§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
My Lords, the Bill which I have the honour to present to your Lordships is an attempt at a small, partial, and temporary solution of a very large problem. I know only too well that the problem cannot be solved in its entirety without a complete reconstruction of this House, and I deeply regret that the efforts in that direction of my noble friend Lord Salisbury last year, and indeed of others in the past, did not meet a better reception than they did from those in authority. We have to consider the position as it is now, and there is a real and proximate menace to the Constitution, which is the cause of my bringing in this Bill.
The menace arises from two different causes. The one is the nature of the British Constitution, the other is the provisions of the Parliament Act, 1911. Under the British Constitution, unlike almost every other Constitution, there is 620 no check whatever on the powers of Parliament, and a most vital constitutional change can be passed by precisely the same process as a Bill to regulate traffic or to lay down the conditions of licences for motor drivers. That is a special and peculiar feature of our Constitution, and since 1911 that prodigious power, according to constitutional practice, has resided ultimately in the House of Commons and in the House of Commons alone, subject, of course, to certain delays and one ultimate resort of a most dangerous kind about which I shall say a word in a few moments. There is literally nothing that the House of Commons, according to constitutional practice as the law now stands, cannot do if a majority holds together for two years and a little more.
There has been some talk of a possible Government passing what I may call an Omnibus Powers Act giving all legislative and executive power to Ministers or to Commissions. That could be passed under the Parliament Act. The Judges, under the Parliament Act, could be made dismissible at will, appeals from the tax gatherers could be forbidden and, lastly, this House could be entirely, corporately, swept away. I know that there is one exception to the powers of the House of Commons under the Parliament Act. That is that a Parliament cannot last for more than five years; but that provision is wholly illusory, and for this reason. This House can be abolished in five years, and if this House is abolished the Parliament Act is abolished too. With that goes the five years provision, and after the first two years, if this House is then abolished and the Parliament Act goes, there is no check under the constitutional practice we have known to any measure of any kind being passed and sent up for the Royal Assent as soon as it can be got through the House of Commons. I cannot believe that the authors of the Parliament Act ever envisaged such a position as possible.
The Preamble of that Act implies the continued existence of this House. It is familiar to many of your Lordships, but there will be no harm in reading it again;Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament:And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present 621 exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation:And whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by Parliament in a measure effecting such substitution for limiting and defining the powers of the new Second Chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this Act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords:and so on. The interpretation of that obviously is that, at that time, the Liberal majority in the House of Commons thought that the Constitution was unfairly weighted against them, that the reform of this House was desirable, and that in the meantime some check should be put upon the powers of this House. Therefore, they brought in this proposal. But that they should have imagined that this House and the Parliament Act should be abolished by the very machinery which it itself created seems to me utterly incredible, and indeed I believe, if my memory serves, it was repudiated at the time. What the Preamble of the Parliament Act says as a declaration of policy and an aspiration the operating words of the Act entirely annul, because the Parliament Act can be destroyed by processes which it itself sets up, and with it the Second Chamber can go. This is a manifest possibility—that it may be destroyed, and possibly in the next Parliament.
I do not say it is a probability. I think the odds are against any Government wishing to do so obtaining a majority, but, at the same time, I am bound to say that I do not think they are long odds. ask your Lordships to consider the probable factors at the next Election—the natural swing against all Governments, the want of driving power in all Coalition Governments, the estrangement of friends, the disappointment among those who seek the impossible and believe that Governments can restore pre-War conditions, the daily drip of a hostile Press, the effect of a campaign carried on in the name of peace which is probably unique in its mendacity, the supercilious aloofness of many superior persons, the power of a union of honest enthusiasm for change with dishonest envy. When you take the cumulative effect of all these things, the outlook is not bright. I cannot understand how these possibilities should be so continually and so persistently ignored. The 622 intention of one Party, if it comes into power, is not hidden. We were told what it was last week, that this House must go, and that then the Party in power would consider whether to put something, and if so what, in its place. There is frankness about the intention, and there is real possibility of an opportunity arising to carry out that intention.
This is no question of our own pride of place. It goes far deeper than that. There are now three organs of the Constitution, the Crown, Lords and Commons. If you destroy one, the relations of the other two wilt be unavoidably changed. You will unavoidably bring the Crown—involuntarily, but none the less surely—into the vortex of polities, and you will bring these two organs, the Crown and the House of Commons, right up against one another. After all, my Lords, the powers of the Crown are great. The Crown can dismiss Ministers. It was done a hundred years ago, and there have been quite recent examples in the Dominions. The Crown can dissolve Parliament, and though constitutional writers M ay argue whether the power of vetoing Bills has, or has not lapsed, still the fact remains that if the Sovereign does not give Assent to a Bill, that Bill will not operate, and the Courts will not acknowledge it. In the circumstances, which I say are possible, the Crown would be placed in an intolerable position. Do your Lordships think when some matter of great moment came up that there would not be pressure on the Crown to use these powers? That situation was not far from arising once, even under the Parliament Act. If you read the life of Lord Carson by Mr. Colvin, you will see that all during the spring and summer of 1914 people were saying to one another in Ulster: "We must be prepared to resist, but ought we to be put in that position? The Ring, whom we acknowledge, has the power to save us. Will he not save us'?"
If that was the case under the Parliament Act, with its two years of delay and opportunity for discussion, what would it be after this House had gone, when some revolutionary measure came straight up for the Royal Assent after being passed, perhaps in a month, by the House of Commons? Those who would bring pressure of that kind would be those who are most attached to the 623 Throne and person of the Monarch. At any rate, they would be among those, I will not say only those, who would tiling pressure. Under those conditions what is quite certain, whatever else may be uncertain, is that there would be automatic development of those extra-constitutional forces which have played such great havoc in other countries, but which, as yet, owing to the play of the Constitution, have had no real opportunity for growth and development here. It is no chimera of the imagination, but a sober possibility of politics, that by 1940 the wheel may have turned full circle, and you may find that the issue before the country will be the Crown against the House of Commons after the lapse of 300 years.
I quite agree that this Bill does not meet the whole danger, but it does meet the worst. It preserves the status quo. It preserves the Parliament Act itself. It makes provision which will lessen pressure on the Crown, and it preserves the two-year period for reflection before a constitutional change can be made. I have deliberately limited this Bill to the measures dealing with the three vital organs of the Constitution. There are many other things I was tempted to put in—such, for example, as the Union with Scotland—but I felt that if I did so, it would be almost impossible to draw the line between what was important and what was organic. Therefore, I confined it to the constitution.
I am not going to anticipate criticisms at this moment, though I am well aware that they will come. Indeed, I think I can see the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, already glowering with the suppressed fury of his intended onslaught. I will only say this. I am not wedded to the particular provisions of this Bill. There are some things which I have had in mind but have deliberately not put in. There is the question of interpretation, an important one with which I am ready to deal later, but I have not put that in until I knew what line the discussion would take. Neither am I committed in any way to the wording of the Schedule. Perhaps the phrases are not as they should be put down; the definitions may be inexact, and I should welcome something better. I do not care in what form this Bill emerges if only it achieves its purpose, and its purpose is this: that no vital changes in the Constitution shall be 624 made without a deliberate declaration ad hoc of the people's will.
The old constitutional system under which we grew up has passed, with its delicate balances, its implied limitations, its conventional traditions. Now we are forced to confront a new situation and a new menace. It has been long in developing, but some of us foresaw it in 1911. It did not develop so long as the Liberal Party were, with ourselves, the reversionaries of power; now it has. We are trustees of the institutions that have come down to us, and it is our duty to save our institutions from a temporary majority using power for destruction in the people's name but against the people's will. It is in my desire to do something, however small, to save the Throne and the people from the threatened abuse of transient power that I move the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Rankeillour.)
