§ THE DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH
My Lords, beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are in a position to state their policy in relation to the reform 262 of the House of Lords. I hope I shall not incur the displeasure of any noble Lord in this House for bringing forward this Question at a rather late period of the session. May I preface my remarks by offering my congratulations to the noble Marquess on the position he occupies? The noble Marquess is in the place which was occupied by his father, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, and he in his turn occupied the place and the post of his forebear. Robert Cecil.
I fear I shall come under the displeasure of the noble Marquess this afternoon. When he saw my Question on the Notice Paper he probably said to himself: "Really this is most unusual. The noble Lord ought to know better. The Government has only been in power for a few weeks and how can it possibly be called upon to reply to such a Question and to express a view upon an important constitutional change involving an alteration in the constitution of this House?" But I daresay the noble Marquess made the philosophic reflection that, after all, every noble Lord has his duty to perform in this House, and that it may be the function of some to provide political food for discussion, without which we should die of inanition.
I had much better, perhaps, make a clear confession to the noble Marquess of the reasons which prompted me to raise this Question this afternoon. The other evening, when sitting opposite to him during the passage of the Irish Free State Constitution Bill, I could not help reflecting that the noble Marquess had on either side of him as counsellors and as guides a Stanley and a Cavendish, and I said to myself: "The names of these three noble Lords individually and collectively occur with considerable regularity in the pages of our constitutional history since the days of the Plantagenet Kings." Knowing, as I did, their lofty conceptions and long descent, I said to myself: "What will be the attitude of these three noble Lords with regard to any change of this House? What will be their attitude towards their colleagues in the Cabinet and what influence will they have upon them?"
I recall to my mind the remarks of the Prime Minister who said that the difference of opinion between him and the members of the late Government was not so much a difference of policy as a difference of temperament. I next asked myself: "What is the temperament of the noble Marquess? What is the temperament collectively of 263 the three noble Lords sitting opposite, and what will be the effect of their temperament upon the temperament of the Prime Minister?" I then decided, with some hesitation and the necessary amount of courage, to submit the temperament of the noble Lords opposite to psycho-analysis on the question of the reform of your Lordships' House generally. After all, the noble Marquess is very rich. He is rich in friends, rich in supporters, rich in having a large political organisation behind him, and equally rich in resource in dealing with, or applying his mind to, any question which may be presented to him.
Since the position of many members of this House will be influenced by any effort to eliminate the more mischievous effects of the Parliament Act, since the relations between the two Houses must be modified, either in harmony or in discord, since the relations between the two Houses and the new electorate must be changed, the noble Marquess will surely forgive me if my curiosity has permitted me to take a voyage of discovery. After all, curiosity is permitted in the discovery of the tomb of an Egyptian Queen. How much more should it be legitimate when the tomb in question may possibly be your own. I think the word "discovery" is the right one for the present occasion. If the noble Marquess will permit me to say so, we do not know at the present time where we stand. Last summer we discussed, under the Resolutions brought forward by the noble Viscount. Lord Peel, this question of a reform of the House, and we were led to believe that this autumn, in Committee, the discussions would continue. We were rather inclined to think that our energies would be directed by the noble Marquess himself. The noble Marquess had accepted the invitation made to him by the noble Viscount to clothe the skeleton, and he had given us reason to believe that the finished flesh might, in its appearance, have staggered the original members of the Cabinet Committee who were appointed, and who, of course, on that occasion had provided the bones. As to that what I want to ask is: Where are we to-day? Is the skeleton to be clothed? If so, by whom? Are the members of your Lordships' House to provide the necessary garment, or are we to look to the Government? Are we going to have some ready made garment or reach-me-down provided for us by the Government, duly cut and basted by the official tailors from Whitehall, or are we to regard 264 this skeleton as having been cremated as a result of the General Election?
I somehow cannot believe that that can be possible, because your Lordships remember well the position in which the debate in connection with the reform of this House was left last August. At that time there was a dispute as to whether the powers of the House should be considered first, or its constitution. The noble Marquess himself argued, with great vigour and with a considerable amount of astuteness, that the powers of the House should be considered first, and he brought forward, as a very good argument, that it would be a cruel shame to the members of this House that they should be excluded from it, unless they knew what the powers were going to be; in other words, it was contended that they should not be called upon to make a sacrifice until they knew what the powers of the House would be.
On the other hand, the noble and learned Earl, the late Lord Chancellor, argued the other way, pointing out to the House from his rich experience, judgment and knowledge, that it would be better to discuss the constitution first and the powers afterwards. He brought forward the argument that his long experience on the political platforms of England had taught him that many charges had been made against this House—and no one more than the late Lord Chancellor has helped to defend the position of your Lordships' House—and that among those very many charges the gravamen of the case was against the constitution of the House and not against its powers, and that it would be impossible to get the necessary measure of public approval from the new electorate with regard to the powers of this House until we had adequately satisfied the electors that its constitution was in conformity with their wishes and desires. The matter was rather left in that position, but the noble Marquess indicated that in the autumn he was going to bring forward his own views and make his own contribution.
May I suggest that at that time the general sense of the House—I hope I have not interpreted it wrongly—was that we should go forward. That view was emphatically expressed by the most rev. Primate, and no one is more sensitive to, or more appreciative of, the general sense of this House than the noble Marquess himself. No one defers to it more, and no one is more polite in dealing with any 265 suggestion that is made in regard to it. I therefore ask this Question: How is it possible for us to get forward unless we are in receipt of some guidance? Are we going to receive any guidance from him? We all remember the speech which was delivered in this House by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. It was more than a speech; it was a positive warning. I do not propose to recapitulate the speech of the noble Earl, because it is well within the memory of noble Lords. But what did the noble Marquess say in regard to Lord Selborne's warning? The noble Marquess said that Lord Selborne did not go a word beyond the truth in the warning which he gave to the House.
