HL Deb 16 July 1923 vol 54 cc1051-66

THE EARL OF BIRKENHEAD rose to ask His Majesty's Government when it is contemplated to initiate the proposed discussions with the leaders of the Labour Party with a view to modifying the system which at present governs the application of trades unions funds for political purposes. The noble and learned Earl said: My Lords, before I ask the Question standing in my name I should, perhaps, inform your Lordships that I have a letter, which I do not quite understand, from the noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire. He writes:— It is only right that I should let you know that it is probable that attention will be called this afternoon to the fact that a Question reflecting on the trade union levy is raised by a Conservative ex-Lord Chancellor from the Liberal Front Opposition Bench.

Yours truly,

LINCOLNSHIRE. I need hardly add that this is done entirely unofficially.

I should rather hope so. I am, of course, a Privy Councillor, and in any event entitled to sit upon the Front Opposition Bench, but, as a matter of courtesy, I should never dream of doing so if my presence there were in any way unacceptable to noble Lords who are the heads of the formal Opposition. In those circumstances I entered into a discussion, both with Lord Grey and with Lord Beauchamp, who leads the Opposition in his absence, and I was assured by both of them, in very particular terms, that my presence there was not unwelcome to them. I confess that it did not occur to me in the past to consult the noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, on the point, and it is extremely unlikely that it will occur to me in the future to do so.

Turning now to the Question on the Paper, it is well known that in the days of the late Government a Bill was introduced in the House of Commons which would have profoundly modified the existing system. I think my recollection serves me aright in saying that it was opposed officially by the whole of the Labour Party. The Bill was sent upstairs to a Committee, and was most bitterly contested by the Labour Party again in Committee. It was an issue which, as against the late Government, was raised more than once at the official meetings of the Unionist organisation, and I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, whom I see in his place, was—as he naturally, in virtue of his official position, would be—forward in pressing this matter upon the attention of the late Government. I observe that only a few weeks ago, shortly before the retirement of Mr. Bonar Law, the noble Viscount, speaking somewhere in the country, said he earnestly hoped that Mr. Bonar Law would introduce legislation in the sense suggested, and not, by refusing, to do so, chill the ardour of hundreds of thousands of his loyal followers.

For the reasons which I indicated when I referred to this subject a few weeks ago I do not propose to-day to argue about its merits at any length. The existing system, as the House well knows, is that the onus of excluding himself from a levy is thrown upon the working man, be he Conservative or Liberal. The substance of the matter is that such a levy, in the existing conditions of trades unions, is almost compulsory, and no one who knows the methods that are adopted is in the least likely seriously to challenge that statement. The consequence is that the trades unions will not allow any working man, if they can help it, to obtain employment unless he joins a trade union, and the scenes of intimidation have become familiar in every great industrial city in this country—intimidation of those formerly known as "free labourers," who are attempting to obtain a livelihood without joining the great trades unions. In other words, the policy of the trades unions is to compel them to join, irrespective of their political opinions or of whether they wish to join them or not.

Now, what happens when the men have been so compelled to join? They may either be Conservatives or Liberals, and I may inform the noble Marquess who is so concerned about the place in which I sit that this grievance is one which is not less acutely felt in many parts of the country, and notably in Yorkshire, by Liberal working men than it is by Conservative working men, and I have had many communications from Liberals in Yorkshire since the last occasion when I addressed this House. Having been com polled by the methods I have indicated to join the trades unions, what happens next? The same people who set in activity these methods of coercion are ready with exactly the same weapons, and the moment a man comes forward and says, "I was a Conservative, and am a Conservative," or "I was a Liberal, and am a Liberal, and I am not a Socialist," he is bound to come out in the open and is a marked man. He is subject to precisely the same methods of intimidation which brought him, very much against his wishes, into the union at all.

