards the Report, will they, as a Government, do their best to support it in the House of Commons? Yes, my Lords, I see no difficulty whatever in giving such an assurance";
and to ask how it was that, when the Motion to approve the Report of the Commissioners came before the House of Commons on the 13th May, the Government did not take charge of the Motion in the usual acceptation of that term, and that a Whip was issued from the office of the National Unionist Association, which is under the control of a member of the Government, against it.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I make no apology for an echo of a past controversy, but I think there are some things that want saying and some points that want clearing up. It was with a view of putting my noble friend the Leader of the House in possession of the case as I could make it that I wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph yesterday, which I hope he has seen, because if he has not I should have failed of my purpose.
§ What I have to say to-day, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the merits of proportional representation. This is not the occasion on which to go into that question in any degree whatever, but I wish to say without any hesitation that it is a subject on which this House has a right to have its own opinion. It is necessary for me to say that, because, greatly to my surprise, one of my oldest and best political friends, Mr. Austell Chamberlain, undoubtedly took up the position in the House of Commons that this was not a matter in which, in his opinion, this House should have interfered. I challenge that doctrine on the threshold. I say that if a Second Chamber is not to have an opinion 89 on such a subject as proportional representation there is no use of a Second Chamber at all; and, indeed, I think some of my political friends in the House of Commons have not altogether realised the effect of their zeal against proportional representation It is quite one thing to do all you can to oppose a proposal which you believe to be bad; it is quite another thing to use as an instrument of your opposition arguments which undermine the whole position of a Second Chamber. Some of my political friends took up the familiar Radical position "So long as it agrees with us, a Second Chamber is an admirable institution; the moment it disagrees with us, it is an institution to be denounced." I think that those friends of mine who took up that line will hereafter be sorry for having done so, because, in my judgment, it certainly does not become the Unionist Party to seize any occasion to attack this House when it is doing its simple duty in a manner which is purely constitutional.
§ What is the history of the case as to which Iask this question of my noble friend? The majority of your Lordships' House took a definite position in respect of the introduction of the principle of proportional representation into the Franchise Bill, and as a result His Majesty's Government were in a position of considerable embarrassment. They were naturally anxious for the Bill to pass, and they wanted to find some way of accommodating the difference between the majority of this House and the majority of the other House. Now the majority of this House were—as I maintain they have been throughout this war—desirous of not embarrassing His Majesty's Government. Owing to the peculiar conditions of the case the provisions of the Parliament Act have been suspended during this war except in respect of financial Bills, but your Lordships have never used your power, whether Mr. Asquith or Mr. Lloyd George has been Prime Minister, in order to embarrass the Government. Noble Lords have quite invariably considered it their duty to do all they could to support the Government of the day so long as they were engaged in that tremendous task with which they are still confronted. Therefore, the majority of your Lordships' House were sincerely desirous of finding some way to help the Government to escape from the embarrassment into which a difference of opinion between the two Houses had placed them; and, as a result of the course of business in 90 this House in consideration of the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments, we received certain assurances from my noble friend the Leader of the House which satisfied us, and we came to what I think I can correctly describe as an honourable understanding. That was on February 6.
§ Let me remind Your Lordships exactly what that understanding was. I have Hansard by my side, and I can quote if you wish it, but unless my account of what took place is challenged I do not propose to trouble your Lordships by reacting actual extracts from Hansard. My noble friend the Leader of the Government in this House had himself been the first to suggest the appointment of Commissioners to select constituencies for the experiment in proportional representation, and in the debate on February 6 the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, offered to accept this suggestion. but only on condition that the Government would see the result of the experiment safely through the House of Commons. The noble Earl said, in reply, that the Government would submit the Report of the Commissioners to the House of Commons in the same way that they had submitted the Report of the Speaker's Conference. This undertaking was not accepted by the majority of your Lordships' House as wholly satisfactory, and many of your Lordships joined in pressing the Government to make itself responsible for the principle in the House of Commons.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Lansdowne asked the Leader of the House two definite questions. The first was—
May we assume that the Government are in favour of the policy of trying proportional representation as an experiment?
To that the noble Earl replied—
Clearly the Government is anxious for an experiment of proportional representation on suitable areas, subject to the consent of Parliament; otherwise I should not have made the suggestion the other evening.
That answer was accepted as wholly satisfactory in respect to the first question. My noble friend's second question was—
May we understand that the Government will place a Minister in charge of the measure, and make it their business to conduct that measure through both Houses of Parliament, using their utmost efforts, in the ordinary plain sense of the words.
The reply of the noble Earl to this was—
I repeat the assurance given—that a minister would be placed in charge of the Bill. Everyone knows what that means. It means that the
Government is anxious that the Bill, subject to the modifications winch may be made in its passage through the House of Commons, should be passed into law.
This, again, was not accepted by the majority of your Lordships' House as wholly satisfactory; and after some debate I asked the noble Earl this question—
The one thing which I do ask my noble friend, for the sake of a settlement, to tell us is this. Will the Government exercise all its powers of persuasion and authority to get the House of Commons to approve of this Report in a form in which they themselves approve?
To that the noble Earl replied—
Supposing the Government, after due consideration of that Report, feel that they are favourably disposed towards the Report, will they, as a Government, do their best to support it in the House of Commons? Yes, my Lords, I see no difficulty whatever in giving such an assurance.
That was accepted by the majority of your Lordships' House as satisfactory. The Bill was passed, and the Government were rescued from the embarrassing position in which circumstances had placed them. We certainly though that there could be no room for misunderstanding.
§ What subsequently took place? The Commissioners were duly appointed, and they issued a Report which I venture to think was a very good one. It showed that there was very considerable support for the principle of proportional representation in places where no such support had previously been known to exist. In many of the local inquiries which the Commissioners held they received very hearty support from public bodies of many different kinds, from county and town councils, in support of the principle. In others they met with hostility and objection. The only bodies which consistently opposed the principle everywhere were the two central offices of the great political Parties. You may say that the machine, whether Liberal or Unionist, is consistently against this principle, but when once you get outside the machine there is in many parts of the country a very real and convinced support for the principle. That is quite enough to say to-day about the Report itself. It came to us with all the authority of the Speaker and his colleagues.