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE, who had given Notice on that Motion for the Second Reading lie would move, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months, said: My Lords, the first question I should like to ask is: How many more of these Bills are we going to have before the expiration of this Parliament? We have had what I may call the frontal attack, all along the line, from the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury; and then we had nibbling at the fringe of the composition of your Lordships' House last week, by the noble Lord, Lord Rockley. Now we have gnawing at the vitals of the Parliament Act, by the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour. I feel very much tempted to reintroduce my Bill, which passed a Second Reading in the House of Commons twice over. It got through the Committee stage once and was waiting for the Third Reading, only the Prime Minister of the day stated that he could not find time for it. It was a very simple Bill; it was a Bill for the termination of hereditary titles amongst His Majesty's subjects.
§ It had two clauses only. The first clause was that any Peer should be allowed to renounce his title. That was founded on a very remarkable article that appeared in a magazine a good many years ago under the names of the late Lord Curzon, the noble Earl, Lord Midleton, and the noble Earl. Lord 625 Selborne, whose careers in another place had been abruptly terminated by the fact that they succeeded to Peerages. I believe that advantage would have been taken of that clause of my Bill by a great many noble Lords who would like to stand for the House of Commons, or, in some cases, would prefer not to be burdened by a very historic and high-sounding title which they feel is out of place. By the second clause no heir would succeed to a title after the passing of the Bill into law, so that by a process of inanition your Lordships' numbers would be gradually reduced and those who favoured a Second Chamber would have to get together in order to speed up the reform of your Lordships' House; if that were not done, then in the course of time the House would die of inanition.
§ Whatever may be said about that Bill, it was comprehensible and it was simple. But these various nibbles that we are invited to discuss in your Lordships' House appear to me to be playing with the whole subject, and, so far as I can ascertain, people outside regard them very much in that light too. That the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, should come down to your Lordships' House and, from a Back Bench, suggest the repeal of the Parliament Act appears to me, if he will allow me to say so, a most unparalleled presumption. He wants to change the Constition. He said, however, towards the close of his speech, that no change of the Constitution should take place without a deliberate declaration of the people's will. I suppose, therefore, that he contemplates after the passing of this Bill a General Election to find out whether the people agree with him, before it can be placed on the Statute Book, for this is just as much a change of the Constitution as it at present exists as any other of the suggestions which the noble Lord made.
§ This is a far more serious matter than the matter we were discussing last week. The matter we were discussing last week was merely a hark-back to mid-nineteenth century methods. But the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, who is a past master of Parliamentary practice and constitutional law, knew how to present a little Bill that would appear on the face of it as quite inoffensive and yet would strike at the very vitals of the Parliament Act. Your Lordships' policy has changed. There was a time when there was a sincere desire on the part of many of 626 your Lordships that this House should be reformed in such a way as to give it a defensible constitution and composition, and at the same time, perhaps, an alteration of its powers, but the main object of the noble Lords and others of the Conservative Party in those days was really to set up what, in their view, would be a defensible and at the same time an efficient Second Chamber. That is no longer the object in view. The object in view now is openly declared to be an attempt to prevent the next Labour Government, when it gets a majority in the House of Commons, from carrying out its intentions and passing into law the measures and projects which it has already foreshadowed. So the whole intention has swung round to this new idea of thwarting a, legitimately constituted Government. That is a very much more serious matter. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, made no sort of concealment about it at all. He painted the nightmare that would arise when a Labour Government came into power, and Lord Rankeillour has delineated the sort of constitutional nightmare that might arise.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
I quite admit that Lord Rockley had no such intention at all, but, as I say, he was simply nibbling at the fringe in a rather Victorian way. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has never made any concealment about his views on this question recently, since the introduction of his Bill last year. He was good enough to refer to me in his speech last week and said that I did not really appreciate his fairness—how he intended to be fair to the Labour Party. His definition of fairness is so very different from mine.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
His definition of fairness, with regard to the Bill of last week, is that we should be given a complement of trade unionists, fifty or so, behind us, to give some sort of semblance of numerical strength. What fairness is that? The only fairness would be to visualise a possible majority of Labour Peers in this House in certain circumstances. That is the only fairness. In present circumstances it would be impossible. We should have to have 627 about 700 trade unionists on these Benches, if you could find 700 trade unionists who would consent to come here, which I very much doubt. That might certainly add to the excitement and give us a possibility, on occasions, of defeating noble Lords opposite in a Division. Nothing short of that can be fairness. Merely to give us fifty or a hundred members might add to our debating strength, but nothing more, and apart from that there would be no fairness whatever. It is a mere sop to us.
No, my Lords, the intention is that the progressive forces with the coming Labour Government shall be hampered. I think that noble Lords opposite really believe that you should have a perpetual check on all progressive measures. There is something to be said for having a skid on a cart when it is going down hill, but in these days the cart of State has to move up a very steep hill to make any progress at all, and no skid is wanted. The skid must be lifted and thrown away, and there must be nothing to hamper the march of progressive opinion in this country. This repeal of the Parliament Act is, I consider—
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
The noble Lord must not call it a repeal, because the Bill preserves most of the features of the Parliament Act.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
The noble Lord is very astute. Those who served under him in another place know that he is able to distinguish what is vital and what is subsidiary, and he has chosen just the few elements in the Parliament Act which at present matter most. He actually suggests that the Parliament Act should be amended in this way, restoring to your Lordships' House these powers, and that at the same time its constitution should remain as it is. The position of your Lordships' House with its constitution as it is is not defended by one single noble Lord on any occasion whatever. Everybody agrees that it is absolutely indefensible. Therefore the suggestion is that you should go to the country saying: Although the composition of the House of Lords is indefensible we mean to increase its powers. I would like to know what the electorate would think of a policy of that kind.
Let me look rather more closely into the actual Bill. It requires careful 628 analysis, because it is so drafted as to appear very, very inoffensive. The first item in the Schedule is:The Prerogative and rights of the Crown including any provision for His Majesty's Civil List.The Civil List, as your Lordships know, is voted at the beginning of a reign, and all the various contingencies are provided for in such a way that further separate discussion on it does not take place. The noble Lord is visualising something very unusual happening—something so unusual that really I hardly think we need waste, time on it—but he also, by this first paragraph of his Schedule, suggests that the House of Commons should not have complete control over finance. He is putting the door ajar with regard to what really was the very basis of the Parliament Act, because your Lordships will remember that the Parliament Act was passed after your Lordships' House had thrown out a Finance Bill. Therefore the suggestion in this paragraph is that finance should no longer be exclusively the business of the elected representative Chamber.
The second item in the Schedule is:The succession to the Crown.That opens up such a fantastic and silly hypothesis that it is not worth discussing it here this afternoon. Anything so shattering as controversy over the succession to the Crown we really need not visualise, any more than we need visualise what would happen to this House if there were an earthquake in London. The noble Lord knows that, but he puts in these first two items as padding. His real object is contained in the third paragraph, and that is:The composition, powers and privileges of either House of Parliament.You can set aside the House of Commons, because it seems to me that any alteration in the composition of the House of Commons is a matter entirely for them to decide for themselves. If matters of electoral reform or changes in constituencies, or other changes which must occur periodically in the elected Chamber, are to be vetoed by this House, that would be an innovation which I consider undesirable, and an innovation which we may set aside as being one upon which the House of Commons should decide. Then at last we get to the point, which is the composition, powers and privileges of your Lordships' House.