It may be replied to this, and it was replied by the noble Viscount on the last occasion when I raised this matter, that it is of the first importance that working men should be represented in the House of Commons. I needed no such reminder. I pointed that out in circumstances of the greatest possible publicity in another place at a very much earlier stage of this controversy than we are dealing with to-day, and I, of all people in public life, cannot be accused of closing my eyes to the necessity of direct working-class representation There is now a salary paid to Members of the House of Commons, which solves at any rate one part of the problem, and, as for the other part, that of organisation and of elections, surely this observation is both a moderate and a justifiable one—if it be the fact, as the Labour leaders claim, that the overwhelming majority of trades unionists share their views on political subjects, is it too much to ask that they should make up the balance which is required for organisation and electioneering expenses by a volunteer levy? If they are not prepared to raise the comparatively moderate sums which are required when once you accept the fact that every Member of Parliament is actually paid, if they are not prepared to make up the moderate sums which are required for these collateral purposes, it seems to me to throw rather a light upon the numbers and enthusiasm of those who claim to exercise an influence entirely unprecedented in our industrial history.

As I have already pointed out in an earlier speech, the late Coalition Government did not reach a decision. I cannot even tell your Lordships with any claim to authority what decision they would have reached, because the arguments are closely balanced and the matter, both directly and in its implications, is a grave one and might easily assume a prominence and exercise an effect in the constituencies as to which I, for one, should be very slow to express a dogmatic opinion. But I think we are entitled to know, I hope to-day and if not to-day at some early period, what is the policy of the Government in relation to a matter which was grave enough to induce a certain section of the Unionist Party, almost with menaces, to assail the late Government many months ago.

We were, indeed, told by the noble Viscount that the policy of the Government was to consult the leaders of the Labour Party to see whether an arrangement could not be made. I was aware that such a. statement was made at the General Election. I confess that I did not attempt to deal with it in my speech a few weeks ago because I could not seriously have contemplated that such an answer would have been thought adequate to the reality of the present situation or to have been an answer that could be reasonably made either in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords. In the first place, the attitude of the leaders of the Labour Party is perfectly notorious. In the second place, it was stated, with every circumstance of publicity and emphasis, when the Bill to which I have already referred was introduced in the closing days of the late Government. In the third place, I feel that I do not exaggerate when I say that there is hardly one well-known leader of the Labour Party who is not publicly and clearly committed to the existing system, who has not protested that he will never willingly, and never without exhausting the methods of resistance both in Parliament and the constituencies, consent to the modification of a system which is evidently so favourable to them.

It appears to me, therefore, that to propose a conference between those who would introduce a modification of the existing practice and-the leaders of the Labour Party is much like proposing a conference between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The probabilities of its reaching any harmonious or useful outcome are simply negligible, and I would point out to the noble Marquess [Lord Salisbury] that it was not by proposals like these that we were addressed by his friends in the last few months of the late Parliament. We were never asked—those who interrogated us had far too much sense of humour to make such a proposal—by them:—"Will you see the leaders of the Labour Party and discuss with them whether, by agreement, you cannot alter this system? "I therefore put it to the noble Marquess that either now, or on some early occasion, it is not really unfair or unreasonable that we should ask this Government whether, if their discussions with the Labour Party are not crowned with the success which only optimists will count upon, the Government have, up to the present, made up their mind as to whether or not they propose to introduce legislation upon the lines of the Bill which received so much support from the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, in the late Parliament.

I am most deeply concerned to make it plain both to the House and to the noble Marquess, that I am not myself urging this course either upon the Government or upon the noble Marquess: because I see, as I imagine both they and he see, the difficulties which confront any attempt to introduce legislation with this purpose. But I hope that neither he nor they will think it to be unreasonable that we should be informed at some reasonable and proximate date what is their policy upon the merits of this question, and if the negotiations produce the results which I think all your Lordships who have given thought to this matter will anticipate.


My Lords, I should not have troubled your Lordships this afternoon but for the somewhat unusual course that has been taken by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead. Some of the Back Benchers and supporters of the Liberal Party view with some apprehension what we rightly or wrongly consider to be somewhat a breach of the unwritten rules of your Lordships' House. There are the Standing Orders of the House, but I do not suppose they are very often read, and somehow or another all the business of the House is done with an amount of decorum and courtesy of which we are very, very proud, and any departure from which we entirely disapprove.

