§ 2.38 p.m.
Debate resumed (according to Order) for the third day on the Amendment moved by the Marquess of Salisbury on Tuesday last, to Viscount Addison's Motion that the Bill be now read a second time. The Amendment was as follows: Leave out all words after "That" and insert:
While re-emphasizing its oft expressed readiness to consider proposals for modifying the basis of its membership which may conduce to the more effective performance of its constitutional duties, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill
which would effect no change in this respect;
for which the nation has expressed no desire;
which would go far to expose the country to the dangers of a system of single chamber Government; and
which can only serve to distract the attention of the country from the economic crisis and from the united effort towards recovery which is so vital at this time.
§ THE Marquess OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I hope your Lordships will forgive me for intervening once again in this debate, but like, I suppose, many other noble Lords, I have been racking my brains since the House rose yesterday evening to try to find some way of elucidating the position and removing the ambiguity which, in spite of all our efforts, continues to surround the words of paragraph 1 of the Government statement which caused so much difficulty to your Lordships yesterday afternoon. As I say, I have been racking my brains and I now have a proposition which I would like, with great diffidence, to put to your Lordships. I hope that this proposition may have the desired result and may be acceptable to the Government.
It has seemed to me, in reading and re-reading these words, that what is wrong with the wording of paragraph 1 is not that the words are bad in themselves, but that they are incomplete, in the sense that they do not seem to cover the contingency of a reasonable period of delay in the event of a difference of opinion between the two Houses. That power of delay, as your Lordships know, has seemed important to us in order that time may be given for public opinion to 825 be informed and to crystallize. The noble Viscount the Leader of the House seemed to indicate, in some of his remarks, that it was the intention of the Government that there should be some elasticity in this matter. I think it appeared to the majority of your Lordships, however, that the words as drafted did not carry out that intention. It occurred to me that they might be made to do so by taking the Government draft, virtually as it stood, and adding a few words.
I have fried my hand at this and have drawn up a Resolution, which might be submitted to the House. I should like to read it to your Lordships because I hope that it may be a helpful contribution towards reaching an agreement—which, I think, is what all desire to achieve. This is the Resolution, as I have drafted it, which I might put down if it were agreeable to the Government:That the debate upon the Amendment standing in my name be adjourned and that an inter-Party conference be immediately convened on the issues raised by the Parliament Bill at present before the House without prejudice on either side on the understanding that:(1) So far as discussions of the powers of the Second Chamber are concerned, these conversations should not extend to any powers other than those at present possessed by the House of Lords, but should be limited to ensuring reasonable time for the consideration of measures by the House of Lords, for the Parliamentary discussion of differences between the two Houses"—this is new—and for the provision of an adequate period of delay in the event of an unresolved divergence of view between the two Houses.From there on, paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 would remain as in the present Government draft. The House will see, I think, that my suggested draft incorporates the whole of the Government's statement but makes one important addition—namely: and for the provision of an adequate period of delay in the event of an unresolved divergence of view between the two Houses."
There is one further addition:… these conversations should not extend to any powers other than those at present possessed by the House of Lords.I put in those last words to make our position quite clear, but the other addition is the important one. I hope that it will tend to remove the ambiguity which has hitherto clouded our discussions and made agreement so difficult. I do not, of course, expect that the Government will be in a position to give any reply to 826 me this afternoon—obviously they must have time to consider my proposal—but I hope that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House may be in a position to inform the House at the beginning of business to-morrow afternoon whether or not that proposal is acceptable to them. If it were acceptable I should be prepared either for the debate on my present Amendment to be adjourned or to take that Amendment off the Paper for the time being, pending results of the conversations envisaged in the Government's proposals. Further consideration of the Bill, of course, would also have to be adjourned for a further period, as I think is already envisaged in paragraph 2 of the Government's statement.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (VISCOUNT ADDISON)
My Lords, the noble Marquess has been good enough to give me beforehand a copy of the Resolution which he has just read. I know that he docs not expect me at this moment to do more than say that I will secure that before tomorrow morning it is brought to the notice of my colleagues and is given careful consideration.
§ 2.47 p.m.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY (VISCOUNT HALL)
My Lords, this is a very strange debate. There have been many suggested changes but, so far as I can see, we still remain where we were. For my part I think it would have been very wise if the advice which was tendered by the most reverend Primate, the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, in the House yesterday had been accepted, and the House had adjourned with a view to considering, and, indeed, coming to a conclusion on, the question whether some of the suspicions which were in the minds of noble Lords opposite could be cleared away. This would have enabled us to know exactly where we were. The position is now most difficult for those of us who are called upon to speak, but I am going to assume that the situation remains as it was when the House adjourned yesterday.
I listened with close attention to almost all the speeches made in this debate. Like my noble friend Viscount Stansgate, I am just a newcomer to your Lordships' House, and I was reluctant to intervene in this debate. I agree with the view of the noble Viscount, that a little realism should be brought into the debate in order 827 that we might fully realize where we stand in relation to this matter and what is the real purpose of the Bill now before your Lordships' House. I think it is true to say, despite the ambiguity which may have existed yesterday about the intention of His Majesty's Government, that it was generally agreed that the Government had gone a long way towards laying the basis of a compromise in this matter. In my opinion, the only obstacle to a conference taking place as suggested, is the suspicion in the minds of noble Lords who sit on the Benches opposite. I do not propose to deal now with the difficulty which arose yesterday, but to indicate what the Bill now before the House really purports to do. First, whatever discussions may take place—and I hope that a conference, and a successful conference, will eventually be held—it should be made quite clear that His Majesty's Government claim that the supreme interpreters of the will of the people in Parliament must be the directly elected representatives of the people. We cannot admit that your Lordships are entitled, at any time, to claim to know the will of the people better than honourable Members, whom the people themselves have sent to another place to represent them and there to put into legislative shape the programme and reforms desired by the people.
The present Government wish to be placed by the Constitution in exactly the same position as the Conservative Party would have been had they been in power. We require the powers of this measure in order that the legislation submitted to Parliament during the next two years shall find its place on the Statute Book before the end of this Parliament. The attitude of the Opposition is very similar to that of Mr. F. E. Smith who, in his speech on the Parliament Bill of 1911, said that all that Bill would secure for the Libera] Party was three years' supremacy in Parliament. After that the House of Lords would be supreme and would stop the Liberal Party from carrying out their legislation. He asked the Liberal Party whether they thought it worth while to stir up strife merely to secure three years' supremacy. It is very evident from the attitude so far of noble Lords opposite that they want to retain the position which was so well stated by Mr. F. E. Smith. Why should a Conservative Government have that 828 supremacy for the whole period of their Government if they are the Government of the day? It cannot be in accordance with the wishes of the people that one political Party should have any preference over another in the event of either Party receiving the majority.
The political situation to-day is entirely different from what it was in 1888, in 1911 or indeed in 1933, when attempts were made to settle this question. Towards the end of last century, when the first effort was made, the political progress made possible by the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 was just taking place. The Education Act of 1870 had made the first great advance towards universal education and the political issues before this country were rapidly changing. May I take the first change to which I refer—the growth of the political power of the people? The 1832 Act placed about 1,000,000 electors on the Parliamentary Roll—one in every twenty-four of the population. Thirty-five years afterwards, in 1867, another 1,500,000 electors were registered, making the ratio one in every twelve of the population. In 1884, 5,000,000 electors were on the register—about one in every seven of the population. In 1918, 21,000,000 electors, between two and three out of every five of the population, were on the register; and in 1929, when women were given the vote on the same terms, the number of electors registered had increased to over 28,000,000. To-day it stands at about 34,000,000, two out of every three of the population of this country are electors, having the privilege—and indeed the responsibility—of sending to the House of Commons men whom they can entrust to interpret their will and their wishes during the period of the Parliament.
In his speech in another place on the Second Reading of this Bill on November 11 last, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Churchill, said:It is not Parliament that should rule; it is the people through Parliament.Almost the same words were used by the noble Viscount, Lord Chelwood, in his speech yesterday. He urged that the sovereign power of our Constitution is in the electorate, not in the House of Commons, nor in this House. More than 25,000,000 electors voted at the last Election, when for the first time this nation returned a Labour Government 829 with a majority. Is not that the voice of the people? And did not the people themselves express a wish for reforms? Is that voice to be thwarted by an unrepresentative House of Lords who receive their power merely from hereditary rights, and many of whom have little or no contact with the people?
The Opposition still want to challenge the right of the elected House to act. Certainly it is in the last two years of the present Government, but it is expected that the Opposition intend to hold up such measures as the Bill dealing with steel—which is within the mandate—when it is introduced by the Government. Have not the Government the right to protect themselves against such an unwarranted attack? From whence do your Lordships hold the power to interfere with the declared wishes of the people, who expressed a definite view at the last Election upon this matter? No Government could possibly allow a position of that kind to continue. Indeed, we on this side cannot allow to go unchallenged the doctrine that the Government of the day cannot carry out their mandate or can do nothing outside their mandate that is outside the precise programme upon which they successfully appealed to the electorate. The Government of the day must assume the day-to-day responsibility for the general conduct of the affairs of the nation. They must be prepared to deal firmly with all these unforeseen and unforeseeable difficulties which inevitably arise during any Government's term of office.