629 With regard to this attempt to repeal part of the Parliament Act or to amend it in such a way m; to emasculate it, I would remind your Lordships of an opinion that was given by a noble Earl whose opinion all of your Lordships will respect. On July 1922, Lord Birkenhead, in a debate on this subject, said—I think it was in reply to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury:It is true that we must prepare ourselves, as far as we can, to entrench this Rouse deeply and firmly in the confidence of the country. How should we approach that problem most wisely at the present moment? We shall not do it by arming the whole of the Labour Party and the whole of the independent Liberal Party with a cry in the country by repealing the Parliament Act. The noble Marquess disclaimed the intention to repeal it, but, of course, it would cut the heart out of the Act if you do repeal the bulk of it in such a way as was actually implied by the language of the noble Marquess.There is no doubt that this measure is as good as a repeal of the Parliament Act, because it prevents the House of Commons from ever touching your Lordships' House, and. I think the advice given by Lord Birkenhead on that occasion was sound advice from the point of view of the Tory party, because most undoubtedly, if this measure were to be placed on the Statute Book, it would be a very valuable electoral asset to my Party, and also to the Liberal Party who were responsible for the passage of the Parliament Act.
Really, the action of noble Lords in the Conservative Party is very puzzling. They have had twenty-four years since the passage of the Parliament Act to reach an agreement on this question, and they have never been able to do so. They have had twenty-four years to produce a plausible scheme, which could be put before the country for its acceptance, and which the electorate and which their own Party would endorse as a proper constitutional reform, and they have done nothing. And out of those twenty-four years they have had twenty-one years in which a Conservative Government has been in power, a Conservative Government sympathetic to their views, ready to carry them out., but waiting for the rank and file on the Back Benches in both Houses of Parliament to produce a water-tight scheme which would be approved by the electorate. Nothing has been done. And we are treated now 630 periodically to these little, spasmodic, futile, sterile Bills, which pass their Second Reading and then disappear on the dusty shelves of forgotten papers. No, it is not by this sort of measure that this hideous revolution which we are to expect is going to be stopped. It is not by this little one-clause Bill, any more than it was by the more formidable weapon of the noble Marquess's Bill, that you are going to stop the march of progress. If your Lordships will not put your House in order, if your Lordships cannot appeal to the electorate to show that you have a plan which they by a majority will approve, then your Lordships' House must be, in the nature of things, doomed.
I wonder what the Government attitude is. They are always rather embarrassed by these things; they always seem to be a little bit at sixes and sevens; and they try to bless these Bills. And then they always have the quite valid excuse that they have not got time to press them further. And many noble Lords on that side of the House, very rightly, deplore these tactics of members on the Back Benches, trying to press forward these big constitutional changes. The alteration of a Statute which was passed after two General Elections in 1910, and brought forward after what may be described as a constitutional convulsion, is not a matter that can be altered by a Private Member's Bill in a few hours on a quiet afternoon like this. I do not know if His Majesty's Government are going to have the courage to put the reform of the House of Lords into their Election Address. If all the signs which the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, sees in the country pointing to a change at the next General Election are to be relied upon, I doubt if His Majesty's Government will have the courage to say that they are going to introduce a Bill for the reform of the House of Lords. I believe, if they do, it may make possibility and probability into a certainty of the fall of the Government.
But, however that may be, I rise on behalf of my noble friends who sit with me in your Lordships' House to move the rejection of this Bill on the score that it is the wrong way to deal with a vast question, that it is an inopportune time to deal with this matter at all, that no good can come from trying to alter the 631 present Constitution by these petty attempts at reform, and that we stand for a policy which involves, whether we have a Second Chamber or not, the complete demolition of a ruin whose foundations are unsound and a ruin that promises to be of considerable danger to those who desire to erect a better and a finer structure in the country than we have to-day. I beg to move.
Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").(Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.)
§ THE MARQUESS OF READING
My Lords, it cannot be denied that this Bill raises questions of high constitutional importance, and I share with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, his inability to comprehend how it was ever thought possible to pass a measure of this character when introduced by a private member of the House. I can quite understand that what the noble Lord had in mind was to initiate a discussion in order to ascertain views and to get as Far as he could with the Bill. But he can have no possible hope of carrying this Bill into law, because we have already been told by His Majesty's Government on at least two occasions—I think three, according to my recollection—that they had no intention of dealing with this matter during the present Session. I agree also that we shall not deal with this question during the present Parliament, because I cannot see how it is possible, if it is not to be dealt with in this Session, for it to be dealt with in the next. Nevertheless, the Bill is before your Lordships, and some opinion will have to be expressed about it.
I confess that I approach one aspect of it with some sympathy with the noble Lord's view. I quite realise the danger to which he calls attention of some important change in the Constitution being effected by a transient or precarious majority. I can follow also the anxiety lest there should be important changes in the Constitution which it is thought have not been properly considered, and which, after a period of two years, would become law if the Parliament Act remains unaltered. Nevertheless I find it difficult, and indeed impossible, to agree with the noble Lord's remedy or to support the Bill which he now proposes. To my mind it introduces questions of the highest 632 magnitude quite unnecessarily at the present moment. I regret very much that it has been thought desirable or necessary to introduce into this Bill, particularly in this year, provisions to safeguard either the succession to the Crown or the privileges and Prerogatives of the Crown or the Civil List of the King.
I wondered the moment I read the Bill why it was that the noble Lord had introduced these matters. They have never been the subject of discussion during recent years. It may be very well said, and with justice, that there is a menace or a threat to your Lordships' House, but that is a matter entirely different from a menace to the Crown. In these days, when not only is there no controversy but, on the contrary, there is universal admiration for the way in which the Crown has discharged its functions during the last twenty-five years, it is, I think, a very great pity that we should have this matter brought into controversy. That this Bill should proceed to discussion at a time when we are actually celebrating and expressing our gratitude on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of His Majesty's accession is a matter for regret. I only mention that for the purpose of emphasising that this Bill is wholly unnecessary and ought never to have been introduced. I agree entirely with the noble Lord who moved the rejection that it is really outside the range of discussion and I can only conceive it has been put in—I shall not say with any fell design, for I should not accuse the noble Lord of that—for the purpose of meeting a kind of attitude which is in his mind, and I suppose in the minds of some of those who think with him, that it is necessary to buttress the Constitution in some way; you must close every door you possibly can for fear of what may happen in the years to come.
Having said that, I do not propose to say one word more in regard to the Crown. But I do agree with the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, who is really an authority on this subject, could have had in mind exactly what he was doing when he proposed that there should be an exception to the operation of the Parliament Act in regard to the Civil List of the King. That is interfering right away with what I thought had been 633 disposed of once for all—namely, the power of the House of Commons to deal not only with Money Bills but with money matters. How you are to deal with the Civil List without in some way interfering with the provisions of the Parliament Act as regards Money Bills or the privileges of the House of Commons I do not really understand. I do not propose to discuss that matter further. I think it is a matter which is quite beyond the range of controversy, and there I propose to leave it.
I come to what is the real purpose of this Bill. I certainly do not agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has said—in fact I differ front him fundamentally because, for myself, I am a believer in a Second Chamber, and those who are associated with me believe in a Second Chamber. We have the Parliament Act which, as it at present stands, limits and defines the power of this House. That Act was passed after most acute controversy, when every possible matter was discussed, including every one of the subjects now raised by the noble Lord in his Bill. He was in the House of Commons at the time, and he will no doubt remember that these matters actually formed the subject of discussion during the passage of the Bill. The Parliament Act was passed and, as I understand, what the noble Lord wishes to do is not to repeal the Act but to amend it. In a sense every Amending Bill reaffirms the Act but makes certain alterations, and that is what would follow from this Bill. The conclusion therefore would be that after twenty-four years from the passing of the Parliament Act, this Bill were to be passed, we should have an Amended Parliament Bill introduced by the noble Lord and, I assume for the purpose, passed by both Houses. That would be interesting, because we should have to begin with the Preamble, which states quite definitely—it was read by the noble Lord, and it would remain M the amended Act—that this House was to be constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis. I do not know how far your Lordships sitting on that side of the House agree with that. I know that most members I believe there must be reform, but I doubt whether you would go quite as far as that. I pass from that merely with the observation that that would be the position of this House.
