HL Deb 19 November 1918 vol 32 cc227-38

LORD BUCKMASTER, on behalf of EARL RUSSELL, rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether all regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act interfering with free expression of political opinion in speech and in writing have been withdrawn, and whether all expenditure of public money in advocating political views agreeable to the Government has ceased; and to move a Resolution.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the noble Earl in whose name this Question stands has asked me to express regret to your Lordships that he is unable to be present to ask it himself. This Question is one which I think your Lordships will regard as of considerable importance. It is not merely that we have reached a moment when peace is not only within sight but within our grasp, but we are on the brink of a General Election. I desire to say nothing to divert the discussion upon this to the question of whether that Election is wise or foolish. I myself regard it as calamitous, but that is a mere personal opinion; it is one of the ills for which there is no remedy, and, right or wrong, we have to accept it. As a necessary sequel to that fact, it is in my opinion of the utmost importance that everything should be done which will make that Election real and not a farce, which will enable people freely and without impedi- ment to express their views, and enable them to feel that they are not subject to the restraints and limitations which were very necessary when the war was on foot.

I do not know—this Question is intended to elicit—how many of the Regulations issued under the Defence of the Realm Act now remain. Regulation 9A provides that "where the assembly of any persons for the purpose of the holding of any meeting will give rise to great disorder, the meeting may be prohibited." Does that Regulation still continue on foot? If so, how is it possible that meetings can be held in a town where highly provocative and unpopular views are constitutionally advanced by the candidate who holds them? Again, there is the Regulation which provides that "the printing, publishing, or distribution of any leaflet intended or likely to be used for propagandist purposes in relation to the present war"—that may be disregarded—"or to the making of peace cannot be published unless it has been submitted to the Press Bureau, and has printed upon it the true name of the author and of the printer." Is that Regulation still on foot? If so, I should like to know how a candidate who desires to express the opinions which he is constitutionally entitled to express—though everybody knows they will be perfectly worthless at the present moment; views with regard to the making of peace—how is he going to escape the operation of this Regulation?

I do not desire to weary your Lordships by reading out all the restrictions under the Defence of the Realm Act which, unless they have been recently repealed, limit the liberties that people formerly enjoyed and to which they attached great value. But I would beg of your Lordships not to measure the value of those liberties by the cases where they may have been from time to time abused; nor by thinking of them as liberties which enable people to express unpleasant and unpopular opinions. If constitutional government has any meaning at all in this country it means that, when an Election is on, any candidate is at liberty to express, to advocate, and to seek support for, views which may be entirely subversive of the Constitution itself. There is nothing of which I am aware to prevent a man standing as a Republican candidate, to prevent him standing as a Bolshevist candidate, to prevent him standing as representing any one of the extreme and violent views which from time to time are advocated as views by which other nations desire to be governed. The whole security of our Constitution absolutely depends upon that being possible; upon his being able to do it, and upon its being possible for people to say, "You had your chance of advocating it, but nobody would listen to a word you said." If, on the other hand, you do not let him advocate it—if you say that these are views which have to be restricted and restrained—then your representative government becomes a mere farce, and the Election is robbed of all its value.

I have given these illustrations for this reason. At the present moment, as I understand, there are men who are actually in prison for having expressed such views while the war was on. I make no complaint about—I do not know enough of the circumstances to justify me in making any complaint about—their sentence. It may have been perfectly fair and right and well justified by national exigencies, but it seems to me perfectly impossible that it can continue now. You cannot at once have an Election, in which every form of public discussion is invited, and at the same time say, "We none the less intend to restrict the channels in which discussion shall flow." I have referred, and intentionally referred, to the question of Bolshevist literature, and I have done it for this purpose. I hear—I cannot tell whether it is true—that attempts are being made to introduce Bolshevist literature into this country, and that the authorities think they are justified in preventing its publication and distribution.


Hear, hear.


That may be so while you are at war, and it may be so under abnormal conditions. If this Bolshevist literature advocates nothing which is contrary to the Criminal Law, but merely a change of Government, I say with all due reflection and consideration that you cannot properly prevent its circulation when you are face to face with a General Election, and a candidate is at liberty, as he assuredly is, to advocate those views if he so desire, if the views are not in themselves criminal or otherwise contrary to the public law. The whole object of an Election is to enable people, if they so desire, to change their form of government, and its value lies in the fact that it gives opportunity for an expression of opinion, which if unexpressed would circulate through some secret and hidden channels and be productive of immeasurable mischief to the State. That is exactly what will happen with regard to this Bolshevist literature, if you get a crowd of people who meet together in a back room and look over one of these pamphlets as if it were something of enormous consequences, which the Government do not desire to have published, and that they could pass from hand to hand as a hidden and forbidden document. You then will have real danger with regard to the movement. Let it be open, let people see it, and the danger will at once disappear. Secrecy with regard to these matters seems to me very much like drug-taking, which begins by being a necessity and ends by becoming a disease. The days for secrecy and restrictions of this kind have gone by, and I ask the Government to inform this House that these restrictions have been removed.

