HL Deb 04 November 1943 vol 129 cc549-56

Standing Order No. XXXIX having been dispensed with, Order of the Day for the Second Rending read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. I really feel I owe your Lordships an apology for addressing you on another and even more attractive subject, but at any rate I can do it very much more briefly. This is a Bill the effect of which will be to authorize that the life of Parliament should be extended by one further year. If the Bill is not passed, then there must be a General Election in the present month, with all the consequences that will or may follow from that laborious and drawn-out event. What the enemy might do during the time that we were having a General Election it is not for me to say. It would appear on all grounds, including that of the unity of the country, desirable that we should not have a General Election this month, or at least that we should not necessarily have it this month. Therefore I ask your Lordships to approve this Bill which is going to extend the life of Parliament by another year.

The other proposal in the Bill about the Northern Ireland Parliament is familiar to your Lordships; it is the same as the provision made last year. We do not take it upon ourselves to say that Northern Ireland shall not have an Election. We only say that the House of Commons of Northern Ireland shall be authorized to decide themselves by their own resolution whether extension of the life of that Parliament should take place. As I have already explained Bills very like this one, apart from the number of the years attached to them, on at least four occasions, I think your Lordships will hardly wish me to detain you longer. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, at first glance, of course, it would appear that the subject of this Bill is not quite proper for discussion in your Lordships' House, for it deals solely with the election of members in another place. But perhaps I might be permitted to remind your Lordships that it is, I think I am right in saying, the one question on which your Lordships have complete control and have had for the past thirty years. At least we are entitled to consider this Bill before passing it, I am not, of course, for one moment suggesting that we should reject the Bill. I am one of that sadly diminished band, of whom the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack was one, who had something to do with the passing of that provision and therefore it would be completely unseemly for me to suggest that this House should take advantage of it. But, since this Bill requires our approval, we are at any rate entitled to consider some of its implications. As a number of us have had long experience in another place, I think we may very well take advantage of this occasion to make some remarks regarding the results of the Bill, which ought to be stated, but which are not so likely to be put forward by members in another place, standing, as they do, in considerable awe of their Party Whips on the one side and on the other side of those constituents whom, even if this Bill passes, they will shortly have to face.

In the first place I think we shall all admit that we are prolonging the life, if not of a very bad House of Commons, at least of a very unrepresentative one. It is generally admitted that about four years is the limit to which Parliament can claim to have a mandate from the electors, but had it not been for Bills of this character the present House of Commons would be asking now for a renewal of its mandate, not for the first, but for the second time. It cannot in any way be claimed that the present House is a representative one. Indeed I am not sure that it would be an exaggeration to say that democratic government in this country for the duration of the war has almost ceased to exist. But the evil goes rather deeper than the virtual suspension of the democratic principle. The House of Commons is not only old, and to that extent unrepresentative, but it consists to a very large degree of members who have very little title to claim to be representatives of the people. Since the political truce came into operation no fewer than 117 Members of Parliament have taken their seats either on pure nomination or with nothing worse to face than a freak election. The great majority of these members owe their election, not to the approval of the people, but to the approval of nothing more than a Party caucus.

This, to my mind, if it is carried much further, threatens to become as disastrous as we found was the case after the Election in 1919 when, by means of coupons, there were brought into Parliament members who composed perhaps the worst House of Commons that was ever seen. There was no need for this to happen, because we had an unprecedented opportunity to make use of these unopposed returns to bring into politics men and women of eminence and of experience who might be of great service to the State but are not prepared to face the rough and tumble of a contested election. With scarcely any exception the caucus has kept control, and the result is that these 117 seats have been filled very largely by good Party men, real "Yes" men, or by bringing into Parliament retired trade union officials who are past work. My own Party, I think, can claim a rather better record. Three seats which fell to us were filled by sending to the other place a brilliant young soldier who is the youngest member in that by no means junior House, by quite properly electing a Minister in another instance, and in the case of the University of Wales by choosing the most distinguished representative of Welsh Nationalism. But there have been other instances, some of them most unfortunate. Perhaps I might be allowed to refer to Eddisbury, where the official candidate was so unsuitable that he was rejected out of hand, and a present was made of the seat to probably the most extreme and least practical of all the temporary groups thrown up by this war.


Thanks to the defection of the Liberals.


I could answer my noble friend, but I am trying not to make this a Party subject and I will not be tempted into making what I think is the obvious retort. Let me pass to a definite proposal, which I hope will not be considered controversial, to end these machine nominations and freak contests. I would like to ask the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, to consider if the time has not come when coupon letters from Party leaders can be safely dropped and elections allowed to take place more nearly in the normal way. I recognize, as I must, that in the earlier and more critical stages of the war when the Government were less sure of their position, coupons may have been necessary, but I submit that that is so no longer, either for the successful prosecution of the war or for the real security of the Government.

I am not suggesting a resumption of Party warfare with candidates adopted and run by Party organizations, because I agree that the truce is necessary for the duration of the war, and serves a very useful purpose. Where, however, a constituency shows a real desire to run a candidate against the Parties in opposition the issue of coupon letters has very little effect, except to create a feeling of bitterness and irritation which I believe is doing nothing but harm. In two recent by-elections, at Chippenham and Peterborough, in one case dissentient Liberals and in the other case Labour supporters insisted on fighting the seat and very nearly won. I am not convinced that very great harm would have been done if both rebels had been elected for they were both whole-heartedly in favour of the war and both, I believe, whole-hearted supporters of the Prime Minister. If they had taken any other line they would have met overwhelming defeat, which would have been a useful demonstration of the unity of the country on two fundamental points. The Prime Minister might wish to send a letter indicating which candidate he preferred, and to that one could take no objection at all. But these artificial, and indeed meaningless, endorsements by all the Party leaders no longer serve any useful propose, and only create feelings of irritation which are really harmful to our war effort.

