I beg to move,
That for the purpose of concluding the Business of Supply for the present Session, Eight days shall be allotted under Standing Order No. 14 for the consideration of the annual Navy, Army, Air and Civil Estimates, including Votes on Account; and, as respects the present Session, that Standing Order shall have effect as if in paragraph (7) of that Standing Order the Eighth day were substituted for the Twentieth day so allotted.
On Tuesday of last week, the Leader of the House said it would be necessary for the Government to bring forward a Motion to obtain outstanding Supply in a reduced number of days. My right hon. Friend was not then in a position to announce how many days would be given for Supply. That, as he explained, depended on the time required for other business and talks had already begun with a view to ascertaining what measure of agreement might be counted upon in regard to outstanding legislation. There were certain Bills which the Government considered essential and there were other desirable Measures which Ministers in all parts of the House wished to see passed into law before the Dissolution. This desire was particularly manifested on Tuesday morning of last week, when, by general agreement, the Committee stages of the Distribution of Industry Bill and the Forestry Bill were completed. On the following morning the Scottish Grand Committee completed the Committee stage of the Education (Scotland) Bill. During the last two weeks, in an atmosphere of good will and co-operation we have been able to dispose of several important Measures which, ordinarily, would have occupied a very considerable amount of Parliamentary time.
We have also, as the House knows, undertaken to bring in the Bill to meet the wish, very generally expresed, that we should deal with the problem of polling day in certain localities where existing holiday arrangements make some change in detail desirable. We hope, too, that it may yet be possible to secure agreement on the Family Allowances Bill. In view of the limited time available, and after allowing for essential legislation and for the other legislation that is desired by the whole House, it is inevitable that we should make a considerable inroad upon the time available for Supply, and what we are proposing in this Motion is to complete outstanding Supply in a further three days, making eight days in all, five having already been taken before Whitsuntide. We shall, of course, require more than the three allotted Supply Days for other related business of Supply. For example, the Committee stage of a Supplementary Vote of Credit for war expenditure is being taken on Friday; the Civil Aviation Supplementary Estimate is being taken to-day, and we shall want to devote two days next week to the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.
The public services must be provided for before the Dissolution. In our proposal we are following very closely the precedent of May, 1929, when Supply was completed by a reduction of the time normally available before the Dissolution which occurred in that year. By good will and co-operation we have, as I have said, been able to deal with a number of very useful Measures apart altogether from essential business in an extraordinarily short time, and I very much hope that the course which I am now proposing will commend itself to the House.
I am very sorry that my hon. Friend apparently did not hear what I said. I said that we hoped it may yet be possible to secure agreement on the Family Allowances Bill.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has moved this Motion with his usual combination of businesslike efficiency and sweet reason- ableness. I am not here to quarrel at all with the allocation of the very limited time which we have before the Dissolution, but I think the House should take note that it is being asked to forgo a very important part of its functions, that is, the examination of the Estimates. We do not intend to divide against this Motion, because it is obvious that it is an inevitable consequence of the Prime Minister's choice of date for the General Election, but the House ought to consider what is involved. After all, the power of this House rests on the old principle that "Redress of grievances precedes Supply," and our procedure is designed so that there should be a full 20 days before the granting of Supply in which the Government can be called to give an account of its stewardship, and it is, by custom, the privilege of His Majesty's Opposition to call for the particular Estimates that they desire in order to review Government policy and administration. It is only when a full opportunity has been given for this full review that the Government receives the Supply that it requires, if, indeed, it receives it.
There was an occasion in 1895 when the Government were beaten on the Estimates. On that occasion a new Government was formed and the usual amount of time was given for Supply. We are to-day asked to grant the Government their Supply after only eight days instead of 20 days on the Estimates. I recognise at once that this giving away of the rights of the House is not without precedent. It was done in 1929. I looked up that precedent. Unfortunately my vigilant eye was absent at the time, I was in India on the Statutory Commission, and the whole matter seems to have passed sub silentio. However, it is not for me to reprove any lapses in the past. The then Leader of the Labour Party has long passed from our ranks. But if the House is asked to forgo its privileges there should be some compelling reason. To-day it is done by the choice of the Prime Minister. It involves, to use his own phrase, "a constitutional lapse." It seems a little odd that it should be the right hon. Gentleman, who made the other night most groundless allegations against my right hon. Friends of plotting to destroy the liberties of Parliament, who should so shortly afterwards come here with a Motion of this kind. There was, as a matter of fact, no reason whatever why necessary legislation and desirable legislation and all the financial business of this House should not have been concluded in the usual way.
Nothing but the decision of the Prime Minister to disregard every consideration but that of the urgings of Party interests has prevented this. I must say I hardly expected that he would regard these constitutional considerations. He had disregarded the convenience of a very great number of people, tired after long and arduous work in the war. He had forgotten the annual holiday, and that has to be put right by this House. He had given scant consideration to the claims of the fighting men to have a full opportunity of considering the issues involved and of casting their votes. He had ignored the question, brought before him very often by my right hon. Friend who was then Home Secretary, of the deficiencies of the register. Perhaps, therefore, it was hardly to be expected that he would consider the historic claims of this House. Nothing seems to have weighed against the clamour of the Conservative Press, or a part of it—not all of it, the less reputable part.
But though we must acquiesce I think we should watch very closely these infringements of the rights of the House and register our protest. Of course the procedure of this House is not sacrosanct. In the changing circumstances of the time, after due consideration, after careful consideration of the interests of this House and not of the temporary interests of a party, alterations in our procedure have to be made. It is one of the great advantages of an unwritten Constitution like ours that we can make these alterations. For instance, recently we set up a new procedure to deal with Statutory Orders. I think it was a very welcome improvement and that it works well, and I shall be the last person to suggest that we should be hide-bound by every regulation, every bit of procedure, that seemed good to our ancestors when conditions were very different; but we should be very chary of accepting grave departures from the historical principles of this House, except in times of great emergency and perhaps under the stress of war. After all, this reason for the careful examination of the administration of the Government before granting it Supply goes back to the very roots of our Parliamentary institu- tions. It rests on very cogent considerations of public interest. Let me say that no academic theorist from the Continent would believe, if he saw our Constitution written down, that it could work. It works because of the practical common sense of the British people. They want it to work and make it work, but it would not work unless there was, at all times, a very nice balance between the rights of the Government to legislate and to administer the affairs of this country, and the rights of the House to discuss and oppose legislation, and to examine and criticise administration. The Motion before us curtails the rights of the House, not for any reason of State but for a matter of party convenience.
The right hon. Gentleman is pointing out all the difficulties that have arisen. I wonder whether he would agree that none of them would have arisen if his party had not quit the Government before the end of the war.
Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member, if he did not listen to me on the wireless last night, would look at the speech I made, in which he will see the very cogent reasons given by the Prime Minister as to how we should be careful—[An Hon. Member: "They were not cogent."] I have a higher opinion of the Prime Minister's constitutional propriety in making those remarks than his follower has. I think he was extremely just in the statement he made, in which he said it would be quite wrong to ignore the rights of the electors, but here we have this alteration in our procedure made not for some overriding circumstance arising out of the needs of the State but for party convenience, and for the convenience of a party whose authority rests on an election ten years ago won on a policy which was betrayed, and won by a party which had to be superseded by an all-party Government headed by the man it rejected.
We have to be realists and recognise that the powers that be have decided, and it is fixed, that there is to be an Election in the middle of July. That being so, this Motion is inevitable, but
none the less unfortunate. My right hon. Friend said the procedure of the House was not sacrosanct, but I think the ancient privileges and rights of the House of Commons, as representing the people, are a most valuable safeguard for the nation. It is not unreasonable to say that, as expenditure increases, control decreases, and at a time when we have these gigantic commitments, following the expansion of State activities, the taking away from Parliament of these Supply Days is a thing that the House of Commons should not accept without vehement protest. The House of Commons' control of finance is the oldest standing principle of our Constitution. It was achieved by a struggle dating back to the 14th century and it was accepted in the 18th century as established. As time went on that control weakened, and it is an unfortunate coincidence that the Chancellor, of all people, should come to the House and demand this relaxation. It has been stated by Redlich, the well known constitutional authority:
Upon this fundamental principle, laid down at the very outset of English Parliamentary history, and secured by 300 years of mingled conflict with the Crown and peaceful growth is grounded the whole law of finance and consequently of the British constitution.
The limiting of the number of Supply Days to 20 dates back only to 27th February, 1906. It is, therefore, really an innovation. There was a time when the number of days allotted to Supply was unlimited, and it was possible, in consequence, to extort concessions as the price of acquiescence to a limitation of days. With the growth of Parliamentary activities the number of Supply Days was fixed at 20, and all the Votes not passed were subject to the Guillotine. This new restriction is unfortunate at a time like this, when we are likely to have great political and economic changes. They are inevitable. The new Parliament will embark on new problems, and it will be full of new men with new ideas and new enthusiasm. They will be impatient of the old traditions of Parliament, and will try to sweep them away. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the Government, who specially claim to be Conservative and the guardians of our constitutional traditions, should have to ask for the sacrifice of the remainder of our Supply Days.
I do not want to go over all the polemics which will be inevitable in the Election, but I do thank that the Government frivolously selected 5th July. They did not take into account any of the obstacles or difficulties. When I was asked, I said that if we were to have the Election by 1st July I did not see how it would be possible to have the necessary Supply Days and get the necessary legislation through, and I thought that by having it at an earlier date we could ask the new Parliament to deal with many of these problems. We know about the staleness of the register. I have already had unfortunate experiences in London. In London we suffer particularly, because, owing to the V bombs and the advice of my right hon. Friend the late Minister of Home Security, thousands of working women left London and went into the country.
I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman, because it was sound advice. I myself advised many women to go away. [Laughter.] I do not think the Government should take advantage of their appeal to deprive these women of their vote. Hon. Gentlemen jeer, but I happen to be an honest man. The women came back to London after the blitz, and they find that, as a result of taking the advice of the Prime Minister and the responsible Minister, and as a result of the Election being rushed, they are deprived of the right to vote. I am afraid that in some parts of the country there will be commotion, if not riots. There was no necessity for the Prime Minister to fix 5th July. A more appropriate date would have been October.
If my hon. and gallant Friend's intelligence is not great enough to understand why, I will tell him. The present register is full of printing errors and omissions, and an enormous number of people have left their homes and gone into the country for various reasons. Hon. Gentlemen opposite will be surprised to learn also that there are vast numbers of men overseas fighting our country's battles.
It is difficult for people overseas to know the personality and character of their candidates, and they cannot take an active part in the Election. There is no section of society more entitled to take an active part in the election of the new Parliament than the members of the three Services. By October more men will have returned to the country, the register will be more up to date, and I hope there will be a better atmosphere abroad.
