Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th September 1948.

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Photo of Hon. Oliver Stanley Hon. Oliver Stanley , Bristol West 12:00 am, 14th September 1948

It is the usual routine that the Member speaking from these Benches should congratulate the Mover and Seconder of the Address. I should like at this time to differ a little from precedent because, at the same time as I offer the two hon. Members my congratulations, I should like also to offer them my sympathies.

I have now listened to some 50 speeches by Movers and Seconders. I may say that of this number, 49 have performed their task with varying excellence—modesty prevents me from saying 50—but all of those other 50 had something to discuss. In fact, the almost constant practice for the Speech from the Throne to have something in it, was, I believe, the reason why you, Mr. Speaker, and your predecessors, first adopted a practice which you have followed today as a matter of routine but certainly not as a matter of necessity, that is, of obtaining a copy. The two hon. Members certainly laboured under a grave disadvantage. With the amount of straw that has been given to them, one could not have expected even the Secretary of State for War to drop bricks.

Indeed, when, through the usual courtesy of His Majesty's Government, I was provided last night with a copy of the Speech, I wondered how hon. Members would be able to undertake what in the past had been the general practice, which was that two of them should meet together and divide between them the substance of the Speech. I could see, of course, that whoever, either by the possession of seniority in this House or of a double-headed coin, had the first choice, would be able to take paragraph 1. He would have the plum or, perhaps, gastronomically speaking, he would have at least the red herring. But what would be left for the seconder? Only this sentence: It is not proposed to bring any other business before you in the present Session. Not much of a peg, that. Not a great deal of facing the future about that sentence.

I must congratulate most sincerely the two hon. Members on the ingenuity with which they have filled this gap. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie), an old and respected Member and a friend for many years of many of us in this House, had his recipe. His was a mixture. The first ingredient was the speech which in the past few weeks he has been delivering in his constituency, and which, after this brief interruption, he will be able to continue to deliver. The next was a glowing, though perhaps belated, tribute to the enterprise, skill and success of private enterprise in his area. The third was a description, and indeed a support, of no doubt a useful piece of legislation, but one which does not happen to be included in the programme before us today.

Fourthly, in a spirit clearly perfunctory, he made a brief reference to the Bill to amend the Parliament Act. I was struck by one of his phrases. He referred to the demonstrations of 1911 which so clearly showed what public opinion was then. He did not say much about the demonstrations of 1948. I expected to hear an account of torchlight processions thronging those villages he described so graphically, burning effigies of the Peers in their robes and lauding to the skies the great reformers of the Government—but there was no mention at all of that. He did, however, perform a difficult task with his innate courtesy and tact and all of us, I am sure, would like to congratulate him upon it.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Symonds), who seconded the Motion in an able and witty speech, adopted a different technique. He devoted a large part of his speech to his own constituency. I am not sure I quite agree with one thing he said; I think it should correctly read that when somebody hears of Cambridge he first thinks of Oxford. The hon. Member went on from that to a well-deserved eulogy of the ancient city which he now represents. He told me certainly a great deal about its history about which I was ignorant. I must say that I think that of all the gallant actions Cambridge has performed in the course of her long history, I give the palm to her courage during the war in receiving the refugees from the London School of Economics. Surely no other city can have voluntarily assumed the burden of looking after so many children needing care and attention.

After he had come to the end of the bit which he obviously felt, he, too, referred perfunctorily to the sole subject matter of the Gracious Speech. It is only fair to say that while discussing the history of Cambridge he had never quoted an authority more recent than 1426, but when he came to the Parliament Act, he advanced as far as 1894. I do not think the simile he chose—the revolution 300 years ago—was, from his point of view, a particularly happy one. I would remind him that whereas his predecessor in the representation of Cambridge in 1648 imposed upon the people of this country a revolution by force, a few years later that revolution was in its turn reversed by an outbreak of popular opinion.

It is, I believe, the usual custom that on the first day the speaker from the Government Benches should be the Prime Minister. It is, I am sure, to the general regret of all sides of the House that he is not able today to perform that customary function. I am sure I am voicing all sections of opinion when we give him our hope for his speedy recovery. I do not think there is anyone with any imagination but must feel at all times a sense of sympathy for the Prime Minister of this country, and especially the Prime Minister at a time of crisis such as this. It does not need a great deal of imagination to realise the constant pressure of work and the even more constant harassing of the anxieties, constitutute burdens which must be almost intolerable for a man even at the height of his physical powers and which for one who is ill must be beyond bearing. We, therefore, do most earnestly hope that he will soon be restored to health and, certainly on behalf of all who sit behind me, I can assure the Prime Minister, through the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, that none of us on our side really appreciates him as a Prime Minister until we begin to read the selections for those who may possibly succeed him.

I understand that the Prime Minister's place today is to be taken by the Lord President of the Council. I am glad to say—at least I hope I am right in assuming—that we need have no anxiety about his health. Certainly those pictures which have been widely distributed through the popular Press—pictures which give to us every opportunity for the most specific examination of his physical condition—would lead one to suppose that he is in rude health. I only trust that those pictures do not mean that the right hon. Gentleman has been put into the position occupied 100 years ago by one of the predecessors of my right hon. Friend, and that they do not mean that one of his more ambitious colleagues has caught him bathing and stolen his clothes.