I do not propose to detain the House with any contribution to a debate on what might or might not be in the contemplation of His Majesty's Government as to their future action on any legislation which, rightly or wrongly, was passed in days gone by. I do not presume to do that. But I very respectfully ask the permission of the House to call attention for a moment or two to that which some of us instinctively feel to be a breach of old established custom in your Lordships' House. We are somewhat surprised at a reflection on the policy or rather the act of a Liberal Government (because it was passed by the Campbell-Bannerman Government of which I happened to be a member) which gave back to the trades unions the power they had formerly possessed of levying money, by a majority, from their members for political purposes, with permission for any man to contract himself out. We are somewhat astonished that this criticism should have been made by a Conservative ex-Lord Chancellor, who now sits—he is not in his usual place—or who generally sits in the midst of the very men whose policy he questions, and who claims as his own the seat which, until quite lately, was always reserved for the official Leader of the Opposition—


The noble Marquess is quite wrong. I do not. I invariably sit where I am. I have never claimed any such seat, nor have I sat there.


—the seat which used always to be occupied by the Marquess of Crewe, who led the Opposition with so much success and dignity for so many years. If I am wrong I acknowledge it at once. I take the whole responsibility of speaking for some of my friend". If I am wrong I apologise, and take the entire blame on myself, but I maintain that the noble and learned Earl has created a precedent hitherto unknown when, as now. the House of Lords is working under our old ordinary traditions. I might say that if any member of this House is going to call in question any action of anybody, it is the invariable rule that he should give him private notice. I gave private notice to the noble and learned Earl, and somewhat to my astonishment he began his speech by reading out this private letter.


It was not a private letter.


I said, and the noble and learned Earl seemed very pleased at the fact, that I had made no official communication with any person in the House. That is perfectly true, but I did consult a friend of mine, a man of high character and of great brain, whose friendship and whoso opinion I value very much. I asked him whether it would be any use to bring this before the House of Lords. He said: "I do not know that it would."


Hear, hear.


If the House is against me I will sit down at once. He said: "I do not think it would, because the answer will be that the noble and learned Earl sits on the Liberal Front Opposition Bench either at the invitation or by the consent of the Leader of the Opposition." The noble and learned Earl has said that that was the case. How could it be otherwise? I should like to ask the noble and learned Earl: When was the request made? As we know very well, the Coalition Government came to an end last autumn. We re-united the Liberal forces, and we are now in one fold with one shepherd, and are led by Viscount Grey of Fallodon. But that was not till the spring. Therefore, during the whole of last Session and certain portions of this Session there really was nobody to ask whether the noble and learned Earl ought to sit, or ought not to sit, on the Front Opposition Bench. I was told that it would be very difficult to refuse anybody, especially one holding the great position which the noble and learned Earl has held in your Lordships" House. He has an extraordinary position. He came on to the Woolsack in this House. He came, he sat, and he conquered.

He had the House entirely with him. He practically led the House during all the four years of the Coalition. He would brook no opposition. He would stand very little criticism. By his genius, his ability, his eloquence and his knowledge of the law he swept away all criticism; in fact, I may say that he satisfactorily succeeded in the policy of the new broom—by that, of course, I mean the "new Lord Brougham." The name of that great statesman brings me to the fact that the only possible precedent, so far as I have been able to discover, before the action of the noble and learned Earl was afforded by Lord Brougham who found himself in the same peculiar position as that in which the noble and learned Earl now finds himself. Perhaps the word "peculiar" is wrong, because it is not a peculiar position; it is a position which comes in every class of life—that of being supplemented by someone else.

But perhaps I may be permitted—I shall not detain the House for five minutes—to recall to your Lordships' memory what occurred when there happened to the great Lord Brougham what has happened to the noble and learned Earl. Lord Brougham was succeeded by the new Lord Chancellor, Lord Campbell—Jack Campbell, I believe, he was called by his forensic brethen—and when he came into the House for the first time in the Lord Chancellor's state, to his consternation and horror he found Lord Brougham already seated on the Woolsack. I do not mean to say he was sitting where the noble Earl [The Earl of Donoughmore] now is in the place of the Lord Chancellor whose absence we so very much regret, but he was sitting on the edge of the Woolsack, with his sinister leg dangling over the side of that great ottoman. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Campbell, came into the House, and, there being nothing else to be done, he sat on the Woolsack. There the two sat cheek by jowl, and when it came to the turn of Lord Brougham to speak he did not come to the Table, as most ex-Cabinet Ministers do, but he executed what I think Mr. Disraeli called a slight glissade to his left, and found himself on the sacred eighteen inches which are supposed to be sacrosanct to the Lord Chancellor, and from that point of vantage he enfiladed his friends and his foes alike with the language which we know Lord Brougham was a past master in using.