§ Now I come to the proceedings in the House of Commons on May 13. A Minister was placed in charge of the Resolution according to the promise of my noble friend Earl Curzon, but not quite on the footing 92 which I certainly had expected. In answer to a Question the same day, Mr. Bonar Law took pains to explain that Mr. Fisher was only in charge of the Motion because he happened to be in favour of the Resolution, and that his position was not to be taken as in any way an official position. That is not quite what I meant when I asked for a Minister to be placed in charge of the Bill, nor do I think it is what your Lordships generally understood. Then one speech was made in favour of the Report, and it was made, of course, by Mr. Fisher, no other members of the Government speaking for it. Mr. Austen Chamberlain—who had since joined the Government, and I admit was therefore in a different position from those who were members of the Government at the time the transactions took place—spoke against it with his accustomed extremity of opposition When it came to a Division no Government Tellers were put on; but few members of the Government voted for it, more voted against it; and the majority of the members of the Government in the House of Commons, headed by the Prime Minister, did not vote at all.
But last, and not least, a very strong, Whip against the Resolution was issued from the Unionist Central Office, signed by my friend Sir George Younger. Sir George Younger has, of course, the same right to his opinion as any of your Lordships, but I submit that it was a very strong thing for the Unionist Central Office, which is under the direct control of Mr. Bonar Law, the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet, to send out this Whip against a measure which the Government had undertaken in advance to do all they could by persuasion and authority to get the House of Commons to accept. My noble friend the Leader of the House was careful, as he always is when giving us his assurance. He said—
Supposing the Government, after due consideration of that Report, feel that they are favourably disposed towards the Report, will they, as a Government, do their best to support it in the House of Commons? Yes, I see no difficulty in giving such an assurance.
What was the attitude of the Government towards that Report after they had considered it? Did it impress them unfavourably? Were they opposed to the Report? If so, they did not say so. Of course, if they had come forward and said, "We have considered this Report, and are
unfavourably disposed towards it, then my noble friend and his colleagues had safeguarded themselves. They were in a position to adapt their conduct accordingly. But they said nothing of the kind. They put a Minister in charge, though unofficially, but they let the measure be defeated in the manner that I have described.
§ I cannot reconcile what took place in the House of Commons and the attitude of the Prime Minister and his colleagues with the impression that I have myself, and I think most of my noble friends, of the true nature of assurances given us in this House. Therefore, my Lords, I have put down this Question to my noble friend. I wished in the first place to assert in the strongest and most emphatic way possible my repudiation of Mr. Austen Chamberlain's doctrine that this was not a matter on which this House should have concerned itself; and in the second place I wanted to ask my noble friend how he reconciled the action of his colleagues in the House of Commons with the pledges that he had given on their behalf in your Lordships' House.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON)
My Lords, my noble friend, in the remarks that he has just addressed to your Lordships, appears to think that he has serious ground of grievance against His Majesty's Government for their conduct in this matter, and against myself in particular as their spokesman in this House on the occasion of February 6 to which he referred. I shall hope, my Lords, to show you without difficulty that there is no ground for that belief. There is an excellent and well-accredited axiom in public life that you should verify your quotations, but there is another axiom equally good and in my judgment even more important in this context, and that is that you should complete your quotations. My noble friend has, for the purposes of his speech, selected from the various remarks that I was called upon to address to your Lordships on February 6 one passage and one passage only, and that passage, as I shall show your Lordships presently, does not give in its complete form what I said. Further, while in the course of his remarks selecting a sentence here or a sentence there from different things that I said in the course of the discussion, he has not given, as it will be 94 my duty to give, a connected impression of what I said as a whole.
I am making no undue claim when I say that a Minister speaking as I was called upon to do three or four times in the course of a single afternoon must be judged, not by a sentence taken here or there from this or that portion of his observations, but from the general tenor of his entire remarks. I claim to be so judged. I suppose that I ought to regard it as a compliment that the House should have been so anxious to hear me on that occasion. Ordinarily speaking, I can say with truth that I am not very desirous to interfere in debate, but your Lordships on that occasion insisted on hearing me no less than three times in the course of an hour; and if that was the duty or the burden that you placed upon me, I am entitled in reply to point to what I said, not on one of those occasions only, but on the whole.
If it does not weary your Lordships to hear what I said on those various occasions in this context—and my quotations shall be brief—I will read them in the order of their delivery. In the course of my first speech, on column 419 of Hansard, in reply to my noble friend Lord Lansdowne. I spoke as follows (and a portion of this quotation was read by my noble friend)—Clearly the Government is anxious for an experiment of proportional representation on suitable areas, subject to the consent of Parliament; otherwise I should not have made the suggestion the other evening, and I should not have been willing to support the noble Marquess if he moves his Amendment, this afternoon. The further question he put was as to the conduct of the Government when the Report of the Commissioners comes before the House of Commons. The noble Marquess would not wish, and no noble Lord in this House would wish, me for a moment to commit myself to the decision that the Government is to make itself, from the start, responsible for forcing through a measure which might be distasteful to the majority of the House of Commons.The quotation which I have just read is the fourth amongst those to which I intended to refer. I will begin at the beginning, but will omit to read that again when I come to it.