For practical purposes it seems to me that the Press Bureau may now cease to exist. Its functions from the first were limited to the necessity of restricting the publication of matter which either directly or indirectly could possibly affect the fortune of our forces on land or sea. That necessity has gone by, and I cannot see how the Press Bureau now can proceed, on any principle with which we are acquainted, to discharge its duties. The cable branch deals only with newspapers, and foreign cables ought now to be allowed to go straight through without interference or limitation at all. If it be thought that, in connection with the terms of peace, reckless and unguarded statements in newspapers may cause mischief, the proper way to deal with that is to issue one notice to the Press upon it, and then let newspapers get rid of the bundles of notices, minatory and advisory, of every form, with which I know they have been flooded during the last four years, and the need for which justified undoubtedly the interference that then took place. The need has gone by, and the sooner we resume, unrestricted, the liberties for which people have in the past sacrificed a great deal, and to which they attach great value, the more safe and the more secure will the future of this country be.


My Lords, the closing sentence of the noble and learned Lord's speech makes me ask your Lordships to listen for one moment while I ask him whether his argument is that what was necessary for war is unnecessary now. Technically we may not be at war, but surely all the conditions of war are present at this moment. I venture to take one condition. Nearly all the restrictions which have been put upon private endeavour and private supplies are present and continuing. As regards the personnel, four millions of our countrymen, who would naturally be in this country—a valuable and important element in the consideration of political topics—are absent. That is not a normal condition. The state of wages, the state of supplies, almost every condition of life, is abnormal; and I am quite certain that the noble and learned Lord, when he is arguing that all Bolshevist papers and publications may freely be circulated in this country at present, would scarcely argue that under conditions of censorship the condition of Russia, and of countries in which Bolshevism has penetrated to such an extent, are at least perfectly known.

Nobody desires more than I do to see the censorship removed, but if he means by that counsel of perfection that doctrines which are highly deleterious at any time, but which are specially liable to produce misconception at present, should be allowed to be circulated broadcast by men who have brought their own country to anarchy, I think that would be a most serious responsibility for the Government to take. I venture to urge upon the Government that either, at this moment, to allow the country to be flooded by Bolshevist literature, or, as they are credited with the intention, to release Sinn Fein prisoners to become candidates, in order that they should have full opportunity of airing revolutionary doctrines—I venture to urge upon the Government that either of those courses would be opposed to the sentiments of the vast majority of the people of this country. I have risen because I can hardly believe that in your Lordships' House it should be left only to the Government to repudiate the doctrines of perfection which the noble and learned Lord has advanced, which under ordinary conditions may be sound enough, but which are certainly inapplicable to a country in such a position as we are in at this moment.


I hope your Lordships will allow me to say a few words in answer to this Motion. It has been, as your Lordships know, my duty to deal with this matter at the Home Office during the last two years, and, although I am now about to leave that Office, I still hold the seals and I apprehend shall hold them until my successor is appointed, and, as I possess information which the House would perhaps like to have, it would not be inconvenient that I should address your Lordships' House at this moment.

As regards the actual Motion on the Paper it is capable of a very short answer indeed. The noble Earl asks whether all Regulations interfering with the free expression of political opinion in speech and in writing have been withdrawn, and whether all expenditure of public money in advocating political views agreeable to the Government has ceased. There are no Regulations which interfere with the free expression of political opinion, and no money has been expended, or could be expended, in advocating political views agreeable to the Government. The Regulations to which reference has been made are Regulations made for the purpose of the defence of the Realm, and if and so far as any Regulation goes beyond that purpose it is plainly ultra vires and has not any legal effect. I am the first to recognise that under the Defence of the Realm Act very drastic Regulations indeed have been imposed upon the public. Speaking generally, they have been loyally accepted and patiently borne because every body felt they would not have been made unless at all events His Majesty's Government thought they were necessary for the purpose of the safety of our country. It is all the more true that now hostilities have ceased the public has a right to ask whether the time has not come when these Regulations may be relaxed, and we recognise most plainly our duty to look into the matter and see what course ought to be followed.