In these days, when political difficulties move much faster than they did in 1911 and when political issues are entirely different—for every economic and social problem is an important political issue—twelve months is ample time in which to enable the nation to make its views felt on any piece of controversial legislation. Indeed, controversial legislation is usually well aired, in the Press, by the B.B.C., by posters (as it was in relation to the Transport Bill, although with very little effect) and by public meetings, long before the Government proposals have appeared in Bill form, or even before the draftsman has received his instructions. The political controversies of old, such as the Disestablishment of the Welsh Church—a controversy which I well remember—were not confined to one year, as the 830 noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, stated, but raged over a number of years. Bill after Bill was brought in, and Bill after Bill was rejected. The same thing could be said with regard to Home Rule for Ireland and other Acts of Parliament which took up almost a full year's Parliamentary time. That could not and would not be tolerated at the present time, and no Government could allow a controversy to rage over such a period of time.
Little credit is given in some quarters to the great advances in the education of the people, and in this I thought the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, was a little unfair in his speech yesterday. Great advances have been made during the last generation, for it may now be truly said that there is no nation in the world whose people have a greater knowledge and better understanding of the political issues with which it is confronted. Political issues are debated as never before, and political opinions have been formed by the people. Indeed, it can be said that there are no sounder politicians than the British men and women, who fully realize the great advantage of a democratic system of Government, which gives them the right to elect their own form of Government and to see to it that that Government have an opportunity of carrying out their wishes. I would give one instance of the influence of public opinion, even upon a Tory Government. In 1933 we had the strongest Tory Government that this country had ever seen, which introduced a most vicious means test for the unemployed. That means test was fought in the other place, but the Government would not give way. On the Friday they declared that they could not give way; on the Monday the Minister of Labour said that, as a result of representations and information which he had received during the course of the week-end, he felt that he could and should and must, on behalf of the Government, withdraw those regulations. That was in one weekend.
Are the Opposition serious in their desire for a real reform of your Lordships' House which would bring it into line with the great political changes which have taken place in the country and in the composition of another place? Have they a plan of their own? Do they desire a retention of the hereditary principle in 831 any form? I think we shall know from that what their intentions are. Our intensions have been made quite clear.
Not perhaps in the mind of the noble Viscount, but certainly in the minds of most people who want to understand them. I recently read a statement which appeared in The Times that a strong committee of Conservative Peers, under Lord Salisbury, and which included the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, had for some weeks been considering and bringing up to date the late Lord Salisbury's report on House of Lords Reform. They had reached agreement, and completed their task. The statement added that a booklet would be published or issued by the Conservative Central Office, and we expected that booklet to contain some reference to the proposed reform. I took the trouble to purchase a copy of the booklet. It was very good propaganda, but not for the Party opposite. They have a lot to learn about propaganda and particularly about the price they charge. The booklet does not give any proposals for the reform of your Lordships' House but it certainly does stress in more than one sentence the importance of obtaining an agreement on this matter.
I would like to ask the noble Viscount opposite if there is to be a new plan, or whether the Salisbury Plan of 1933 has been revived. We would like to know, because if it is so, it might well be an obstacle to agreement, for the plan contemplates a Second Chamber of some 300 members, of which 150 members were to be elected by the hereditary Peerage from their own number, based, I take it, upon the declared political opinions of the present membership of your Lordships' House, which is made up of some 800 Peers. While it is true that quite a large number of noble Lords give No 1ndication of the political Party to which they belong, there is no doubt from Vacher's that some 450 of the 800 members will take the Whip of the noble Marquess and the Party opposite, whereas my colleagues and myself number forty-four, and the Liberal Party number seventy-one.
We have an example in the selection of representative Peers from Scotland, 832 I am not saying anything to decry the value of the Scottish representatives in your Lordships' House. Most of them have not declared themselves politically, but all those who have, with the exception of one who is a Liberal, are Conservatives. We would like to know whether it is the intention of your Lordships to revive that plan. It is one of the points we shall have to discuss when negotiations take place, if they do take place. Or is the scheme for the reform of the House of Lords recently published by the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, a scheme to which the Opposition are giving their support? It will be of interest if, during the course of the debate, the views of the Opposition in this matter are clearly made known.
The proposals of the Government are declared in this moderate Bill which, in the opinion of the public and many Members of Parliament supporting the Government, is much too moderate, for there is, and has been for more than half a century, a strong demand for the complete abolition of hereditary representatives from any Second Chamber. It is strongly contended that such members cannot represent or pretend to speak for the electorate. When the Parliament Act was passed it was over-generous to your Lordships' House, in view of the treatment this House meted out to the Liberal Parliaments at that time. The preamble of the Act made quite clear what was the real intention of the Government; it was the substitution for the House of Lords, as it then existed, of a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of an hereditary basis. In view of that declaration, it is surprising that changes on that basis have not been carried out long before the present time. Any Government with a majority, other than a Tory Government, would have been compelled to act and bring about a much more drastic change than is proposed under this Bill.
When this Bill was introduced we were informed that we were creating a serious national crisis over a dispute between the two Houses. By promoting this Bill, His Majesty's Government have taken the only step at the only possible time when such a step could be effective to make a crisis impossible. There is no real foundation in the assertion that finds expression in the last paragraph of the noble Marquess's Amendment for rejection—namely, that 833 the Bill can only distract the country from giving due attention to the economic crisis and to the need for a united effort for recovery. We all agree that united effort is vital. The Bill has now been before the country for three months. It had a very much easier passage in another place than was expected. There is absolutely no public opinion against it—not even a ripple on the political waves. When I look at Board of Trade returns, and at other statistics, I find No 1ndication that there has been any distraction in the united effort for economic recovery. On the contrary, in the happily swelling figures of production I find nothing but proof of increased unity of effort and of the national determination to conquer our difficulties. Indeed, it may well be that the introduction of the Bill had a stimulating effect upon the increased effort which took place during the latter part of last year.
I have spoken quite frankly and quite plainly. We are not provoking a quarrel on this matter, but we would like a settlement. My noble friend the Leader of the House laboured hard, with great patience and ability, to secure the consent of the Government to a basis for discussion. The Government have gone a long way to meet the Opposition in this matter. In the event of no basis being agreed upon, and should a Division upon this Bill take place, I have no doubt that the Government will be defeated. It would be unfortunate, but the responsibility must rest upon the shoulders of the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition and those who follow him. I do hope that they will not lightly throw away this opportunity which might well lead to an understanding on this most important political issue, and so prevent a long and, as I have already said, acrimonious political controversy. We must wait and see.
§ 3.14 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Viscount, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in the hope that the suggested conference will take place and will succeed. I also agree with him in another opening observation, that it is not easy to make a speech in this debate when that issue is still hanging over us undecided. If I am to be quite frank, I am not sure that I should have gathered from some of the noble 834 Viscount's observations that he is so anxious that the conference should succeed. He has examined at some length the arguments that this House is not properly constituted to perform its functions, although at one time I almost imagined that he was saying that he thought on the whole it had better not be altered. None the less, the noble Viscount hopes that the conference about our reconstitution may succeed.
In the interests of time, and in view of the long list of speakers, I am going to confine myself to a single side of this matter, the constitutional side. Before I deal with that, I would like to make two small corrections in what the noble Viscount said. I think that from his own point of view he rather overdid it. There was one passage in his speech, if I did not mishear him, in which he said that at the General Election the voters of this country declared themselves in favour of reducing the powers of the House of Lords.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
I may be mistaken. I certainly thought the noble Viscount said that, but I am willing to be assured that that was not what he wished to say. On another matter he was certainly open to a little criticism. It is perfectly true that at the last Election there was a great turnover and that the Socialist Party obtained a larger number of votes and seats than any other Party. But the actual figures show that out of 34,000,000 electors, of whom I, think he spoke, 11,000,000 voted Socialist.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
There is nothing like being accurate in these matters, especially when the accuracy does not make a ha'p'orth of difference to the argument. I apologize for mentioning 34,000,000 electors; I am afraid that there are a few numbers which should be put on to correct that figure, but I think it was mentioned by the noble Viscount. However, between 11,000,000 and 12,000,000 electors voted for the Socialists. I do not think that in itself can be proclaimed as an undoubted proof that the majority of the voters were inclined to support this Government, but it certainly does show that they received more votes than anybody else. They 835 were perfectly entitled to take the fullest satisfaction in that and to form their Government on that basis. But the point with which I want to deal—it is an important point, though one which can be dealt with quite briefly—is the constitutional theory upon which the noble Viscount proceeds; and in these days it is manifestly the constitutional theory which is held by many Socialists.
It is, I think, a new doctrine and it is, well worth while to examine it, as was done yesterday in the remarkable speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood. Where, in the last resort, does the authority lie? Are the majority in the House of Commons, throughout the period of the life of the Parliament, entitled to say, as the Attorney-General said on one occasion: "We are the masters now"? Are they entitled to say: "We have been given a power which we may exercise exactly as we choose until the next Election comes about"? That, surely, is entirely to misunderstand the nature of our constitutional Parliamentary institutions. It is treating the House of Commons and the country—I put an analogy—almost in the relationship which exists between the directors of a limited company and the shareholders. The shareholders in general meeting elect their directors, and thereupon the shareholders very likely think no more about it; the directors are undoubtedly entrusted with the management of the company until the next general meeting.
