HL Deb 02 May 1950 vol 167 cc53-78

5.17 p.m.

Debate resumed (according to Order), on the Motion moved by Lord Elton on Wednesday last—namely, to resolve, That, in view of the gravity of the economic crisis with which the nation is faced, it is desirable that the leaders of all three Parties should meet in conference forthwith with a view to the issue of an agreed statement as to the measures needed to meet the emergency, and the formation of a National Government to carry them out.


My Lords, I rise with great diffidence to speak on this question of National Government. In a great many ways I feel that I could support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and we are all indebted to him for raising this issue at this time. I feel that the noble Lord and other speakers made many good points in support of the idea that the three main Parties should get together and agree on a programme to deal with the present crisis. But when one really gets to the bottom of the question there are many reasons why it could not and should not happen. In the first place, it is suggested that it would be for only the duration of the crisis. How long can we consider that this crisis is likely to last? If we are using the word "crisis" in this sense, surely we are using it concerning a matter which may extend over a long period of time. The situation in which we are now is not one that can be quickly solved. I suggest that the whole essence of British tradition involves majority government in time of crisis and of non-crisis. The situation in war-time is completely different, because everybody is agreed as to the main end in view. When it comes to peace, however, there are many different ideas of what peace is. I am sure we should fight these issues out in the usual thoroughly British manner. I suggest that we ought to get rid of what one might call the machinery of a machine age in our attitude to Party politics. In a sense, the rigid Party machinery is to be expected in an age which is thoroughly complex, and it is difficult to know how to avoid it.

I should like to quote what I think were a very significant series of sentences which Mr. J. B. Priestley made in a broadcast at Christmas time. He gave a series of talks called "From Bicker to Blue Anchor," which was really a travelogue of a trip across England, ending up somewhere near Minehead. In his third talk he seemed keen to reach Blue Anchor well before his fifteen minutes were up, in order to have five minutes in which he could really "say his piece." I think this is a very true point in relation to machinery, and the whole question of things on a large scale. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is of interest to discuss, and that this drift of the time to which he refers is one which is real. He said in his broadcast: We are asked to choose between a capitalist love of things on a large scale and a Communist love of things on a large scale"— one must substitute "Socialist" in our case— whereas we may prefer things on a small scale, as I do, and deeply distrust anything that becomes too big. We are told to make up our minds whether we want our giant mass production factories to be run by private enterprise or by the State, and hardly anybody suggests that there is in fact a more important question—namely, are we sure we want giant mass production factories at all? I should be very upset if, for some reason or another, I left it at that and made no further reference to that point, because there is obviously a great deal that noble Lords and people in this country generally can pick on in such a series of sentences. After all, we have things on a large scale, and the greatness of this country is tied up with things on a large scale. We are one of the most densely populated countries in the world—I think we have roughly an acre each—and it is natural that we should be wedded to the idea of power. Therefore, it is not for us to say we would rather go back to the population of Elizabethan England.

What I am suggesting is that we should consider this question of size of unit and size of organisation in relation to whether the Parties could get together and whether there is, in fact, one solution to which everybody could agree. Perhaps the best thing would be if some new issue were to crop up, because it is very unlikely that there would again be a deadlock. I understand, of course, that this issue which we are debating is not one entirely tied up with the fact of the deadlock, but that it could still be debated and suggested that a National Government could be formed whether, in fact, one Party had a large or a small majority. But surely, it was obvious at the last Election that a great many issues were not very fully and strictly brought into the picture as they might well have been, and that the Party machines and huge organisations of our Parties were one of the reasons why this was not the case. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred to a National Government coming too late, when the food-ships ceased coming in, or words to that effect. I thought that was a very interesting subject to raise—the question of food-ships in relation to this debate. After all, we are so dependent on trade and so vulnerable that the question of government arises in a different way here from, say, in France. I was in France last October when there was no Government, and except in Paris I should not have thought that people were very worried, France almost feeds herself and perhaps even over-produces wine and wheat, which does make a difference to the whole position.

Now what new issue might possibly come into the field? I do not want to go over the ground which was gone over in our debate on migration last week, but I think that is one of the issues which ought to be treated far more dynamically than is likely to be the case until the crisis deepens. Therefore it is desirable that the issue should be treated more squarely now. As it seems to me, each of the big Parties—and I speak from the middle position—seems frightened of bringing it up. One reason for that, I suggest, is the fear of being accused by the other Party of not attempting to make this country survive with the present population. Mr. Churchill as good as suggested in a speech recently in another place that it was Socialism which was making impossible the survival of 50,000,000 of us in this island. That may well be so, but going upon the line adopted by Mr. Priestley, is it not possible that there are other reasons why we may not be able to survive? Ought we not, in a non-Party way, to consider the whole question of the size of the population? That is why I think there are a great many arguments in favour of the formation of a National Government. It would produce a mood in which these matters could be formulated and dealt with in a less nervous and hysterical way, which is inevitable in huge, rigid, Party organisations.