634 So far as we are concerned on this side, we feel that these reforms have been discussed in your Lordships' House on many occasions. We had them mentioned last week. It is quite sufficient to say that a great many plans have been proposed but no agreement has been reached, and the consequence is that the Parliament Act stands now as it did then. I believe there is very great force in what fell from the noble Earl, Lord Peel, in the recent discussion, When he said that one of the difficulties in the way of a reform of this House on a popular basis is that the House of Commons would very much dislike to have a Second Chamber which might be as strong as, if not stronger than, the House of Commons itself. He followed that, up with various quotations, and I do not propose to say more about it than to express the view that that must always be an important factor. I do not say it is a final thing, and I do not say it is a view held by all members, but it is certainly held by a number of members of the other House.
Therefore we stand in this position at present: this House cannot agree on its own reforms, in spite of innumerable attempts by some of the most distinguished members of your Lordships' House, and the other House, so far as we know, is not proposing to make any reform: certainly no Bill has come to us. I want to say in regard to the Parliament Act that I believe that. that Act has worked far better than was thought possible at the time it was passed. I am inclined to the view that those who were responsible for it built more strongly than they themselves actually knew, and the bridge has become, as the days have proceeded, a more powerful fabric and has worked well. It has preserved to your Lordships' House what are to my mind the important considerations in relation to a Second Chamber. Those are the freest and fullest power of revising and reviewing the propositions that come before us, and opportunities for debate which are, I think, very often envied in another place and which certainly enable us to hear expressions of views from members of your Lordships' House who are great authorities on the various subjects that come up for discussion. In that way this House does fill a very important place. Therefore I am in entire disagreement with those of 635 the noble Lord's friends who take the view that this House should be abolished, and also that there should be no Second Chamber.
Having said that, I come to the final point in relation to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour. That final point is in the Schedule and is apart from the Crown matters. It is intended to preserve and protect the "composition, powers and privileges of either House of Parliament." He will forgive my saying, and I am sure he will not misunderstand me when I do say, that it is not for him in this House to say what is required for the other House. I should have thought that the other House, if it desired that kind of protection, could have sent its own measure up for our consideration. So far as I am aware there has been no attempt in the other House to put forward any proposition of that kind. At least we are entitled to say that no Bill has come from the other House which has suggested such a thing to us. What is left? The whole purpose and design of this Bill, as I understand it, is that your Lordships should be entrenched behind it so that this House can resist whatever may be sent up to it from the other House. I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, when I say that, with him, I dislike very strongly the idea of a measure coming up dealing with the Second Chamber that might not be supported by a majority of the voters of the country, but I would venture to ask him: How does he think this proposition of his would be of avail? Assume that his Bill passed and that a Labour Government was in power. I hesitate very much to think what would happen in such circumstances. But assume that this Bill passed and that one of the exceptions to the operation of the Parliament Act was the reform of the House of Lords, and assume that, nevertheless, the House of Commons, in three successive Sessions and after a minimum period of two years had elapsed, and without the alteration of a comma, passed the Bill—the whole of which is necessary—and that the Bill was then brought up to this House and was again rejected: what is to happen then?
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
May I interrupt the noble Marquess for a moment? Would his objection be in any way dissipated if I put in the provision 636 that Lord Salisbury put into his Bill last year, that even the excepted and exempted matters should be dealt with under the Parliament Act if an Election supervened between the second and third presentation?
§ THE MARQUESS OF READING
It would not meet the point I am putting now. I agree that it would go some way to meet one of the difficulties, but it would not meet what I conceive to be the real difficulty. I was putting to your Lordships the embarrassment that would arise. I do not want to discuss it in detail. It raises all sorts of questions. But conceive the position if that happened which I have indicated. The noble Lord spoke of the introduction of a measure dealing with your Lordships' House and I think the date he took was somewhere about 1940. It might be, he said, that the Crown might be involved in the vortex of politics. It might come very much earlier than that if the noble Lord's Bill were to be passed into law. That is one of the things which above all things we want to avoid. We do not wish to see that kind of dispute arise in which there might be difficulty over the hereditary principle of your Lordships' House, which would have to be settled in the only possible constitutional manner in which it could be settled.
Your Lordships may very well say to me: "If you have some sympathy with the noble Lord who introduced the Bill, what do you suggest should be done?" I would suggest something which is not relevant in its detail to this Bill, but which, for the purposes of a Second Reading, it is open to me to speak about. I agree that we should do what we can in order to provide that when a measure comes up to this House we should be able to form an opinion as to whether or not it is backed by a majority of the votes in the country. My view quite definitely—and I doubt whether there would be many of your Lordships, if any, who would differ from it—is that if in truth there was evidence of a substantial majority of votes in favour of the abolition of this House, then it would be impossible to keep this House as it is. We should have to give way. We are a democratic country, but our difficulty, and I believe the difficulty that the noble Lord is seeking to meet, is the difficulty of what I may call a hurried measure 637 being sent here, or, it may be, a measure supported only by a minority of the country.
Under our present system we are only able to determine with certainty the number of votes given in Parliament upon any question. The real difficulty nowadays, under our present system, is to know what is the view of the majority of voters in the country. That is really the crucial trouble. I would press upon your Lordships, who have not been unsympathetic in the past on this question, to consider whether the time has not come to meet the very point which is in Lord Rankeillour's mind, and whether the true remedy is not that there should be some means of bringing about electoral reform. I do not go into that question in detail, because it is unnecessary to do so, but I suggest that what really is required is some measure by which we can ascertain what is the view of the majority of voters in the country. At present we do not know. I have a number of figures which I could quote to your Lordships but I will give you one set only. These figures were present to the minds of almost all of us a short time ago, but they quickly fade from one's memory, especially in the critical times in which we now live.
What took place in the 1929 election when a Labour Government came into power? Do your Lordships remember what were the number of votes cast? I will give them because they illustrate the point I am putting. In 1929, 36 per cent. of the votes were cast for Labour and the result was that Labour obtained 257 seats. At the same Election 38 per cent. of votes were cast for the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party got 260 seats. Although the Conservative Party polled more votes than the Labour Party they were nevertheless in a minority in regard to the number of seats. The Liberals polled 23 per cent. of the votes and they got 59 seats. What happened? The Labour Party came into power and the Labour Government worked all right for a time, but it did not represent a majority of the voters of the country. May I take another instance, the only other one I will give upon this point? Take the recent by-election at Wavertree. The result of the Wavertree election was that a Labour Member was returned. I do not suppose that even my noble friend Lord Ponsonby 638 would claim that he represented a majority of the electors of Wavertree, or that there was really a majority in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords.
The whole point of the argument I am putting is that it is only by some measure of this character, whatever its form may be, which has been discussed on a number of occasions, that you can ever arrive at what I think is a solution of the difficulty which the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, points out, that is, of ascertaining where the majority of the people stand. You would know then, because you would have some system by which you could count up and realise who were in favour of the abolition of the House. My submission is that in principle the remedy is to be found in electoral reform. In this matter your Lordships have been very open minded and liberal. I am not going into the detailed history of the matter, but I would remind you that there was a Conference in 1916 presided over by the then Speaker of the House of Commons, the present Viscount Ullswater. After discussing the question that Conference came to certain conclusions with regard to proportional representation and the alternative vote. Eventually, the Representation of the People Bill was introduced in 1917, and a question arose with regard to proportional representation. Your Lordships were certainly not against it, but nevertheless that was not carried because the House of Commons rejected it.
Ever since then this matter has been discussed. In 1929 when the Labour Government came into office, although the Labour Party had not been particularly favourable to electoral reform, the Liberal Party thought there was urgent need for electoral reform, for either proportional representation or the alternative vote. The Conservative Party thought there was no necessity for electoral reform, but that if there was reform it should be by proportional representation. The Labour Party agreed with them to the extent that there was no necessity for electoral reform, but said that if there was reform, it should not be by proportional representation but there should be the alternative vote.