Let me pass to the speech of the noble Marquess himself. I would not wish to weary the noble Marquess by repeating the speech that he made on that occasion, but I have epitomised it, and I hope I have not done him an injustice. The noble Marquess insisted that the repeal of the Parliament Act would soon become a most urgent question. In view of the debates which took place in this House last summer, in view of the attitude which the noble Marquess took then, and in view of the warnings given to us by the late. Lord Chancellor on this subject, we must reckon with the question of Labour. I beg the noble Marquess to remember the remarks which he addressed to us on that occasion. What did he say then? He said—Once a difficulty has passed out of sight, even for a moment, we tend to disbelieve that it exists. That is not a wise frame of mind.I appeal to the noble Marquess to guide us in the path of wisdom.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, before the noble Marquess addresses himself to the Question which has been put to him, I should like to have a little definition. The noble Duke pictured himself as one who was on a voyage in search of an unknown land, but he gave us no description of that land, or the foliage and fruits we might expect to find there. Since the debates of last summer there has been a General Election, resulting in the return of a Government of another complexion; a Government, the leaders of which in the course of that Election gave no indication whatever of any plan agreed on and proposed by them to the constituencies for the reform of this Chamber. That may have been very wise; I do not argue that point. My 266 point is that immediately after a General Election you come, with a proposition of this tremendous magnitude, never having even submitted it to the electors or given them any indication of any policy whatever. I am not sure that that was wrong, because the debates in this House brought out a singular chasm between two points of view. Generally there is somevia media, but on the present occasion I have been unable to find any.
There is the point of view of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, whose broad principle is that there should be some restriction upon the power of the other House, and that such restriction should be put into operation by this House. He wishes for the repeal of the Parliament Act, and also other powers for your Lordships; at least so I interpret his speech. Then there is another school of thought whose views are expressed by Lord Crewe, who say that it is vain to talk of giving to the House of Lords the power of putting restrictions upon the capacity of the House of Commons. Those who belong to the former school of thought ignore, so the school of Lord Crewe consider, the fact that democratic principles have advanced in this country and that it is no longer possible. I do not discuss these points this afternoon; I merely mention this view of a reformed Second Chamber as one which should consult, and advise, and delay, rather than interfere. It points to a Second Chamber which would stand in close organic relation to the other Chamber and be itself an adviser, not merely in the matters upon which the Constitution leaves us free to advise at present., but in all.
Those who take that view think that if it were successfully established the Second Chamber would be far more powerful in reality than it has been for the last fifty years. I am not going to discuss these points of view now: I only point them out in order to draw attention to the fact that there is a cleavage of principle. The noble Duke referred to the question as to whether we should begin with the powers or with the constitution of this House. How are they separate? How can you discuss one except in relation to the other? I know of no change in the constitution which could be brought about without having some connection with the powers you are going to give to this House; and I know of no powers which would not depend on the constitution you give to this House.
267 Then we come back to the only practical test that has been made to get agreement in this House. There was Lord Bryce's Report. That Report indeed split the House hopelessly. There was not the least possibility of coming to an agreement. The Report itself could not be presented as a Report; it had to appear in the form of a letter written by Lord Bryce to the Prime Minister. In this state of things let us see what the practical course is, and here I await with interest what the noble Marquess will say. The Government has come in with a very substantial majority, and so far as my observation goes this House appears to be happier because the Government has come in. I will not say anything on the merits; all I say is that I now see faces of contentment where I saw faces of dissatisfaction. If it was my business to advise the Government I should say that they are not so very badly off as the House stands at present. They might be very much worse off, and my own impression is that whatever course they take they would not be better off than they are to-day.
In that state of things, where do we stand? There is no mandate to the Government to carry through any particular plan, and the subject is one on which you would have a great uprising if you took the wrong course. There is the plan of the Parliament Act. That was a very artificial Act. It has a Preamble which was never carried out; and those who had to do with that Act know that the reason why the Preamble was not carried out was due to the intrinsic difficulties of the subject. Much deliberation was given to it. I gave much deliberation to it, but it was fruitless. The Parliament Act itself is not merely what it is in the words of the Statute. It is a formula, an expression of a principle, and the principle is that the popularly elected House is to be ultimately supreme.
I do not think the public minds delay, but what it said when the Parliament Act was passed was that the other House was to be supreme, and you have to make up your mind, in listening to some of the propositions that have been brought forward, whether you are going to go back on that. It is obvious that there is the possibility of a great stir of public opinion, and for my own part I doubt whether the Government would be justified in bringing forward any substantial measure for the reform of the House of Lords without submitting the matter to the country. How- 268 ever that may be, I trust that the noble Marquess, who is, as I have said, not badly off under present conditions, will act cautiously before he embarks on that voyage to which the noble Duke has invited him.
§ VISCOUNT BURNHAM
My Lords, I ought, perhaps, to apologise to your Lordships for addressing you again on this well-worn theme, but it seems to me that the noble Duke has been more than justified in drawing your attention to this Question in the first days of what is likely to be one of the most fateful Parliaments in British history. I have just heard the noble and learned Viscount question the right or power of the Government to deal with the matter at all, because, as I understood him to say, no proposals were submitted to the electorate by the Prime Minister. I doubt whether we have ever had a Government which came into office with so free a hand, and so little trammelled by pledges Their only mandate is to seek the peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and, if they can do it by constitutional means, I think they are amply justified, in spite of the fact that they may not have brought forward so ample a series of proposals as the Party which is represented in this House by the noble and learned Viscount.