I do not want to be a person for quoting, but with regard to what is perhaps the most important new issue of all, and which might be more important than emigration, I should like to read out one more quotation from a letter which appeared in the New Statesman, written by a New Zealander from Napier. The letter was written at the time of the New Zealand elections, and it says: One of the Labour candidates described the National Party"— I suppose that is a cross between the Conservative and the Liberal Parties in this country— as 'clinging to an outworn creed.' That may be so, but a majority of the people of New Zealand preferred that creed to the kind of Socialism that the Labour Party tried to impose on them. But why should Socialism mean 'State control? This is where I am suggesting that we could perhaps think more deeply about Socialism, and that it is not necessarily tied up with State control. The letter went on: It should be possible for a freedom-loving people to work out something better—perhaps a system of nationally-owned but self-governing enterpries, working to a loose and flexible plan, instead of a rigidly-controlled, centralised one, with a minimum of State interference and a maximum of individual freedom of action. In a democratic country Socialism, or anything else, cannot be imposed by class domination. Any social or political system will succeed only if it is made attractive and worthwhile to very large numbers of the people and not to one class only. I do not wish to speak much longer, but I should like to say how frightening it is to look at the map of the London election results at the end of The Times book "The House of Commons, 1950." Somebody quite well described the result as "fresh air versus fug." We are fairly well divided on this matter, and on present issues I do not see how we can expect a change. Could not some new issue be thrown into the picture which would result not in this line-up of Parties which is a line-up of classes? One sees the Thames here in Westminster as a great dividing line for many miles between the supporters of one Party and another. It might be asked: What has this to do with the question and what has it to do with a National Government? I think we must keep to the Party system, even in this great crisis, but that if we can become more free of slogans and more free of rigid Party organisation we may come to some new conclusions, and they may be conclusions that will solve our present deadlock.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the House, that I was not able to hear his speech. Your Lordships may be aware that I have had some other more immediate and pressing problems engaging my attention, but I assure him that I read with very great care his speech, as well as the speeches of other noble Lords on Thursday last. I venture to say at the outset that it was probably in all our minds, and in the minds of many others outside, that there is abroad a degree of sympathy with Lord Elton and a measure of disappointment at our present situation. When we look back on the road we have travelled, many of us feel that we of the Labour Party never expected that we should reach the position in which we stand at the present time. Now that my old friend Mr. Clynes has passed, I suppose that I am the only member of that Party in Parliament who was present at its beginning: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive But to be young was very heaven. But, as things are, to deny that we feel instead a measure of disappointment would be very much like whistling in the dark to keep up one's courage.

Nevertheless, in this process of looking back, one has to admit that a great deal has been gained. We have secured very much. Whether To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, time alone will prove, but I am bound to say that I feel that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is not the best method to achieve the desired end. I see a danger which has not, so far as I know, been voiced. When the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, unrolled the map a moment or two ago I thought he was going to look at the map of Europe. We know that there are on that Continent single-Party Governments, and I am greatly concerned lest we in this country should enter that field. The essence and the quality of the government of this nation has been our two-Party system and our method of government by discussion. It does not help us in the least to dwell upon the difficulties that have arisen from time to time.

In the debate on the spread of crime which we had some days ago, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said: There is a widespread scepticism about the danger of the economic crisis. He was referring, of course, to the doubts which many people feel whether things are really as serious as they are said to be. I believe, from long and close experience, that what the Archbishop said was true. There is a feeling among many that "There is plenty of money in the kitty," and that talk of the crisis is false talk. That belief accounts for a good deal of the unrest and disturbance we find in trade union circles, among others. And it is possible that some of the policies pursued hitherto may have done something to give rise to these beliefs. The belief is expressed in other ways also. After all is said and done, we cannot blind our eyes to the fact that some of the improvements which have come in social life, and some of the evening out of the income of the community, have brought with them to many a man a feeling that he is getting his own back. That is a very understandable position; and when we look back over the industrial history of this and other countries, we cannot fail to comprehend it.

But we are not going to build a new order of society on that kind of foundation. Somehow we have to bring about a different way of looking at things if we are to get over our present difficulties. We shall not do that by a Coalition or a merging of Parties—call it what you will, for there is no difference between a National Government and a Coalition: I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, in that respect. As Bertrand Russell says: Justice alone is not enough. Opportunity for creative activity is at least as important as justice. It is true that Bertrand Russell said that in a different context. But there is a danger that in present circumstances we may get a rather lopsided view of many matters, while things which are eminently right and reasonable may degenerate into something that can be harmful. As the Archbishop of York said: I think it can be brought home to the people of the country only by the leaders of both Parties. That, I think, is what we have to do. One of the reasons we cannot have an effective coalition through agreement by the leaders or a line-up of the different Parties (apart from the dangers one sees in other countries—and there are plenty of willing helpers to be found in this country to drive us into the same sort of dangers), is that we have departed altogether from the old outlook. We are now in a position in which the whole of society and the outlook of our civilisation are changing. We are witnessing the decline of capitalism. That will involve all sorts of people and interests. And if human happiness is to grow rather than perish, and the State be nurse rather than undertaker, we have to see whether we cannot achieve a better balance of things. That is what we have to work for.

