Orders of the Day — Representation of the People Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th February 1948.

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Photo of Sir Arthur Salter Sir Arthur Salter , Oxford University 12:00 am, 16th February 1948

I propose to speak tonight only on the subject referred to by the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Mr. Berry) in his opening sentences, the subject represented in this Bill of 150 pages or so not by any specific provision but by a blank, and in the Explanatory Memorandum by four curt words, anticipating the will of Parliament, "university constituencies are abolished." Let me assure the hon. Member that I do not propose to ask for the retention of the university seats as a refuge for the enfeebled. I entirely agree that if university seats do not serve a valuable function, they must certainly not be retained in the interests of the Members who now happen to occupy them.

I suppose it is impossible that the group of Members whose seats are now thus suddenly marked for liquidation should fail to experience some strong feeling on the subject. But I shall attempt to suppress any such feeling altogether and to speak exactly as I would if I sat for another kind of constituency. I shall find that easier because, while I understand the feeling of my fellow Burgess in the representation of Oxford that it is a personal affront to the university Members from their fellow Members, I do not myself share it. I do not believe for a moment that personal malice towards any of us is part of the motives of this Government.

I may add that, although the Leader of the House—in an interjection which I thought hardly worthy of his office—suggested the contrary, I am myself very little interested in this Bill so far as it affects my personal fortunes. If my constituency comes to an end, my sentiments will be very much like those expressed just now by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson). I should feel gratitude that, at the end of an official career at home and abroad, the university franchise gave me, as it gave him, an opportunity on that Treasury Bench, and on these benches, of giving what service we could in bringing the experience of our earlier lives to this House. If indeed I were thinking in personal terms I should regard it as no small honour to be the last name on the scroll of the Oxford University representatives, the first name on which, three and a half centuries ago, was also that of a Fellow of my own college.

Whatever the differences of our views, surely we can at least agree that this is a question which ought to be considered on the basis of the enduring interest of this House and not on the basis of personal or party advantage. Much more is at stake than the personal fortunes of a dozen men. This is a blow struck at an historic part of the structure of this House, rudely hacking from it, seats which have been occupied by the series of great men whose names have been recited today. It is a wanton and unprovoked blow, one more blow, at the professional classes—for so it will be regarded—and this at a moment when we all desire to see the new Health Service Act made as efficient as possible by the willing entry of the doctors into the service, and at a moment when all classes of the country are rightly being called upon to help in meeting the national crisis. It is a blow, for so it will be regarded, at learning and education, and this at a time when many people in this country and elsewhere are asking what in the realm of the spirit and mind is going to be Socialist equality. Is it to be a levelling down or a levelling up? Is it to be an honest and continued attempt to give the best of the heritage of our civilisation to those in all classes who have the personal quality to share it, or is there to be resentment of differences within a class as great as of differences between classes?

Lastly, this is a blow—not this proposal in itself, but in the circumstances in which it has been introduced—at the Constitution itself, a blow at one of the customs of the Constitution, a blow at those traditions of fair play, give and take, and compromise, and the observance of agreements—at those traditions which have enabled this country to effect a social revolution without bloodshed and, through all political controversies, to preserve a unity which has made the nation one in a time of great trial and crisis.

It is on these grounds, and not on the grounds of personal interest, that we should consider this franchise. I am not concerned about the fortunes of a dozen men. But I am deeply concerned that the historic constituency which I have the honour to share in representing, after three and a half centuries, should now have as frail a mortality as I myself—or right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench.

I do not propose tonight to say anything on the intrinsic merit of the case for university seats. I myself believe that the case is strong and, indeed, convincing, but I do not deny that fairminded and intelligent men may take a different view on this question. I find it extremely difficult to believe, however, that any man to whom these epithets would apply can take the view that it is right for the Government, in the present circumstances, and after the Speaker's Conference and what has happened since the conference, to have brought this proposal forward now. We should not at the moment be discussing the intrinsic merits. It is the previous question we should now be discussing—whether it is right, having regard to what has preceded this Bill, that this proposal should now be made.

I need not, after the exchanges which have taken place, restate all the recommendations and the composition of the Speaker's Conference and what has happened since. The House knows that that conference, presided over by the Speaker, included a strong representation of Members of the Left and several Members who are now Ministers in this House. They know that, while on other matters there was dissent and division, there was on this matter a recommendation without any division at all. I quite understand that if, at such a conference—when, of course, Labour Members were in a minority—there had been some proposal on which they were strongly united as a whole, and on which they had been out-voted, it would not be unreasonable, as "The Times" argued, that, after an intervening election which had changed the relative strength of the parties, a new Government might well consider that they were entitled to continue the opposition they had made at the conference and now to make it effective.

But this was not such a case. This was a case of a recommendation accepted without a Division. Not only that. It was afterwards brought forward to the House. It was challenged here, not inappropriately, perhaps, by the hon. Gentleman who leads the Communist Party and the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). Only 16 in a full House went into the Lobby against the recommendation. The other Members of the Labour Party were led by Mr. Pethick-Lawrence into the majority Lobby, after explanatory comments such as have been quoted already.

I say, therefore, that this is a breach of a bargain, and a breach of one of the now recognised customs of the Constitution. But it is more than that, it is also a breach of a definite promise; because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) has pointed out, this question was raised in another place only a few months ago, in October, and the answer given about what was to be in this Bill was that it would be precisely what could be read in the Report of the Speaker's Conference, and other associated Reports. I think the university seats are important; but they are not so important as the observance by Members of this House and Ministers of the recognised customs of the Constitution, as the observance of bargains and agreements once reached, as the observance of pledges given by Ministers speaking on behalf of the Government.

Suppose, in these circumstances, this proposal in the Bill is carried through. What will be the consequence—what must be the consequence? Can there ever be a Speaker's Conference again? Will the person who occupies your Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, in the future be willing again to preside over a conference after this? Are we to be faced with the position that henceforward each government, each party majority, as it comes in may consider itself perfectly free to gerrymander the electorate—