Another point which I cannot forget is that it is only four years ago that the noble Marquess who leads this House with so much distinction, and is now absent abroad on public duty, himself invited and nominated a Conference, which met under the chairmanship of Lord Bryce. He addressed to all of us who were members of that Conference a personal letter, in which he led us to believe that we were to perform a public service in clearing the ground for subsequent proposals of reform in which, he said, he took the deepest personal interest. It is true that no regular Report was presented, but a variety of proposals were submitted to the Conference, and were reported to the House by Lord Bryce. They now form the material from which a measure for renovation might well be proposed.
I think the noble Duke is further justified because, after all, although we do not change our personal composition quite so much as the House of Commons, we do change it very considerably. I am the last to complain of it, since I sit here by virtue of a recent creation, but I believe that during the last six years ninety-one members were 269 added to your Lordships' House, and the changes and chances of life greatly affect the tenure of our seats here. I am one of those who do not believe that we can for very long remain as we are and where we are. We have the lessons of the past to guide us. If there was one great sin of omission on the part of the Ministry over which the illustrious father of the noble Marquess so long presided, it was that in twenty years, more or less, they failed altogether, in spite of the Reports of Committee after Committee, to do anything to readjust the manifest evils of our constitutional arrangements. The lessons of history are neglected with peril, and I hope that, having that memory behind us, this Government, which is very much of the same character as the Governments of that day, will not be equally deaf to the necessities of constitutional expediency.
This House, of course, always plays in our Constitution the part of quiescence and acquiescence. That is all we try to do, but I hope that, by refusing to make any attempt to constitute ourselves a real power in legislation, even if we cannot play that part in administration, we shall not sink into a coma, only varied from time to time by fitful spasms of fever on an Irish question. I do not pretend to think that the proposals brought forward by my noble and learned friend who sat lately on the Woolsack were the perfection of human wisdom, but there was one which I hold to be of absolute necessity, if we are not to be, in a sense, the laughing-stock of Europe for our want of real power in legislation or in government. I speak of the unlimited expansiveness of this House.
Its greatest disadvantage is its fluidity, and the proposals of toy noble and learned friend would at least bring that to an end. I cannot conceive that the membership of this House can go on increasing year by year as it is increasing now. If it does, we shall merely be a titled mob. We shall more or less resemble the Polish Diet in the early days of its existence. We are now in such numbers that every other Second Chamber in Europe looks puny by comparison in point of size. I wonder whether your Lordships know how enormously our own numbers exceed those of any other Second Chamber in the world. Supposing it were an advantage to have a body of our size, then I suppose it would have been natural fur the Dominions over-seas, when their Constitutions were in course of drafting, to model themselves 270 more or less upon this House. But in Canada the Legislative Council contains only 87 members; in Australia there are 36; and in South Africa, 40. The Senate of the United States of America, which is probably the most powerful legislative Chamber in the world, has only 90 members for 110,000,000 people.
Apart from those examples, the greatest Second Chamber, in point of numbers, is that of Spain, with 360 members, followed by Italy with 341, and France with 300. We shall soon have a thousand members here. It is inconceivable that we could meet anywhere except in Westminster Hall if Peers attended, as they ought to attend, to their legislative duties. Does the noble Marquess and does this Government seriously intend to leave the numbers of this House where they are? It is quite true that in practical working we do not suffer very much, because the great bulk of our members do not take their duties seriously, and fail to show any sense of personal or corporate responsibility for the rights and privileges which they enjoy.
But I think there is another danger. I am by no means inclined to an excessive fear of the consequences that are manifestly likely to result from the increase in the numbers of the Socialist Party in the House of Commons. At the same time, as the noble and learned Viscount who has just spoken would be the first assert, we are approaching the days when they will in all probability (in his opinion and in the opinion of many others) assume the reins of power, and when we may see him again on the Woolsack. If that be so, we have to realise that whilst there is no limit to our numbers this House can always be swamped by the creation of Peers sufficient to carry any measure or series of measures upon which the Party in power may have set its mind. We do not stand where we did in this matter. It is not to the precedent of 1832 that we have to pay regard. It is common knowledge, which I believe has official authority, that Mr. Asquith obtained the assent of the Crown to the creation of such a number of Peerages as would have enabled the Parliament Bill to be placed on the Statute Book. There is no reason why that precedent should be reversed. On the contrary, it would probably be held to be binding. Whilst there is no limit to the number of members of this Horse it is not merely a matter of the Parliament Act, under which of course, there is always the difficulty of carrying a 271 measure to the last comma and line that was passed in a previous session. During the currency of a session a sufficient number of Peers might be brought up here,ad hoc as they call it, in order to carry out the policy of the Government of the day.
Things are not as they were before 1912. Your Lordships have to reckon with this. I recollect that in the last debate which took place Lord Newton, who always speaks with point and wisdom in this House, told us that the reason the House of Lords was valued by public opinion was that it was always so unlike the House of Commons. But in point of numbers we are too like the House of Commons. We are more numerous, because they have decreased now to 615 whereas they were over 700, and we go on increasing. At the same time, the House of Commons is a cumbrous Assembly. It is probable there are too many members, judged certainly by comparison with the United States of America and those countries which are enjoying new fangled Constitutions, in which they are supposed to have embodied all the wisdom of the past. But my complaint in this respect is that we are not sufficiently unlike the House of Commons. I entirely agree with the argument that public opinion requires a difference, substantial and effective, in the composition and constitution of the two Houses.