In short, if the whole atmosphere, tone and order of society, and the conditions that have grown up, are to be preserved, we have to solve this problem. Somehow people will have to be brought to see that duty and service are more important than the idea of what they can get out of life. To paraphrase Niebuler, we must have a tolerable justice rather than an alternation of intolerable anarchy and intolerable tyranny. It is no good pointing to other countries and saying "It is the same all over the world." That is true; but when in the past has Britain had to take account of what other countries were doing when she was going to shape her policy or mould her way of life? We have to work out our own salvation, and we shall best do it by discussion of our differences and opinions, from which will come a wider understanding. We shall make a great mistake if we show haste, perhaps fear of the future, rather than tackle our differences with our old energy and enthusiasm.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to speak on the political issues involved, and I will be as brief as I can. The Resolution before the House which has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, involves that there should be, I suppose, a round-table conference of the leaders of the various Parties in order to try to think out some plan. I hope I am not doing the noble Lord any injustice in this summary.


The noble Lord did leave out of his summary one stage—namely, that after the leaders of the Parties had come together they should try to agree on a short technical recovery programme. If they agreed on that they would proceed to join together to carry it out.


I thank the noble Lord. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing this Motion. I cannot pretend to emulate him or to speak in the way that he does. Therefore, I will say what I have to say in my own way.

I personally can remember five Coalition Governments. I have bad memories of most of them. There was only one of those Coalitions which could be called a truly National Government. That was the 1940 Government, instituted in May of that year. The Coalition of 1918 had, in effect, brought about the destruction of the Liberal Party. I remember that keenly, because in those days I was a Liberal candidate, a Radical candidate, and I refused the coupon because I thought it was an undermining of the truly democratic principles of this country. In the end, history has proved that that was true—that the 1918 "Hard-faced Parliament" (as it has gone down in history) did a disservice to the world and to this country. I also remember amongst other Coalitions the 1931 Government which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, particularly mentioned as a National Government.


I think the Government of 1931 was a hybrid Government, half-way between Coalition and National.


I call it a mongrel.


It is the same thing.


Yes, it is the same thing, only Lord Elton's way of expressing it is more polite than mine. We remember with great, I would almost say, bitterness how the 1931 Government were "wangled" by this same all-Party committee. Frankly, I am against going through the same procedure, bearing in mind that in 1939 the Parliamentary Labour Party said that they could not take part in the Government but would support them in any measures that had to be made for the winning of the war, which the Labour Party did until May, 1940. Later, the Parliamentary Labour Party—this is a matter of history—met and passed a resolution giving authority to their Front Bench Members to go into that Government, and they also pledged themselves to give the support of the Labour Party to that truly National Government of May, 1940.

This policy was endorsed at Bournemouth by the Labour Party Conference, and that is why one of the few National Governments that we have had in this country was a truly National Government. I was proud to serve not only under the leadership of Mr. Attlee but also under the leadership of Mr. Churchill. I was actually ready at the request of the Whips to support Conservative candidates who were being opposed by some people from our own ranks. As I have stated, we were a Government representing the people, truly National, all-Party. I hope that we shall have no "hole and corner" meetings of the leaders of the three Parties trying to settle this problem to-day without receiving a mandate at any rate from the three Parties. I myself should oppose the going forward with any negotiations without the assent of the Parliamentary Labour Party at one of its fortnightly meetings.

I could not altogether understand what the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, meant when he referred to the position of this country—and it is certainly serious. I say quite frankly that we have something to be proud of in the way that this country has come through since 1945. I, for one, do not intend to apologise one whit in that respect. I remember when I was Member of Parliament for Hull that 88,000 houses were either bombed or destroyed in that city. I remember the way it recovered and the spirit of its people. Whatever people may say to the contrary, that spirit still exists. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, who referred to this point: What will the Commonwealth say? What will our friends in the United States of America say? I am confident that Australia at least will give the Old Country Dominion status, if nothing more. As for the United States of America, we have never reproached them or retaliated in kind to the scores and scores of lectures that we have had from American statesmen. We have never reproached President Truman for abolishing the Lease-Lend proposals at forty-eight hours' notice. We have taken it all, as it were, lying down, and we have turned the other cheek.

Again, I do not see why we should bring either the Dominions or the United States of America into this question. It has also been hinted, and Mr. Churchill has stated, that we are on the road to bankruptcy. But, so far as I know, we are the only country, at any rate in Europe, that has balanced its Budget. Certainly the United States of America is unable to balance her budget. There is no doubt about it. Though we do not like high taxation, we are paying it and we are paying our way. It is a travesty of the facts to deny that we have made marvellous progress towards our 1952 target, and with the good will of the nation I believe it can be achieved, notwithstanding what Mr. Churchill has to say about it.