The Labour Government did propose to introduce electoral reform. It was mentioned in the King's Speech in 1929, and 639 a Bill was introduced which your Lordships may remember came up for discussion in this House. The Bill was passed by the House of Commons, and when it came up here I think it passed Second Reading. Your Lordships were in favour of some measure of electoral reform, though I think it was suggested that it should be limited to one hundred members under some scheme. However, the crisis came and the Labour Government fell. With the extension of the franchise we have got violence in the change of public opinion nowadays to a far greater extent than there used to be in the old days. Your Lordships will realise why. Something has to be done therefore for the purpose of ascertaining what are the views of the majority of the people. I suggest that we certainly ought not to get rid of this House unless we are satisfied that there is a substantial majority of the voters of the country in favour of that action, and the only means, as far as I can see, of finding that out is by some such proposal as I have suggested.
But leaving that aside, I submit, that it would be a great mistake for your Lordships to pass this Bill. Quite recently your Lordships passed the Second Reading of Lord Rockley's Bill by a great majority in proportion to the numbers in the House at the time. That was a Bill for the purpose of reforming this House, and going a step in the direction of what is wanted. This Bill would be a step definitely in the wrong direction. It is intended to perpetuate the present position until there is same proposal which will appeal to the noble Lord and his friends. I believe that if you carry this Bill it will appear to the country that you are doing it for the purpose of entrenching yourselves in the position which you hold and of protecting your own powers and privileges, and that it cannot be pretended that it is in the interests of the country that it should be passed.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
My Lords, I do not propose to follow the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, in a disquisition on proportional representation. I know that it is an attractive subject, but I do not propose to deal with it today. I listened with great interest, as I always do, to the speech of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour. I thought he 640 made a very strong case. I thought that the general argument that constitutional change should not be at the will and pleasure of a single Chamber was a very powerful argument. But I must admit that I do not see my way to support the present Bill. It seems to me that it really amounts to saying in so many words that no change in the powers of this House shall be made without the consent of this House. As an abstract proposition there may be something to be said for it, but it seems to me very difficult to contend, if you accept the Parliament Act at all, that this House should be allowed to have an absolute decision on a point of that kind.
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
May I say—I think my noble friend was not in his place during the whole time—that I am perfectly ready to put in a provision that the. Parliament Act should still work if there be an Election between the second and third presentations of a Bill.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
Yes, that of course would make the objection very much less, but I do not know whether I would support a Bill of that kind. I feel it would be very difficult, broadly speaking, to go to the country and say: "The House of Lords is constituted, as you notice, with an overwhelming majority of one way of political thinking; we propose to increase the powers of that House while not doing anything to correct that overwhelming majority." The actual inequality might no doubt be diminished, but I feel that this is a proposition which is exceedingly difficult to maintain. I feel that we are driven back in every one of these discussions, just as we were in discussing Lord Rockley's Bill the other day, to the proposition that some real, if you like some drastic, reform is essential if we are to maintain a Two-Chamber Constitution.
There is no doubt about the evil. We are in this position, that nobody speaks from that side of the House, any more than from this, without deploring the present constitution of the House. My noble friend Lord Midleton, when he was speaking the other day, admitted most fully—indeed, he argued most strongly—that the present constitution of the House was indefensible. To have a House where the Party which commands a very large proportion of the votes, if not a majority of the votes, in the country is 641 represented by an insignificant minority of the Second Chamber is a position which no one could defend or does defend; it is an impossible position to defend. Until you deal with that difficulty, until you really make a Second Chamber which will be fair as between all forms of political opinion, I do not see how you can get on in any of these ways.
What is the result? What is the condition of our Constitution at this moment? I quite admit that the Second Chamber has other functions to perform than that of resisting revolution. Yon may say, as my noble friend Lord Reading said just now, that the discussions which take place in this House on abstract propositions, or propositions not leading to legislation, are often valuable. It is perfectly true that this House contains, as we are all glad to acknowledge, a very large number of members amongst whom can be found authorities on practically every large public question, and when they can be induced to come and express to your Lordships, and through your Lordships to the country, views on these public questions, that is a very valuable function. In the same way there is something to be said—though to my mind much less—for what is called the House's revising and reviewing power. I must say that the great mass of the Bills which come up from the other House are dealt with by your Lordships with great rapidity and not often, beyond the Amendments which are proposed by the Government, by reviewing and improving the construction and the arrangement of those Bills. Still, however, I do not dispute that there are those two functions. But they are not the only functions, and they are not the functions which are, at any rate, important in all these discussions.
The whole question really is: Is the House of Lords, as at present constituted, an adequate safeguard against revolution and, I will add, reaction? Because in my judgment, as I shall explain in a moment, the danger of reaction—and by reaction I mean, of course, revolutionary reaction—is quite as great as the danger of revolution in a Socialist or Radical direction. I believe it is a danger for all Parties. I do not myself see an answer to what was said by my 642 noble friend Lord Ponsonby when he pointed out that for twenty-four years there has been an opportunity for correcting this grave defect in our constitution, and that no advantage has been taken of that opportunity. I think that is a formidable observation, very formidable, but whoever is to blame and wherever the blame may be, I feel that it is urgently necessary that something should be done to correct it.
I am sanguine enough, though I am afraid very many of your Lordships will think this an extravagant view, to believe that the only way in which you will get an adequate reform of the Second Chamber is by agreement; not only by agreement amongst the different sections of the Conservative Party, but by agreement with the Opposition also. I believe it could be done; I am sure it ought to be tried. I venture to think that the reason why it is not tried, and the reason why it has not been done, is that we have not yet made up our minds exactly what it is we want. To my mind the object of a Second Chamber—and I believe in the necessity of a Second Chamber—is to give the sovereign power, whatever it may be, in this country—of course it is chiefly the electorate—an opportunity for considering again before some great legislative measure is passed. That is the great object of the safeguarding powers of the Second Chamber, and it becomes urgent when for any reason the First Chamber is not representative of the electorate which returned it.
My noble friend Lord Reading thinks that a great deal might be done if you had a fair system of election. I am not going into that, but I rather doubt myself whether that is the chief difficulty which you have to face. The chief difficulty is that the Lower Chamber may be elected under the influence of some strong emotion, some strong fear or anxiety, and you will then get a very large majority which soon in the course of time becomes no longer representative of the electors. That is inevitable as soon as the fear or other emotion, whatever it is, disappears or weakens: the Lower House no longer represents those who have elected it. Many people hold—I am anxious not to enter into this kind of controversy this evening—that the present House of Commons would not be reelected if there were a Dissolution. What changes there would be is a matter of 643 dispute, but I think that almost everybody is agreed that very considerable changes would take place. I am not going to discuss whether that House of Commons has used its powers during its existence unfairly or improperly, but it is quite evident that it might have done so, and it is quite evident that there was no Second Chamber which was in a position or was capable, in view of its constitution, of requiring any action taken by the First Chamber to be reconsidered.
That seems to me to be the position, and I feel that your Lordships' House is not only disabled from taking that course because of the fact that it has got so large a majority, but also because, owing to its constitution, its political authority in the country is very slight. I hope I am not impertinent in saying that it is my profound conviction that from the point of view of discussion amongst authorities, experts if you like, the debates in this House have great value and importance in the country, but from the point of view of deciding political issues, everybody knows there is a permanent and overwhelming majority of one way of thinking, and accordingly the political authority and prestige of this House is, I am afraid, very slight indeed. Indeed I have often heard wirepullers express the view that it is better, from the point of view of those who agree with the majority of this House, for this House not to take a political decision, because that fact by itself is really in inimical to the success of the opinion thus supported.
