We will come to that in a minute. What is now proposed is, virtually, single-chamber Government, and the granting to the Cabinet, which already has taken it in time of peace, the whole of the arbitrary wartime powers and regulations—a monstrous invasion of our liberties and a vile breach of faith between man and man who have to work together. What they are now proposing to do is to obtain for the Cabinet irresistible power to pass any Measures they may wish to bring forward, without regard to the will of the people or to their own foundation in public confidence. This is a formidable issue to fling out at this time of economic crisis—at this time when, in full peace, despotic wartime powers are ruling—and to be flung out, not as a result of grave historic and prolonged constitutional controversies, but as a cheap, paltry, disreputable deal between jarring nonentities in a divided Administration.
Since the matter has been raised, it is my duty to point to the Preamble of the Parliament Act. This makes it perfectly clear that its authors contemplated the abolition of the hereditary principle. Let me read the paragraph:
And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation …
On this we have lived for 36 years. In the face of this unprovoked aggression against the constitutional settlement of 1911, the House of Lords is evidently free to propose any alterations in its own composition which it may consider necessary
for the stability of the State, and to use the powers reserved to it by the Parliament Act, as it may think fit.
Now let us take the case of steel, for the sake of which this further assumption of dictatorial power is demanded by the present Cabinet. There is no doubt that the ruling forces for the time being in the Cabinet have lost faith in the nationalisation of the steel industry as one of the remedies for our immediate troubles. By a handful of votes, freely published in the Press, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House managed to obtain from their party meeting permission to put this Measure off until a more opportune season. Anyone can see from the speech of the Minister for Economic Affairs—and, after all, he is the man labouring at the oar—what his opinion is. He said:
The main raw material with which we are concerned is steel, and those engaged in the steel industry are doing a magnificent job of production. Many of them are working seven days a week … and they are already well on the road to their optimum target of 14 million tons."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd October, 1947; Vol. 443, c. 277.]
He might have added that the British steel industry had never had a strike for 40 years, except the General Strike which was for political purposes and was forced upon them, and that this "magnificent job of production," to use his own words, has been carried out under the shadow and uncertainty of Ministerial threats and vacillations. Yet this is the moment when the Prime Minister declares that he intends to nationalise steel within the lifetime of the present Parliament. In order to placate those who complain of the delay he throws this serious constitutional issue of the House of Lords as a sop into the political stewpan. It was just in order to prevent such discreditable party and Ministerial manoeuvres gravely affecting the life of our country that the authors of the Parliament Act made provision for the people being consulted and for their will to prevail.
I have now, I think, covered the ground set forth in the Amendment placed upon the Order Paper and on which we shall vote tomorrow. People sometimes say to me, "How lucky you were to be dismissed from power at the moment of victory. If you had been the head of a Conservative Government the Labour Party would have arranged and fomented a series of strikes, or even a general strike, in order to regain by industrial strife what they have lost at the polls." There may be some truth in that; it cannot be proved; but I should not have been afraid to do my duty had I been supported by the will of the people constitutionally expressed. I am sure that this Parliament has exhausted its usefulness, and that every month it continues, the deeper will be the divisions and the harsher the discords of our national life. Of course, Ministers and their supporters may cling to office till the last dregs of their self-respect are gone—and the last remnant of our financial resources has been scattered. But the longer they wait, the worse it will be for their party fortunes and their personal reputations—and the worse it will be for our unhappy country, torn by feud and faction, and strangled by incompetence and folly.
It is with deep anxiety about our affairs and our country that I move this Amendment to the Address. It seems hard that we should have come to this melancholy pass. Of course, nations who are beaten in war, who fail at the moment of supreme national trial, must expect, and nations who embark on wrong and wicked courses of tyranny and aggression deserve, the chastisement of fortune. But we have won all our wars. In this most terrible war of all, we not only saved ourselves but kept the flag of freedom flying in the world alone for more than a year. We gave all we had to the common cause. We gave it freely: we coveted no territory; we had no racial hatreds to gratify; we had no vengeance to slake. We were always, being a peaceful nation, backward in preparation. But we always won. In all the long wars I have seen in my life we have always won; and in the last of them our glory and our virtue have been admired by friend and foe. And yet, after all this, we now find ourselves reduced to the grim—that is the word I see in the newspapers—the grim and meagre plight exposed to us last Thursday by the Minister for Economic Affairs. I am astonished and stricken that we should have reached this pitch after all our victories, after all the services we have rendered to the common weal of mankind. Only by true regerenation of theme and spirit, carrying with us the whole force of the nation, shall we save our souls alive.