More Servicemen would be on the register by October. If there had been a little more mature thinking on the part of the Government, if the Government had listened less to Lord Beaverbrook, and if there had been more common sense, they would not have had to come to the House and ask it to sacrifice a large number of Supply Days and, at the same time, ask the nation to go to the poll on a stale register, which was out of date almost before it was printed, at a time when Servicemen are still overseas and the nation has hardly recovered from the nervous strain of five appalling years of war.
Like everybody else, I have visited my constituency in the last few days. There is no area in the country which suffered more from enemy attack. One-third of it is laid in ruins, and the women particularly stood up nobly to the ordeal. They say to me that it is rather hard, after going through five years of war, with their husbands and sons still overseas and the nation in a disturbed state, to have to go through the ordeal of what one of them, in a street almost cleared away, said to me was very like civil strife. They would have liked to have it in a cooler, calmer atmosphere. Other counsels have prevailed, however, and I am sure that my hon. Friends in the Labour Party and my Party will go into this conflict with confidence. This Parliament has done great work, it has stood the strain of the last few years, and to its credit it has never missed a Sitting. We ought to share pride in that fact. It does not matter how bad the blitz was, and the House of Commons Chamber may have been destroyed, but the House never missed a Sitting. It is unfortunate that that great record should be spoilt by this unconstitutional Motion, which is against all the best traditions of Parliament. It is a bad winding-up to this great story.
After the rollicking speech to which we have just listened from the Whig Leader, I have some reluctance in bringing the House back to a sober consideration of the reasonable proposal moved by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Socialist Party. We all know that there was a great dispute in his party on the way in which this Motion should be dealt with. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan), who is conveniently absent from his seat, indicated last week that he intended to make something of a demonstration on this Motion. More sober reasoning subsequently prevailed, and the Leader of the Opposition has made a speech of the most careful and skilful compromise. When I saw the Motion on the Paper and heard the indication given by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale of the opposition that would be offered to it, I wondered what the arguments would be. I think that there are only two lines that the Opposition could possibly take, and both of them have been taken to some extent in the speeches of the leaders opposite.
I rather fear that there may be something better in their election addresses. One of the arguments must be that indicated by the right hon. Baronet, who talked about this Motion being unconstitutional, although he is not going to divide against it. That argument amounts to this, that you can never have a General Election in the Summer. Until you have reached 5th August and had all the Supply Days it is uncon- stitutional in any event to have a General Election. That is the first proposition, and it will be interesting to see how those who wish to modernise the procedure of Parliament defend it. The second argument is that although there may be some cases where it is proper to have a General Election in the Summer, in this particular year and in these particular circumstances it is entirely improper. Let me say a word on each. But first of all I would say with what pleasure and agreement I heard the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Baronet express their respect for our Standing Orders and for all the constitutional safeguards of Supply Days. I was delighted to hear it. Let me say that I agree with them entirely. I can think of only one thing which would justify this Motion, and that is a General Election. Nothing else whatever would justify dispensing with these Supply Days. That brings me to the question of the General Election.
To deal with the first argument, that you should never have an Election in the Summer, I do not believe that thinking men of any party really want to put forward that proposition. I think I am as keen a student, supporter and lover of the British Constitution as any Member of this House, but I think it is a glory of the British Constitution in which all parties have taken pride in the past that it is flexible, adaptable and not rigid, and that, as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition rightly said, we make it work. Until that argument is put forward with a little more force than it was by the right hon. Baronet, I shall not assume there is in any quarter of the House an hon. Member who really believes that it is always improper to have a General Election before Supply Days are completed, which must be by 5th August. If there is to be an election then there has to be a Motion of this kind. [Interruption.] I am not quite clear what is the effect of the interruption by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). I realise his desire to intervene on all possible ocasions at this time, and it may be that he lacks instructions on precisely what to do to-day.
I think it would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had left the interpretation to his friend who made a quite lucid remark to the House. The other argument is that this particular election is wholly improper. That, unlike the previous argument, is not, on the face of it, nonsense. It is possible that some people might believe it. I wish merely to say that I listened to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the night before last. I was unable to listen to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition last night, but I had the pleasure of reading a full report of his able speech in to-day's paper. Without going into the merits of either of those speeches, I wonder if, taken together, they gave anybody the impression that a Government with those two right hon. Gentlemen in it would continue in perfect amity until October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a proposal to the Socialist Party that they should remain in the Government until the conclusion of the Japanese war.
I will not be reluctant to yield to either of the hon. Members in a minute, but they might wish to hear a little more of my argument, because they may want to make quite a different point if they do. My right hon. Friend made a proposal that the Socialist Party should remain in the Government until the conclusion of the Japanese war. In the opinion of a great many people there was a great deal to be said for that proposal, and indeed a good deal in favour of that proposal had previously been said by right hon. Gentlemen who now sit on the Front Bench opposite. The Socialist Party rejected it and, let me say at once, for reasons which I can respect. I can quite conceive that in their opinion there were good and sufficient reasons for rejecting it. All I say—and I commend this to everybody in the House, quite irrespective of party—is that a General Election having been made inevitable, is there anybody contemplating the present state of the world who desires a British Government to conduct affairs either at home or abroad at this juncture without any certainty of life beyond a few months? I cannot conceive such frivolity.
While reading with the utmost enjoyment the reports of the Blackpool Conference I have seen two points on the subject of the Election made by right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen opposite. Those two points were these: We think that an Election in July is a perfect scandal. Secondly, we are quite certain that the Socialists will win it. I would suggest that there is nobody quite so simple-minded as to believe that the Socialists believe both those things. If they go on saying that, many people will come to the conclusion that they have not the slightest confidence in either of them.
Perhaps I have bored the hon. Gentleman, although I am not particularly sorry. When I realise exactly the strength of. the arguments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Baronet, I am able at last to attach meaning to a phrase which puzzled me and puzzled the country when it was used by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. Morrison) at the Socialist Conference. On the last day he made an intervention on the subject of what he called "serious nonsense." I think he must have been anticipating the two speeches which preceded mine today.
The hon. Gentleman who has just resumed his seat has spoken impressively and ingeniously and with that sincerity which prompted his recent well-timed resignation from the Government. His argument would have carried a little more weight, however, if he had not left out about three-quarters of the truth about the subject with which he was apparently dealing with such impartiality. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lime house (Mr. Attlee) was, of course, perfectly correct in observing that the date for this rush Election had been fixed to suit the convenience of the Conservative Party propagandists. These considerations in regard to streamlining the procedure of Parliament, for or against, do not really arise except in that relation. I think there are on all sides of this House hon. Members who are in favour of some modernisation of Parliamentary procedure when it is required in the interests of the House and the efficient carrying out of Parliamentary business. Certainly one of those who was most eloquent in advocating such modifications of procedure was the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton), and he found support from all parties on the last occasion on which he raised the matter. But that is not really the issue before us. Here we are asked to assent to this fundamental modification and curtailing of a constitutional right, not in the interests of the House as a whole but in the interests of the Conservative Party propagandists, who realise that their only electoral asset is the personality of the Prime Minister and that it must be cashed in on during the first glow of victory.
It is really rather extraordinary that some hon. Members opposite had the effrontery to intervene in order to suggest that it was not the Conservative Party which had fixed the date of the Election, and to suggest that it was the departure from the Government of the Labour and Liberal Parties which made that necessary. I suppose the Tory propagandists have studied fully the lesson contained in that famous Tory handbook, "Mein Kampf," that if you want to deceive the people you must tell a big lie, and go on telling it all the time; but it is time that that particular lie was nailed, and I think it is becoming generally realised that the suggestion that it was anything but the Tory propagandists who fixed the date for the Election is a complete lie. The first and the simplest proof is that the date of the Election, 5th July, was well known to the Lobby correspondents of the Conservative newspapers long before the Blackpool conference. [An HON. MEMBER: "Complete nonsense."] It is not nonsense at all. It is true.
May I interrupt the hon. Member for a moment? He is making a most serious statement. The Lobby correspondents in this House pride themselves upon the fact that they never betray information of any kind to anyone. If the hon. Member has the information that he says he has, could he not give it to us now?
I am very glad to have drawn the right hon. Gentleman to his feet, but I am not to be tempted into betraying the confidence of a colleague. That is a short and simple proof of the duplicity of the Tory propagandists. But the locus classicus, so to speak, is to be found in a speech which has already been quoted here and there—in the newspapers and on the radio. It will do no harm to put a few of the relevant sentences on record in Hansard. I mean the speech of the Prime Minister on 31st October last, when he said:
We must look to the termination of the war against Nazism as a pointer which will fix the date of the General Election.…Indeed, I have myself a clear view that it would be wrong to continue this Parliament beyond the period of the German war.…I can assure the House that in the absence of most earnest representations by the Labour and Liberal Parties, I could not refrain from making a submission to the Crown in respect of a dissolution after the German war is effectively and officially finished.
He was not putting the onus on the Labour or Liberal Parties at all, but was insisting himself that it would be wrong to continue this Parliament beyond that period. But he also said:
I cannot conceive that anyone would wish that election to be held in a violent hurry.…There must be an interval. Moreover we have above all things to be careful that practically everybody entitled to vote has a fair chance to do so."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October, 1944; Vol. 404, c. 664–667.]
"Above all things," he said; how careful they are being! Not only have the Servicemen overseas no proper chance, after the termination of the war in Europe, to consider the various policies of the parties as they would have done if the Election had been held in October, in accordance with the very sensible suggestion of the Labour Party, but the October register would have been, as we all know, a great improvement on the May register, which is admittedly full of imperfections. These considerations—the imperfections of the register, the difficulty about the vote of those returned from evacuation, the building trade workers, and others who have been directed to other parts of the country—were present
in the mind of the Tory propagandists when they advised the Prime Minister to insist upon 5th July. I have no doubt at all, in fact it is becoming increasingly clear, that one of the considerations which did weigh with them as among the advantages of an early Election was that the maximum number of working class voters, in the Services and out of them, would be disfranchised.
It was not my intention to speak, but as one who is not having a contested election, perhaps I can take an impartial attitude. It has been very interesting to hear the speeches made from the other side, particularly the one so full of sound and fury which we had from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris). The Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party have yet to make out a case for having driven the people to a General Election, despite the fact that the Prime Minister gave them an opportunity to go on until the war with Japan was ended.
I am more convinced than ever on the matter. The party of which the right hon. Baronet is a leader should not have been the first to give notice to leave the Coalition Government at the end of the war. They did so before the Labour Party took action and it seems to me that their attitude now is one of trying to excuse themselves to the electors by shifting the blame upon the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister's statement was made when it had been announced that the Independent Liberal Party were going to leave the Government. The statement would not have been made if they and the Labour Party had been prepared to stay on until the Japanese war was ended. There is a tremendous body of opinion in the country which feels that hon. Gentlemen opposite have ratted before the job was done.
Having regard to the fact that the observation was heard by many hon. Members, may I ask whether it is not the case that one of the Rules of Debate in this House is that there should be no imputation of motives?
