Orders of the Day — Blasphemy Laws (Amendment) Bill.

– in the House of Commons on 24th January 1930.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Ernest Thurtle Mr Ernest Thurtle , Shoreditch

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Most of the Bills which are brought into this House in these days are Bills which have the object of creating new penalties and new offences. I suppose that that is due to the unfortunately widespread idea that you can make people good by Act of Parliament. I am in the fortunate position this morning of telling the House that my Bill has no such purpose as an increase of offences; I have merely the modest aim to reduce the number of offences by one, and that is the offence of blasphemy. I hope that that fact in itself will tend to make the House lend a favourable ear to what I have to say in support of my Measure. I may say at the outset that, that being the intention of my Measure, I do not want to stand upon the strict terminology of it. I am not a lawyer, and am not skilled in the drafting of Parliamentary Bills, but I am told by those who have drafted this Measure that it is adequate to its purpose. Whether that be so or not, I only want to achieve my purpose, and, if it be necessary in Committee to alter the wording of the Bill, I and those friends of mine who are supporting me will raise no objection to that.

There seems to be a great deal of difference of opinion as to the meaning of the word "blasphemy." I looked it up in the dictionary, and found a very long string of definitions. I am not proposing to trouble the House with those. Blackstone defines blasphemy as: The denial of the being or providence of God. We have the authority of all sorts of distinguished writers for the use of the word in a much more general sense, but I think I am strictly within the facts if I say that, according to the legal sense blasphemy is to speak in derogation of the Christian religion. There is a Statute dealing with the offence of blasphemy, and that Statute refers to openly avowed and published blasphemous and impious opinions, contrary to the doctrines and principles of the Christian religion. That Statute is considered to be declaratory of the common law on the subject, so we may assume that that definition stands. The offence at the present time is punishable both by Statute and at common law.

For the purposes of my argument to-day it is unnecessary for me to dwell at length upon the history of offences against religion in this country. It is common ground, I think, that for a long time force was regarded as a legitimate weapon to be employed against those unfortunate persons who, by the free play of their minds, arrived at conclusions regarding religion which were heterodox. The rack and the thumbscrew, and even the fires of Smithfield, were employed at various times to keep the sheep who were tending to stray within the orthodox fold of the time. There are members of the Society of Friends in this House, and I presume that they will know that men like William Penn, George Fox, and scores of other Quakers were either sent to gaol or whipped at the cart's tail for having committed the offence of blasphemy.

The Statute which makes blasphemy an offence is 9 William III, c. 32, but I hasten to add that that Statute has never been used as the basis for direct prosecution for blasphemy. It has, however, been used frequently to enforce the application of the common law on the subject, and it has been used, and within comparatively recent times, to deny civil rights to non-believers in the Christian religion—civil rights such as the copyright in books, the right to assume the guardianship of children, and the right to inherit legacies. The House will gather the nature of this Statute if I say that under it, if a man publicly expresses disbelief in any of the main doctrines of Christianity, he may be sent to prison for a period of three years, without bail or mainprise, whatever that may mean. I think that, if there were a rigid application of that law to-day, we might find such a distinguished prelate as the Bishop of Birmingham and many of his modernist colleagues put behind prison bars, and that is something which I am sure we should all deplore.

Much more important than the Statute law is the common law on this subject. That dates, as I understand, from the latter part of the 17th century. Up to that time the ecclesiastical courts were used for purposes of punishing the crimes of heresy and blasphemy, but, as is well known, the authority of those courts weakened about that time, and the lay courts then began to concern themselves with the offence of blasphemy. They have continued to concern themselves with that offence ever since, and even in comparatively recent times there have been many prosecutions for blasphemy. The last one took place in 1921, when a man was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for that offence. The common law was laid down in 1676 by Sir Matthew Hale, who was then the Lord Chief Justice. He declared that: Christianity being part and parcel of the laws of England, therefore to speak in reproach of the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law. That was the generally accepted interpretation of the law for about two centuries, and, if anyone is curious enough to go into the records, it will be found that there is a long series of prosecutions based on that interpretation of the law, which go to show that what the law aimed at was the suppression of all speech or all publications which tended to call into dispute the truth of the Christian religion. Even so recently as 1883, when a case was being tried, Mr. Justice North repeated Blackstone's dictum that it was blasphemy to deny the existence or the providence of God.

Within the last 50 years there has been a change in the interpretation of the law. I am not proposing to explain how that change took place, but I think it may be said to be due partly to divisions within the Established Church itself as to what Christianity was, and certainly partly due to the growth of what we may call liberty of thought. Anyhow, the result of that change of view is that since then the offence of blasphemy has been considered, not only in relation to the matter of the blasphemous statement, but in relation to the manner of it. In fact the manner of it has come to be considered more important than the matter itself. This view was laid down by Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, and those interested in the subject will know the well-known ruling of 1883. He specifically contradicted former rulings and laid it down that it was no longer true to say that Christianity was part of the law of the land. He went on to say: If the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the person being guilty of blasphemy. At the time that ruling was laid down, it was challenged by certain distinguished lawyers, and it was dissented from by some judges, but it has been upheld in very many cases since. It was endorsed by the House of Lords in 1917 in the case of Bowman v. the International Secular Society and it has now come to be regarded as the accepted law. Our case is that the law, even in this modified form, constitutes a direct inroad on the right of opinion. The decencies of controversy are very important, and we all ought to observe them, but it is only in the case of religion that it is thought to be necessary to enforce these decencies by the threat of a legal penalty.

There are other subjects besides religion which are matters of intense feeling and upon which convictions are held with deep fervour. There are the questions of sex equality, certain political questions, sexual matters and a number of others I could mention in which convictions are held most strongly and firmly, but it is not thought necessary to insist in those cases, by means of legal penalties, on what are called the decencies of controversy. So it becomes clear that in this case it is not the language that concerns the law so much as the fact that the language is employed in relation to religion. Indeed so late as 1919, Mr. Justice Salter, in the course of a ruling, actually laid it down that in attacking religion one must not wound believers. That obviously is an absurd position. How is it possible on any subject to make a vigorous attack—and if an attack is not vigorous it is not worth making—upon any opinion that is strongly held without wounding the feelings of those who hold it. I said there were distinguished lawyers who dissented from the view of Lord Coleridge. Let me quote the views of one of them on this point. He is Sir James FitzJames Stephen, a well-known authority on the criminal law and the author of many books on the criminal law: I fear its merits may be transferred illogically to the law which it expounds and lays down, and that then a humane and enlightened judgment may tend to perpetuate a bad law by directing public attention from its defects. The law I regard as fundamentally bad. He goes on further to say: No one can dislike the law as I believe it to be more profoundly than I do. No one can be more firmly convinced of its utter unfitness for these times, if needed it was ever fit for any times. But because I so thoroughly dislike it, I prefer stating it in its natural, naked deformity to explaining it away in such a manner as to prolong its existence, and give it an air of plausibility and humanity. It is clear that case law such as this, which is concerned more with the manner than with the matter of a blasphemous utterance, cannot possibly stop the offence of blasphemy. What it does in effect is to create something that we all deplore, a state of inequality as before the law. It differentiates between the skilled literary man and the man who is not able to express his opinions with the same felicity. We have writers to-day who can commit the offence of blasphemy with impunity, if the offence of blasphemy is an attack on the Christian religion. There are men like Sir Arthur Keith, Mr. H. G. Wells, Mr. Bertrand Russell, Mr. Aldous Huxley and others who are able to attack the Christian religion without any danger whatever of their being prosecuted, while poor men, expressing the same point of view more bluntly and crudely, expose themselves to fine and imprisonment. That is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of the law. After all, if one concedes the right to attack religion—and it is now conceded by the Common Law—one has to concede to the people who care to do this thing the right to choose their style of doing it. Different styles are needed for different circumstances and different audiences. I do not suppose the kind of style that would go down in a select circle in the West End would be effective amongst the democracy of the East End. We know very well that the style that is needed in the House of Commons is not the style that is most effective on the public platform before a mass meeting. Therefore, it is reasonable, having conceded the right to attack religious views, that we should allow to these people the right to choose the style of language in which to do so.

I know it will be urged immediately that if we do this, there is nothing to prevent people from using the most coarse and indecent language in regard to religion and wounding people's feelings and causing public disturbance, but that is not the case at all. If this Measure is passed, religion will be in precisely the same position as any other matter about which people feel deeply. If language is used by anyone which is genuinely indecent, or which so hurts the feelings of people that it tends to cause public disturbance, these offences can be adequately dealt with under the existing law. The offenders can he prosecuted either for indecent language or for language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. There will still be ample resources for the preservation of decency and public order.

On this point, too, I want the House to understand that the existing blasphemy law does not protect the religious feelings of all people but only the religious feelings of some people. It is very partial in its application. I could go out to-day and make a violent attack upon the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mass. I could go and attack the Jewish religion. I could go and attack a score of other religions. I might possibly be prosecuted for indecent language, and I might be prosecuted for using language tending to cause a breach of the peace. But for attacks of that kind I certainly could not be prosecuted for blasphemy. I will read to the House the ruling of a Judge which bears that out. It is a ruling by Baron Alderson. It is rather old I admit, but still it explains the point. He says: A person may, without being liable to prosecution for it, attack Judaism, Mohammedism, or even any section of the Christian religion, save the established religion of the country; and the only reason why the latter is in a different position from the others is, because it is the form established by law, and is therefore a part of the constitution of the country. I cannot claim to be a Churchman myself, but I am happy to be able to inform the House that there is a very large body of members of the Church of England, both clergy and laity, who are strongly in favour of this Bill. They do not desire to see a continuation of the special protection which is afforded to them by the existing law. They would be glad to see this Measure passed into law. If I may quote the words used on this subject by Donaldson, their view is that it is the use of force in matters of religion which is real blasphemy. They resent the suggestion—very properly too; and it is very praiseworthy on their part—that their religion is so weak as to want this special form of protection. They want no other protection than the protection of the good sense and decency of the general public.

The Anglican Church is not alone in taking up that point of view. I was handed only yesterday by a Parliamentary colleague of mine a letter from a constituent on this subject. The letter is so terse and apt that I am going to ask the permission of the House to read it. It is as follows: As an Irishman and a Catholic, I am looking forward to seeing your name in the list of those who will vote for the abolition of that abominable blasphemy law, which brings in the policeman to assist the Almighty God. I am happy to inform the House that this Measure has the cordial support of the present Home Secretary—as an individual of course—and no doubt he will explain the position later on. It also has the support of most of the members of His Majesty's Government, and I would mention especially in that connection my right hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury). He is a, keen Churchman and for many years has been introducing this Bill into the House in the hope that it may eventually be passed into law. The Bill had the support of the present Foreign Secretary when he was at the Home Office in 1924, and I hope that it has his support to-day. It is interesting to know that it had the support also of Mr. Asquith when he was the Home Secretary and of Mr. McKenna when he held that office.

It is just over 40 years since this issue was last brought before the House of Commons. A somewhat similar Measure was then put to the vote of the House, and it failed to command a majority. I think that we may reasonably assume that since that time public opinion has moved forward very considerably in regard to tolerance in such matters as these. I will not give any details of the Division, but it is significant that in that Division among those who were supporting the Measure are to be found many of the most distinguished and honoured names in our recent Parliamentary history.

I think I have established a reasoned case for this Measure. It does nothing but seek to get rid of a survival of the intolerance of a bygone age. I am confident that public opinion will welcome the passage of this Measure into law, and I hope that the House is going to give it a Second Reading to-day. It was Mr. Charles Bradlaugh who brought this issue before the House some 40 years ago. Mr. Charles Bradlaugh was born in the constituency which I represent. In his day and generation I know that he was the centre of very fierce controversy, but that controversy has happily died down, and we remember Mr. Bradlaugh to-day as a man of outstanding courage and a great Parliamentary figure. When he sought to get rid of the blasphemy laws, he was seeking to extend the bounds of intellectual freedom by getting rid of a legal penalty on opinion. It will be no small satisfaction to me if to-day, with the assistance of the House, I am able to consummate the work which he thus began.

Photo of Dr Alfred Salter Dr Alfred Salter , Bermondsey West Bermondsey

I beg to second the Motion.

I approach the matter from a somewhat different angle than my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle). It may be quite rightly said that for many years, certainly since Mr. Bradlaugh introduced his Bill into this House in 1889, Freethinkers, secularists, agnostics and atheists and many people who are opposed to Christianity have desired an amendment of the blasphemy laws, because they have felt that those laws have been used and can still be used against their conduct of propaganda against religion. I am not an agnostic or a Freethinker. I am a member of the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, and it is as an earnestly religious man that I want to see this Bill carried to-day. I am quite sure that the blasphemy laws and that spirit which they represent hinder and injure the spread of Christian views, and, on the other hand, actually assist the spread of anti-Christian opinion. Perhaps I had better put it in this way. The laws and the spirit which they embody create an atmosphere in which anti-religious prejudice is nourished and fostered.

All compulsion and all persecution for opinion, and all legal, social and State pressure are inimical to the spread of true religion. You cannot implant true belief by compulsion. You may force an apparent and a temporary acquiescence as far as external conduct is concerned, but you cannot force acceptance by the mind or by the spirit. That is something altogether beyond the power of the law and the power of the State. All history proves that persecution for the sake of opinion and belief invariably ends in strengthening the cause of those who are persecuted and increases their number. It wins sympathy and support for their views among people who would otherwise be indifferent or neutral.

I well remember my own case in this particular regard when I was a good deal younger. When I was in my teens, just leaving school and becoming a medical student, Mr. Charles Bradlaugh was putting up his gallant fight against all the combined power of the Church and State. I had been brought up in a religious home, in a religious atmosphere, and I had no special sympathy with Mr. Bradlaugh's views. Mr. Bradlaugh straight away became one of my heroes, and he is still one of my heroes, because I felt that he was standing up very bravely against persecution of opinions honestly held. I went to hear him speak on a number of occasions, and I was very much impressed with his earnestness and his sincerity, and I felt that he was being cruelly and unjustly treated, and every instinct of justice within me, every impulse of chivalry and sympathy was roused in me to his support. Every action that was taken against him simply urged me, and a great many other people also, to back him all the more in his fight against the people who were persecuting him.

Looking back on my own medical and spiritual history I think I can say that the feelings of support which I had for the man himself gradually and subconsciously began to be transferred to the doctrines he was preaching, and almost without knowing it I began to be anti-Christian in prejudice if not in belief. As a young man, I began to identify Christianity with the persecutors of Charles Bradlaugh. That is exactly how all persecution directed against honest opinion always operates; it is never successful. No cause worth speaking of has ever been destroyed by persecution, or even seriously hindered. On the other hand, many bad causes have been helped and stimulated. A cause that is divine does not need the secular arm to assist its propaganda. It is the use of force and compulsion in matters of belief and faith which discredits religion in the mind of many people who are fair-minded. I assert that no attack made by agnostics and atheists on Christianity can possibly hurt the cause of true religion so much as the persecution and prosecution of agnostics and atheists for making that attack. That is precisely why I think it is a great mistake on the part of the secular authorities in Russia at the present time to do what they are doing.

There is in Russia an officially organised crusade against religion, a crusade which is accompanied by persecution and outrages on the part of the dominant power. It is intended to stamp out Christianity in Russia. The attempt will not succeed. Carlyle uttered a very profound truth when he said that man is incurably religious. You may appeal to his reason and prove to him that organised Christianity, organised churchianity, is simply organised humbug, but there is something in every man which makes him cry out for the living God and he gets no peace for his soul until ultimately he gets in touch with the Infinite. The Church in Russia, in the old days of the Tsardom, dealt mercilessly with heretics and unbelievers and all that resulted was that heretics and unbelievers multiplied to such an extent that ultimately some degree of toleration had to be granted. The Church in Russia is getting a taste of its own medicine. The Bolsheviks are copying that bad example, and they will find that their efforts to stamp out religion will be equally futile. There is an unofficial movement in this country at the present time composed of professedly religious people who are denouncing the Bolshevists for their recent action in this regard, but a great many of these people are guilty of identical folly here because many of them by their attitude towards agnostics and atheists, in their desire to punish and crush them for their propaganda, are creating exactly the same feeling.

I happen to be a Quaker. My spiritual ancestors were persecuted and punished under these very Blasphemy Laws, and particularly the law which we desire to see amended. But the more they were punished the more they multiplied and flourished. Every time a Quaker Meeting House was raided by the soldiers or police numberless recruits were added to their ranks. It is quite true that for many years we have not only not been persecuted but that all men are beginning to speak well of us, and I am afraid that may have something to do with the decline in our numbers. I am not a lawyer and I am not competent to speak on the legal aspect of this question, but I am told by lawyers that even now Quakers could be prosecuted under the Blasphemy Acts at almost every one of their meetings. As Quakers do not believe in the Sacrament, or rather do not believe that any external acts or ritual can constitute a Sacrament, I am assured that if they indulge in any propaganda against Sacraments, or against the exhibition of Sacraments, they can be prosecuted at the present time under the Blasphemy Acts. I am assured by people in this House who hold eminent legal positions that I can say what I please and in the language I choose against Roman Catholic Mass. I may speak offensively, with ribaldry and indecently, against the Roman Catholic Mass and that no prosecution would lie against me. I can speak against the Jewish Passover Service coarsely and brutally, and in a manner calculated to hurt the most sacred and deep feelings of the Jewish faith, but I cannot be prosecuted. But if I say one word against the Church of England Communion Service I am immediately liable to punishment under the Blasphemy Laws. I am assured that that is the law of the land.