Nobody expects a perfect Constitution. I think it was ollivier, the French Statesman, who said that it was better to live under an illogical Constitution than to die under a logical one. Nobody expects a perfect Constitution, but I wish to impress upon the Deputy Leader of the House that it is not fair for this Government to contemplate repeating the tactics of the long years of Conservative administration between 1886 and 1906. The case of Lord Wensleydale is a bad case for this House. Probably, if reform had conic earlier, it would have worked more smoothly than now, but, without prejudging any issue, I ask the Government whether they will not contemplate such a measure as will reduce the numbers of this House to manageable proportions, get rid of those who are admittedly unfit to sit here and exercise legislative functions, and enable this House to perform more effectively than we can do now the work of supervision and revision for which after all a Second Chamber must exist.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT CAVE)
My Lords, I think it would be well that I should state at the earliest instant what is the position of the Government in this matter, and I think I can do so within a very short compass of time. The noble Duke who introduced this Question made, to begin with, some kind of apology for raising the matter now. I can assure him that nobody will complain of his taking that course. There is no mystery, and indeed there is no uncertainty, about the position of the Government, for it was declared by the Prime Minister during the course of the recent Election, but of course the noble Duke is entitled to have it stated in this House.
I can state it, I think, in three propositions. First, we say that, while there is no question of repealing the Parliament Act, we fully recognise that the constitution and the powers, and, I agree with the noble Viscount, the numbers, of this House must be considered and dealt with as soon as an opportunity occurs. Secondly, we believe for they have said so—that all Parties are desirous of dealing with this question, and we desire, if possible, to make no partisan proposal of this matter but to deal with it by agreement, so far as agreement can be arrived at. Thirdly, and here I am with Lord Haldane in what he said, we say that this Government must have some time in which to consider its proposals; and in view of the number of very serious questions which confront us in the near future the Government have no present intention of making proposals to the House or of bringing this grave question into the arena of discussion during the coming session.
Of course, that will not prevent any other noble Lord from raising it if he thinks fit, and in that case we must deal with the matter as best we can, but it is the present view that we should not make proposals similar to those made in the last Parliament. I do not think it would be convenient or desirable that I should now discuss the very interesting questions of principle which have been raised in the speeches that we have heard.
§ THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD
My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Viscount that the noble Duke has rendered a service by directing the attention of the House to this subject, and while I do not dissent entirely from the observations which the noble and learned Viscount on 273 the Woolsack has made—while I think that in all the circumstances the Government probably reached a sensible conclusion in the matter—there are, nevertheless, one or two observations which fall to be made upon this subject. The noble and learned Viscount says that the Government proposes to deal with the matter if and when opportunity offers. When is opportunity going to offer? Is there the slightest reason for supposing that opportunity is going to offer? Let me assure him that this kind of matter is not dealt with as if handed over to you by a fairy godmother in the form of an opportunity. It presents the greatest possible difficulties.
The Government has to make up its mind whether or not the occasion is grave enough to call upon them to make the constructive and creative effort necessary to deal with it. Nor was I particularly reassured from the point of view of reform by the hope so earnestly expressed by the noble and learned Viscount, that they might be able to deal with this matter upon the basis of general agreement. Optimism is the only thing in this country which at this moment is not taxed, and therefore nobody can complain of the noble and learned Viscount for refreshing his mind with the hope of general agreement being obtained upon the subject, but I should be very greatly interested to hear upon what recent discussion, consideration or deliberation the noble and learned Viscount has encouraged himself to believe that there is the slightest prospect of obtaining a general measure of agreement.
Give me leave to inform the noble and learned Viscount that these matters have been very carefully and conscientiously examined by large bodies of competent people in the course of the last few years. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Haldane, has told us that he gave great attention to this matter. My noble and learned friend will permit me to say that I have only one regret in regard to his contact with this difficult constitutional question, and that is that he had not made the investigations which would have satisfied him of the difficulty, if not of the impossibility, of carrying out tile Preamble before he published the Preamble to the world. It ought, perhaps, to be a lesson to all of us to beware of 'Preambles. But the noble and learned Viscount has informed us of the difficulties which confronted him and his friends when they attempted to carry out his Preamble. We know 274 therefore how difficult it was to attain unanimity among that particular assembly of not inexperienced statesmen.
We had then a Commission presided over by the late Lord Bryce, and I think the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham. is perfectly justified in pointing out that he and those who sat upon that Commission received a personal letter from the noble Marquess who was then Leader of the House, as he is Leader of the House now, in which he most plainly requested each individual member of the Commission to give his services, with the assurance that it was the intention of the then Government to act upon their recommendations, with the object of producing a scheme.
Then we had another body. This was a Committee of the late Cabinet, of which I was a member. Lord Curzon was the Chairman, Mr. Churchill was a member, and Mr. Fisher was a member; I think there was one other whose name happens for the moment to have escaped me, not owing to its insignificance, but because, by accident, I do not recall it. We sat for fifteen or twenty meetings; we gave all the best of our powers to this subject; we attempted to discover that measure of agreement which the noble and learned Viscount hopes may be forthcoming; and the only measure of agreement on which we were able to concentrate was embodied in the Resolutions which were moved in this House in an ingenious speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Peel, whom I am glad to observe in his place.
