I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This is the third time that it has been my duty as Home Secretary to move a Bill for the prolongation of the life of the present Parliament by a further year. I think that the House will give general assent to the passage of this Bill. The Parliament Act, 1911, substituted five years for the seven provided by the Septennial Act, which still remains in form on the Statute Book as amended by the Act of 1911. In the Prolongation of Parliament Act, 1940, which I had the honour of presenting to the House, we substituted six years for five within the terms of the Parliament Act, 1911. In 1941 we could not, as a matter of drafting, follow the phraseology of the Act of 1940 so we repealed the provision of the Parliament Act which provided five years instead of seven, leaving the Septennial Act operative. We now proceed to amending the Septennial Act by providing that this Parliament will last for eight years instead of the seven provided in that Act.
The reasons for the continuation of the life of the present Parliament are well known to the House. The registration of electors has been suspended during the war, the reason being that the large amount of administrative and clerical work involved, apart from the considerable amount of work involved for the various political parties, would not be an economic use of our resources or manpower in time of war. Further, the conditions of war itself make a General Election very undesirable if it can possibly be avoided, because the conduct of a General Election would in itself involve an enormous use of man-power, a diversion of the national effort and the stimulation of a good deal of controversy at a time when national unity is a matter of vital importance. And, rather contradictory of that argument, the controversy itself would be a little difficult to stimulate in a healthy sense, because the nation is essentially united on the prosecution of the war. All political parties are agreed that our first duty in this situation is to prosecute the war and to win it. Therefore, the issues in a General Election would be somewhat difficult, if a General Election were to take place.
There is, of course, the further possibility that in the middle of the election the enemy might—or might not—undertake heavy bombing raids, which would be a. little disturbing to the peaceful conduct of election meetings and all the other activities associated with a General Election. Therefore, the House has accepted what I think is the common sense of the situation—that if it can be avoided it is inappropriate and undesirable that a General Election should take place during the course of the war. I may say that the enemy has taken some interest in the possibility of a General Election in this country, and certain enemy broadcasters have expressed views about it. The House may be interested to know, in case it has escaped the attention of Members, as I hope it has, what enemy broadcasters have said about a continuation of the life of Parliament. Towards the end of July English-speaking announcers on enemy broadcasting stations said:
The holding of a General Election would not only be a good idea but is also necessary. So far the nation has not been consulted about anything connected with this war. We were not even asked whether we wanted to go to war over the question of Danzig, nor has the nation been asked whether the war should continue. The nation was also not asked if it were prepared to go to war with Japan.
I do not know that anybody else asked us whether we wanted a war with Japan. One broadcaster said that the snowball vote which his station was advocating would force our Prime Minister to agree to a General Election. This was a reference
to a broadcast in May last in which the British people were asked "to start a new and louder demand for a General Election, a people's vote." That argument comes strangely from a country in which General Elections have been abolised, in effect, ever since the Nazi régime was in operation, but I read it as a matter of interest in the course of international controversy.
I do not think it textually quoted any portion of the British Press. Whether the English Press has used much the same argument I do not know, and in view of the controversies which I have had with the British Press in the past, I have no wish to enter into that sphere of controversy.
So much for the provisions of this Bill in regard to the United Kingdom Parliament. There is a new and unaccustomed provision in this Bill, which was not included in the two preceding Acts, as regards the House of Commons of Northern Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, in Section 14, Sub-section (4), provides that the House of Commons of Northern Ireland shall have a life limited to not more than five years. Under this legislation the life of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland expires on 1st March, 1943. Therefore, it is necessary that this House should legislate as regards Northern Ireland, because the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons is dependent upon legislation of an Imperial character. The considerations as to a General Election for the House of Commons in Northern Ireland are quite similar to, broadly speaking, on all fours with, the arguments for and against a General Election in this country, and it would be wrong, I think, that the Imperial Parliament should extend its own life and deny to the Northern Ireland House of Commons the right to extend its life. I think the arguments which are applicable to Great Britain are applicable in principle to the conditions in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me logical, reasonable and right that Parliament here should authorise the extension of the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons.
That is not necessarily a determining factor. Moreover, the elements out of which you make a Coalition Government in two countries are not exactly the same. But I do not wish to be drawn too far into the domestic political affairs of Northern Ireland, which seem to me to be the business of Northern Ireland and not of the British House of Commons.
But has not the right hon. Gentleman had representations from Northern Ireland on this matter? He must not put a Bill before us saying we are to interfere with the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, and then say that we must not do so.
My hon. Friend's argument is quite wrong. This House must make provision for Northern Ireland—unless this House makes no provision. [Laughter.] I see the superficial reasons for that merriment, but if we do not make any provision for Northern Ireland, then we are by that inaction denying rights to the Northern Ireland House of Commons which we are proposing to take for the British House of Commons. It seems to me that that would be intolerable. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) is a very keen advocate to-day—I did not know it before—of the principle of Coalition Government.
He now wants to impose by coercion a coalition form of Government upon Northern Ireland. It really does come to that. While I am always prepared to be surprised by any new departure in policy on the part of any hon. Member of this House, that proposal does give me more surprise than is usual in the varying attitude of hon. Members of this House.
No, I think the logic is absolutely perfect, even judged by Scottish standards. What is the implication of my hon. Friend's observations? It really involves this, that I, as Home Secretary, the Minister officially concerned with Northern Ireland affairs, should say to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland that I was prepared to recommend to Parliament a Bill which permits the prolongation of the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons if he would arrange to form a Coalition Government in Northern Ireland, but that if he does not do so, I would not recommend such legislation. I know the present Prime Minister sufficiently well to believe that his answer would be the same as the answer I should give if I were Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. I should say: "Home Secretary, that is not your business. The nature of the Government of Northern Ireland is the business of the people and Parliament of Northern Ireland and not yours." I think that answer is conclusive, I think it is democratic, and I think it would be wrong if I were to be drawn into the essentially bureaucratic and anti-democratic tendencies which I am surprised to observe in my hon. Friend.
Is it not the case that if the right hon. Gentleman said to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in the language which he himself has suggested, "If you agree to a coalition, I will agree to the prolongation of the Parliament" and if the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland said "No," then the right hon. Gentleman would reply, "All right, let the people of Northern Ireland decide"?
I observe with very great surprise my hon. Friend opposite using the term "democracy" now and again when his fundamental political principles are essentially anti-democratic. He believes in the abolition of democracy. But if I said what he has suggested, what would it mean? It would mean that I was bringing a Bill before the Imperial Parliament for the prolongation of its own life and saying to Northern Ireland, "You shall not have any similar right unless you form a Government of a type which meets with the approval of the Imperial Parliament." That, I say, would be essentially wrong and improper.
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the real point on which I interrupted him earlier as that interruption apparently provoked the very cruel attack which he has made upon me personally? He was saying that the principles which governed the position here were precisely the same as those which applied in Northern Ireland. I interjected that there was one essential difference, namely, that the parties in Northern Ireland had not united to form a Government. The principal Opposition party in Northern Ireland desires a General Election, and the right hon. Gentleman says "No, you cannot have it."
No, but the right hon. Gentleman made a very strong point—a point the strength of which I probably appreciate as much as anyone in this House—that the essential unity of all the major political parties in this country was one of the reasons why they did not need to go to the country.
My hon. Friend does not seem to have read the Bill. If he assures me that he has done so, I will believe him, but I am afraid that he has not, because the Bill specifically provides in terms, that this permission to extend the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons is inoperative, unless a Resolution is passed by the Northern Ireland House of Commons. I think that completely meets the point raised by my hon. Friend.
I could, of course, go into the internal domestic situation in politics in Northern Ireland, and, if necessary, I will, but I do not really want to do so, because I stand on the point of principle that this Parliament has conferred upon Northern Ireland the right to have a Parliament—a House of Commons and a Senate—and having done so, it seems to me absolutely contrary to British traditions, at any rate since the times of George III, that we should then proceed to interfere with the internal politics of that Parliament which we have constituted. I prefer to stand upon that point of democratic and British constitutional principle, rather than go into the question whether it would be practicable to make a Coalition Government out of the Parliamentary situation in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, on which much could be said. The Bill provides that the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons may be extended for a further year and a further year only; and it also provides that that continuation shall be contingent upon a Resolution being passed by the Northern Ireland House of Commons.
We did consider whether we would recommend to Parliament that this Parliament itself should, by direct legislative enactment, extend the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. It would have been perfectly competent for the Imperial Parliament so to do. This House, together with the other branch of the Legislature, is the author of the Government of Ireland Act and it would have been perfectly competent for the Imperial Parliament to have passed legislation directly and conclusively providing for the extension of the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. But we knew that there, was a difference of opinion in Northern Ireland about it. Representations have been made through certain British channels competent to receive opinions, that it was undesirable that that should be done. Indeed, some took the view that there should be -no continuation of the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. In those circumstances, I thought it right, and I believe this view will commend itself to the House, that the effective decision in the matter of whether the life of the Northern Ireland House of Commons is to be extended or not should be the decision of the Northern Ireland House of Commons itself as it is, effectively, the decision of the British House of Commons in this country. Accordingly the Bill so provides.
It may occur to hon. Members that the Bill should have provided also for the continuation of the life of the Senate of Northern Ireland. That is not necessary for two reasons. One is that the life of the Senate lasts for eight years, but half of the Senate is re-appointed each four years. The last appointment of half of the Senate of Northern Ireland took place in 1941, and is not again due till 1945, and therefore no problem arises as regards the Senate during this period.
I was coming to that point about re-election. My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. But as regards time no difficulty would arise in any case until 1945. It is the case that the actual election of Members of the Senate of Northern Ireland is by the Northern Ireland House of Commons. There is no election by the people. It is an election by the Northern Ireland House of Commons and consequently, the point really does not arise in connection with the Senate, where no public election takes place.
That, I think, describes the provisions of the Bill which I commend to the House. It will be recalled that in 1940 and 1941 points were raised as to the possible discussion and consideration of our electoral system and rather important and large scale electoral reforms in this country, including the fundamental method of electing Parliament. I think legislation will be necessary for the registration of electors preparatory to a General Election. In any case, whether or not legislation is needed, that preparation would have to be made, and would take some time and the Government gave an undertaking which I now repeat that we would provide facilities for suitable Parliamentary discussion of the electoral system, so that the House between the time when we can see that the life of this Parliament must end and the occurrence of a General Election, will have a reasonable and proper opportunity of discussing any electoral reforms or changes which hon. Members may think desirable. Having explained the provisions of this Bill as applied to the Imperial Parliament and to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, I have nothing to add, except to hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and pass it through all its stages as soon as convenient.
On the outbreak of war this House generally agreed that war conditions made it well nigh impossible for us to conduct Genera] Elections on any sort of satisfactory basis. In my opinion that situation still continues. Although the House fully admits the difficulties of a House of Commons that gets older and staler with the passage of time, this is one of the consequences of the war situation. Therefore, I have no objection to Clause 1 of the Bill. As to Clause 2, I am influenced and convinced by the argument used that the right we have taken to ourselves cannot well be denied to Northern Ireland. That argument is reasonable. Of course, the circumstances are somewhat different. Representations have been made to me by people who think as I do politically, and who came from Northern Ireland for consultations. They have a case which really ought to be put in this House.
It is not fair to impose upon Northern Ireland a Coalition Government if they do not want one, but the truth is—Northern Ireland Members here will no doubt admit it—that there is a good deal of ultra-party activity inside the Northern Ireland Government. They are bitterly Conservative. All the elements of political controversy are still alive in Northern Ireland, and, in these circumstances, the members of my party take the view that it would be right and proper to have a General Election. At the same time, I accept the fact that a minority cannot be allowed to dictate to a majority. I accept the logic of the situation that the decision must be taken by the Northern Ireland House of Commons, unsatisfactorily constituted as I believe it to be.
No, Sir. I expressed my regret at the composition of the Northern Ireland Government, as I am quite entitled to do. I am not raising unnecessary political controversy, I hope. The view I put to my hon. Friends in Northern Ireland was that it is impossible for us to deny to the Northern Ireland House of Commons, if it so wishes, the right to continue its own life. I am glad that the provisions of Clause 2 confine it to a year. A year from now I might wish to press rather harder than I am willing or anxious to do to-day that, if the political situation further deteriorates, if the bitterness deepens and if a desire for cooperation does not increase, the political situation is a really live one and that the only solution obviously is a General Election. I see the difficulties about that position, and, with reluctance, I accept the Second Reading of the Bill. I know my right hon. Friend will appreciate that the Bill will not be accepted unanimously by the people of Northern Ireland. There are political elements who oppose the prolongation of Parliament, on grounds which seem to me to be justified, to some extent.
The Home Secretary made the position very clear with regard to the necessity for the Bill, and I do not think there is very much' that I can say about that point. The right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, though he approves of the provisions of the Bill with regard to this House of Commons and the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, nevertheless raised one or two points which require a word of comment from a Member representing Ulster. It has always seemed to me a curious thing that the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, provided, absolutely in terms, that the life of the Northern Ireland Parliament was to be a certain number of years. I do not know whether that is common form in all Constitutions and whether the Statutes do so provide. I have not looked up the point. One would have thought that the normal thing would be to say that the first Parliament should last for five years, and the term after that should be left to the local Parliament to decide. However that may be, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that, as things are, the matter rests entirely with this House and that, unless action is taken by this House, there must be a General Election in Northern Ireland next March. As has been pointed out, it would not seem fair to deny to the Parliament of Northern Ireland the same rights in this respect as are possessed by this House.
I should like to give one or two reasons, some of which have been already mentioned by the Home Secretary, why a General Election in Northern Ireland now would be most undesirable and, in many ways, nearly impossible. Nearly everybody is agreed—we may hear some words on the other side in this Debate—that an election for this House during the war would be undesirable, and almost calamitous. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] For one reason alone, that we are operating upon a very old register. The register on which the by-elections take place is that for 1939. Since that date large numbers of young people have reached the age of 21. They have become entitled to vote, but they have no vote, because we have a register which is three years old. Would hon. Members suggest that it is right to elect a new Parliament on that register? Clearly it is not. The register which applies here applies also in Northern Ireland. There is no separate register in Northern Ireland. The only register there is that for the Imperial Parliament. Elections to the local Parliament there take place on the register which operates also in the case of elections for this Parliament.