I do not know whether that rather exaggerated view is accurate or not, but I think that it operates to shake this House altogether unsatisfactory as a protection against excesses of legislation by a House of Commons which, for one reason or another, has ceased to represent the electorate of the country. I venture to submit that very strongly, but it is quite plain that if you are to have a Second Chamber that is to act as a balance, a flywheel, a governor, of the First Chamber, it must be representative of the permanent opinion of this country. I do not mean to say absolutely permanent, because absolute permanence is impossible, but the settled opinion of this country. I think there are some questions on which, if you examine the history of this country, this country has quite made up its mind, and 644 as each Election succeeds another that opinion is still maintained. In other eases opinions alter, and when you want a Second Chamber is when some extreme proposition is made—to say, Does this really represent the opinion of the country, or is the House of Commons, though it is no longer representative, seizing power to put such an extreme measure on the Statute Book? That seems to me to be the great function which a Second Chamber ought to have, and it is evident that it roust be exercised quite fairly as between all Parties. That is to say, this House must be representative not of one section of opinion but of the general opinion of the country, and nothing else.
It seems to me that if we could agree upon those two propositions, that you do want a Second Chamber, in order to secure consideration of measures of a far-reaching character, and that this Second Chamber must act quite fairly and impartially as between all Parties, and must not only operate against the measures produced by one Party, and never operate against the measures produced by the other—if you were to agree to those two propositions, which seem to me overwhelmingly proved, then surely it cannot be impossible to devise a measure by agreement which would constitute a Second Chamber of that kind. The difficulty of agreement is that you must start from a common basis, but if you can start from a common basis I think that agreement should be reached, and it is immensely desirable that this question should be settled somehow, if it is at all possible. It really is—is it not?—little short of a scandal that we should still be discussing, twenty-four years after the Parliament Act was passed, some way of fulfilling that which is expressed there to be essentially necessary. Surely that is a great blot on the political good sense of the people of this country, and of the Parties which represent them.
My noble friend Lord Rankeillour drew a picture which may have been exaggerated, but it is a formidable picture of the possibilities of a Socialistic Government. I gather from the Press, and from reading the speeches of my noble friends in the country, that one of the chief topics that they propose to submit to the country at the General Election, 645 which must take place in a comparatively few months from now, is the great danger from Socialism. I cannot help feeling that if they have done nothing to establish a really effective and defensible Second Chamber to guard against that danger, it will be very difficult to persuade the people of this country that they regard this danger as a real one. If I may say so to noble Lords sitting on my right: Are they quite sure it is desirable not to have a Second Chamber? I wonder if they have considered it—I am sure they have considered it—from their own point of view.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
Perhaps the noble Viscount will allow me to interrupt. I think I said in my remarks that, whether people were in favour of a Second Chamber or not, owing to this delay it would be necessary for this House to be swept aside, whether another Second Chamber was formed or not; but I did not commit myself with regard to having a Second Chamber.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
I am obliged to the noble Lord. I think he has made a very valuable statement. I am afraid I am a heretic, so far as the majority of your Lordships' House are concerned, in not being very much afraid of a revolutionary Labour Government. I may be impertinent enough to make criticisms of the Labour Government, but not on the ground that they are likely to be revolutionary. However that may be, I feel that the danger is at least as great in the direction of reaction. We have the history of Europe before us. Revolutions in Europe have been as much to the Right as to the Left. In Italy and Germany you have the suppression of all that most of us think valuable, scarcely less complete than you have in Russia.
Therefore you have to consider that, for the purpose of dealing with a situation of that sort. I do not anticipate a full-blooded Fascist Government with Sir Oswald Mosley as Dictator, but I do conceive in certain circumstances that you might have a situation in which serious inroads might be made on the liberties of the country. For dealing with that situation a Second Chamber is quite as necessary as for dealing with revolutionary changes from the Left. I therefore think that from the point of view of both Parties it is of urgent importance 646 that a really effective Second Chamber should be erected—not only far the purpose of holding discussions and revising legislation, but also for the purpose of giving to the electorate an opportunity of reconsidering some measure of extreme character, whether it is extreme on the Left or on the Right.
Then, reaching that conclusion rightly or wrongly, I cannot help asking myself whether it really is not for the interest of both Parties to get together and come to a solution of this question by agreement. After all, what otherwise faces the country? Sooner or later—I do not know whether it will be at the next Election, or the Election after, or at some other time—it is reasonably certain that you will have a Labour majority returned to the House of Commons; at any rate, that is our political experience. It is reasonably certain that they will send up measures to this House of which the majority of this House will disapprove. Quite apart from revolution, what is going to happen? it means a great constitutional struggle. Who is going to gain by that? I do not think the Conservative Party is going to gain—not certainly at any rate, for once you get into those great discussions you cannot tell what will be the outcome. And it is not at all certain that the Labour Party will gain by it. In any case, whichever Party gains, for some time, possibly some years, the whole of the ordinary legislation of the country, the whole political life of the country, will be held up. Well aware as I am that I am speaking on a rather difficult topic, I do very respectfully venture to appeal to the Leaders of both Parties to see whether—admitting the proposition that you want a Second Chamber and that it must be impartial—they cannot agree on some solution which would give an answer, and a successful answer, to that problem.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (VISCOUNT HAILSHAM)
My Lords, although this is a Private Member's Motion, I think it would probably be for the convenience of your Lordships' House if I were to state, as I propose to do at not very great length, what is the attitude of His Majesty's Government with regard to these proposals. Because, after all, although the Motion comes from a Back Bench, it comes from a member who has had a wide political experience, and it certainly deals with matters of 647 immense constitutional importance. For some twenty-four years now, ever since the passing of the Parliament Act, what is loosely described as the reform of the House of Lords has been a matter of almost continual political discussion. A variety of Resolutions and Bills have been brought forward, one at least by the Government of the day, and others by private members of great distinction, in which this question of reform has been discussed. But it seems to me that my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, in the Bill which he has introduced for your Lordships' consideration this afternoon, has started on a fresh and inconsistent line from anything which has hitherto been brought forward for consideration.
My noble friend reminded us of the Preamble of the Parliament Act. Your Lordships will remember that it set out three matters which it laid down as axiomatic, and which, I think it may be taken, were accepted by Parliament when that Act was placed upon the Statute Book. First of all, it recorded that it was desirable to reform the constitution of the Second Chamber. Secondly, it recorded that when that reform had been achieved it would be necessary to define and limit the powers of the reformed Second Chamber. And, thirdly, it laid down that, pending that reform, which in 1911 brooked no delay, it was essential to restrict the power of the existing House of Lords. And the Parliament Act proceeded to make those restrictions. Ever since that Bill became law attempts have been made to produce suggestions to alter the constitution of the Second Chamber, and, together with that alteration, very often to make alterations in its powers. But I think it is true to say that since the date of the Parliament Act down to to-day it has been accepted as finally decided that a reform, an alteration of the constitution of the Second Chamber was a necessary antecedent of, or at least a necessary contemporaneous action with, any attempt to give to the Second Chamber any further powers. It was accepted as finally decided that the powers of the existing House of Lords were settled in the Parliament Act, and that neither Parliament nor the people were prepared to give to the existing House of Lords powers beyond those which were set out in that Act.
It is, in fact, interesting historically to notice that the proposed alterations in 648 the present Bill were, most of them at any rate, the subject of Amendments moved during the passage of the Parliament Act in one or other House of Parliament, some of them indeed in both Houses. And it is also perhaps worth reflecting in passing that the crucial Division which determined the fate of the Parliament Bill, which determined whether it should be placed upon the Statute Book without a very grave change of the constitution of this House by the creation of more Peers, took place, not upon the Second Reading of the Bill, but upon an Amendment which had been carried here, which had been disagreed to in another place, and with regard to which the ultimate assent of your Lordships' House was required, and that that Amendment was one which sought to exclude from the Parliament Act certain specified topics, including indeed one at least of those which forms the subject of the present Bill. So that your Lordships see that it was quite definitely settled in the year 1911 that, whereas it was desirable to reform the constitution of this Chamber, and whereas it would be proper to define and limit the powers of the Second Chamber when reformed, it was not desired to give to the existing House any further powers beyond those which were defined in that Act. And that decision has been hitherto accepted as final.