When Lord Samuel spoke last week he said simply that he had no mandate from his own Party. We did not expect it. The Bishop of Truro wanted a plebiscite. There was a plebiscite in Belgium seven weeks ago, and now the harassed Regent has ordered a General Election. Lord Monkswell is not here, but he is reported in Hansard as saying (and I heard him say it) that the Health Services are the greatest single item of expenditure. I wish that were true. No one will deny that our defences and interest on war debts, being respectively £800,000,000 and somewhere about £550,000,000, are both larger than the amount we spend on the Health Service. We dare not cut our Defence services. I want to stress that point. We cannot dishonour our debt commitments. Indeed, my Lords, there is a sense of unreality about this debate, in so far I have listened to it—and I have listened to most of the speeches. Mine is the first speech to be made against the idea of a Coalition and these hole-and-corner meetings in order to consider things, either in the Moses Room or elsewhere.

So far in our debate we have forgotten the predominant partner. I suggest that the predominant partner in this matter is the House of Commons. What is the opinion of the House of Commons? The back-benchers can put a Government in or turn them out, and they, the backbenchers, should be considered before we enter into a discussion about a Coalition or anything else. That is another reason why I cannot support Lord Elton in his proposal for a Round Table Conference. I can agree with him in what he says in part of his Resolution—namely, that there could be a short-term programme agreed upon, without having a Coalition or a reshuffle of His Majesty's Government. Again, that is for the House of Commons, not for this House, to decide. I hope something will be done on those lines. If I had anything to do with the Cabinet, I should go to Mr. Eden, to Mr. R. A. Butler and also to the Marquess of Salisbury, as the Leader of the Opposition in this House, and ask frankly, "Do you want a General Election?" If they said they did not, then I should suggest that we should not have a General Election, but should try to do something with a short-term programme in order to keep this Parliament going for a year or two longer. I should not consult Mr. Churchill in this matter because he has said that the Labour Party is an evil thing; therefore we do not ask him to take part in it. But if I was in the position of the Cabinet, I should take up the challenge and I should go to the men who will be leading the Conservative Party in the very near future, and ask them frankly what they wanted to do.

If there could be an accommodation without the sacrifice of real principles, I should accept it. If not, and if they said, "We want a General Election," then I should take up the challenge and should dissolve Parliament durina Ascot Week, or some such time convenient to the Conservative Party. In the north—and I live in the same street as these people live their lives, and they talk to me—they do not want an Election at the present time. If the Party opposite in the House of Commons do not want an Election, people cannot understand their attitude. If they do want an Election, on what ground do they want it? Is it to cut down the defences, or to dishonour the war debt, or what is it for? Is it to cut down the Health Services, or to cut off the ninepenny tax, which Mr. Churchill states is all being done by himself? They told me only last week in the Constitutional Club across the way that they are rejoicing because the price of petrol has come down from six shillings to three shillings, and now they have more petrol to play with. What is the Conservative policy? I ask the noble Marquess to see if he can be helpful. We on this side, and I am certain the Parliamentary Labour Party in the House of Commons, would respond, not to a threat but to real co-operation. That is why I have intervened in this debate, and I thank your Lordships for listening to me.

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, will forgive me if I do not follow him at length into the arguments which he adduced at the latter end of his speech, I detected, perhaps wrongly, what may be called a "hang-over" from the General Election.


We had many more votes than you.


At any rate, I did not think that some of those arguments, though admirable in themselves, were entirely relevant to the Motion to which I propose immediately to devote myself. It will be agreed that the debate which is now coming to an end has been important and valuable, for it deals with an important subject which, as I think Lord. Elton himself said, is at the present time exercising the minds of a great many people of all Parties, and perhaps the minds of some who belong to no Party. No one, therefore, can complain that the noble Lord has raised it. If it has served no other purpose, it has been of considerable value in clearing all our minds.

I have listened to a considerable portion of this debate, and I have read the whole of the rest of it. In reading it, I have been immensely struck by one remarkable fact. I think that, practically without exception, all those who have supported this Motion have been men who have never been either in the House of Commons or in a Government, and all those who have opposed it are noble Lords who have had that particular experience. There is, I know, one exception, the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, who occupied a very distinguished position under the Crown. But he was in the Government for only a comparatively short period, and I have no doubt he went in for a specific purpose. I certainly should not imagine that he would describe himself as in any sense a professional politician.