I happen to be a member of a committee which is sitting now to go into the whole question of possible reform of the registration laws and of redistribution. The committee was set up by the Home Secretary. Obviously, I cannot say anything about what the committee are considering, except that I think it will not be very long before they make a report to the right hon. Gentleman. I can say that the figures which have been before us have been sufficient to convince me that an election now, in war-time, under the register of 1939, would be nothing less than a farce. Exactly the same applies in Northern Ireland. Large numbers of men in the Forces would not be able to vote, and large numbers of working men would not be able to vote. The same considerations apply as regards the diversion which would take place from the general war effort, which is being pursued in Northern Ireland just as it is in this country. I do not think anything remains to be said on this argument that you ought not to prolong the life of the Parliament of Northern Ireland because there is no Coalition Government there. I do not intend to go into that matter in detail, because, as my right hon. Friend to clearly stated, that is obviously a matter for the local Parliament and Government and nobody else. But I would draw attention to the fact that the considerations there are the same in many respects as they are in this country, with this fundamental difference, that the minority party in Northern Ireland, or the great majority of that minority party have, I believe, taken their seats in the House of Commons, but having done so, and incidentally qualified for the small remuneration they receive there, they have never appeared again, and they do not attend the House of Commons. You cannot yet a representative Coalition Government unless that section of the community is included in it.
The fact is that they do not attend. I suppose it might be said that there is, of course, a Socialist party in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that some of them had made representations to him and to his friends here. They are perfectly entitled so to do. It might be said, Why are they not taken into coalition; why do not the Government take some Labour men to form part of the Government, as has been done in this country? I think the answer to that would surely be that if that were done, it would not be a National Government; there would simply be two parties concerned, and the largest minority party of all, which, as I say, does not even attend the House of Commons, would not be in the Coalition Government; therefore it would be completely and entirely unrepresentative. In those circumstances I do not think there is any alternative but the one which the Government adopted, namely, that they should give to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland the right possessed by this House of deciding whether or not it wishes an extension of its life.
I do not wish to make any observations with regard to the second part of the Bill, which affects Northern Ireland, beyond expressing agreement with what has been said that it is impossible for this House to deny to Northern Ireland a right which it claims for itself. Further I think the House is satisfied that the conditions which make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold a General Election in this country are also applicable in similar degree to Northern Ireland. My hon. Friends and myself regard this Bill as an inevitable but rather regrettable piece of legislation. I am bound to say that my right hon. Friend, I think, carried the House with him in the arguments he addressed to his in introducing the Bill. I was not, however, particularly impressed with the argument which he mentioned about the use of man-power which might be involved in a General Election, because if it should so happen that this Parliament was out of touch with the sympathies or the mind of the country, no question of man-power at all would be comparable in importance with the immediate necessity of bringing Parliament back into the confidence of the electorate. Even the Prime Minister has said in this House that conditions are possible and conceivable in which even in war-time there might be the necessity—the lamentable necessity—of having an election.
I am in complete agreement with my right hon. Friend on that point. I was about to remark that it was with that unfortunate possibility in view that the Government very properly decided to consider how an election could best be held in conditions of emergency so as to allow, under those conditions, the best possible reflection of the mind of the people. I hope it may not be long before we hear something about the work of the Committee that was appointed. My hon. Friends have always attached very great importance to Section 7 of the Parliament Act, which reduced the life of Parliament from seven years to five. We think it an essential thing in the working of democracy that Parliament should be revived and refreshed by frequent contact with the electorate, and no one can deny that this Parliament has for too long not enjoyed that salutary and refreshing experience. It is said there is criticism of Parliament to-day, and it is said that it does not represent the people. There may be some truth in that, but if Parliament wishes to represent the people, it can do so. It rests with the Members. They go to their constituencies, and there is no reason why they should not be in touch with, feeling among their electors and receive their support. On the other hand, if electors are not satisfied with the representation they have in Parliament, I think that even in these days they could find some means by which they could obtain some satisfaction.
I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend renew an undertaking which he had given on a previous occasion with regard to the consideration of methods by which Parliament might be elected in the future, and I was glad also for what I think was implicit, that we should not have an election within a few weeks of the termination of hostilities before a proper register could be made and before the electorate could judge the general situation. It is of the utmost consequence for the future constitution of the Government of this country that the next Parliament should not only represent the mind of the people but that it should be fully conversant, as far as Members can be who are now occupied with war work, with the problems we shall have to face. I recollect the General Election of 1918, which I regarded as a disaster—I forfeited my deposit—in those days that was a disaster—but in the next Election that mistake was rectified. Speaking with all seriousness, I feel that it is of the utmost consequence that arrangements should be made which will enable an Election to be held in the proper atmosphere, and by whatever methods may be found desirable, to enable the Parliament which is elected to represent the mind of the people. We therefore, regret, but still recognise the inevitability of this Measure.
I took no part in the discussions on the previous Bills on this subject in 1940 and 1941, because I felt that no great harm would be done if this Parliament served what would have been its allotted span under the old Septennial Act. I have always felt that seven, rather than five, years should be the life of a Parliament. However, that is by the way. This Parliament is now about to enter its eighth year. In a year's time this House will be of the same age as that which was dissolved immediately after the Armistice in 1918. I want to put this question to the Home Secretary; I shall not complain if he replies that it is hypothetical, but I should be very grateful for an answer. At this moment, I imagine, very few people are prepared to bet a modest shilling on the possibility of hostilities ending before the time laid down in this Bill. Neither would many people have done so in August, 1918. I have a very clear recollection of coming home from the East at that time, when everybody was talking about the coming Allied offensive in 1920 and how effective it was going to be. Suppose, hypothetical though it may be, that this war should come to the same sudden unexpected and happy conclusion as in 1918 after this Act has been in operation for four months. [An HON. MEMBER: "Some hopes."] So they said in 1918. Suppose that that happens. Is it intended that the House shall avail itself of the full 12 months' extension?
The hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. G. White) spoke of the circumstances of the election of 1918. He described it as a disaster. It was regarded at the time, I believe, as something of a political racket. I myself voted by proxy from Egypt, where I was then stationed. It may interest the hon. Member for East Birkenhead to know that I very much pained my Liberal father by posting him my proxy with instructions to vote Tory—which instructions he faithfully carried out. Should hostilities conclude, it is important that decisions should not be taken over the heads or behind the backs of the men in the Services. I will mention two issues, both extremely controversial. The first is the treatment of the German people on the occasion of their defeat. I may say in passing that in the Service circles, of all ranks, in which I have been fortunate enough to mingle there appears to be a swinging majority for the views expressed with such refreshing forthrightness b. Mr. Frank Wolstencroft, of the T.U.C., and by Lord Vansittart.
Judging from the news in this morning's paper, he is now engaged in what might be called a backward march. Whether it be true or not that that is the view of the Services, it is not a matter with which this Parliament should proceed without reference to the electorate. It is also important that the framework of the post-war Britain—again there will be controversy about this—should not be settled over the heads or behind the backs of the men who come home with victory on their banners. For instance, the electorate should be consulted as to whether the new Britain is to be built on a consolidation and extension of the system of State control. I gather from my postbag that the women electors have views on that subject which may be disappointing to the hon. Baronet. At any fate. I rise to ask the Home Secretary whether he can give some indication of the Government's intentions on that point. I feel that the time has come for setting up a Speaker's Conference, and for machinery on the model laid down at the time of the last war to be set up. Redistribution will be much more difficult than in 1918, owing to the wholesale evacuation from the towns. The electoral system will need to be considered. I hope very much—if it is within the terms of Order to say so—that if such a Speaker's Conference is set up it will immediately turn its attention to reducing the expenses of candidates and throwing open the doors of this House to men of ability and small bank balances who are now in the Services.
It has been hinted by the hon. Gentleman opposite that there is something immoral, if not indecent, in what is described as a "khaki" election. I am an advocate of a "khaki" election, of the men in the Services being brought to the polling booths at the earliest possible moment. I have always felt that if the election of 1918 was a disaster, it was so not on account of any instructions given by the electorate, but because of the failure of the Coalition Government to carry out their mandate. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said, "Here I have a Parliament eight years old: I want a fresh mandate to go to the Peace Conference." He had a perfectly reasonable request to make: "Hang the Kaiser, and squeeze the Hun until the pips squeak." I have always regretted that those two things were not done. I believe that many of our present distresses are due to that fact. I am certain that the epileptic of Berchtesgaden would have thought twice about plunging the world into war had Kaiser Wilhelm been hanged instead of being allowed to live on until he was four score and more. Many people in the Forces think that Hitler will live on in much the same circumstances of comfort as Mahatma Gandhi. I believe—and I think that the hon. and gallant Member for Preston (Captain R. Churchill), who is trying, Sir, to catch your eye, will say the same—that we have to-day a Prime Minister of sterner fibre who will see that these criminals are brought to justice. But he should be reinforced by the electorate. Therefore, I rise to ask briefly that should hostilities end within 12 months there will be a rendezvous at the polling booths between Parliament and people at the first possible moment after the guns have ceased to speak.
Sir Richard Acland:
I rise to ask the Government for a rather different assurance. It is usual to say that Members can be refreshed and inspired by talking to their constituents, although when they talk to their constituents their minds generally are so solidly made up that nothing that their constituents can say will change them. This House is the obstacle standing between the British people and the proper prosecution of the war by the proper methods. It is immaterial to say that we are all united in our determination to win the war and that therefore there are no differences between us. That amounts to exactly what the late Prime Minister used to say to us between 1935 and 1939, that there were no real differences on foreign policy because we all wanted peace. We all want peace, but there happen to be complete differences of opinion as to the best means of obtaining peace. Of course, we all want to win the war, but there happen to be complete differences of opinion in this House, passionately and sincerely held, as to the best methods of achieving victory.
The majority of the Members of this House who are to-day re-electing themselves and usurping to themselves the functions of the electorate think it correct to prosecute this war by all the means which just fall short of interfering with the big-business-as-usual structure of our present country. They do not understand that this war is a revolution for democracy at all. They think of it as a sort of painful interruption after which we shall get back to 1939, and perhaps a little more so, managing it a little more cleverly than before. It may be asked, What does it matter whether hon. Members understand this war correctly providing they are actually fighting it with' the utmost possible vigour? The fundamental political views of hon. Members of this House are to-day affecting the way in which this war is being fought, not only the morale of the people, and heaven knows I can tell a sufficient story out of my admittedly rather long ago experience in the ranks of the amount of frustration caused by the fact that We "seem to be led by people who are leading us back to the 1939 conditions.
There is a big story to be told about the morale of the people of those days, and if this war is prolonged I do not believe these people will fight through all the sacrifices that may be imposed upon us if they are merely told over and over again what they are fighting against and if they are never told what they are fighting for, except in the terms of woolly promises, which, I regret to say, are all that they get from the members of the present Government. Leaving out all that on the morale side, physically the war effort is impeded by the political ideas held on the opposite side of the House, by the majority of this House which is to-day re-electing itself. For example, we are squandering, I do not know how many, thousands of man-hours per year, as well as shipping space and raw materials, producing paper to advertise unobtainable goods. This is being done, but it is absolutely fantastic. We are doing that because hon. Members opposite regard it as quite natural that private firms should be able to use our resources and spend money which should come in under Excess Profits Tax, and do so in order to keep up their own private post-war profitability and goodwill. Take another example. Let me assume that in the course of producing certain engineering products it becomes apparent to the managing director of a certain factory that three machine tools will not be required in his factory for the next six months. Does that managing director take the initiative in ringing up and writing and making representations to find out what other factory could make use of his machine tools?
Sir R. Acland:
My hon. Friend will admit that they are mighty few and that it is on the other side, in far too many cases, that every step is taken to disguise the fact that there is surplus machine capacity in particular factories. That is quite certain, and it is because the men who run these factories are running them under those who are thinking in terms of post-war profits. Let me take another example, which is really a much bigger one. We have not been able to do after three years of war what the Chinese did in two years, and that is, to get materials of war manufactured by backward, illiterate and unskilled people. Why? It is not because we are not clever. It is because we are governed by people who are frightened by the development of too much industrial capacity even in Colonial and Indian countries. So I insist that, apart from morale, the physical war effort is to-day impeded by the political ideas of the majority of this House which is reelecting itself. On one issue after another you hear it repeated, "Here is a policy which will solve this problem; why is it not done?" and we say "Is Winston against it?" "No, he is wondering whether he can get it through this House." Take coal. When it was reported to the Government, as it has been, that the overwhelming majority of the people actively desire fuel rationing, for what reason was that turned down other than——
Sir R. Acland:
I submit that when we are on the question of taking very substantial constitutional steps we ought to examine very carefully the grounds for doing so. I would like to turn to another matter. We were perhaps justified in taking this step in 1940 and 1941 by the fact that hon. Members supporting this extension could correctly say that there was no real evidence on the part of the people that they wanted anything other done. Take the position a year ago. There was no substantial demand inside any political parties for any other policy than the renewal of the present Parliament. If you look at by-election results for the 12 months leading up to October, 1941, such candidates as had opposed the Government on one issue or another, almost without exception, had been treated with the kind of respect which the British democracy always shows to anybody who wants to put any view before them, but when it came to polling day all those who stood against the Government, without exception, had been left with their deposits. There was only one such candidate in the 12 months leading up to October, 1941, who received a vote which could be called other than derisory. It is that situation which has changed since last this House considered this matter.
Since then in two political parties very substantial minorities have expressed a desire for the ending of the present state of affairs, and when electors have had an opportunity of expressing their views it is most noticeable that they have given to Independent parties of all kind much greater support than in any previous year. Four of these Independent candidates have been elected to this House. I myself have been more interested in by-elections where I felt candidates were expressing views more in accordance with mine, and I offered personal support to three candidates who stood for Parliament and who seemed to be talking sense and having the right outlook on the situation.
In these three by-elections, of which two were fought against the Government successfully, the total anti-Government vote was 37,000, and the total Government vote was 30,000. In 1935, in those same constituencies, the Conservative vote was 46,000, and other votes together were 27,000. In other words, in those constituencies there was a turnover of 9,000 votes per constituency against the views which are held by Members on the other side of the House. So it looks to me as if any Member on the other side of the House who holds his seat by a majority of less than 9,000 is probably not now representing any substantial number of electors.
Sir R. Acland:
I do not think that is quite true of the candidates in the by-elections in which I took part. I think they would say that while supporting the Prime Minister personally as leader of the nation they were vigorously opposed to him as leader of the Conservative party and violently opposed to the policy which was being pursued. In these three constituencies the majority of our fellow citizens supported the candidates who took that view. They did not support the official Conservative candidates. In other words, you have to reckon with the fact—I do not regard this evidence as conclusive [Laughter]. I ask hon. Members not to laugh when I say that there is beginning to accumulate now powerful evidence that this country does not want this war to run any longer under the dominance of their political ideas. If that is to be achieved, this House must be renewed.