I am certain that the hon. Member opposite and I will not fall out about this matter. I am convinced that the right hon. Baronet opposite and his party were responsible for the break-up of the Government. I think there is no getting away from that. I reiterate that hon. Members on the other side know quite well that the people of the country think it is wrong—I do not want to insult anybody—to quit the job, and so they are endeavouring to lash themselves into a sort of enthusiasm.
No, I did not. What I did was to leave the party because of a difference of opinion, and it is an action which I have never regretted. It would be better if the right hon. Baronet and the hon. Member who has just interrupted me had remained until the job was finished. I am convinced that had they been free to make up their own minds that is what they would have done, rather than having had pressure put upon them from outside. The Leader of the Opposition was wrong constitutionally. In these matters, we do not vote money to the Government but to the Crown. I would be the last person to propose to take away constitutional opportunities from Members of this House to express their feelings and opinions. I am not making a great constitutional point of it, but I would say that all that has taken place so far in this Debate has been a series of election speeches consisting of absolute nonsense.
I should like to put one question to the hon. Member. Does he not agree that it is not a matter of voting money to the Crown at all? The Crown already has the money. It is an occasion for Supply; the Crown disperses the money to the various Departments. The important thing is that the Government have the money from the taxpayers at the present, and are illegally getting rid of it.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I was in error, but it does not affect the argument. I would support every Member of this House in the defence of our privileges as I have done during my 14 years in this House. One of our greatest privileges is to have an opportunity of expressing our grievances before granting Supply. I was protesting against trying to hang a complaint regarding the Prime Minister on to this Debate and was insisting that the blame lies with the right hon. Baronet and his group in the first place, and, in the second place, with those who sit on the Opposition Front Bench.
The Debate has been confined so far to Members of political parties. I think it not inappropriate therefore that the views of an independent Member should now be heard. I wish to raise a point which has not hitherto been brought forward in the discussion and which has worried me very considerably. I should be very glad if the Deputy-Leader of the House could give me an answer. I believe that, in the national interest and in the interests of the world, it would have been better if the General Election could have been postponed until after the end of the Japanese war. Both the international and the domestic issues would have been clearer and I am convinced that till the war with Japan has been won it would be in the national interest that national unity should be maintained.
We shall not get national unity to deal with immediate post-war problems if the country is split from top to bottom by a General Election. The Prime Minister himself has said that his preference was not to have a General Election at all until after the end of the Japanese war. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to answer a question. Instead of giving the leaders of the Liberal and Labour Parties the alternative of having a General Election at the end of the Japanese war or now, why did the Prime Minister not say this to them: "I believe that the national interest demands that there should not be a General Election until the end of the Japanese war. I am going to put the national interest first. I prefer, indeed I hope, that the Coalition Government which now exists shall continue till the end of the Japanese war. But if the Labour and Liberal Parties decide that they must leave this Government now, I shall form a Government representative of men of all parties who are willing to support me"—as indeed he has done—"and so long as that Government has the confidence of the House of Commons, in which I have a big majority, I shall continue it in office until the end of the Japanese war." No constitutional point could be raised, because if it is constitutional for this Parliament to be willing to continue its life for another year, or until the end of the Japanese war, if the two Opposition parties agree, why does it become unconstitutional to do so if the majority of this House is willing to support him? Why, therefore, should the national interest be sacrificed because the two parties choose to leave the Government? Why was that alternative not put before them? I believe that the majority of the people of this country would really have preferred to have waited for the Election until the war against Japan had been won. I believe that the interests of the nation demanded this, and I regret very much that that alternative was not presented to the country.
Many Members of the House will think that the question which has just been asked of the Government by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) is a rather remarkable question. I think it will also be felt generally that it is an especially remarkable question to be asked by an Independent Member. Independent Members have always claimed that their special function is to represent, as the party machines cannot, in their view, represent, the independent mind of the independent citizen. I think that the independent mind of the independent citizen wishes to be consulted from time to time. I also think that the question came with less grace from an Independent Member than from anyone else. Let me attempt an answer. Let me suggest to the hon. Member that there is all the difference in the world between his suggestion and prolonging the life of Parliament by general consent of the House of Commons, by a Government in which all parties are represented, by a Government in which it is done with the general good will of the whole House. It is a very dangerous thing to do at any time; it is a very dangerous thing to do repeatedly; it is a hopelessly perilous thing to do indefinitely, however you do it, but the very worst way possible to do it, and a denial, I should have thought, of the whole spirit of our representative institutions, would have been to have imposed, by a majority in the House of Commons against an official Opposition—a majority elected in quite different circumstances 10 years ago—a prolongation of the life of Parliament, in circumstances in which everybody realised that the life of Parliament ought not to be prolonged. I do not think that is a suggestion which would commend itself to many people.
I do not know whether this question of the date of the Election—whether now or in the autumn—ought really to go on cumbering the minds of the electors for long. For better or for worse, the die is cast. The Election is to take place. For my part, whoever is right or wrong about this issue—I have my own very clear view—I should be very sorry, even if the Government are as wrong as I think they are, to have the issue of this Election decided merely, or predominantly, on the question of whether it ought to be held now or three months hence. The issues at stake in this Election are far more important than that. When we have all had our say on both sides let the issues be determined according to what are the real issues between the parties, not on this single point which, however important it is, is not so important as all that.
What are the rights and wrongs of it? I am sorry to see that the hon. Member for South Bradford (Sir H. Holdsworth) has left the Chamber. He is usually very courteous in the speeches he makes in this House. He is very willing to give way to people who wish to put points to him, and he gave way several times in the course of his speech. There was a point I wished to put to him, but he thought that perhaps it might wait until he had finished, and he said that I would be able to reply to him when he had finished. Though he is not present to hear the reply, perhaps that is not my fault. He did, or attempted, a very gallant thing. Faced with the quotation from the Prime Minister's speech of 31st October last year, he endeavoured to explain it away. This was the point I wished to put to him: He was reminded that the Prime Minister said then that it would be wrong to prolong the life of this Parliament, that is to say, it would be wrong not to have a General Election, when the German war was over. Until I heard the speech of the hon. Member for South Bradford I thought I understood what that meant. I thought it meant what it said—that when there was an end of the war in Europe, when the threat from Germany had been finally done away with, when there was no longer any danger that we might be invaded or defeated, when there was no war left in Europe, that was a good time to have a General Election. He thought last October that it would be wrong to postpone it until after the Japanese war. In other words, he said last October that the invitation which he extended to his Labour colleagues a few weeks ago was an invitation which it would be wrong for them to accept. What then is his complaint?
The hon. Member for South Bradford argued that the Prime Minister had said that the Liberal and Labour Parties had already indicated that they were not prepared to go on in the Coalition after that time. First of all, so far as the Labour Party is concerned, that is not true. My recollection of the history of the matter is that the Labour Party reached the decision that it would fight as a separate Party at the General Election, at its annual Conference last December, some months after the Prime Minister's statement of 31st October. Therefore the hon. Member for South Bradford is wrong on that point. The Prime Minister's statement was not made after the Labour Party's statement. But supposing it had been, what difference does it make? The hon. Member for South Bradford suggested that it would be right to defer the General Election until after the Japanese war, provided that the Coalition continued, but if the Prime Minister had intended to make any such condition as that, he should have said so, and there is nothing of that kind to be, found in his speech. His speech is perfectly plain—that when the German war was over but not the moment it was over—wasthe time to have a General Election. When he posed the alternatives of having a General Election at the beginning of July or having it deferred until after the Japanese war, he was putting in those alternatives two propositions, one of which he had himself declared it would be wrong to accept. Therefore, there was only one thing left in the alternatives proposed—early in July.
The Prime Minister not only said last October that it would be wrong to wait until the Japanese war was over. He also said it would be wrong to have the Election too quickly. Therefore what the Prime Minister proposed last October was to have it some three months or so after the end of the German war. That is the only possible interpretation of the speech. He said that two things would be wrong, one to wait until after the Japanese war, and the other to rush the Election. What made him change his mind? Quite clearly, when these alternatives were proposed the Prime Minister had changed his mind. He had never withdrawn anything he said on 31st October, but he had changed his mind on the point of whether the Election should be rushed of whether we should wait until October.
I cannot altogether follow some of the arguments that are used from the other side. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Norwich (Mr. H. Strauss) said it was quite clear from the broadcast speeches that it was impossible for the Coalition to continue until the autumn. He said that those speeches indicated so deep a division of opinion on important matters that it was impossible to suppose that we could continue in amity even until October or November. What I cannot understand in his speech—the hon. Member was not ready to give way but I will give way to him all the same—is this: If he is satisfied that the division of opinion between the two main component parties to the Coalition had reached a stage that made it impossible for them to continue to collaborate for three months, why does he think they could have continued to collaborate indefinitely?
I thought it was clearly put in the Prime Minister's original invitation to the Labour Party. The Prime Minister said in effect—I have not got the quotation, I do not remember the exact words—that you cannot continue simply to a certain date; you must have some overriding great objective, and then you would pull together. I accept that. I do not really doubt the ability to continue in amity. What I doubted was the ability to continue as an efficient Government in the absence of such an objective.
I am afraid that I still do not understand. All that was surely just as clear on 31st October as it is now, and yet on 31st October it did not seem so to the Prime Minister. He was then contemplating the very thing which the hon. Member for Norwich says is impossible. The hon. Member does not attempt to answer the question which I put to him: if it is not possible to continue as a workmanlike team with a definite objective or anything else for three months, why is it possible to do it indefinitely? The hon. Member shakes his head. I remember a story told in the profession about an advocate seeing his opponent shake his head, saying, "Gentlemen of the jury, you will observe that my opponent shakes his head, but when you have known him as long as I have, you will know that when he shakes his head there is probably nothing in it." I do not know why the hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the position seems to me quite clear. You can continue for three months, because you have agreed that it would be wrong to part until you had a proper Register and until the immediate excitement of the end of the war had disappeared; because, for a variety of reasons, an Election in October would be fairer than an Election in July. Having decided that, you could continue for another three months, as you have done for five years. The hon. Member says that it would be impossible. I do not know then his answer to the question, how could the Government hang together for an indefinite period?
There is a better version of the head-shaking story. It concerns an hon. Member on the Front Bench opposite, who said, "I hear my hon. Friend behind me shaking his head." As to the conditions of Coalition, I thought my hon. Friend made the distinction plain enough between going on for a term of months and going on for an object agreed by both sides to be greater than any points of difference.
It cannot be dismissed as lightly as that. In June, 1940, there were, as there have always been and as I suppose there always will be, very deep differences of social, economic and political principle between the Conservative and Labour Parties. In June, 1940, there was an overriding objective which enabled them to sink those differences.