It is not the least use deluding ourselves with general expressions that some time or other, at a date unspecified and incapable of specification, when that agreement is attained which up to the present has proved to be completely unattainable, we may look forward to some reform of this House. This was not the way the matter was put a year ago by the noble Marquess who leads the House now. And if the question was a pressing one a year ago, it it was as pressing as the noble Marquess said, and said often, it was a year ago, it has not become less pressing to-day. The ground upon which its extreme urgency was based a year ago by the noble Marquess and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, was that the days were very likely approaching when we should be confronted with a Labour (government in power in this country. Whatever else the List General Election may have shown, it has at least shown this, 275 that the days in which we may be confronted by a Labour Government are not more remote than at the period which excited the lively apprehensions of the noble Marquess a year ago.
I am particularly sorry not to see Lord Selborne in his place to-day. He has long been an enthusiast in this cause. He has spent about eighteen months hurrying and scurrying from the House of Lords to the National Union, and to other meetings, passing and strengthening Resolutions calling upon the Government of the day to act, and to act at once. A week's delay was excessive in the somewhat over-heated imagination of the noble Earl upon this subject. For about two or three years there never was a moment in which he had an opportunity of developing this Question in the House of Lords which he did not embrace, and there was not a meeting of the National Union in which the familiar and stereotyped Resolution of the noble Earl did not find an honoured, if somewhat conventional, place. And therefore I deeply regret that the noble Earl is not here to-day to impress the noble Marquess with his zeal for this question—a zeal which the noble Marquess appears somewhat to have forgotten.
But the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, in the debate which I have in my mind, which took place on July 18, 1922, was very definite. He spoke, I think, with the complete assent, and the expressed assent, of the noble Marquess, and when the noble and learned Viscount says that it is not the policy of the Government to repeal the Parliament Act, give me leave to tell him, with great respect, that the observation is perhaps a little lacking in precision. It is not a question, of course, of repealing the whole of the Parliament Act—nobody, so far as I know, not even Lord Selborne, has proposed that we should repeal the whole of the Parliament Act—but the case that was made, the case which, unless they have abandoned their expressed opinions, is still made by prominent colleagues of the noble and learned Viscount, is not, indeed, that they should repeal the Parliament Act, taking the Parliament Act as a whole; the case that was made, and so far as I know, is still made, was that they should deprive the Parliament Act of all that was characteristic of it, in other words, that they should interpose a General Election between the automatic passing into law of a measure which has not been submitted 276 to the constituencies between the period at which it was introduced in the House of Commons and the time at which, in the existing conditions, it becomes law automatically under the terms of the Parliament Act.
That is a very plain question of principle. It does not, indeed, even involve the repeal of the Parliament Act, which the noble and learned Viscount has assured us is not the policy of the Government, but it does most directly involve the repeal of that which was most characteristic of the Parliament Act, that which alone recommended the Parliament Act to its authors, and that which alone renders the Parliament Act obnoxious to its opponents. How do we stand about that I should have been glad if the noble and learned Viscount had been able to help us upon that point. But Lord Selborne, in perfectly plain language, said that no reform was of value which did not afford an opportunity for consulting the constituencies at that critical stage between the introduction of a measure in the House of Commons and its becoming automatically law in this House.
This is the exact passage I have in my mind; it occurred on Lord Selborne's speech with which the noble Marquess so cordially agreed—I would ask your Lordships to consider for a few moments why some such method of dealing with differences of opinion between the two Houses is required, and why Lord Bryce was abundantly justified in the careful language he used as to the powers required by a Second Chamber. I am prepared to show your Lordships that there is at the present moment, under the provisions of the Parliament Act—I do not say the whole of the Parliament Act, but under certain provisions of the Parliament Act—no real stability for liberty, for property, or for the Constitution.And the noble Earl then proceeded to say this—I will give your Lordships an indication of the kind of measure which, if such men—speaking of the Russian Bolsheviks—did get control, might be passed under the Parliament Act in the time I have mentioned, although a majority of the people might be altogether opposed to it. You might have a measure for prohibition: if that could be introduced under the guise of finance, it could be passed in one session; if not, in two years. A measure for suspendingHabeas Corpus might certainly pass into law within two years. A law did that during the war, and that is absolutely a precedent; and I will show your Lordships presently how that precedent might be used.And when we come to the speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, who now 277 leads the House, he said in plain terms—I do not desire to read the salient passages in his speech, because he will not dispute them, but I have them here—that it was essential, if the position and the independence of this House was to be restored, that there should be some means of consulting the electorate between the introduction of the measure in the House of Commons and its becoming law under the terms of the Parliament Act.
There was one plea made in the speech of the noble and learned Viscount to which I most unhesitatingly subscribe, and that was that it is not reasonable to expect of any Government, in the first few weeks of its authority, that it should come before us with a clear expression of a policy upon this or any other question. But I am at least entitled to point this out, that apparently from the observations made by the noble and learned Viscount it is extremely uncertain whether, in the whole course of this Parliament, the Government has the least intention to legislate upon this subject. No pledge whatever was given by the noble and learned Viscount that the Government intended to deal with this matter and, if I understood aright the speech made by the Prime Minister in the country—I read it very carefully at the time it was delivered—what the Prime Minister said was this: "For two years we shall certainly do nothing," not generally, but in relation to this question of the House of Lords. "For two years we shall do nothing. We shall not propose the repeal of the Parliament Act, and it is uncertain"—I think this was the tenour of the observations of the Prime Minister—"at the end of those two years whether we shall hold ourselves bound to do anything at all".
