I was not a member of the Government. The hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken. I had the great privilege of fighting against a Conservative Government under the guise and name of a National Government. What do they mean by national unity? Do they mean that they are ready for a political truce, that they are ready to abandon party warfare and this campaign which is now being carried on throughout the constituencies? Do they mean that they are prepared to abate party warfare on domestic issues in this moment of national crisis, or only that they expect the Government to give up the Parliament Bill or any other Bill which is obnoxious to them? Is that what they mean by national unity? I hope that before this Debate is over we shall have a fuller explanation of this great appeal to the House of Commons and to the country to unite.
What is to be their contribution to national unity? Will they tell us that before the Debate comes to an end? What has been their contribution to national unity as far as this particular issue is concerned? The Government, I think quite sincerely, have shown that they wish to avoid a conflict with the House of Lords. They have gone far to meet the Opposition and the wishes of the House; they have been ready to discuss the wider problem of the reform of the House of Lords. When we remember the resolutions passed by Labour Party Conferences not so very long ago we realise that that is a great concession on their part. It is a considerable advance. [An HON. MEMBER: "Too much."] An hon. Member says "Too much;" I have no doubt that there are other hon. Members who hold the same view.
The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) quoted a very admirable passage from a speech of the Lord President of the Council in which he advocated the abolition of the House of Lords. That was in an earlier political incarnation of the right hon.' Gentleman; it must have been before he burst out of the chrysalis into the full glitter of Ministerial glory. But the Government offered valuable concessions; there is no doubt about that in view of the policy of the Labour Party in the past. The Government entered into a conference with the three political parties. They agreed on the composition of a new Second Chamber, and they came very near agreement—or so it seemed; I am not so sure about that—on the powers of the House of Lords. A compromise proposed by the Government was accepted by my hon. Friends who were represented on that conference, accepted by the Liberal Party, and accepted by the Government, but the Conservatives could not agree over the matter of the three months, and the conference broke down.
Therefore, we find ourselves today discussing this stop-gap Measure when we might have been given the opportunity of debating a comprehensive Measure for the reform of the House of Lords, a great constitutional change which would have been accepted by the three great parties.. It was a golden opportunity for getting rid of the hereditary principle or for securing a representative Second Chamber such as, I believe, the great majority of the people of this country desire. Here was a real opportunity of preserving national unity, and it was thrown away by the Conservative Party.
As the Lord President of the Council pointed out today and in his speech on the Address last week, what is really at stake is a fourth Session of Parliament. What is the position today under the Parliament Act of 1911? A Conservative Government could guarantee the performance of a five-year programme—if they were to look so far ahead—but a progressive Government has to do the very thing for which hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway are condemning the Government in their Amendment to this Bill, that is, rush through legislation in three years. It is the very thing for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was again condemning the Government today, and yet he is doing his best to push them on to that slippery slope.
It has been said that there is great danger to the Constitution and to democratic institutions in reducing the power of delay of the House of Lords. It is said that it is a move towards totalitarianism and towards minority Government. But what is the position today? Conservative Government with a small majority in the House of Commons enjoys complete power for five years. Yet a progressive Government with an overwhelming majority in this House of Commons can only be guaranteed three years of power. Is there no danger there? After all, we must remember that the danger to our free democratic institutions does not only come from the extreme Left; indeed, there is no surer way of encouraging revolutionary tendencies in this State, or in any other, than by allowing reaction to go unchecked. I think it was the Leader of the Opposition who said in the Debate last year that the brake on a car prevents an accident caused by going too fast. It is equally important not to keep the brake on when the car is in motion, however slowly it is moving; it engenders great heat, and, if the brake is kept on long enough, probably results in an explosion.
We have been told that this Bill is purely a party manoeuvre to ensure the passage of the iron and steel Bill. The Lord President of the Council again denied that today. He said that, in point of fact, the Government considered at one moment whether this particular Bill should not have been passed in the 19461947 Session. But if it were argued that this was a partisan and political Measure it could equally well be argued today as it was in 1911, that the Parliament Act was a party Measure. It was claimed, and rightly, that the first purpose of that Measure was to enable the Finance Bill of 1909 to become law. But it had a very much wider significance and wider constitutional purpose than that; it was to ensure that Liberal Measures should not be at the mercy of a permanent Conservative majority in the House of Lords, and that a Liberal programme should not be sabotaged at every turn.
I believe that this Bill is a very modest step indeed—nothing to be frightened about—towards equalising the opportunities of a Conservative and of a progressive administration. If hon. Gentlemen really think that a Government has lost contact with public opinion in three years, then, as has already been said, the real remedy is to amend the Parliament Act and have triennial Parliaments. In dynamic days such as these the remedy is certainly not to keep a progressive Government marking time for two years. Many years ago but it is equally true today—the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the formidable and menacing powers still left to the House of Lords as a result of the Parliament Act, 1911. Well, for the fifth Session those menacing and formidable powers of which he spoke remain unimpaired.
We have heard a great deal in this Debate about the importance of safeguarding the Constitution. I wonder what would be the attitude of the Conservative Party if the position were reversed and there were a permanent Socialist or Liberal majority in the House of Lords. I wonder what would have been their feeling about constitutional safeguards in such circumstances. I wonder whether they would have been satisfied with this very modest little Bill; I wonder whether they would have even been prepared to allow the fifth Session to go free and unchallenged.
There is one other important claim that has been made for the House of Lords. We are told that it is not only important as a revising Chamber but that by some magic sixth sense it is peculiarly fitted to judge public opinion in the later stages of the Parliament when the House of Commons, which was only elected by the people four years before, has got completely out of touch with the electorate. With one single exception, I do not recall in the years before the war when the Government of the day was tragically out of touch with public opinion on foreign affairs, that the House of Lords made a protest; I do not remember that they expressed public opinion or felt the pulse of the nation with that sixth sense of theirs. I do not remember that there was a single protest from the House of Lords at the inept conduct of the war in 1939 and 1940. It was left to the House of Commons in that famous Norway Debate to express that public opinion.
This Bill, after all, is a preventive Measure. It is an all risks insurance policy, covering all eventualities. We are told that it is not necessary, that the House of Lords has changed, that it is no longer the place that it was, that today there are men of varied experience who have served their country with distinction, and who can make a valuable contribution to the Debates. That is perfectly true—no one would deny it—but there were men of that calibre in the House of Lords in 1909. In 1909 perhaps only 100 men carried the real burden of the day-to-day work of the House of Lords. It is equally true today that there are only about 100 out of over 800 who take part in the Debates in the House of Lords, and yet it is the 800 who still have the voting power. The backwoodsmen still have that power, and I think it is a dangerous power which should be restricted. We on these benches would like to have seen a Measure of full reform. We deeply and sincerely regret that the Conference did not succeed, but we are ready to give wholehearted support to this interim Measure to ensure that, at any rate, for the greater part of Parliament the will of the people shall prevail in this great democracy of ours.