In November, 1944, we had the Prime Minister's interpretation of what the common, overriding objective was. He said, in plain terms, that the overriding consideration which brought, the parties together and justified the prolongation year by year of a Parliament whose life should have long expired, was the German war. When the German war came to an end the common objective had disappeared. There was no longer an overriding objective of that kind in the Prime Minister's opinion, and that was the proper time to part, subject to the other consideration which he urged, and which was commonly accepted, that there ought to be a decent interval between the end of the German war and the actual date of the Election. It is that decent interval which he has abandoned—the decent interval which he himself recommended, and which, three weeks ago, he forsook.
What we are left wondering, and what the country is left wondering is, what made him change his mind? We say that there is only one thing that could possibly make him change his mind, and that was the consideration, mistaken as we believe it to have been, of party advantage. Somebody convinced, not the leader of the nation, not the leader of the Coalition, not the leader of the national war effort, but the leader of the Conservative Party, that it would suit that party better to abandon the period which he had contemplated, and which everybody had accepted in October last. I think he was mistaken in so thinking. I think that when Declaration Day comes, it will be clear that he was mistaken in so thinking. There was no difference, such as the hon. Member for Norwich thought there was, between thinking that the Conservative Party chose this date because it suited them, and thinking that it would turn out later not to suit them, at all. It is not impossible to hold that the Conservative Party chose the date because they put party advantage before the national interest, and, secondly, that they were mistaken in their assumption of where the party advantage lay.
The hon. Member said that there was. I tried to intervene, because I thought that perhaps he was saying what he did not mean. I wanted to give him an opportunity of correcting it. The hon. Member said that the Socialist Party accused the Tories of choosing the date for their own advantage, and that the Socialist Party thought that they would win, and he said that those two propositions were inconsistent. He said that we could not believe both, and that he doubted whether we believed either. We can believe both of them, and I do believe both of them. I believe that the Conservative Party was influenced by considerations of its personal advantage. I can think of no other reason why that interval should have been abandoned, why the Prime Minister should have changed his mind. At the same time, I believe that they have calculated wrongly, and that when the Election is over they will find that the elaborate new deception which they hoped to practice on the people has misfired. I am afraid I have been too long, but a good deal of that is due to the desire of Members on the other side to hear the truth about this matter in more detail than I had intended. I apologise on their behalf for having taken so long.
I intend to be commendably brief. We have had some very good electioneering speeches. I do not want to be led away by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who astounded me by his effrontery in putting a totally wrong interpretation on the position as to the time of the General Election. He produced the bogy that it was the Tory Party and the Prime Minister who had forced the Election. He used the word "lie." We are going to have this thing out in the next few weeks, and however people may talk about lies, you cannot make black white. The Prime Minister almost went so far as to beg the Opposition to stop with him. [Interruption.] Oh, yes, the hon. Member can see the letters. He went even further than some of us thought he should have done. But they refused, they deserted the ship.
The main thing we are discussing is this Motion, which curtails the privileges and rights of this House of Commons. I was astounded at the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition, who came out as the champion of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. He was appalled to think that such things could happen as that our privileges should be taken away. I should have expected him to support the curtailment of those privileges, because it is the declared policy of the Socialist Party to support their curtailment. You have that laid down in their bible, the programme of the Socialist Party. It has been laid down by the right hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) that their sole object, when they get power, is to do away with these safeguards. It seems to me a most extraordinary procedure for the Leader of the Opposition, who was on the air only last night, declaring his policy, to come here and declare a totally different policy. The statements he has made about safeguarding our rights are not worth anything. I wish to point out the absurdity of the Leader of the Opposition making such a case, as if his party were prepared to defend our liberties.
We have had a number of exhilarating and entertainig exchanges, and I think I should be almost out of Order if I were to make any reference to the number of Supply Days, which is the subject of the Motion. It begins to be borne in upon one that the general principle on which the General Election is to be fought is not that no stone should be left unturned, but that no stone should be left unflung. I have risen because I want to make an observation which has not been made by anybody in this Debate so far. I am conscious that some Member may call me a prig for having raised the question at all. With reference to the observations of the hon. Member for Bournemouth (Sir L. Lyle), we all realise in our hearts that it is a matter of great importance that the age-long traditions of the House of Commons and its constitutional control over finance should be maintained. It has been said to-day that the principle dates from the 14th century; it goes back much further than that. It will be always, I hope, a cardinal principle that the grievances of the subjects must be redressed before the Crown gets its money. It will be very important to maintain that principle in the days immediately ahead of us. Whatever Government has the responsibility of dealing with these matters after the Election will have a difficult job to see that the constitutional position of this House is maintained in the matter of finance.
The powers of the House of Commons over finance have been declining for years, and have declined a very long way. I remember when I first came here the Estimates were considered in some detail, but all that has gone and it has been profoundly interesting to see that as control over finance has diminished Parliament has devised new machinery, which has, in fact, given greater control over finance, and greater powers of investigation, than Parliament has had on the Floor of the House for a very long time, through the instrumentality of the Select Committee on National Expenditure.
This has been a very exhilarating and entertaining Debate, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will delight and entertain the House when he comes to reply. There has been a good deal of detailed discussion. I would point out, in order to have it on record, that the reply of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) to the Prime Minister's letter which initiated these proceedings, intimated that he and his friends, as everybody else knew, preferred to have the Election in the autumn, but, if the Prime Minister considered the possibility of a plan to work together for a longer period, then they would be perfectly willing to meet the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to learn more about it, but no such meeting ever took place, and it is just as well to get this matter right. My right hon. Friend may call me a prig—
I said "prig." We are about to engage in a General Election. They have had one in the United States, and, surely, we, the oldest democracy, can have one if we want to. What I wanted to say, because it has been ever present in my mind, is that we are profoundly anxious that there should be elections at the earliest possible moment in a number of countries, which are now prostrate, overthrown and confused, but are gathering themselves together to try to find out what sort of a Government they shall have to control their destinies in future. We want them to have those elections at the earliest possible moment, and I have a very clear idea of the part our people can play in the world. It is not as great military leaders, for our numbers and resources prevent that, even if we wished it, although we can make a powerful contribution to the maintenance of the rule of order. Nor can we dominate the world in the industrial sense, for the same reason. But there is one thing we are entitled to do, on the basis of our long political experience, and that is to give political and moral leadership to the world, and I think that, at this time, with all these movements abroad, with countries prostrate and stunned which are seeking to recover, we can give a powerful influence, if we so conduct our Election in this country that it shall be a model of the way in which elections should be conducted throughout the world.
There has been a certain amount of nervous strain observable on the Conservative Benches to-day, and I have never seen my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) have such a rough and interrupted passage as he got this afternoon. I know the right hon. Baronet does not mind. After all, he is one of the mildest of men, one of the most persuasive of speakers and one of the most courteous, and why he got all that interruption I do not know, except that hon. Members opposite are in such a mood of apprehension, or of shame, because of all the things they have done wrong, that, every time somebody brings them to the confession box, or makes them admit their wrong-doing, or puts the facts before them, they jump up and interrupt. I think they manifested a sense of guilt right through. But there we are.
This is a Motion to abolish more than half of the Supply Days of this Parliamentary Session, and it is eminently an occasion on which grievances can be aired. We have all been airing grievances throughout this Debate, and we are absolutely in Order in doing so, since our greatest grievance is that we are now to have less opportunity of airing our grievances. If we cannot have our own way, it is a good thing to have a jolly good grievance, and we think we have got a perfectly good and legitimate one. This abolition of more than half the Supply Days is, undoubtedly, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer admitted, a very serious interference with Parliamentary rights, and, indeed, with the rights of the subject. I do not suppose that it appears to foe as serious to the breezy First Lord of the Admiralty, who will follow in due course, as to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably, he will talk far more breezily and cheekily than the Chancellor, who has been trained in good constitutional doctrines. But, of course, it is a serious thing when these 20 days which Parliament gives us to air our grievances are cut and more than half are taken away.
I am a bit of a Parliamentary reformer myself—quite a moderate and rational one. I want Parliament to do its work with proper speed and efficiency, as long as it retains all essentials of policy, principle, finance, and control of the Executive, and all those traditional rights. The only difference between me and some people opposite is that they want it to work slowly because less is done in that way, and I want it to work quicker and get more out of it. Indeed, as the years have gone by, the tendency has been for Parliamentary procedure to be speeded up, and I think there is room for still further improvement. But I would be very careful about interfering with Supply Days, which axe a great and historic right whereby the Parliamentary institution keeps its hand on the Executive and keeps control of it. It is by this means that they should have adequate opportunities on which the Executive can be challenged and the traditional right exercised of seeking to reduce the Minister's salary by a modest amount and thereby challenging the policy for which he stands in his Departmental administration.
I, therefore, thought that, it was very right that the Leader of the Opposition, in the reasoned case that he put forward, should protest about it. Since then, and, indeed, during my right hon. Friend's speech, the issue of the question of an Election, and how the late Government was dissolved, has been extensively debated, and I think it is right that that should be so. It is a matter of public interest. There is a good deal of misunderstanding about it in many quarters, and it is right that it should be discussed. I thought that the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. H. Strauss) ought not to have talked about the Labour and Liberal Members leaving the Government. I forget whether he used the word "quitted," but he himself left it before we did. I have never seen the hon. Member since—I am sorry he is not in his place at the moment—without feeling that he sent that letter to the Prime Minister not expecting that his resignation would be accepted, and that, ever since, he has been surprised that it was. In so far as he resigned on a matter of principle, I respect him for it, but I always feel he was a bit surprised that it came off. He contributed to-day a very able speech in working his passage back from the back benches to the Front Bench—and who shall quarrel with him for doing so?
On the question of the coming Dissolution of Parliament consequent on the decision to hold a General Election, let us dispassionately argue it. I hope to succeed in examining it from the point of view of the public interest. There were three courses possible. One was an almost immediate Dissolution after the end of the European war—not as quick as the 1918 Dissolution, I agree, because the Prime Minister, and I give him credit for it, had, as a matter of fact, as the First Lord knows, made an agreement between us, and I had a big hand in the discussions with him about it. He did agree that he would add three weeks' notice of intent to announce the Dissolution, with the concurrence of the King, and that was a material improvement on the procedure of 1918. I think what is being done now is indecent, but the 1918 procedure was indescribably indecent. Indeed, that observation has been made in many quarters, and even by the present Prime Minister himself. Whether three weeks, on an admittedly imperfect register, becomes thoroughly decent is a matter for discussion. I do not think it does. What I complain of is that the Prime Minister has condemned the 1918 precedent but has got precious near to following it himself.
Is it not also the fact that the Prime Minister condemned 1918 after he had received all the benefits from it? He wrote his book after he had enjoyed four years of office, conferred upon him by this indecency of 1918, and it is characteristic of the Conservatives who enjoy the fruits without worrying how they accumulate them.