My first quotation is at the bottom of column 406. This was in reply to the, first speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne. I saidHe does not mean that it would be possible for the Government to pledge themselves to accept in advance a scheme drawn up by Commissioners who have not yet been appointed, and of the 95 nature of which they cannot, therefore, possibly at this stage have any idea. No one, least of all a statesman of the experience of the noble Marquess, would dream of asking any Government to give such a pledge, and no Government which had any sense of its own responsibility and its duty to both Houses of Parliament would dream of giving a pledge in that particular form.That is the first extract. The second one occurs in the same speech lower down in the same page—When this Commission has reported … the Government will … submit the Report to the House of Commons as a whole. The House of Commons must have the right to determine whether the Report as a whole shall or shall not be adopted as the basis of discussion. That is a right which the House of Commons could never be expected to surrender, and I am sure will not surrender in the present case.The third extract is in the next column, 408, in the upper part of the page—if the House of Commons at that stage thought it right and proper to express their assent to the scheme as a whole, I think we might fairly assume that it was a good and reasonable scheme, which it was generally desired should pursue its further stages towards the Statute Book. In that case, assuming another place to have acted—as I certainly hope myself that they would act—in the manner that I have suggested, the Government would undertake to put a Minister in charge of the measure, and he would use his best offices to secure the passage of a good and reasonable measure into law. Further than that I do not think the noble Marquess or his friends can expect me to go.The fourth extract was the passage in column 419 which I by mistake detached from its place and read to your Lordships just now. I need not repeat that. The fifth extract is that which appears in the Question of my noble friend on the Paper. This its n column 42]. I said—As far as I understand Lord Selborne's question it was this. Supposing the Commissioners give a Report, and supposing the Government, after due consideration of that Report—I call attention to these words because they are very material—feel that they are favourably disposed towards the Report, will they, as a Government, do their best to support it in the House of Commons? Yes, my Lords, I see no difficulty whatever in giving such an assurance Whether they would be successful or not, of course I cannot say. The House of Commons must be the judge. But naturally, as a Government, if we agree with a thing we do our best to support it.I think, my Lords, that these are the directly relevant extracts from what I said.
What did the Government undertake to do? What did I, on behalf of the Government—because I was speaking for the 96 Government—pledge them to do in those extracts? They undertook in the first place to set up a body of Commissioners to drawup a scheme experimentally for the application of proportional representation to something like 100 constituencies. They undertook. when that scheme should be presented, to give due consideration to it. They further undertook, if they found themselves in favour of it, to support it in the House of Commons. They undertook in any case to submit it to the judgment of the House of Commons, which obviously was entitled to express its views, and, in the event of the House expressing those views in a sense generally favourable to the scheme, they undertook to put a Minister in charge and to do their best in assisting the House of Commons to pass it into law. Those—and I challenge contradiction—are the exact pledges, neither more nor less, that I gave on behalf of the Government.
Now was there any doubt in your Lordships' minds or in the mind of the public as to what those pledges involved? I think not. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred just now to the fact that only two days ago he addressed a letter (which was in the nature of a rehearsal of his speech this afternoon) to the Daily Telegraph, and I am grateful for his civility in calling my attention to the matter this afternoon. It is obvious that his having sent the letter to the Daily Telegraph is an evidence of the confidence that he reposes in the judgment of that organ of public opinion, which throughout, under the able guidance of my noble friend Lord Burnham, has lent consistent support to the cause of proportional representation in your Lordships' House, and to the battle that the noble Earl was fighting on its behalf three or four months ago. Now I happen to have a copy of the Daily Telegraph published on the morning after those assurances by myself were given. If there had been any ambiguity, if there had even been in them the implications that the noble Earl now finds, surely the Daily Telegraph, under the inspiration of my noble friend Lord Burnham, would have been the first to find it out. This is what the Daily Telegraph said on February 7. It did me the favour of giving a general summary of my observations in no less than two places. In the first place, in the account of the proceedings of Parliament in your Lordships' House, the paper wrote as follows— 97Lord Curzon was compelled by the sustained pressure of Lord Salisbury, Lord Burnham, Lord Sheffield, and Lord Selborne to rise and give his assurance three times over. He put the matter very clearly—I am delighted to know it—and explained that the Government were sincerely desirous that a reasonable experiment in proportional representation should be made. and would loyally do their best to carry a Bill framed on the Report if that Report were approved by the House of Commons. if the Commons rejected it, then the whole thing fell to the ground.That was the account given in the summary of the Parliamentary proceedings. Then the leading article, which I think carries even greater weight, because I hope I do not an injustice to my noble friend Lord Burnham if I see traces in it of his Roman hand spoke as follows—When the Commissioners have carried out then task their Report is to be laid on the Table in both Houses for discussion, to be amended. accepted, or rejected as they may decide, and at this stage the Government will in a limited sense take charge of the matter. They will, as Lord Curzon put it yesterday in declaring their intention, treat the Report of the Commissioners in the same way as they treated the Report of the Speaker's Conference. They will submit the Report as a whole to the House of Commons, and if the House assents to it as a whole" [that is the, condition] "a Minister will take charge of it, and will use his best offices to secure the passage of the measure into law. The Government, in other words, is favourable to an experiment being made, but it will not take up the scheme when produced as a Government measure and will not put on the Government Whips unless and until the House of Commons has expressed its acceptance of the Report as a whole.In the course of that controversy I did not from day to day find much consolation in the utterances of my noble friend either in this House or from Fleet-street, but I entirely accept his description of the part that I myself had taken in the discussion to which reference has been made.
May I add another testimony? The Commissioners had reported. The matter was coming before the House of Commons. I received a letter from a noble Lord who has since, to our universal regret, disappeared from our midst—I mean Lord Courtney. And here let me take the opportunity—inasmuch as none has previously occurred, at any rate to me, in your Lordships' House—of saying what a gap has, in my judgment, been left by the disappearance of that noble Lord not only from your Lordships' House but from public life in this country. Lord Courtney was a man of great intellectual powers, of 98 intense moral conviction, and of a fierce and passionate and almost unbending independence. Only a day and a half before Lord Courtney died, with a view to this discussion which was coming on upon the scheme of the Commissioners, he favoured me with a, letter in which he expressed a hope that "the influence of the Upper House may be expressed by yourself"—that was me "in any consultations that may precede the debate of next Monday." "Pray forgive," he added, "this intrusion, which may even appear impertinent, but you yourself have been uniformly fair in steering an even keel in this controversy, and it is my recognition of this fact that emboldens me to take the step I am taking." I am very proud of that testimony from Lord Courtney to the general fairness and correctness of the attitude that I have assumed in your Lordships' House, and which is now impugned.