That is not really, as I conceive it, the relationship between the people of this country and the House of Commons. The conception which I, at least, had in my mind, and which I had been brought up to accept, is that in the last resort this is a country in which the people govern themselves. There used to be instances in ancient times when that was quite obviously so. In the City State of Athens the population was so small that it was possible for every adult free, male Athenian himself to be a Member of Parliament, but of course that is not possible under modern conditions. It is this country which has led the world in the working of representative institutions, institutions which contain representatives by a process of election. I do not for a moment forget the famous proposition of Burke, that a Member of Parliament is something more than a mere delegate. But 836 that is quite a different thing, it seems to me, from saying that because a particular body of men have been elected to be Members of the House of Commons, therefore they have had conferred upon them, or the majority have had conferred upon them, the right to pass any and every piece of legislation they like till the end of the five years, without anybody being able to challenge them. I believe that to be a perfectly wrong conception. It has been a little encouraged by some incidental events.
In this Parliament the Government, from the very first day that they came into existence, decided to demand the whole time of the House of Commons. It was never so before in time of peac: e. Private Members of the House of Commons always had their opportunities for introducing a Bill and for moving a Resolution. There have been many well-known cases in the past in which private measures—that is to say, measures not officially introduced by the Government—have passed into law. But, as things stand to-day, it has come to be thought almost natural by our Socialist friends that the moment there is a Socialist majority in the House of Commons, and a Socialist Cabinet supported by that majority, the whole House of Commons should thereupon surrender the whole of its time to that body. The result is that since the Socialist Government have come into power there has not been an opportunity for anybody else to introduce a Bill or to move a Resolution. I define thus the new idea which is now apparently developing—it is not I believe a correct doctrine: that once a General Election has taken place the people themselves cease to be the real governors of the country, and that for the whole period of the life of that House of Commons, however the opinion of Members in it may change, the Government have had conferred upon them a mandate to be the supreme interpreters of the will of the people.
The noble Viscount opposite, in the course of his speech, used that phrase in quite the wrong way. He seemed to think that the contention of noble Lords on this side of the House was that the supreme interpreter of the will of the people was the House of Lords. I have never in recent days heard a more complete perversion of the view which, so far as I know, every sensible member of this 837 House holds. Nobody dreams of claiming that this House, which is not elected and which contains a very large hereditary element, is, in competition with the House of Commons, the supreme interpreter of the will of the people. Our proposition is quite a different one; it is that it is a mistake to suppose that because there is a majority in the House of Commons, therefore during the whole life of that Parliament anything and everything which that House chooses or seeks to enact must be accepted as coming from the supreme interpreter of the will of the people. The point is really not unimportant and I think it is interesting, because I am sure that a change is taking place there in the view of what is the correct function of our Constitution. I am not saying this with any idea of belittling the duties and immense authority of the House of Commons. I would venture to say that no single man in this House is a better House of Commons man than I am. But that is quite a different thing from saying that because there has been a General Election which has put into office and into power a particular Government, then His Majesty's Government, with the aid of that majority, may legislate as they please at any stage in the history of that Parliament and may claim that they are expressing the will of the people because "At the last General Election we were elected to be the people's representatives."
If I have put my point clearly—and I hope I have put it temperately—I would venture to put a question to my noble and learned friend, the Lord Chancellor. I think he is to speak to-morrow and we shall all want to hear what he has to say. I should be very glad if he would consider the question which I am going to put to him and give us his view. The question is this: Are His Majesty's Government claiming that because they obtained a majority at the General Election they may constitutionally claim that whatever they legislate during the life of this Parliament must be regarded as the will of the people? That question arises directly from this controversy, and most directly from such a speech as that which has just been made by the First Lord of the Admiralty.
It is notorious that the will, the opinion, of the people—which must mean the 838 majority of the people—changes. It is a complete error to suppose that it expresses itself at the time of the General Election and that then it goes to sleep for five years, when it wakes up suddenly and makes a new declaration. That is not the nature of the process at all. The change of public opinion does not take place between night and morning. It is the result of a gradual process; and it necessarily follows that, whatever may be the justice of claims put forward by the Government and the majority in the House of Commons in the early days of a Parliament's life, there is undoubtedly no ground whatever for saying that they retain their pristine supreme authority and that they must necessarily still represent the will of the people right down to the moment of dissolution. I cannot think that that is a view which would be seriously accepted by those who have considered the workings of the British Constitution.
I quite agree that if my view is right it raises a question which is one of great difficulty and delicacy. It raises the question: Well, after all, who is to decide? I am speaking with complete frankness and without any intentional bias. I only want to look at the thing fairly. Who is to decide? I will mention another point which I think it is only just to mention in present circumstances. No doubt you can to some extent get a previous indication of public opinion by a run of bad by-elections. The Government are entitled, I think, to take full credit, so far as it goes, for the fact that that has not been their experience—and it is an interesting fact. But I am speaking in the abstract. What I cannot bring myself to accept is the claim that because we must, of necessity, have periodic General Elections, we really, as the result of a General Election, put in the saddle Members of the House of Commons who can claim that their majority view must be accepted as the supreme declaration of the popular will so long as that Parliament lasts. That does not in the least accord with my notion of constitutional development.
Now comes the question—and I have said it is a most difficult question: "Well, if I am so far right, who is to decide? I would call your Lordships' attention to the fact that when the Parliament Act, 1911, was passed—and it was passed only 839 after very mature previous consideration in all sorts of forms, after Resolutions and discussions and, indeed, a couple of General Elections—Mr. Asquith, who beyond all question interpreted the meaning of that Act with matchless accuracy, insisted throughout that the purposes of the Act were, on the one hand, to get rid of the absolute veto of the House of Lords, and, on the other hand, to preserve to the Upper Chamber not one function but two. One function was the function of revision. That, I think, by common consent, we have not carried out too badly in the last few years. The other function was the function of delay. Friends of mine in this House, who shared with me membership of the House of Commons years ago, know that it is impossible not to recognize that it was upon those two principles that the Parliament Act of 1911 was founded. Indeed, Mr. Asquith, I think, referred to the delay as "delay under proper restrictions.
Whatever be the difficulties of the task, it: really is beyond dispute that the Parliament Act of 1911—at first opposed by a very considerable number of our politicians, then universally accepted as one of the principal structures in the Constitut.on, and now, very recently, criticized—aimed essentially at providing, instead of an unlimited, drastic veto which would destroy House of Commons measures, an opportunity in proper cases for a period of delay. That cannot be disputed, and I do not think for a moment that either the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, or my friends sitting opposite who were Members of the old House of Commons, would deny that. If that is so, all that remains is this question: How should that function be discharged? It is not, of course, that the House of Lords claims of its own internal judgment to be wiser than the House of Commons—that is not the proper position at all. Indeed, the brilliant passage from a speech made by Mr. Asquith, which has been used both by Mr. Morrison in another place and, I believe, by the Leader of the House here—I think it was originally unearthed through the industry of a noble Lord on the Back Bench—
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
And I feel sure you copied it out. Anyhow, that passage, I may point out to these gentlemen, is not a passage which is in the least attacking the Parliament Act. It is a passage ridiculing the claim that the House of Lords can have an absolute and final veto. That is the point of the passage. He is saying "What ridiculous nonsense it is to suppose that these gentlemen could arrogate to themselves a superior power of divination." That is not attacking the Parliament Act. Those gentlemen who were in the House of Commons from 1906 to 1910 know why it was necessary. But it is not a criticism in the present controversy at all; on the contrary. The Prime Minister of that day—and no one could have had a clearer grasp of his subject than Mr. Asquith had; he was in his very prime in point of energy, vigour, analysis and accuracy—made it absolutely clear that he was substituting for the unlimited veto which destroyed House of Commons measures something else which was not a veto of that sort at all, but which would provide, in certain cases, the opportunity of delay.
I myself do not think that you can define in exact words when that power should be exercised. I notice a very distinguished and academic figure opposite me, who will, I think, agree with me when I say that long ago Aristotle pointed out that the degree of accuracy with which you could define a thing depended entirely upon its subject matter—and so it does. But, of course, if the Upper House were to attempt to exercise their power recklessly or without adequate justification, they would very soon lose their power. That is the reason why the power is reserved. It is not a power which is exercised because the House of Lords say: "We are bettor legislators than you are." It is a power, and I think an absolutely necessary power to secure that, in the course of a Parliament which may last for five years (it used to be seven years), legislation shall not be passed which is flatly in defiance of the will of the people, so far as it can be at present judged, and which it is thought, if necessary, should be further considered.