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that point. Let us examine these various alternatives. It is true that the Labour Party—and we do not follow in the sequence of time; it was after the Liberal Party had made a certain statement—it is true that we said that, at a date which was convenient after the cessation of hostilities in Europe, we thought this Government should be brought to an end. So far as I remember, the decision, in principle, of the Liberal Party was the same. I think it was that, at a date to be convenient, the Coalition should be brought to an end after the end of the European war.
Well, the Government, and, with it, of course, the Parliament, but I will come to the Parliamentary aspect in due course. That was the view. There was no decision on the part of the Labour Party, and so far as I remember, on the part of the Liberal Party, as some people seem to have got into their heads, that, immediately VE-Day came, we should all leave our offices and break up the Government, There was no such decision; it was a matter of seeking what was in the public interest as to a suitable date for ending that Government. The whole argument was, what was the most convenient time in the public interest. There cannot be any other argument. Hon. Members opposite can believe me or believe me not, but I have been concerned with the public interest in this matter, and with nothing else. I do not know who is going to do better in July than in October. I do not know. There are some people who think they know.
I have long wanted an opportunity of asking the right hon. Gentleman to explain in Parliament what he has said outside about my supposed association with this Election decision.
Wait a minute, I have not finished with it. Since the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, I must express an opinion, and that is, it is notorious and perfectly well known to most people in this House, to the journalists outside, and certainly to everybody on the Front Bench opposite, that the two closest political advisers of the Prime Minister on tactics, especially smart tactics—the two most intimate political advisers, sometimes humorously known as the Companions of the Bath—I do not know quite the meaning of the phrase—are the Noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal and the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty. I thought that that was accepted, and that the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord regarded it as one of the finest things associated with his political life that that should be so. I cannot make out why he is so modest about it. After all, he has been promoted to First Lord. He has been promoted, to my surprise—goodness knows where he will finish up—to something like the deputy Leadership of the House of Commons at the present time. I have promoted him this afternoon to the great position of joint political adviser on strategy and tactics to the Prime Minister. What is he grumbling at? I thought I was doing him a good turn. There is no secrecy about it. Everybody knows it. I was saying when the right hon. Gentleman intervened that I did not know—I said it quite honestly and I have had some experience in elections—what would be best as between an Election now, and an Election later on.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman evading the issue? He has mentioned the public interest. Was it not in the public interest that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends should have continued in the Government until the end of the Japanese war?
I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that that was present in my mind as one of the subjects-I might mention. I only added that some smart people thought that they did know the difference between the advantages of an early Election and those of a later one. The First Lord asked, "Who are they?" and I said to him, "You." That has been fully explained to the complete satisfaction of the House. What are the desirable things, when we have come to the end of a totalitarian war, in fixing the date of an Election? First, it is clear that there ought to be an Election at a reasonably early time. Having settled that question, the next question is, how soon are we likely to have the official machinery of the Election of such a character that it can properly function so that the maximum number of electors can have the maximum opportunity of giving a vote? Is there anything wrong about that, or is the idea that the best way to have an Election is to restrict the number of people who could vote, particularly if you believe the people disqualified would be people who would otherwise vote against you? Is it argued that the best thing to do is to have it as quickly as you can before people have had a chance to turn round and think and reflect?
It is true, as somebody said, that the people in this country have had a pretty gruelling time in this war. They have had strain and have been ordered about in many ways, and have shown good will and co-operation. I have taken my share in it as well. They have been under a heavy strain and have had a gruelling time. We all have had a heavy strain and a gruelling time and could have done with a little break, which would not have done any harm, either to the temper of the Election and the speeches of every- body in it. Therefore, it was desirable that the people should have a little relaxation from the tension. I do not say rest, as that might not be possible; the Japanese war is still going on, and the effort must be maintained to a proper point. But they could have done with a little relaxation instead of being plunged into an Election almost directly after the Prime Minister had had his sojourns in the West End of London on Victory night—as if the Victory Parade must certainly lead to a General Election straight away. The experts can tell me whether this is so or not. Surely, the people were entitled to a little rest from the strain before going into an Election, and would have been able to give an easier, quicker and more reflective decision in casting their votes. That seems to be one aspect of the case.
The next point is that everybody knew, this House knew because I made no secret of it, every Member of the late Government knew, the Prime Minister certainly knew, that the first post-war register, hurriedly produced at the wish of the Government, was bound to be an imperfect register. I hope that no silly childish attempts will be made to assume that this was the register of the Home Secretary at the time. That register, as the First Lord knows, was the result of deliberate Cabinet policy.
We were doing our best. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree; and also the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as he had something to do with it as chairman of an outside committee. We all agreed, and we were doing our best. We believed it was right to have ready the official machinery for an Election if circumstances made it inevitable. We had to do this hurriedly. All the steps were agreed by the Government of the day. We are all in it whether the register is perfect or not, and if there is a fault, it is the fault of all of us. Everyone struggled to get the best register possible to apply to everybody at home and overseas. I regarded it as a sacred duty at the Home Office to produce the best register I could, and to be absolutely fair about it, in the time at our disposal and in the difficult circumstances in which we were working. There was shortage of staff in registration offices. People were being directed here and there; they were being shoved all over the place. Of all the difficulties of the registration the fundamental difficulty was that we could not have a universal street to street canvass. All this was bound to produce a register which was imperfect.
We did the best we could in the circumstances. Many people have been directed to other parts of the country by the Ministry of Labour. Bomb damage repair people have come to London in great numbers from other parts of the country. I think that the Service Departments on the whole have done very well, and I am grateful to officers of the Forces for the persuasion they exercised on men to register. But in some distant theatres there will be great difficulty and imperfections in postal voting. Everybody did their best, but these things were bound to be so on the first register. Large numbers of evacuees who have only just come back to London—if they were not here on 31st January, they were registered at the place to which they were evacuated, and they are not going back—just will not be able to vote.
Finally, if I may touch on a subject about which we are not too much worried but hon. Members opposite are, I come to the registration of the business voter, who, I think, ought to be completely abolished. But he has rights under the law, and it is our duty to administer the law. The business voter has been left in a very poor way, so that the numbers registered are relatively infinitesimal compared with the number of those qualified to register. There are in Westminster Abbey about 2,000, instead of 14,000, and the numbers in the Exchange Division of Liverpool, the Exchange Division of Manchester and the Central Division of Glasgow are very small. But that is their funeral, and no doubt the First Lord of the Admiralty, who is busily scribbling notes, will make the most of the point that, despite the shocking position of the business voter, they are going to have an Election to prove how honest and upright they are. It does not prove anything at all. It only proves that in taking the "pros" and "cons," he has decided that the "pros" have it.
In these circumstances, the proper thing to do was to consider, Is an Election to be held on this register? It would have been a matter of waiting three months or so for the Election and in the meantime going on with our work as a Parliament and a Government. It was implied in the Prime Minister's letter that Parliament had become impossible. He said that there was bickering and that we could not govern by bickering. I sat on the Front Bench opposite for five years, running one of the chief offices of State, and I was subjected to repeated attacks. I did not blame the House, but I think I did not deserve it. I had plenty of criticism, but I was bound to have it., Anybody holding that office was bound to have it. I was Home Secretary for the longest period of time in this century, in time of war, and I had Civil Defence added to the office. The hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery) was always after me about 18b, as was the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). [An Hon. Member: "And the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale."] Yes, and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan), but it was all part of doing the job and earning one's salary, and in being accountable to Parliament. I had many a battle in Parliament and sometimes had narrow escapes, and it is a Parliament with a majority of which I do not approve. But I say in all sincerity that no Minister holding that tricky job, could have wanted, on the whole, a fairer tribunal to judge him than this House of Commons during that period.
Therefore, to say that this was a Parliament with which you could not live is wrong. It was not a bad Parliament, apart from its political majority. The Government got on amazingly well considering the strain we were put to at times. The idea that the Government or Parliament could not have lasted is really quite wrong. That could have been done. We could have carried through this House much legislation that has now to be sacrificed. I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on retaining his position in His Majesty's Government. Governments come and Governments go but the right hon. Gentleman goes on for ever, and I am delighted to see him there above the battle and clear of all these nasty political affairs. [An Hon. Member: "A permanent decoy duck."] The right hon. Gentleman in his speech referred to the Motion going through beautifully and speedily, and was so happy about it because nobody was examining anything. I was alarmed at the Chancellor, who ought to be sorry because of the speed with which legislation is going through. He got near to rejoicing over the Prime Minister's ignorant and innocent observation the other day that I was advocating that legislation should be passed by resolution. He has got precious near it in the last few days. He rejoices about legislation by resolution and says, "What a nice competent House of Commons." That is the sort of Parliament he likes.
No stages were left out. Imagine—the right hon. Gentleman is serious about that. The representative of the Scottish Universities is true to Scottish tradition; he is serious. No stages were left out; no, but it just goes like this: Mr. Speaker goes out of the Chair and the Chairman of Committees comes in; the Chairman of Committees goes out of the Chair and Mr. Speaker comes in, and away it goes—and the right hon. Gentleman says that no stage is left out. There are no noticeable stages in this process at all, and I warn the right hon. Gentleman that, if he is not careful, he will be quoted as the most dangerous case of approving legislation by resolution which was, in such comic fashion, condemned by the Prime Minister the other day.
Yes, it does. Nobody has proposed to abolish the right to object as far as I know. I was only commenting, as I had every right to comment, upon the joy with which the Chancellor saw this legislative procedure. I am bound to say it is a procedure which is inevitable in these circumstances. But let the right hon. Gentleman remember this: If the House proposes to object, what does he do? He says, "The Bill is dead." So I am afraid the Chancellor is sunk, whichever way he looks. That is what he has said about a certain Bill. [Interruption.] I am not making too much of it. I did it myself once. That is what he has done and so, when the hon. Member says that we can object, I say that we cannot object because if we do not like the Bill as it is we lose it, and if it is a Bill we want, of course we do not wish to lose it. That is the difficulty in which the House is, and so the Chancellor sits convicted of being a legislator by resolution, and instead of apologising, and saying how much he regrets it, he rejoices and publicly praises the House for carrying on its business in this way.
No, I would be utterly ashamed of myself if I got anywhere near such a degradation of Parliamentary procedure and Parliamentary practice. I do not wonder the trains are slow between London and Cheltenham.
What other inconveniences are following from this rushed Election—I do not call it a snap Election. It must be highly inconvenient in regard to all the problems we are facing in Germany and the occupied territories. I venture to guarantee that dozens or even hundreds of questions are arising requiring the decision of the Government and I would not be a bit surprised if the commanders in the field, or those in charge of the occupation of Germany and of other military problems, cannot get them, but they are probably being told. "Do not worry us. There is an Election on." That ought not to be so, in this tricky phase of affairs, and the rushed Election, from that point of view, ought not to have taken place.