I gave just now a summary of the undertakings that, on behalf of the Government, I had given. Now let me state exactly how and in what degree they were carried out. When the Report of the Commissioners had been received it was taken to the Cabinet. I asked that that due consideration should be given to it there for which Lord Courtney pleaded and which I had promised in your Lordships' House. That consideration was given, and I was not the least active of those who did their best to make your Lordships' case upon that occasion. The noble Earl has said, Were the Government opposed to the scheme? No. As often happens in any body, and perhaps not least often in Cabinets, the Government were divided upon the matter: some were in favour of the scheme and some were against it—there was a fairly even division of opinion. In these circumstances, how was it possible—the noble Earl himself has been a Cabinet 'Minister and can answer my question—for the Cabinet to give their united support to a scheme of which about one-half of their number disapproved?
Well, they gave the Report the consideration, the result of which I have described. They then laid it before the House, and they allowed the measure to be explained and introduced and the adoption of the Report to be moved by one of their own number. If they showed any partiality in the matter, if they strained a point, it was clearly in favour of proportional representation, and not the reverse. I imagine that Mr. Austen Chamber- 99 lain as a Minister might equally have claimed to be the first to speak; but, as a matter of fact, so anxious were we that the scheme should have a good start in the House of Commons that we instructed a Minister to make the first speech, although, being divided as we were, it was obviously impossible at that stage to place a Minister in charge of the Bill. Even after that, if the House of Commons had, according to the terms which I have more than once quoted, expressed themselves strongly in favour of the scheme, the Government would then have taken it up: they would have placed a Minister in charge of the Bill they would have followed the precedent that was adopted in the case of the Speaker's Conference. But as your Lordships have been told this afternoon, the House of Commons rejected the scheme by a majority of fifty-six. The noble Earl in his remarks just now said, Why did we let it be defeated? What does the noble Earl mean?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Why did we let it be defeated? Those were your words—that the Government let it be defeated. Really, the House of Commons is not a football that can be kicked about in any direction the Government like; and if the House of Commons, after a full examination of the proposal, turned it down by a large majority, I think it is fair to assume that the House of Commons acted in the exercise of their judgment and not because the Government put on pressure in any one way or another.
Now, on the subject of this pressure I come to the second part of my noble friend's Question. He asks me how it was that when the Report came before the House of Commons on May 13 a Whip was issued from the office of the National Unionist Association, which is under the control of a member of the Government, against it. What are the facts? Sir George Younger, to whom my noble friend referred, was the author of this Whip. He is, it is true, the chairman of the Committee of this Unionist Association, but he is not, as my noble friend states in his Question, a member of the Government; he has no official connection with the Government.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
The noble Earl has allowed to appear upon the Order Paper for at least a week the statement that the National Unionist Association is under the control of a member of the Government. Sir George Younger is not a member of the Government.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Very well. I thought when the noble Earl said that the Association was under the control of a member of the Government—
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I accept, of course, the noble Earl's correction; but I am bound to say that neither I nor any one else read this reference to mean anything else than that the Whip was issued by a member of the Government.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I want to make that perfectly plain. My English may be faulty—it often is—but I had only Mr. Bonar Law in my mind. I knew Sir George Younger signed the Whip, but my complaint was that it was under the influence of Mr Bonar Law.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I fully accept the explanation of my noble friend. The new form of the charge is that the Whip was issued by an Association which is under the control of a member of the Government, and it turns out that the member of the Government concerned is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. To that I have to reply that the National Unionist Association is not under the control of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not consulted about this matter; that this Whip was issued without the knowledge of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, without any reference to him whatsoever, and without any reference even to the Government Whips in the House of Commons, who never heard of it until the Whip 101 went into circulation. Further—and I think the noble Earl admitted this fact—this was not the only Whip that was issued upon the matter. The National Unionist Association was not the only Party involved. I have myself seen a strong Whip issued by an organisation on the other side—by the London Liberal Association who addressed a circular to Members of the House of Commons. And, really, my Lords, does the noble Earl take up the position that in a matter of this sort, on which opinion is so divided, on which the Government themselves even were disagreed, no Party Association is to be at liberty to "whip" its followers in the House of Commons? I should have thought that this was the last charge which could emanate from my noble friend, because a more conspicuous instance of active, energetic, and successful whipping than that shown by himself and his friends in your Lordships' House on the many occasions when this subject came before us, I have never seen. I have myself congratulated him upon it; and it seems to me that my noble friend is the last person, after such a successful display of those arts himself, to object to a relatively minor performance on the part of those who sit in the other House.
What is the long and short of the whole matter? It is this. I am sorry that the House of Commons decided, rightly or wrongly—I do not. personally agree with the decision—not on one occasion alone but on four occasions in the course of these discussions, not to allow a scheme of proportional representation to be tried in the new Franchise Bill. The noble Earl admitted just now that the Government were sharply divided upon the matter, and in his letter to the Daily Telegraph he gave the numbers of the Government why voted for and voted against; he there stated that in the debate on the Report of the Commissioners nine members of the Government voted for the Report and twenty against. That is a proof of how divided the Government were. And would he really have had those twenty, who were opposed to proportional representation, vote against their convictions? Would he have had the Government put pressure upon them not to vote upon that occasion? No one would have repudiated such a suggestion more eagerly than my noble friend.
In conclusion, I come to the one point in my noble friend's speech in respect of 102 which I was in warm sympathy with him He was right, if I may say so, to claim for the House of Lords in a matter of this sort a definite, legitimate, and honourable place in the Constitution of this country. No one has been, and no one I can assure your Lordships intends to be, more strenuous in the defence of those prerogatives than I myself; and I think that on a previous occasion I dissociated myself altogether from that conception of the duties of your Lordships' House which was put forward by our common friend Mr. Austen Chamberlain in the House of Commons at a time when he enjoyed a position of greater freedom and less responsibility. But even so, my Lords, the House of Lords cannot compel a Government to accept and to push forward a scheme of which quite half of its members disapprove. Still less can the House of Lords compel the House of Commons to adopt a measure, about which it is true your Lordships are perfectly entitled to express an opinion, but which, be it remembered, directly affects the composition and election of that House—you cannot compel the House of Commons to adopt a measure of that sort which the large majority of the House of Commons appear to dislike. That is altogether beyond the maximum conception if our powers, and I submit it is also beyond reason itself.