The further proof is this—and I do not think this has been pointed out in all these debates. One provision of the Parliament Act was to shorten the seven years life of Parliament to five years. What was the reason for that? It was to secure that 841 the chances of the House of Commons going away from the real trend of public opinion were reduced. When you find in the Parliament Act that the maximum life of the House of Commons is five years, but that the House of Lords is left with the difficult exercise of an occasional duty to impose delay which must extend, or may extend, over two years, you do not need to be a very accomplished arithmetician to draw the conclusion that it confirms the tendency to scrutinize legislation which comes at the end of a Parliament more narrowly than you would scrutinize it at the beginning. It seems to me that noble Lords opposite and politicians who agree with them entirely overlook this fact. The Parliament Act, of course, provides that these three successive Sessions need not be all in the same Parliament.
It is perfectly untrue to say that the exercise of the powers of the Parliament Act, if and when they are used, means the destruction of legislation. It does not mean anything of the kind. If the Government had chosen to do it, they could have introduced the Steel Bill this year; but they have chosen to postpone it to next year. There is, I think, a particularly objectionable feature about this Parliament Bill—namely, that it has a retrospective effect, rather on the assumption (which is surely untrue) that Parliament had agreed to this at the beginning of the Session, when it has done nothing of the sort. From researches I have made, I do not recall a case in which a constitutional change of importance—for from time to time there must be constitutional changes—has been enacted retrospectively. It is perfectly true that in both wars Parliaments which were elected for five years extended their lives, but that is not really operating retrospectively in the sense that it is proposed that this Parliament Bill shall operate retrospectively.
When you consider that point, is it not perfectly obvious that the scheme of the Parliament Act was one which was designed to secure, so far as could be secured in this necessarily imperfect world, that in cases where it was needed there should be delay, and that in the latter years of a Parliament's life a General Election might take place? The noble Viscount opposite claimed just now that the present House of Commons is 842 the supreme interpreter of the will of the people. He does not, I feel sure, mean that that is the case whatever the verdict of the next General Election. He has merely used the phrase in order to present the case as though it were a competition between the wisdom of one House and the wisdom of the other. That is not the point at all. I therefore submit that on this constitutional point there is a grave danger that we shall fall into error.
Nobody can possibly go further than I do in recognizing the immense authority and responsibility of the House of Commons, but that is quite a different thing from saying that we have got to treat it as though it were verbally inspired. The function of a Second Chamber is to ensure—in certain proved or reasonably inferred cases—the prospect of delay. That is all the more important for a reason which your Lordships know but which is not always connected with the subject. Some people say that we have no Constitution in this country. I think I myself have used the phrase, but it is only a figure of speech. We have a Constitution—a Constitution which has existed, subject to modification, through the centuries. The really important thing about it is not so much that it is largely an unwritten Constitution—though that is remarkable—but that it can be altered with exactly the same legislative proceses as can carry the most trumpery Bill through Parliament.
I submit, in those circumstances, that a great responsibility rests upon those who seek to alter this Constitution without adequate grounds. If it were true that this alteration is being sought, not because it is justified on the abstract merits but because it would be convenient to Ministers who were anxious to fulfil all their programme before they have to go to the poll, then that would indeed be a most grievous matter.
Our Parliamentary and constitutional institutions should not be altered by serious and thoughtful citizens unless it be because, on the broad merits of the case, alteration becomes necessary. And if it were true that this is really nothing more than a tactical device for securing that particular measures, or a particular programme of the present Government, should get on to the Statute Book before there is a General Election, then it really is a gross abuse of the power, which no 843 doubt Parliament has, for altering the Constitution. Therefore, while I hope very much that this conference which is suggested will come to fruition and produce what we all desire, if this matter does come to an issue I feel that the arguments I have put forward are arguments which justify a vote against it. My noble friend Lord Samuel told us in a most remarkable speech that be himself was convinced that two years was the proper period. The only difference between us on that point is that, while he is convinced that two years is the proper period, it is not by any means clear that he is going to vote against the Bill. I must say that I think a more simple and more straightforward course for me at least is to say, with him, that I believe that it is a mistake, and an unwarranted mistake, to reduce this period of two years; that being so, my own judgment, for what it is worth, is that the Bill should be opposed.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ EARL MANVERS
My Lords, after the delightful and learned discourse to which we have just listened from the noble and learned Viscount, I feel some hesitation in getting up to address your Lordships. I seem to remember, however, that when, thirty-seven years ago, this subject of a Parliament Bill was under discussion, a noble Lord—I fear he was a diehard—remarked, "If we are to be led out to execution I hope we shall bear our fate with becoming fortitude; but we cannot be expected to order the tumbril." There are some noble members of this House, I know, who suffer from what our American cousins call an inferiority complex. They are convinced that we are profoundly unpopular in the country; they fear that if the Government were to go to the country with the cry "Peers versus the people," the electors would come down heavily on the side of the Socialists and the House of Lords would presently vanish into thin air. That is not my view. I feel that we have more friends in the country than we are aware of, that there are many people watching the dilemma that we are in. and that they are looking with kindly interest to see what sort of a fight we shall put up. There are many men, and ladies too, who will rally to our support when their opinion is asked.
What evidence is there of that? Your Lordships will remember the second Election of 1910, when the House of Lords 844 had committed every possible atrocity, when it had thrown out all the leading Liberal measures of the time, including the Budget. Even when that had happened, when the Election took place the numbers of Conservatives and Liberals returned were almost equal at 272. If I have my figures right, there were 272 Conservatives and, I think, 272 Liberals. Mr. Asquith at that time had to depend for a majority on 84 Irishmen who wanted Home Rule, and on 42 Labour men anxious for a reversal of the Osborne Judgment under which it had been declared illegal for Members of Parliament to be paid out of trade union funds. On this occasion, however, the House of Lords is void of offence. The Government, as our venerable leader, Mr. Winston Churchill, has said, are in bad odour; our prospects of victory are not unfavourable. But even if I am wrong about this—even if the House is as unpopular as some people think—then I still say that history will record that we went down with our flag flying and our guns firing.
§ 3-49 p.m.
§ LORD LINDSAY OF BIRKER
My Lords, I confess that when the Government first announced their proposal to bring in this Bill I had doubts as to their wisdom. That was not because I disapprove of the Bill, but because for a number of years I have believed, and believed strongly—noble Lords may think this is a strange remark to make—that the welfare of the House demanded some sort of Bill like this, that this House suffered, andof its good was evil spoken,because its sanctions were somewhat too great—too great for their normal use. But I had thought that noble Lords opposite had seen that the power of this House depends on the weight and quality of the debates and not on the balance of the voting in it. Therefore I had hoped that the suspensory powers of this House would be allowed to lapse and become as obsolete as is now the veto of the Crown. I had innocently and foolishly believed that if this House were let alone there was a real chance of that—and I think that if something like that had happened it would have been worth a great deal to what one might call the constitutional peace and agreement of this country.
845 I am bound to say that the course of the debate has shown me that that was on my part a vain dream, that the Government were right, that noble Lords opposite held—and still hold, apparently—a conception of their powers which, to my mind at least, is inconsistent with sound democratic government. The climax seemed to me to be reached yesterday when the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, commended to our astonished admiration the muscle-bound Constitution of the United States. The noble Marquess who leads the Opposition seemed to me to find noble Lords on this side of the House difficult to understand. I have been trying extremely hard and really honestly to understand what the noble Marquess wants, but I just cannot be sure. He seemed to me to want to add to the Constitution the principle of a referendum operated by this House. Other noble Lords spoke in the same way, their view being, apparently, that a referendum is a democratic measure. It has always seemed to me that that is a superstition believed in only by those who have not taken the trouble to see how it works in operation.
As I listened to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and still more, perhaps, as I listened to the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, I was irresistibly reminded of a pleasant story of Dr. MacMillan, of Ullapool, one of the famous Highland preachers of the latter part of the last century. He was accustomed to go the round of his village in the evenings and to see that the public houses were emptied at nine o'clock. In explanation of his conduct he used to say: "The law says ten o'clock, but I think nine is a better time." So the noble Marquess seemed to me to want to say: "The elected representatives of the people think thus, but we think that the people should be asked to think again." Who are noble Lords opposite, I would ask, to say that?
I venture to think that part of the confusion which is manifest in this debate is not just because of these pourparlers about these phrases, but because we have not clearly distinguished between two very different conceptions of the powers of this House. It has nothing to do with the existing powers or with the nature of them. There are two different conceptions offered, the choice between which has farreaching consequences. You may hold, as I do, that the power of this 846 House—and when I say power I really mean power to effect things and get them done—depends upon the quality and weight of the debates of this House—which are very great indeed—and on its public criticisms of the Government. If you think that—as I do—you will give this House enough formal power to ensure that its criticism is ample and sufficiently prolonged and is listened to with respect by the House of Commons; and, therefore, this House must have some sanction. You will also give it enough power of delay to give time for its criticisms to sink into the minds of the public. That I think is very important.
If I may say so, I thought that the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, about how you should define that time is very important. It is a point the justice of which none can deny. Also, if you think this way you will be extremely suspicious of anything that detracts from the quality and the diversity of its membership. Now you may think that the power of this House coincides with its formal power of refusing assent to proposals of the Commons. I, personally, think that that is a profoundly mistaken view of the powers of this House. Then you will be concerned only with how great these powers of refusing assent ought to be. In that case, observe, you will be driven, in justice and fairness, as the noble Marquess has been driven in justice and fairness, to admit that the balance between the Parties in the House must be equal. It is a very great change and in fairness it must be acknowledged how far the Opposition have gone in that direction. But, if you do that, and the moment you say in fairness that you are to have these formal powers and voting is going to matter—and I say this with all respect, for it is important—you must not cheat.