It is true, as a previous speaker, the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, said, that the Government is at this moment, having regard to what was said by the Prime Minister in the course of the Election, absolutely unpledged to deal with this question. I listened most carefully to the speech of the noble and learned Viscount, and I expressly invite him to tell me whether I am wrong. Having listened to his speech I am sure that there was no mention of any date at all; there was no definite promise that any measure of any kind will be introduced to reform the House of Lords in the lifetime of the present Parliament, and the only indication we have that such an intention is entertained 278 at all is that it is hoped that it will be the subject of general consent.
A point I should like to make is this. Now that, most happily, a Government of opportunists has gone, whose purposes, if and so far as they ever were honest at all—a very large assumption—were defeated and deflected by that shifting opportunism which always corrupts the legislative efforts of a Coalition; now that we have the advantage that their place has been taken by a body of men who drink in logical and homogeneous doctrine from a common fount; now, in other words, that we have the advantage of sitting face to face with those whose judgment and whose views are no longer obscured by distracting counsels, why have we not a little more clarity upon this question?
We were always told that we could not agree upon the question of the Reform of the House of Lords because Liberals sat side by side with my noble friend Lord Peel and myself, corrupting us from day to day in the lifetime of the late Government; although it is a somewhat astonishing circumstance that in the Committee of the Cabinet upon which I sat which attempted to deal with these matters, the only member of that Committee with whom I almost always found myself in general agreement was Mr. Fisher. I always differed profoundly from the views of the present Leader of the House and the views of Mr. Churchill, but I found myself in substantial and almost complete agreement with the views of Mr. Fisher, and I think I was so happy as occasionally to infect the noble Viscount, Lord Peel, with the results of that agreement. I have no doubt that he has now shaken himself free from the effect of that unhappy and fugitive infection.
The point that puzzled me was this. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, were, if one could be disrespectful enough to suggest incoherence in connection with those noble Lords, almost incoherent in their tragic realisation of the importance of dealing with this matter at once. Who that ever heard them could forget the accents of emotional declamation with which the noble Marquess chided us for our inopportune, our almost criminal, delay in dealing with this matter? There was question after question from Lord Selborne, and Lord Lansdowne, in the most good humoured manner, was hind enough to stimulate my 279 flagging energies on this subject by asking me questions when I sat upon the Woolsack as to when we could hope for this long-postponed and overdue reform.
I did the best I could for the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, and I did the best I could for the noble Earl, Lord Selborne; but what puzzles me is this. I can understand the attitude which the noble and learned Viscount has adopted. The noble and learned Viscount can adopt it with the most complete propriety, because on this matter he is not "a woman with a past," and there is not the slightest reason why he should not, with withers unwrung, give us the amiable and general declarations to which the House has just listened with so much pleasure. But when I come to the case of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, I am, I confess, frankly puzzled.
Red ruin awaited us a year ago. We were drifting towards a precipice if we did not deal with this matter at once. A year has gone by. The noble Marquess and his friends, having a large majority in the other House and an immense majority in this, are captains of their own ship. They have extruded the alien elements who corrupted the efforts of the late Government, and being now masters of their own household, being convinced, as they were a year ago, that we were drifting towards a precipice, and having themselves drifted a year nearer the precipice than we were a year ago, they invite the amiable and persuasive accents of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack to tell us this: "In one year, in two years, in three years, if we are happy enough to attain a measure of general agreement, very likely we shall be able to propose some reforms which will not involve a repeal of the Parliament Act."
These messages must be of great comfort to those of your Lordships who have laboured in this cause in the last few years, and the question which it seems to me convenient to ask the noble Marquess to deal with, not necessarily, unless he wishes it, in this debate—the most specific question to which I invite his attention is this: Is he an assenting party, as I assume he must be an assenting party, to the statement of the Prime Minister and the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack that if and when, in the remote vagueness of time, these reforms are promoted, the reforms will not involve a repeal of the Parliament Act?
Let me make that question a little more precise. The noble Marquess said quite 280 plainly, when he spoke a year ago, that no reform of the House of Lords could have any value which did not effectively secure an appeal to the constituencies between the moment when the Bill left the House of Commons and automatically became law under the terms of the Parliament Act. I am entitled, I think—not necessarily now unless he wishes it, but at some time—to have a perfectly clear answer upon this point: Is that still the policy of the noble Marquess and is that still the policy of the Government? If it is the policy of the Government, naturally in that, and in that alone, it will be the policy of the noble Marquess, and we shall at least know where we are. We shall know this—that the proposals, if and when they are brought forward, will involve the tearing up of the Parliament Act; because, as I have already pointed out, the only value that the Parliament Act had to those who supported it was that you removed from the power of the constituencies this control and you substituted for that the automatic process under which, if the Bill was three times read in the House of Commons, whatever the opinion of the constituencies might be, it inevitably became law.
I rejected that doctrine then. I resisted it by every means in my power, and I would have carried my resistance, as the noble Marquess would have carried his resistance—for at that time he was associated far from the present Leader of the House and the then leaders of the Unionist Party—to the utmost. The question, I assure your Lordships, is critical, and it is decisive of the whole future policy. It is a question which is in the compass of a single sentence. Does, or does not, the noble Marquess adhere to the advice which he gave the House a year ago that there should be no reform which did not secure the opportunity of an appeal to the constituencies? Is that still the policy of the Government, and, if that be so, what is the use of saying that that policy does not involve the repeal of the Parliament Act? If the Government find in themselves sources of encouragement which will incline them to take this most grave decision, I do not in the least announce myself beforehand as an opponent, because I think that the change made by the Parliament Act was a fatal and revolutionary change. It does not follow that it would be either wise, statesmanlike or practicable to alter it or to attempt to alter it, but if an attempt is made by the Government, which has sufficient self- 281 confidence in its strength and in its capacity to think that it can carry this change through, I certainly shall not announce myself in advance as necessarily opposed to it, but I should most plainly urge upon this or any Government the necessity for the most grave care before such a decision was taken.