The Home Secretary says we cannot have a General Election, and I agree that his arguments are very strong. That is why my hon. Friends and I have put on the Paper a Motion—which cannot be discussed in detail now—in order to indicate that there are some alternatives to the one policy of preserving this House and to the holding of a complete General Election. The particular alternative we suggest—and I do not want, to defend it line by line-is that it is not impossible to make substantial arrangements for citizens over 21 to vote in by-elections. This can be done by ration books, registration cards arid in many different ways, and it is not impossible to begin a policy of deliberately causing Members of this House to be selected in some way—perhaps alphabetically or by ballot—to take their seats in rotation and stand for re-election if they are so minded. It would be possible for one-third of the Members of this House to re-submit themselves to the electorate in the next 12 months so that at any one time there would not be more than six by-elections pending.
Does not the hon. Baronet think that that should first apply to such constituencies as Barnstaple, where he himself was elected as a Liberal but has since declared himself to be an Independent? Should not the hon. Baronet submit himself to the electorate?
Sir R. Acland:
The suggestion that I should face a by-election because I am not supporting the policy for which I was elected applies to every Member of this House except, perhaps, one or two on this side.
Sir R. Acland:
It applies to those Members who were elected in 1935 and who are sitting on the other side of the House. They were elected to resist the onward march of aggression. Five weeks afterwards they decided it was not worth resisting, and five years afterwards they found it was worth resisting. However, I am quite prepared to face a by-election, but I think others should do so at the same time. Unless this Government will give us some assurance that in some way or other steps will be taken before next October by which this House shall begin to be renewed I propose to vote against this Bill.
I do not propose to follow the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland). I listened to his speech with great pleasure, finding that' his gestures and the sinister modulation of his voice conjured up before me a picture of a former Member of this House who is now detained in gaol, namely, Sir Oswald Mosley. I support this Bill with great diffidence, a diffidence which seems to be shared in all quarters of the House and which, perhaps, should be most strongly marked in those Members to whom the hon. Baronet referred, who were elected in 1935 on the policy of rearmament, collective security and sanctions against Mussolini. I can quite understand these people feeling great diffidence in wishing artificially to prolong their Parliamentary lives. I feel diffident for the reason flung at me just now—and which has been flung at me before—that I was returned to this House without a contest. Well, I would like to make the personal observation in passing, that it was through no fault of mine. Indeed, I am one of those rare people who enjoy electioneering. I made quite a habit of it at one time, in the days when it was not quite so easy as it is now for Independents to get into Parliament. Scores of agents and thousands of pounds were expended in making sure that I did not enter the House. I think that some hon. Members who have spoken in this Debate might not have quite such an easy passage if such tremendous sanctions were applied against them. I have another reason for diffidence. Now that the Archbishop Of Canterbury has entered the sphere of party politics and the Lord Privy Seal is changing places with him and offering spiritual guidance to the Church of England, I am not sure that it will not be considered very bad taste for a mere politician to make a speech on a political subject.
Despite these natural inhibitions, there seem to me to be good and solid reasons for supporting this Bill. The mechanical difficulties of holding a General Election at this time have been dwelt upon and are, indeed, manifest. I do not say they could in no circumstances be overcome. If ever this House should exhaust its capacity to carry, on the war, we would have to have an election whatever the difficulties; and obviously, with the great movements of population, it would have to be done in a different way from elections in the past. I see no reason why it should not be done on the ration cards.
But there are three objections to having a General Election at this time which seem to me to be more cogent than all the technical inconveniences. In the first place, there is no great issue upon which an election could be fought. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple has told us that he sees great issues and great controversies, but there are not honestly many people who would come forward to support his view. As long as we maintain the party truce, which I firmly support, because I consider it to be the foundation of the Government's stability, an election at this time would be a farce. It is quite true that there might be a few better Members of Parliament returned, but only a handful. When the hon. Baronet was talking with such pride and gusto of those candidates—his nominees, I rather gathered—whom he had brought into the House with his able electioneering methods—personally, I welcome the presence of some of them here—I thought he might have borne in mind another reason they got in; they were very much superior candidates to those whom they were opposing. In my view, the electors nowadays do not at these elections vote for this party or that party, or this policy or that policy; they vote for the best man. If there were a General Election, no doubt some of the older and more wrong-headed members might disappear, but recent experience offers no guarantee, on either side of the House, that they would not be replaced by others older and more wrong-headed than themselves.
This brings me to my second argument, namely, that the sort of people who are needed in Parliament, who would like to stand for Parliament, and who certainly would receive great support from the electorate, are not available at the moment. I refer to those in the Fighting Services. I have been surprised to find how many young officers and men in the ranks have told me that after the war they mean to go into politics. I have heard this from all sorts of people to whom such an idea would never have occurred three or four years ago. If there were an election at this time, hardly any of them would be prepared to stand. They are more interested at the moment with the work they have in hand. Therefore, I believe that those of us who, for one reason or another, are here in the House are in a special degree the trustees of the political future of those who are to-day in the Fighting Services. I personally hope that after the war many of the older Members of all parties will make way for younger men. There are actually, I believe, some 60 Members of Parliament who have announced that they do not intend to stand again at the next election. If they know of anyone who would like to stand and who would come forward in their constituency, and whom they think would be a good candidate, I think it' would be a graceful gesture if they were to clear out now.
I have never been in the past a booster of youth. I have never tried to make out that youth was the greatest asset and what we needed most in politics. I have been more against the old women of politics than against the old men—and many of the old women of politics are still under forty. But I am bound to say my view has changed a bit during the last three years. I have been amazed to find the extent to which young people are waking up to their political responsibilities, and on political issues I believe that to-day the greatest cleavage is not between rich and poor, not between Tory and Labour, but between young and old. The young people of to-day distrust the doctrinaire shibboleths of the past and are prepared to face problems of war and of peace with an objectivity and a lack of prejudice which, I fear, is sadly lacking among many of the older generation, both in the Services and in civil life. Therefore, I assert that it would be a farce to hold a General Election at which so many of the best potential members would be precluded from standing.
Thirdly, it would be wrong to hold a General Election without first having a Redistribution Bill and, still more important—the matter has been referred to—a Bill for Electoral Reform. This is a very vexed topic. Personally, I should like to see such a Bill drawn up by some impartial committee, perhaps presided over b. Mr. Speaker. I would like it really to be an impartial committee. By that I do not mean an all-party committee in which the three parties would haggle out a compromise between their conflicting electoral interests and try to discover which abuses they could manage to keep by conceding abuses to the other parties too. But in so far as there is to be any party rivalry in this matter, which would be inevitable, I should like to see each party recommending the sweeping away of those abuses from which it profits most itself. There are a number of electoral abuses from which the Labour Party profits, but as I am not a member of that party, it would be ungracious of me to deal with them; but I would like briefly to indicate some of the electoral abuses from which the Tory Party profits and which should be prohibited by law before we have another General Election. Of course, the greatest scandal is the black marketeering in constituencies, the sale of seats to rich men, that goes on. It is a scandal to the party and to the House of Commons, and it brings representative government into great disrepute. I would like to see the amount of money that a candidate or member can expend on political organisation severely limited. I would like to see election expenses limited——
I was only trying to give an illustration of some of the considerations which should be borne in mind if the House is to take this very serious step, which we all face with such diffidence, of prolonging our Parliamentary lives.
I submit to you. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that some of these matters have already been referred to and it is because they have been referred to that I thought it my duty to refer to them. I will pass on from this difficult topic without any further illustrations, but with one quotation I came across a few days ago:
In vain may heroes fight and patriots rave,
If secret gold creep on from knave to knave.
For these reasons, I have no hesitation in supporting this Bill, but I trust all hon. Members who do so will feel that they have now an added sense of responsibility for the vigorous prosecution of the war. The credit of the House does not stand high in the country to-day. But I believe that, with all its faults, this House will still redeem itself in the eyes of the country and in the pages of history if, despite its shabby origin and its feckless conduct in its earlier years, it henceforward plays a valiant and faithful role and
proves that it has no other motive than pressing forward to victory.
I am sure the whole House has listened with interest to the thought-provoking speech that we have just heard. I wish, on behalf of a group of Members in different quarters of the House, to express the satisfaction that we feel that the Home Secretary has again explicitly renewed the pledge he has given on two previous occasions on behalf of the Government. I take it that he can say, as the Bellman said in "The Hunting of the Snark," "What I tell you three times is true." Three times the Government have now given a pledge that, before we have another election, they will secure to Parliament an opportunity for the proper consideration of methods of electoral reform, which we think of the utmost importance if Parliament is to succeed in being worthy of the great tasks before it.
We all feel hesitation in voting for this Bill, and I am sure the Government must be reluctant to bring it forward, yet the considerations which have already been urged are overwhelming in their general effect as to the undesirability and the grave difficulty in the way of a General Election now. But that is all the more reason why we should take steps in time to see that, when a General Election comes, it is taken under proper conditions, that everyone who is entitled to take part in it shall have the opportunity—Service men and others now far away from their homes and young people of both sexes at present not on the register—but above all we should see that the method of election, both as regards the size of constituencies and the form of election which is in force at the time, shall be truly worthy of the spirit of democracy and shall really give the opportunity to the Parliament of the future to represent every considerable section of opinion in our midst. It is because of that that I rejoice—and I do not speak for myself alone—at this thrice repeated pledge. I hope the Under-Secretary of State will make a little clearer and more explicit than the Home Secretary was able to do the method and the time that the Government suggest for carrying out that pledge, which is one of the utmost importance to the whole country.
With one exception every speaker has said that he was in favour of the Bill because it was undesirable and difficult and then, to repeat the words used by the hon. Member for the Queen's University of Belfast (Professor Savory), calamitous to hold a General Election at this time. This is a most tremendous step that Parliament is called upon to take. I am glad to hear the word "democracy" once again used by one or two speakers. This House has no reason for existence apart from democracy. It is composed of the elected representatives of the people, and they have to be elected. What the House is proposing to do is to re-elect itself again for another period longer than has ever been given before, with one possible exception in the last war.' How many more times is this kind of Bill to be brought before the House? The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) seemed to think that it would be necessary to extend the life of Parliament for another three years, because the suggestion is that we should go out a third every year, which will take us to the end of 1946. By that time this Parliament will be 11 years old—a Parliament elected in 1935 on what one might call a peace issue and a Parliament which continues in existence for another three years and enters on the biggest war in history, and from time to time is called upon to extend its life. Since 1935 some 200 Members have left the House—either died or been moved to other regions. Since the war nearly 100 Members have come into the House, not having been elected in the ordinary way, being nominees not even of a party but of a party machine.
I could not say, but quite a small proportion, and, where they have, the people have expressed their views pretty strongly with regard to the party machine nominee. One or two phrases fell from the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Preston (Captain R. Churchill) who spoke last about the future. May I call attention to the present? He spoke about what was happening in the case of his own party in regard to the purchase of seats. What happened with regard to the nominated Members who have been brought here? Many of them are the rejected of the past. When they had to stand for an election they were rejected by the very people whom they now say they represent. May I say a word to the party above the Gangway? One cannot help observing that the new additions to this House are men who have certainly reached well beyond the years of discretion. It looks to me as if the House is now being treated, I am certain not by the party but by the party machine, as a sort of home for pensioners.
Will the hon. and learned Member consider the peculiar position of the Labour party? The men who come to this House for the Labour party are men who have had to fight their way in the trade union field, and they get on towards middle age before they receive recognition. Our party, therefore, consists of the elderly type more than any other party.
The Labour party should, especially at this time, see that the younger members of the party are brought to this House. That brings me to what I regard as such a serious situation. There are millions of young men to-day offering their lives for democracy and for the continuation of this House—men who are now in the neighbourhood of 27, 28 and 29 and have never voted at all, men who must have their views not only with regard to the present but with regard to the future. They are not being consulted at all until the whole thing is over. That is the serious part of the matter.
It is all very well to point out the difficulties. The only real difficulty that has been mentioned is that of registration. The Government, however, have had two years in which to' consider this matter. It is supposed to be in the hands of a committee. Why does it take that committee so long to report? I can well understand the great difficulties of holding an election under the old franchise where the qualifications depended not upon persons but upon property. Now, when we have universal suffrage and every young man and woman has a vote, I can see no great difficulty in ascertaining the views of the people. Even the Home Secretary said that this was not impossible. There is difficulty, but no impossibility. Then what prevents us from testing the opinions of the people to-day? It is said that there is no main issue before the people. What is meant by that? We are all agreed that the war has to be fought to a finish and that we have to go on fighting until the enemy is defeated. That is the aim, but on the methods by which we shall pursue that aim there is great difference of opinion. It is said that some of us may have changed our views. If we have it is because of disappointments for which we are not responsible. For example—and I make no apology for referring to it again—the Act of 22nd May, 1940, put all power in the hands of the Government over both property and persons. We thought that that was the method that was to be used in order to achieve the aim we all have in mind, but it has not yet been put into effect. That might be a major issue. In fact, it has been an issue at many of the by-elections against the nominated candidate of the Government, when, although that candidate has had the support of the three party machines, the people expressed their views in favour of the Independent who wanted a more vigorous and wholehearted prosecution of the war.
It is said that we must not hold an election in the middle of a war. It is interesting that Northern Ireland has to be introduced into this Bill. But for the fact that Northern Ireland obtained its legislative authority from an Act passed in this House, and but for the fact that this House can alter its mind about past legislation, there would have to be a general election in Northern Ireland next March. Everybody agrees that that would be more difficult and perhaps more undesirable than in any part of the world because of domestic difficulties. That election, however, would have to be held but for the accident that this House can extend the time of the Northern Ireland Parliament. The constitution of this country is elastic and we can alter things from time to time. America is in the war, but elections for Congress will have to be held in a short time. American soldiers and sailors are in various parts of the world, and their views will have to be taken. Should the war continue until 1944 the most stupendous election of any in the world will have to be held in the United States for the choice of President for the following four years. The United States cannot alter their Constitution. They have to face up to these matters, and difficulties that may arise during a war do not prevent them. To turn to our own Dominions, Canada has held an election in the middle of the war, Australia has already held one and is threatened with another, and New Zealand has held one. Therefore, the argument that we cannot hold a General Election during the war does not interest me.