There have been, as I have said, numerous Resolutions and Bills. Every one then recognised that as fundamentally sound. Those of the Government introduced by the late Lord Cave, the Resolution of my noble friend Lord FitzAlan, the Bill which my noble friend Lord Salisbury introduced last year—all recognised that fact. Of course, it is always possible to change one's mind. It is always possible to ask Parliament to alter a decision which a previous Parliament has registered, but at least we must do it deliberately, and we must face the fact that if we pass this Bill we are not embarking upon a reform of the House of Lords, we are not carrying out the proposals which are set out in the Preamble of the Parliament Act, and we are going back on the decision which was then reached. I would desire to say at once I do not believe that the country would for a moment endorse any such suggestion. I do not believe that there is any chance of its being accepted in another 649 place, and I have to say on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that they at least see no reason. for repealing or altering the Parliament Act in any direction which would extend the powers of the existing House, whatever conclusions they may Intimately reach with regard to any alteration of the constitution of this House, or the conferring of powers upon a reformed House of Lords.
On that ground it is essential for His Majesty's Government to take up an attitude in opposition to my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, and I would remind him of what was said in the debate on the Bill of my noble friend Lord Rockley last week. My noble friend Lord Salisbury then pointed out how dangerous a thing it would be if the impression were created by some piecemeal measure that this was the House of Lords' idea of what reform ought to be made. The noble Marquess said:People would say, 'After all these great discussions, all these wonderful ideas of root-and-branch reform, all the questions of what is going to happen to the Parliament Act and so forth—it all comes down to fifty Life Peers in ten years.'If this Bill were passed they would say, "After all these discussions it all comes down to the House of Lords asking for further powers for itself." A similar fear was expressed by my noble friend Lord Merrivale when he said:But how must it appear to the masses of the people of this country if this House, when one of the great problems of the time is reform which shall adjust it to modern conditions, says …And if I may venture to substitute for what the people would have said in the case of that Bill what they would say in the case of this Bill: "The kind of reform we will give you is to increase the powers of the existing House." My noble friend Lord Peel, in equally eloquent and forceful language, pointed out the same conclusion.
I did not agree in the circumstances of last week, because it did not seem to me that Lord Rockley's Bill did purport to make any attempt to grapple with the great question of the reform of the House of Lords; it merely made A modest contribution in the direction of allowing a limited number of Life Peers to be created. But that cannot be said of this Bill. This Bill is designed to meet what my noble friend regards as a grave constitutional danger 'by making what I 650 regard as a grave constitutional change. While I sympathise in large measure with his apprehensions as to what might conceivably happen if no reform of your Lordships' House is ever attempted, yet I am bound to say that I hope, and believe, that when any reform of this House comes, any increase of power granted to the Second Chamber, if it be granted, will be accompanied by a very large measure of alteration in the actual constitution and democratisation of this House.
My noble friend will forgive me if I point out that he is really mistaken in thinking that by means of his Bill he would avoid those risks which he foresaw of some conflict being created between the Crown and the House of Commons. Just let us see what would happen if this Bill were passed into law. Assume that a measure were introduced into another place which dealt with, let us say, so as to take something not too dangerous, redistribution or an alteration of the franchise. That would come directly within the provisions of this Bill. And let us assume that your Lordships' House refused to pass that Bill, and that the people desired that it should pass. Let us assume that this House, exercising its powers, threw the Bill out and therefore that it lost any opportunity of becoming law. At present what would happen would be, with any reasonable House of Commons, that -such a Bill would be reintroduced and within two years, if the people of this country continued to desire it and showed a desire for it, it would automatically become law, even if this House were unwise enough to resist its enactment. But that would be no longer possible if the Bill of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour were on the Statute Book. The only alternative for the Government of the day desiring to carry out the mandate that they had to reform the electoral constitution of their own House, the only method they could possibly adopt, would be to ask His Majesty to create a sufficient number of Peers to swamp the opposition of the House of Lords.
I do not propose to discuss how far that is a proper constitutional process since the provisions which are contained in the Parliament Act. There are many who think that since the Parliament Act has provided the proper method of 651 resolving a conflict between the two Houses, it would be no longer legitimate to resort to the device, which was threatened at least in the old days, of asking His Majesty to exercise his Prerogative and create a large number of Peers. On that I shall express no opinion. But if this Bill became law, that would remain the only way in which the people's will could prevail. It would be necessary, therefore, in that event to ask His Majesty to make such a creation of Peers, and you would bring His Majesty into the position of either having to find himself in conflict with the Government and with the House of Commons, or else to take this very drastic and grave constitutional step. I cannot imagine a more unfortunate position in which to place the Crown than that which I have described. Therefore, so far from mitigating any risk of conflict between the House of Commons and the Crown, it seems to me that this Bill as at present framed would have just the opposite effect. Therefore that argument does not seem to me convincing.
I am not proposing to follow my noble friend Lord Reading into his discussion of the merits of electoral reform. I know it is a subject in which he has taken a great interest and on which he has very strong views, but, if he will forgive me, his proposals do not seem to me very germane to this Bill, because the evil with which this Bill professes to deal is the possibility of a Government elected on some popular cry proceeding when in power to pass quite a different measure for which there is no popular demand and which very likely the people would not support if they were consulted. My noble friend Lord Rankeillour says in effect: "I want to safeguard that by ensuring that the House of Lords shall have in certain specified instances an absolute right of veto." Electoral reform does not deal with that because—
§ THE MARQUESS OF READING
The effect would be, if you had electoral reform, that the composition of Governments would be different, and consequently the views represented by noble Lords on this side would have some effect whereas, now, they have none. That is the point.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
My noble friend, I think, assumes that there would 652 never be a majority under the conditions he proposes. I think I see further difficulties in that direction but, at any rate, that is a matter which does not, shall I say, very directly arise on the Bill now before us, and I am quite willing to discuss it on another and perhaps more suitable occasion. So far as the noble Lord opposite, Lord Ponsonby, is concerned, I am going to find myself very reluctantly driven to voting on the same side as he does. That makes me doubt very much whether the conclusion I have reached is the right one, but I hasten to make it abundantly clear that I propose to do so for reasons the very opposite of those which he submitted to your Lordships. The noble Lord talked about the progressive march of enlightened opinion, and he adopted that attitude of rather priggish superiority which noble Lords who profess to be members of the Socialist Party always seem to adopt when they are considering their own policy in comparison with others. They always seem to assume that because they want to make a change it must of necessity be in fact a change for the better.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
I am glad that I so accurately represent their frame of mind. One never heard more intolerable effrontery than the assumption that they must be right, and that a particular policy must be a good one because they approve of it.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
I have no doubt the Gadarene swine thought that they were taking a very wise step when they rushed violently down a hill, but all the same they reached destruction at the bottom of it. I should not be greatly concerned if it was only the noble Lord and his followers who were engulfed. What I regret is that he may drag the country into a similar disaster. I do not, therefore, follow him at any great length in the reasons he has put forward, but I do feel that it is a great mistake from the point of view, not of any particular Party but of the dignity and reputation of your Lordships, and from the point of view of any hopeful plan for the reform of the house of Lords, that your Lordships should put yourselves on record as desiring not to alter the constitution of your Lordships' House so as to bring 653 it more into accord with modern ideas and make it more representative of general opinion, but that your Lordships should be satisfied, while remaining unaltered, to claim for yourselves the prerogative power which was refused in 1911 and which, I feel sure, will not be granted in 1935. I rather hope that, in view of these considerations, my noble friend Lord Rankeillour will not press his Bill to a Division; but if he should do so, then the Government, at any rate, will find itself in opposition to him.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, it is very gratifying to some of us who sit on this side of your Lordships' House that my noble friend the Leader of the House should have explained how he differs from noble Lords sitting on the Labour Benches and how he reproves them for thinking they must always be right. That was very gratifying. I wish I could have been as much gratified with the other parts of my noble friend's speech. This Bill of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour is the result of the great disappointment which we, who have lived many years in perpetual discussion of this very question, feel, that nothing is being done by our leaders to solve it. We hoped that perhaps a National Government would do something. After all, a National Government is supposed to represent all the three Parties in the State, and we thought that the ambition which my noble friend on the Cross Benches expressed so eloquently, that something might be done by agreement, would have an opportunity under a National Government. But the National Government seems to be more paralysed in this matter even than a Conservative Government acting alone. Some people are more sanguine than others, but, personally, I despair of seeing agreement between all the Parties on this subject.