I ventured to speak on this subject in the course of last session when, from the Woolsack, I addressed myself to the reforms which we had recommended, and I pointed out then that the interposition of an Election was not a method happily chosen for this House while its present constitution remained. We did offer to the House of Lords and the country a few months ago, and by now, had not the political changes which have occurred taken place, we should have hoped effectively to have had in an advanced state of preparation, three very considerable reforms. The first would have reduced the number of this Rouse to manageable proportions. We should have been not the 700 of whom the noble Viscount has spoken, but we should have been some 300. We should have repelled from our discussions those who by universal consent have neither adorned nor attended them. In the next place—one of the most valuable consequences of our discussions and of our agreement—we should, instead of enabling Mr. Speaker in another place to decide with supreme and exclusive power whether or not a Bill is a Money Bill, have secured the remission of that question to an impartial Committee, in which this House would have enjoyed no less a representation than the House of Commons. That reform, of itself, might be of supreme importance. It would, at least, place your Lordships in a less humiliating position than that which we occupy to-day. When we take one view as to what is a financial Bill, instead of being able to press our view, and to submit it to a body on which we should be represented, and obtain from it a judicial decision upon the point, we have to accept the ruling of Mr. Speaker. This we had agreed could not stand. We had agreed upon a remedy, and a reasonable remedy, for it.
The third point, not in itself unimportant, upon which we were agreed, was that it was vital, truncated as the constitution was which we inherited from the Parliament Act, that at least the Parliament Act itself should not be used in order to tear away front us the scanty remnants of constitu- 282 tional liberty which we still enjoyed; that, in other words, this three-times acceptance by the House of Commons should not destroy the very constitution itself which is still left to us. We had, again, procured agreement upon this vital point, that the Parliament Act and its powers should never be used still further to impair what small measure of constitutional liberty that Act left to this House.
Those three reforms were all agreed. I admit that they do not go to the root of the whole matter. I agree that there were still grave issues upon which further discussion would have been required, but at least upon those three points there was agreement, and now, as I understand it, nothing is to be done for some undefined and undefinable period. We are not to obtain the result of those three points upon which there was agreement for one, two, three, and possibly four, years. I cannot help thinking that sonic of your Lordships who listened to the attacks made upon us when we sat as a Government in this House must remember that of all those attacks none was more strenuously pressed than that based upon our failure to deal with the reform of the House of Lords. Your Lordships may remember that after all we made some exertions, much as we were scolded in these matters, and that our fault can hardly have been so grave as our critics generally supposed and stated when our successors, sharing none of our gravest difficulties, have been thus able, without ally anxiety, without one prick of conscience, indefinitely, as far as I can understand, to postpone the whole business. In conclusion, I only desire to express the hope that we shall be expressly informed now, or at some convenient time, whether it is or is not the express policy of His Majesty's Government that there should be a reference to the constituencies before any controversial measure becomes law under the terms of the Parliament Act.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I should like, in the first place, to express my personal obligation to the noble Duke who initiated this discussion for the very kind observations which he made respecting myself. He was kind enough to congratulate me, for which I thank him; he was kind enough to have read my old speeches, for which I do not. I cannot honestly say that. I have been able to refresh my memory, as he has done in a very gratifying and flattering manner, 283 by reading my speeches. The noble and learned Earl has also paid me the same compliment. With regard to what I said in the early part of this year, I have to trust generally to my recollection.
The noble and learned Earl has complained of the want of precision with which my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack has approached this question. At any rate, the late Government, when dealing with this subject, were not guilty of want of precision, because they promised, in categorical terms, to deal with it over and over again, and they never fulfilled their promise. That was the method of precision which the late Government adopted. We have made up our minds from the very beginning that we are not going to enter into pledges unless we are quite certain that we shall be able to perform them. We have seen too much, both during therégime of the Liberal Government and of the late Coalition Government, of hopes held out, promises made, engagements entered into, which were never fulfilled, which produced great disappointment, which led to great mischief, and which, if your Lordships are good enough to trust the present Government, you will never see imitated on our part. That is not our method.
The noble and learned Earl says: Think how pressing this matter is ! It was very pressing at the beginning of the year; it is more pressing now, he says. Was it so pressing? What were the late Government doing during all those years if it was so pressing? This very urgent matter, this overwhelming Labour victory which was going to sweep us and our property out of existence, was the main part of the political faith of the noble and learned Earl. If that was going to take place, why did they not deal with this subject? They believed in this tremendous danger— a view which I do not share myself—of a sort of Communist uprising, which would sweep away all the institutions of this country, and they knew that the only obstacle in the way of such a development was your Lordships' House; and they knew it was feeble because of the Parliament Act. They did nothing all those years, and now the noble and learned Earl reproaches us because we are not prepared to deal with this pressing subject in the first month of our existence.
§ THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD
May I interrupt the noble Marquess? In the late Parliament I never failed to express myself 284 plainly that I did not regard it as a very urgent reform. I always said so, and I can refer him to passage after passage in my speeches. It was the noble Marquess who repeatedly said that it was most urgent and vital.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
What the noble and learned Earl during the Election said was pressing was the danger of an extreme Labour predominance which would sweep away all our institutions. He said that over and over again. It was all he said, with the exception of a few personalities. I ask him why he did not deal with this very pressing subject. His friend, the noble Duke, who sits beside him, mentioned in his speech all the warnings which the noble and learned Earl has given us of this dreadful possibility. What did the late Government finally do? They produced what the noble Duke, in an extremely happy phrase, has termed a skeleton—the Resolutions which we discussed in this House.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I am referring to what the noble Duke has said; he termed it a skeleton. I do not want to say anything disrespectful of the Resolutions, but it was admitted on all hands, admitted by the Government which introduced them, that as they stood they were of very little value. The noble and learned Earl has said that he considers them of great importance, and I do not want to use any extreme language. There was a certain value in those proposals, but it was admitted that a great deal more required to be done in order to implement the pledge that the late Government had given.
The noble and learned Earl says: "You are waiting for agreement." What a dreadful thing to do, to await until everybody is agreed! The noble and learned Earl and his colleagues were not very successful in the matter of agreement. There was no agreement amongst them, and we had the singular spectacle of two members of the late Government speaking in the same debate and differing profoundly 285 in the advice they gave your Lordships' House. We expect to agree amongst ourselves, and after that we hope, if we are fortunate, to secure a considerable measure of agreement amongst other Parties in the country. That we cannot act except with agreement was not said by the Lord Chancellor, or by the Prime Minister when speaking in the country. The Prime Minister said we should try to obtain agreement, and so did the Lord Chancellor. That is indeed, what we shall do—try to obtain agreement before we offer proposals to Parliament.
The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Haldane, said, and said truly, that it had become an accepted canon of the Constitution that the judgment of the Lower House should prevail, but I should rather like to amend slightly the form in which he put that doctrine. It is accepted, and accepted absolutely, that the will of those whom the House of Commons represents must be considered supreme. It has been accepted by your Lordships for half a century, and longer, and, undoubtedly, in no measure of reform, in no modification of the Parliament Act which might hereafter be proposed, would it be sought to give your Lordships jurisdiction to override the considered judgment of the people. That must be accepted, and ought to be accepted.
The noble mid learned Earl wishes to know whether the view which I expressed earlier in the year is still my view. It is. It is my view that any proper dealing with this subject must provide some means of ascertaining the considered judgment of the people. I put forward certain proposals, which are on the records of this House, designed to carry that out. I never said, and I never pretended, that they represented the only method by which that end could be achieved. Indeed, I went further and admitted that it was a rough and incomplete method which I offered, as it were, in an emergency. Those proposals have disappeared with the Government and the Resolutions which were then upon the Table of your Lordships' House. They are all gone.
When the noble and learned Earl and the noble Duke urge that this subject is pressing I admit that to be true, but it is not so true as it was in the earlier part of the year. We were then at the end of a Parliament, now we are at the beginning of a Parliament. The sands were running out; a General Election was evidently impending. 286 No one could tell what its result might be, mat 1he precise provisions of the Parliament Act or modifications of it, the precise constitution of your Lordships' House or the modifications of it, were all matters of very urgent importance in certain eventualities. The General Election has taken place, and, although I do not rely on the fact that its result has been the return of a Conservative majority, I do rely on the fact that the particular danger in front of us is not likely to recur, at any rate for a few years. It has ceased to be urgent in that sense. Looked at in the broad sense, regarding it from the point of view of Lord Burnham, no doubt it is a vital and important question, but looked at from the point of view of immediate time it is not so urgent as it was.
What is the position of the Government? This has been stated by the Lord Chancellor and by the Prime Minister. The latter said that it would be out of the question for a Government succeeding to power as ours had done to eider upon this question in the early years of the Parliament. We were, above all things, anxious to pursue a policy of appeasement. We did not want, in the early years of the Parliament, when it was not essential, to rush into a great constitutional question before any measure of agreement had been arrived at. That appears to have been common sense, and, speaking in a most formal manner before the electors, he gave that pledge. That, of course, is a pledge which binds the whole Government, and there is no question that, during the first two sessions, we are precluded by the commitments into which we have entered from making any proposals on this subject. I think that in these circumstances your Lordships will agree with me that nothing would be more foolish than for me to indicate some two years beforehand precisely what those proposals would be.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I think it is a fair reading of my right hon. friend's observation—I have the speech in front of me, but I have not asked him—that it will preclude dealing with the matter in either the session of 1923 or that of 1924.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
We hope to survive the full period of the Parliament. We may be sanguine. A great deal depends upon the action of the noble and learned Earl met his friends, but I hope we may. That is the position, and, speaking for myself, I still consider, as I, did a few months ago, that the matter, looked at from a broad point of view, is essential. I do not agree that there is any danger of a Communist uprising in this country. I have never taken that view of my countrymen. I believe in their solid common sense, and I have great confidence, if not in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in the great body of workers throughout the country.
I recognise, however, that there might be, and easily might be, a temporary Parliamentary majority representing much more extreme views than are really the convictions of the workers themselves, and that, upon the strength of that majority, fundamental changes might be carried that would be profoundly mischievous to this country. I believe that, and it seems to me that it is our duty, just as it was the duty of the noble Earl and his colleagues, to do our best, while this Parliament pursues its length, to deal with it. When the time comes we shall, of course, be prepared to 288 submit proposals, but I venture to repeat what I said at the beginning of my remarks. that no greater evil can happen than that we should hold out hopes which cannot be gratified. We rely upon the confidence of your Lordships' House that we shall do our best when the opportunity comes.