What I am anxious about is that this House should represent the true views of the people of this country. What has been happening during the -last two years? It has been said that the world of 1939 is dead, never to be revived. The right hon. Gentleman himself referred to it in his speech. We are looking forward to a new future. We are all agreed that there must be no more vague promises to youth that is offering its life, promises which are not going to be carried out. I agree that there ought to be an end to clichés and shibboleths and that there ought to be concrete undertakings. All kinds of committees are sitting, and all kinds of reports are coming out. We have had the Barlow Report, the Scott Report and the Uthwatt Report. We are to have in a short while the Beveridge Report. Do the Government propose to implement these reports, or do they propose to leave them until the Greek Kalends with a promise that after the war something will be done? I warn the House that no promise made during a war and not carried out during the war has ever been implemented when the war is over. If you do not put these things into effect now they are mere shibboleths and promises held in front of the very people who are dying for us. I can think of no greater treason or greater crime than to deceive the youth that is offering its life to-day. If we mean to build a new life for them, a new world, it is time we began now. The Government are asking the House to prolong the life of this Parliament for another 12 months. They have not consulted the people as to what they desire. I am afraid that this Bill will be given a Second Reading and that we shall go on for another 12 months. I beg and pray the Government, if they get that extension, to tell the people what they intend to do and undertake to bring in the necessary legislation which will enable us to obtain the opinions of the people wherever they may be. We are fighting the battle of democracy. Then let democracy be true unto itself. It cannot be with a stale, old House of Commons.
Reference has been made to the fact that my party elect elderly men to this House. Why do they elect elderly men? Because of their practical experience in the everyday life of the people. I know from my own experience that it is a big asset to serve an apprenticeship on local authorities, and I wish it were possible for every Member of Parliament to serve an apprenticeship on local authorities before coming to this House to pass Acts which local authorities have to carry out. I did hope that when the Government were considering electoral reform they would pay some attention to the question of proportional representation.
The hon. Member cannot go into the question of proportional representation. That might be in Order on a question of electoral reform, but it is not in Order upon this Bill.
I have listened to this Debate in order to find substantial reasons why the life of this Parliament should be prolonged. Reasons both for and against have been given, many of them very sound though there were others which would not hold water. The Bill is one to give not Members of Parliament only in this country but in Northern Ireland freedom from facing the electorates. There are people in this House who might say that those who belong to a minority party might during a war-time election be submerged by an avalanche of action based on unreason; but I am not enthusiastic for this Bill. I realise that it is always the desire of elected people to prevent themselves from having to face those who elect them, and to prolong their lives in so far as they can. It is nothing new for executive bodies, both Parliament and others, to seek to prevent themselves from having to meet their electors. The Bill before us does not, as the Home Secretary points out, rule out the possibility of an election during the time of war, but we all realise that popular opinion in this country, and I am the first to admit it, has been to a large extent behind the Government in this war effort. It may be that the people of the country are wrong in their conception, but the fact is that they believe that we are fighting for something real. There are differences of opinion about the methods of carrying on the struggle and about modifying the system during the period of war in order to conform to the propaganda-case made out for a continuation of the war. But if an election is going to be held in this country, certain things will have to happen, because otherwise the election would be a complete farce, and there is nothing worse than giving people the feeling that you are bending to the will of democracy while at the same time, behind the scenes, you are preventing democracy from expressing its mind.
Before we could have a General Election we should require to have at least two of the parties in this House separating from the Government and agreeing to fight out in that election the policy to be pursued, even though both might be in favour of the war. One party might go to the electors and say they were in favour of utilising to the full the Bill which was brought into the House, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) reminded us, in May, 1940, promising to take over the land and machinery and instruments of production to conduct the war, but which has never been in the slightest degree put into operation. It might be that a section of the House would go to the electors and say "We are in favour of the war, the war is being fought out and in our estimation for something real—for the survival of freedom and for great ideals and to initiate a new order," and therefore, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery also said, during the period of war these reforms should be carried out, because otherwise they will never be secured—unless the electors take a hand in a more extreme way. Therefore, an election would require to be based on something real and not a sham.
Are we to have a "coupon election," in order that the Government may get rid of a few difficult Members in the House? Are we to have the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Liberal party and the Communist party parading this country with banners showing Winston Churchill and Joe. Stalin, and asking the electors to rally round those banners and saying that anybody who does not accept those two leaders should be rejected by the electors? That would be a conspiracy against the electors and against democracy that would not be tolerated in any decent society. Such an election would not he an election. Again, if the parties are going to separate, are they to come together again during the war after having denounced one another; and if afterwards they were to come together with a, policy of compromise, that, again, would be the worst form of democracy, because it would prove the unreality of the struggle from which we should just have emerged.
Then there is the question of evacuees. All those who have been evacuated would have to be given an opportunity to vote—although that is not impossible. Every soldier in this country and every young woman who has been taken into the Forces or into munition work in various parts of the country would also have to be given an opportunity to vote. Next, there is the question of the constituencies. In going around the country I see large housing areas which have been devastated by bombs. Many of them have been reduced to a skeleton. Therefore, we should have to consider whether there was to be a redistribution of some kind in the areas where that had happened. If we were to decide upon having an election many of these questions would have to be dealt with before we could go to the electors. The Home Secretary has admitted that it would not be impossible to hold an election, and, indeed, it is not desirable at all times to prevent an election from being held. Conceivably an election could take place to-day—I do not know—and the minority opinion in this House could be excluded; and it could then happen that in 12 months' time, with a tremendous bombing campaign and the massacre of a second front, that that minority opinion might become the dominant opinion in the House and the country, and might demand that the Government and not the minority should face the electors. During a period of war, reason is not the dominant thing that operates, because we are often fighting on a negative policy. We are not fighting on anything real. The issues are put up by the Press, the politicians and the pulpit. There is always the theory that we are fighting for freedom, democracy, civilisation and Christianity. That has always been stated to the electors, often to lead them to their own destruction. I am not discussing whether the issues just now are completely real or not. They are real in the minds of some people' in this country, and that is sufficient. A large number of people in this country believe that they are fighting for something decent in life, and I honour and respect in every way the people who believe it.
We cannot rule out the possibility of having to face the electors. Therefore, preparations should be made at this stage. You are compelled now to introduce stopgap Bills from year to year, saying that it is undesirable to have an election—that is all you are saying, and you are not saying that it is impossible—to go to the poll, separate and fight one another. In case there should be a clamant demand by the people of this country for an election, you should now be preparing the machinery that will give the democracy the utmost opportunity of voicing its view in a decisive way. That would give us real democracy in this country.
On the first occasion, we challenged a Division in connection with this legislation, but the House overwhelmingly accepted the point of view that there should not be an election. At that time, the country accepted that view also, to a large extent. We carried the matter to a Division and recorded four or five votes. We were a very small minority. We accepted the position. The hon. Baronet has put forward a suggestion that one-third of the House should retire each year, with the result that in three years you would have a completely new House of Commons. There is nothing real in that suggestion. It means that it would be at least three years before the people of this country all had an opportunity of expressing their minds and that the Prime Minister, the leader of the Labour party, and, if there is a Liberal party, the leader of that party, would issue mandates asking for the support of their nominees. All the machinery of the parties would be turned against those who might really be the best candidates because they refused to accept the Nazi discipline which would order the people of this country into a herd to elect a gang of "Yes" men, to support the Prime Minister.
I will accept any restrictions you like to impose. I am only trying to answer the hon. Baronet's point whether or not there should be an election and am trying to say that his suggestion was not a substantial argument for the holding of an election. It could give a completely false picture. The issues would be put to the electors by those who have the executive authority in the country, and not only by the representatives in this House. They can go on feeding them from the Ministry of Information, the Press and the B.B.C., with completely falsified statements in order to justify themselves remaining in authority. While the electors are being lied to, they are not getting the fair picture which would give them the democratic right to select Members of Parliament.
Therefore I say that during the time of war the issues are not real, especially when you have a combination of political parties. The desire of those who get to the Front Bench is to remain there. It does not follow that the aims of the electors' and those of the Executive are in common. The desire of the electors is to win the war in the shortest possible time and to preserve peace in society, including the various opportunities they wish for expressing themselves. The conception of the Government may be: "How are we to prevent the electors knowing the real position, in order to go on maintaining ourselves on the Front Bench?" During normal times there is a greater opportunity. There is a keen fight waged in the constituencies as to whether you are to preserve the state of things or to transform life in some fundamental way. In my estimation that is the basis of the real political struggle, but unless we get all the points I have mentioned satisfied, it becomes an unreal struggle. All that happens during war-time is that, under the guise of national necessity, the desire of the Executive is asserted to exclude the minority opinions of people who cannot be dragooned, and to give a coupon to those who accept existing institutions. Unless those conditions are fulfilled, there is no case at the present time for a General Election, which would be a fraud and a sham on the people of this country.
I pass to the question of Northern Ireland. It surprises me that there is a parallel in the Bill between Northern Ireland and this country. There is no conscription to-day in Northern Ireland and no national government. I realise the difficulties of having a national government in Northern Ireland but if democracy is functioning in Northern Ireland there is a greater case for a General Election than in this country, particularly because of the fact that the Government in power in Northern Ireland have lost every by-election since the last General Election.
That is not true. The hon. Member should look into his case properly. It has not lost all the by-elections. A number of the by-elections were even unopposed because nobody could be found to oppose the Unionist candidates.
I met some Conservatives from Northern Ireland, and among them were some who were discontented with their representation in this House. I was asked to meet a number of Conservatives, and I felt I was in for a hot time. I had a very pleasant time, because I sat and listened to them fighting about the Government. There was only one Member of this House at a lunch of seven or eight people who supported the Government. I met a large number of members of the Council, including the Lord Mayor of Belfast, and I never heard such denunciation. Everyone of them believed there should be a General Election to clear out the old gang, who were said to have misused their power in Northern Ireland. Do not let us have any humbug. The people who are urging a General Election in Northern Ireland are not Nationalists or Labour people but Conservatives. I was asked by the Lord Mayor and a large number of Conservative members of the City Council to voice their opposition to a continuance of the Northern Ireland Parliament when the Bill came before this House. They say that there is as near Nazi dictatorship in Belfast as in any part of the world. They are demanding that this old gang should face the electorate. There is an uprising in Northern Ireland of people in the Unionist party who believe that this old gang has come along for its own ends at election times and hammered the big drum and confused all the issues with ignorance and prejudice for its own ends. They say that this should be ended.
There was this spectacle in Belfast of putting in, against the will of the City Council, Commissioners to run the city and take complete power out of the hands of the elected persons, against the wish of all parties and all individuals, including the tremendous majority of opinion in the City Council. They objected to the Government putting in Commissioners, because they said the Northern Ireland Government was the most corrupt public body there was in any part of the country. I listened to a two days' Debate among Conservatives on the point in Stormont. I went to Northern Ireland wishing to know what was happening. I had some difficulty originally, but latterly, through the toleration of the Home Secretary, I was allowed to go. I was prepared to meet everyone who had a point of view and discuss it with him. Although I hold my own opinions strongly, I am not intolerant, and I will have a cup of tea with any man and discuss with him his point of view, especially, as a Scotsman, if he supplies the tea. I say there is this demand in Northern Ireland for a General Election. One or two Labour people I met said that they were no party to the agreement for the suspension of elections in Northern Ireland. They want—and this is the strongest point they make, and with which I disagree—a National Government to be formed. I was rather suspicious that some of them were more anxious for a position in the Government than that democracy should function. Therefore, I am not voicing that point too strongly.
I will only say that I recognise all the difficulties in Northern Ireland and that I am not putting up the case for the Nationalist members or the Labour minority. I am putting up the case made by the strongest party in Northern Ireland that the Government of Northern Ireland have forfeited the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland. While the members of this party would still maintain this minority body, would maintain a desire for a British union, and would maintain the desire for a separate Northern Ireland Parliament—I am not denying that—at the same time they say that vested interests in Northern Ireland are using the electors and have tricked the electors, and that the electors wish to voice their opposition. They claim that they have the men who could become an alternative Government of Independents, who could come together in Northern Ireland. I saw the Stormont Parliament in operation. If the operation of this Parliament was of. the same kind democracy would The in a short time and would deserve to do so. Any Member who likes to reply may do so, as I am not making wild suggestions but am stating the claim of a great majority of the Belfast City Council, who are Unionist business people, and others I met, including doctors and lawyers, who were all Unionists, who said, "In your British Parliament voice your opposition to the continuance of the Parliamentary life of these people who have so misled the nation and Northern Ireland, and are leading Northern Ireland almost to a process of democratic destruction."
The Government in this country have at least the political support of the people of this country, no matter what they get in the coming year. In Northern Ireland they have forfeited that support, and I say in relation to this Measure that they should fulfil in Northern Ireland the same test as do the Government in this country. The Northern Ireland Government should be sent to the electors. In this country before the Government go to the electors there should be some machinery for giving democracy an opportunity to function. I also consider that it is high time that in this House Scotland had a greater voice in its destiny than it is getting to-day. Scotland should not be tied to the coat tails of England all the time, not being able to decide how Scotland is to function electorally. The Secretary of State for Scotland ought by now to be getting from the Government powers, if he has not already got them, to convene the Members of Parliament for Scotland to devise ways and means whereby Scotland will get democratic expression in the future, and get the views of democracy in the clearest way possible. I am a believer in real and not sham democracy. If real democracy is put into operation in this country, it should command the support of every right-thinking man and woman throughout the country.
I have listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern). It differed in some respects from what I had expected. It was, if I may say so, a very reasonable speech, and a speech founded on some personal contact with the affairs of Northern Ireland quite recently. But the hon. Membere has fallen into a trap. There has recently been a violent conflict between the City Council of Belfast and the Northern Government, a conflict which I am often profoundly thankful does not in any way affect me as representing an entirely different part of Ulster. In the course of that conflict the Northern Government have said to the City Council exactly the same things as the Council has said about the Northern Government to the hon. Member for Shettleston. The Northern Government came to the conclusion that the Council was not doing its job. Now in reprisal the City Council has got a powerful advocate in the hon. Member. He has put their point of view to this House. I think a discussion as to the opinion, of the citizens of Belfast of one another is possibly a matter which might be considered to be out of Order on this Bill, but I am merely informing hon. Members that the hon. Member who has just spoken gave a very honest point of view of some members of the City Council, who feel rather sore at the Government of Northern Ireland having considered them to be unfit for their jobs.
I am not expressing an opinion one way or the other, because I should hate to be involved in any such controversy. One remark which the hon. Member made surprised me very much. He said, almost as a taunt, that there was no conscription in Northern Ireland. That is partly his fault. Not only did I speak in favour of conscription in Northern Ireland, but I voted and told against my own side in favour of conscription in Northern Ireland, which looks as if I were less subject to the dragooning of the Whips than I ought to be. In fact, Ulster was the only place represented in this House whose Members at that time did not cast a single vote against the conscription of their electors. In England, Scotland, and Wales, there were- Members who felt, quite sincerely, that conscription for National Service was unnecessary, and who, therefore, voted against it. We were voted down, and now some people are inclined to taunt us because we did not get our way.
