HL Deb 15 November 1927 vol 69 cc45-51

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I made it plain on an earlier occasion in the Session, and I think with the agreement of all your Lordships, that the very elaborate debate which evidently must take place upon the subject of the proposed Indian Commission could most conveniently be taken when the assent of Parliament was asked to the personnel of that Commission. It would, therefore, be improper far me to-night to attempt in any way to anticipate a discussion which must from the nature of the case be of the highest importance. To-night, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I have only to remind your Lordships that it was originally contemplated in the Government of India Act that at a period of ten years there should be appointed a Commission to examine the progress which had been made and generally to report to Parliament upon the existing situation. It is hardly necessary to point out that there was no special magic in the period of ten years. One may assume that it was adopted as a convenient period affording sufficient time for the instruction of those whose duty it might be to re-examine the whole situation.

Since my accession three years ago to the office which I now hold I have been greatly pressed in many quarters to accelerate the appointment of the Commission. It did not seem to me and to my responsible advisers in India that the atmosphere of the moment when these appeals, or I should perhaps say these demands, were put forward, was such as to afford much encouragement to those who were invited to make a change in this regard; and accordingly up to the present no change had been proposed. There was never on principle any strong view that a period so fixed must necessarily receive pedantic adherence. I do not wish to exaggerate such encouraging tendencies as have manifested themselves in India in the course of the last two or three years; but such tendencies there have been. There has been a growing realisation in my judgment that the policy of non-co-operation was not in itself very happily conceived, nor likely to create in this country a general impression that those who were unwilling to co-operate in working the existing Constitution had fully established their case for an acceleration of the moment at which the terms of that Constitution were to be re-examined.

There has been unquestionably in the last two or three years a change of tone and temper in India, and the changes which it has been my duty closely to study—I exclude the communal issue, which is a separate issue from the generalisation which I attempt—have nearly all been in the direction of an improved relationship. I need hardly say that I am not discussing this afternoon the manifestations of opinion in India with which we have become familiar in the columns of the newspapers in the last few days. It will be my duty very carefully and without any heat or resentment, but equally without any exaggeration, to examine closely the opinion which is entertained in India in relation to the present proposals of the Government and to appraise its value and its importance. To-day I have merely to justify, if it needs justification, the view which has been taken by the Government and long pressed upon them by others that the moment has arrived at which the appointment of this Commission might suitably and without danger to the public interest be accelerated. I do not hold it necessary to attempt any argumentative justification of this proposal because, so far as I am aware, whatever differences of opinion may exist in the three Parties of the State upon other points, all are agreed that the moment has arrived when we may usefully approach the greatest constitutional problem which has faced the statesmen of this country for many generations. If, contrary to my expectations, any apprehension or objection should be entertained in any quarter in your Lordships, House, I will of course to the best of my ability endeavour to give such explanations as may occur to me or seem to be required.

I have one other observation to make at this stage. It is obviously very desirable, if only to clear the air, that at the earliest possible moment the discussion should take place in both Houses upon the main and very grave principles which are involved in this matter. I confess I think it is so important that the explanations should be publicly given at an early moment of the grounds which have led the Government to make the particular proposals which will soon require discussion, that I was at one moment greatly tempted to attempt such exposition and justification as I was capable of outside Parliament—Parliamentary opportunity there was obviously none—but I could not reconcile it with my duty to your Lordships' House that a statement of this constitutional importance, involving issues and contingencies so grave, should be made elsewhere than in Parliament. Having omitted to take such an opportunity, may I mast earnestly impress upon your Lordships the extreme importance of holding this debate at the earliest possible moment of which our Parliamentary arrangements will allow. With that object I have spoken privately to my noble friends Lord Haldane and Lord Beauchamp, and I would ask the indulgence of the House (and I think I shall not ask in vain) in order that in the course of the present week we may take the two remaining stages of the Bill, if your Lordships give it a Second Reading to-day, upon successive days. I am encouraged to believe that, subject to the paramount Parliamentary obligations imposed upon another place, every facility will be given to the rapid progress of this Bill in another place, and I hope it may be possible within not very many days to place the whole matter before your Lordships with the elaboration which it undoubtedly requires. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Earl of Birkenhead.)