Therefore I say, from every conceivable point of view, the Election ought to have been in the Autumn and Parliament should have carried on to that point. If some people had made political speeches in the country—which I understand the Prime Minister is not very keen about, though sometimes they are very good speeches—the world would not have come to an end. Why should not the political education of the country proceed? I have made my contribution to the political education of the country during the war. There were questions in the House as to whether these speeches represented the policy of His Majesty's Government, and the answer given made it pretty clear what was the position in that respect. Why should not they go on? Why is there this conspiracy against political discussion in the country on the part of Members of Parliament or even Ministers of the Crown? Are we getting to a totalitarian political regime, where there has to be one political party in Parliament, and no debate and no discussion?
The right hon. Gentleman's party cannot have it on the roundabouts as well as on the swings. Is he not suggesting that the Ministers in the Coalition Government who supported the Government would no doubt be loyal to the Cabinet, leaving his hon. Friends behind him free to vote against their own colleagues and make capital out of the fact in the country and so have it both ways?
I was only talking about political speeches in the country; I was not dealing with the voting against the Government in this House and, on the balance of record of voting against the Government, it is about fifty-fifty. As a matter of fact, the Government had nothing to complain about of the treatment they received, either from the people or from the House of Commons; both the House and the people were very good to us.
That is why I say that, in my judgment, the Election ought to have come in the Autumn instead of now, and that was the view we expressed. Yet we are being accused of having quitted the Government. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] When hon. Members say that with a mischievous smile, it shows they do not believe the "Hear, hear." It is quite untrue. We did not quit the Government. On the contrary, we said that in our judgment the Government should remain together until the Autumn and, having said that, we were pushed out. The Prime Minister resigned. The Government was automatically dissolved. We did not go to His Majesty to resign; it was the Prime Minister who went. It was the Prime Minister's own action which dissolved this Government and nobody else's. I do not say that the Prime Minister has quitted office, but he it was who quitted that Government, and not the Labour or Liberal Ministers.
Now I come to the argument that it should have been at the end of the Japanese war and that then we could have had all our Supply Days this year, next year and possibly the year afterwards, because we do not know when the Japanese war will end. If it does end before the Autumn the Prime Minister will look rather foolish.
No, the Prime Minister will look foolish, because then he could have had the autumn Election and the end of the Japanese war as well. I will tell the House why I personally and firmly all the time have taken the view that that would have been a mistaken course. First of all, let us consider what the situation is going to be. Certainly after the Autumn two things will begin to emerge before the public mind and the Parliamentary mind. One is the thing that is going on all the time, the prosecution of the war against Japan in the Far East, on which we are all united. There is no difference of opinion, and any Government, whatever it may be, will have the support of the Labour Party in prosecuting that war, as we would expect that we would have the support of other parties, if we were called upon to form an Administration. The other thing that will emerge will be the economic problem and the social problem—economic and industrial issues on policies which will be vital to our country, whichever way they are dealt with, and vital to the men who are coming back from the Services in due course.
Let the facts be faced. The late Government got on very well in many respects, but the things we could not agree about were issues of industrial and economic policy. I am not blaming anybody. It was a difference of fundamental principle. There would be no justification for our several existence if it were not so. There was the question of controls. We have seen the result of the formation of this Government in that a certain Bill went. There was the question of the reorganisation of industry, whether it should be on the basis of public ownership over a restrictive field, or private ownership. We said public, they said private. There was the question of the control or supervision of monopolies and anti-social cartels. We could not agree about that. Indeed, when a Bill affecting land was produced there was nearly a Parliamentary crisis about it. I am not grumbling about anybody. These are real difficulties between parties and, on the whole, it is a good thing they are there, because it gives reality to party conflict and to political and economic discussion. However, those issues were going to emerge more and more, and, as the weeks went on—after the Autumn, because I do not believe anything critical would have arisen, probably, by then, there would have been a divergence of view, and incapacity to come to a decision about these things—muddle, confusion and uncertainty and, in our hearts and consciences, we should have felt that we were making an unholy mess of things for the men who were coming back from the fighting when our duty was to get things right.
It may be that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite felt the same from their point of view. If the Government is to live, it must be united about the essentials of the time. We were united about the essentials of the conduct of the war. We were sharply divided about the policy for the economic reconstruction of the peace. If we had stayed in we would either have had to acquiesce in Conservative incapacity, as we should have thought it, in those respects and we should have been betraying, as we should have thought, the men in the Fighting Services and the fighting lines abroad. In due course we would either have got involved in responsibility for policies with which we fundamentally disagreed, or the Government would have had an uncertain life and the break-up would have come even more untidily than it has come at the present time. That is a good public and Parliamentary case against the indefinite continuance of the Government through the Japanese war. In any case, the essential preparations for the Japanese war are made. I do not say that everything is done by any means, but fortunately we agreed before we left on the big and the fundamental issue.
The Prime Minister knew all this. He did not appreciate those points so much, I think, because economic and industrial policy and domestic policy are not so much in his mind, and I do not complain. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]. They are not. I am not complaining. Nobody can be expert about everything, and they are not particularly in his line. However, he did appreciate the Parliamentary point. Whatever criticism there may be of the Prime Minister, he is a keen Parliamentarian, and some days he is even keen in his democratic feelings. He recognised the Parliamentary point, and he said, "There is going to be difficulty about the continuation of the Parliament because, if there is an Election, how are you to hold it—a coupon Election or a fight?" I think everybody would agree that we did not want to repeat the rather unpleasant memory of the coupon Election of 1918, and you cannot have a fight at the polls while you are in the same Cabinet. It cannot be done. Not even that great Government could have survived that.
I am speaking within the memory of the House when I say that, year after year, I came here with the Prolongation of Parliament Bill. Year after year the House got more and more uncomfortable, and I was almost accused by hon. Members from all parts of the House who asked, "Why do you have this dreadful thing again? Parliament has no right to prolong itself; it is an infringement of the Constitution." In a way it is, but as our Constitution is unwritten, you can do all sorts of things without getting before the courts. Increasing criticism arose, and I had to be increasingly persuasive as the years went on. In 1944 the Prime Minister was so apprehensive—[Interruption.] No, I did not give it up, I was willing to try again and I believe I could have pulled it off, though I would have had to confess my sins more vigorously than before.
The Prime Minister himself thought that the pressure was considerable, that it wanted careful handling—not that he disputed that I would have handled it carefully, but he thought this was an occasion when he ought to handle the House himself. I thought he was right, and readily I agreed about it. He made that speech which has been quoted so often this afternoon, and there was no answer to it. There really is not. He laid down precisely the same arguments that I have laid down this afternoon, that at an appropriate date, after the end of hostilities, when the reason for the continuation of Parliament had gone, there ought to be an Election. He did not say "straight away"; he did not say a rushed Election; on the contrary, his words implied other considerations altogether. He merely said he would not have another Prolongation of Parliament Bill, and this time he went for a new device for surmounting this problem—he would not have another Prolongation of Parliament Bill but, he said, "Let us have a plebiscite or a referendum. Let us ask the people, 'Yes or no, do you want this Parliament to continue'?" which means, "Do you want this Government to continue; do you want this Prime Minister to continue, with a Conservative majority?" All the poor opposition outside would be able to do, even if we were agreed about it, would be to vote. I cannot understand why the Prime Minister wanted to pick up this unpleasant referendum method of doing things. It is no good talking about Australia, because they use it there for totally different purposes. But this kind of referendum, "Am I to continue to be the Prime Minister or not?" or, if you like, "Is this Parliament or Government to go on?" just smells of the devices of the Fuehrer. I not only rejected it, but I felt cross that the proposal had been made. It is offensive in British eyes and minds. I will not, for myself, have our political and constitutional institutions degraded to the point where all that is left for the British people to do is to say, "Ja," or "Nein." That is not good enough for this country. [Interruption.] The hon. Member who is retiring at the Election, and who sits for South Bradford (Sir H. Holdsworth) is—
There is too much of the Fuehrer principle about it for my liking. That is our case. Let me say, in conclusion, that we are not whining. We have stated our case, and we believe that we are quite right. I do not know whether an Election now or later would suit anybody best. I am not as clever as the First Lord of the Admiralty in that respect. But, as I have said, we are not whining about it. I can assure hon. Members that there will be a merry fight and a vigorous one, and that at the end of it there will come forward great decisions. I think this Election is the most important Election we have ever had. We shall fight with the greatest possible energy as, no doubt, will hon. Members and right hon. Members opposite, except, perhaps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will have his usual quiet time, although whether he will get in or not time alone will show. He always has the best of all worlds, because he just goes on, and does not have to do the anxious work that the First Lord, and I, and others have to do.
We felt it necessary to put our case before the House and the country. We have so put it, and the First Lord will no doubt reply to the Debate. We have made our protest intelligently, I think, and clearly, and when we go to the fight let the best side win.
I came to the House to-day with a full knowledge of my lack of competence to deal with all the solemn points of Supply which were advertised to be discussed in this Debate. I am bound to say that I was relieved to find that the solemn points of Supply have been neglected, and that we have, in fact, got right into the middle of the hustings. The Leader of the Opposition began by complimenting my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on his reasonableness, and we all agree with that compliment. Then he criticised the Prime Minister's speech, or radio oration, and was, perhaps, a little less charitable. If there is one thing that may be said about the right hon. Gentleman, it is that he is uninhibited by the name of his constituency. He will never descend to Lime house. The right hon. Gentleman completely forgot, in his electoral survey, the fact that, I think, unwillingly on his part, and on the part of his friends among the Members of that Government, the Socialist representatives in the late Government were pulled out at the behest of the Socialist Party, at their solemn annual conference.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. Morrison) will quite rightly say, in his autiobiography, that was a thoroughly democratic de- cision, that if the Socialist Party said, "We wish to put an end to your participation in this Government, and you must come out," that there was nothing wrong or unpatriotic about that, although I think it is hard on a hard-working Minister such as he was at that time. The most animated speech we heard to-day came from the acting Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris). There are, I am told, fierce beasts in the jungle, whose names are so long that no one can remember them, but I am also informed by somebody who understands animals, that the most formidable of all angry animals is a sheep run amok. Certainly, the right hon. Gentleman ran amok here to-day. He seems to have stolen the oratorical thunder of his Leader, and I think that some of his invective will bring a great deal of happiness to his constituents during the next few weeks. The right hon. Gentleman said that, the new register was stale. Well, I should have thought that that was the last of all the criticisms that could be made about it. You might say it was immature, but it certainly is not stale. I liked the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about this Parliament, because I think it is true—and the good humoured Debate we have had has emphasised it—that this is one of the greatest of all Parliaments. But he spoilt his compliment by going on to warn us that the next Parliament may be full of men of vigour, with fresh ideas. Well, surely it is to the benefit of the nation that, if there are men of greater vigour and fresher ideas outside, they should come in. The most powerful argument for a new Parliament came to-day from the right hon. Gentleman.