I do not think the hon. Member did. That has a distinct bearing on this question. It is bad enough that the soldier in the Libyan desert should be unable to take part in the government of the country, by electing Members to this House; but it is notorious that in Northern Ireland there is one party at present, represented by the Government of Northern Ireland, which stands behind the Government and people of Great Britain in the prosecution of the war, and another, the principal Opposition party, whose main plank is to join a neutral country. As voluntary service is the rule in Ulster, it happens that, with very few exceptions, only people of one point of view enlist and are sent away. In this country people of all parties are called up, the only considerations being age and the rules in force for National Service. In Northern Ireland, with voluntary enlistment, you naturally get in the Services a great predominance of people of one particular point of view, those whom we call the loyal men—the others, I think, call themselves the patriots—joining up. To hold an election in Northern Ireland would be far worse than to hold one here. It would deprive volunteers who are serving of their civic rights because they are fighting for their country, just as a large number of my constituents are doing, headed by the man who was Mayor at the beginning of the war. That is a situation peculiar to Northern Ireland.
As regards the charge that the Northern Ireland Government is grossly unpopular and does not represent the opinion of the people, I think criticism of Governments is customary in war. Everybody has a bad time, and the people like to blame somebody. A good deal of criticism has been levelled against the Government of Northern Ireland, but they have lost only two by-elections in the whole period, and in one case the successful candidate claimed to be as good a Unionist as his opponent, but an independent one, while in the other case I do not think there was anything in the election address of the successful candidate which was contrary to the main principle of Unionism. We must remember that we are speaking of a Parliament elected two years after this Parliament. If we give this Bill a Second Reading and do not apply it to the far more recently elected Parliament it will be another case of injustice. To my mind, there can be no justification for making a distinction between the two Parliaments, and any factors which are peculiar to Northern Ireland rather strengthen the case for prolonging the Northern Ireland Parliament's life.
I realise that, for three reasons, we cannot very well have a General Election now. In the first place, it would be very difficult to get a fair indication of the electors' opinions, owing to their being scattered and to there being no complete Register. Secondly, a real election would take so much preparation that it would divert a lot of work from the war effort. Thirdly, an election would bring so much bitterness that the war effort would be, to some extent, neglected. Is it fair that we should establish ourselves as the sole arbiters of whether we should be here or not? Are we to put ourselves back into what everybody regards as a respectable and well-paid job? We are the final deciding body, and I am prepared to say to the people, "I have voted myself back because I could see no other course open at the moment." If I felt that there was any feeling in the country against the war effort, or against the conduct of the war, I should say, in spite of everything else, that there should be an election. If I thought that 40 or 50 per cent. of the people wanted a change in the direction of the war, in any way, I should say that, whatever the consequences, we must get the opinion of the people. But none of the Members who have been returned in by-elections recently has been opposed to the war effort. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. Brown), if I may mention him, came here as an all-out supporter of the war effort, and every other Member who has been returned in a by-election has had a similar policy; so there is no question as to what the people want.
If there was an election the decision would be in favour of the war effort, but there would be a radical change in the constitution of the House, from the party aspect. I may be egotistical, but I believe that the Labour Party would come back in a majority, supporting the war effort, however, and social reform. Because of that fact, I want the overwhelming Conservative majority to realise that they are in a favoured position. They comprise between 60 and 70 per cent. of the House of Commons, but that does not say that they represent the feeling in the country on social reform. Therefore, while we are occupying this position in the House of Commons, I want us to be a sort of Council of State and to get away from party lines and to ask ourselves what the country wants, and what the country is anxious about apart from the war effort. Is there any kind of social reform that it wants? I put it to Members opposite that they are not playing fair with Members on this side of the House with regard to the question of social reform. If they are to keep Parliament as it is at present constituted and want the good-will of Members on our side as well as of the country itself, it is as well to realise the feeling in the country. One of the points that is agitating the mind of the country at the present time is that of workmen's compensation, which, had there not been a war, would have had to have been dealt with.
One has to try and define the reason why there should be no election, and we have to put these matters to the other side, as we feel that the majority ought to help us in our difficulties. When we go before our own people they want to know why we are not to have a general election. That is why I was illustrating one or two features which I thought were germain to the question of what the House of Commons ought to do in constituting itself a sort of Council of State.
I recognise the difficulties of the hon. Member, but I think he will realise that, if I allowed him to discuss that matter, there would simply be no limit whatever as to what could be discussed in this Debate. I am afraid that he must reserve those details for his defence before his own constituency.
I know how difficult it is in a Measure of this sort to bring in other matters which are not actually dealt with in the Bill, but I feel that it is an opportunity when one ought to try and stress the difficulties. If I am outside your Ruling. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I will leave it at that, but I can see no sound objection at this moment why we' should not agree to this Bill.
Then I can only hope that the hon. Member will not get up. The unfortunate part of it is that the Chair is given a certain responsibility to make the Debate a really practicable one and to confine it to the real issue before the House, and I am afraid the decision of the Chair on these matters must be accepted.
I have not the least doubt that that is so. If the Chair makes a mistake, the House is usually very good to the occupant of the Chair. We are all human, and we all make mistakes, but I am afraid the Rulings that are given must be accepted and not debated.
I was saying that I could see no sound objection to this Bill at a time like the present. I have some doubt as to whether we are doing the proper thing in regard to Northern Ireland. We are putting it to Northern Ireland that there are certain things to do, and I question whether we ought to take that right upon ourselves. The hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) has come back from Northern Ireland and has told us that the view of the people of Northern Ireland themselves is that they want a General Election. If that is their view, they ought to have full power to decide. Apart from that point, if there is a Division I shall go into the Lobby in support of the Government.
I rise to oppose the Bill and to state the grounds upon which I think the Bill is wrong and ought to be rejected by the House of Commons. The case which the Home Secretary made out for extending the life of the present Parliament consisted almost entirely of a recital of the mechanical difficulties of holding a general election in war time. I do not deny that there are substantial difficulties in the way of holding an election at this time. But I believe that there are ways and means of overcoming these difficulties. I see no reason at all why we must conduct an election on an out-of-date Register. It would be perfectly proper for this House to direct that we should have an election on a different basis, such as has been mentioned in this Debate, for example, on Food Cards, Identity Cards and so on. Neither do I agree that there would be any considerable waste in man-power. If we want to run an election with a very small expenditure of man-power, we can do it by utilising the local post offices. There is a post office in pretty well every town and village in this country, and if the election was spread over a period of two or three days, there are no mechanical or man-power difficulties in the way of holding an election if we want to do so. There is a difficulty about the Armed Forces, but I would remind the House that that difficulty will exist whenever we hold an election, unless the election is so far postponed after the end of the war that demobilisation will have been completed. I do not know whether I am right or wrong here, but I cannot see anything like a complete demobilisation of the British Army for a long period of years after the war comes to an end. If the Home Secretary's case is sound on that point he is really pleading for a postponement of a General Election to the far-off, dim, and speculative future. But granted that there are mechanical difficulties the question that the House has to ask itself is:
Is this Parliament so completely representative of the British people that, without any sort of change, it should vote itself into another year of office here? Or is it so unrepresentative of the British people that, whatever mechanical difficulties may be put in the way of holding an election, we ought to try to overcome those difficulties in the interests of securing a more representative Parliament to-day? I ask myself that question, and I have no hesitation whatever in giving the answer. It is that this House is so unrepresentative at the present time that it ought to stop at nothing in the way of overcoming mechanical difficulties in order to give us a fresh Parliament. That is my answer to that question, and because that is my answer I shall vote in the sense that I have indicated.
Why do I argue that this House is so unrepresentative? There are several reasons. In the first place, it was elected in 1935, eight years ago. In the second place, it was never elected for the purpose of conducting a war. It was elected for the purpose of maintaining peace, and was ill-adapted for winning a war. Thirdly, the House, I argue, was elected" under false pretences, in the strict and literal sense of those words. I mean by that, that the programme of the Government in 1935, on which the election was fought, was a programme which had no relation to the subsequent policy of the Government that secured the majority. I have a vivid recollection of that 1935 election. I wondered what had happened to the Conservative party that marched as champion of the League of Nations, and the advocate of restraint on aggressor States. They sought the suffrages of Britain on that basis, and on that basis those suffrages were given to it. Having secured their majority, they went back on every major item in their election programme, and I say that in the strict sense of the word, the majority of Members of this House of Commons have been elected under false pretences and ought not to be occupying their places to-day.
The next reason why I hold the House to be so unrepresentative is that the Government's mandate, obtained by false pretences, expired in 1940, since when they have extended their life-time year by year without so much as the by-your-leave of the electorate. Another reason why I hold the Government to be unrepresentative is that under the party truce most of the by-elections which have occurred through the natural processes of death have been filled without elections by persons selected in the back-rooms of the party caucuses and imposed on constituents by private arrangement. I think there have been about 60 unopposed returns to this House in the last few years. In those circumstances the electors have had no say whatever.
Finally, I want to add to the point made a little earlier in the Debate by the hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland), who, I notice, did not include me among those by-election candidates who met with his approval. However, I give him my approval. He said that during the last 12 months there has been a great change in the outlook and spirit in constituencies, as, indeed, has been evidenced by the return of such independent candidates as my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), Wallasey (Mr. Reakes) and others., He said that there was now a great volume of opinion in the country which desired Parliamentary change. I go further. I say there is a political and spiritual revolution growing in Britain at the present time, and I say that that revolution does not, and cannot, find its expression through the organised parties in this House. It is finding two new means of expression in Britain to-day. One is by the support of independents at by-elections and the second is by such things as that which occurred last Saturday, when 40,000 Englishmen were unable to get into the Albert Hall to attend a meeting. They did not want to go in to support the Government. They wanted to go in to indicate the gap which existed between Governmental outlook, and spiritual and social necessity, in Britain. In those things you have clear evidence of the unrepresentative character of this House, at the present time.
Now I want to give a positive reason why we should have an election. I want an election in Britain to destroy the political truce. I hope that is categorical enough. That is the answer to the hon. and gallant Member for Preston (Captain R. Churchill), who asked what issue there was to put to the people of Britain. This is the issue I want to put to the people of Britain. Do you, the electorate, believe you can win this war on the basis of a political truce between the two Front Benches which precludes a radical solution of every problem which will be thrown up in the course of this war? I affirm that the political truce is the biggest single political liability in the way of winning this war that exists in Britain to-day, and I want to destroy it. War is the total crisis of a community. Within the total crisis that war represents, war precipitates a series of particular crises. One day it is Man-Power. Another day it is Coal. A third day it is Production for the war. A fourth day it is Finance, A fifth day it is something else, and so on—a series of particular crises within the ambit of the total crisis of war. Now, the prospect of resolving the total crisis of war, depends upon being able to solve the particular crises that occur within the ambit of the bigger crisis, and I say that the continuance of the political truce in Britain precludes the radical solution of anyone of these problems.
Let us be blunt about it. It is time somebody used blunt language about it here. What is the political truce? It is not only an electoral deal—and that is bad enough—it is something more. The Conservatives say to the Labour men, "Boys, we will not touch your trade union racket," and the Labour men say to the Tories, "Thank you very much. We assure you that we will not hurt the interests of privilege and profit more than we can help." Every problem that arises in this House has to be dealt with within the ambit of that deal between the two sides.
If the hon. Gentleman will accept the general description that I have applied to this set-up, he can say what he likes about my union, and I will be content. That is not what matters. What matters is that we want to win this war, and I say that the existence of such a joint set-up is an impediment to winning this war, and that Britain would be healthier politically if we were to revert to open political warfare. If anybody asserts that this is a representative House, let me ask him one question. Does he believe that if there were an election to-morrow, there would be 460 Conservative Members returned to the House? If any hon. Member believes that, I assert that he is living in cloud-cuckoo land. If one thing is utterly certain, it is that if there were an election there would be a vastly smaller number of Conservative Members returned than we have here to-day.
Or the hon. Member's constituency. If they tolerate the hon. Member, obviously I could never hope to speak for his constituency. I am making what I conceive to be a serious point, that this House is unrepresentative of feeling in the country at the present time. I will not argue whether the Labour party would come back with a majority. I feel, rightly or wrongly, that one of the features of that election would be the return of a very substantial number of Independent Members. Whatever else is clear, it is clear that if we had an election we would have a very different House of Commons from that which we have to-day, and if that be true, it follows that this is an unrepresentative House.
The last question I want to put is this. Is it so far unrepresentative, granted that it is unrepresentative, that all the difficulties and possible dangers of a General Election ought to be faced rather than allow the House to go on? My answer, again, is, Yes. We have been told by one hon. Member that' the credit of the House it not high in the country. We have been told in the Press recently that the credit of democratic Parliamentary institutions in Britain is not high, and only a few days ago we were lectured, I think unjustly on that occasion, as to the effect on Parliamentary institutions of the collapse of the War Debate. I do not believe that the sort of incident that happened the other day indicates any weakening of faith in democratic Parliamentary institutions. I am a firm believer in democratic Parliamentary institutions, and I believe that Britain is, but if there is a danger to democratic Parliamentary institutions in Britain to-day, the explanation is not that the country is tired of Parliament; it is that it is tired of this Parliament, which is quite a different proposition. In the last decade and a half we have watched the collapse of Parliamentary institutions over pretty well the whole of Europe. I shall not attempt to analyse the reasons for that breakdown, but I assert that one element in the breakdown has been that Parliaments allowed a gap to develop between them and the people they represented which ultimately became too big to be bridged. I see many signs in England, not that England is tired of Parliamentary institutions, but that it does desire the opportunity of getting a more representative House than it has got.
I agree wholeheartedly with those hon. Members who, earlier in the Debate, said that if this is a revolutionary war—and it is—we cannot win through in a revolutionary war while we try to strangle the social and spiritual revolution inside our own country. We must allow that revolution to work itself out in Britain now, and not after the war is over, and in proportion as we do that; we shall generate the social and spiritual dynamic which is necessary to win the war, and which in my opinion is frustrated by the character of the present Parliament, and the immoral political truce, which provides, as the hon. and gallant Member for Preston (Captain Churchill) said, the basis of the structure of the Government. For these reasons, I hope there will be a Division on the Bill. If there is a Division, I shall vote against the Bill, because I believe it is more important that we should represent Britain than that we should individually prolong our life in this Parliament, which is of a wholly unrepresentative character.
On a point of Order. In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary is due to address hon. Members on the question of Police Administration in a short time, may we be advised as to the procedure which is likely to follow during the rest of the Debate?