Then you begin to count heads, and if you do that it will have most disastrous effects on this House. It distresses me to hear noble Lords opposite talk as if the lessening of the formal powers of this House would make it into what I think was called a mere debating Chamber. A mere debating Chamber, indeed! Democracy is government by discussion; people who despise discussion despise democracy. The alternative to governing by a debating and talking Chamber, is, as we sadly know, governing by shouting and abuse. Therefore do not let 847 us hear these reproaches about "a mere debating Chamber."
The Amendment reproaches the Government for introducing a Bill to amend the powers of this House without also proposing to amend its constitution. I cannot understand why noble Lords opposite are so persuaded, as they clearly are, of the force of this position. What is the use of discussing the composition of a Second Chamber unless you have first made up your minds what you want a Second Chamber to do? That seems to me, in my innocence, to be quite obvious. To maintain, as the noble Marquess has done, the opposite; and to say that the constitution of this House should be changed before its powers are changed or at the same time, makes no sense, unless it means that more powers should be given to a reformed than to an unreformed House. The implied argument is that no one nowadays sufficiently believes in the hereditary principle to maintain that the Second Chamber should have any decisive powers over the First, be able to force a dissolution, to declare motu proprio that the mandate of the First Chamber is exhausted, to discriminate between the legislation passed by the First Chamber as though it were for the Second Chamber and not for the elected representatives in the Commons to say what was the firm and settled will of the country.
No one could fairly maintain—no one on the other side, I think, seriously does maintain, and this is a great advance—that an hereditary Chamber should have such power. But some noble Lords clearly hope that a reconstituted Second Chamber should have at least some of these powers. Indeed, the phrase in the latter part of the Amendment about single-Chamber Government implies that, if it implies anything. Any attempt to reform the constitution of this House on these lines—I repeat this because I think it vital to the discussion—is confronted with the difficulty of the balance of Parties. I cannot believe that the country would long tolerate, and nobody now presses for, a condition of affairs where the Conservative Party had the constitutional right to interfere with the Government of its opponents, while its opponents had not the corresponding right to interfere with the doings of a Conservative 848 Government. I do not think that noble Lords in the Opposition, if I have not misunderstood them, now claim it. The noble Marquess was clear in saying it was a disadvantage that in this House there was a considerably larger representation of the Right than of the Left. I was brought up to call this a meiosis—you can just discern the difference. But they do not now claim that. Any reform of the composition of this House which did not remove that anomaly would be a sham and a pretence.
I am afraid that all proposals for the reform of this House put forward in past times by noble Lords opposite have been intended to make the powers of this House more respectable though not less formidable and not less conservative. If you are going to make a change you must do it fairly. I submit to your Lordships that it would be impossible to secure this equality between Parties without destroying the qualities which give your Lordships' House its great and, I think, unique value as a Second Chamber. I submit that what has happened since the passing of the Parliament Act is that this House, losing partly by the Act itself and partly by disuse, its old power as a balance or check, or as a vetoer or suspender of legislation, has acquired, almost escaping its own notice, other powers which give it its greatest value. If we, in considering the Constitution of this House—perhaps more particularly if successive Governments in considering additions to this House—have carefully to consider the balance of votes, then in concern for quantity we shall lose consideration of quality; and the strength of this House is not in the votes that are counted but in the weight and ability of its speeches. May I take an instance? I am sure that everybody rejoiced in the act of the Government in recommending for elevation to this House two noble Lords, Lord Beveridge and Lord Larton, who are clearly the kind of men who ought to be in this House and who may be guaranteed to vote with some regularity against a Labour Government, and certainly to criticize it very severely.
It has been said as a reproach to the Government that they have introduced this Bill after expressing their appreciation of the work of this House in the last two years. That seems to me an extra-ordinarily foolish reproach. I wish this 849 House humbly to ask itself in what consists its place and greatness, for which I have a great admiration, and for which I quite genuinely have a great concern. This reproach ignores the fact that the qualities which have earned this House in these years well deserved appreciation from all quarters will be enhanced and not diminished by this Bill. The kind of Second Chamber it has become is not improved by the possession of sanctions too serious for ordinary use. On the contrary—and this is a point about which, as a member of my Party, I am concerned—the possession of these sanctions only lets its good be evil-spoken of. The disadvantage of wanting to consider the constitution of the House first, it seems to me, is that it has prevented noble Lords opposite facing up to the question: What kind of Second Chamber do they want? Do they want the kind of Chamber which this House has become, or do they want the kind of Second Chamber, whether with diminished powers or not, which this House used to be? I think the two are quite different.
May I, as a newcomer to your Lordships' House, try to describe the qualities of this House which I have watched for two years with ever growing admiration? The variety of ability in this House, especially perhaps the amount of legal ability, makes it a revising Chamber of enormous value. That varied ability, again, has almost everything to do with the great national value of the debates on all kinds of subjects which, according to our rules, noble Lords may raise. I do not always agree with them, but just think of the value of the Motions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Vansittart. Whether one agrees with them or not, it is very important that these questions can be raised—and by people not speaking officially, but with expert knowledge. The country, not we, owes a great deal to the exercise of these two functions—the strictly revising functions, without criticism, and the airing of general questions.
There are two other things, done mainly by the Opposition in this House, which are, it seems to me, of immense value and importance. Time and again in these last two years I have listened to noble Lords opposite saying in effect: "We do not approve of the general principle which is 850 behind this Bill, but if you must do it, at least do it well and efficiently and consistently. Some of the details of this Bill are due to ignorance or obstinacy or (their favourite accusation) doctrinaire theory." Sometimes I have thought them right, though more often wrong; but of the value of that sort of criticism I have no doubt at all. Finally, there is the straightforward Party activity of the Opposition—their attacks on the conduct of the Government, whether in criticism of Bills or in criticism of what the Government have done or left undone. The aim of this criticism is, and really is, to criticize, to hold the Government up to scorn and ridicule before the people of the country. They are perfectly right to do that, and it is very important that they should do that; and it is in that respect that this House must exercise its powers. Does the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, think his scarifyings have no effect on the outside world? They have quite a lot, I am afraid. This criticism has to be done by an Opposition, and this House needs time. That is one of the fortunate points—I give it to you—in there being a Conservative majority in this House when there is a Labour majority in the other place, because however much the Labour majority may hurry the other place they cannot hurry this House, and this House can and does insist, to the great value of the public, that these things shall be done with leisure and time.
A recent and respected author of a very able book on the British Constitution (I think it is the last one I know) says—I think rightly—that our practice at a General Election now is to put a Party in power for a period of years, and to restrain and control it by public and protracted criticism in Parliament. If noble Lords opposite wish to criticize the Government—as I am sure they do—they should criticize them far more for their behaviour about paper and for their behaviour about the Press. It is by their bad behaviour about paper and their bad behaviour about the Press that they prevent public discussion; and public discussion is what matters. In this important function of criticizing the Government in power, this House plays an all-important part. It would be a catastrophe if that part were diminished in any way. If you believe that, as I do, you will see that what matters is not the obtaining of an exact balance of voting in this House.
851 but of a rough balance of debating power. It is enough if the several Parties (even after the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has tied a knot in his handkerchief as he promised yesterday) have a fairly equal balance of debating power.
Effective debate means a small assembly—800 people cannot debate; and I do not think 300 can—and therefore the total membership of this House is far too large. I do not think anybody denies that. I believe you will agree that the numbers of those who ordinarily attend are about right. You will agree, I think, with the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood—with whom otherwise I do not agree at all—in his defence of some representation of the hereditary principle. I wonder if hereditary Peers will forgive me when I say that it is not a bad thing in this House, which depends upon debate, that there should be some ordinary "blokes," as well as superior experts. In short, you will agree that something, but not very much, needs to be done to the constitution of this House. Clearly, however, which of the two conceptions of the powers of the House you adopt will make all the difference in the world to the way in which you tackle the constitution of this House. Those conceptions are profoundly different, and it is no use disguising the fact. The difference between them is not small; it is far-reaching and profound. I submit that want of clearness on this difference between us has partly brought about the confusion which has been obvious throughout this debate.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ LORD HASTINGS
My Lords, it might almost seem that we had reverted to orthodoxy, and were engaged in debating the Bill which is actually before the House! The powerful advocacy of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and its equally powerful refutation by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, would lend colour to that idea. I must, of course, discount the Cross-Bench speech which has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay of Birker. But, although an effort has been made to return to orthodoxy, we are all of us perfectly well aware that what is exercising the mind of the country is a hope that, out of the controversy which has been introduced by the Government's Parliament Bill, advantage will be taken of the opportunity 852 to debate, and eventually to settle, the much wider subject of both powers and constitution of the Second Chamber.