My Lords, we who are upon this Bench unreservedly support this Bill; unreservedly, that is, in so far as its own content is concerned, and with full reservation, as the noble and learned Earl perfectly understands, with regard to any comments we may make upon the policy of the Committee or its proceedings as adumbrated. I think the noble Earl was not quite so happy as he might have been in giving your Lordships some reason why he thought the time had come when we should support this Bill, beyond indicating that he thought Indian affairs had shown an improved complexion and that greater co-operation was being given. I do not think either that those are the reasons which should justify or the absence of those reasons should negative the necessity for taking the earliest possible opportunity to appoint this Commission. As the noble Earl has said, it has been pressed upon the Secretary of State for India for quite a number of years now—since, I think, 1923—that the time had come when the Statutory Commission should be appointed. The view has been taken—it was taken by the late Mr. Montagu—by that there was nothing which prevented the appointment even of the Statutory Commission before 1929, but certainly His Majesty's Government would have been at liberty at any time to appoint a Royal Commission. Anyhow, as His Majesty's Government are advised that the alteration of the Statute is necessary, we entirely fall in with their view that it should be altered.

There are two reasons for this. First of all, there is the desire of all Indian politicians that the question should be reconsidered at an early date and the principle of that desire has been pressed upon us repeatedly. The second reason is that notwithstanding the former debate in this House, in which the Secretary of State and the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, expressed their opinions upon the diarchical system, it has been the opinion of the great majority of Indian people, and of myself and the Party, that the diarchical system had ceased to perform any useful functions and that the sooner it was superseded the better, because it was doing no good and was creating an atmosphere of misunderstanding and unrest. Unquestionably had the Government of which I was a member been still in office after the Committee had reported we should probably have taken precisely the same line as His Majesty's Government are now taking and suggested the appointment of the Statutory Commis- sion to reconsider the whole question of Indian government. On those grounds we cordially support the Motion.

There might be, there has been expressed some cavil against the action of His Majesty's Government on what I might call the ground that they might be regarded as manœuvring for position, that being in power they desire to appoint their own Commission. I pay not the slightest attention to any suggestion of that sort and I think it unfortunate that such a suggestion should have been made. I take the view that whatever Government were in power it was in the public interest and in the interest of India to appoint the Statutory Commission, and it is absurd to suggest that His Majesty's Government really gain any special advantage for such views as their Party may hold by appointing the Commission at the present time. The conception and gestation of the Committee will occupy a matter of two or three years and it is quite possible that by that time the complexion of His Majesty's Government may have changed. In any event, I do not think His Majesty's Government could have been expected to postpone the appointment of the Commission. It would have been their duty in any event to appoint it some time before 1929. I do not believe that they expect they will be out of office by 1929, but it has been urged by Indians that the matter should be postponed, that there will be 500 Liberal members in the next Parliament and that they will get a better show with a Parliament containing 500 Liberals than they will get in the present circumstances. I think, however, that His Majesty's Government would have failed in their duty if they had not appointed this Commission now. I think they have shown public spirit in doing so and a sincere desire to meet the wishes of India. On these grounds I beg leave to support the Bill.


My Lords, I only intervene for a moment to state first, on behalf of the Party with which I am associated, that we support the Bill. I do not intend to discuss the reasons why the time should have been shortened. A debate on that subject will come opportunely at a later stage when we are discussing the whole question. I shall not even be tempted by the observations of my noble friend Lord Olivier to enter at this time into considerations of the variation of the diarchical principle, but I do wish to emphasise that in my view the Government have acted wisely and have shown a real desire to consult the views of Indian politicians and to give effect to the views of India generally by appointing this Commission at an earlier date than the statutory period. I was conscious during the whole period of my office of the desire to have this Commission accelerated. I certainly shall not discuss all the various representations that were made to me, nor the debates that took place in the various Legislatures on the subject. It is, I believe, solely in the public interest of India that the Government, have determined to curtail the time and appoint the Commission at this early date. We shall give every support to the Bill.

I regret very much that it has been found necessary to postpone the debate. I cannot but think that everything seems to have conspired to make the reception of the appointment of this Commission unfavourable in India. The news leaked out in some way before the official announcement was made. Even the names of the members of the Commission were known and discussed in India before we knew them here. Now we have to postpone the debate. I do not know at this moment when it is convenient that it should take place, but I appeal to my noble friend the Secretary of State for India to do everything possible, as I am sure he will—he has told us he will—to accelerate the debate, for every day opinion in India is crystallising and hardening against the measure, largely because nothing is being said over here that would help to allay many of the apprehensions that are now held by people in India. My own view is that when they fully understand the intentions of the Government and the opportunities that will be given to them at the various stages for putting their views before the Commission their fears will be removed, and there will be much less disposition to take an adverse view of the appointment of the Commission.

I hope that it will not be many days before there will be an opportunity of debate both here and in another place, so that India will have a real chance of being convinced that the sole desire has been to fall in with her views, because India has wished that the appointment of the Commission should be accelerated. Such a debate would convince her, I think, that in appointing the Commission the Government really had only one object in mind, and that was to carry out the policy which was formulated in the Act of Parliament of 1919 and to enable any persons who hold an opinion in India, even those persons who wish to have an Indian-made Constitution, to express their views before the Commission.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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