I feel a great deal of sympathy with the spirit of the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Brown), but I do not agree that the desirable end of revivifying the House would necessarily be attained by having a General Election at this time. What is wrong with Parliament at the present time—and there are a good many things wrong with Parliament—is that it has lost its goal. It is quite true that Parliament has not the respect of the people that it had some while ago, but that is the fault of this Parliament, and it is a fault which this Parliament should correct before it goes to the country. The parties in the country are very badly organised at the present time. The hon. Member for Rugby may think that the organisation of the Independents is so strong that they would be able to put up a large number of candidates and bring new blood into the House. If I thought that I should almost be inclined to support the hon. Member; but I do not think that.
If there were a General Election in present circumstances, with the parties joined together in a kind of coalition mush, one would find, in fact, that another House elected after that election would be very much the same as this House; the average age might even be older, and the average intelligence quotient might even be less—I hope not, but it might happen. There is no special reason for thinking that a General Election of this time, under the circumstances of a coalition Government, would give a new House with the virility which the House of Commons ought to have. It is the Members themselves who are responsible. For instance, take the incident the other day, when the Debate on the Prime Minister's war statement collapsed after only four hon. Members had spoken. I happened to be one of those four Members. But what happened? That Debate was being treated with disrespect by all -concerned. The Prime Minister made a speech which was, very unusually, a dull speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] One hon. Member says it was a boring speech. He can make his own speech and use that word if he wishes.
It was, for the Prime Minister, a dull speech, and a good many left while he was speaking. The Leader of the Labour party got up to reply, and the Prime Minister did not wait until the end of his speech but left the House, treating the House with contempt. The Prime Minister treats the House with contempt. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Members will not like that, but it is perfectly well known, whatever the Prime Minister's virtues, that he does not like listening to other people's speeches. He prefers to make speeches himself and, when he has waited for a short time for any reply there may be, he leaves the Chamber. In my view, for the Prime Minister not to wait until the end of the first speech from these benches is treating the House with contempt. In those circumstances what can you expect to happen? I have been going about the country a great deal, and I agree that the House has lost much of its prestige. The other day a very distinguished university man asked me what was the matter with the House. He said, "What is the matter with your Prime Minister? You are dominated and hypnotised by him. No one will stand up to him." He said that in the opinion of his university—a very important one indeed—the House was becoming all too like the German Reichstag, too much of a chorus to the Prime Minister and not a meeting of free men exchanging opinions.
I think that we ought to pass this Bill and prolong the life of Parliament for a time in order that we may get back to the realities of Parliamentary government. I entirely agree that we ought to get away from the Coalition. I am speaking entirely for myself, but I hope that my party will withdraw from the Government and constitute themselves an Opposition and then have a clear-cut Parliamentary government, which ought to be conducted by His Majesty's Government and His Majesty's Opposition. It is only if you have an Opposition selecting matters for Debate and debating matters of crucial importance and giving clear-cut decisions, instead of attempting to avoid them, that you will get back to the realities of Parliamentary government. It is from Government and Opposition that the great traditions of Parliament have arisen. I am speaking as a very ordinary Member, and I speak because those who are in a position of power and authority do not have the courage to face these facts. Take as an example, the Motion on the Order Paper approving the Prime Minister's recent statement upon India. That involves a clear-cut division of opinion, which I and many of my Friends hope will be brought to a vote, because it is a clear-cut division between the Tory Imperialism of that speech of the Prime Minister and the democratic commonwealthism which we hold as our view on this side. I understand that some of those who put their names to it desire to run away from it and to have a compromise suggestion brought forward which would obscure the issue and pretend that there is no difference between us and Members opposite, when there is a vital difference which ought to come out into the realities of Debate. Until this Parliament can get away from this Coalition pretence of agreement where no agreement exists, back to the normal form of Parliamentary government by Government and Opposition, we shall not get on as well as we ought to do.
This is the only Coalition Government in the Empire. There would be no difficulty in getting the full support of the House in the prosecution of the war if we had a Government on that side and a real Opposition on this, and there would be a better opportunity of getting a clear-cut view of what the situation really was. If there had been an Opposition on this side, should we up to this moment have been deprived of information on the tragic series of disasters—Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Burma and Tobruk? Why should we be refused information on these matters when information exists? Would it not be better for the conduct of the war if we had these matters discussed openly, instead of behind doors in committee rooms, and sometimes in Secret Sessions? We are deluding ourselves, and in a sense deluding the people—though the people are getting less to believe what is said in the House than they were in the past—by pretending to have an agreement on fundamentals when in fact no such agreement exists. Work together for the war and to prosecute it to the utmost of our ability. Yes, and the way to do that is to have Government and Opposition working together in the normal Parliamentary way. I do not believe it would be good or expedient to have a General Election, not because of the mechanical difficulties, but because this House has lost its vigour. But first get back to the vigour of Government and Opposition and free criticism and get rid of the sickening adulation of the Prime Minister's oratory, of which many of us are getting heartily tired. Let the Prime Minister come down to the level of speaking like an ordinary human being instead of an oracle, and we shall find ourselves in a much better condition. Let us by our vote prolong the life of this Parliament in order that we may get back more vitality to our Debates and then appeal to the country.
I was much impressed by the ability with which the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. Brown) showed how unrepresentative of the people this House of Commons now is. Of course, from his point of view the unfortunate thing is that, the more cogently and the more eloquently he proved his case that the House is unrepresentative, and that if there were a General Election now it would never be returned with such an overwhelming preponderance of Conservatives, the more certain he made it that the Conservative Party would never allow a General Election. I know, as do many others who go about the country and talk to ordinary people, that this House does not represent the true feelings of the people at this time. It is true that probably every point of view among the people is represented here, and I must, as a newcomer, pay tribute to the fairness with which every point of view is allowed to be heard, but the House is certainly not proportionately representative of the people of the country.
There are undoubtedly strong reasons, as the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate emphasised, against having a General Election at this time, but I am rather sorry that the right hon. Gentleman saw fit to use the argument from enemy propaganda. That is now a discredited way of discrediting an opponent.
Or perhaps as an illustration. Enemy propaganda, however, is like the Bible, in one way only. You can always find something in it to justify any argument. If I may be allowed a personal reference, I am glad to be able to say that the enemy radio propaganda comments on the recent by-election at Maldon stressed the view that I was by no means an altogether satisfactory candidate and that they would not have voted for me if they had been there.
The House is not wholly representative, but it has in a gradual and limited way been renewing itself from time to time through the natural process of by-elections. It will continue so to renew itself. If the observation is not in poor taste, perhaps I may say that I expect there will be a number of by-elections during the coming cold winter which the Ministry of Fuel and Power has guaranteed to those of us who live in small houses. If a General Election is impossible or is not allowed, we can at least see that these by-elections should within their limits be allowed to reflect as fully as possible the feeling of the people. There are several simple mechanical reforms which would enable by-election results to reflect such feeling more accurately.
In my own recent experience—and other Members have had the same experience—it was found that there are, broadly speaking, four classes of people who are at present, in effect, disfranchised.
There are, first, the factory workers whose hours of work, night shifts, and so on, and means of transport sometimes by buses direct from their scattered homes to inside their factories and back again, make it impossible for them to attend the polling booths. There are, secondly, the Armed Forces. It is true that if they are in this country they are able to register as absent voters by a process so extraordinarily complicated that very few hundreds of them have been able to see their way to do it in the last few months. In passing, may I say I was not impressed by the argument against a General Election, advanced by one or two hon. Members, that some of the best people who are now serving in the Forces would not be able to stand for Parliament? There was a by-election recently at Salisbury, and the official Government candidate, now happily among us, was brought back speedily and easily from his military duties in the Middle East in order to fight the election.
I believe that many men and women of all ranks in the Forces, not only officers, who could make valuable contributions to our counsels, would feel that this form of national service should take priority over all other forms of service. I am not particularly impressed by that argument against a General Election, but, to resume my point, the Forces should be enabled to vote more easily in by-elections.
The third disfranchised class are the evacuees and the people who have been sent away to war work at a distance from their homes. They are not allowed to register as absent voters. That point could easily be put right. The fourth disfranchised class are the young people. Nobody under 24 is now able to vote in this nation where adult suffrage is supposed to be in force. If these four classes of people could be re-franchised there would at least be some chance that this House, by the gradual and limited process of renewal through by-elections, would receive more and more representatives of the new line of thought that is forming in the country. This is only a compromise solution. It does not envisage such a complete revitalisation as a General Election should provide. If, however, a General Election is not allowed, I suggest that this method would do something towards restoring to the electors their primary function, which is, of course, to elect and not merely to assent dumbly to the pushing into Parliament of the nominee of a party caucus.
I want to bring the House back to what the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) said. I profoundly disagree with what he said about the methods that should be adopted towards our present enemies when the war ends. That had nothing to do with the Debate, however, and I only want to put it on record. The hon. and gallant Member made an appeal to the Home Secretary that an assurance should be given that if hostilities ceased before the ensuing 12 months came to an end every consideration and opportunity should be given to the members of the fighting Forces to be able to register their votes in numbers on the main issues under discussion. I, like the rest of the House, naturally hope that he has his hope and that the war comes to a conclusion before 12 months has elasped. I want to get a promise out of the Home Secretary of rather a different nature. He very kindly in the course of an interjection was decent enough to say that he was not going to alter the constitution and prevent a General Election in war-time in any circumstances whatever. We are grateful to him for that.
It is possible that the war will go on for a very long time. What assurance have we from the Government that, if we renew the life of this Parliament, any real steps are being taken to make it possible for a General Election to take place at an early date if the country so desires? It is no use saying that the machinery cannot be devised. A committee has been sitting for some time, and I am not sure that one of its Members did not tell me that the report had gone to the Home Secretary. Cannot the Home Secretary tell us what is the recommendation of that committee, make a categorical statement as to the arrangements that will be made, and state definitely that arrangements are so far in hand that should the people desire it a General Election is possible? In the absence of such an assurance from the Government, I, and I believe some of my friends, will vote against a renewal of this Parliament as a protest if there is a Division.
I am very much obliged to my right hon. Friend. I do not want to detain the House by going over the many reasons which have already been given why this Parliament should not go on. I agree to a very large extent with the reasons given why we should let it the a natural death now. I agree with the point of view that it is to a very large extent unrepresentative of the people. I do not want to waste time in examining and analysing the House as it now is, but I think one point has been missed. We have heard a lot about the number of people who are in the Government—the Parliamentary Secretaries and Private Secretaries of Parliamentary Secretaries and all the rest of them, who run into several hundreds, and have heard much about Members who have been nominated and not really elected, and mention has also been made of Members who are on active service with the Armed Forces. But there is a pernicious habit which the Prime Minister has established which in my view, and in the view of many others, ought to be stopped, and that is that when it has been found desirable to make changes in the Ministry the Ministers dispensed with do not as a whole come back into this House and become critics of the Government. Oh, no! The Prime Minister does not like criticism, and so they are fobbed off with jobs overseas, put into nice comfortable positions with large salaries. To my mind that is one of the things which has led to the weakness of the opposition and criticism in this House at the present time, and it is not in the national interest. As somebody has said, we are practically reduced to a rubber-stamp Reichstag, with the Prime Minister as dictator.
A great deal of this Debate wandered on to the ground of Northern Ireland. I reserve for another day, I hope, the remarks I wish to make to some of my Northern Ireland friends on what has been going on over there, but I would enforce what the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) said, that, so far as I can understand from my contacts in Northern Ireland, the majority of the people there would like a General Election. They are sick to death of their present Government and consider it to be a complete fake and a ramp, if the truth were told. About some of the abominable things that that Government does I shall speak on some other day. Mr. Speaker, if I can catch your eye, because some of us feel very strongly about the conditions prevailing there. When I was listening to the speech of the hon. Member for Shettleston and the speech of an hon. and gallant Member for one of the Northern Ireland constituencies the reflection passed through my mind that if we could get rid of Northern Ireland by handing it over to the people to whom it naturally belongs and give Scotland to the Scottish Nationalists perhaps we might get Home Rule for England as a change. I will not detain the House longer, but I would emphasise that it seems ridiculous that any reasonable Member of this House should say that a General Election is impossible in time of war. Really! The Home Secretary would not put up with that for one instant if he were sitting on these benches, facing the Government.
The hon. Member gets indignant with the allegation that a General Election is impossible in time of war and said that if I were sitting over there I should be just as wild as he is if that view were put forward. I did not say it, and therefore I should not be as wild as he is.
I am not interested in conducting an argument with my right hon. Friend as to whether he can get wilder than I can. I should be prepared to take him on any day he likes. Nor did I say that he said that a General Election was impossible. I said that no reasonable Member ought to think that a General Election was impossible, and at the beginning of my speech I paid him the compliment of saying that he was decent enough to say that he was not going to interfere with the Constitution to the extent of preventing us from having a General Election if we wished. I do not know why he should want to put words into my mouth or be so touchy and sensitive when I want to maintain friendly relations with him.
What I wish to emphasise is that if it is possible to have a General Election in Canada, in Australia and in New Zealand, and if it is going to be possible to have one in America, it is nonsense to say that we should sit down and vote ourselves to continue here for ever and ever amen, because it is convenient and comfortable to do so. I appreciate that if there were a General Election now those of us who are known as rebels might probably have a troublesome time, though I do not say that we should be defeated, because I do not think we should; but obviously the rubber stamp would get to work, and there would be a lot of compromises and only a small number of really genuine contests throughout the country. I should like to see a General Election because I do not think that this Government or this House really represents the feelings of the people.
In conclusion, I would remind the House that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. Brown) referred to the moral and spiritual regeneration that is going on in the country. [Interruption.] After all, there is always hope for all of us, but he did say that this moral and spiritual regeneration was going on, as evidenced by the great demonstration in the Albert Hall the other day. I say to the Government that they are living in something worse than cloud cuckoo land if they do not appreciate that they cannot bring this war to a successful conclusion unless they show a little more moral leadership themselves. You cannot maintain the moral leadership of the world on a negative policy; we have had nothing but negative policy from this Government up to now, no readiness to use all the implements which we in this House have shown them are ready to their hands. This country is in consequence no longer the moral leader of the world, and unless the Government face up to it and take action, then I think they will really and truly be acting as the Assistant Secretary of the Admiralty in America said the other day: they will go on whistling in a graveyard to keep themselves from facing reality.