That, I feel confident, is what is really interesting the country now, and it might be well to draw attention to the suggestion which the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, made at the opening of to-day's debate for the consideration of the Government. That suggestion was offered with a view to making an all-Party conference possible. It is perfectly clear that no conference which is to be tied in advance by certain limitations which are unacceptable to this side of the House is ever likely to take place at all. Limitations of that kind will have to be removed before that conference can assemble. Therefore, although we have so far been debating the demerits and the merits of the Parliament Bill itself, there has, I think, been at the back of everybody's mind the certain knowledge that what we are trying to lead to is such a degree of compromise as will make it possible for the two twin subjects to be considered together in a conference of all Parties.
The First Lord of the Admiralty touched in some measure upon subjects which would inevitably arise if such a conference were assembled. He made plain a fact which has been familiar to us all for many years—namely, the preponderating Conservative element in this House. Has; it not occurred to him, as surely it has to others, that a Second Chamber which was not permanently conservative would be of singularly small use to the country? Of course, I do not use that word in its narrow application, as the name of a political Party; I use it in its wider sense, as representing an attitude of mind. We know quite well that the great strength of all minorities lies in the fact that they do not carry the burden of responsibility. It is possible for minorities, whether of the Right or of the Left, to give vent to their own feelings, to the great encouragement of their supporters, knowing all the time that, whatever they say, they really can do very little harm. What would the situation be if noble Lords on that side of the House were in the majority? What would it be if we, as Conservative Peers, did not even exist? They then would carry the burden of responsibility that now is carried here, and, in common with all other Englishmen, patriotic and desiring to do the best 853 they can for their country, their conservatism would be quite remarkable. They would know it to be their public duty to act in that particular way; and if the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, supposes that by reconstituting this House he is going to create anything in the nature of a permanent Socialist majority, I beg to differ from him.
I have seen, and so have many of us, gentlemen elevated to the Peerage whose opinions after their elevation. have changed most remarkably. I would guarantee that it is impossible for a Prime Minister of any colour to recommend to His Majesty the creation of Peers who, in ten years' time, will remember why they were created. Do not run away with the idea that the majority which has arisen from circumstances that are beyond control is likely to be in any way changed in character by anything that can be done in reconstituting the House. People might start in a most hopeful way from that point of view, but it would not last. In a hundred years' time, any of us who look down upon the Second Chamber, constituted as it may then be by the descendants of a hundred dock labourers, will see that they are conservative to the core—every one of them. Therefore, I am not so terribly anxious about how the House will be constituted in the future. What I am most deeply anxious about is that this House—call it not the House of Lords if you will, but the Second Chamber—shall be endowed with such powers as shall enable it, as a Second Chamber, to compel that degree of consideration and that measure of delay which are absolutely necessary if our British Constitution is to be preserved intact.
Who can guarantee what will happen at the next, or the next after the next, Election? I do not wish to be offensive, but it is conceivable that a disgusted electorate may turn and rend the present Government. It is conceivable that a House of Commons of a wholly reactionary kind may be elected. Would not the people in the country expect a Second Chamber to stand between themselves and reaction, just as they now expect a Second Chamber to stand between themselves and tyranny? On the other hand, an election might produce a result of another kind. An electorate, so goaded by conditions then prevailing, 854 rather than be reactionary to the Right might swing most grievously to the Left. Is it not necessary for the maintenance of stability that there should be a Second Chamber with adequate powers, to give the general body of the electorate time to think? It surely is so.
If we turn our minds back to 1906, when the Liberal Government were returned to power, we will readily admit that that Government suffered grievously at the hands of the House of Lords. But the minds of men have changed since then. This Government have suffered nothing at the hands of the House of Lords. There is no casus belli whatsoever to-day. We have an opportunity which has not presented itself for long, and which may not present itself again. There being no casus belli now, we have an opportunity to get together and consider what really can best be done in the matter of both powers and constitution. This is a rare opportunity not to be lost—it should not be lost. I am not going to say for a moment that the conference will not be abortive, but one can but try. If it should prove unhappily to be abortive, we are again as we were. If this Bill is rejected now we shall see it again all too soon. It will come round, I am sure, in the early days of the next Session, and we can debate it then in a much brighter light than we can debate it now. We shall know what has happened in the meantime; we shall know how far a conference has succeeded, and we shall know whether we are to be driven to the measure of rejecting the Bill again or whether we can deal with it in a broad-minded spirit, so that it can come upon the Statute Book in an agreed form.
The proposal which the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has made to-day opens the door, and I beg that the Government will not bang it. The suggestion makes it possible for those who sit upon this side of the House to enter into a conference unhampered by limitations which we cannot accept. It enables us to hope that out of these conversations and conferences agreement will result. But if His Majesty's Government feel that they cannot accept the newest of the proposals which, after great thought, the noble Marquess has produced to-day, and in consequence we are compelled to carry on with this debate until its conclusion, there is nothing which can be done on this side of the House other than to vote for the rejection of the 855 Bill. There is no alternative. To go into Committee, I venture to say, would be folly. How can we go into Committee? What purpose would be served by going into Committee? Either the Government open the door to conference in which the whole wide subject can be debated in a friendly atmosphere, or we shall be compelled to reject the Bill. We should not go into Committee and argue on the merits or demerits of this particuar Bill until we know what is the general view on the subject of the constitution of the House. The two things are so closely related that I think they are truly inseparable.
It is not for me to labour a point like that, but, in common, I feel certain, with the great majority of the people of the country and with the majority of the members of this House, we are anxious that the opportunity should now be taken of conferring together to try and solve for all time one of the most vexed questions of the age. If we could do that, we should have written a chapter in the history of our country well worth while. I trust that the opportunity will not be thrown away. But if the Government are unable to meet the advance that has been made by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, I, for one, and, I feel confident, the majority of those who think and speak with me on this side of the House, will go into the Lobby and vote for the rejection of this Bill. Because the Bill as it stands is a bad Bill. It is an unacceptable Bill and it is a Bill which I feel sure it is our duty to refuse, because it places the general electorate of this country in too grave a risk. That is my opinion, and it is an op: nion that I shall continue to hold. I thank your Lordships for allowing me to speak for so long.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ LORD PETHICK-LAWRENCE
My Lords, in common, I am sure, with every member of this House I have greatly enjoyed the able and witty speech from the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, to which we have just listened. I am much tempted to devote some time to examining many of the points which he has made. I am further tempted to deal at length with the speech of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, earlier on in our debate. Many of his arguments I felt to be thoroughly unsound, and I should have liked to controvert them in the course of my speech. But I am sensible that there 856 are many noble Lords who desire to take part in this debate, and I therefore propose to confine myself very strictly to what seems to me the fundamental issues of the whole of this matter. I will confine myself to the question of the powers of the House, because that is strictly the subject of the Bill. I do not propose to digress into the question of the constitution of the House, which is altogether outside the scope of this Bill.
With regard to the whole question of the powers of this House, there are three points. The first is: Should the power of veto of the House of Lords be absolute, or should it be suspensory only? That question was settled finally by the Parliament Act, and I have been interested in the course of this debate to observe that, at any rate so far as the great bulk of noble Lords are concerned, that decision is now accepted as final. It is admitted that the power of veto of the House of Lords should not be absolute, but that it should be limited in time and should be a suspensory veto only. The second point with regard to the power of this House is: If the veto is to be of a suspensory kind, if it is to last for a certain time, how long is that time to be? The Parliament Act said, quite definitely, less than two years. The present Bill proposes one year. I do not propose to debate the question of what is the most desirable length of time. So far as I understand it, noble Lords opposite want not so much a precise length of time as a time which is to depend on the period that elapses between the rejection of the Bill by the House of Lords and its final passage; that is what they seem most desirous of obtaining. I can quite see that the time should be adequate, and that there are dangers in making it too short; but I suggest that there is also great danger in having it too long.
That danger arises from the fact that during the whole period which elapses between the first introduction of the Bill and its final passage into law, the persons concerned under the Bill are held in suspense. Some proposal is made, let us say, for nationalization. It is in some ways rather unsatisfactory that a nationalization Bill cannot be followed by immediate action. But, of course, there have to be the proper debates in the House of Commons and in this Chamber, 857 and there may be a period of eight or nine months between the introduction of the Bill and its coming into law. It is not until then that the people who will be concerned know their fate. To the extent that that period is exceeded, owing to difference between the two Houses, the time of uncertainty prevailing among the persons who are going to be affected is increased. And whilst I am quite agreeable to there being, as now proposed in the Parliament Bill, some increase in the period, I do see grave inconvenience to persons concerned if it is unduly extended. I venture to think that the period of two years in the original Parliament Act was too long, and ought to be reduced.
The third point which has to be considered is the precise method and procedure by which the suspensory powers of the House of Lords are to be carried through. The Parliament Act decided that a particular Bill—meticulously the same, except for certain necessary or agreed Amendments—should be carried no fewer than three times in the House of Commons and I think three times rejected by the House of Lords; it was not until the Bill had gone right through that procedure that it became law. I suggest that whatever the divergencies on other points, this conception of the necessity of solemnly passing the Bill three times in the House of Commons is absolutely ridiculous. It was ridiculous from the first and demonstrably ridiculous to-day. I say that in spite of the fact that there is classical support for a proposal becoming true when it is said three times. I think it was the Bellman in one of Lewis Carroll's works, The Hunting of the Snark, who said "If I say a thing three times it is true." I do not know whether that was the origin of the idea of the promoters of the Parliament Act, but nothing could be more foolish than to imagine that some special merit is to be found in the House of Commons going through the farce of trooping into the Lobbies three times to support a Bill in all its stages.