Mr. LOVAT-FRASER indicated dissent.

Photo of Dr Alfred Salter Dr Alfred Salter , Bermondsey West Bermondsey

It is the law of the land because I should be expressing opposition to or disbelief in the cardinal doctrines of the Church of England. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) may say that I should not be prosecuted or that prosecutions are most unlikely because the Acts are obsolete. That may be so, but circumstances may change and public opinion may alter. We may have a narrow and bigoted Home Secretary occupying the place which is now filled by a gentleman who is notoriously broadminded and liberal in his views, and if a prosecution were then instituted by the Home Secretary the Judges would have to administer the law as it is. Mr. Justice Phillimore, in the Boulter case in 1908, in his charge to the jury, said: We are here to administer these laws, whether we think them right or whether we think them wrong. That is exactly the position to-day. The injustice in this particular regard is that the law is not directed against the language or the form in which the disbelief or heresy is stated, but against the opinion itself. That injustice is intensified and aggravated by the fact that the only form of religion that is protected in this way is the doctrine of the Established Church of England. The existence of the Blasphemy Acts on the Statute Book are not only a standing menace to disbelievers and opponents of the Christian religion, but are a standing insult to all those who, like myself, are Christians but who do not share the views of the Established Church. No religion is worth anything if it has to be promulgated by oppression, or if it has to be defended by the criminal prosecution of those who cannot honestly believe in it.

I submit with the greatest respect to the House that there is only one sound view to be taken of this and of all kindred matters of belief, and that view was laid down by Jesus Christ himself. If this thing be of God, if it is in line with eternal justice and eternal right, then the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. If it be not of God, it will perish. That is the attitude of all right-minded men. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many defenders and apologists of the Christian Faith cannot realise that God needs no defence against these pitiful, coercive actions on the part of the professors of the Faith. The appeal of Christianity is to the very deepest and the very holiest instincts of man. You cannot enforce or reinforce that appeal by the action of the law. By the constable's baton or the soldier's bayonet you will never make a man religious. The spirit of God talks to our spirit, individually. All these matters connected with religion transcend the material and the external world, and mere outward formality is nothing. Attempts on the part of the law to enforce uniformity of belief will fail because they are doomed to failure. You will not strengthen or extend the Christian Faith in the hearts and minds of men by hedging it round by what are called to-day, "sanctions." Imprisonment for thinking and speaking against Christianity will not make any brave or true man speak for Christianity. You may quite easily—this to me is the most serious argument of all in connection with the Bill now before the House—turn the honest doubter, the honest seeker after truth into a defiant opponent, and even into a fanatical anti-religious man, because you have outraged his sense of justice by your intolerant action.

I gather, from all that I can learn from lawyers and from such legal text books as I have consulted, that the law in regard to blasphemy at the present time is in a state of considerable confusion by reason of the different decisions which have been given by judges in the last 30 or 40 years. The hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) quoted the relevant statute of William III, which provides that any man who, on a second occasion, expresses disbelief in any main doctrine of Christianity may be sent for three years imprisonment, and also—this is not generally known—may be subjected to corporal punishment. In spite of the ruling of Lord Coleridge, to which the hon. Member for Shoreditch referred, it is still held, I understand, by the courts that Christianity is part and parcel of the law of England, because the Church of England is established and because the Church of England is part of the Constitution. Therefore, so the judges have laid it down, the religious doctrines of the Church of England may not be attacked. I can attack in the most vicious way the doctrines of the Church of Rome, I can use entirely improper language in regard to the specific tenets of the Baptist or other churches, but I may not attack the doctrines of the Church of England. I submit that that is a position which is not only unfair but in these days is absolutely intolerable. It is a position which every decent churchman ought to repudiate in the strongest and most emphatic terms.

We are asking that the blasphemy laws should be amended by the passage of this Bill, and that no criminal proceedings in future shall be instituted for schism, heresy, blasphemy, blasphemous libels or atheism. If, however, a man attacks Christianity or the doctrines of any sect, established or unestablished, Judaism, Mohammedism, Buddhism, or any other religion or philosophy, in language calculated to cause a breach of the peace or to outrage the feelings of ordinary citizens, then by all means let him be dealt with by the criminal law as would any other disturber or potential disturber of the peace. I would allow him to be dealt with sternly, whoever he is or whatever his views may be, but, in the name of everything that is holy and sacred, let us give up for ever the prosecution of people merely for holding opinions and beliefs which to them are dear but which to other people may be regarded as schismatic or irreligious. If the House carries this Bill to-day it will be doing one of the best bits of work that this Parliament has ever performed, and it will be assisting the spirit of Christianity to establish the kingdom of God upon earth.

Photo of Professor Sir Charles Oman Professor Sir Charles Oman , Oxford University

I shall not say anything about certain sections into which this Bill falls. I shall say nothing about schism, heresy or atheism, which are states of mind, but I shall confine myself to blasphemy and blasphemous libel, which lie in a very different category. Blasphemy, not in its dictionary use or as used by lawyers, I take to be the public use of language in regard to the Christian religion in a fashion likely to offend all Christians; not merely members of the Church of England, as the last speaker has said, but Christians at large. Blasphemous libel I take to be giving by pictures or writing in books caricatures of Christianity which, equally, are likely to offend all Christians, and not merely members of the Church of England.

I think that in some ways the second part of Clause 1, relating to blasphemous libel, is even more important than the first. In England, thank God! we are free from the disgusting exhibition which I perpetually see in Continental newspapers—caricatures of the most sacred things used not merely for comment but as lecherous and disgusting perversions. The existing law against blasphemous libel prevents the English publisher of a cheap newspaper from adopting that sort of blasphemous humour that you see on every kiosk in Paris, and which, before Mussolini's time, you saw on a large number of kiosks in Rome. I think that blasphemous libel by way of picture is the most irritating of all possible things. You cannot say exactly that you could prohibit it by declaring that it would lead to a breach of the peace. You can hardly suppose that organised bodies of people would go and assault the public offices of newspapers which published blasphemous caricatures; but I do say that such caricatures would create a state of feeling among religious people of which we have no conception to-day. Thank God! the English newspaper caricatures do keep off the Bible. With the present law abolished they may go on to it; they may publish what you see in countless French newspapers and in a great many other Continental newspapers in the way of representations that rouse one's deepest feelings of disgust.

That is what I call blasphemous libel. Blasphemy I think to be not merely the expression of views objectionable to members of the Church of England or to any other Christian, but the public, noisy and objectionable proclamation of such views. Assaults on religion are not, as two previous speakers seemed to think, un-punishable by English Governmental ideas. I do not know whether they are aware that where religious feelings run high, for example in India, it is actually punishable by law in many places for a Mohammedan to kill a bullock—surely the most everyday act in the views of most people—in certain precincts where he is purely his own master, and where, from an English point of view, nothing could be more legal. From the point of view of large bodies of religious people there are certainly things which the State should stop, just as it stops them to-day. We may quote all sorts of absurd tyrannies and persecutions of the Middle Ages and the 17th century, but we must not be moved by those, because we are now in the 20th century. We no longer persecute for views; we no longer persecute for expressing those views in a sedate way. But I see no reason whatever why we should let loose the unwise, the noisy, and the offensive writer or speaker to shock the majority of his fellow-citizens.

12.0 N.

I can understand why some Scottish Members have put their names on the back of this Bill. One remembers that Scotland was the last part of the United Kingdom where a man was actually put to death, long after the Revolution of 1688, for blasphemy. One remembers equally that Scotland was a place where witches were burned well into the 18th century, long after such tragedies had ceased in England. So that ancient revulsions against mediæval persecutions are quite possibly natural there. But I cannot see that such views need prevail among those who are accustomed to live under the British Home Secretaries of the Twentieth century. The last speaker tried to imagine a Home Secretary so fanatical that he endeavoured to persecute in the old-fashioned style for mere expression of opinion.

Photo of Dr Alfred Salter Dr Alfred Salter , Bermondsey West Bermondsey

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the last prosecution of this sort took place in 1921?

Photo of Professor Sir Charles Oman Professor Sir Charles Oman , Oxford University

Will the hon. Member state what the blasphemy was? A Twentieth century Home Secretary may prosecute for blasphemy, but it would have to be a very peculiar and objectionable form of blasphemy. No Home Secretary that I have known in the last 10 years would act against harmless persons. That is exactly my point. The Twentieth century Home Secretary must be left with power to deal with extraordinary cases. Extreme cases arise, just as with capital punishment. There are instances that are intolerable. I would trust a Home Secretary, to whatever party he belonged, not to plunge into mediaeval persecutions. If ever there were a prosecution I believe that there would be good justification for it. What I wish to do with this Bill is to omit the words "blasphemy and blasphemous libel" from Clause 1, and to leave in "Schism, heresy and atheism."

Photo of Mr Isaac Foot Mr Isaac Foot , Bodmin

I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) upon a speech which, I think, was of outstanding ability, as it presented to the House a very difficult subject and surveyed in a very short time a subject which has occupied the minds of the people of this country for many generations. The hon. Member had to deal with a very intricate matter and a matter which has been constantly before the Courts. His statement was most un-provocative and encouraging to those who were inclined to support the Bill, and I hope he may have the satisfaction of seeing his Bill secure a Second Reading. This is a Bill of very few words, but it is a Bill which deals with something which has occupied the minds of our predecessors and the people of this and of all countries ever since they began to think at all. I do not agree with all that was said by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Dr. Salter), who seconded the Motion. His contention, as I understood it, was that wherever force had been used in dealing with matters of the mind and matters of belief, it had always failed and was always bound to fail. I do not think that is always true. That statement of course was made more than a century ago by Wordsworth: They who would force the soul, tilt with a strawAgainst a champion cased in adamant. But, if the hon. Member will turn to the greatest authority upon this subject, the "Essay on Liberty" by John Stuart Mill, he will find that that writer gives instance after instance throughout the history of the world, where opinion has been crushed, very often in blood and cruelty, and where movements which might have been most fruitful for the future of the world and the future of thought have been repressed by the sheer might of the secular arm. I know that anyone who rises to support this Bill is likely to place himself in a position which is open to misrepresentation. It will be suggested by those unscrupulous in controversy that in supporting this Bill he is indifferent to matters of this kind and inclined to be tolerant of blasphemy and atheism, but that risk he must be prepared to run. I do not approach this matter from the standpoint that these matters are now unimportant. I think that his religion is the most important thing about any man, and because it is important and because it deals with something which is fundamental though intangible, I think the time of the House is being well occupied to-day.

I know it will be suggested that there is really no need for the wiping out of these old laws because they are not likely to be invoked. My position is very simple upon that point. If these laws are likely at any time to be invoked, they ought to be swept away as possible instruments of persecution and intolerance. If they are not likely to be invoked, why not write the end of the chapter? Why not, in a simple and short measure, just in a score of words, declare that chapter at an end and let that volume be completed, and put back on the shelf of history with no new chapter that can possibly be written. It is, after all, the most unhappy record in the history of this country. If there are any chapters in our history that we would wish had never been written, they are the chapters associated with religious persecution and intolerance. I think sometimes it would be good for us, when we come to this House, if we passed through Westminster Hall and thus strengthened our conception of the fact that we are all taking part in a process to which our fathers contributed and to which our children will contribute after us. That wise statesman whose name I like to bring up in this House, Edmund Burke, once said that the State was not a partnership between those who were living, but a partnership between those who were living, those who were dead, and those who were yet to be born.

It is in dealing with a subject such as this, raising as it does controversies of the past, that we are writing one line in that history. I do not think a Bill of this kind has been before the House for debate in recent years. Such Bills have been submitted from time to time without opportunity for discussion and if there is any doubt as to the laws as they stand, I ask the permission of the House to state shortly what is the Case law on this subject, as given in the most authoritative digest to be found on the shelves of our Library. It is quite true that the Statute of William III has fallen into complete desuetude. I do not think that the Mover strengthened his case by his reference to the Statute of William III. It was an impossible Measure—so impossible that any prosecution suggested under that Measure would be brushed aside by an indignant public opinion. But as far as the Case law is concerned, this is how it stands in this country at the present time. A person may attack Judaism or any sect of the Christian religion except the form established by law. That is laid down in the case of the Queen versus Gathercole quoted in 2 Lewin's Criminal Cases.

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

What is the date of that case?

Photo of Mr Isaac Foot Mr Isaac Foot , Bodmin

That was the case dealt with I believe about the middle of the last century, but I hope my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me. I am now quoting the case law as it is stated to exist to-day in the most authoritative digest to which I can make reference. Next, there is the case of the Queen versus Hetherington in which it is laid down that a general attack upon Christianity is unlawful, because Christianity is the established religion of the country and it is an indictable offence at common law to publish a blasphemous libel of and concerning the Old Testament. Lectures in support of the proposition that the character of Christ is defective and His teachings misleading and that the Bible is no more inspired than any other book, are blasphemous and illegal. That is given in the case of Cowan verms Milbourn, 36 Law Journal, page 124.

Photo of Mr Isaac Foot Mr Isaac Foot , Bodmin

I am sorry that I have not the precise dates, but I hope hon. Members will understand that I do not suggest that these are cases of the last few years or of this generation. I think I made it plain that I was going to quote the Case law as it is expressed in an authoritative volume. It is no part of my argument that this machinery is likely to be invoked at the present time; but it is part of my argument that if the machinery may possibly be invoked we ought to take away that possibility, and if it is not to be invoked that we ought to wipe this anachronism out of our Common law altogether. I turn to the views on this matter of Sir James FitzJames Stephen. He asked for the repeal of these Measures, and I would like to quote his words from his History of our Criminal Law. He said that the abolition of these blasphemy laws would not only secure complete liberty of opinion in these matters [of religion] but would prevent the recurrence at irregular intervals of scandalous prosecutions, which have never in any one instance benefited anyone, least of all the cause which they were intended to serve, and which sometimes afforded a channel for the gratification of private malice under the cloak of religion. That is the appeal made by an outstanding man in the history of our law—I suppose the greatest of all the historians of our criminal law. If, after that review of the criminal law, made within recent years he could conclude the tragic chapter dealing with the persecution of religion by legal penalties, with an appeal of that kind, then it is an appeal which can be very properly submitted to the consideration of the House. I suggest that we shall be acting upon the lines of our best traditions in supporting the Bill, and that indeed we shall not be going very far beyond the great minds of the past. Why, Sir, nearly three hundred years ago matters of this kind were occupying the attention of this House, and when the Instrument of Government was passed in 1653, away back in the days of the Commonwealth, when the ancestors of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Dr. Salter) were being chased and harried about this country, this was the declaration made in the Instrument of Government: That none be compelled to conform to the public religion by penalties or otherwise; but that endeavours be made to win them by sound doctrine and the example of a good conversation. That is not something said in a public speech, but it was contained in the Instrument of Government at the time when we had a Commonwealth in this country. It is in accordance with our best traditions, the best traditions of men like John Milton, who said: Let truth and falsehood grapple! Who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? The Bill also fallows the best traditions of those of recent years. The hon. Member for Shoreditch just now spoke of the debates that took place in this House 40 years ago. I am rather sorry that, when he was looking for those who would place their names on the back of this Bill, he should, not intentionally, only have selected those who were associated with his own party, because whatever may be said about the party to which I belong and its numbers, all too few, in this House, having regard to its very considerable hold upon public opinion throughout the country, yet we stand here for a very great tradition in these matters, and that tradition has been supported by famous names in recent years.

I do not need to talk about Burke in his best days, or about Charles Fox, who made a great struggle against intolerance in his own time; but taking the Debate that took place 40 years ago, I looked to-day at the Division record and saw that a Bill very similar to this, a Bill which, I may say, was drafted by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen himself, was rejected by 143 votes to 48 on the 18th April, 1889, and looking through the names of those who supported the Bill, I found, among the 48, names like those of H. H. Asquith, Thomas Burt, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Gladstone, R. B. Haldane, Charles Seale-Hayne, Henry Labouchere, and Sir Wilfrid Lawson. Those, at any rate, are names that mean a great deal to those of us upon these benches, although they may not cause a thrill in other parts of the House. One name not here was that of John Morley, who was at that time ill and afterwards explained that had he been here, be would gladly have given his support to that Measure.

It is because it is in the line of the best traditions of this country, because it helps us to wipe out records that call up persecution, bloodshed, and unnameable sufferings and cruelty, that some of us are very glad to support this Bill. We support it because it is in line with the highest traditions, because we do not think religion needs the support of the secular arm, because religion is the most important and significant thing about any man, and because it is in accordance with the ideals of the Christian faith itself. If I may, in conclusion, I will quote what was said many years ago by Him who was the Founder of that faith. When His disciples came to Him and asked that, as He was not being received in the villages, there should be called down fire from Heaven to consume them, He turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. It is because those simple words were never understood for more than a thousand years that our records have been records such as we have had, and it is because this Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Shoreditch, does, I think, endeavour to embody legislative expression of those ideals that I am glad to give it my support. I do not associate myself with its actual legal terms, and it is quite possible that here and there some alteration may be found to be required, but, as far as the principle is concerned, not merely do I approve it, but I think I speak for my Friends here in giving to it warm support and in expressing a desire that without any undue delay it may be placed upon the Statute Book. I think the Statute Book will be the cleaner when that purpose has been accomplished.

