Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th November 1947.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington 12:00 am, 11th November 1947

I want to deal with one other point before I conclude. Yesterday the Lord President of the Council criticised the House of Lords for having met during our holiday. I was amazed at that criticism. He seemed to think that there had been some constitutional error. I do not accept that argument for a moment. What happened? Just before we rose, the House will remember, we passed the Supplies and Services Bill which conferred very far-reaching powers on the Government to operate by Orders in Council. Those orders would have become immediately operative, but they could not be prayed against until Parliament met. The House of Lords felt that some examination of those powers was proper.

What is wrong about that? It is quite true that the House of Lords did also suggest that there might be a Debate on the economic situation. They did. The right hon. Gentleman said he thought that it was wrong that there should be such a Debate and they—rather tamely, I thought, I must say—accepted the right hon. Gentleman's view. Why should there not have been a Debate on the economic situation? There were all sorts of consultations going on at that time with the employers and with the T.U.C., and yet the Government were not prepared to tell the House of Lords about the economic situation. The House agreed. What is the right hon. Gentleman complaining about? I agree that if Parliament were prorogued it would be wrong—impossible—for the other House to meet; but when we are adjourned it is quite possible for one House to meet when the other is not sitting. Of course, it is. It happens frequently. We sit on Fridays and the other place does not. If they choose to meet in the holidays and we do not, it is fantastic for the right hon. Gentleman to pretend that that is a consitutional issue.

I say there is no opposition in any part of the House to the consideration of the reform of the composition of the Second Chamber so long as such reform will fit it better for the purposes of its constitutional functions. If the Government want to set up machinery to deal with that I am quite certain that all parties will do their best to work to make that result successful. But if they feel that work of that kind would distract the public mind at the present time—as well it might—from the economic crisis, I say that the same applies to this Bill which they are bringing before the House. If they think they ought not to distract the public mind, why bring in this Bill instead of concentrating on the economic crisis?

I would finally say this to the Government, and to the Prime Minister particularly. It may be that in many respects on paper the present system is not a very defensible system because we on this side of the House have a large majority in another place. We know that profoundly well. Yet, you know, Sir, the queer thing is that in this country of ours sometimes things, though not very orderly on paper, have the habit of working out pretty well. The Prime Minister knows that, too. In other countries where things are pretty good on paper they have the habit of not working out at all. I just wonder whether it is wise to create this upheaval, because we cannot really deal with a part of this problem without raising issues covering the whole of it. I doubt whether it is wise or necessary to do that at the present time. Many harsh things have been said about the House of Lords, but the queer thing is that it works, on the whole; and has worked. In the lifetime of this Parliament it has worked.

We are living, all of us now, in a shattered world where many traditions are broken. I say sincerely to the right hon. Gentleman if I were he I should leave this subject alone, unless he really feels that he can deal with it as it should be dealt with—as a whole—and present us with a plan, or discuss with us a plan. We have our sharp Parliamentary differences; and yet sometimes it happens that there are issues that are bigger than party. The future Constitution of this country—it is an unwritten Constitution—is really bigger than party. It would be good if we could deal with it on those lines, if we have to deal with it at all. I am bound to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, in my judgment, this Bill deals with a grave constitutional issue in the wrong way and at the wrong time. It is really a fundamental lesson on statesmanship that one should not deal with a large issue in a small way. This is just niggling. It seems to be a murky and miserable little Bill, bred by dissension out of des- pair. It contributes absolutely nothing to the major economic perils that confront us. It cannot stimulate the nation. The Prime Minister knows that. It cannot inspire any part of the country to a greater effort than it would otherwise have made. I believe it to be the clumsiest blunder this Government have yet committed. I still hope the Prime Minister will say that what we need is, not this Bill but a consideration of the constitutional problem which exists, and no doubt there is much contribution that could be made. But to this Bill we must offer unshakeable opposition, and I trust that the House will overwhelmingly support our Amendment.