I can see the point of noble Lords opposite about the desirability of requiring a Bill to come forward again after an interval that might be considered reasonable. But to retain the principle that it must be debated, voted upon, and passed three whole times in the House 858 of Commons, seems to me to have no merit whatsoever. I have not heard a word from the Benches opposite in defence of this three-fold process. Therefore, I hope that if there is one thing we have cleared out of the way in our debate here it is this idea that there is some merit in carrying a Bill through three times. It seems to me that we have achieved a certain amount of agreement. The absolute veto has gone. We appear to be all agreed that the veto must be a suspensory one. The three-fold passage through the House of Commons is not defended; therefore what we are debating now is solely the precise length of time. Noble Lords opposite, I understand, are not wedded exactly to two years, but they think that one year is a little too short. I have ventured to point out from this side of the House the dangers of making the suspensory power too long, having in mind the inconvenience that is caused thereby to the persons who will be affected by the Bill. In view of the degree of difference left between the two sides in this House, the idea that a revolutionary change in the Constitution is proposed in this Bill is a little ridiculous. Some of the words which have been used in chastising this Bill, that it is a monstrous innovation of a wicked and malign Socialist Government, are surely going a long way beyond the facts. I believe that in the course of these debates we have already attained a much wider measure of agreement than anyone thought possible; and I believe that we can make a Bill which is a lasting contribution to the constitutional practice for this country.
§ 4.39 p.m.
My Lords, as one of the elected Scots representatives and a Cross Bencher privileged to join in this debate, I shall detain your Lordships but a very few minutes, since the points which I wish to stress have been far better made by three previous speakers, notably the most reverend Primate the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, and the noble Earl, Lord Halifax. I am in complete agreement with all that has been said on this issue by those noble Lords. I join now with my noble friend Lord Calverley in hoping that a non-Party conference will arise from the events to be discussed in your Lordships' House to-morrow, and that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ LORD DARWEN
My Lords, I venture to intervene in this debate because I am profoundly convinced of the value of a Second Chamber. I regard this Bill, wh: ch the Government have put forward, as a reasonable and wise insurance for a Second Chamber. I regard the premium which is asked for that insurance as reasonable and desirable in the interests of the country. We are told that the nation has expressed no desire for this Bill. I think it is true to say that there would have been far more enthusiasm for this Bill in the country if it had proposed not only the abolition of the House of Lords but also the abolition of any Second Chamber whatsoever. Your Lordships have to face up to the fact that there is that feeling in the country againsl a Second Chamber. I do not for a moment suppose that this Bill will divide the country. The feeling in favour of the abolition of a Second Chamber has been entirely dormant because your Lordships' House has been content to act in a revising capacity, as an adviser and nothing more. So long as this House was prepared to act in that way, there was no objection to it in the country. I think, however, that the throwing out of this Bill and the passing of the proposed Amendment would awaken in the country very profound antagonism, both to this House and to any Second Chamber at all. I hope, therefore, that this Bill will not be thrown out and that the Amendment will not be carried.
In my view the important thing about this Bill, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay of Birker, and one or two others, is that it defines the function of this House. I disagree entirely with the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, in his suggestion that it is usual to define the composition before the function. I think that it is much more usual, and much wiser, to define function before coming to the question of composition. The function as defined is the function which this House has been content to perform during the present Parliament. I think that during these few years the country has felt that the House of Lords has performed a function of very real value. The tremendous number of Amendments made in this House which have been accepted by another place are proof of the value of the work that has 860 been done here. That work has been done in what I have called an advisory capacity. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay of Birker, said on this matter, and I am absolutely confident in my own mind that the great power—all the power that is necessary—of this House can be exercised in an advisory capacity.
I would suggest to your Lordships on the opposite Benches that it is really a pity to stir up all the potential possible opposition to this House and to a Second Chamber until the country has had a longer period in which to see this House working in this advisory capacity. There can be no purpose in the proposals for changing the composition of this House except to increase its ability or its representative character in an attempt to enhance its prestige and authority. While I am not for a moment disapproving of the proposal to go into conference on this subject, I would point out that the opening of the question of the composition of this House will stir up an immense controversy in the country. I believe that the proposal to improve the composition of this House makes this Bill all the more essential. It is all the more necessary that: we should have the defining of the function of this House as an advisory function.
I was interested in what the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, had to say, but there was one thing that was running through my mind all the time he was speaking. It was the central fact that has been driven into our minds during the last few years—that a Government must have the power to govern. We have repeatedly seen on the Continent the dangers which can arise if a Government in office have not the power to govern. I think, therefore, that while it may be said that the powers of this House cannot interfere with government, they may interfere by delaying measures which may be vitally important and in which speed may be vitally important. Then; has been an assumption underlying all the speeches from the opposite Benches that, if any mistakes are made in government, they are made by the popularly elected House, the House of Commons, and that this House is to be in a position to rectify those mistakes. It seems to me that the power of delay may at times be just as dangerous as the power of going forward. Therefore, it is dangerous—especially in view of the 861 suggestion which I made, that a Government must be in a position to govern—to set up a Second House which has a vital power of delay, such a power of delay, in fact, as to force a General Election before the final decision is made.
When the discussion was going on yesterday about the actual meaning of the first sentence of the Government proposals, it seemed to me that the really central point was: Is this period of delay to involve the possibility of forcing a General Election? I myself believe very strongly that we have got to give up that power. We must realize that all we need in this House is the opportunity to express freely our view on the Government's policies and the Government's Bills that come up to us. There must be ample time for full discussion and consideration, both in this House and in the country; but, having secured that, I believe that we have all the power which it is desirable we should have; and I do not think that that can be justly described as giving either the Government or the House of Commons a blank cheque. The mere fact that during these last two or three years we have been able to insert so many Amendments in Government Bills shows that it would not mean the granting of a blank cheque to the Government.
§ 4.51 p.m.
§ LORD DE L'ISLE and DUDLEY
My Lords, I am one of those ordinary members of your Lordships' House who cannot claim either great distinction or great experience, so I therefore take my courage in. both hands and, with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay, before me, that we have our place in this Assembly, I venture to address a few remarks to your Lordships. This will be for all of us a memorable debate, whatever its outcome. It has taken many unexpected turns, and possibly one of the most unexpected is to hear noble Lords from the Government Benches adjuring us to be more conservative in dealing with the composition of this House. To me, as a tyro in these constitutional matters, and one who has listened with very deep respect to the weighty remarks which have fallen from noble Lords of all Parties, it seems that we are debating whether in fact our country should have a single Chamber or bicameral form of Legislature. I realize that there are arguments—indeed who would not, having sat here for nearly 862 two days?—for both forms of Government, but I think that we should be quite clear what we are debating. In my view, to say you are in favour of a Second Chamber and, at the same time, declare that you support a removal of all its powers, is anomalous—you are trying to have it both ways. I would say that it would be fatal for the people of this country to believe that there was a Second Chamber if that Chamber were endowed with no powers.
My noble friend Lord Hastings, in what I thought was a notable speech, said that this was an opportunity which, in the peculiar circumstances of the case, offered some form of consultation upon this very difficult problem. None of us underestimates the difficulty of the situation, neither the difficulties of powers nor the difficulties of composition—except, possibly, Lord Stansgate on the latter point—but in my estimation the matter must be faced. The noble Lord, Lord Darwen, spoke of the reputation which this House has earned in its dealings with the measures which came before it in the last Session; and I think Lord Lindsay, in another notable speech, came to the same conclusion. Noble Lords on the Government Benches undoubtedly listened with deep attention to the remarks which fell from my noble friends on these Benches in regard to these very complicated matters and details which came before us, but I venture to submit to your Lordships that they listened with even deeper attention because we had the power of rejection. Suppose that the remarks which we made had in fact been purely advisory: how many of your Lordships really believe that those measures would have gone on to the Statute Book in the shape that they have now assumed?
The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay, were singularly persuasive; I almost found myself persuaded by them. He told us how great and good and wise we were—even the hereditary Peers. But we were warned that our wisdom and our greatness could be only advisory, and I think he supported the contention of the noble Viscount, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in regard to representation in Parliament. In our history—and I will give it to your Lordships, although I achieved only a Third at Cambridge—it seems to me that in the various components of our Constitution, whether it be the Crown or the Houses of Parlia- 863 merit, rather extreme claims have been advanced from time to time; sometimes they have been sustained even to the point of the sword. In time, apparently, experience has moderated those claims. Surely it is the genius of our Constitution that there should be a variety of powers within it. Surely we all recognize, when we search ourselves, that although we may be convinced of our own rectitude, of the justice of our case, yet we ought always to be aware that we may be wrong. And with that awareness, surely, there arises the settled conviction of the British Constitution that there should be checks and balances, not written but customary.'