Therefore, although I greatly sympathise with my noble friend in many respects, although I myself should have liked to see an experiment in proportional representation made, and although I think it would have been possible, had the matter been rather differently handled, that an opportunity should have occurred for making that experiment, I do not think that my noble friend has any right to vent his disappointment upon us; while I hope I have shown grounds to your Lordships for thinking, as regards what I myself said on the occasions to which reference has been made, that my own withers are unwrung.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, as my name has been mentioned once or twice during this conversation I should like to say a few words with regard to the subject we are discussing. I am not going to take up the time of the House by considering whether or not the question of proportional representation is one which concerns your Lordships' House, or again, by considering whether proportional representation is or is not a desirable thing. 103 As to the latter of those questions, I should be the first to admit that there is room for difference of opinion. As to the former of them, I do not admit that there is any room for difference of opinion; and I was glad to hear the noble Earl the Leader of the House say categorically that he claims for this House the fullest right to discuss and to examine any question of this kind.
The noble Earl dealt, with his usual ability, and, I thought, with a good deal of ingenuity, with the case which he had to make. I am afraid I must tell him that it seemed to me still to remain at the end of his argument a very indifferent case. I cannot help think that the conclusion which has been arrived at in regard to this business is a very deplorable conclusion. It is one, of course, entirely welcome to the opponents of proportional representation, who are as a rule, upon that subject at any rate, people with a very fanatical turn of mind. They, I have no doubt, greatly rejoice that the reasonable compromise which we thought was within reach the other day has come to naught, but I think if you look beyond the limits of that particular class you will find that there is a general feeling of deep regret that the opportunity should have been missed of trying the experiment which your Lordships' House was so anxious to see tried. That feeling is probably that not only of those who, when the Franchise Bill was in Committee, voted in favour of proportional representation, but will be shared by many who are not in favour of proportional representation but who nevertheless greatly desire that when differences of this kind arise between the two Houses of Parliament they should be dealt with in a temperate and considerate spirit; and I doubt whether any member of the House more regrets the outcome of this controversy than my noble friend who leads the House.
I must say that it does seem to me that there was an overwhelming case in favour of the arrangement which has been turned down in so high-handed a manner by the House of Commons. There are, one may say, three milestones in the history of the case. The Speaker's Conference was the first. I believe it is matter of common knowledge that the Speaker's Conference would not have arrived at the amount of unanimity which it did in effect reach unless the Report had been so drawn as 104 to leave room for a trial of proportional representation. The next milestone was the overwhelming success of the Amendment in favour of proportional representation which was carried in your Lordships' House when the Bill was in the Committee stage. I do not remember any House of Lords' majority more impressive, both by its dimensions and by its composition—for it represented no particular Party, class, or cleavage—than that remarkable Division.
When the Bill came back to us from the House of Commons we seemed to be on the verge of a serious crisis—a serious difference—between the two Houses of Parliament, and it was the desire of every member of this House to find some means of averting that crisis. We thought we had found it. We approached the subject in a spirit of moderation and good temper, and we arrived at the compromise of February 6. My Lords, we must not allow ourselves to forget that the terms of that compromise were suggested by the noble Earl who leads the House: they were merely adopted by me because I thought I discovered in them the material for a reasonable solution of the difficulty. I believe the compromise was welcomed by your Lordships, and so far as we could judge it was accepted by His Majesty's Government cordially and gratefully.
Some question has arisen as to the extent to which the noble Earl who leads the House was committed by the speeches which he delivered on that occasion. I am well aware that the noble Earl guarded himself very carefully at certain points. I am well aware that he told the House that he had no. official authority for accepting the proposal that was offered to him. I am well aware that he warned us—it was a perfectly reasonable warning—that he could not undertake to force any proposal of the kind which had been made upon a reluctant House of Commons; and I am also well aware that he guarded himself carefully against accepting or appearing to accept a scheme which had at that moment not yet seen the light. But, after all, what matters in a case of this kind is not so much the ipsissima verba of this or that sentence, but the general tenor of what is said by the responsible statesman who is addressing the House. As to that, my Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Earl left the House under the impression that His Majesty's Government were anxious to 105 have an experiment of this kind in proportional representation given a fair trial. I do not think there was any doubt as to that: nor does, I know, the noble Earl dispute it. In the next place, we all understood him to give us a very definite assurance that if His Majesty's Government found themselves favourably disposed to the project prepared by the Commissioners, they would put a Minister in charge of the measure. I do not think there is any doubt as to that.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I do not want to interrupt my noble friend—"after the House of Commons had expressed itself also in favour." I was quite clear upon that.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I do not think that that was the impression left upon our minds. That would mean that the liability of His Majesty's Government began only after the House of Commons had given its imprimatur to the measure. What we understood was that the Government would make it their business so to handle the measure when it came before the House as to obtain for it from the House the support which was indispensable if it were ever to become law.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Does the noble Marquess mean that I pledged the Government at that date to take that attitude whether the Government were or were not in favour of a Report which had not yet been drawn up and which they had not seen?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
That is exactly what they did not do. When we did consider the scheme, and when the case for and against it was most carefully and anxiously put before the Cabinet, the Government were so divided upon the matter that they could not give it the support to which the noble Marquess refers.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I think what emerges from this discussion is that His Majesty's Government, under the present dispensation, are not able to give the kind of pledge of Cabinet support which would have been given under the old system of Cabinet Government. I 106 believe that under the old system of Cabinet Government, after what passed in your Lordships' House, the Minister who had made the statement would have gone to his colleagues in the Cabinet and have said, "In order to avoid a serious Parliamentary crisis I have undertaken that the Government will do what they can to obtain a fair trial for proportional representation as an experiment." and I believe that in a case of that kind the Government would have supported the Minister. At any rate, your Lordships' House parted with the Bill upon the understanding that if the proposal elaborated by the Commissioners found their favour the Government would put a Minister in charge of the Bill and endeavour to navigate it into port. They did put a Minister in charge of the Bill, though, according to my noble friend's argument, they would not have put a Minister in charge of the Bill—
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
The noble Marquess is under a misapprehension. There was no Bill whatever.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
There was a Report of the Commissioners, and Mr. Fisher moved the adoption of the Report. The stage had not arrived for a Minister to be put in charge of the Bill; and, as the noble Marquess said—he made it a matter of complaint—the Minister who was allowed to move the adoption of the Report did so in his capacity as a private Member in favour of the scheme and not as a Minister.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
But he was in charge of the Resolution, and I think he was regarded by the House of Commons as having been put in charge of it by His Majesty's Government. That is how we Who read the newspapers regarded the whole matter. At any rate, the actual performance fell far short of what most of us looked forward to when the matter was debated here.