I have asked myself why there should have been, apparently without exception, this sharp division of minds. It is certainly not because those who have been either in the House of Commons or in Governments are better than those who have not been in those positions. Nor, if I may say so with all deference, do I believe it is because anyone who has happened to occupy those positions is warped or tainted by his experiences. I believe the reason is this: those who have had that experience look at the question of National Government from a rather different angle than those who have not. They are not concerned merely with what ideally ought to be done, but with what will, in practice, work. They look at the matter not from a purely theoretical but from a more technical point of view. That point of view, I thought, emerged clearly from the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, and the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, both of whom have had immense experience of the practical side of government. To them, as I understood their arguments, it was not merely a question of men of good will getting together for the common good—a conception which occupied such a very large part of the speeches of supporters of the Motion. It was a question of members of a Cabinet holding very divergent views as to what, in fact, does conduce to the common good; a question of their being able to agree on a common policy. These men have to go into the Cabinet room, they have to decide together on immediate steps which have to be taken. If they are to do this, there must be some broad basis of agreement, at any rate on the main issues with which they are likely to be faced.

In war—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, painted out in the very thoughtful speech which he delivered just now—there was that agreement. The paramount issue was the defeat of the enemy. On that, all members of the Government, from whatever Parties they came, were united. In such a situation as that, a Coalition or a National Government—I am in agreement with the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, in thinking that there is no fundamental difference between the two—is a perfectly possible thing. But what about the present situation which is the situation with which Lord Elton's Motion deals? I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, that nothing was said at the General Election as to the grim dangers facing the country. I do not think he can have attended political meetings, or, at any rate, political meetings of his own Party, at which the dangers were frequently stressed, though perhaps not so much was said on the Government side. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, even now seems to be unconscious that things are so bad as many people think. But, in any case, whatever may be said about the existence or the non-existence of a serious and acute crisis, there is certainly no common view as to the cure. On that, the Government, on the one side, and the Conservative and, I think, the Liberal Parties, on the other, are poles apart, and so are their supporters in the country.

What, then, would be the position of members of a Cabinet, which was a national Cabinet, if asked to bridge the gulf? They might have all the good will in the world, but, equally, each might be sincerely convinced that his own Party's remedy was right and that any other course not only was wrong but would be utterly disastrous for the country. Take the case of the nationalisation of iron and steel. It was mentioned in the last day's debate by the noble Lord, Lord Blackford. If the responsible Minister who had to bring this question before the Cabinet happened to be a member of the Labour Party, he would be bound, I imagine, to recommend that this Act should be proceeded with. If it so happened that the Minister was a Conservative or a Liberal, he would be bound to recommend that the nationalisation proposal should be dropped. In either case, the Cabinet would be likely to be split from top to bottom. This is not mere theory, but an example of a practical situation which might arise. Take the question of taxation. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer happened still to be Sir Stafford Cripps, in such an Administration he would tell his colleagues—what he has said up to now—that no reduction of taxation was possible. If, on the other hand, the Chancellor of the Exchequer were a Conservative or a Liberal, he would be bound to tell his colleagues that considerable reductions of taxation were vital.

These are no mere pettifogging objections. They are really essential objections which it did not seem to me that Lord Elton and those who supported him had quite faced up to. Lord Ailwyn said—and I take the quotation from his speech: To a detached and impartial mind the case for a National Government is unanswerable. It is quite possible for the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, or the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in the academic recesses of Rhodes House, or for the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, and the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, pacing, if I may so put it, their mental quarterdecks, to preserve a detached mind. And it is an excellent thing, if I may say so with great deference, that there should be such people actuated by courage and public spirit. But it is not possible for members of a National or Coalition Cabinet to take a detached view regarding their own colleagues. They have to be concerned not merely with what ought to be done but with what, in fact, can be done in given circumstances, taking into account the differing views which exist within the Cabinet which might very well—and I think almost certainly would—make any agreed policy impossible to implement.

Moreover—and this is a point which has not been made so much in this debate, though I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Ammon, approached it from rather a different angle—although a Coalition, no doubt, has very considerable advantages in dealing with a supreme emergency, it is, I think, wrong to regard it as an ideal form of government. On the contrary, as anyone who has been in one knows, it leads to certain extremely bad results. Nearly all decisions reached—if reached at all—are reached as the result of compromises between Party leaders in the Cabinet itself, and Parliament is apt to become a mere rubber stamp to endorse those decisions. That is very much what happened on many questions during the war. It is, as I understand it, the supreme merit of the Parliamentary system that legislation is moulded and battered into whatever form may be most acceptable to the majority of the nation by the cut and thrust of debate. That is the way Parliament works, as we have always known it. But that function ceases to operate under National Government, and Parliament becomes, as I say, a mere formality to endorse the decisions of the Executive.

While, therefore, there are, of course, occasions when Parliament and the nation must accept the position that a National Government is unavoidable, it would, I believe, be a great mistake to regard it as an end in itself. It is, if I may use a very simple metaphor, like a jack used on a car, which may be absolutely vital if a breakdown occurs but is utterly useless up till then. I do not say that that situation would not arise in our affairs if the present political deadlock were to continue. In that case, what I have called a jack would be required. Probably, a National Government would come, automatically, into existence. In that case I imagine we should all support it. That situation has not arrived up to now, and will not arrive, I believe, until the British people as a whole are convinced that it is necessary. They are not yet convinced of that. What I believe is possible is something on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. There could be closer consultations between the Government and the Opposition, not perhaps on economic affairs, because I think that would be too difficult, but on matters such as foreign policy and defence, on which I understand there is a broad measure of general agreement among all Parties.