Photo of Mr John Clynes Mr John Clynes , Manchester Platting

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot), who has just sat down, emphasised very much the argument that this Bill was submitted in line with the best traditions of this House. There may be some difference of opinion on that point, but there will be no difference of opinion, I think, upon this, that the spirit and form of the Debate so far have been fully in keeping with the highest traditions of the House of Commons. It is a matter for very great satisfaction that on such a subject, which in former days would have moved Members to very great heat and passion, we can address ourselves to the changes which are proposed in such a considerate spirit. I would like to support the view already expressed that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) was a perfect model of what such a speech should be on such a subject. It is an instance of how persuasive and how reasoning an hon. Member holding very strong views can be, and it was a very powerful appeal.

The hon. Member indicated that the present law would permit him legally to go out in the open and attack, say, the Catholic faith or any other non-established form of religious belief. The law might permit him to do that, but, should he try to do so, he would find that religious ardour and popular feeling would exert such pressure as to make it at least very difficult for him to carry his object through. It is to that aspect of the question that I want to address myself for a few moments. We in this House entertain towards each other's convictions feelings of the most profound and acute difference. Our opinions very often are irreconcilable, but we must exercise the greatest restraint in the expression of them, and we vest in the Chair almost unqualified power to see that Members utter those opinions with due regard to the peaceful and harmonious conduct of debate in this Chamber. Just as we do that as Members of the House of Commons, I think it is our duty so to keep and frame the law as to require a similar restraint and a like conduct in the discussion of controversial questions outside this Parliament.

The object of this Bill is to provide that no criminal proceedings shall be instituted in any court against any person for schism, heresy, blasphemy, blasphemous libel, or atheism. As has already been pointed out, none of us will pursue very far any question relating to schism, to heresy, or to atheism, but when we come to the actual exercise of opinion on questions of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, very real difficulties arise. As I understand the present legal position, it is this, that we may dismiss the question of taking action regarding schism, heresy, or atheism. They are not offences either against the common law or against any Statute so as to be recognised by any secular court. They might—though I think this is very doubtful—be dealt with by an ecclesiastical court, but there is not the smallest prospect of any such ecclesiastical prosecution being set on foot; and it would be a waste of time for Parliament to promote legislation if schism, heresy, and atheism alone were in point.

Certain forms of blasphemy and blasphemous libel are offences under ancient statutory provisions, but it is safe to say that prosecutions are never taken, at any rate nowadays, under any of those statutes. Blasphemy, however, is a misdemeanour at common law, and proceedings may still be taken under common law. My hon. Friend referred to my own personal opinion on this matter. I should like, therefore, to quote to the House what I said recently to the deputation. The report will show that I expressed my complete sympathy with the general objects of the Bill, but I said: I am not sure that in this matter you can rely absolutely upon what is called the common law, because that law changes from time to time according to decisions in the courts. I conclude that you agree that there must be some definite piece of law that will enable the country to enforce the view which we commonly hold, namely, that incitements to breaches of peace should not be permitted. So that I may quote in my defence—I forget in what connection it was said—the lines that: It's not so much the thing she says,As the nasty way she says it. The repeal of the old statutory provisions might remove in part the sense of grievance that the law is one-sided, and I do not think there can be any objection to this, provided that the law against speech or action tending to breaches of the peace is completely safeguarded. This Bill, however, goes very much further than this object, and if the Bill is passed into law it will no longer be possible to take proceedings for blasphemy under the common law. The result would be that the most offensive utterances calculated to hurt the feelings of a large number of people would not be punishable at law even if such utterances were likely to provoke a breach of the peace. All that could be done in such circumstances would be to bring the offenders before a bench of magistrates, who probably would bind them over.

My own view, therefore, is that which has already been expressed by the hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House in a speech of great feeling, namely, that should the House give this Bill a Second Reading, it should be most carefully examined in Committee, and be most substantially altered, so as to preserve the right of the country to prevent breaches of the peace by unbridled attacks upon religious feeling. I know that leading Churchmen support generally the objects of this Bill. They do so because they know that religion rests upon more solemn and profound foundations than that of any attack made against it, but I think that leading representatives of every denomination will agree that the law should not be so altered as to afford no safeguard against irreligious attacks, if I may use that term in the best sense, upon a faith strongly held by a large number of people. I would therefore suggest to the promoters of this Bill that if a Second Reading is secured for it, they should reconcile themselves to the view that the objectionable parts should be so obliterated in Committee as to secure ultimately, as I should hope, complete support for the Bill.

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."

I rise to oppose this Bill in no reactionary spirit. I hope the fact that I speak from these benches will protect me from any charge of reaction amongst my colleagues. I say, in no spirit of asperity, I fully recognise that the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on this side of the House on behalf of the Bill are actuated by a spirit which calls only for commendation. This Bill provides that: After the passing of this Act no criminal proceedings shall be instituted in any court against any person for schism, heresy, blasphemy, blasphemous libel, or atheism. I should very much like to have from my hon. Friends on this side the definition which they attach to the words "schism," "heresy," and "atheism." What is schism? Schism from what? Heresy—what does it mean here? What meaning is attached to it in this Bill? Atheism is one of the widest words that can be used. What does it cover? Does it cover agnosticism? An atheist is a man who says there is no God. The agnostic says he does not know whether there is a God or not. Is an agnostic an atheist under this Bill? As the Home Secretary pointed out, there are no such offences as schism, heresy, or atheism. I have carefully searched almost all the law books we have in our Library here, and I can find no mention of schism, heresy, or atheism as crimes, and, therefore, this Bill provides that no criminal proceedings shall be instituted against three states of mind against which no prosecution can be instituted now. So that the Bill, as far as those three things are concerned, is only a brutum fulmen. I hope enough has been said to satisfy the House, as far as schism, heresy and atheism are concerned, that they can dismiss these things from their mind.

The vital matter is blasphemous libel. Blasphemy and blasphemous libel are practically the same thing. Blasphemous libel is blasphemy. Let us get away from all the rambling dicta of ancient churches, and come down to the present time, and find out exactly what blasphemy is. We have had a great deal of talk here about blasphemy, without coming to grasps with the question: What is blasphemy? I have selected the law book which, I think, will meet with most universal acceptance from all lawyers, in order that we may find out exactly what blasphemy is, and what is covered by this Bill. Blasphemy is described in this book, which is "The Laws of England," edited by that very distinguished although extremely Conservative lawyer, Lord Halsbury. Lord Halsbury, or the writer who has dealt with the subject of blasphemy under his supervision, thus describes blasphemy—I ask the House to give attention to this matter, because on what I am about to read the discussion should turn— Blasphemy is a misdemeanour at common law punishable by fine and imprisonment without hard labour. It consists in (1) scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith; or (2) in uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ; or (3) in profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule. It is not blasphemy with due gravity and propriety to contend that the Christian religion or any part of its doctrine, or the whole or any part of the Holy Scriptures, is untrue. All the talk that we have had about the impossibility or the danger of expressing opinions, however feelingly, in regard to religion, if expressed decently, is beside the point. H. G. Wells or anybody else can say what they like about Christianity, can question the Virgin Birth or any matter of Faith as they please, but it must be done in such a way as not to wound or shock the minds of decent Christians. Every Member of this House and every citizen is at perfect liberty to criticise our Faith provided they do not scoffingly or irreverently or profanely deal with the subject.

The Bill asks us to regularise scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith. It asks us to regularise publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ. It asks us to regularise profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule. Is the House prepared to do that? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes!" and "No!"] Let us understand that that, and that only, is what this Bill provides.

Photo of Mr Isaac Foot Mr Isaac Foot , Bodmin

The hon. Member is not quoting the words of judges; he is quoting a definition in regard to which there may or may not be actual judicial authority.

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

I did not want to make my speech like a legal argument in Court. I should have thought that this book alone was sufficiently impressive. There are many other definitions of the offence of blasphemy which follow exactly the lines of "The Laws of England." I give a further definition of Blake Odgers from his well-known work, which is recognised by all lawyers, "Libel and Slander": It is a misdemeanour to speak or write or publish, with intent to shock and insult believers, any scurrilous or profane words vilifying or ridiculing God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Old or New Testament, or Christianity in general. This is the crime of blasphemy. … The honest and temperate expression of religious opinions conscientiously held and avowed … is not a blasphemous libel. Let hon. Members on this side of the House spend an hour or two among the rules of law searching for definitions of blasphemous libel, not in ancient works, but in modern works which lawyers accept and follow in their daily work, and they will find that the definition of "blasphemy" which I have given is the definition that would be accepted by all lawyers, and the only definition that would be accepted by them. If any attempt were made to punish a man for his religious feelings, I should be one of the first to impress on the House the impropriety and injustice of such an act.

Halsbury goes on to refer to other offences which are called, not blasphemy, but offences against the Church of England. He excluded these offences against the Church of England from the definition of blasphemy: Anyone who utters or publishes seditious words in derogation of the established religion is at common law guilty of a misdemeanour and is punishable by fine and imprisonment. These are offences against the Church of England which are not dealt with in this Bill. A prosecution might be brought against anybody for uttering and publishing seditious words in derogation of the established religion, and yet this Bill does not touch it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Make it stronger!"] I am opposing the Bill as it stands; I am not opposing a Bill which is in the imagination of hon. Members. I am opposed to this Bill because it will permit the criticism of the Christian faith in a manner which will give offence to Christians. This country is a Christian country, not in the sense of justifying the persecution of people who do not accept the doctrines of the Christian faith, but in the sense that we would protect reasonable Christians from having their feelings lacerated and wounded by the kind of thing—

Photo of Mr Ernest Thurtle Mr Ernest Thurtle , Shoreditch

Will the hon. Gentleman say what he means by a reasonable Christian?

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

I should have thought that the expression carried its own meaning with it pretty clearly. I ask the House to leave the law as it stands now. You have no idea how horrible, scurrilous, venomous and filthy have been the utterances of the men who, during the past hundred years, have been prosecuted for offences of blasphemy. I feel tempted to quote some of them, but I will not do it, for it would be too disgusting, too profane and too horrible, although it would help the House if I could give a specimen of the kind of thing that would be possible if this Bill were passed. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) spoke of the filthy productions that one sees on the Continent. I remember many years ago going with a younger brother, who is now dead; he was a young man of ardent feelings, and we passed shops which had religious caricatures which were such that I had the greatest difficulty in preventing my brother from wrecking them. I told him he would be fined, and he said, "I am willing to pay the fine," and it was with difficulty that I restrained him from drastic action, so filthy were the caricatures. Precisely the same kind of filthy caricatures were produced in this country at one time.

We know what some newspapers are now, and I honestly fear that with a relaxation of this law, some people are so hostile to the Christian faith that we might have a repetition of what we had in the days of Carlyle and men of that type a hundred years ago. The Home Secretary dealt with the subject of breaches of peace, and I will not refer to it. One Statute was quoted by an hon. Member who spoke from this side of the House, the Statute of 9 William III, c. 32. That imposes a penalty up to three years' imprisonment for anyone who on a second occasion publicly expresses disbelief in any of the main doctrines of Christianity. But even in the time of William III liberality of thought had grown to such an extent that this Statute was never once put into operation. [Interruption.] Well, then, why not remove it from the Statute Book? You do not remove it from the Statute Book by this Measure. [Interruption.] No, and you do not nullify it. You leave it as it is. If you want to object to that Statute, bring in a Bill which will repeal it, and we will then deal with this matter, though I may say that I should think you would have very little use for your time if you bothered about a Statute of William III which was never put into operation. It has already been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University that there have been very few prosecutions for blasphemy for many years. The last prosecution was that of a man named Gott. He was imprisoned three times. He was a most venomous and foul-mouthed person in his attacks on Christianity. He was imprisoned in 1917, again in 1920 and the third time in 1921.

Photo of Mr John Palin Mr John Palin , Newcastle upon Tyne West

I should like to say that I was employed by Mr. Gott, and he was not a foul-mouthed man. He was a man of a great deal higher character than a great many Christians. He published cartoons of which I disapproved, but he was not a foul-mouthed man.

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

I do not say that he was a foul-mouthed man, but that he was a foul-mouthed assailant of Christianity, which is another thing. In ordinary conversation, a man may be quite decent in his talk and yet may be so envenomed against the Christian faith that when he deals with it he becomes foul-mouthed. There are many instances of that.

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I think the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) might be allowed to make his speech without these interruptions.

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

Tom Paine was a decent man in ordinary life. He was made a member of the French Assembly and was received with great honour in the United States, and yet his attacks upon Christianity were of a particularly offensive and foul-mouthed type.

HON. MEMBERS:

Not at all!

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

The hon. Member says I have not read them. What book is he speaking of. "The Rights of Man"?

Photo of Mr James Lovat-Fraser Mr James Lovat-Fraser , Lichfield

I will leave "The Age of Reason" to speak for itself. In the last few days there have been circulated among Members of the House copies of a little pamphlet on the blasphemy laws. I will only ask my hon. Friends to accept its statements with caution, because it gives an ex parte view of the case. I do not want to deprive the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) of any of the honour secured by him by his speech, but I will say that a good deal of what he said appears in this pamphlet, and I knew what was coming. This pamphlet is issued by a society which calls itself the Society for the Abolition of the Blasphemy Laws. The minimum subscription to the society is 2s. 6d. per annum, and its object is the abolition of the power to prosecute for the expression of opinion in matters of religion. I hope I have made clear to the House that anybody may express his opinions on religion at any time, and that there is not the slightest need for a society of this kind to protect the right of expression of opinion. My own suspicion is that this Debate has been stage managed for the benefit of this little society. Societies have to kept going, have to be kept before the public, and we have had the benefit of this discussion in order that this Society for the Abolition of the Blasphemy Laws may continue to exist. I am not opposing this Bill in any reactionary spirit. I am as anxious for freedom and liberality of thought as any man in this House. I realise as much as any man in this House what we owe to freedom and to liberality of talk, but I am also in favour of decency and order, and I ask the House to reject this Bill.

Photo of Mr Edward Marjoribanks Mr Edward Marjoribanks , Eastbourne

I beg to second the Amendment.

I must apologise to the House for doing so without having been present to hear the first two speeches to-day. I wish I could have heard them, but I was unavoidably prevented from being present, and, after having heard the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, I feel that I have missed a very great demonstration of moderation on the part of a man who feels very deeply about this very interesting and enthralling subject. But I find myself in total agreement with the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser). I think he has clearly shown the House that we have toleration in England to-day, and that if the law does intervene it is only in cases where it is absolutely necessary and proper for it to do so. I think the question was raised a few moments ago as to whether there was any judicial authority for the view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. Of course there is judicial authority for such a view, and I would like to put to the House the words of two learned Judges on the matter. Lord Justice Warrington said, in the Court of Appeal, in 1915: This offence is said to consist in (1) scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith, or (2) uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, or (3) profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule; but it is not blasphemy with due gravity and propriety to contend that the Christian religion or any part of its doctrine or the whole or any part of the Holy Scriptures is untrue. Mr. Justice Erskine, in advising the House of Lords many years ago, said: It is indeed still blasphemy, punishable at common law, scoffingly or irreverently to ridicule or impugn the doctrines of the Christian faith, and no one would be allowed to give or to claim any pecuniary encouragement for such purpose; yet any man may, without subjecting himself to any penal consequences, soberly and reverently examine and question the truth of those doctrines which have been assumed as essential to it. That is the religious toleration of the Common Law of England and I think the Common Law should be maintained. I also think that the House of Commons ought to know the circumstances of the last prosecution for blasphemy. The name of the defendant has been mentioned, and it was complained that as late as 1922 such prosecutions were brought. There was indeed such a prosecution, and it was perfectly right that there should be such a prosecution. The hon. Member for Lichfield did not think it proper to quote the words used, for fear of shocking the feelings of the House. I take a different view; for, after all, we are realists in this House of Commons. This is the very crux of the matter, and I think the House of Commons should know about the last prosecution which was brought and the circumstances-which make it necessary to bring these prosecutions. I must agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield when he said that the defendant in this case had a venomous dislike for the Christian faith and was prepared to go through a great deal of inconvenience in order to give it expression. He printed pamphlets for sale which caused righteous indignation and disturbance among ordinary citizens who saw them on sale, and might easily have led to a breach of the peace. I would like to quote one of the least offensive passages in this man's blasphemous libel, because I think it is right to know in what cases the Home Secretary allows such proceedings to be taken. It does not require, said the Lord Chief Justice of England during the appeal on this case, a person of strong religious feeling to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem 'like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys.' I ask the House to consider whether the State is not right in intervening under such circumstances. Our criminal procedure on this question is a protection for the citizens of this country, and the feelings of the people, or at any rate of all decent people, must be outraged by such expressions as that which I have quoted. After all, the purpose of law is to give protection to the public in matters of their vital interests, and I think it is right that the law should intervene on these occasions. If the law did not intervene, and if it were not possible for the law to intervene, there would be people in England who could make a living out of this terrible blasphemy business, and who would go about making these cheap gibes against the sacred Being for money, as Gott did. Therefore, I think it is right that the law should intervene. Every citizen has the right to invoke the aid of the law of libel both in the civil and criminal courts in matters concerning his own reputation, and I ask the House to see that the greatest Personality of the world should not be allowed, to put it at the very lowest, to be blasphemed in this sort of way. If this Bill passes its Third Reading, of course the Christian religion will go unprotected, and I ask the House to support the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Reginald Sorensen Mr Reginald Sorensen , Leyton West

There is one observation which I should like to make at the commencement, and it is that, even if it is assumed that the description given by the last speaker is one which would entitle the culprit to punishment, Christ Himself would not desire such a man to be imprisoned because he used foolish language about Him. That is the crux of the whole matter. I am afraid that there are a large number of Christians who at the present time and in the past have allowed their zeal to outrun their understanding of the Faith itself. I speak as a Christian Minister. It is true that in some respects the interpretation of my Christianity would not meet with the approval of the more Orthodox Members of this House, but I feel very deeply on this question, and I speak from the standpoint of one who has faith m religion. Therefore, I cannot be accused of encouraging anything with which personally I disagree. With regard to what has been said by the hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Dr. Salter), I have no spiritual ancestry belonging to the Society of Friends. Nevertheless, I understand I am an indirect descendant of the famous William Penn, though, to counterbalance that, other ancestry, I might add, were sheep-stealers. I am not sure which of these two elements are dominant in me now.