He had the House at that time at his mercy, because the House was not like it is now. The Front Bench of your Lordships' House at that time was extremely weak. The Duke of Wellington was very old and almost stone-deaf. Lord Lyndhurst was very old, and almost stone-blind, and Jack Campbell, Lord Campbell, was no match for his learned predecessor. As for the Prime Minister himself, Lord Liverpool, he was so overcome with the cares of state, like Cardinal Wolsey, Mr. Lloyd George and the other great leaders of political life in this country, that he was unable, except at very rare moments, to take his seat by the side of his colleagues on the Front Bench. Therefore Lord Brougham had the House at his mercy, and it was necessary to strengthen the Government by sending from the House of Commons Lord Stanley, who was raised to the Peerage by one of his many titles so that he might—I have often heard him, though he was a great admirer of Lord Brougham, say it—" Keep old Besom in order."

The student of history who has any sense of humour may think this a very comic aspect; I think it has a sad and tragic aspect as well. Lord Brougham was a very great man. He was not only a man of eloquence and genius, but a man who did some very big things. He was a man who saved the honour of an English Queen; he was the man who put the seal on the abolition of slavery which was the curse and shame of the British race. Lord Brougham was a man who sat next to Earl Grey of the Reform Bill of 1832, by which he probably saved a revolution in England. Yet by his own action he wrecked the whole of his political career. He is an example of the truth of the saying that the great difficulty in life is not so much what to do and say as what not to say and what not to do. By his action he not only exasperated all his political opponents, but he alienated his friends as well.

A man cannot do without his friends; it is perfectly impossible. A man cannot stand or run alone; he must have his friends with him. He must stick to his friends because he never knows when he may want them. What was the result? And this is my last word. What I have tried to describe happened in 1843 or 1844. Lord Brougham lived for another twenty-five years and during the whole of that time he was never asked by his old friends to join them in any other Government. He went into the political wilderness for the rest of his life and died abroad, I will not say a brokenhearted man but at any rate a saddened, disillusioned and disappointed man. I must apologise to your Lordships for what I have said, but I had not intended to speak at all this afternoon.


My Lords, I do not ask leave to address your Lordships again but the words "lack of decorum" used by the noble Marquess are somewhat unusual and I should like to reply to them briefly. I received a letter from the noble Marquess saying that he had intended to call attention to the fact that I addressed your Lordships' House from the Front Opposition Bench. The letter was not even marked private, and it had no meaning at all unless he intended to call attention to it on the floor of the House. After giving him every opportunity to rise and take some exception to the fact and finding that he did not do so, I thought it necessary to make some reference to it. As to "lack of decorum," I have only to make this observation, that before Lord Crewe became Leader of the Liberal Party, which the noble Marquess says is happily to be reunited—reunited only in this House—I approached him, as I also approached Lord Beauchamp, as I have already told your Lordships, and was informed that my exercise of my undoubted right as Privy Councillor was not only not disagreeable but agreeable to him, and in those circumstances I have continued to sit on the Front Opposition Bench.

I will not follow the noble Marquess in his somewhat long and lugubrious history of the great Lord Brougham. Its historical value may be judged from the fact that "Jack Campbell," whom he said succeeded Lord Brougham on the Woolsack—I think he suggested he was elbowed from the Woolsack by Lord Brougham—as a matter of fact never went near the Woolsack until twenty years after Lord Brougham left it.