Only the other day we had in this House a Defence debate which, I must confess, filled me with gloom and apprehension. Noble Lords on this side and on the Cross-Benches, most of them speaking with a life-time of experience and authority on this subject, asked the Government a number of pregnant questions, of vital importance to the very existence of our country in the event of war. What reply did they get from the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, who answered for the Government? He spoke with the greatest courtesy, as he always does, but in effect he said that for security reasons the Government could say nothing and he told us that the Government could not agree to a secret session. The result of what he said was that the Government could tell the Opposition nothing at all on this vitally important question. Yet I imagine they would expect us to support their foreign policy, the wisdom of which must inevitably depend on the extent and character of our Armed Forces. That is surely a position which no one can possibly defend. I believe that in this particular field there are possibilities of a modification of the acerbations of the Party system which may be of advantage to the country, and even to the Government themselves. I express merely my personal view, but I commend it to the attention of noble Lords opposite.

Although I deeply respect the high motives which have inspired the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to table this Resolution, and other noble Lords to support him, I do not believe that his particular solution of our present difficulty would be practicable at the present time. Therefore I am afraid that I am bound to oppose the Motion.

6.13 p.m.


My Lords, it is not easy at this stage of the debate to say anything that has not been said before in one form or another, and therefore I do not propose to impose myself upon your Lordships for long. I should like to join the noble Marquess in paying tribute to the motives which inspired the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to put forward this Resolution; they are motives which we all respect. Perhaps in a happier world they might be realisable but not, I am afraid, in the present. The noble Lord said that the leaders of the different Parties meeting together could agree in general terms upon their objectives, and I should think that that is true. We all wish the well-being of the nation; we all wish that we should have a happy, healthy, well-employed population, and many other things of a like nature. But, as the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, pointed out, difficulties emerge when we begin to discuss how we are to secure these things.

We all agree upon what is obvious, that the present political position is difficult. It is not without its embarrassments, as everybody recognises every day; and possibly it imposes upon the Opposition some dilemmas which they would rather not have presented to them. It was recognised in the gracious Speech that in existing circumstances we must carry on the King's government, and that it would be very unwise to try to introduce highly controversial matters into our Parliamentary discussions. The noble Marquess said that much good was being done by friendly discussions between the leaders of different Parties. The noble Marquess knows as well as I do that there were meetings between the Defence Committee and the leaders of all Parties, and that there were frank and full discussions on all of the three Service Votes and on general defence questions. Speaking for myself, as did the noble Marquess, I am always glad to promote consultations which might lead to agreement in matters of common concern.

I agree with the noble Marquess that on matters of foreign policy and defence, and many others, there is no essential difference, certainly between the objectives of the different Parties, and often, I should think, as to the methods which should be adopted. I should not like to say anything which would prejudice the kind of consultations to which the noble Marquess referred. I think that we in this House have set a good example in a very special manner. It is often the case that noble Lords are kind enough to come to my room and join me in consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, has been there twice within the last week, and I have no doubt that as a result of these consultations we shall arrive at agreement, not upon a Party Bill or anything of that sort, but upon important public issues. I think we set a good example to another place as to the way we handle our differences, and I would not for a moment say anything which would prejudice agreements and consultations of that kind.

But we are bound to recognise the realities of the situation. As the noble Earl. Lord Halifax, said, we may not agree or the diagnosis of our troubles. I do not think we do. For instance, the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, spoke all the time of a crisis, and, as I listened. I was asking myself, "What crisis?" I think he meant an economic crisis, although there are others one could imagine which would cause division.


Surely the wording of the Motion is based entirely on that.


That only fortifies what I contend: that at the outset of our mutual discussions I am not sure the noble Lord would find that we were agreed about the diagnosis. I have heard about this economic crisis in this House, for three years at least. The noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, has made our flesh creep sometimes by describing the crisis, real or imaginary, in which we find ourselves. I am sure that at the outset of our discussions there would be a difference as to the diagnosis, whether there is this crisis. For my part I believe that instead of things getting worse they are getting better. The noble Lord takes exactly the opposite view at the start. I think we are getting distinctly better and, so far as there is a crisis, we are gradually overcoming it.


Before the noble Viscount leaves that subject, my anxiety with regard to our economic position has been caused by utterances of the Prime Minister. Just before the Election he told us that our economic affairs were in a precarious state. Then we have had from the Chancellor of the Exchequer serious warnings about what would occur if this or that did not happen.


That only justifies what I am saying. We do not agree.