I said that a Minister had been put in charge of the Resolution. It now appears that Mr. Fisher's connection with it was of an accidental and informal kind, and not as most of us understood it. And we have the Leader of the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, going into the Lobby against the Resolution; and 107 then we have that, to my mini, most extraordinary occurrence—the issue of a Whip from the Central Office in opposition to the Resolution. I heard that the Whip was out before the debate took place, and some of my House of Commons friends told me that the Resolution was doomed because they said the Whip had gone out from the Central Office. I still venture to think that, even upon the moderate assumption that His Majesty's Government, after what had been said here, were going to maintain an attitude of neutrality towards the Resolution, the issue of such a Whip does seem a somewhat startling departure from that attitude of neutrality. I am afraid that in spite of all the ingenuity of my noble friend's argument many of us still remain under the impression that we have not been treated in this matter as well as we had a right to expect, and I must say that I think the termination of this business is one which is altogether deplorable both in the eyes of those who desire to see a great question like proportional representation dealt with in a reasonable and accommodating spirit, and still more in the eyes of all those who desire that in Parliamentary controversies of this kind your Lordships' House should be treated with fairness and consideration.
§ LORD BURNHAM
My Lords, I naturally feel flattered that the noble Earl the Leader of the House has based his justification here upon written words of which he says I have been the inspiring spirit. I do not deny the impeachment, but I warn him that he is risking his reputation. The Government to which he belongs has been called a "Press-ridden" Government, and he is risking his reputation, I think, by quoting the Press too much in justification of his attitude. He may himself be called a "Press-ridden" Minister.
So far as I am concerned I cannot say that I ever attributed the same importance as my noble friend who put the Question to the pledges which the noble Earl gave during the last stage of the Representation of the People Bill in this House. I did not think at the time that they amounted to very much. I saw that they allowed of a great width of interpretation. In fact, I think they were what we used to call "Gladstonian" in their ingenuity; and, looking back to the days when my noble friend also was in the House of Commons, he will recollect answers of the same sort to which that criticism applied. I think 108 they were "Gladstonian" in their indefiniteness. I did not think myself that they committed the Government to more than the introduction by a Minister in the other House of the Resolution embodying the Report of the Commission. On the other hand, I did think that the Minister would have been the Minister who had been in charge of the original Bill and not one of the latest recruits of the Government; and I did not expect that the Government, either directly or indirectly, or even through a Party organisation which, after all, as my noble friend says, is in the hands of the Leader of the House—we must put aside all pretence in this matter—would have issued a Whip of the sort which made it impossible that the question could have been decided without Party considerations being brought in. I do not say for a moment that in that way ally pledges were violated, but I do say that an atmosphere was created in the House of Commons which was unfavourable to fair consideration of the Report of the Commission.
I complain more of the attitude of the House of Commons. I ask your Lordships, What has become of the old courtesy of Parliament which was supposed to regulate the relations between the two Houses? Perhaps it is unfair to cast a brick at this House of Commons, of which there are few who ever say anything that is good; but at the same time I did think there would have been a spirit of cooperation at such a time between the two Houses which would have allowed the House of Commons to pay more respect to the oft-repeated decision of your Lordships on an organic law on which they had every right not only to express themselves but to have an equal and co-ordinate voice. As it is, the sons of Zeruiah are too strong for us, and the political "bosses" have had their way. It is not a very satisfactory solution. Instead of having a national settlement you have made it certain that the whole subject of the franchise in this country must come up before long for reconsideration. The Speaker's Conference aimed at a national settlement, and I know that a great majority of that Conference—I believe the Chairman also—deplore the fact that proportional representation has not been tried on a sufficient scale to make it easy without much controversy to widen the scheme and comprehend the country. As it is, you are face to face with the fact that at the next Election, with the extended 109 suffrage being used for the first tim eby 8,000,000 new voters, You are quite likely to have a minority majority. If you think that, it becomes a positive danger from the point of view of public opinion, and the authority of the Parliament thus elected will be constantly called in question. without dealing with the broad and vexed problem of political values we all know that Parliamentary methods are now called in question in a manner and to an extent which would have sounded strange a few years go. Yet Parliament has now deliberately ensured that there is a grave risk of the minority ruling through the faulty methods of representative Government that have been enacted SO recently by the two Houses.