We all look forward to the Committee stage of this Bill in order to hear the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) giving himself free rein about Northern Ireland, but I would give him a little advice. I hope that he will not fall into the trap into which the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) fell, by getting his instructions or his opinions from disappointed people. I was agreeably disappointed with the hon. Member's speech. I certainly expected that the hon. Member for Shettleston would speak on different lines, but he treated the House to a dissertation on the frailty of the Northern Ireland Government and in addition blamed them very much for their abuse or otherwise of a Corporation of their fellows. I fancy the people for whom he spoke and whom he called the Unionists of Northern Ireland were, some of them, members of that Corporation. It is not unusual for Governments or those in authority to dispense with the services of Corporations which are not attending to their business. That is quite a common thing. Such action is not confined to the Government of Northern Ireland. If the hon. Member had gone further South into Ireland, he would have found that a Corporation had been dispensed with in Dublin for many years owing to its having abused its privileges. Indeed, I have frequently heard it said that the time is ripe for someone to interfere with Glasgow Corporation. I do not profess to know anything about it. I therefore say that it is common for those who have the power, to interfere with corporate bodies when, in the opinion of those authorities, the bodies in question are not carrying out their duties as they should. I understand that the hon. Member for Shettleston had a happy time in Northern Ireland, where he visited friends and foes alike, and all were very glad to receive him and give him all possible information.
I have heard a great deal in this Debate about the possibility of an immediate General Election in England. Does any hon. Member think, judging from the by-elections which have taken place in England with a 30 per cent. poll, that that would be a fair way of judging the opinion of the electorate? Suppose there were a General Election here; have we any guarantee that there would be a poll of more than 30 per cent.? It is obvious that you cannot have a high poll. The reasons have been stated again and again and relate to absentees from the constituencies, such as workers transferred from one constituency to another, members of His Majesty's Forces who are now all over the world. Naturally, you could have only a very small poll. On that ground alone it is absurd to think of having a General Election. In Northern Ireland the reasons are more absurd still. Not only have we, in spite of not having conscription in Northern Ireland, volunteers who joined His Majesty's Forces in large numbers and are now scattered all over the world, but many of our people went to England and Scotland and other places as munition workers. All those people would be unable to record their votes. The idea of a General Election at the present time in Northern Ireland is absurd.
It is possible that the information received by hon. Members with regard to the possibilities of an election in Northern Ireland has been supplied by people who are disappointed because they have not had an opportunity to take part in the government of Northern Ireland or by members of the Belfast Corporation who have been robbed of some of their privileges, but that condition of affairs is not confined to Northern Ireland. I have from time to time seen Members of this House, occupying a seat on the Front Bench and representing Departments, shelved or dropped overboard, and they have gone to the other side of the Chamber. The speeches they have made from the opposite benches have been as widely apart as the poles from those which they made when they were in Government jobs. I believe there may have been a feeling of disappointment on their part at not being able to carry on their duties. It is just the same thing in Northern Ireland. I have spoken to the same people to whom the hon. Member for Shettleston spoke. I have met people in Belfast streets who have given me the same opinions as the hon. Member has expressed in the House to-day. They were disappointed people.
I hope the hon. and gallant Member will do me the justice of believing that I can judge people's motives. In addition to the disappointed politicians, the Lord Mayor and 21 Tory members of the Belfast Council, I met 41 individual people, whose names and addresses I have, and a large number of business people who are Conservatives, and they were unanimous in saying that the best thing to do for humanity in Northern Ireland was to give, not the National party or Labour party but the disgruntled Unionist party, the opportunity to withdraw from this Rump Parliament in Northern Ireland.
I quite agree with the hon. Member about the 41 people. I could give him 141 people in Northern Ireland, but that is very different from having a General Election among a very much larger number of people who are in favour of the Government of Northern Ireland. It would take up too much of our time to discuss what the Northern Ireland Government have done for Northern Ireland, but it would seem almost appropriate to do so in view of what has been said by Members of this House and may be said in the future with regard to that Government. There is not a Government in this world who have done more for their people, from the——
I am sorry to have got in the wrong, but I should like to have allayed a little the suspicion which has been created by some hon. Members here in regard to the alleged villainies of the Northern Ireland Government by telling them something of what the Northern Ireland Government have done for people of that country. However, I am satisfied that the Home Secretary has done the right thing in including Northern Ireland.
I have had a fair connection with Northern Ireland for a long while, although I have not visited it sufficiently. My objection to continuing the Government of Northern Ireland is that its great population is centred in Belfast. The Northern Irish Government suppressed the municipal machinery of that great city. When we consent to the continuation of the Northern Irish Government we consent to the continual suppression of the democratic government of the city of Belfast.
The hon. Member mentioned that Belfast has a great proportion of the population of Northern Ireland. Belfast returns a certain number of representatives to the Northern Parliament, and those members are returned by the working class.
There is a complete difference between that and the British Government. If we had suppressed, say, a great city such as Glasgow, Manchester or any of those towns, it would have been the subject, and properly so, of a very fierce Debate in this House of Commons. If such a step was taken it would only be taken not simply after examination by the Government Departments but after very prolonged and meticulous Debate in this House. Here is a Government that has done a most serious thing, because Belfast forms the main industrial belt and a large part of the population of Northern Ireland, and the Government that represents that mass has suppressed another body, interfered with another body, which has been elected on an equally democratic franchise. If that issue had not been raised, I would not have involved myself in the Northern Ireland Government controversy. But nobody defends local government as much as most of us who sit on this side of the House, an instance being the Home Secretary, whose whole life has been built on local government.
To-day by our consent to the continuation of the Northern Ireland Government we are consenting to the suppression of the council of this largest city of Northern Ireland. I cannot agree to that. I object to it being in this Bill. If it was to be done, it ought to have been done by a separate Measure, on which we could have examined the work of the Northern Ireland Government, because when we give consent for it to continue, we ought to examine its work, we ought to examine its past, we ought to examine its policy towards local government and democratic elections. I shall not give my consent to the continuation of a Government that has taken a step such as I have been discussing when by doing so I give it sanction to suppress local authority work. I do not want to involve myself in other controversies in Northern Ireland, of which there are many, but I take the view that on the local government issue I am against the continuance of that Government.
May I say a word or two on the larger side of the Measure? I do not take the view of some of my colleagues about a General Election. May I say a word of caution on a matter which now seems to have become one of the most predominant issues about this Measure in the view of some hon. Members? About having the machinery ready, may I plead with this Government and say that I do not want another coupon election like that of 1918. A former Conservative Member of this House, now deceased, a man well known to us and respected, on one occasion said to me in the Lobby that he thought one of the great disasters of this country was the coupon election of 1918. That was felt by many Conservatives and shared by everybody of an active political mind. I do not want in this "wintry, the moment the war is finished, those who hold executive authority—possibly with victory having been won, and all the great glorification that goes with it—to dominate the whole domestic life, every form of life, in this country. I am not in favour of rushing into a General Election in an atmosphere of that kind.
May I put to those who clamour for an election this other aspect? I am not bound for. or against an election on any deep personal feelings but if democracy is to function it does not function merely by walking to a polling booth and voting. Democracy has a function more than that. To function properly it must think, it must reason, it must argue. Democracy if it is to function fruitfully must be a democracy which merely does not function at the school polling booth through the placing of the cross. A democracy to function must have the necessary argument, reason—education if you care to put it that way—that is the preliminary to putting the cross on a ballot paper. The cross in itself is not democracy. It is only the last stage of it. Democracy is as much the clash of opinion that goes on before the vote as the vote; that is part of democracy. I doubt whether in the midst of war these things that to me make an intelligent electorate can properly operate.
Let us face the fact. I am about the last man to look upon the Prime Minister with feelings of deep regard, as most people do. I have not a great regard for him, though I have no disregard for him. The Prime Minister has many qualities, but he has other disabilities. On the whole he is there, but take what would happen at the moment in the event of an election. Will anyone say that he does not dominate political affairs in this country? I must confess that the Churchill ticket, as it might be called, would dominate every proceeding, and reason and argument would be gone. May I just say a word about rubber stamps? I have heard much about rubber stamps in the last 21 years. I remember when I sat with my colleagues down there in minorities, fighting Governments, and refusing to obey the Whips. Is a General Election any guarantee that the same set of rubber stamps will not be there after it?
I will admit that, but not a single candidate would win an election against the Prime Minister. I do not see any evidence of independence. I have been here a long time, and frankly I am terribly cynical. I do not view this party or that party as being good or bad. I have not the faith in politics which I used to have, but I say that an election in itself is no use unless that election is intelligently viewed by the electors, and intelligently voted on by them.
To-day, I look aghast at what happens. We have a machine on this side. I do not say that with disrespect. It is a powerful and capable machine; let nobody underrate it. Anything which is built out of the trade union movement must be powerful. Let nobody underrate the Conservative machine in this country, either. It is powerful and well-equipped. These party machines are terrible forces to fight against. I am one of the few who has fought every political party: Tory, Liberal, Labour, and Communist; so I know how powerful they are. They are powerful when they are apart; God knows what they will be like when they join forces. You have these machines to face, with all the power that they can bring to bear, and then you expect the aftermath of the General Election to be less rubber-stampish than what existed before.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary, therefore, when he says that we are not to have an election now. I am grateful, indeed, to the Home Secretary for saying anything which means that he will not abrogate Parliament. I expect him to come down one day and advocate that; and if he did so he could make out an attractive case for it, as he can for anything that he does. In fact, the Prime Minister should watch the Home Secretary. One thing which the Prime Minister cannot stand is that anybody else should think himself as good as the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary is beginning to do that, and that is a danger to this Government. Viewing things as they are, I confess that no one on this side can look at the position with an easy mind. Great social issues are neglected. Somebody sneered about Scottish affairs. In Scotland now, in the midst of war, tuberculosis is increasing; housing conditions are like hell—no words could describe them. One hears about fighting the Germans, but last week the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland was asked to get the police to come and protect tenants against rats. When I see these great social issues neglected, I wonder whether this Parliament should go on; but considering the alternatives, I come down, with misgivings, on the side of this Measure. However, the responsibility on the Government is all the more serious. They are given a trusteeship now which in normal times they would never have got. It involves a serious task to see that in their trusteeship the social issues which face mankind should not merely be abated but should be grappled with. I would say to the Government that when they get this power to-day they should not take it as meaning that even this House is in total agreement and that while it desires the carrying on of the war, they must not forget that the greatest issue to the common folk is the happiness in their home lives.
I support this Bill because if a General Election were held, several hundred thousands of fighting men would be disfranchised, which would be very unfair, since the security of the country, the preservation of our liberties and the very existence of Parliament itself will depend upon the success of their efforts.
The speech to which we have listened from the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) is one to be very much commended for its sincerity and for its challenge to this House to consider first principles upon the question of democracy and this Parliamentary institution. I have heard in the course of this Debate a great amount of disparagement of the House of Commons and of the machinery of democracy. I do not think that all of it is justified. No institution in the world is above criticism. Criticism is always healthy. Self-criticism is healthy, but it should be the result of just those considerations of first principles that have been exemplified in the speech to which I have referred. I would like to get down to the real fundamental question in respect of democracy and Parliamentary institutions in this country. It is important from the point of view of the Measure before the House and of the question of whether there should be an immediate General Election or not. We talk about democracy. Do we think always quite adequately about the meaning of the term "democracy"? If you ask the average Member of Parliament, not to say the average elector in the country, what democracy means, he will tell you that it is the rule of the majority. That is one of the greatest fallacies in existence. Democracy is not the rule of the majority but the rule of all—a very different proposition. I can give the House an analogy in the case of Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians more than zoo years ago. They coined the famous phrase "the greatest good of the greatest number." It sounded very plausible, and most people had the idea that the greatest good of the greatest number was the conception of democracy and freedom in a country, but bitter experience discovered the fact that the greatest good of the greatest number was not inconsistent with the greatest harm and tyranny for the smallest number. Just as in the case of the greatest good of the greatest number, the idea that democracy means the rule of the majority is open to precisely the same objections.
Democracy means, certainly as a piece of machinery, the final decision of the majority, because there is no better way of administering Government. But democracy means that every section of the community shall be able to take part in government, and taking part in government means not only actual administration but also criticism, advice and persuasion, and the decision of the majority has no right to be taken——
I am subject to your Ruling. Mr. Speaker, and I do not want to offend the proprieties of the House in this matter. I did think, however, that the issue I was putting was related to the subject, and I intended to try to show what it was. I have heard speeches to-day about the conduct of Members of this House and a reference to what took place a little while ago when Members did not remain in the House to hear leading speeches upon the question of the conduct of the war. One thing which ought to be corrected, because of the reaction in the Press and among the people of the country, is the idea that the purpose of a Member of Parliament is to do nothing but sit on these benches and listen to speeches for hours on end——
I can only say, Sir, that this point has been mentioned several times during the Debate. It seemed to me to be a prejudiced statement which was disadvantageous and even dangerous to the conception of democracy in this country and to the attitude of constituents to this House. I rose in order to give, as I thought, some kind of correction to the views which had been put forward.
I would like to take this opportunity of saying that despite all that has been said to-day I am quite satisfied that it is in the best interests of Britain that this Bill should pass, and equally in the best interests of Northern Ireland. What is good for Britain is good for Northern Ireland. I want to ease the mind of the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) by saying that when I left Belfast on Monday arrangements had been made for the Belfast Corporation to meet to-day. I am not expressing any opinion as to the rights or wrongs of the legislation; all I am saying is that the Belfast Corporation remains in being and that Commissioners have been appointed to assist in the administration of the City. Some of us would be likely to need help, I think, if we found ourselves in the same position. In reply to what was said about Northern Ireland by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), Britain would be a very lop-sided Kingdom if it had not Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland balances the United Kingdom, and with the help of God it is going to remain there for the good of Britain. I want to say to the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) that, quite clearly, he landed in a den of lions. Belfast has four Members in this House, four able representatives, and it is to me passing strange that any of the citizens of Belfast should look across the Channel and ask the hon. Member for Shettleston to plead their cause in this House. It reminds me of the old adage:
Far away fields look green.
I am very glad the hon. Member for Shettleston escaped out of the den of lions and came here to-day as a Daniel come to judgment. My hon. colleague and I represent in this House over 137,000 electors of Down, and not a single one of them has ever hinted to me that he wanted an election for the Northern Parliament. That is my experience, and I think the other Members have had a like experience. Why should we be rushed into an election in Northern Ireland on a stale register, a register that contains the names of so many who have passed away, so many who are in the Forces, a register that does not contain the names of so many who should be there, but who, owing to their having attained their majority since the old register of 1939 was drawn up, would have no right to vote.