A further reason why I am urging that this experiment should be considered is that many are looking with anxiety to the next General Election. I am not considering at the moment who is going to gain any Party advantage, but it is of the utmost importance that the result of that Election should be accepted as fairly representing the opinion of all the people voting. The next Parliament will have the terrible task of having to decide issues affecting the lives of people throughout this country, and indeed all over the world, so it is vital that that Parliament should be accepted as the real will of the people, and not as being due to chance and a transient majority. If it is not accepted as representing the will of the people in the very dangerous times that we shall have to face after the Armistice when peace comes, there is a real danger that its decisions may not be accepted. That way lies the direct path to revolution.

I recognize, of course, that the Government have gone some way to meet this danger by the promised Speaker's Conference to bring methods of election up-to-date. But danger does exist and we must avoid anything resembling the "coupon" of 1918, which created a resentment that survives to this day, a quarter of a century later. That is why I am asking the Government to consider whether the experiment of a free run at the by-elections is not worth making. If that experiment succeeds (as I believe it will) and does not bring disaster on the Government (as I am quite sure it will not), I want the Government to consider whether the same course could not be adopted at the General Election; that is to say, let each Party run its own candidates with—I put it this way—the general support of the Prime Minister, on the immediate issues of the Armistice and demobilization, but fighting a good-natured fight amongst themselves as to future steps to be taken. On the main issues of peace and the problems immediately arising, I am quite sure that there will be general agreement, and there will be differences only with regard to much later developments. That I think would be all to the good.

If the Election were carried out on these lines, the Government to carry on after that Election would be constituted from whatever sections, ranging from extreme Right to extreme Left, seemed best to meet the wishes of the country. I am convinced that any effort to avoid this solution which I am proposing by rushing the country into a "coupon" Election, as was done in 1918, can only lead to disaster. I am quite aware that this is looking some way ahead, but we must avoid the mistakes of twenty-five years ago. It is with that in mind that, whilst raising no objection to this quite necessary Bill, I do urge the Government to take steps to make, sure that even this present Parliament is made more representative, and that the next one carries the confidence of the people so completely that it is equal to the tremendous tasks which it will have to face.


My Lords, there is a lot of wisdom in what we have heard from the noble Lord who has just spoken, and I think that the Chief Whip now has a great opportunity to give us a rousing speech on this particular question. This is an opportunity of a kind which docs not often come his way, and on this occasion I am sure all of us will much enjoy hearing what he has to say. The debate on this matter has been very interesting, and I am surprised that there should at this stage be such a poor attendance in the House. We find ourselves now in a very interesting situation. My political career does not extend so far back that I was embroiled in the legislation embodied in the Parliament Act and the bitter feeling which arose at the time of its passing. I feel, myself, that a right solution of the situation was found. Otherwise we might have had no fewer than 300 Liberal Peers, or their survivors, on the Benches in this Chamber now. That, to my mind, is a very grim thought.

We must remember that the present House of Commons was elected at the time when most of the population of the British Isles were getting writer's cramp through signing the Peace Pledge, and here we have that very same House of Commons conducting the most terrific war that this country has ever been asked to take part in. I think that it does show the elasticity of mind of Englishmen, and especially of Members of Parliament, that they are able to adopt this very Peace Pledge and also to conduct a total war. Such a transformation is indeed a great deal more fundamental than crossing the floor of the House several times. But there are, I think, signs of a certain unhealthiness in the House of Commons. Our system of government is essentially a two-Party system, but the position to-day in the House of Commons is, of course, that there are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Communists—


The Communist.


—the Liberals, the Independent Liberals, the Lloyd George Liberals, the Common Wealth Party and the Independents. It is a motley gang. Now in that collection of Parties I think there is a danger. It is dangerous if we are going to have so many Parties, and the thought must cross the minds of some of us now that, possibly, it would be well that we should put the lot out of their misery by refusing to go on with this Bill. But we have seen that in the Lower House they have thought of arranging a new system so that they can get an election to be conducted under tolerable conditions, and they have been having an acrimonious dispute about it in the last few days. We should, I think, realize that they are on the whole, trying to put their house in order, and that it behoves us, therefore, to give them another chance for a year. But the wheel has swung full circle and the House of Commons is completely in our power today. If we do not pass this particular Bill they will be in the street next week. It is just as well that this should be realized. It is the first time that this has occurred, and I doubt if it will occur very often in the future. In the Lower House recently this Bill has been considered, there has been put forward a Bill with regard to the reorganization of elections, and the Prime Minister has spoken about the building of a new Chamber.

I know it is greatly out of order, and it would not be allowed anywhere else, but in this House the latitude which is granted one is pretty wide, and so I want to say a word on this particular subject. I have spent many years in the Lower House, and I have always been impressed by the kindness which this House shows to the House of Commons. Members of the House of Commons could come and stand at the Bar of your Lordships' House and they had two galleries. Privy Councillors could come in a familiar way and sit on the steps of the Throne. That was a very great privilege. When noble Lords went to the House of Commons, on the other hand, they had to use a gallery at the top of a stony staircase, where there was never any room on an important occasion, and in fact very little welcome seemed to be offered to them at all. We have handed over to the Lower House our superb Chamber, with its red seats, so appropriate in these days, instead of green, and I think we should have a little more consideration with regard to facilities in the future. I do not know whose job it will be to see to that, but I am going to assume that it is the task of the noble and learned Lord Chancellor. I hope that, when there is a discussion about this new building, the relationship between the two Houses, which is so cordial now, will be expressed not only in words of gratitude for what we have done for the Lower House but by a little more accommodation for your Lordships in that House.

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