I do not believe for a moment that this state of things can continue. It is brought about simply by Party intrigue. In one constituency the Unionist Party thought they had something to gain in a three-cornered election; in another the Radicals had the same opinion. In London the Liberal Federation protested against the introduction of proportional representation because they thought they would have a better chance in single-Member areas. Elsewhere the boot was on the other leg. You have to face the fact that you are now going to convene a Parliament the majority of which will represent the minority of the people. I think that is a dangerous condition of things, and I am certain it is one which cannot be regarded as permanent. The only satisfaction one can get out of this debate, and the miserable fiasco of which it is the record, is that proportional representation, being discussed so widely, is certain to come up again—I think phœnixlike it will rise again—and dominate, as I believe it ought to do, because it is the only true and faithful mirror. I know the political system of the country.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
MY Lords, the noble Lord who has just spoken has put forward very forcibly the dangers into which we may be led by the unfortunate results of this attempt at a compromise. I hold as strongly as he does the view that there is a great danger, but I think it would have been fairer if your Lordships had realised the immense difficulties which had been in the way of the Government. There is no doubt that my noble friend Lord Selborne challenged a decision on account of the convictions he holds on the subject, but from my point of view he did 110 so on far too wide an area. The plan, if it was to have any effect, was extremely difficult to enforce over wide stretches of country, and I think your Lordships ought to make some allowance for the immense pressure which was brought to bear on the Government by public opinion in the constitutencies which it was proposed to affect. I believe great injustice will be done to minorities in the large industrial centres in the North, but I believe also that the attempt to impose proportional representation on county constituencies was proved by the public opinion of those in the localities affected to be almost impossible. I happened to be here, in the intervals of being in Ireland, at the time when the Commissioners were going to sit, and I had an immediate demand made upon me by the whole of the county of Surrey to call a meeting—a demand not by the machine, but by impartial individuals who desired to express the opinion that it was impossible to apply this to the county of Surrey. And for the best and most practical of reasons, that it was impossible to select one candidate for three constituencies at a time when the difficulties of locomotion were trebled.
I believe that the Commissioners, though they were able to find county constituencies in which the experiment might be made, found that the proposal was received with the greatest reluctance, except by a certain number of convinced supporters of proportional representation. I must challenge in that respect one remark of my noble friend Lord Selborne. The opposition to the proposal may have come from the central machine, but it certainly did come from individual persons who felt about it with a degree of strength and feeling which one would hardly have credited them with on the question of representation. I should have been glad if my noble friend Earl Curzon of Kedleston had been able to show, not merely that the Government had taken account of that feeling, but that so far as they had the power of influencing it they did not allow the sort of circulation to be sent out which was sent out. We all accept, of course, the noble Earl's assurance that no influence was used on either side. At the same time there is no doubt that the National Unionist Association is not accustomed, as a rule to act contrary to the wishes of the Whips and of those in control of time destinies of the Party.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I must repeat that the Whip was issued without any reference to, or knowledge of, the Party Whips or the Leader of the House of Commons. Really why, after that explanation, we should be taunted with responsibility for that of which we knew nothing I am at a loss to understand.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
I am suggesting that they could have used their influence, and it would have left a greater opportunity for a fair decision. I think the result is disastrous, and that no experiment will be tried. So far from leaving the matter in the melting pot, I am much afraid that once the opportunity has been lost it is not likely to recur. I know there is a feeling on the part of the "machine" that proportional representation should not he tried in the large towns. I believe London is the very place where it ought to be tried; and in the large towns, where you can get over three constituencies in ten minutes, the system is much more feasible than when you come to try it over a great extent of country.
The noble Earl paid a high tribute to Lord Courtney, and I think that if Lord Courtney's view was the correct one—if the ordinary elector had given that amount of time and thought to the political future of his country which Lord Courtney credited him with—it might have been possible to try proportional representation universally. We all know that the opposite is the fact, and that it is as much as you can do in any county division to get the ordinary elector to take an interest in those who are seeking his suffrage and who are in his midst. If this question is raised again I earnestly hope that my noble friend will try to confine it to constituencies which are approximate to each other, and where it would be possible to make it a practicable proposal. I rose only because I somewhat sympathise with the difficulties in which the noble Earl the Leader of the House has found himself. He knows the reluctance there was to put this system in motion at the time we discussed it in February and the difficulties had been enormously increased before the House of Commons decided upon it on the last occasion.
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, I should like to correct a misapprehension which has come into the debate owing to what was said by the last speaker. I do not know 112 whether he has taken the trouble to analyse the results of the voting in the House of Commons in reference to the constituencies which were suggested as suitable for proportional representation by the Commissioners who were appointed. If he had done so he would have seen that, so far from the recommendations of the Commissioners being found out of accordance with local feeling or the feelings of the representatives, the proposals of the Commissioners would have been carried by a considerable majority; in other words, the majority of those affected by the proposals supported them. whereas it was only a minority of those Members affected who voted on the other side.
Let me go a step further if I may. I do not want to enter into the general question except to remove a misapprehension. I will take three illustrations to show how this matter really stands. I will take first the case of my own county of Buckinghamshire, which was one of the counties included in the recommendation. Opinion was practically unanimous there. In the criticism a mistake was made, because it was said that ray noble friend Lord Anslow, Chairman of our County Council, was not in favour of proportional representation. As a matter of fact, he appeared at the hearing before the Local Commissioner and gave very strong evidence, not only that he was in favour of it, but that he spoke also as Chairman of the Liberal Association in South Bucks, and that that Association were unanimously in favour of proportional representation being adopted in the country. At the same time all the three Members were in favour—namely, Colonel Sir Harry Verney, Major Rothschild, and Major Du Pre.
Let me give another illustration to show how easily there may be misapprehension. It is an illustration from an entirely different constituency—Bristol. Bristol was unanimously in favour. The various political associations in Bristol met and a common representation was sent from those associations in favour of proportional representation. If you have facts of that kind, and if you have recommendations made as they were in this case by the Commissioners appointed under the promise in the Bill, what further evidence can you obtain as to the desire of special localities to put into operation what they consider a fair method of electoral representation? What was said 113 by the noble Lord shows that those who are not at any rate much in favour of this proposal have entirely disregarded what really have been the recommendations of the Commissioners. I think that was the reason for the defeat of the proposal in the House of Commons itself.
Let me give a further illustration to show the other side? I have been a good deal mixed up in this question with the Proportional Representation Society. Where did we have some of the strongest recommendations from? From the minority in Birmingham—from the Liberal and Labour Associations in Birmingham. It is quite true that you do not get that side represented in the House of commons because those who at the present time have managed to disfranchise the minority in Birmingham wish to keep the monopoly of their power. But directly you went under the surface there was no body from which claims came in more urgent terms for consideration by the Commissioners than from the Liberal and Labour Associations of Birmingham.