It would be a crime against those young people, and it would give no idea as to the reality of the feeling of the country. In addition, it would take the minds of those engaged in war work away from work which is so important at the moment and turn their thoughts in the direction of a political contest that would serve no purpose and, because of the stale register, give no real idea of the feeling of the country.
Reference has been made to a Coalition Government, but I think it would take a man far beyond any of us to find a coalition in Northern Ireland. We have 52 members in that Parliament. Thirty-eight of those members support the Government. Eight members compose the largest Opposition party in the House. Two seats are vacant to-day, one of them having been vacant since March, 1939. Three representatives who were elected came and took the oath in March, 1938, and draw the emoluments, but never returned. One member is interned here by the British Government. Two members of that party attend the sittings of the House. There are three Independent Unionists, and three Labour members, each Labour member belonging to his own party. I think it would be very wrong for the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland to choose some representative for his Cabinet from one party as this would give offence to the others. I say that things should remain just as they are. I conclude by saying that "what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," and what is good for you in Britain is good for us in Northern Ireland. I ask the House to accede to this reasonable request, without trying to make mountains out of molehills—which has been tried by some hon. Members who have spoken—and without seeking to dictate terms wholly unacceptable to the Prime Minister and the Government of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland is in his position with the good will of the majority of the electors, and so are the Government. They are holding the fort, they are doing good work, and I do not think the Government are stale or that you should force us into an election. I believe the Northern House will certainly agree if you pass this Bill and authorise them to continue their work for another year. Along these lines the good understanding which has hitherto prevailed between the two Parliaments—and good understanding has prevailed between them—will be continued and the spirit of good will will be fostered. I support the Bill most heartily, and I hope there will be no division.
My right hon. Friend and I would like to pay our tribute to the stimulating and varied character of, this Debate. My right hon. Friend, who is rather an old hand now at introducing Bills of this kind, says it has been far the best Debate' he has had on a Bill of this sort. One might perhaps also say that the variety and nature of the views expressed were some evidence that the House is not wholly unrepresentative of the views of the people. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he was not saying an election could not be held in war-time. Circumstances might arise in which it was necessary for the Prime Minister to advise the King to dissolve Parliament. But in the view of the Government, and in the view, I think, of the majority of "Members, the proposal made in the Bill is a sound one. The practical arguments are, of course, not conclusive, but they have some weight. Undoubtedly the position at the moment is that the country, broadly speaking, supports the Government and the war policy. The Government is one in which all the principal parties are represented, and it would be an unusual form of General Election even if you had one. Some Members object to the Bill because they feel that circumstances might be too good for the Government, who would get a coupon majority more complaisant and more of the character of rubber stamps than the present House. Others suggest that, if you had it, you would get a large influx of Independent Members and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. Brown) might lead a phalanx of Independent Members if Independent Members can be formed into a phalanx.
Different views are expressed as to what would happen. They illustrate the fact that there would be great confusion. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Preston (Captain R. Churchill) made the point, which I thought had some force, that there would be a good many of the younger men who are at present in the Forces and who are anxious to take their part in politics after the war. Of course, there have been some opponents to the Bill. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) were against it. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) was on the whole against it. The House in general, however, was, I think, in favour. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby taunts us all. He taunts the hon. Gentlemen opposite, and no doubt they can look after themselves. He taunts the party to which I have the honour to belong, and we can look after ourselves. I will tell him one thing. We are all in touch with our constituencies, and whatever he may say about us, we do know what our constituents are feeling, and in particular their feeling on this question. I believe that in the vast majority of constituencies the hon. Members who speak for them could testify that they—their constituents—do not want a General Election. That is really the main cause of this Bill. I shall not convince those who are opposed to it, but I hope the House will think that I have said sufficient to deal with certain of the points that have been made.
One or two questions were put. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) asked what would happen if the war came to a sudden end; would we necessarily use the whole time allowed by this Bill? That is not a matter on which one could possibly give an assurance. Be it noted that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) was against what would be called a quick election. Obviously, different views on that matter are held by different Members. Parliament can only be dissolved when the Prime Minister recommends to His Majesty that that should happen. If there were a sudden end of the war, the Prime Minister would have the opportunity of sensing the opinion of the House on this as on any other matter, but it would be impracticable to give any assurance at the moment.
That was not my point. I asked for an assurance that decisions affecting peace terms and the structure of post-war Britain would not be made without reference to the electorate.
I do not see how one could give any assurance on that point. Some decisions with reference to peace terms will have to be taken at the time of the Armistice, and very important decisions too. One cannot give an assurance of this kind. We do our best to meet the House, and the House has its opportunities of expressing its views. Let me say, as one who has stood at this Box for a number of years, that I think the description of this House as a rubber stamp Reichstag did a great injustice to it and to the power of expression and the argumentative character of hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness raised the same point as to what steps were being taken with regard to the arrangements that would be necessary if we had to have an election in the war or an election after the war. Reference was made to the Speaker's Conference at the end of the last war. The Speaker's Conference was concerned in part—its most important part—with the franchise. That does not arise at the moment. The position is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has appointed a committee to consider the machinery of registration and redistribution, and it is hoped that that committee will report shortly. When it does my right hon. Friend will consider the recommendations which will cover the points.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill) interrupted me when I was speaking and said that the Committee were putting in their report now—shortly—in a few days, I suppose.
I could not possibly do that. In the first place it would not be for me to consider it. When the report has been presented the hon. Member will be able to ask my right hon. Friend about that, but obviously I cannot make any statement on that point. I think the speech I have made covers all the points. Unlike some Debates, this was not one in which a great number of questions were left to be answered, and I think I can conclude by making these observations. I think it is true to say that the introduction of this Bill and the extension of the life of Parliament does put a responsibility on all of us, as Members of this House, whether we sit on these Benches or on those, to do our best to keep in touch with our constituents and to see that this House, in spite of the length of its term, remains representative of opinion in this country. We all know that there are questions arising out of the war, and questions that affect the future structure of society and its framework, what is called reconstruction and so on. Many people are thinking very earnestly about those questions and to some extent their ideas are at present in a somewhat confused state.
None of us has been able to think out those things fully. In these circumstances it may well be that the House as constituted to-day, if it can keep in touch with opinion in the constituencies, can remain a fully representative assembly, possibly even a more representative assembly than if we forced upon the country a General Election which it does not want, and at a time when there would be great confusion as to the issues on which such an election would be fought.
Will the learned Attorney-General deal with one point that was raised by giving a little clearer explanation of how the pledge, repeated by the Home Secretary in introducing the Bill, that an opportunity would be given to the House to consider methods of electoral reform before the next election is to be honoured? Can he say anything about the time or the plan?
I think that is really a very short matter, and it was put and I think more or less accepted in the Debate. It seems to me to be quite impracticable, indeed quite wrong, to deny to the Parliament of Northern Ireland the prolongation which we are taking the power to have ourselves. I do not think anybody can dispute that, and I do not think anybody has disputed it.
|Division No. 22.]||AYES.|
|Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.||De Chair, Capt. S. S.||James, Wing-Commander A. W. H.|
|Albery, Sir Irving||Dobbie, W.||Jeffreys, General Sir G. D.|
|Allan, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh)||Dodd, J. S.||Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath)|
|Astor, Hon. W. W. (Fulham, E.)||Duckworth, Arthur (Shrewsbury)||Jennings, R.|
|Baillie, Sir A. W. M.||Dugdale, John (W. Bromwich)||Jewson, P. W.|
|Beattie, F.||Dunn, E.||John, W.|
|Beaumont, Maj. Hn. R. E. B. (P'tsm'h)||Edmondson, Major Sir J.||Keeling, E. H.|
|Beechman, N. A.||Edwards, Rt. Hon. Sir C. (Bedwellty)||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.|
|Bennett, Sir P. F. B. (Edgbaston)||Edwards, Walter J. (Whitechapel)||Kirby, B. V.|
|Benson, G.||Elliot, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. W. E.||Lamb, Sir J. Q.|
|Bird, Sir R. B.||Ellis, Sir G.||Leighton, Major B. E. P.|
|Blair, Sir R.||Elliston, Captain G. S.||Lennox-Boyd, A. T. L.|
|Boles, Lt.-Col. D. C.||Entwistle, Sir C. F.||Leslie, J. R.|
|Bossom, A. C.||Evans, Colonel A. (Cardiff, S.)||Liddall, W. S.|
|Boulton, W. W.||Evans, E. (Univ. of Wales)||Lipson, D. L.|
|Bower, Norman (Harrow)||Fildes, Sir H.||Little, Dr. J. (Down)|
|Bower, Comdr. R. T. (Cleveland)||Fox, Flight-Lieut. Sir G. W. G.||Loftus, P. C.|
|Bowles, F. G.||Fremantle, Sir F. E.||MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G.|
|Boyce, H. Leslie||Gammans, Capt. L. D.||Mack, J. D.|
|Braithwaite, Major A. N. (Buckrose)||Gates, Major E. E.||McKie, J. H.|
|Braithwaite, Lt.-Cdr. J. G. (H'dern's)||Gibson, Sir C. G.||Magnay, T.|
|Broad, F. A.||Gledhill, G.||Mainwaring, W. H.|
|Brocklebank, Sir C. E. R.||Grant-Ferris, Wing-Commander R.||Maitland, Sir A.|
|Brooks, T. J. (Rothwell)||Green, W. H. (Deptford)||Makins, Brig-Gen. Sir E.|
|Browne, Captain A. C. (Belfast, W.)||Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)||Mander, G. le M.|
|Buchanan, G.||Grenfell, D. R.||Marshall, F.|
|Burden, T. W.||Gridley, Sir A. B.||Martin, J. H.|
|Burke, W. A.||Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth)||Mathers, G.|
|Cadagan, Maj. Sir E.||Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)||Mellor, Sir J. S. P.|
|Cape, T.||Grimston, R. V.||Messer, F.|
|Carver, Colonel W. H.||Groves, T. E.||Mills, Colonel J. D. (New Forest)|
|Cary, R. A.||Guy, W. H.||Mitcheson, Sir G. G.|
|Challen, Flight-Lieut. C.||Hall, Rt. Hon. G. H. (Aberdare)||Molson, A. H. E.|
|Charleton, H. C.||Hall, W. G. (Colne Valley)||Montague, F.|
|Chater, D.||Hamblo, A. V.||Morrison, Major J. G. (Salisbury)|
|Churchill, Capt. R. F. E. (Preston)||Hannah, I. C.||Morrison, Rt. Hon. H. (Hackney, S.)|
|Clarry, Sir Reginald||Hannon, Sir P. J. H.||Mort, D. L.|
|Clynes, Rt. Hon. J. R.||Harvey, T. E.||Mott-Radclyffe, Capt. C. E.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Henderson, J. (Ardwick)||Murray, J. D.|
|Colegate, W. A.||Heneage, Lt.-Col. A. P.||Nall, Sir J.|
|Collindridge, F.||Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan-||Nicholson, Captain G. (Farnham)|
|Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.)||Herbert, Petty Officer A. P. (Oxford U.)||Nicolson, Hon. H. G. (Leicester, W.)|
|Courthope, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir G. L.||Hewlett, T. H.||Nunn, W.|
|Cove, W. G.||Hinchingbrooke, Viscount||O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir H.|
|Craven-Ellis, W.||Hollins, J. H. (Silvertown)||Owen, Major G.|
|Cripps, Rt. Hon. Sir Stafford||Holmes, J. S.||Peake, O.|
|Critchley, A.||Hopkinson, A.||Pearson, A.|
|Crooke, Sir J. Smedley||Hulbert, Wing Commander N. J.||Petherick, Major M.|
|Crowder, Capt. J. F. E.||Hume, Sir G. H.||Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.|
|Culverwell, C. T.||Hunter, T.||Ponsonby, Col. C. E.|
|Davison, Sir W. H.||Hutchinson, G. C. (Ilford)||Profumo, Captain J. D.|
point. We are giving them the power, but it can only be exercised by their Resolution. A number of points have been raised with regard to Northern Ireland which do not seem to me to touch what I suggest to the House is and must be the main argument in support of this Measure, that we are giving to Northern Ireland the power of prolongation that we are taking ourselves, and that it must be for the Parliament of Northern Ireland to decide whether the circumstances are such that that power should be taken advantage of or whether the circumstances are such, as some people think, that there ought to be a General Election there.
|Pym, L. R.||Somervell, Rt. Hon. Sir D. B.||Viant, S. P.|
|Quibell, D. J. K.||Sorensen, R. W.||Wakefield, W. W.|
|Radford, E. A.||Southby, Comdr. Sir A. R. J.||Walkden, A. G. (Bristol, S.)|
|Reid, W. Allan (Derby)||Spearman, A. C. M.||Walkden, E. (Doncaster)|
|Rickards, G. W.||Spens, W. P.||Walker, J.|
|Ridley, G.||Stanley, Col. Rt. Hon. Oliver||Ward, Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)|
|Ritson, J.||Stewart, J. Henderson (Fife, E.)||Watkins, F. C.|
|Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)||Stewart, W. Joseph (H'gton-le-Spring)||Watson, W. McL.|
|Ross, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)||Storey, S.||Watt, Lt. Col. G. S. H. (Richmond)|
|Ross Taylor, W.||Strauss, G. R (Lambeth, N.)||Westwood, J.|
|Russell, Sir A. (Tynemouth)||Strickland, Capt. W. F.||White, Sir Dymoke (Fareham)|
|Savory, Professor D. L.||Stuart, Rt. Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)||White, H. (Derby, N. E.)|
|Schuster, Sir G. E.||Studholme, Captain H. G.||White, H. Graham (Birkenhead, E.)|
|Selley, H. R.||Sutcliffe, H.||Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)|
|Sexton, T. M.||Tasker, Sir R. I.||Windsor, W.|
|Shakespeare, Sir G. H.||Taylor, Major C. S. (Eastbourne)||Windsor-Clive, Lt.-Col. G.|
|Shaw, Capt. W. T. (Forfar)||Taylor, H. B. (Mansfield)||Womersley, Rt. Hon. Sir W.|
|Silkin, L.||Thomas, I. (Keighley)||Woolley, W. E.|
|Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)||Thomas, J. P. L. (Hereford)|
|Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)||Thomas, Dr. W. S. Russell (S'mpton)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Snadden, W. McN.||Tinker, J. J.||Mr. A. S. Young and Captain|
|Somerset, T.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Comdr. R. L.||McEwen.|
|Bellenger, F. J.||Horabin, T. L.||Stokes, R. R.|
|Davies, Clement (Montgomery)||Kendall, W. D.|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Reakes, G. L. (Wallasey)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Granville, E. L.||Reid, Capt. A. Cunningham (St. M.)||Sir R. Acland and Mr. W. Brown.|