The Lord President of the Council will, I am sure, attack the task which lies before him with even more than his customary vigour. Of course, he will not have an entirely easy rôle, because, short as is the memory of the right hon. Gentleman, he cannot yet quite have forgotten the Debate in which he took part a year ago. He will remember how strongly he argued then about the proposal brought forward by my right hon. Friend that the House, when it adjourned in August, should come back at the early date of 16th September—two days later than this year. That was a proposal which the right hon. Gentleman resisted most strongly. Indeed, if he will not regard it as impertinence on my part, I would say that oratorically it was almost the right hon. Gentleman's finest hour. Never have I seen the heads of his colleagues on the Front Bench nod more frequently and less drowsily. Never have I heard the cheers of the P.P.S.s coincide more consistently with the right end of the right sentence, and I am sure that all the Back Benchers who listened to him went away with a feeling that here, both in manner and in matter, was a true prophet of Socialism.

What cogent arguments he advanced against the House being called back at such an early date! He said, first, that if they were brought back as early as 16th September the Government would be ragged—as if that depended upon the accident of the calendar. He said, secondly, that our constituents would be deprived of leadership in the paths of light and learning; and thirdly, that if Members were summoned back they would have to interrupt their reading, which was so necessary to improve their minds. There were indeed mountainous difficulties; I realised, after listening to the right hon. Gentleman's speech, that it would take a man of great courage to meet them.

Well, this year, the Government have taken their courage in both hands. They have met those difficulties, and those mountains turn out, after all, to be molehills. There is the Government facing us in all its raggedness, not looking very different from what it would on 16th October or 16th November, or indeed on the 16th of any month up to the Spring of 1950. There are all our constituents left to this Stygian darkness but still, apparently almost unknowingly, carrying on their normal life. Members on all sides of the House have had to drop their books—Blue Books have been thrown away, White Papers discarded, Edgar Wallaces have been earmarked. All of us have had to do this year what last year we were told it was quite impossible for us to face. It does just show that however difficult a situation is, when a compelling necessity forces action the difficulties very often turn out to be less formidable than they first appeared.

Of course, I must in fairness admit at once that there is a great difference between the situation last year and the situation this year. Last year, after all, all that we were frightened of, all that we were seeking to safeguard ourselves against, was an economic crisis, a crisis which I think everybody in the House, except perhaps some Members of the Front Bench opposite, knew was bound to break on the country before we reassembled in the ordinary way, a crisis which we knew would have to be met by new and severe burdens, burdens which, I am afraid not in the proper democratic spirit, we thought should be imposed by Debate in this House and not by decree from Downing Street.

Of course, this year, I agree, things are different. We are concerned now not with dollars but with votes. What we have now to decide is not something connected as it was last year with national survival but merely with the success of a party manoeuvre; and so this year, with so much more at stake than they had last year, the Government have faced the difficulties which the right hon. Gentleman could not face last year, and he finds—I am sure he will find—that they really had no existence except in his imagination. It is clear from the Gracious Speech that the intention of the Government is that this House should now meet for the discussion of one thing only, the thing which to them appears to be, in the world in which we live, the most important task upon which Parliament can concentrate. There may be, of course, and I am sure that even the Government would admit that there are, minor difficulties in the world around us—the situation in Berlin, in India, in Palestine, in Malaya. All these may give cause for anxiety to some nervous people. At home the failure to close our dollar gap, the continued and continuing dependence on external aid, may again create anxiety in certain breasts. But we are not to waste our time, say the Government, in discussing matters such as that; let us stick to this one all-important question.

We shall have plenty of opportunity to discuss this one all-important topic of the House of Lords reform next week when the Measure is before us. Today, I will only say that neither the Mover nor the Seconder of the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech has found, nor, I am sure, will the right hon. Gentleman, when he comes to speak, have found, anything in the conduct of another place during the last three years which justifies the Measure which the Government are now introducing. On the contrary, numerous Members on the Front Bench opposite have reason to be grateful to the other place, for they have found there an opportunity of introducing literally hundreds of Amendments which hasty drafting by overworked draftsmen, hasty digestion by overworked Ministers and hasty legislation by an overworked Parliament had left in Bills when they left this Chamber.

There has been only one clash with another place on a matter of great importance. That was connected with the episode last Summer, when the Home Secretary for a short time abdicated his responsibilities but not his office to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). The Home Secretary certainly has every reason to be grateful to another place who in the long run were able to secure him what he wanted but what he was not able to accomplish by himself. Of course, we know quite well that the Measure we shall have to discuss next week has nothing whatever to do with anything that another place has done in the past. On this occasion, and on this occasion alone, the Government are displaying foresight; they are actually looking ahead to something that may happen in the future. In a Session not yet opened, a Bill not yet introduced may secure a passage through this House in a form not yet known, and when it leaves this House may, in another place, be subjected to a treatment not yet decided. That is the important, the pressing, necessity which has this year compelled the recalling of Parliament, whereas the dollar crisis of last year, and the cuts that had to be imposed as a result of it, were not supposed to be sufficiently important to necessitate our return.

I must admit that the Government have respectable precedents for the course upon which they have decided in relation to another place. I admit that no experienced, no well trained, no really successful burglar would ever think of waiting until after the watchdog had barked. What he would do would be to go down the day before and lay down the poisoned meat. That is what the right hon. Gentleman is doing today—taking, not for the first time, a lesson from the criminal classes. It is to carry that process through that this House has been recalled.

We on this side shall oppose the passage of this Measure; but we are glad to think that we shall have other opportunities beyond that. One may bring a horse to water, but one cannot always stop him drinking when one wants to. The right hon. Gentleman has recalled the House in order to pass this pettifogging Measure, but the House, once recalled, has the opportunity, which no doubt it will take, of discussing matters which it thinks important, even though to the Government they appear to be negligible. We shall therefore use all the Parliamentary opportunities which this recall of Parliament, this new Session, has given to discuss matters of vital importance, and in doing so to demonstrate to the country the tragic frivolity of a Government which, in the midst of all the gathering dangers at home and abroad, is intent only on solemnly playing out to the end this petty party pantomime.