As regards the attitude of this House and the other House, one is obliged to consider what is the position of the House of Commons. It is a case of beati possidentes, and the objections came from those who thought that under the existing system of single representation they could maintain their seats and their position, although by that means they disfranchise, and purposely disfranchise, a very large number of voters to whom the intention of Parliament was that an effective vote should be given. That is really how the matter stands.
I will say one word only with reference to what was stated by the noble Earl opposite in answer to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I do not want to find fault with what the noble Earl said, but surely you come to this—either Mr. Fisher in the House of Commons was to be in charge of the Bill as a Minister, or, being a Minister, was nevertheless only in the position of a private Member. What was the truth? Certainly I understood from what the noble Earl said in this House on the occasion to which reference has been made that a Minister would be put in charge of the Resolution as a Minister.
§ LORD PARMOOR
Was not the noble Earl at that time talking of the Resolution?
114 That could not be a Bill. There was no question of a Bill. If a Resolution was Passed in the House of Commons, then proportional representation passed ipso facto and came into operation in the constituencies to which the proposals of the Commissioners related.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I thought I had explained that at the time I spoke the ultimate Report of the Commissioners was not foreseen, and it was contemplated that a Bill would be required.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I must be allowed to speak for myself. At that moment it was in contemplation by me and members of the Government that a Bill would be required. and it was with that prospect in view that I gave the assurance of the Bill being placed in charge of a Minister.
§ LORD PARMOOR
I do not wish to speak harshly of what the noble Earl said at the time. I agree that you must look at the whole context. You must look not only at special passages, but at the whole of the observations which the noble Earl made, as he said, on three different occasions during that evening. But surely it is a fact, is it not, that we were dealing at that time with the Amendment proposed by Lord Lansdowne? That was the subject-matter with which the noble Earl was dealing at that time. Now the Amendment of Lord Lansdowne did not suggest the introduction of any Bill. Lord Lansdowne's Amendment suggested that the Bill itself should stand; that a new clause should be inserted providing that a Commission should be appointed, and that if a favourable recommendation was made and we know it was made—and that recommendation was subsequently adopted in the House of Commons and in your Lordships' House, it should become incorporated with and form part of the Act already passed. No further step of any 115 kind was to he necessary. Ipso facto proportional representation would come into operation in the paticular constituencies scheduled by the Special Commissioners. The whole point was not a subsequent Bill, but the dealing with the Resolution itself, and it was in connection with that Resolution, if I recollect aright—I have not Hansard by me—and not with any Bill founded upon it that the undertaking was given to Lord Lansdowne when he brought his Amendment forward.
§ LORD PARMOOR
I do not want to controvert the matter further. That was my impression. No further Bill was necessary; that is what I am putting. The determining factor was the adoption or not of the Resolution. That is certainly my recollection, and I followed the matter very closely at the time.
On the general question, I agree that this is not the time to discuss it. But I concur to a great extent in what was said by Lord Burnham, that the matter cannot be regarded as finally settled, and the result will almost certainly be that in many respects you will get in the House of Commons, not a representation of a majority, but really a minority representation. By the method of single-Member constituencies and without proportional representation you disfranchise a large number of voters to whom you purport in the Franchise Bill to give a vote.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, I rise only to correct Lord Parmoor. My noble friend seems to be under the impression that I stated that in all these cases the Commissioners were reporting against the opinions of those who were involved. That was not so. What I meant to convey was that those who favour proportional representation presented their case with great vigour, and, as all other political associations have been dormant for a long period, the full extent of the objections to it was not made known in some places. while in others it was made known in the most unmistakable manner.
§ LORD STUART OF WORTLEY
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Earl the Lord President has left the House, but it is necessary, all the same, that I should say in his absence what I should have said in his presence about this unfortunate mis- 116 understanding. We do not for a moment suggest that it arises from the noble Earl not having in the most loyal way acted up to what he conceived to be the undertakings that he had given. But a deplorable misunderstanding has arisen, and it is much too late now for anything in the nature of recrimination to be in the least degree profitable.
It seems to me that the misunderstanding arose entirely about two things. The noble Earl made two conditions. He said, first, "We must be favourably disposed towards the Report." This condition was understood by the House in the only possible way in which it could be understood, and that was that the Government would be favourably disposed to the Report as an application of the principle of proportional representation, and it was not open to them at that stage to plead that a majority of them were opposed to that principle. Secondly, it is alleged that the condition was that there should be a free vote of the House of Commons at the earliest stage, and before any other obligation began to arise. It is unfortunate that we did not understand that to be the nature of the obligation entered into. The noble Earl falls back upon words used at an earlier period of the evening in an earlier speech—and he had to make many speeches by the necessity of the case. We are also entitled to fall back upon other words which he used in which he said, speaking for the Government as a whole, that the Government were anxious for an experiment to be made.
Taking into consideration that general position, the fact that no Bill would be necessary—and no Bill is necessary—and the mere fact that the expression "place a Minister in charge of the Bill" was used did not make it necessary for this House to take any other view of the pledges given than that which, in fact, it unfortunately did. What we conceived was going to be done, after what was said, was that the Government. would say to the House of Commons, "This is an arrangement under which the House of Lords has given value in the highest form that it could—it gave you the rest of the Bill; and the rest of the undertakings as part of the arrangement ought to be interpreted in the most liberal form, and the experiment ought to be made and honestly tried." That has, unfortunately, not been the sequel, and all I can say is that I hope that on future occasions greater clearness will be observed.
THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE EARL OF CRAWFORD)
I would direct the attention of my noble friend to the remarks which fell from Lord Curzon. I merely wish to say that the noble Earl expressed his regret before leaving that he had a very urgent and old-standing appointment at six o'clock; otherwise he would have attended to hear the noble Lord.