Now, having said that, may I add one word of caution? I think that even the noble and learned Lord who asked this Question does not fully apprehend the nature and the limits of these Regulations. The Regulations prevent false statements, statements interfering with the conduct of the war, statements calculated to create mutiny and disaffection among our forces; but there is nowhere, I think, a Regulation which can fairly or legitimately be used for interfering with the course of the election that is shortly about to come to pass. Indeed, in the very Regulation to which the noble and learned Lord referred—Regulation 27 H—there is an express provision that prevents that Regulation from applying to the literature of an electoral kind, because in the very last words of the Regulation one finds words which prevent the Regulation from applying to any document issued by or under the authority of a candidate at a pending Parliamentary election for the purpose only of promoting his election. So that, in the very terms of the Regulation, candidates are fully protected. I should like to add one other observation also of a general character, and it is this. It is true that hostilities have ceased, it is true that our enemy is beaten in the field, but I by no means think that the activities of our enemies are at an end.


Hear, hear.


I am quite sure that in the interval between the conclusion of the Armistice and the conclusion of peace our enemies will seek again and again to undermine our position. If not now by force of arms, at least by other means, he will seek that which, indeed, he has already begun to seek—to destroy, if he can, or to undermine the unity between ourselves and our Allies and to destroy and undermine our unity at home. With great respect to the noble and learned Lord I look upon what are called Bolshevist activities in this country at the present moment not as a genuine movement for the modification of our British constitution but as an instrument of German attack. I believe there is a close alliance between Bolshevism and Germany, and that most, possibly all, of those who call themselves Bolshevists to-day are either the conscious agents or the unconscious tools of our enemies. I have had evidence, even in the last week, of that alliance between the Bolshevists and our enemies. It is only in that sense, and because I hold that view, that I do believe that we may fairly and properly use, and indeed ought to use, the instrument given to us by the Defence of the Realm Act for checking Bolshevist propaganda in this country until peace is concluded.

So far I have made only general observations, but I think the House would like to have some specific information as to what the Government is doing and is about to do. A short time ago the Cabinet asked me to form a Committee for the purpose of considering this very matter and we dealt first with questions affecting the Press Bureau. The functions of the Press Bureau are in the main two. First, when a newspaper goes to the Directors of the Bureau for advice as to whether an article may properly be published without infringing the Regulations that advice is at once given. No one is bound to submit an article for that opinion. When newspapers go to the Bureau for that purpose they go of their own wish. So far as that function is concerned I think the Press Bureau is welcome to the Press, and I see no reason whatever why its existence should come to an end at the present moment. If papers do not choose to go to it they can cease to go, and there would be an end of that part of its activities. The other main part of the work of the Press Bureau relates to foreign cables, both out and in—


Foreign Press cables.


Foreign Press cables. It also has had something to do with inland telegrams which, in cases of doubt, have been referred to the Press Bureau. So far as that is concerned direction has been already given that inland telegrams shall no longer be so referred, and if there has been delay caused in the delivery of telegrams by that means that delay is now at an end. As regards foreign Press telegrams there is more room for doubt. I do not want at this moment to express a final opinion as to whether the Press Bureau shall cease to deal with these cables, but I do point this out—that if our enemies desire to exercise an illegitimate or hostile influence, either upon our publications or our people here, it is by means of these Press cables that they are able to do so. I have myself seen within the past few days cables coming from Russia which have plainly no intention except that they should be used as an instrument of Bolshevist propaganda, containing statements manifestly false and statements which may well have been mischievous. Without expressing a final view I think the Committee ought carefully to consider whether, as respecting those cables, it would not be well to retain the check which is now imposed by the Press Bureau.

One other point affecting the Bureau is this. The noble and learned Lord has truly said that there exists now a whole collection of instructions or directions issued from time to time by the Bureau, and its very size has become something of a burden to those who conduct the Press in this country. I fully recognise that the time has come to reconsider those instructions, and what we propose to do is to sweep them all away, and to issue, if need be, a set of instructions which will be, if it exists at all, found to be very short, easily understood, and readily followed. Before coming to that decision I had a discussion with representatives of the Press, and I found that they would be fully satisfied if that course were followed.

Now, I have only shortly to refer to the other branch of the speech which has been made, that which referred to the Defence of the Realm Regulations. I think they, too, may at the present moment, to a great extent although not wholly, be either suspended or repealed. I do not want to anticipate the decisions which may be come to within a few days by my Committee; I do not even want to indicate them or hold out hope that the particular regulations to which the noble and learned Lord referred will be now suspended or repealed. I see considerable arguments in favour of retaining for the present, during the few weeks or months for which the peace negotiations must last, some of the very Regulations to which he has referred—for instance, Regulation 27, which has been perhaps the one most used throughout the war; and Regulation 42, which has also a general bearing.