1.0 p.m.

It is very interesting in a discussion of this kind to notice the reactions expressed in various parts of the House: There is a quiet hostility whenever any suggestion of heresy or abnormality is expressed. I am quite sure that a large number of Members of this House imagine this is a Bill for legalising Billingsgate and that henceforth the atmosphere will vibrate with foul, horrifying and outrageous language. I know that what many people believe in is not the Christian religion but the religion of "Good form." Their real creed is simply that "certain things are not done." You must not eat peas with a knife; you must not attend the House of Commons in carpet slippers; you must not talk about the Sermon on the Mount in war time, and you must not blaspheme against God—too publicly. Many people who in their day and generation have been condemned as being odd men and abnormalities have turned out to be the saviours of the very society who opposed them. I do not mean to infer that every one who was prosecuted was a saint. I am not suggesting that all those who have been prosecuted for blasphemy during the last few years are of the character of saints, but I would suggest that this touches the very core of the difficulty, and that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) gave away the whole case. We are allowed to criticise the Christian religion, but we must not do it in a scoffing and blatant fashion. If that be the case, then one of the greatest writers this country has produced, Mr. H. G. Wells, should have served six months for blasphemy, because in one of his novels he refers to the Almighty God as "Mr. G." Obviously, any ordinary man at the street corner who referred to the Deity as "Mr. G." would be liable to be plunged into servitude in exactly the same way as in the cases which have been mentioned in this discussion. By the same law hon. Members of this House, such as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Horrabin), would be liable to prosecution, because the hon. Member has constantly held up to laughter two very eminent characters mentioned in the early part of the Old Testament.

The point, of course, is that it is extremely difficult to define what is flippant and what is grave criticism. Mr. Bernard Shaw is another persons who ought to have "done time," as we say, supposing that this law had been fully applied. Again, those whose dramatic tastes take them to musical comedy, rather than to more serious dramatic productions, must on more than one occasion have been "amused" by the frequent repetition of the Mohammedan term for the Deity. The word "Allah" is bandied about on the music hall stage and in some of the more melodramatic productions without the slightest consideration for the Islamic people, who would feel horrified if they heard that term used in connection with a music hall production. That is why I suggest that it is extremely difficult to define what is meant by the discrimination. Similarly, there is a certain person, who obviously must be nameless, who accomplishes the miraculous task of changing the form of his religion as soon as he crosses the border of this country and enters the next. That in itself indicates the difficulty of defining exactly what is meant both by religion and by blasphemous libel. It seems to me that the only thing to do is to recognise that henceforth there should be no prosecution for blasphemy or blasphemous libel.

As has been rightly said already, if there is any particular form of speech which has caused a breach of the peace, a prosecution could take place under that heading even if this Bill became law, just as it could in the past. No one suggests for a moment the encouragement of outrageous language which would lead to the breaking of windows or to riots in the streets. All that the passing of this Bill would mean is that at some time in the future, when we have a less intelligent Home Secretary than we fortunately have to-day, we should not have a repetition of what took place in 1921 and 1908. Hon. Members may argue as much as they like that it is unlikely that any such prosecution would take place, but the fact remains that two prosecutions have taken place in recent years. In 1908, a person named Harry Boulter was prosecuted for making a speech at Highbury Corner, and he was sentenced, I think, to nine months' imprisonment. One humorous episode occurred in connection with that case, when Mr. Justice Phillimore remanded the defendant for a week, so that in the sacred atmosphere of a prison cell he might consider whether he would not be converted to the Christian faith after all. That, unfortunately, is a very characteristic attitude of mind on the part of some people to-day, just as it has been in the past. People used to imagine that you could prove the love of God by boring holes in the tongues of those who thought rather differently, or by branding them on the head with hot irons. Nowadays people do not go so far as that, merely because it is unfashionable, but they would like to do it all the same. The motive is there, and the reference made by the hon. Member for Lichfield is a revelation of a type of mind which is perfectly sincere, but which is a positive danger to liberty of thought.

I suggest that it is far more necessary to attack blasphemous action than blasphemous phraseology. For instance, it is far more depressing to me to know that some few years ago the name of the Founder of the Christian Faith was used to sanction mutual slaughter, than it is for me to know that some foolish man has expressed himself in a very crude way in a park or at a street corner. The real blasphemy is in this constant usage of holy and religious terms to sanction abominations. It is assumed by many Members of this institution and others that religion is merely a kind of disinfectant, to prevent the odours of our bad social order from having all their dire effect. There is still an assumption that the only thing that one ought to do about religion is not to talk about it, but just to patronise it. In the same way as, I understand, a man will often give his future mother-in-law a box of chocolates, not because he loves her but because he loves her daughter, so there are many people who will subscribe to Christian charities and nominally patronise the Christian faith, not because they believe in it, not because they understand it, not because they really want to understand it, but merely because they think it is the thing to do, because they want to find a suitable letter heading, because they want a crest which will give them the hall mark of respectability, a veneer of whitewash, or I repeat, a disinfectant.

If these words seem harsh, may I say in conclusion that I say this because of a very real faith. The more I think, the more I am convinced that the only way in which we, and especially those of us who sit on these benches, can pursue our end and search and work for the day when what we call the co-operative commonwealth is constructed, is by believing that the forces of the Universe are on our side. Some may scoff at that, but I would ask, what alternative is there? It is because I believe that the heart of the Universe is similar to the human heart that I have this faith that ultimately the Universe does mean that mankind should triumph, and that all the great causes which have lain at the heart of mankind should come out on top. That is my very deep faith. It is a faith which is unshakeable, which cannot be broken or chipped in the slightest degree by the foolish sayings of any crude agnostic. If that be so, why should we not exercise our Christian magnanimity? Why should we not prove that we have in some measure assimilated the spirit of the Founder of the Christian faith, and say that henceforth, even if our ears may be offended by sounds that we do not like, even if criticism is made which does not please us, nevertheless we will prove our belief in our faith, not by degenerating to the stage of persecution, even though it be now only in the nature of imprisonment, but we will prove our faith by trying to carry out in actual fact the admonition of the Founder of the Christian faith, that we should love our enemies?

There is one further word that I should like to add. I have already referred to an episode which is now receding into the past. May I urge hon. Members opposite who echo the sentiments—I believe the wrong sentiments—expressed by the hon. Member for Lichfield and the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman), may I beseech those who proclaim themselves as the upholders of religion in this country to realise that the greatest disservice that they can perform to the Christian faith is to assume that they advance the Christian faith by persecuting its critics, and that they support the Christian faith by merely giving it lip service, without trying to analyse the significance of its spirit and its message, or applying that message to the difficult tasks of to-day.

Photo of Mr Michael Beaumont Mr Michael Beaumont , Aylesbury

I rise to oppose this Measure with a feeling of very great, regret. First of all, I regret very much to oppose a Bill which, as was said by the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle), allows somebody to do something, in contradistinction to stopping someone from doing something. Such Bills are all too rare in this House. I was very much moved, as I think we all were, by the cogent arguments which the hon. Member advanced in introducing the Bill, and, if it went no further than those arguments, I, for one, would support it. Personally, I have as much objection as any Member of this House to persecution or to the silencing of free thought. It is of no interest to me what any man's religion or lack of religion may be, and, in so far as this Bill would allow people to state their honest views and convictions, I would support it. But we have other things to think of. To my mind, the most dreadful thing that can be done is to assail somebody else's faith and to try to destroy it; and it is because this Bill will not only allow honest agnostics as well as honest opponents of Christianity to voice their views, but will pave the way for those who are out merely to destroy, merely to scoff and to laugh, that I oppose it. A great cleric once said, in support of some apparently non-tolerant measure, that these weaker brethren are a great nuisance, and it is because I am thinking of the effect on the minds of children, and of those who have not the robust faith of the hon. Member who has just spoken, who is uninfluenced by what other people say, because cartoons and articles and views which are merely lascivious and indecent, which the supporters of the Bill have not got in mind, will be licensed that I oppose the Bill.

I am again entirely at one with the promoters when they talk of the inequality of the Church of England and other churches and other beliefs. Anything to equalise that I would also support, and, if I could be assured that this would become in Committee a real Blasphemy Laws (Amendment) Bill, and not a Blasphemy Laws (Nullification) Bill, I should be prepared to support it, but it wipes out and puts nothing in its place. I ask the House to reject it for that reason and to see brought in at some time a Bill which will do away with the inequalities which the promoters complain of, putting all religions, and all non-religions if you like, on an equal basis while still preserving a regard for our most sacred feelings. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that religion comes on a higher plane than politics or sex questions. It is quite unnecessary for anyone to assault anyone else's religion. You may wish to assault their politics for obvious reasons, and you may wish to assault their views on other matters for equally obvious reasons, but it can be no legitimate pleasure to anyone to destroy someone else's religion. It can be of no conceivable benefit. There are people in the world who are prepared to use that license to abuse the liberty whcih the hon. Member for Shore-ditch wishes to give them and, for that reason, I ask the House again to reject the Bill unless we can get an assurance that the proposers will accept some Amendment, which will safeguard us against purely vicious and blasphemous libels while giving the liberty which I am sure all sides of the House desire to see.

Photo of Sir George Benson Sir George Benson , Chesterfield

I think the hon. Member who has just spoken attributes to the present state of the law a far greater power than it really has. He opposes the Bill, because he sees no reason why anyone should attempt to destroy the religious beliefs of another person. But the Bill is not dealing with a situation of that kind, for the simple reason that anyone at present has a right to attack and, if possible, destroy the religious beliefs of any other person if he so desires, provided he does so in a particular way. There are a large number of people who differ in religious beliefs from the hon. Member who are prepared to believe that truth, as they conceive it, for its own sake is worth fighting for, and that is why they wish to destroy religious beliefs which they do not think are true.

The main point with regard to this Bill is that it would get rid of any prohibition on the method of attack. There is no danger of prosecution provided the attack is reasonable and is polite. As a matter of fact, the opponents of the Bill have very definitely taken the line that they do not object to attacks no matter how cogent and deadly, provided that they are polite. The opponents of the Bill do not desire to defend religious beliefs. They take their stand against the Bill solely on the ground of good taste, and not on the ground of religious beliefs. I am not prepared to defend any Bill which can send a man to prison for nine months merely because of a lapse of good taste. I am a religious man, and I want to speak to religious men. I am much more afraid of an attack upon religion which is couched in polite, and possibly deadly terms, than of one which, by its very grossness and coarseness and cruelty, is going to have little or no effect, but, on the contrary, is very likely to defeat the very object for which it was launched. I have noticed that the opponents of the Bill arrogate to themselves rights that they are prepared to deny to others. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Beaumont) refers to his opponents as lascivious and vicious.

Photo of Mr Michael Beaumont Mr Michael Beaumont , Aylesbury

I certainly never referred to my opponents as lascivious and vicious. I said there were certain people who published lascivious and vicious articles. I never suggested that the opponents of religion were lascivious.

Photo of Sir George Benson Sir George Benson , Chesterfield

My phraseology was rather loose, but the point is that their attacks are referred to as lascivious and vicious. In other words, their views and their methods of expression are declared to be lascivious and vicious. If members of the Christian Churches are entitled to apply that type of phraseology to men whose religion is a negative religion, why should they object to others attacking equally viciously and lasciviously the views they hold?

Photo of Mr Michael Beaumont Mr Michael Beaumont , Aylesbury

I certainly did not attack the beliefs or the men who hold them in the term lascivious or vicious. Far be it from me to suggest that any agnostic or atheistic or non-religious belief is lascivious or vicious.

Photo of Sir George Benson Sir George Benson , Chesterfield

I am not sure exactly to what the hon. Member applied the phrase "lascivious and vicious," but he applied it to people who would be relieved under this Bill in some way or another. If he or the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) is entitled to use language of that type, it seems to me that they are the last people to object to a Bill of this kind going through which is going to allow licence of a similar kind to people who have far less ability in language, far less education and less good taste than they have. I am going to support this Bill, because I take my stand on the good old Liberal tradition—and there are some things in Liberalism which are good—that every man has a right to speak what he wills and say it how he wishes.

Photo of Mr Frank Griffith Mr Frank Griffith , Middlesbrough West

I want to express very hearty agreement with what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) on the question of polite writings. I do not think that he meant that he would desire to inflict penalties on polite writings although he regards them as more dangerous. What it really comes to is that, where opinions are strongly held by an educated man, those opinions will be expressed in a way which the law cannot touch, while those expressed by an uneducated man, simply because he is uneducated, will come under the penalties of the law. That is a principle in the administration of our justice that no one will desire to see maintained. I remember that even a right hon. Gentleman who held the office of Home Secretary and was responsible for the administration of laws of this kind some years ago was known to hold opinions which would be covered by the last word of Clause 1. Undoubtedly, he in his writings—he being a highly educated man—always expressed himself with great care, and there was no question of his coming within these laws, and yet he might find himself called upon to administer the law to others expressing the same opinion. I remember that Mr. Chesterton talked about The little printers in Dundee,Who got 12 months for blasphemy,Although he lets them off with seven,Respect him rather less than Heaven. I think, in spite of the very strong opinions so eloquently expressed on both sides in this very excellent Debate, there is really a very considerable measure of agreement. This is what I want to stress. Nobody here thinks, as far as I can see, that the mere holding of an opinion should be penalised. I venture to go further. I do not think that anyone believes that the mere expression of opinion, quite apart from circumstances, should be penalised. Let us suppose that two persons—two atheists—in a corner of Hyde Park happen to be discussing their common belief and express themselves in vulgar terms, and a policeman happens to creep up behind the bushes and hears them. Does anyone imagine that that is a proper matter for a penal prosecution? I do not think that any of those who are supporting the present law would imagine that that would be penal. It really comes to this, that what we are all agreed about is that mere expression of opinion ought not to be penalised and that some protection ought to be afforded the public against disorder and the consequences of bad expression. The terms of the Bill are perfectly clear and show that provision is still made to meet that position.

If that be so, where, really, is our disagreement on this Bill? Is it to be said that this Bill is so bad in principle that it cannot be amended in Committee. We hear from the Home Secretary that it will be amended in Committee. Where is the objection? I take the words, "It would do away with prosecutions for schism." Does anyone want to prosecute schism as such? Who would defend such a proposal? No one wants prosecutions merely for schism. No one would desire to prosecute for blasphemy, under circumstances which I outlined just now. It may be that the words "blasphemous libel" would let in rather too much. I do not know. I would like legal opinion as to all the things which are included. If it were found that to leave these words in the Bill it let in the legalising of statements and pronouncements likely to be a breach of the peace it would be the easiest thing to get these particular words out and to substitute something else. No one wants to proescute atheists as such. If anyone wants anything more, the easiest thing would be to put in another Clause in the well-known form "Nothing in this Act shall legalise" and then to put in anything that was still necessary to protect the public.

It does not seem to me that along these lines there is anything which need cause any Member of this House, even those holding the very strong opinions expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) and others below the gangway, to object to the Bill going to Committee. If this deals with a power which is very seldom misused, we want to cut out the dead wood from our past legislation. It is no use leaving traps for the ordinary citizen in the shape of enactments which have been forgotten and whose evil is realised, because they are so very seldom put into effect. This fact makes it all the easier for unfortunate individuals to fall into the trap. Responding to the invitation of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chesterfield, I hope that the spirit of Liberalism in this proposal will be maintained and recognised by this House.

Photo of Commander Sir Archibald Southby Commander Sir Archibald Southby , Epsom

I must apologise to the House in that I was unable to be here to hear the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle). Indeed, I had not intended to intervene in this Debate but I have listened to the speeches since I have been in this House and would like to put one application of this Bill as I see it. If this Bill were only one to protect the liberty of the honest disbeliever I should only be too glad to be in agreement with and to support the hon. Member for Shoreditch, but as I see it, this Bill really gives licence, or may give licence, to an evilly-minded person who may do incalculable harm. Whether a man believes in Christian religion or not is a matter for his own personal conscience, but when an expression of his disbelief in religion, no matter what creed it may be, does harm to some other individual that is a matter which it is proper for this House to legislate upon so that people may be protected who are unable to protect themselves. With much that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough West (Mr. K. Griffith) I am in complete agreement. I do believe that we should cut away the dead wood from our legislation so that there may be no traps for the unwary.