The noble Viscount and the Chancellor of the Exchequer do not agree.


I do not in the least wish to contest what the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, says. He says it in all sincerity. No doubt one can find many quotations of a disconcerting character if one likes to hunt up the records of everything everybody has said. In all sincerity, I think that our economic difficulties are not as great as they were. I may be wrong, but that is what I honestly believe. That can be readily fortified by the production of various figures. We are going to have a discussion about it some time before Whitsun, and we shall have a chance of referring to the matter then. I have no doubt that it will reveal a serious difference of opinion.

Then we come to the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Halifax. He said that if the Parties do not agree on the diagnosis, they will not agree on the treatment. I am sure that when we got round the table, in all sincerity, there would be real differences of opinion as to what should be done. For instance, one member of our Council would say: "There ought to he a surplus of at least £500,000,000"—I put that as a round figure—" for the maintenance of full employment, for the prevention of inflation, and for other reasons." But others would just as sincerely say: "Not at all. You are budgeting far too much above the line. You need a surplus of only £200,000,000, and you should use the difference to reduce income tax." That would be a serious difference of opinion, and it would run right through the policy we were to apply in the Budget. Those differences would emerge at once, and it is no good pretending they are not there. In an interchange between Sir Stafford Cripps and Mr. Churchill in the other place on April 24 the Chancellor said to Mr. Churchill: I cannot quite understand the sort of vague suggestion of a Coalition which would only work on the basis that everybody must abandon his policy in favour of that of the right honourable gentleman. Mr. Churchill rejoined: Yes, that would be much the best. I can quite understand Mr. Churchill entertaining that view but, at the same time, it would not be the view some others would entertain. That is the point. We have to deal with these realities.

As a matter of fact, those of us who have been in Cabinets know that it is not an easy thing to get something through a Cabinet, even if you are all of the same purpose. I have had great experience of this sort of problem over many years. Even with the same Party in the Cabinet you have the same kind of objections, and I can assure my noble friends who are going to be in future Cabinets that they will find they are very difficult assemblies. It is not an easy matter to persuade a group of critical, frank men sitting round a table that what you are suggesting is the right thing to do, even when you and they are all of the same Party. A fortiori, what is it going to be like when you are of different Parties? Frankly, it does not deal with the realities of the situation. There are occasions, when some national emergency greater than anything else arises, when men say that everything else must be subordinated to it, and they join together. That happens, for instance, in time of war. It may happen for other reasons, and pray God it will not be for war. But, quite sincerely, and with the greatest possible respect to the noble Lord and his colleagues who have supported his Motion, I am in complete agreement with the noble Marquess in saying that at the present time it is not practical politics.

6.26 p.m.


My Lords, you have had to listen earlier this afternoon to a long and eloquent speech which, to some extent, at any rate, recapitulated arguments to which we had listened with great attention a week or two ago. Therefore, I am more anxious not to inflict on you a repetition of any argument which I submitted to your Lordships in my earlier speech. If noble Lords have repeated arguments which I thought I had blown out of the water in my opening remarks, I must regretfully assume that my arguments did not seem as convincing to them as they seemed to me. I should, however, briefly like to try and clear up one or two, as they seem to me, fundamental misunderstandings—no doubt misunderstandings originally due to lack of lucidity in my speech—which have run like a thread through the speeches of most noble Lords who have taken the opposite view.

May I first take this opportunity of thanking all those noble Lords who have supported me, and those who would have supported me if various circumstances had not prevented their doing so? The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, made certain comments on the character of the support for the Motion, and pointed out that few noble Lords who had supported it had served in another place or in the Cabinet. That is perfectly true. On the other hand, another common characteristic which they almost all share is long and distinguished service to the country in one of the Services—three of them were Admirals of the Fleet. Though they may lack certain political experience, it may be that they have had a long training in putting country before Party. That, at any rate, is how I like to think of the views put before us by some of the noble Lords.

I would also thank noble Lords who have spoken against the Motion for the courtesy with which they did so. If one added together all the fragments of support which have been accorded by our various opponents to our Motion they would come to a fairly considerable aggregate. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, was in favour of a conference. I think it was Lord Calverley who thought there could be an agreed programme. Even the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, thought we might mitigate our mutual differences. Despite the round nature of the terms in which the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, has just protested that this is not practical politics, the speeches, even of those most critical of us, may have done something to advance the cause.

I should like to try and remove two misunderstandings, which are doubtless due to the inadequate nature of my opening remarks. I tried to make clear that what we were asking for was a National Government for a limited period. I cannot think that that can have been present in the minds of several noble Lords who spoke in a contrary sense. The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, treated us to a most interesting and eloquent disquisition on the disadvantages of totalitarian government. But within the limited period—and I think most of us suggested that two years would probably be all that would be required—it is hardly likely that a totalitarian Government would establish itself in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Ammon, spoke of how much we value the clash of opinion. The noble Marquess said that a Coalition Government could never be an end in itself. Of course, we agree in all that. We are not asking for a Coalition Government as a permanent form of government; we are asking for a Coalition Government as a temporary, limited form of emergency government. It is not for us to say how long it would be likely to last, but I think most of us have expressed the view that probably two years would be the limit which would be either possible or desirable.