My Lords, I do not rise to enter into the domestic discussion between my two noble friends, for if I did so I should be in fear lest I received what is called in the north of England the "redding straik" as the result. The noble Marquess has, with his usual geniality, embarked on a very large and somewhat controversial subject—the title to sit on this Bench. He makes an assumption which I think is rather dubious, namely, that the right to sit on this Bench depends on an invitation from the Liberal Leader of the time. People in a courteous way might apply to the Leader de facto, whoever he is, my noble friend Lord Grey of Fallodon for example; but that is only occasionally. I had the privilege of sitting between Lord Halsbury and Lord Chaplin for some years on this Bench. I was much devoted to both of them, and I was not aware that they sat where they did by invitation from Lord Crewe or from any other-Liberal Leader. I observe a good many other noble Lords who sit here, certainly without any invitation that I have heard of, by virtue of their title, to which the noble and learned Earl referred when he spoke, of Privy Councillor. This Bench is a kind of no-man's land so far as politics are concerned. The Leader of the Opposition always sits there: but there group themselves around him various odd sorts of people, ex-Lord Chancellors and such like, simply because-it is a convenient place to sit and from which to take part in discussions. That being so I will pass away from the domestic subject to the topic which is raised in the Question.

The noble and learned Earl has asked the noble Marquess to give him information as to what steps the Government are taking to enter into negotiation with the leaders of the Labour Party as to the difficulties occasioned by the existing Trade Union Act—I think he means the Act of 1913. The question has been vigorously raised with regard to preventing the trades unions from exercising any coercive power over their members so far as political objects are concerned; particularly the subscription fund. No doubt it is very tiresome when any organisation—I am not talking particularly of trades unions—puts pressure on its members to contribute to funds and appears to restrict their political liberties. But there is an Act at present on the Statute Book under which anybody who is a member of a trade union can claim to be free. It is said that that is a very unreal liberty. Whether that is true or not, I believe that a very large number of members of trades unions at the present time take advantage of it.

I agree that it would be much better if there were no Acts of Parliament for regulating individual liberty, and if by consultation the law relating to trades unions could be put upon such a footing that these questions did not- arise. But why do they arise to-day? They do not arise with regard to employers of labour, because employers of labour are left free by the law to enter into any combinations they like. Unluckily, that was not the course which the law took in regard to labour combinations. When the trades unions were established, they were supposed to be set upon a firm basis as a result of the Report of the Royal Commission. They were allowed, for convenience, to register, but it was not-imagined for a moment by anybody that they had thereby restricted their freedom or their legal existence. Then, unfortunately, came the Taff Vale case, which showed that they could be sued in a way which was quite unsupported by any analogy of the Common Law. At Common Law a miscellaneous body which was not incorporated could not be sued, but by the Taff Vale decision, by an analogous construction of equity doctrines, it was decided in this House that a trade union could be sued.

The consequences were disastrous. Even if it is supposed that justice was done in the case in question—and very likely that was so—injustice was done in another way to the benefit funds and the sick funds of unions which might have trustees at places a hundred miles away and more from the scene where there had been some disorder, by which these funds were imperilled and trenched upon for the purpose of satisfying the judgment which resulted from the totally unexpected decision of the House of Lords in the Taff Vale case. The result was what I can only describe as a stupendous "row" in the country which led to the compulsory passing—because Parliament was really coerced into it—of the Trades Disputes Act, 1906, which was just as much forced upon your Lordships by public opinion as upon the other House. It was passed without difficulty because of the tremendous force that had arisen in the country.

That Act was supposed to have settled matters, though in a very unscientific fashion. But not at all. There came another decision, the decision in the Osborne case. And what was the result of that decision? The result was that the unfortunate trades unions were found, by virtue of having registered themselves, to be subject to another doctrine, called the doctrine of ultra vires, which prevented their using their funds at all except for certain specified purposes which were set out in the Registration Act. Lord James of Hereford, in his dissenting judgment, loudly denounced the decision in which he was in a minority. The fruits of it appeared very soon. Another agitation arose because the trades unions were cramped and hampered by this very artificial decision. The result was the passage of the Act of 1913, which went only half way and which has left unredressed a great many matters which are a source of grievance to the trades unions.