The one application of this Bill upon which I would like to comment is the effect it might have by giving licence to evilly disposed persons who might do injury to the minds of people who are so young that they are unable to weigh the good against the bad. I am convinced that the hon. Member for Shoreditch and those hon. Members who spoke after him would be the last to wish to put any stumbling block in the way of the children of this country. I am sure they would agree with me that it is more religious feeling that is wanted in the country—not necessarily dogmatic religious feeling—not less. I cannot help thinking that if this Bill goes through without serious amendment it is possible that the minds of little people may be poisoned and perverted by the actions and the writings of people who are not so sincere in their objections to the Christian religion as those who have been visualised by the speakers who have just spoken. It is therefore on the ground that it might do incalculable harm to the children that I oppose this Bill. The hon. Member for Leyton West (Mr. Sorensen) spoke most feelingly as a Minister of Religion. I am perfectly certain that he is sincere in everything that he says, and with a good deal of what he said I agree. I would ask the promoters of the Bill to remember that other things have been said in the Bible, besides the Sermon on the Mount. It was said that Whoso shall offend one of these little ones.… it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. For the sake of the children of this country, I oppose the Bill.

Photo of Mr David Logan Mr David Logan , Liverpool Scotland

This is my first appearance in making a speech in the British House of Commons, and I avail myself of the opportunity because the subject-matter of Debate calls for the greatest deliberation. I have listened with the deepest attention to the speeches that have been delivered, and I compliment the Mover of the Second Reading of the Bill on the very classical way in which he stated his case. He dealt with the procedure of the last 40 years, and spoke of the great traditions of this House with respect to many evils arising out of the persecution which has been brought about by unnecessary laws that have been passed. We are asked to-day to take into consideration the question of removing from the Statute Book certain penalties which are said to press very hardly upon certain sections of the community. I have noted the great amount of toleration and Christian charity which has exercised the minds of various hon. Members to-day. I come from the Scotland Division of Liverpool, following a great predecessor, and I realise that the great traditions of this House, if I understand English liberty have been exercised for the right of the subject in all things. While that may be true, I am not prepared to give licence to violent language. Expression of sound thought can come only from clearness of mind and not from exasperation.

I am asked to-day, in respect of fundamentals, that I should give way in my opinion with regard to the things that are most sacred to me by recognised authority. Hon. Members have quoted authorities which I do not recognise as authorities. Who is Renan, Voltaire or Paine to be quoted to me in the House of Commons, which is rich in the best traditions of English liberty, compared with the illustrious men who have added to the lustre of Christian teaching? We are asked to agree that certain evils should be allowed to disappear. Certainly, within the well-established traditions of this House it is essential that the most clearly denned language should be used here. I have always been taught to be true in definition. If I want definition on this subject, coming from the Scotland Division of Liverpool, I certainly ought to get definition most clear and concise in the British House of Commons. What are we asked to do by the promoters of this Bill? We are asked by the introducer of the Measure to agree in substance that there shall be a repeal of the law against blasphemy and all that it entails. One hon. Member suggested that we should be prepared to agree to the omission of the procedure against blasphemy only. In the year 1930, from the enlightened benches of members of the Labour party, we are asked to repeal safeguards against blasphemous attacks upon things which are most dear to this House and to the people of this country, that we must scrap them, and give licence to a certain number of people.

I trust that my hon. Friends on this side will feel that my convictions are convictions that must be as sincerely and strenuously repeated in this House as I can repeat them in the Scotland Division of Liverpool. Our people are people of great religious fervour, and no Member of this House should dare to bring forward in the way of legislation anything that will interfere with the religious fervour and susceptibilities of the people with whom I have the honour to be associated. I do not look upon the things that are upon the Statute Book with the same sacred reverence that I look upon the things that I regard of primary spiritual importance. To me God means everything and all things, and I feel that in this House and in the Government of this nation it is essential that we should understand what true religion means. We have no right to remove from the Statute Book those provisions that will safeguard the things that are sacred and give them there fullest liberty. We have no right to remove from the Blasphemy Laws those provisions that are sought to be removed by this Bill. One hon. Member opposite struck the right note: Suffer little children to come unto Me. Has a parent not the right to educate his child in the way he desires? Has he not the right to say where its associations shall be? Has he not the right to reprimand a child for keeping bad company? I stand for the great things that go to make the family life and to help to make the manhood of the nation great and strong, because of deep religious convictions; influences which make people upright and cause them to act fair and square in all things and to be an example to their fellow men. I believe in these things. They are part of my life, and because of that fact I do not want to incur danger in respect of them.

I am perfectly willing to give liberty, but I am not prepared to give licence. Many things have been done in the name of liberty which have resulted in excesses that all of us must lament. Surely, when we as legislators are asked to make this suggested change in the law, it is time to speak of those sacred things that are within. What are we to understand by the proposals of this Bill? We have heard much extraneous matter in regard to definition given to-day, but when one comes to examine what is meant by blasphemy, it means, as I understand it, and as I was taught, ridiculing the things that are of religion, the things that are most sacred in a Christian land. I am not differentiating between creeds, but I am speaking of Christian principles. I was rather amazed to hear that, according to the legal mind, a man of my faith may be openly insulted to-day, and that would not be considered by law to be libellous or blasphemous, and that it is only in respect of the doctrines of the Established Church that blasphemy can be dealt with by the law, because that church is by law established. I am not concerned with the inconsistencies that may appear in the law, but I am concerned about first principles. If an injustice is done to my Faith because of the establishment of another I cannot help that. I leave that to the reasonable minds of hon. Members, and perhaps at a later date this difference may disappear. I am dealing with essentials, and if a wrong is done I have no right to create a greater wrong by getting rid of something which in my opinion should remain on the Statute Book.

I feel very keenly on this matter. Representing as I do fully 98 per cent. of the Catholic population in my division, it would be most unfair and unjust if I did not raise my voice in support of loyal men who are giving their life's blood in the service of the nation, and when times are easy that I should be afraid to speak against a Measure which is introduced by colleagues associated with me. I feel that in this question there is something of great and vital importance, and I ask those who are associated with me to recognise that we have our point of view. We see the light from a different angle. Men like Voltaire, Renan, and Paine, who have been quoted already, are not now considered to have been intellectuals. Christian thought, with all its forbearance, has done more to model the constitution of this country and this House than anything else. It is because I feel these things that as a humble Member of this House, having an opportunity of speaking upon this matter, and knowing that I shall get fair play, I wish in all sincerity to enter my protest against this Measure. I do not doubt the sincerity of the hon. Member who has introduced it, but I feel that the protection to faith and good morals, to public peace, to the education of the young, and to a better system of training, can be much better provided by a retention of these Statutes, even with the disqualifications which attach to them, than by their repeal. Therefore, I have the greatest pleasure in speaking against the Second Reading of this Bill.

Photo of Sir Alfred Law Sir Alfred Law , High Peak

In offering a few observations to this House for the first time, I feel sustained by the knowledge of the consideration which is always accorded to an hon. Member making his first speech. I am much surprised that a Bill of this kind has been brought in at all. It is true that other Measures have been introduced which have had some relation to religious convictions, but they have been quite different from this Bill. The late Mr. Charles Bradlaugh was responsible for the Affirmation Act, which excused him from taking the usual oath, and it has been in operation ever since. That referred to the liberty of the subject; but this Bill is quite a different matter. It has to do with blasphemy and blasphemous libel. The hon. Member who introduced the Bill said that a man could be punished for attacking the Church of England, that is the Established Church. I do not quite follow him in this respect, and I do not think he is right. The hon. Member for Bermondsey West (Dr. Salter) said he did not believe in the Sacrament because he is a Quaker. He is perfectly at liberty not to believe in the Sacrament. The Home Secretary, who has been of great assistance in this Debate, made it quite clear that anyone who speaks in such a way against religion as to cause a breach of the peace is liable to punishment. It is not a question whether a man believes or does not believe in the Christian religion, but the way in which he expresses his disbelief. If he offends the susceptibilities of Christian people then he is liable to be punished. In the same way drunkenness is not in itself punishable. A man may get drunk and not be punished for it; but if he is disorderly and creates a breach of the peace then he is liable to be punished. In the same way if a man utters blasphemous language which is calculated to create a breach of the peace he is liable to be punished. I think the Home Secretary put the case very succinctly. I shall vote against the Second Reading of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Oliver Baldwin Mr Oliver Baldwin , Dudley

I had not intended to speak at all on this Bill until I heard the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Commander Southby); but, before I refer to it, I understand that I should congratulate the last two speakers upon the admirable way in which they have addressed the House in their maiden speeches. The hon. and gallant Member told us that he was opposing the Bill because it might lead to the perversion of children if the law against blasphemy was abolished. That remark rather impressed me. I want to know what the hon. and gallant Member means. We on these benches are always being accused when we run Socialist Sunday schools of perverting the minds of the children. When I ask what the perversion is, I find that it is perversion from Toryism. The hon. and gallant Member means that the minds of the children will be perverted from the Church of England, and that when someone speaks in a blasphemous manner, which, apparently, for some unknown reason, children are coming along to listen to, their minds are going to be perverted. Therefore, he said, he would vote against the Bill.

It is quite clear that the two things you want to protect the country and the people from are blasphemy that would cause a breach of the peace and blasphemous libel which is of an obscene character. It is clear to anyone who knows anything whatever about law that the present law covers both admirably. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Lovat-Fraser) said that he did not know what heresy meant. He then read out some crimes against the Church of England that are punishable in law. I submit to the hon. Member for Lichfield that if he votes for the Bill instead of against it, those crimes, which he acknowledges as being silly, against the Church of England, will be abolished by the inclusion of the word "heresy."

The hon. Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan) got rather worried about the Bill, from the children's point of view and from the point of view of the religion which he holds. But if this Statute of William still stands, it seems to me that the people of his own persuasion will be liable to all sorts of trouble, because I see here that if anyone denies the Holy Scriptures to be of Divine authority—that is the Old Testament and the New—he is liable to be imprisoned for three years under the Statute. Yet the hon. Member wishes to keep things as they are. Another matter that has interested many speakers to-day is obviously covered by the present laws. We all remember what happened only a few days ago, when D. H. Lawrence's pictures were raided by the police, and the police not only carried off the pictures, but also some of the works of William Blake, which they thought were immoral also. I think that the police in future will be quite strong enough, especially if the same constables are at work, to safeguard the minds of the people of the country.

I hope that the Bill will get its Second Reading. If anyone has any doubts about anything, such things can be altered in Committee. To me the Bill is one to wipe out something that has blocked liberty of expression by the individual, that has by force stopped the expression of free opinion and has prevented toleration. That is something which the House of Commons in these more advanced and democratic days ought to sweep away. I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) about indecent publications in France. I think those indecent publications might have been issued when he was a very young student many years ago. I have been very much in France, and I must say that, although I have seen pictures drawn of the Holy Family that were meant to be funny, I did not think they were funny, nor were they a quarter as bad in some cases as some of the works of art that I have seen hung in the Royal Academy. I hope that the House will not be led away by this desire to hold something simply because it is the law, into thinking that the moment the law is abolished everyone will rush to paper and paint and start to be as obscene as posible for the rest of their lives.

2.0 p.m.

Photo of Colonel Sir James Reynolds Colonel Sir James Reynolds , Liverpool Exchange

I entered the House to-day with the intention of stating my determination to resist this Bill. I waited until my political enemy but personal friend, the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan), had made his speech. I felt sure that he would speak on the Bill. Although a young Member of the House, I feel that I am entitled, on behalf of others as well as myself, to congratulate my hon. Friend on his very noble address and on the splendid earnestness of conviction that he displayed. I agree with him that this Bill should be oposed on the basis of first principles. But I take my stand on this: If in this House we obliterate the laws against blasphemy, we remove one of those bulwarks that show to the whole world that this is a Christian country. I maintain that in view of what we now see going on in Russia, where an anti-God campaign is the order of the day, it would be a dreadful thing if this country passed a resolution against prosecution for such a vile thing as blasphemy. The whole world would think that this country was weakening on the question of respect for the Deity. It would not understand the fine points to which we have listened in this Chamber to-day, though many of them are eminently reasonable.

I say that there is no need for the Bill, and that its passing would be misrepresented throughout the world. The law as it stands to-day gives a safeguard to Christian people that outrageous attacks upon the Deity cannot be committed by atheistical people or those who desire to attack Christianity on account of the principles—I was almost saying lack of principles—from which they themselves suffer. There are many people to-day who desire to tear religion to pieces. They would have very much more opportunity of using their powers in public if the Bill were passed. If the Bill is not passed there will be some basis on which the authorities can prevent these people from acting as they would wish to act. I have had some experience of the difficulties that arise in a community because of attacks on people for their religious opinions. In Liverpool for many years there was great trouble on account of the antipathies that existed between Orangemen and Nationalists. We got together and said that this thing must cease. In the City Council, of which I was a member, we passed regulations. One of my own resolutions provided that it should not be lawful for any member of the community to use expressions in public against the religion or the personnel of the religion of any other member of the community.

That proposal was agreed to because it was felt that it was necessary to prevent breaches of the peace and to curtail social hatreds and personal dislikes. The position of Liverpool has been enormously improved since that step was taken and I appeal to the House to do nothing which may in any way let down our safeguards against attacks on religion in this country and more especially against attacks upon the Deity. I congratulate the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool. I support his point of view and I hope and trust that this very unnecessary Bill will not be passed by the House to-day.

Photo of Captain William Sanders Captain William Sanders , Battersea North

I wish quite humbly and respectfully to try to bring the House to a sense of historical perspective and proportion on this matter. I support the Bill not because I think there is any very big issue involved, but because I have, or try to have a tidy mind, and I do not like to see legislative or other rubbish cumbering our path. I do not think that it is a very important issue because our forefathers in far-off and unhappy times won the victory for us and whatever dangers may now exist of unnecessary prosecutions on religious matters seem to me to be very vague and nebulous. As I say, I support the Bill for reasons of tidiness and before giving my other reasons in addition to that simple one, may I be allowed to point out to the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) quite respectfully and as a far younger Member of this House than he is, that he was from our point of view a little heretical when he implied that it was a mistake to think that you could make people good by Act of Parliament. I agree that, stated baldly in that way, there seems to be a great deal of truth in his remark but I always thought it was the object of this party to remove obstacles in the way of people being good. I hope it was only a slight slip on the part of the hon. Member for Shoreditch and that he still believes in the 72—or 92, I forget which—points of "Labour and the Nation." The real object of those points is not only to improve the material position of the mass of the people, but also to improve, as far as possible, their chances of raising their moral and spiritual status.

After a considerable experience of the other nations of Europe I believe that there is one thing more than another which characterises my country. I speak naturally for Englishmen only and not for Scotsmen and Irishmen. I would not dare for a moment to do that. The one thing that distinguishes my countrymen is their extraordinary commonsense and sobriety with regard to the things of the mind including metaphysics and religion. We have always refused to get very excited about these things. We have left it to other and possibly superior nations to quarrel and excite one another about them and, as a result, we have had for many years an amazing amount of tolerance in the discussion of these things of the mind and of religion. What has been the result? When I go to Oxford—I occasionally go there as a visitor, but unfortunately never as a student—I always make it my business to see the magnificent and beautiful monument which is there to one of our greatest poets—Shelley. It always gives me the greatest pleasure to recollect that my fellow countrymen were so tolerant that, after expelling Shelley from Oxford for his boylike declaration in defiance of tradition the same college which expelled him put up a monument to him because of his magnificent poetry. [Interruption.] He did not recant. He only explained. It was they who recanted.

Reference has been made by one of my colleagues on these benches to two names. One is the name of my friend—I have the pleasure of being able to say friend—Mr. Shaw and the other is that of my acquantance, Mr. H. G. Wells. Both started in life with bold declarations of views which, if not atheistical, were agnostical. They were not prosecuted. English common sense let them alone and, as a result, the former has written one of the greatest justifications for religious faith in that splendid play, "St. Joan," and the other has been attacked by his rationalist friends for having departed from the rationalist faith in going over to a form of mystical religion. That is evidence of common sense. If you prosecute people in this country you immediately gather round them an enormous amount of support, not necessarily because people believe in them, but because English people in their common sense way object to the prosecution of persons about things which do not matter. You will find that by allowing these people to express themselves—and if they do so in such a way as to cause positive trouble of course, you have then to prosecute them under the ordinary law—you will be following the English common sense method. I listened as one always does with great interest and attention to the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman). I have read with great pleasure, if not for the matter certainly for the style, many of his works and I have learned from his books and from his speech to-day, something which I shall always remember. It is that the one thing which we learn from history is that men never learn from history. If the hon. Member will only look back—

Photo of Captain William Sanders Captain William Sanders , Battersea North

— he will realise that whether because of a strain of Puritanism in us, or because we are gifted above other nations with a sense of good taste, it is not the law which has protected us from indecent and obscene caricatures and books, but something in the English people themselves which refuses to have anything to do with that kind of thing. My mind goes back to the prosecution of the late Mr. Foote for what I presume was a blasphemous libel. I can see that blasphemous libel before me to-day, in the form of a caricature. It was a ridiculous and foolish caricature. If it was shown to any sensitive young boy or girl, instead of converting them to rationalism or against Christianity, it would have made them more Christian than ever and more against rationalism. He was prosecuted, and for a time there was a strong secularist movement in this country as a result of that prosecution.