In these difficult questions of the relationship between the two Chambers of Parliament, there can be no sealed pattern of the exact powers which should be given to a Second Chamber; they can only approximate to the needs of the situation. But surely of the need of those powers there ought not to be any doubt, if we consider the history of Europe in the past twenty years. Surely the lesson of recent events is that the minority can find devious methods (lately very largely improved in Eastern Europe), to achieve power, and then see whether they can get a majority in the country.
Let us take an example. You may say that it is an extreme example, but let us suppose that your Lordships have before you a measure to alter the franchise for the Parliamentary elections. Suppose that the Government of the day, without any mandate, without any reference, or perhaps only a very oblique reference, to its purpose in its election programme, suddenly decided that only those members of the trade union movement who pay the political levy were really fit for adult citizen status. I admit that this is very unlikely, but suppose that they said that none of the other citizens mattered at all—that is a complete supposition—and that they put it into legislative form. Suppose further that your Lordships had no powers and could only advise the people; and that that Bill went on the Statute Book and there was another Election. Nominally, of course, the new Parliament would still represent the sovereign will of the people, and the people would be closely identified with the trade union movement. That may be an extreme: example, but surely 864 when we are framing our Constitution we must not simply regard the persons who have charge of the Government of the day; we must have regard to all contingencies. That is the reason why we have safeguards in our Constitution.
The noble Marquess the; Leader of the Opposition has attempted to put down, using a particular form of draftsmanship, what he considers to be a reasonable basis for a compromise. It seems to me that we are faced really with the question: Do His Majesty's Government wish to have a conference on this admittedly very difficult problem? If they wish to have a conference, do they wish the Parties to go into it with their hands untied? If they do, then there can be a conference. If, on the other hand, they wish to prejudge the issue, if, in effect, they wish the principle of the Bill—which I conceive to be the principle of single-Chamber Government—to be accepted, then there can be no conference. Surely this House is entitled to a clear answer on that problem. Therefore, when we assemble again, we shall await with eagerness and expectation the answer of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ LORD HUTCHISON of MONTROSE
My Lords, in rising to address your Lordships' House on this Bill, I feel as if I did not really know what it is I have to talk about. So many red herrings have been drawn across the line of the main issue of the Bill that it is very difficult indeed to concentrate on what we are doing—that is, discussing whether we are or are not to have a Second Reading of this Parliament Bill. The Bill, in my view, is a thoroughly bad one. It is a sectional attack on the Constitution, and it is designed to speed the passing through your Lordships' House of certain legislation which is coming from another place. For my own part, I do not believe that the Bill which is in view is the Iron and Steel Bill. I think that it is much more likely to be a measure designed to do away with representation in another place of the Universities. But, at any rate, this is certainly a Bill of expediency, and it is thoroughly bad because it is sectional. There is no chance that it can do anything towards improving the constitution of your Lordships' House.
As I listened to the noble Marquess, the Leader of the Opposition, it seemed 865 to me that he had very little faith that the various offers made on behalf of His Majesty's Government by the venerable Leader of the House meant anything at all. And I do not think they did. Thirty-seven years have gone by since the Parliament Act was passed. I well remember its passing. It divided my household into two sides. I was a simple soldier then, and I followed the lines laid down by Mr. Asquith. The rest of my family were on the other side. That sort of division was pretty general, for the measure created a tremendous upset throughout the country. The present Bill has nothing to do with the constitution of the House of Lords—it is purely a sectional measure. It may well be said that if one sectional measure dealing with one section of the Constitution is brought in and passed, then why not bring in a second measure to deal with another section of the Constitution? I cannot think that this Bill ought to be allowed to have a Second Reading. I say that it ought to be thrown out, and then be enacted under the Parliament Act, if it is thought necessary. Then, when the time comes, and a real reform of the House of Lords, a new Constitution, is desired, the matter should go before the people at a General Election and they should be asked whether they want it or not. I cannot think that any conference of leaders of the Parties can arrive at a proper decision as to what the people want. The matter should be put to the people at a General Election.
Now I would like to reinforce what my noble friend and colleague, Lord Teviot, has said. Though the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, seems to think that there are only three Parties in politics in this House and also in another place, I would have him know that we are very prominent members of the Liberal Party. I only regret that we are not all together. I am very glad to see that the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has just come in. He has put a knot in his handkerchief, we have been told, and I hope that it is still there. But may I say that he cannot possibly have needed to put a knot in his handkerchief, because all along he has been trying to get agreement between our section and his section of the Liberal Party. He has been trying to get us all together. Questions have been asked: Whom do we hate? Whom do we want to fight? and so on. I really think it is going too far to say that the 866 answers are not known. I would remind your Lordships that our section has a bigger representation in the House of Commons than has the section to which the noble Viscount belongs, and I suggest that we are much more entitled to be brought into any conference which may be held regarding the reform of the House of Lords. What the noble Viscount said about putting a knot in his handkerchief was really a little too bad. It certainly was not up to the noble Viscount's usual standard.
It is a pity, in my view, that the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, was not allowed to deal with this matter himself. But, as we know, he had to go to the Cabinet, and with the wild men of the Cabinet he simply did not have a chance. He was told to return to the House of Lords and to tell them what was coming to them. He had not the ghost of a chance of getting a conference. But I am of the opinion that it is idle to think that there is a good chance of getting anything done by means of a conference. I remember Mr. Lloyd George saying in the old days with regard to conferences: "If you want anything done, have a conference of one. If you have a conference of more than one you never get anything done—it is merely a way of putting off things, and postponing the evil day." This Bill, to my mind, ought never to have been brought forward. It will bring the Labour Party into contempt in the country because they are promoting it for a single end, and that is to pass legislation which otherwise would probably not pass during the lifetime of this Parliament.
I must say that I did to some extent agree with some of the arguments of the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel. I thought that he was speaking sense when he said we ought to give the Bill a Second Reading and then amend it in Committee. If you amend it in Committee so that the period of delay shall count from the Third Reading in another place, or from the time when a Bill comes to this House, there is adequate time to deal with it, whereas if a Bill remains under consideration for a lengthy period in another place, only a few months may remain for it to be dealt with here. You cannot ensure that the country will be informed of all the aspects of any controversy in three or four months. Therefore, I think that 867 there is something to be said for giving the Bill a Second Reading and amending it in Committee. I do not know what the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition thinks. I will be guided very largely by what he says, but all the same I consider that we are entitled to say what we think. This Bill will go through in any case, whether we have a Second Reading or not, and therefore the noble Marquess ought to consider very carefully what he is going to do.
There is another point of view, and it is a matter of pare politics. If your Lordships reject this Bill without a Second Reading it will result in distorted propaganda throughout the country at every by-election and in every constituency. People will say, "This is how the; House of Lords treats a Bill we want." If we give it a Second Reading, and amend it in Committee, there will not be that distorted propaganda. It is a serious matter, because people do not understand what it is all about. They only know that there is some sort of row going on between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If we give it a Second Reading, and alter it by means of Amendments, people will become more informed of what the Bill really means and what is going on. I am inclined to think that a Second Reading ought to be given.
This Bill will undoubtedly remove all freedom of action by Parliament, or at least by this House. It will mean one-Chamber legislation and Bills pushed through this House, whether we like it or not, in one year—or whatever less period it may be. The result will be that the freedom of the people will be again trodden under foot. After all, what did this country fight Hitler for? It was for freedom. Yet here is proposed this one-Chamber Government. A one-Chamber Government means a dictatorship by that Chamber, and the people will be in a worse position than the Germans were under Hitler. That is as I see it. What is wrong with the House of Lords? It works. I have never found anybody who says it does not work. The country has faith in it. Maybe it throws out certain measures, but it does not throw them out unless they ought to be thrown out and ought to go to the country to be considered. If you start reforming the House of Lords, you get a Senate—that is, an elected body— 868 and if you have a Senate instead of this Chamber, it will mean a demand for more powers, possibly powers over finance, and the country will be worse off than under the present House.
Great play has been made about the backwoodsmen coming up. Backwoodsmen coming up! They are the protection of the people of this country. I remember long ago, when I was in another place, Lord Younger—George Younger—saying to me "Oh, yes, we can get the backwoodsmen up to the House, but how they will vote, God knows!" They will come up if there is real controversy in the country; they will see that the people are properly consulted. To say that the backwoodsmen will spoil legislation from another place for no reason at all is something which I do not believe. I consider that long years after this we shall still have the House of Lords as we have it to-day—and it is not a bad House. The one good thing about this House is that the people of the country believe in it. I have talked to many of my old friends, and to political opponents in various constituencies, and they have a wonderful belief that the Lords will behave as they ought in dealing with legislation. They admit the splendid work in the way of revising legislation which is hurriedly pushed through, by guillotine and other methods, from another place.
Speaking for myself, I personally do not see very much wrong with the House of Lords. Although one cannot defend it, it works. Give me something that works. If a Senate is created, believe me, the first thing it will do will be to seek more power; and the House of Commons would be in a worse position in regard to this House than they were before. To my mind, this Bill is pernicious; it is bad. Whether it ought to be thrown out at once or amended I do not know: my inclination is towards a Second Reading. In any case I do think that the Government are very much to blame for having brought in such a measure for purposes which are so blatant to the public and to everyone here.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.