I am assuming that my noble friend Lord Birkenhead is justified in desiring some amendment of the law under which it is still too easy, as he thinks, for the trades unions to put political pressure upon their members to provide funds for political purposes. But if he does that he will at once come across the other points to which I have alluded and which are four or five times more numerous. There are points connected with sick and benefit funds and a multitude of other things which have not been put upon a proper footing by the Act of 1913. In all these cases there is a demand for redress, and before the noble Marquess gives his answer I should like to ask him whether, when he enters into consultation with the leaders of the trades union movement, he will also consult with them about these other grievances of the trades unions, as well as about the wrongs which they are declared to commit. Unless he takes that course he will inevitably find a tremendous split of opinions on this subject and great feeling will be raised in the country.

It may be possible to pass a measure which will put workmen and their trades unions on the same footing as the employers. That will mean perfect liberty and freedom from Acts of Parliament, from doctrines of ultra vires and things of that kind, but that is a very large demand to make and would mean the sweeping away of many decisions and of several sections of Acts of Parliament. Before the noble Marquess enters upon the course of consultation with trades unions it would be very interesting to know what is the general view of the Government, whether it would not perhaps be better to sweep away all restrictions, or whether, if he feels it necessary to deal with the particular case to which allusion is made in this Question, he will also deal with these other cases which, as I have pointed out to your Lordships are of hardly less urgency.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will not think it disrespectful of me if I do not once more go very fully into this subject. Your Lordships were moved to consider this subject at great length by the noble and learned Earl about a month ago and there is nothing, if he will allow me respectfully to say so, in the speech of the noble and learned Earl, or, indeed, in that of the noble and learned Viscount who sits beside him, which they did not say on the last occasion. I will not enter into the other speech which has been delivered to-day, except to thank my noble friend the noble Marquess for having introduced some variety into this debate, without which it would certainly have been merely a monotonous and rather pale reflection of the debate which took place a month ago.

I am sure the noble and learned Earl will not expect me to go into it all again.

We had the Taff Vale judgment, all the sorrows and mistakes of the Liberal Government, all the want of action by the Coalition Government—it all came out again—but the curious point is that it is always the Liberal representatives who remind us of the failure of the Liberal Government, and it is always the Coalition representatives who remind us of the failure of the Coalition Government. All these things came out, as they always do on each recurring occasion when the subject is raised.

We have, of course, only the same answer to make—the answer, namely, that we adhere to the pledge which Mr. Bonar Law gave on behalf of the Government at the General Election. The noble and learned Earl thought it very surprising that we should rely upon that pledge as an answer. I really do not know what he thinks that we could have done with the pledge. Does he think that we could ignore it? Should it be treated as a "scrap of paper"?


I think you might have carried it out.


We are going to carry it out.


After six months.


The noble and learned Earl stated when he raised the Question on the last occasion that he was astonished that my noble friend relied upon this pledge. Of course, we rely upon the pledge. We said that we should consult the representatives of the trades unions before anything further was done, and that is. of course, the intention of the Government. I do not know that there is any need for headlong haste. The matter is a difficult one, and requires very careful consideration, as the noble and learned Earl himself said both this afternoon and on the last occasion. He said then, and has repeated to-day, that it requires the greatest care, and I need not tell your Lordships that the preoccupations of the Government have not been very light of late. If any further reason is required, there is much that requires examination as regards the facts of the case and the exact bearing of all the circumstances. Let me add at once that if the noble and learned Earl can contribute anything to our enlightenment, if he will place all his information at the disposal of His Majesty's Government we shall be very grateful to him.

We must, of course, examine the matter as carefully as we can, but when that is done the necessary consultation must take place, as my right hon. friend Mr. Bonar Law promised that it should. I will remind the noble and learned Earl that my noble friend the Secretary of State for India said upon the last occasion that he hoped that these consultations would take place later in the year. I have nothing to add to that. My right hon. friend the Prime Minister hopes between now and the next sittings of the House—that is, in the approaching recess—to carry out these consultations. I am sure it would be very unwise if any attempt were made to go into the subject during the sitting of Parliament, with all the immense pressure that there is upon the Departments and upon the members of the Government, and not least upon the Prime Minister himself. The course I have indicated we shall pursue, and I hope that the result of these consultations will be such that we are able to guide your Lordships and the country to a proper conclusion.