Since we have become more tolerant and left the character of the British people to decide upon these things and not call in the law, the influence of the popular secularist movement has disappeared altogether. There is no active secularist movement in this country to-day, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. O. Baldwin) when he said that if you sweep away these alleged safeguards, there is no reason to believe that every person who can write and every person who can draw will at once turn his or her attention to turning out blasphemous libels either by word or by picture. I would suggest that if we adopt the attitude of common-sense British people to these matters, and if we accept the proposal that I make that we should tidy up our legislation in this regard to a certain extent, we shall be doing a good thing. Therefore, I hope the House will send this Bill to Committee and amend it in those directions where perhaps amendment will improve it.

Photo of Lord Eustace Percy Lord Eustace Percy , Hastings

The speech to which we have just listened of the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Sanders) is, in many ways, the best speech I have heard in this Debate since the speeches of the Mover and Seconder of the Motion for Second Reading. Nevertheless, I think that, attracted as we all are by the idea of being tidy, the whole meaning of this Debate is that this is a subject on which you cannot be tidy, because you are talking about two principles, both from my point of view irreconcilable but, as is the way with principles sometimes in this world, both also absolutely indisputable. That is the whole of the difficulty of this question.

The first principle is this—and I am speaking purely on what I believe to be Christian ground—that it is wholly unjustifiable and unchristian to use the secular arm in defence of your religious faith or of any of the institutions in which your religious faith is embodied, and that invoking the secular arm has been in itself in times past the most blasphemous thing you could do. But the second principle is this—and I hold it no less strongly—that the only right that any secular ruler has, the only right that we have in this House, to coerce and compel our fellow citizens in secular affairs is drawn from the fact that human government draws its authority from a divine source, and that without that divine authority the authority of human government is very little worth. I cannot think the authority of government is drawn wholly from a social contract, that it is drawn wholly from a vote of the citizens. It is in the extremest form of democracy that the Government is most dependent upon the party's immediate influence, yet nevertheless its authority to compel and to coerce must be drawn from other sources than from a mere temporary mandate.

Those two principles are principles which from age to age have been in conflict. What is the standard which should be adopted in questions like that by a Christian State? Should Church and State be so absolutely separate that there is no question of the State having a religious character? The hon. Member for North Battersea has drawn attention to the extraordinary characteristic which has been the characteristic of this nation. It has not gone to either extremes in that matter. It has not sought to identify Church and State; it has not sought to have a free Church in a free State, absolutely separate. Whether that illogicality of the British people is right or wrong is a thing which we may differ about, and perhaps none of us are quite sure, but at any rate that has been the characteristic of our whole attitude; and we have come to a compromise, in which we do continually recognise, in every State action, the source, the supernatural source, from which we draw our authority. Yet, in spite of that, we have established the freest and most tolerant Government in the world, the United States of America not excepted.

Will hon. Members who do not agree with me allow me to say, when we speak of the virtues of the British people in politics, that those virtues were summed up by a friend of mine the other day, not belonging to my political party, when he said he had come to the conclusion that the British people were the only nation in the world who knew how to forgive; and when we give thanks for that quality, I cannot but ascribe it to the fact that we have age after age never hesitated, not only to recognise, but to express in every public action our recognition of, the source from which we draw our authority. If that be so, we are in a conflict of principles, and we must think of this question as one of degree, as one of decency and of good temper. What is the issue from that point of view? How far are we to go; how far ought the law to allow us to go? You can certainly conduct public controversy impugning the Christian religion so long as it is a matter of serious argument.

That is agreed, but it is said by the hon. Member who introduced the Bill that after all so many of our fellow countrymen cannot express themselves in that way, and, further, that there are many injustices as between the rich and poor. That is not the difference between rich and poor. There are more poor men in this country who believe deeply about a subject and express themselves responsibly about it than there are members of the upper classes. Cobbett was right. I do not mean to say that he was a member of the working classes.

Photo of Mr Ernest Thurtle Mr Ernest Thurtle , Shoreditch

He was an outstanding exception.

Photo of Lord Eustace Percy Lord Eustace Percy , Hastings

But he expressed his views roughly and robustly, and yet not dependent upon the particular class of offence we are discussing. He represented, as no other English writer has represented, the essential qualities of the English working man. I do not really think that what the hon. Member for Shoreditch has said should weigh with us very much. I think it is admitted that when you come to the question of expressions of opinion so violent as to provoke public disorder, then this Bill ought to he so amended as to make sure that in such a case criminal prosecution can follow.

Photo of Mr George Knight Mr George Knight , Nottingham South

That is provided for already.

Photo of Lord Eustace Percy Lord Eustace Percy , Hastings

I am only quoting the Home Secretary. I am not a lawyer, but I share in the view of the Home Secretary that if this Bill were passed, as a matter of fact it would make criminal prosecution impossible in cases of blasphemy even where public disorder arose. That may or may not be true. I am not arguing it.

Photo of Mr George Knight Mr George Knight , Nottingham South

I did not hear that statement. I am only pointing out that, on the Noble Lord's own submission to the House, what he requires is already provided for.

Photo of Lord Eustace Percy Lord Eustace Percy , Hastings

The hon. Member has not heard my argument. The Home Secretary has gone as far as that, and it is generally agreed in the House. The hon. Member thinks that it is already provided for, in spite of this Bill. The Home Secretary does not think so. As a matter of fact, this Bill would go beyond its intention, and remove from the purview of the Courts cases likely to provoke public disorder arising out of statements described as blasphemous. We in this House immemorially have been so anxious to preserve the reputation and the authority of this House, that we have always visited with condign punishment anyone who attacked Members of this House in any grossly offensive way, whether or not the attack was likely to lead to public disorder, and we have brought them to the Bar of this House, whether wisely or unwisely. We have had the legal right, and we shall still have the legal right under this Bill, to take action against persons who attack us in such a way as to bring us into ridicule. We admit daily, when we meet at prayer, that our authority is drawn from a higher source, that, except for the authority which comes from that source, we cannot decide or act rightly, but while we retain the right to visit condign punishment upon those who talk offensively of us personally, we shall ignore as perfectly justifiable and irrelevant anything they may say about that higher source from which alone we draw our authority. That is what we are doing here.

Let us remember, when we talk of liberty and congratulate ourselves that in introducing a Bill of this kind we are greatly extending the scope of human liberty, that for every person who wants to say something really offensive about the Deity or the Christian religion, there are 10, 20 or 100 persons who would like to say something really offensive about the House of Commons. In these days, when we are constantly imposing more and more regulations which limit the liberty of the subject, there is always some danger that we may salve our consciences for limiting the liberty of the individual citizen in a lot of things which he wants more or less to do, by spectacularly removing a remote restraint, and enabling him to do what only one in a million ever wants to do. That, I feel, we are doing too much in this Bill. The hon. Member for Shoreditch—I am not sure it was not rather irrelevant—said that persons had been deprived of their civil rights in regard to the guardianship of children because of the religious views they held. That is a very difficult thing to do. How many parents have been deprived of their children on that ground, compared with the number who have been deprived of their children under various provisions in the Education Act with regard to mental deficiency and so on? Whether rightly or wrongly—and I am not saying it is wrong—the whole tendency of our legislation is to limit the rights of parents over children at every turn, and is it really a good thing that it should appear to be wholly irrelevant to give consideration to the question whether a person is a fit person to be the guardian of a child upon a question of religious belief?

That is the dilemma in which we find ourselves, and in a measure this Bill must have the appearance of saying that the only things that matter in government are purely secular considerations. Hon. Members on the other side have been very much worried by the extraordinary complication and confusion in the law, but that confusion is shared by every branch of the law which defines what you may or may not do. If any hon. Member wishes, as I frequently wish, to say what he really thinks about somebody else, he would have to be very careful, and search in a number of law books before he found the terms of abuse which he could safely use. That confusion applies to the whole branch of the law which defines slander and libel, and what a man may or may not say in public. Are we to say that we are content to get along under that confusion in regard to purely secular matters, and that we do not complain of it, but that, where more than secular matters are concerned, where something is concerned which is the only basis of authority and of all human government, we are to have complete freedom and complete liberty to express our opinions exactly how we will, however offensively, so long as it does not incite an excited Christian to hit us over our heads. I confess that this is a question of principle which cannot be resolved, but I ask hon. Members in all parts of the House to consider very carefully whether, especially at this time, this is the kind of announcement which we wish to make.

The Home Secretary thinks that the Bill should be amended, but I confess that I see very great difficulties in amending it. If you are going to introduce a Bill on this subject, you have to set it in relation to the law in regard to violent expression of opinion in other walks of life—violent expression of opinion against persons other than the Deity—and you have to consider the whole branch of that law far more carefully. I do not believe that any amendment of this Bill can be satisfactory. The Bill stands or falls as a kind of announcement. I know the announcement which is intended by the Mover and Seconder, but I am bound to view it as an announcement that we regard the question of the source of authority and government as irrelevant and unimportant. That is the real issue in political science, in constitutional theory which is in the thoughts of men throughout the world at the present moment.

We argue about Russia; hon. Friends of mine bring forward a lot of accusations, and hon. Members opposite reply by no less violent panegyrics about the Russian Government, but the real underlying issue is that the principle on which the Soviet Government have staked the whole of their existence and philosophy is that there is no power and no authority behind human government except what human government draws from purely human sources; that the heavens are empty and that from that source come down no inspiration and no authority. This Bill in its measure is a repetition—not intentional, I know, because it would be rejected by most hon. Members opposite if it were intentional—in more British and less obvious terms of that contention—a contention which says that we will maintain the authority of human government, we will prosecute sedition, we will use the sword against evil-doers who attack the constituted secular authorities, we will wipe out altogether as above the law in this country any reprehension, any prohibition of attacks upon that authority upon which all human government depends, from which alone human government draws any of its sanctions, and by which authority alone human government is able to exercise the awful power which it does exercise. I cannot assent to any declaration which will lead to such a terrible situation.

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I am not able to follow the Noble Lord all through the arguments that he has put up. I hope my hon. Friends who want to speak will excuse my intervention, but for some years past I have introduced this Bill, and I would not like to give a vote without trying to give some reasons for it. I want to say one thing about the Noble Lord's main argument, which appeared to be that this House, because we open our proceedings with prayer, acknowledges that it draws its inspiration from a higher power. He has forgotten that in this Box there are two documents, one which compels a Member to acknowledge the Deity at the time of taking the Oath, and the other which permits a Member to ignore the Deity and openly to avow that he does not take that view of life, and he simply affirms. That was introduced in order that a man, whom everybody in the House came afterwards to respect very highly, could take his seat. It enabled Charles Bradlaugh, who frankly and avowedly declared that he did not believe in a God, and others who thought with him, to take their place in this Chamber.

Photo of Lord Eustace Percy Lord Eustace Percy , Hastings

I never, of course, intended to affirm that this House rested on the basis now that every Member believes in certain things. I only said that the House as a corporate body did recognise that.

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

That is all right, but, if the House of Commons really believes what the House of Commons believed when I was a boy, no Jew would sit in this House, and Roman Catholics would have great difficulty in doing so. The point is that in these matters of Faith, and in those things which are defined as spiritual, it is utterly impossible for the law to be called in in any sort of way. I would have preferred not to have spoken on this subject, because religion is such a personal matter that it is very difficult to stand up and talk about it. I am in the positron of being a communicant member of the Church of England. I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that marriage is a sacrament, that it ought not to be dissolved, and that it really ought to bind a man and woman for ever. That, I know, is considered highly illogical to-day, and a large number of people think that the laws which were passed on this subject should be abolished. If a Bill were introduced to abolish that law, I should vote for it. I want to make the House understand why I would do that. To me, marriage is a Sacrament, but it cannot be made a Sacrament to another person unless that person of his own volition believes it to be so.

No law can make you believe something. That has been the struggle of the ages. Right down the ages men have struggled against the idea that you can be made to believe something because somebody else says you must believe it. Further than that, I believe that these Acts which we ask should be abolished are Acts which I do not think a single Member of this House, not even my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan) would dare to say should be put into operation, they are so utterly stupid. They have been quoted here this afternoon. The present Bishop of Birmingham would be put in gaol under the law that is on the Statute Book to-day. I say that without any hesitation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense!"] If anyone had the pluck to prosecute Dr. Barnes he could be prosecuted under the law. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!" and "Yes!"] I ask those who challenged that statement to recall to their minds the sermon he preached not so very many months ago, which was reported fully in the Press, in which he called in question almost all the fundamental principles of the Church of England. [HON. MEMBERS: "That, is not blasphemy!"] Hon. Members do not know what the law is, and I venture to ask them to go and look it up. [Interruption.] Hon. Members must have a little patience. Before they call in question these Acts of Parliament they should make themselves acquainted with them. They will find them in the Library of the House.

Mr. MACQUISTEN rose

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

If I do not know what happens in Scotland, I know the law of England and Wales.

Photo of Mr Frederick Macquisten Mr Frederick Macquisten , Argyll

The Acts have been read to us to-day.

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I am sorry if I have said something so highly controversial as to cause all this excitement. I do not want to do that. I only want to point out that in my view, and I said it and believed it at the time, if the law of blasphemy were really put into operation not only the Bishop whom I have mentioned but many other people who profess and call themselves Christians would find themselves laid by the heels.

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

That being so, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen ought to know why it was that the sort of movement grew up for the introduction of this Bill. When I was here in 1910 one or two men living in the provinces were being prosecuted for blasphemy. They were very poor men. They wrote some very terrible stuff about God and religion, with which I thoroughly and entirely disagreed. They were prosecuted and sent to prison. That continued till one of the men died; I am not quite sure about the other one. Yet at the same time there was sitting on this bench the head of the Rationalist Society. I maintained then what I maintain now, that it is not a question of how you attack the Deity. If you are going to have blasphemy laws any attack on the Deity should be put down—if you are going to put anyone down. [Interruption.] Yes, I say that because a very clever man like the late Lord Morley, or like the late Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, or like Mr. Robertson, or any of the other writers of the Rationalist Press, can put their case in a more deadly manner than it was put by Mr. Gott, of Bradford, and others who acted with him. I say you are definitely penalising people simply because they do not express themselves in the way that commends itself to you. In my view blasphemy is blasphemy whether it is uttered in intellectual language or in the language of ordinary people, and no amount of argument can get away from that.

The Noble Lord said we protect ourselves from attack, and I think it is right to do so, because we can be hurt by attack, but does the Noble Lord say to anyone who believes in the Deity that you can attack the Deity? Does anyone here think that God Almighty needs this House to defend Him? Does anyone here think that anything that I can say or that any writer can say for or against can add to the glory and the majesty of God, either if you believe in God or detract from Him? That is the nonsense of the argument that we must in some way defend the honour and integrity of the Almighty, that we must save Him from attack. I think that reduces the whole thing to ridicule. [Interruption.] Yes, and I have always thought so. Words do not make you or me better than one another. The only thing that can make us Christians is that by our life and conduct we should show that we are Christians. It cannot be done in any other way. There is no one in this House who can shrive my soul for me or con demn it; I will just have to see to that myself; and the opinion that any of us may have of each other is of no worth whatever in the sight of Almighty God.

Therefore, all this talk about the House of Commons defending and up holding religion is, I think, beside the mark. To-day we ought to be intelligent enough to understand that true religion will stand, not on what men write or talk about it, but on our actions. When we had the Prayer Book discussion here I tried to say this, and I repeat it to-day. In this country there is no such thing as anti-religion, but there is something very negative, and that is, absolute indifference to organised orthodox religion; and the reason for that is that the schools have taught men and women and are teaching the children to-day that what I want, I and each one of us here, is the spirit of religion applied to everyday life. We need the spirit of religion in our everyday life, and we want the power of the Almighty God to lead our people out of the conditions in which they find themselves to-day. I do not believe that God is responsible for the legislation passed by this House. If I did, I do not know what I should be. All I know is that if we are Christians, and if we believe in Christianity we ought to be willing to suit the defence of our Christianity to our actions in the same way that the early Church did before the days of Constantine.

Photo of Mr Samuel Roberts Mr Samuel Roberts , Sheffield Ecclesall

I should not have intervened in this Debate but for the speech of the First Commissioner of Works to which we on this side of the House have listened with the most profound astonishment. The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that in this world there is a sort of controversy about the Deity. The right hon. Gentleman leaves out of account the children who need guidance and protection from those who would take away from them their access to the Deity, and bring before them ideas of ridicule and scorn. I do not know whether the First Commissioner of Works heard the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) who alluded to the cartoons appearing in the Continental Press introducing obscenity and utter ridicule in regard to religion and religious characters who are held dear and believed in by the vast majority of the people of this country. This Bill would allow those cartoons to appear in the Press in this country, and they could not be stopped. Is that the wish of the First Commissioner of Works?

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I do not think the hon. Baronet has any right to say anything of the kind. I say definitely and after a good deal of thought that I do not believe that under any circumstances can we defend religion by preventing people from saying what they believe. You can only defend religion by showing that those who believe in it are better men than those who do the other thing.

Photo of Mr Samuel Roberts Mr Samuel Roberts , Sheffield Ecclesall

Then the right hon. Gentleman would not object to those cartoons appearing in the newspapers?

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

The hon. Baronet has no right to say that. I should object. I claim that I have done as much propaganda on behalf of religion as the hon. Baronet opposite, and I have always denounced that sort of thing. I have a perfect right to do that; but, at the same time, the other man whom I denounce has an equal right to say what he believes, and, if I can show that man that I am a better man than he is, that at any rate is the best test.