Various difficulties have been conjured up. There was the difficulty of candidates of rival Parties at by-elections. That is not going to be very formidable in a period of two years. There was a National Government for five years during the war, when the Commonwealth Party, it is true, established itself to some extent, but it did not become a serious rival to the main Parties. Surely we are not going to jeopardise our free heritage, as some noble Lords suggest—


But will the noble Lord assure us that the emergency will be over in two years?


Naturally I cannot assure the noble Marquess of that. Inexperienced as I am in politics, I know that politicians' prophecies usually fail to be justified by the event. But what we have ventured to suggest is probable is that if the Parties would come together and give the nation that great impulse towards unity and hard work which would come from a National Government, then we should have broken the back of the crisis within two years. My own feeling is that what was wrong with the so-called National Government in 1931 was not that it was formed, but that it went on too long. Therefore I am most anxious that any preparatory steps of any kind which are taken in the present crisis—and, with all respect to Lord Addison, we do call it a crisis—should be accompanied by a promise that any sort of agreement will be of a strictly limited duration.

The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, quoted the eulogies of Disraeli on Party government—how Party is essential to government. We accept all that, but there must be exceptions to every rule, however golden. Disraeli expressed this eulogy in an age which was not trembling on the verge of Armageddon fought by atomic methods. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is not in his place, because I should have liked to welcome the very considerable and unexpected support which came to the Motion from him. He said that he thought a Coalition Government would not work except for a limited period and to meet a real emergency. Well, that is exactly what we are proposing, as I have tried to make clear—a limited period and a real emergency. Is this not a real emergency? Mr. Churchill himself, as the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, pointed out in his speech, referred the other day to "the supreme economic crisis of our whole history." As to the international crisis, the speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, some weeks ago was an eloquent warning that we are being drawn relentlessly towards the moment when the crisis of Armageddon may be upon us. As I have mentioned Mr. Churchill, may I say this? I may have failed to understand him, but as I understood his speech in another place he shed some tears over the fact that the national alliance had not been prolonged after the end of the war. He thought that we should have faced this period with a national alliance. That is the leader of the Conservative Party, who was not dismayed by all these practical difficulties of possibly building up a totalitarian State and not being able to manage by-elections. He thought it was a pity that the experiment was not continued. I admit that he said tempers had sharpened, but at any rate he thought it was a practical idea.

May I make one more point? The noble Earl, Lord Halifax, in his extraordinarily interesting and statesmanlike speech, insisted that so far as he could judge there was no popular demand for a National Government. That, again, has been reiterated to some extent from more than one quarter. I know that all members of either House are very ready to say that the people demand so and so, without any evidence whatever to justify their contention, and unless we adopt the suggestion of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro we cannot prove it. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of evidence. I was interested to see that the provincial Press, which has supported the idea of a National Government very much more wholeheartedly than the London Press, and particularly the Northern Echo (which I suppose speaks for Lord Halifax's part of the world) has taken exception to this opinion of the noble Earl, and says that in its view there is a widespread demand for the formation of some form of National Government. The evidence which has come my way, whether front correspondence—and those who have anything to do with the B.B.C. get a very large correspondence—from the provincial Press, or from those persons who have rung me up to say that they and their friends voted in the Election with great regret and would rather not have voted for one Party or another—does amount, in the end, to at any rate a straw in the wind, and does seem to me to point to the fact that there is widespread support for our demands.

That takes me to my final point. Almost every speaker said that he does not really understand the distinction between a Coalition and a National Government. Perhaps it is a mere play on words, but surely the distinction is that a Coalition is something which was foisted by Westminster on the people, and a National Government is something which is imposed by the people on Westminster. A Coalition was a mere political manœuvre having no repercussions outside Westminster. A National Government is itself a contribution to the process of unity. A National Government means what a Coalition Government never meant and could not mean: stouter hearts, harder work in the factory and closed ranks against the enemy. If I have not succeeded in making that distinction clear now, I never shall.

May I, therefore, add merely that some of us were struck with the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Cork—which was again taken up in the Provincial Press—that at the next Election, whenever it comes, if there has not been a National Government before then, candidates of all Parties should be invited by all those hundreds of thousands of electors who belong to no Party to pledge themselves, if retuned, to support the idea of a National Government? I believe that there would be a widespread response to such an invitation, and that it might have widespread repercussions. I do not want to detain your Lordships, and since our whole object in bringing this Motion before you was to promote unity I do not think that it would be appropriate that we should divide. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, have been good enough to say that the debate may have done some good; and if it has done some good then it is largely owing to the speeches made by your Lordships, even those who were opposing the Motion. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.