If there were any points of Supply mentioned in the Debate they were thoroughly dealt with in a brilliant speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. H. Strauss). He made one of the most amusing speeches I have ever heard in this House, and I must say that the late Home Secretary does not realise how sensible the Prime Minister was of the loss that the Government sustained when my hon. Friend decided for conscience sake, and conscience sake alone, to leave office. The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) came forward and described the forthcoming Election as a rush Election. Three weeks' notice, and yet a rush Election. [HON. MEMBERS: "Certainly."] At any rate, it gave him adequate time to change his party. No one believes that he would suddenly have reached such a decision. He must have given a great deal of time and consideration to this problem, and I advise him at meetings in his constituency, in his new mantle, not to press the point about a rush Election, because never since the conversion of Balaam has there been a quicker conversion than that which the hon. Gentleman has sustained—
I did not hear any solid argument; I heard a great "deal of clumsy invective, not solid argument. One of the strongest attacks on the Leader of the Opposition came not from these benches, but from a most peculiar quarter, from the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman). He ran a bulldozer over the Leader of the Opposition, and it seems that the restoration of party Government has not improved party discipline on the opposite side. We also had a most interesting speech from—
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the most interesting point which he has just reached—I might, after all, be called upon to answer in another place—am I to understand that he was alleging that there was some point of my speech, I think he rather implied the whole of it, that was at variance with the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? If there was, I am entirely unaware of it, and I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would indicate where my argument differed from that of the Leader of the Opposition.
I do not think that that will quite do. I know now what I said, without waiting until to-morrow, and if the right hon. Gentleman does not know I will tell him. So far as I know there was not a single point in my argument that was in any way at all in the slightest conflict with the argument of the Leader of the Opposition. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that there was, then it is due to me and to the House to explain what it was, or withdraw.
On a point of Order. I shall be guided entirely by you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I should have thought that if the right hon. Gentleman accused me of making a speech that was at variance with the speech made by the Leader of the Opposition he ought to justify his deliberate misinterpretation of my speech, or withdraw it.
With great respect to you, Sir, I submit that that is not so. It is not a question of interpretation at all. The right hon. Gentleman said, in flat terms, that I ran a bulldozer over the Leader of the Opposition, and I am saying that he ought either to justify that assertion or withdraw it.
I understood that the expression "bulldozer" was intended in rather a lighter vein. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman so intended it. I did not understand it as being any reflection on anybody. As to the question of a point of Order, in a Debate of this kind hon. and right hon. Gentlemen are entitled to real differences of opinion, and I do not think anything has been said that can be regarded as having gone beyond the bounds of Order.
On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Will you be good enough to make it clear that this House exists for the purpose of expressing differences of opinion, and that its liberty will not be in any way curtailed by an hon. Member raising a point which is not a point of Order in an endeavour to prevent the expression of differences of opinion?
I want also to raise a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to justify the original point of Order. The Minister said that the most devastating argument against the Leader of the Opposition came not from his side of the House but from this side. Surely it is his duty to tell us what that argument was.
I do not think it would have been a good way to conduct a Debate in this House if I had interrupted the former Home Secretary during the various statements he made about what had happened between the Prime Minister and myself, and demanded that he should give chapter and verse for what he said. It is right that, if anybody on these Benches feels that a speech made by a member of the Socialist Party opposite was a devastating answer to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, he should, in replying for the Government, be allowed to state his case, and I maintain that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne having made an extremely long speech, is not entitled to make another one. We heard a speech—one of the few made in this Debate which touched even midly upon finance and Supply—from the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. Graham White). He was a ghost at our feast today, because while everybody was enjoying himself dealing with election matters, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of Supply, but he did not go very much farther than to warn us that it was an important topic. I am bound to say that the warning was not observed in any quarter of the House.
The right hon. Member for South Hackney made a coroner's inquest on the late Government. He accused me of being too breezy. There is no doubt that as a coroner he was far too breezy this afternoon; coroners are supposed to be serious. He began by calling me a political adviser to the Prime Minister. You might as well send a missionary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or a publicity expert to the right hon. Member for South Hackney. If we are all going to give some chapters of autobiography this afternoon, I wish to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, when he says it is notorious that I give advice to the Prime Minister about electoral matters, it may be notorious, but the statement is not accurate. I am one of the few colleagues of the Prime Minister who has never discussed elections with him. I consider that of all the boring topics in life, one entirely suited to Tapers and Tadpoles, elections are the worst of all conversational subjects between civilised human beings. I am not calling upon the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his statement. I am not so touchy or so out of contact with opinion in the House, but I beg him to allow me to say that on this occasion he was inaccurate. If he would like to hear my views on the Election—and I take it that will be quite in Order in view of the Debate this afternoon—I will tell him that my view is, "Keep the Government going till after the Japanese war is over." I am bound to say that the right hon. Gentleman the former Home Secretary once thoroughly agreed with me in that matter.
In a few moments I will quote to show that that is so. The right hon. Gentleman made a lot of criticisms of his baby, the electoral register. The Government as a whole are entirely responsible, but we know how hard the right hon. Gentleman worked in the compilation of it. I have a little doubt myself whether he worked quite hard enough on the business vote registration. As moderation is always my limit, I hesitated in the Cabinet to make any accusation against the right hon. Gentleman. I think that out of the whole of the right hon. Gentleman's speech there emerged only one substantial grievance, and that was that he and his friends were not allowed to choose the date of the Election. That is all; nothing else. The right hon. Gentleman said he was not certain as to which was the best date for the Election, July or October.
That goes to show quite clearly that I was not in any way misrepresenting what my right hon. Friend said. The truth is that the grievance of the Socialist Party is that the Prime Minister exercised his constitutional prerogative to fix a date for the Election. Hon, and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, of course, would have liked the edifying scene we have had to-day to be carried on until well into October. We would have had debate after debate dealing with matters of finance and would have been indulging in platform "barracking." I wish to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I do not resent anything he said about me. I thought it a little unfortunate that he talked about the Prime Minister's suggestion of a referendum as being worthy of the language of the Fuehrer. A referendum is part of the Constitution of many countries. Take, for instance, that eminent Australian politician, Mr. Curtin, who has recently been the father of a referendum in Australia. It is quite true that he lost. Mr. Curtin is a member of the Socialist Party in Australia. He has been selected by a Socialist caucus in Australia because that system prevails already in Australia, and I have no doubt that if the right hon. Gentleman and his friends came into power it would prevail here. But no more democratic man could be found in the world than Mr. Curtin, and when the right hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister is talking the language of the Fuehrer merely because he recommended a referendum, it will greatly upset Mr. Curtin and many other Socialist politicians in many lands who have agreed that a referendum is a thoroughly satisfactory legislative device.
There is a very large number of Constitutions in the world in which the principle and agency of a referendum is used, but I defy the right hon. Gentleman to mention a single Constitution in which a referendum is used in substitution for an election.
If I were to go into constitutional researches, it would occupy most of the evening. What I am saying is that advocacy of a referendum is not, in fact, a reason for describing somebody as having Fuhrer-like feelings. The late Home Secretary—[Hon. Members: "Not 'late.' "]—we must not be too particular, about words. The ex-Home Secretary said that he did not share my view that the Government should carry on until the end of the Japanese war, but somebody has given me quite an interesting quotation, and I must remind the right hon. Gentleman that in a speech to the British Dominions Labour Party he
said, not that advocacy of a referendum was a sign of sympathy with the Nazis, but:
There is no basic distinction between the war with Germany and the war with Japan. After the defeat of Germany the war in the Far East will be prosecuted with vigour, energy and determination. We must go through with it. We cannot break up the Government until victory has been achieved.
I remember it perfectly well. That is a Press summary, and, as Press summaries go, it is not unfair; but my memory is clear that on the question of going on with the Government after victory, I meant what everybody has meant all along, namely, the end of the European war.
I do not think I should read out the quotation again, but there is no doubt whatsoever that when the right hon. Gentleman made that statement, as with all his statements, he was absolutely sincere; but even if the right hon. Gentleman had wanted to carry on until the end of the Japanese war, the truth is that his party would not have permitted him to stay in the Government.
I am not on thin ice; I am on solid ground. I think every hon. Member pays a certain amount of lip service to the energetic efforts made by the hon. and gallant Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) to increase the circulation of Hansard. Hon. Members all over the House subscribe money to it or give their benediction in glowing language, and I am inclined to agree that the reading of Hansard, particularly this day's Hansard, would be of immense consequence to the country, because it would really show the public what we are talking about now. We are not being held up by any serious business. We are indulging in long recollections of what happened in one party's discussions last year or in another's this year. It is nonsense to suggest that you can keep this House of Commons going until October. As this House has never tolerated humbug, surely it will now realise that the time has come for us to part. Let us part in good humour and in peace, with the full realisation that our work is done and that a future Editor of the Parliamentary Reports, or anyone who would like to add a chapter to Erskine May, will, I think, look upon this day as one of the most curious days of all allotted to Supply in Parliament, because all that we have been doing is supplying each other with ammunition to be used on the hustings.
If the right hon. Gentleman says it is impossible, for whatever reason he has in mind, to keep the House going until October, why does he argue that it is desirable to keep it going until the end of the Japanese war?
Because if the Socialist Members of the last Government had stayed in office we should not now be discussing what we are going to say on the platforms. We should be getting on with the business of speeding up the war against Japan.
There was, as I understand it, a firm offer to the Prime Minister that the Coalition should be continued until the Autumn and that the party on this side would act, as they have acted since the Coalition Government was formed, with the utmost loyalty, of course within Parliamentary limits, such as we have been accustomed to in the past four years or so, and that the Government would be assisted and fortified by all parties.
I apologise for interrupting. Of course the hon. Member is within the bounds of Order, but I was not sure. We had one or two questions before the right hon. Gentleman sat down, and I wanted to be quite sure myself.
I was observing that the mere fact that a Member is not present throughout the whole Debate does not debar him from either asking questions or participating in the Debate at a later stage. Other Members have done that sort of thing, in the past. I should not have intervened but for the peculiar argument adduced by the right hon. Gentleman. I have some knowledge; of these matters as a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party. It seems to me ludicrous to suggest that this Parliament could not have been continued, at any rate until the Autumn, with the Government assisted and fortified by the loyalty of all parties in the House. If that offer, made in good faith, had been accepted we should have avoided this acrimonious discussion and we should have avoided what is a most unfair political proceeding, namely, having an Election conducted on an imperfect register—unfair to the civilian electors and to the Forces electors. At the same time we should have had an opportunity of ascertaining whether the present Parliament could have continued until the end of the Japanese war, because the right hon. Gentleman has no more knowledge than anyone on this side as to when the Japanese war will end. That seemed to me to be a perfectly fair offer in all the circumstances. It was rejected by the Prime Minister. As to who are the political advisers of the Prime Minister I offer no opinion. It does not matter to me in the least whether the right hon. Gentleman opposite or his Noble Friend Lord Beaverbrook is always at the side of the Prime Minister holding his hand well into the middle of the night. It is of no consequence at all. The Prime Minister has a perfect right to take what action he thinks fit in the circumstances that face him. We are not concerned with that, but what we are concerned with is that the Election has been precipitated at a time when it was unnecessary in view of the offer made by this Party.