3.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Samuel Roberts Mr Samuel Roberts , Sheffield Ecclesall

Then there does not appear to be very much between us. The right hon. Gentleman opposite would not object to those cartoons appearing in the newspapers but he would use the influence of the law to stop them. The First Commissioner of Works does not wish to prevent the free expression of opinions, and he has no objection to blasphemy which reaches the stage of ridicule and scoffing which is so very much objected to by the majority of the people of this country. The very argument which the right hon. Gentleman uses of allowing that to take place would be the same argument that he could use for allowing the circulation in this country of the foreign literature which you see in the kiosks on the Continent. In this country, we have kept up an ideal of public decency which the Continent has not, and we desire to maintain that ideal, not because we pretend to be more righteous than anybody else, but because we desire to protect the children and the innocent from these insidious assaults—

Photo of Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy Lieut-General Edward Fitzroy , Daventry

I hope hon. Members will not introduce any undue heat into the Debate.

Photo of Mr Samuel Roberts Mr Samuel Roberts , Sheffield Ecclesall

I had no intention of introducing heat into this Debate, but the First Commissioner of Works has spoken in a provocative manner, and, if he produces one portion of the seidlitz powder, he cannot be surprised if we who sit on this side of the House produce the other part. What we have failed to consider in this Debate is the position of the ordinary, common, or garden man or woman who wants to lead a decent life. We do not want to prosecute anybody for their opinions, and it is only when people go over the border-line of decency that the ordinary Englishman or English woman desires to stop them. That is our general attitude in public life. As long as a man does not annoy his neighbour too much he can do what he likes, but when he oversteps a certain line and offends the susceptibilities of other people the law has a right to step in and protect those people. It is not a question of deep thinking or the desire of a man or a bishop who wishes to express certain views. It is not a question of dealing with somebody who stands on a soap box in Hyde Park, and makes speeches which are offensive to the majority of the people. This Bill would not interfere with such people. For these reasons, I shall have the greatest possible pleasure in voting against the Second Reading of this Bill.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

I am afraid that, if my hon. Friend the Member for North Battersea (Mr. Sanders) had to address the House now, he might not be able to say quite such kind words about the discussion as he did when he spoke, but I hope I may be able to restore it to the calm atmosphere that existed only a few moments ago. To-day, at the end of a week of very small things, we are discussing' the greatest thing that this House can discuss. We are trying, as the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) said, to reconcile two principles that seem to some to be irreconcilable. But, taking the line of argument followed by the Noble Lord himself, the liberties which this House has so hardly won during the past 300 years were themselves regarded by James I as a form of blasphemy. Hon. Members like the last speaker are in the last ditch in a battle the first line of defence in which was occupied by James I and Charles I. No shot has been fired on behalf of liberty of conscience to-day that does not draw its propulsive power from the words of the great address which John Milton delivered to this House in 1644, and no argument has been used against it that was not riddled by that same marvellous piece of literature, which is rightly regarded as the greatest expression of English prose. With regard to the argument of the last speaker about the perversion of young and weak persons, John Milton foresaw that when he said: Well knows he who uses to consider, that our faith and knowledge thrive by exercise as well as our limbs and complexion. Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his Pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy. I do not believe that we have a right to Bay that these doctrines shall not be promulgated merely because there are some weak people whose faith may be destroyed thereby. After all, no man's faith can be established until it has been firmly tested by all the weapons that can be employed against it. But that does not commit me to the belief that a man is entitled to use obscene or offensive language that is likely to lead to a breach of the peace. That is a different matter altogether. Now, as regards the prosecution of Mr. Gott, people in this country are firmly convinced that Mr. Gott was prosecuted, not because of his obscenity, if it were obscenity, but because of his attack on religion, and really, when the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Marjoribanks) led up in the way that he did to the quotation that he read, I thought we were going to hear something terrible. I can only say that, if Mr. Gott was prosecuted at all, it ought to have been under some Statute for not posses sing a sense of humour. He made a certain allusion to the Second Person in the Trinity. After all, persons like my self, who are Unitarians, are at any moment liable under the Act of William III to be prosecuted if we affirm—

Photo of Mr Isaac Foot Mr Isaac Foot , Bodmin

No; the Act has been amended.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

I am very glad to hear that; it removes a serious apprehension that I have been feeling for a long time to-day. Mr. Gott made a certain statement with regard to the Entry into Jerusalem which showed in the first place that he did not realise the beauty of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, and demonstrated that he had never given to that incident any serious thought. I suggest that a far more effective answer to Mr. Gott would have been a reasoned statement of the whole incident to which he referred, rather than a prosecution which convinced people that he was being prosecuted for being an Atheist, and not merely for the way in which he ex pressed his opinion. What Milton said is still true. Truth does progress from age to age. We hold in scorn to-day the men who imprisoned John Bunyan, but it was the same spirit which protests against the repeal of this law that sent John Bunyan to prison. I venture to say that there is not a man in this House to-day who would not sooner be remembered as a supporter of John Bunyan than as a supporter of the Bishops who secured the sending of John Bunyan to prison. Macaulay says of the prosecutions of that age: If the debauched Cavalier frequented brothels and gambling houses, he at least avoided conventicles. If he never spoke without uttering ribaldry and blasphemy, he made some amends by his eagerness to send Baxter and Howe to gaol for preaching and praying. Thus the clergy for a while made war on schism with so much vigor that they had little leisure to make war on vice. I hold that the great thing that this House establishes in the world is the fact that men may come here and may say without any fear at all, on matters of great public interest, things as they believe them. There is no Assembly that sooner detects insincerity than this House. We have all heard in our time speeches which, as oratorical efforts, were perfect but which made no impression at all on the House, because Members felt that they were mere oratorical efforts and were not the expression of a man's inner feeling. It is because of the liberty that we have here that we are able so easily to detect sincerity and insincerity.

I come from a profession which, during the past 100 years or so, has been subject to severe religious tests. You never found out by the questions you put to a schoolmaster whether his opinions were good or bad. I recollect being called up for a headmastership and, after many attempts to find out what my religious persuasion was, at last the vicar, who was in the chair, thought he would discover it in this way. He said, "Would you, if you were appointed, play the organ on Sundays?" I said "No, but if the sermons are good I will blow it," Through the sporting nature of the offer he discovered that my theological convictions were not of the kind that he required. I want to appeal to the House to realise that liberty never harmed this nation. We have made great and risky experiments in liberty. We made one last year when we extended the franchise to women over 21 and under 30, and the results excellently justified the step we took, though they may not have pleased the immediate authors. Liberty, as Milton said, "the nurse of all great wits," has been one of the things that this nation has been proud to give to the world, and this last vestige of theological intolerance is one that we can honour ourselves by if to-day we take the first step towards removing it from the Statute book.

Photo of Mr Edwin Scrymgeour Mr Edwin Scrymgeour , Dundee

I do not want to give a silent vote on this Bill. There is so much of importance involved that it is only right that all who can get the opportunity should seek to express themselves distinctly. The trend of this Bill undoubtedly is in the direction of the Russian position. That is not only, as the Noble Lord said, that they are not desirous of having anything of that kind, but that in reality are adopting an actually aggressive position of the prevention of liberty in Russia to the expression of legitimate religious opinion and conviction. It is adverse to the very principle upon which the so-called advocacy of this claim for liberty is being made here again from the Labour Benches. The development in this connection in my view is altogether derogatory to the highest interests of the Labour movement. There are those who have had a closer connection with the inner working of the Labour movement in past years than I have had, but I know that at one time the development was to an extraordinary degree cutting the very life out of the Labour movement. Its vitality was being wiped out. There have been those who came into the Labour movement, and are with it yet, who are providing a strengthening force which has a very considerable influence in middle class opinion. It is the safeguard to developments which might otherwise take place in connection with the Labour and Socialist movement which would be adverse to the interests of the country at large.

The lines upon which the Bill is intended to go are directed towards the expansion of such expressions of mind as are being made in this country from platforms, not of the Labour or Socialist party, but of what is known as the most extreme party in the country. The object is to give some assimilation to the views which are discussed from those platforms; to provide some kind of agreement in regard to the view? being urged upon the Labour party by the Communist movement. It is intended to give a pacific method of seeking agreement. In last week's issue of the "Forward" there was an article by a well-known writer and dramatist, and a miner, Mr. Joe Corrie. Writing on his visit to Russia, he says that the position there is strongly condemnatory of religious opinion and conviction, and that so deep has become that attitude of mind among the Russians who have been impelled by the influence of the Soviet Government, that, when there was a presentation of a picture showing nuns at prayer, it was loudly laughed at in the cinema. Mr. Joe Corrie says that, while approving of the scheme and the plans upon which the Soviet Government work in this connection, he believes that they are taking great risks. I submit that the latter part of that sentence constitutes a serious warning to the Labour party. They are taking great risks.

What is the Labour movement asking for if not for the uplifting of the moral forces of the working classes of our country? There are certain evidences in the political activities of the Labour party that they are not concerned about the moral issues. They are not facing some of the outstanding moral issues. There is a risk of a weakening of the fundamental principles upon which the whole movement is based. The Labour movement in this country was not founded upon anti-religion. It was founded by men who were strong believers. Mr. Keir Hardie was a very tenacious exponent of the Christian gospel and a believer in its very effective and practical application.

What is the position from the ecclesiastical point of view. The hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Sanders) referred to the time when Mr. G. A. Foote made his plea from a secularist platform. There were very few who cared to go to such meetings, which were held in many parts of the country. Now much of the same teaching provided by Mr. G. A. Foote is being made from ecclesiastical platforms, and from pulpits of the Church of England—a deliberate challenge to the outstanding principles of the Christian gospel. If there is power in the law, it is time that some of our leading ecclesiastics were dealt with in the Courts of law, for getting money by false pretences. If men have ceased to believe in the things that axe eternal, they ought to cease taking money out of the Church treasury. They ought to depart, and declare themselves either as agnostics, or unbelievers, or whatever they may be. By the proposals of this Bill we are going to open the sluice gates for some of the foul-mouthed sort of oratory that is prevalent in our country now, never mind going back for years. It is poured out in our public streets to-day, and respectable people do not want to listen to it. [HON. MEMBERS: "They do not have to!"] It is taking place in my own city. Some of our citizens have come to me and have expressed themselves deeply aggrieved that such things are taking place.

Members of the Labour movement conceive the idea of pandering to this kind of low-down business. What opening is there for any literary development, any intellectual profit or any impetus for the Labour movement or any cause in something which suggests that we should dispense with anything in the way of religion? [HON. MEMBERS: "It does nothing of the sort!"] That is the position. That is the logical outcome of this Bill. I have debated this matter with Mr. Guy Aldred, of Glasgow, on the question of revolution without religion or revolution by religion.

The idea is put forward, as it has been put forward in Russia, that religion is a sort of dope, something that silences the working class, something that puts them to sleep and keeps them in that condition. I submit an entirely opposition position. If there is one driving power, if there is one elixir, if there is one thing which gives an imprimateur to the upholding of national righteousness, it is the firm belief that He who founded the great gospel of Christianity accomplished a task unquestionably for the interest of the worker and for the interest of every man, woman and child. Are we going to give opportunities for those who have nothing but scorn for Him concerning whom Renan himself declared that there was no disputing His unchallengeable position as the most perfect Man? That we should give opportunities for those who have nothing but scorn and ridicule for anything that conceives the ideal of a great eternal universe and a great Divine Governor of the universe, and that we should do it in the name of the Labour movement, is an absolute scandal, and I am strongly against it.

Photo of Mr Ernest Bennett Mr Ernest Bennett , Cardiff Central

After the reassuring words of the Home Secretary, I shall have no scruple in voting for the Second Reading of the Bill, because those reassuring words mean that, if the Bill comes back to the House from Committee, the objectionable features alluded to by the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) will be excised. I wish that the author of the Bill would accept the suggested Amendment made from the opposite benches. In that case, the Bill would have been sent upstairs and disposed of, and we should have got rid of the archaic and obsolete provisions against schism, heresy, and so on. If that cannot be done, what are the prospects of the Bill? No one believes that in this overloaded Session it can be passed. I do not want to adopt the flavour of the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon which has characterised some of the speeches. I wish to correct one or two inaccuracies which have cropped up during the course of the Debate. No hon. Member has contradicted the statement made over and over again that the Blasphemy Laws are unfair because they protect one form only of Christianity—namely, that of the Church of England. Hon. Members who have spoken on these lines and the authors of the pamphlets which have been read have not taken the trouble to read the Statutes concerned. The hon. Member who seconded the Bill quoted from the Statute of William III, and the words of the Statute answered his own point. They are "the tenets of the Christian religion." If there is any doubt let me quote, not from Baron Alderson or any archaic exposition of case law, but from the latest work which has appeared on the crime and history of blasphemy published in 1928 by Mr. Noakes of the Inner Temple. He says distinctly: It is perhaps an offence to attack religion in general. It is quite an open question as to whether you can under the Blasphemy Laws attack Islam or Judaism; and he goes on: but it is certainly an offence to attack the Christian religion in general. It is, therefore, inaccurate to say that our Roman Catholic friends have no protection under the Acts as they exist at present. Another inaccuracy is the statement that prosecutions have taken place in recent years directed against the expression of opinion and Mr. McKenna's name has been mentioned in this connection. Of all the prosecutions which have taken place during the last 20 years not one has been on the ground of attempting to repress opinion and belief. The last prosecution in Great Britain directed against opinion or belief took place in the early forties, namely, the famous prosecution arising out of the publication of Shelley's "Queen Mab." Mr. McKenna, in relation to the memorial which was sent up on behalf of one of the people who were prosecuted—I think the name was Thomas William Stewart—replied tersely and to the point. He said: Mr. McKenna thinks it right to point out that the prisoner is not punished for holding certain opinions nor for seeking to support his opinions by argument but because in his speeches, which were uttered in a public place 60 as to be heard by all manner of persons, he held up to contempt the religious beliefs of others and made use of language which was calculated to wound, and cannot have been uttered without the intention of wounding, the feelings of others. What is the latest definition of blasphemy according to our law authorities? This is what Mr. Noakes, who may be accepted as an authority, says on the subject. At the present time, the evidence of blasphemy or blasphemous words consists of the verbal publication of words so scurrilous as to pass the limits of decent controversy concerning the Deity, the Bible or religion, with the intention to insult believers in or sypathisers with Christianity. The only difference between that and blasphemous libel is that libel consists of publication otherwise than by speech of words, signs, symbols and so on. There is another point that has been made repeatedly to-day, namely, that you can punish blasphemy and blasphemous libel under the existing law, that this thing can be punished under the ordinary laws against indecency. But many of these offences, and some of the worst, need not necessarily come under the category of what is ordinarily called "indecency." Let me give a concrete instance. Lately I saw, I think in the "Times," an account of incidents outside the Russian Churches on Christmas Day. Worshippers were entering their churches in Russia on that day, and outside a body of men were engaged in several towns in outrageous and shameful caricatures of the ancient story of the Bethlehem Nativity. That was not indecent in the ordinary sense at all.

I have no brief for the Russia of today, but it is a fact, I believe well authenticated, that the Russians at any rate are very stringent in protecting the public from any public display of indecency in the theatre or otherwise. It is not that. We can all imagine gross and scurrilous things, deeply wounding the feelings of the majority of people, which could not be attacked on the ground of technical indecency. Then take insulting language. I am not a lawyer, but I feel that as a county magistrate I can trust our fifth gospel, "Stone's Justices' Manual," and I think I am right in saying that insulting language itself is not an indictable offence in this country. You can go up to anyone and call him a blackguard, and if you escape personal chastisement from the man himself at any rate the man has no other redress against you in the law. Insult in itself is not an indictable offence.

What is going to happen if we excise from the common law of the country the opportunity for redressing gross eases of scurrilous attacks upon the faith of the majority of our people? Let us take the case known to all of us. What goes on in the north-east corner of Hyde Park, near the Marble Arch? Every Sunday it is a veritable microcosm of warring faiths and religious controversies. One hears an amazing variety of sentiments in every direction, mostly by religious or quasi-religious speakers, with a certain number of groups of Primrose Leaguers and Communists and other tiresome people. I remember being there on a terrible day last November. The rain was falling and we had our umbrellas and coat collars up. At the end of a line, we listened to a man who was descanting, under the leaden sky, on the merits of sun worship, although his special deity had not put in an appearance for several weeks.

Next to him was a band of American Christians advocating some form of Christianity invented in the United States and called "The Pillar of Fire." The "Pillar of Fire" man was attacking the sun worshipper and vice versa. Incidentally, since the Home Secretary is here, may I ask why when alien musicians are excluded from this country, we should allow evangelists to come into the country although, to judge from the appearance of the congregations in our churches and chapels a good many indigenous theologians are out of a job in Great Britain. In Hyde Park I found the representatives of all these rival sects. At one end of the line were the admirers of Johanna Southcote, and at the other end a very cultured teacher with a crucifix was supporting the claims of Roman Catholicism. They were attacking each other mutually, these Christians—apparently they do not love one another now as in pagan days—and at the back of them there was a secularist body attacking all of them. Nevertheless, I felt that there was a certain restraint over these controversialists. There was a limit to what they would say or do and it is very rare that the police are called upon to interfere in these Hyde Park meetings. But supposing that it is made lawful to vilify and cast ridicule and contempt on the religion of the people, is it to be thought that we shall continue to have this peaceful scene in Hyde Park?