This Bill is not the big Bill which most noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have tried to make out. It is a small Bill; it is an interim Bill. It is a Bill merely to say, as you have not been able to agree up to now, as the Government will not, bring forward any Bill and as the National Government have no policy in this matter whatever: "Surely you will allow us to keep things as they stand until Parliament has time to look into it." The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, spent a great deal of time discussing the details of the Schedule. 654 That is a quite unimportant matter. My noble friend—I am quite certain I speak for him—would be very glad to modify the Schedule if that would meet the wishes of noble Lords in all parts of the House. The main point of course, is to prevent the destruction of the House of Lords pending a decision as to what the future Second Chamber should be—a very simple matter. This is not a great Bill, not a far-reaching Bill, cutting, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, into the vitals of the Parliament Act. Nothing of the kind. It is merely the very simple matter of keeping things as they stand with respect to the constitution of this House until something like a policy can be produced, until some body of statesmen belonging to one Party or the other can find a policy dealing with the matter.
I must say that I think the attack made, upon my noble friend's Bill, looked at from that point of view, is most undeserved. What was so astonishing was the virulence of the attack. I have often listened with great pleasure to the speeches of the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, but I have never heard him make so intemperate a speech as he made to-night. He discussed this Bill as if it was high treason. That could not have been because of the details of the Schedule. One of them, I think he said, was unnecessary, and the other was silly. Even if that were true—and I respectfully do not agree that it was true—none of the details of the Schedule deserve being attacked with the sort of passion which the noble Lord introduced into his speech. This Bill, he said, was an attack upon the vitals of the Parliament Act. What, in fact, is this simple Bill? It is merely a Bill to keep things as they stand until you have time and courage to deal with the subject.
I have been wondering, ever since I heard the noble Lord, what could have been the reason for the strength of his language. He said that we were afraid of certain nightmares. I think myself that they are not nightmares. My impression is that the noble Lord and his friends intend to make some of those so-called nightmares come true. When my noble friend upon the Cross Benches gas urging noble Lords of all Parties to come to an agreement, was saying to Labour Lords that surely they must be in favour of a Second Chamber of some kind, and 655 was charging the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, with having been opposed to a Second Chamber, what did he say? Did he say he was in favour of a Second Chamber? No. All he said was that he would not commit himself, or that he had not committed himself. That is cold comfort for us who believe in Second Chambers, when we contemplate the time when the noble Lord may be an important member of a Labour Government which may succeed this present Government. Why has the noble Lord never made up his mind as to whether he is in favour of Second Chambers or not? He may have made up his mind, but he keeps it a secret. That is rather hard on us. We would be delighted to share the confidence of the noble Lord. It may be that he agrees with Sir Stafford Cripps. I put the question to him straight across the floor of the House: In the matter of Second Chambers, does he agree with Sir Stafford Cripps?
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
I am not perfectly certain how Sir Stafford Cripps expressed his views with regard to a Second Chamber, but I did not think that the existence or nonexistence of a Second Chamber was a matter that was relevant to the debate to-day. I should be perfectly ready to give my views on the subject at great length, but I think that would be hardly in order by way of interruption of the noble Marquess.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The noble Lord is perfectly entitled to say that. He is also a master of all the Parliamentary expedients to avoid giving an answer to an inconvenient question. What chance is there of agreement amongst the Parties? I ventured to present a Bill to deal with the reform of your Lordships' House a year ago. Did noble Lords on the other side of the House show any desire to go into the question? Did I receive any favour of any sort from noble Lords sitting behind the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby? Did receive any favour from noble Lords sitting around the noble Marquess, Lord Reading? They would not, if they could help it, even let the Bill have a First Reading. They asked your Lordships not to consider the subject at all—these people who are to agree. The truth is that noble Lords who sit on the other 656 side of the House are afraid of a Second Chamber in any form.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Then let them produce their plan. If the noble Marquess says he is not against it, let him produce a plan. It is no good talking about proportional representation. That is not reform of your Lordships' House. I wondered, as I listened—as I always do with profound interest—to the noble Marquess, whether when he told us that the thing to do was to find out what the majority of the electors actually wanted, he was working round to a. referendum as his plan. But I might have been quite sure that nothing so definite as that would appear from the argument. Oh no! There was to be proportional representation. The noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, has sufficiently dealt with that point. I say that in the absence of any policy by the Liberal Party or by the Labour Party or by the National Government, it is not unreasonable that my noble friend Lord Rankeillour should say: "Let us at any rate let things stand where they are until we can make up our minds." I thought my noble friend the Leader of the House was in a great difficulty in dealing with that point. He positively had to defend the Parliament Act in order to achieve his end.
I confess that it was with profound sorrow that I heard that part of my noble friend's speech. According to him, it was impossible to touch the Parliament Act, even in this very minor degree; it was impossible, not to amend the main purpose of the Parliament Act, which was, of course, to carry legislation on a great variety of subjects over the heads of your Lordships when the two Houses differed, but to modify it in this one particular of the actual constitution of your Lordships' House. My noble friend said it would be very wrong to touch the Parliament Act, very wrong to touch what was settled over the heads of the Conservative Party twenty-four years ago. I listened to that with profound regret. That a Conservative statesman should stand at that Table defending the integrity of the Parliament Act! Conceive what that means!
For my part, I believe my noble friend was fully justified in producing the Bill. Of course, I know, as your Lordships 657 know, that with the attitude which my noble friend the Leader of the House has taken up, there is no chance of my noble friend's Bill passing into law. Indeed, looking around me, I do not think the number your Lordships in attendance is encouraging for a measure of this kind. I do not quite know what line my noble friend will adopt, because I do not think he will gain very much by going to a Division. I am sorry. I should have liked to have seen the Bill carried by a large majority under the leadership of the Government. As it is, my noble friend win take what course he chooses. All I can say is that the profound disappointment which I have felt for many years at the attitude of statesmanship in respect to this question has not been diminished after listening to the debate this evening.
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
My Lords, I said, when I spoke before, that this was a small, partial, temporary solution of a large question. Now it appears that it is the subject of attack because I have not made a larger attempt at a solution of this question. Of course, I agree entirely with what my noble friend Viscount Cecil said, with what the noble Marquess said, and with what my noble friend the Leader of the House said, that reconstruction of your Lordships' House is an absolutely essential condition of the solution of this problem. But what encouragement has been given by the Government or by any Party in this House to the solution of the question? What encouragement did the Government give the Bill of my noble friend the Marquess of Salisbury last year? If we had been able to proceed with that Bill then this proposal of mine would only have come in as part of a large scheme whereby this House would have been put, upon a different basis and to some extent would have been endowed with different powers. It is rather hard that, that having been rejected, we should be taunted on a small attempt to avert a grave and pressing danger.
What solution of that danger has the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, suggested? It is quite true that there is a great deal to be said for proportional representation, but it is not an answer to the argument that under an abuse of the Parliament Act the Second Chamber may be entirely abolished. No answer 658 has been given, either, by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. There is the danger and no attempt has been made to meet it. In the circumstances I agree that it would be no use further to trouble your Lordships' House, but I do think that this moral should be drawn from the debate, that in view of that danger and in view of the fact that it appears that no Party will meet that danger except by reform of this House, the Government should at last face up to the position and have the courage to undertake that reform. I ask leave to withdraw.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Then original Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.