The hon. Gentleman has not been here. These arguments have been put forward for four hours from various parts of the House. My suggestion was all the time, What is the good of talking about waiting until October to carry on unconstructive Debates such as we have had? There was no acrimony, but they were utterly unconstructive.
Even if these matters have been raised in the course of the Debate, there was no answer to them at all. The right hon. Gentleman takes his stand on one issue alone. He made that issue just now in an interruption. It is that we should have had in the next few months acrimonious discussions. How does he know? He is no more a prophet than I am. We might have had very reasonable discussions. And, if we had had acrimonious discussions, does he object to acrimonious discussion in a general assembly?
Or would he be better pleased if every one was a yes-man? Now that the election has been precipitated we shall not make a song and dance about it. It has been precipitated for one reason only, because the Prime Minister and his friends, and the right hon. Gentleman, believe that it suits their purpose. In other words, a snap election will suit their purpose. Do they imagine that this is analogous to the snap election of 1918? The circumstances were quite different, because the late Mr. Lloyd George committed the most egregious blunder of his political career by associating himself with the Tories in the Coalition and having a "coupon election." There is no coupon election this time. We have escaped from that dilemma, and we have escaped from the dilemma of being associated with the Tories in this election. However much the right hon. Gentleman and his friends desired the Coalition to continue, we on this side recognise that, if we are to confront the great problems that menace this country and its future, they cannot be grappled with by Coalition methods. They can only be grappled with by the electors having a firm decision one way or the other, and they are now going to be provided with that opportunity.
You had to have an election at some time. Now you have forced it on the country. Have you not forced it on the country? [Hon. Members: "No."] The right hon. Gentleman said we could not continue this House of Commons in the circumstances because we should have had acrimonious discussions, and he was anxious to avoid that.
Why should we have had unconstructive discussions in view of the many White Papers which would have come before us? Why should we have had unconstructive discussions in. view of the promise made by the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister about the implementation of the proposals in the White Papers? Does he think that Members on this side could not have addressed themselves constructively and solidly to the proposals embodied in the various White papers? Of course we should, and, if there had been criticism, it might have been criticism of a constructive character to which the right hon. Gentleman might take exception but which, nevertheless, would be quite constitutional and in order in this Assembly. Let us get rid of all this pretence about the reasons for the election. Let it be put on record that the election has been precipitated because, in the opinion of the Prime Minister, and certainly in the opinion of his influential friends, this was the time to catch the Labour Party napping. You can catch the Labour Party napping, but there is much more than the Labour Party's future that is at stake. It is the future of the country. We are not afraid to face the future except for this, that if we are to grapple with serious problems we are going to get rid of the power of the Tory Party.
Why did right hon. Gentlemen want the Coalition to continue? They have been arguing for the continuance of the Coalition all along the line. This is nothing new. Why did they want it? If they believed that the Tory Party could have captured the support of the electors, they would not have needed a Coalition. They wanted the Coalition because they were afraid that, going to the country as a party, they would have been rejected by the electorate. The Tories are naive except when they are playing their tricks at election time, such as a Post Office savings scare or a red letter. We detected in the Prime Minister's broadcast all the outlines of another Post Office savings scare. If they cannot produce a scare, they will produce a scarecrow. I am not so sure that the right hon. Gentleman cannot play that role. Why do they believe that this is the time to precipitate an election? Because they think they can make capital out of the glamour that surrounds the Prime Minister.
Why must they make capital out of the Prime Minister? Because the Tory Party are bankrupt and have no capital left. That is the position, and now we have to face an Election. I do not know what my right hon. Friend may have said about it, but I have a shrewd suspicion that he made it clear that we were not afraid of facing an Election. Strange as it may seem coming from me, if we are to have this Election, let us conduct it at a reasonably high level; let us conduct it with a little dignity; let us not make it into an electioneering wrangle; let us not seek to take advantage of the glamour of one man—
Nothing would delight me more than to embark on a dissertation on what transpired at Seaham at the last Election, but, briefly, what happened? An ex-Prime Minister who had committed an act of treachery against the Labour Party, who was led up the garden by the Tories, just as they want to lead us up the garden on this occasion, was responsible for a grave defection. After all, it does not matter which side you are on, there is nothing more serious and no more grave misdemeanour in the eyes of the people than that you should change your coat and throw over your principles in order to suit your own purpose. That is precisely what the late Member for Seaham did, and he was defeated by a large majority, a majority that will be increased on this occasion. If my right hon. Friend does not think that possible, let him leave North Paddington and come to Seaham, and I will give him the worst political hiding he has had in his career. [An Hon. Member: "You go to Paddington."] I do not require to go to North Paddington because there is a highly respectable lieutenant-general, a Member of the Labour Party, not a miner or an artisan or a common labourer or an intellectual, but a solid Serviceman who has rendered great service to, the country, far greater service than my right hon. Friend has ever rendered.
We are not afraid of the Election, but we are a little troubled about the tricks the Tory Party will play. However, neither their tricks, knavish as they are, nor their specious philosophy, nor their haste to rush an Election, nor their formidable capitalist Press and the power of the purse which is still in their possession, will prevail. The issues at this Election are simple. They are not so much the question whether the Election has been precipitated. They are how this country is to be organised in the future. What we do know is that, if there have been depression, poverty and unemployment, it is not due to the Labour Party or Labour policy, but it is due to the Tory Party and the absence of a constructive policy on their part.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it was that, when the Labour Party came into office in 1929, there were 1,100,000 people unemployed, and when they went out there were 2,800,000?
Is not the answer obvious? The hon. Member's friends had been in power for a very long time and they made a terrible mess of conditions in this country. Not even a Labour Government, deprived of power as it was—because it was only in office, and not in a majority—could do very much against conditions of that sort.
I was very disappointed with the reply made by the First Lord of the Admiralty. The subject has been almost exhausted, and I would not have risen were it not for the references that the right hon. Gentleman made to the Prime Minister's offer of a referendum. I believe that the Labour Party has done a great service to the State by rejecting a proposal of mass bribery such as that was. I do not object to the Conservative Party exploiting the Prime Minister's popularity. They are entitled to make whatever use they can of him. It is all he has got, and it is a quickly diminishing asset. I have always held the view, and have not kept it from the House, that the Prime Minister's standing in the country is not as great as the newspapers and the House of Commons imagine. I believe that when the Election takes place my point of view will be confirmed.
We are now discussing constitutional issues and I say that it was a serious thing for the Prime Minister to invite the House of Commons to continue to pay salaries to itself long after it had exhausted its constitutional lifetime and when a large number of Members are retiring and not seeking re-election. Most of us have been here for 10 years, five years beyond the legal limit of Parliament. The Prime Minister invited the Members of the House to go on paying themselves £600 a year for an indefinite period. It was the most monstrous proposition ever made in the history of the British Constitution. If it had been accepted by the Labour Party it would have left no alternative to the people of the country but revolution. If it is possible for a majority in the House of Commons to perpetuate itself beyond its legal lifetime by its own act, which, in fact, we have been doing very reluctantly for five years, will hon. Members opposite tell me how the people could make their wishes felt except by a revolution? Is there any other way open? Would not hon. Members on the other side be inviting the large organisations of labour, anxious to make changes in public policy, to revert to strikes, to violence and to rebellion because a corrupt House of Commons was perpetuating itself at the invitation of an 18th century Prime Minister? Even Lord North in his worst days never suggested so corrupt a device.
If there is one thing that makes me welcome an early Election, it is that it will put a termination to such stupidity. I know of no constitutional authority who has ever written about the Constitution who would dare to suggest that we ourselves should misuse our power by continuing to pay ourselves salaries and enjoying powers that our constituents were not anxious to confer upon us.
Members who are addressing the House ought to be protected from such senility. I was not addressing my- self to the increase in Members' salaries, but to the fact that the Prime Minister wants to perpetuate Parliament without any warrant because a war is being fought 10,000 or 15,000 miles away. The Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself for making such an invitation and asking Members at the end of 10 years to behave in such a manner.
With regard to the Supply Days, if I had my way, I would have a Division on the Motion. We are being asked to do a serious thing. We are asked to surrender the rights of the House of Commons over the Executive. It is all very well for hon. Members to dismiss these things lightly, but the fact of the matter is that there is no effective control over the Government except Supply. A Government need not resign at all. If a majority can wipe out Supply Days, there is no Vote and no effective control over the Executive. We ought not lightly to forgo Supply Days merely because it suits the Prime Minister and his political advisers to have an Election. We ought to have given our vote against it, if only in order to establish our resentment against this extraordinary device. I know that it has been used before, but that is no reason why we should countenance it to-day without protest. My hon. Friend accused the Conservative Party of naivety. I do not think they are naive. It is we who are naive. My right hon. Friend has been quoting Labour Party conference resolutions. Two years ago we solemnly put on record at our national conference, on the recommendation of the leaders of the party, our Ministers in the Government, that when the time came for the Coalition Government to be brought to an end we should leave it with dignity and with restraint as befitted men who had been in great events together. I warned my leaders at the time that they did not know the people they were dealing with. I warned them that when the time came for the Conservative Party to dispense with us, it would be done in the dirtiest possible way they could manage it.
The Tory Party has never in the whole of its history been faithful to its allies. It is the most treacherous of all political parties. In the course of the last 25 years it has not won a decent Election. It has lied itself into power on each occasion. This Parliament was elected on a lie. If it had been left to the British Tory Party to be the custodians of democratic principles in this country, our democratic Constitution would long ago have ceased to exist. The maintenance of representative institutions and the defence of the purity of political principles has always been entrusted by history to the Liberal Party, which is now passing out, and to the Labour Party which, on this occasion, has shown the country that it is the best defender of democratic principles. Have we not proved it by rejecting the invitation which would have exposed the House of Commons to attacks from the whole country? Have we not thrown the Prime Minister's offer back in his teeth and said, "No, we wish to go to the electorate; we do not wish to prolong the Parliament Act and make the Japanese war an excuse for denying the British people the opportunity of electing Parliament"? We have by our own action shown that we realise that the embrace of the Conservative Party is deadly to anybody it embraces, that we have succeeded in disentangling ourselves from it, and that we will present to the country at the Election a clean programme and try to establish Great Britain once more as a leader among the nations of the world.
That for the purpose of concluding the Business of Supply for the present Session, Eight days shall be allotted under Standing Order No. 14 for the consideration of the annual Navy, Army, Air and Civil Estimates, including Votes on Account; and, as respects the present Session, that Standing Order shall have effect as if in paragraph (7) of that Standing Order the Eighth day were substituted for the Twentieth day so allotted."—