Supposing that instead of these people who, for one reason or another, have a certain restraint upon them; who have some sort of arrière pensée which comes from the common law, you liberate in Hyde Park the sort of people who have been prosecuted and convicted under these laws in the last 20 years, your Taylors and your Stewarts et hoc genus omne, what type of meeting will you have then in Hyde Park? Nowadays the people who look on in Hyde Park are like any other crowd passing by. They look on with tolerance. I hope it is tolerance though I wonder sometimes if it is not indifference. For some reason or other England has become a far more tolerant country. I have mentioned the case of a Roman Catholic teacher with a crucifix in Hyde Park. Evidently the volcanic fires of Mr. Kensit are quiescent, or, perhaps happily extinct, but 20 years ago I doubt very much if you could have had a crucifix in that corner of Hyde Park, without a row. It is not a long time ago since my old leader, Mr. Asquith, as he then was, found that it was incumbent upon him to forbid a Roman Catholic procession here in the streets of Westminster. But whether it is tolerance or indifference, that is the state of things to-day and whether my friends who sympathise with this Bill and with what is called rationalist propaganda like it or not, it is a fact that the vast majority of the people in this country call themselves Christians and are Christians. We do, as a matter of fact, start our work here every day with a Christian service, and I have noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) is the most assiduous attendant at those prayers.

Photo of Mr Ernest Thurtle Mr Ernest Thurtle , Shoreditch

How many Ministers attend?

Photo of Mr Ernest Bennett Mr Ernest Bennett , Cardiff Central

I am praising the hon. Member, not them. [Interruption.] It is a fact in all seriousness that there are to-day millions of our fellow-citizens who are guided in life, comforted in trouble, and cheered in the hour of death by Christianity. These things are true. You are at perfect liberty to question the validity of the facts on which people base their faith. It is open to us all, from Bishop Barnes downward, and it is a legitimate and proper and fair thing to do. It is only right that it should be so, but it is a different matter when you ask me to acquiesce in a state of things under which the laws of England would allow the deepest feelings and convictions of the people to be in public scurrilously abused and reviled.

Photo of Mr Alexander Haycock Mr Alexander Haycock , Salford West

I want to drive home one or two points. Concerning the decencies of controversy, I believe that we have already evolved regulations effectively to control discussion. It is not possible to-day for any person to get up in Hyde Park or elsewhere and indulge in an argument which would be in any way obscene. I want discussion of things that matter, because I know that it is only by discussion that we shall discover truth. Truth has always come from controversy and discussion.

I want to deal with one or two points which have been raised about Russia. The Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour), and a number of others have discussed Russia and the problem of religion there. They either do not know the facts, or they have been reading, perhaps, the "Daily Mail" or the "Morning Post." They do not realise that there is enormously more religious liberty in Russia to-day than there was in the days of the Tsar. The only religion of Russia in the old days was that of the Orthodox Church. [Interruption.] I am a Canadian, and I have seen the Dukhobors forced out of their own country after all kinds of abominations and intolerance and persecution, and going to Canada, where they are now. Baptists were persecuted in the old days in Russia. There is more religious tolerance and liberty in Russia

to-day than ever before. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nonsense!"] It is not nonsense; it is true.

Photo of Professor Sir Charles Oman Professor Sir Charles Oman , Oxford University

Have not the Dukhobors been dealt with severely by the Canadian Government because of their extraordinary habit of stripping themselves naked for religious services?

Photo of Mr Alexander Haycock Mr Alexander Haycock , Salford West

I am merely saying what happens to be true, and that is that there is much more religious liberty in Russia to-day than there was when Rasputin was in charge of the Church there. There is much more religious toleration in Russia to-day than there ever was before; and that kind of religion that was in Russia before the War was dope, and worse. We had that kind of religion here, which said: God bless the squire and his relations,And keep us in our proper stations. We had the kind of religion which was merely a prop for tyranny. It was not merely dope, but worse than dope, and it was the kind of religion which was worse than blasphemy when we had our parsons in this country glorifying the ugly facts of slaughter and war. If the prayers that went to Heaven during any five minutes of the last war had been answered, there would not have been a man alive on this earth; mankind would have been as extinct as the dodo, and there would not have been a, blade of grass left. That kind of religion is worse than dope. The person who has attacked that kind of nonsense all through history has been justified by history. If those who have resisted liberty had had their own way, there would have been no modem civilisation or freedom of thought at all, but the person who has demanded liberty has been justified ever since, and I do hope that we shall extend this liberty, so that a man in this country may speak the thing he will.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided: Ayes, 131; Noes, 77.

Division No. 116.]AYES.[3.47 p.m.
Adamson, W. M. (Staff., Cannock)Benson, G.Charleton, H. C.
Addison, Rt. Hon. Dr. ChristopherBentham, Dr. EthelChater, Daniel
Ayles, WalterBevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale)Cluse, W. S.
Baker, John (Wolverhampton, Bilston)Brown, C W. E. (Notts. Mansfield)Cocks, Frederick Seymour
Baldwin, Oliver (Dudley)Brown, W. J. (Wolverhampton, West)Cove, William G.
Beckett, John (Camberwell, Peckham)Burgin, Dr. E. L.Daggar, George
Bennett, Capt. E. N. (Cardiff, Central)Buxton, C R. (Yorks, W. R. Elland)Denman, Hon. R. D.
Bennett, William (Battersea, South)Carter, W. (St. Pancras, S. W.)Dickson, T.
Ede, James ChuterLawson, John JamesSawyer, G. F.
Edmunds, J. E.Lawther, W. (Barnard Castle)Shaw, Rt. Hon. Thomas (Preston)
Edwards, E. (Morpeth)Leach, W.Shepherd, Arthur Lewis
Elmley, ViscountLee, Frank (Derby, N. E.)Shield, George William
Evans, Capt. Ernest (Welsh Univer.)Lees, J.Shiels, Dr. Drummond
Foot, IsaacLindley, Fred W.Shillaker, J. F.
Freeman, PeterLongden, F.Simmons, C. J.
Gardner, J. P. (Hammersmith, N.)McEntee, V. L.Smith, Alfred (Sunderland)
Gillett, George M.MacNeill-Weir, L.Smith, Ben (Bermondsey, Rotherhithe)
Gossling, A. G.Malone, C. L'Estrange (N'thampton)Smith, Frank (Nuneaton)
Grenfell, D. R. (Glamorgan)Markham, S. F.Smith, H. B. Lees (Keighley)
Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro' W.)Marley, J.Snell, Harry
Groves, Thomas E.Matters, L. W.Sorensen, R.
Grundy, Thomas W.Mills, J. E.Stephen, Campbell
Hall, G. H. (Merthyr Tydvil)Morgan, Dr. H. B.Strauss, G. R.
Hall, Capt. W. P. (Portsmouth, C.)Morrison, Herbert (Hackney, South)Sullivan, J.
Hamilton, Sir R. (Orkney & Zetland)Morrison, Robert C. (Tottenham, N.)Thomas, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Derby)
Hastings, Dr. SomervilleMort, D. L.Tinker, John Joseph
Haycock, A. W.Muggeridge, H. T.Trevelyan, Rt. Hon. Sir Charles
Hayes, John HenryOliver, George Harold (Ilkeston)Viant, S. P.
Henderson, Arthur, Junr. (Cardiff, S.)Palin, John HenryWalker, J.
Henderson, W. W. (Middx., Enfield)Paling, WilfridWallhead, Richard C.
Herriotts, J.Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)Watkins, F. C.
Hirst, G. H.(York W. R. Wentworth)Perry, S. F.Wellock, Wilfred
Horrabin, J. F.Phillips, Dr. MarionWest, F. R.
Hudson, James H. (Huddersfield)Pole, Major D. G.Whiteley, Wilfrid (Birm., Ladywood)
Isaacs, GeorgePotts, John S.Whiteley, William (Blaydon)
Jenkins, W. (Glamorgan, Neath)Raynes, W. R.Williams, Dr. J. H. (Llanelly)
Jones, Rt. Hon. Leif (Camborne)Richards, R.Wilson, C. H. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Jowett, Rt. Hon. F. W.Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)Wilson, J. (Oldham)
Kennedy, ThomasRitson, J.Wood, Major McKenzie (Banff)
Kinley, J.Romeril, H. G.Wright, W. (Rutherglen)
Knight, HolfordRosbotham, D. S. T.Young, R. S. (Islington, North)
Lansbury, Rt. Hon. GeorgeRowson, Guy
Lathan, G.Samuel, H. W. (Swansea, West)TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Law, A. (Rossendale)Sanders, W. S.Mr. Thurtle and Dr Salter.
Lawrence, SusanSandham, E.
NOES.
Albery, Irving JamesGower, Sir RobertPower, Sir John Cecil
Baillie-Hamilton, Hon. Charles W.Graham, Fergus (Cumberland, N.)Pybus, Percy John
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.Greaves-Lord, Sir WalterRamsay, T. B. Wilson
Beaumont, M. W.Hacking, Rt. Hon. Douglas H.Reynolds, Col. Sir James
Berry, Sir GeorgeHamilton, Sir George (Ilford)Roberts, Sir Samuel (Ecclesall)
Bevan, S. J. (Holborn)Henderson, Capt. R. R.(Oxf'd, Henley)Ross, Major Ronald D.
Bowyer, Captain Sir George E. W.Hennessy, Major Sir G. R. J.Samuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)
Boyce, H. L.Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.)Sandeman, Sir N. Stewart
Braithwaite, Major A. N.King, Commodore Rt. Hon. Henry D.Scrymgeour, E.
Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Berks, Newb'y)Knox, Sir AlfredSimms, Dr. John M. (Co. Down)
Butler, R. A.Lambert, Rt. Hon. George (S. Molton)Smith-Carington, Neville W.
Cadogan, Major Hon. EdwardLaw, Sir Alfred (Derby, High Peak)Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Castle Stewart, Earl ofLeighton, Major B. E. P.Southby, Commander A. R. J.
Cautley, Sir Henry S.Llewellin, Major J. J.Steel-Maitland, Rt. Hon. Sir Arthur
Chadwick, Sir Robert BurtonLogan, David GilbertStuart, J. C. (Moray and Nairn)
Chapman, Sir S.Macquisten, F. A.Thomas, Major L. B. (King's Norton)
Courtauld, Major J. S.Makins, Brigadier-General E.Titchfield, Major the Marquess of
Cranbourne, ViscountMeller, R. J.Todd, Capt. A. J.
Crookshank, Capt. H. C.Monsell, Eyres, Com. Rt. Hon. Sir B.Turton, Robert Hugh
Croom-Johnson, R. P.Moore, Sir Newton J. (Richmond)Warrender, Sir Victor
Cunliffe-Lister, Rt. Hon. Sir PhilipMorrison-Bell, Sir Arthur CliveWells, Sydney R.
Davies, Dr. VernonNicholson, Col. Rt. Hn. W. G. (Ptrsf'ld)Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel George
Eden, Captain AnthonyNield, Rt. Hon. Sir HerbertWomersley, W. J.
Everard, W. LindsayOman, Sir Charles William C.Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley
Fremantle, Lieut.-Colonel Francis E.Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. William
Ganzoni, Sir JohnPeake, Capt. OsbertTELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Gill, T. H.Percy, Lord Eustace (Hastings)Mr. Lovat - Fraser and Mr. Marjoribanks.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House."—[Sir Burton Chadwick.]

The House divided: Ayes, 71; Noes, 118.

Division No. 117.]AYES.[3.56 p.m.
Albery, Irving JamesBerry, Sir GeorgeCastle Stewart. Earl of
Atholl, Duchess ofBowyer, Captain Sir George E. W.Cautley, Sir Henry S.
Baillie-Hamilton, Hon. Charles W.Braithwaite, Major A. N.Chapman, Sir S.
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Berks, Newb'y)Cranbourne, Viscount
Beaumont, M. W.Cadogan, Major Hon. EdwardCrookshank, Capt. H. C.
Croom-Johnson, R. P.Macquisten, F. A.Scrymgeour, E.
Cunilffe-Lister, Rt. Hon. Sir PhilipMakins, Brigadier-General E.Simms, Dr. John M. (Co. Down)
Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.)Marjoribanks, E. C.Smith-Carington, Neville W.
Eden, Captain AnthonyMonsell, Eyres, Com. Rt. Hon. Sir B.Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Everard, W. LindsayMoore, Sir Newton J. (Richmond)Southby, Commander A. R. J.
Fremantle, Lieut.-Colonel Francis E.Morrison-Bell, Sir Arthur CliveSteel-Maitland, Rt. Hon. Sir Arthur
Ganzoni, Sir JohnNicholson, Col. Rt. Hn. W. G. (Ptrsf'ld)Stuart, J. C. (Moray and Nairn)
Gill, T. H.Nield, Rt. Hon. Sir HerbertThomas, Major L. B. (King's Norton)
Gower, Sir RobertOman, Sir Charles William C.Titchfield, Major the Marquess of
Graham, Fergus (Cumberland, N.)Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. WilliamTodd, Capt. A. J.
Greaves-Lord, Sir WalterPeake, Capt. OsbertTurton, Robert Hugh
Henderson, Capt. R. R.(Oxf'd, Henley)Power, Sir John CecilWarrender, Sir Victor
Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.)Pybus, Percy JohnWells, Sydney R.
King, Commodore Rt. Hon. Henry D.Ramsay, T. B. WilsonWindsor-Cilve, Lieut.-Colonel George
Knox, Sir AlfredReynolds, Col. Sir JamesWomersley, W. J.
Lambert, Rt. Hon. George (S. Molton)Roberts, Sir Samuel (Ecclesall)Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley
Law, Sir Alfred (Derby, High Peak)Rodd, Rt. Hon. Sir James Rennell
Leighton, Major B. E. P.Ross, Major Ronald D.TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Llewellin, Major J. J.Samuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)Sir Burton Chadwick and Sir George Hamilton.
Lovat-Fraser, J. A.Sandeman, Sir N. Stewart
NOES.
Addison, Rt. Hon. Dr. ChristopherHenderson, W. W. (Middx., Enfield)Ritson, J.
Baldwin, Oliver (Dudley)Herriotts, J.Romeril, H. G.
Beckett, John (Camberwell, Peckham)Hirst, G. H. (York W. R. Wentworth)Rosbotham, D. S. T.
Bennett, Capt. E. N.(Cardiff, Central)Hudson, James H. (Huddersfield)Rowson, Guy
Bennett, William (Battersea, South)Isaacs, GeorgeSamuel, H. W. (Swansea, West)
Bentham, Dr. EthelJenkins, W. (Glamorgan, Neath)Sanders, W. S.
Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale)Jones, Rt. Hon. Leif (Camborne)Sandham, E.
Brown, C. W. E. (Notts, Mansfield)Jowett, Rt. Hon. F. W.Sawyer, G. F.
Brown, W. J. (Wolverhampton, West)Kennedy, ThomasShaw, Rt. Hon. Thomas (Preston)
Burgin, Dr. E. L.Kinley, J.Shepherd, Arthur Lewis
Buxton, C. R. (Yorks. W. R. Elland)Knight, HolfordShield, George William
Carter, W. (St. Pancras, S. W.)Lansbury, Rt. Hon. GeorgeShiels, Dr. Drummond
Charleton, H. C.Lathan, G.Shillaker, J. F.
Chater, DanielLawrence, SusanSimmons, C. J.
Cluse, W. S.Lawther, W. (Barnard Castle)Smith, Alfred (Sunderland)
Cocks, Frederick SeymourLeach, W.Smith, Ben (Bermondsey, Rotherhithe)
Cove, William G.Lindley, Fred W.Smith, Frank (Nuneaton)
Daggar, GeorgeLogan, David GilbertSmith, H. B. Lees (Keighley)
Denman, Hon. R. D.Longden, F.Snell, Harry
Dickson, T.McEntee, V. L.Sorensen, R.
Ede, James ChuterMacNeill-Weir, L.Stephen, Campbell
Edmunds, J. E.Malone, C. L'Estrange (N'thampton)Strauss, G. R.
Edwards, E. (Morpeth)Markham, S. F.Sullivan, J.
Evans, Capt. Ernest (Welsh Univer)Matters, L. W.Thomas, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Derby)
Foot, IsaacMills, J. E.Tinker, John Joseph
Freeman, PeterMorgan, Dr. H. B.Trevelyan, Rt. Hon. Sir Charles
Gardner, J. P. (Hammersmith, N.)Morrison, Herbert (Hackney, South)Viant, S. P.
Gillett, George M.Morrison, Robert C. (Tottenham, N.)Walker, J.
Gossling, A. G.Mort, D. L.Watkins, F. C.
Grenfell, D. R. (Glamorgan)Muggeridge, H. T.Wellock, Wilfred
Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro' W.)Oliver, George Harold (Ilkeston)West, F. R.
Groves, Thomas E.Palin, John HenryWhiteley, Wilfrid (Birm., Ladywood)
Grundy, Thomas W.Paling, WilfridWhitetey, William (Blaydon)
Hall, G. H. (Merthyr Tydvil)Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)Williams Dr. J. H. (Llanelly)
Hall, Capt. W. P. (Portsmouth, C.)Perry, S. F.Wilson, C. H. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Hamilton, Sir R. (Orkney & Zetland)Phillips, Dr. MarlonWilson, J. (Oldham)
Hastings, Dr. SomervillePole, Major D. G.Wise, E. F.
Haycock, A. W.Potts, John S.Young, R. S. (Islington, North)
Hayes, John HenryRichards, R.
Henderson, Arthur, Junr. (Cardiff, S.)Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Mr. Thurtle and Dr. Salter.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at Four Minutes after Four o'Clock until Monday next, 27th January.