It may be that those must be retained, but I want to say this most emphatically. I am quite sure that they will not be used for the purpose of checking the expression of opinion, and least of all opinion expressed by candidates at the coming Election. I entirely associate myself with what has been said that it is desirable that at Election times opinion should have free expression. If it is not then expressed, it will be said that the decision of the electorate does not represent the real opinion of the country upon matters which might be brought before it; and I am quite sure that there will be no desire on the part of the Government to use any of the Regulations for the purpose of suppressing the expression of opinion. My Lords, that is all that I think I can usefully say to day; but I can assure the House that the Committee over which I have the honour to preside will approach their duties with the object of reducing, so far as possible, these Regulations, and of keeping alive only those which are needed for the purpose of the protection of our country at the present crisis.


My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to congratulate my noble and learned friend opposite [Viscount Cave] on his appearance on that Bench. As he himself stated, his appearance there is something of an anomaly, because we do not, as a rule, find noble and learned Lords holding high judicial office in the House answering for His Majesty's Government. But we all understand the special position in which my noble friend is placed, and it is indeed the greatest advantage to us that he, having the special knowledge and experience that he has of these matters, should have been able, by the accident of his still remaining Home Secretary, to reply to my noble and learned friend to-day. I can say, without hesitation, that there were several points in the noble and learned Lord's speech which we heard with great satisfaction; in particular, the prospect which he held out of the reduction into a quite small compass of the many Regulations which affect the Press; and the substitution, so far as is necessary, of some simple Code in place of this great bundle of existing Regulations. This will be, I am sure, exceedingly welcome to my noble friend Lord Burnham, and to all those who are concerned with the freedom of action by the Press.

Also, I am sure we shall all be glad to hear that the Defence of the Realm Regulations will be carefully gone through with a view to their reduction to the lowest possible number compatible with the situation in which we are now placed, which, we all admit, is not one of peace in the full pre-war sense, and which all of us are bound to concede may demand the continuance of certain restrictions for a limited time. But my noble and learned friend I think was fully justified in bringing forward this Question in the terms in which he did, owing to the nearness of a General Election. My noble and learned friend opposite, in the concluding sentences of his speech, stated that it was his hearty desire—and I gather also the desire of His Majesty's Government—that no implication should be present to the public mind that any of these restrictions are intended to interfere with the free expression of opinion during the General Election. But, my Lords, I am bound to say that that impression, as is evident from what we read in the newspapers, does exist, and that the noble Viscount's desire to divest himself of any responsibility of the kind was by no means unnecessary, because it has been, as we all have seen, a matter of some dread lest the free expression of opinion would, in one way or another, be interfered with by the continuance of various Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act.

My noble and learned friend behind me [Lord Buckmaster] stated the case for free speech in very broad terms, terms in some ways almost broader than I should have ventured to use myself. It must always be remembered, when strong views, the most advanced views, are brought forward, that everything depends on the precise manner in which they are brought forward and the exact terms which are used. People in past days have declared themselves Republicans; some well-known Members of Parliament, some of whom have attained high office, have made such a declaration; but, it is quite possible to conceive terms in which an advanced thinker of to-day might so declare himself which, even without advocating the actual commission of crime, might properly bring him within the meshes of the law. When it is said that Bolshevist views may be uttered, I confess that I do not know precisely what is meant. I am no Russian scholar, but I am told that the word "Bolshevist" is the Russian translation of the word "extremist"—that it means that, neither more nor less—and that being so, there have been a certain number of Bolshevists in this country and in all European countries for many years. I agree with my noble friend that the mere expression of extreme views is less harmful than the suppression of such views and their propagation by underhand means.

But, as I ventured to say just now, it appears to me that everything depends on the manner in which those views are put forward. I can conceive it quite possible that views publicly announced in the Western States of America, demanding the secession of the whole of the western coast of the Union, might be put forward in terms which would cause their violent suppression. It might, I suppose, be said that that is merely an expression of a political aspiration. It might be said also that in France the public enunciation of an intention to try and destroy the Republic was only an expression of a political view, but I should not be surprised to hear that in that country strong measures were taken to prevent such public expressions of opinion.

Everything, as I say, depends on the manner in which views are put forward; but I think that it is most important that His Majesty's Government should make it as clear, as the noble and learned Lord opposite has tried to make it clear this afternoon, that they do not intend, and will not countenance, any suppression of political views as such, however unpalatable or even, if you like, disloyal those views may be; because, if it comes to be believed by any great number of people that suppression of this kind is intended, you may be quite sure that it will be said, and will be believed by hundreds of thousands of people, that this is not really a free Election, that it is a made Election, that the Members of the new Parliament would be rather nominated than elected. It is obvious that the whole repute of the next House of Commons would disappear if any great section of our fellow-countrymen were to entertain such beliefs. I therefore urge the noble and learned Lord, and His Majesty's Government, to use very effort to make it clear that the free expression of speech which is not criminal will not be interfered with at the coming Election.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Viscount for the full answer that he gave to my Question; and I have only to say that, were it not for the imminence of the Election, I do not think that there was anything that he said with which I should have been at variance.