READERS of the London Letter will know how deeply I admire and enjoy the British Houses of Parliament. Even though it means weary late hours I never lose the feeling of drama when I see the light in the clock tower proclaiming to the world that the House is still in session.
At six o’clock last evening the silk-stockinged Sergeant at Arms from the House of Lords invited us to “The Other Place” to hear the giving of the royal assent to various bills t hat, had been passed. So we made a procession, led by Mr. Speaker, to the Upper House where three peers in their robes and cocked hats were sitting at the far end rather like three Tweedledees.
The clerk then read a message from the Queen regretting that she could not arrange to be present. As Her Majesty was at the other side of the world we understood her dilemma. But in the message Her Majesty informed us that she had appointed her beloved uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, to sign necessary documents on her behalf.
The clerk then read out the names of the three peers each one raising his cocked hat in turn who were there to see that everything was done according to custom. Whereupon the clerk announced: “Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves, Licensing (seamen’s canteens), National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland”—and two or three others, equally puzzling.
For each bill the three peers raised their hats, thus signifying the royal assent, and the clerk at the table declared in ancient Norman
that the Queen willed it so. Thus did Her Gracious Majesty indicate that the bills should pass into law.
When it was all over we paraded two by two back to our own House where Mr. Speaker informed us of what we had just seen, and then we got down to business.
I do not know how often I have seen that quaint performance but it never loses its mystic quality and its atmosphere of the centuries. Not even Aneurin Bevan would do away with it if he could.
Democracy as well as autocracy must have its symbols.
But all is not well with the Old Mother of Parliaments. Every one
of us knows that is true. Even the public gallery of the Commons is only half full most of the time, and frequently there is only a sprinkling of MPs on the benches.
For example take the much trumpeted debate when Rab Butler returned from the Commonwealth finance ministers’ conference in Sydney, Australia, in January. There were reports that a group of Tory rebels would charge him with selling the Empire down the river. Lord Beaverbrook’s newspapers had bombarded him day after day, declaring that he had bartered imperial preferential tariff's for an illusory dream of world trade.
The debate was on a Thursday and no vote would be faken. The House was packed to hear Butler when he rose at three-thirty in the afternoon, but when John Foster began his winding-up speech as Under-Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, there were exactly 12 MPs in the chamber. And when Foster finished there were only ten.
What had happened? There is a partial explanation, although a poor one. Finding that there would be no division a large number of northern and midland members left for their homes to have an unexpectedly long week end. And, after all, they could read the whole debate next day in Hansard. But that is not. the whole story.
Now let us switch for a moment to the North Ilford by-election in East London. Forty-eight hours before the polling the Tory candidate had to cancel one of his two meetings because nobody turned up. I agree that the weather was cold, but not that cold.
Day after day, night after night, the House of Commons debates go on and on but when the opening speeches are finished the attendance thins out. There is no law that compels us to stay in the chamber and admittedly we have committees and other Continued on pape 83 distractions or duties but the undeniable fact remains that our debates have an air of unreality.
Again searching for the cause of this we must agree that when a government has only a small majority such as ours the first care of the whips is to ensure the survival of the administration. The whips are like Simon Legree and we are the slaves. Sometimes in a late
sitting and many divisions 1 think we should go through the lobby like a chain gang singing a special adaptation of the Volga Boat Song: “Yo ho ho,
Vote! Yo ho ho, Vote!”
Off duty the whips are of course a decent lot of chaps and have even been known to show faint signs of human kindness. But it is not conducive to great thoughts or verbal splendor to be regarded as “lobby fodder.” That is what we are, and I agree that it is no one’s fault.
Yet why, why, why have our debates declined to their present pallor? To
change the metaphor—where is the cut and thrust of argument? Where is the passion that once drove members almost to personal violence? And where are the tremendous figures, not necessarily ministers, whose intervention in a debate could change its whole course?
I can remember even in my time when Sir Robert Horne, a powerful but only a private member, stood up and said that the House would not accept Neville Chamberlain's budget and forced the Government to retreat . Yet Horne was a Tory and a good one. Later on when the shadow of Hitler was on us Churchill the Tory attacked Chamberlain the Tory without mercy.
And I have seen the great Lloyd George in my time sway a debate although he led only a tiny squad of d isappea ring Liberals.
I know the temptation of the veteran to say that things were better in the good old days. Hu I that is not my point. Somehow there is no clash at present between the British political parties comparable to the parliaments of the past.
This in itself is odd. When the Liberals and the Tories were the two main parties they both represented private ownership and capitalist enterprise yet they fought like the lion and the unicorn. I agree that the Irish members set the pace but the war of Asquith and Lloyd George against the Tories was more deadly, if not so violent.
Even when the Irish had gone, and Labour had begun its great rise after the 1914-18 war, parliament was vital with controversy. The financial crash followed the general strike and we saw the temporary annihilation of the Labour Party. Baldwin and bis prisoner, Ramsay MacDonald, led a National Government with a huge majority consisting most ly of Conservatives.
Baldwin would have liked to sit back and use his majority to crush any moves by the Opposition, but Beaverbrook opened fire on him with bis Empire Free Trade guns. It was a tremendous battle in which, as editor of the Express, I assisted with a daily bombardment of the written word. The whole nation was alive with controversy as Beaverbrook waged his campaign with quite astonishing violence. Nor did be lack victories.
Now let us skip a lot of pages and come to the election of 1945 following the end of the war. Churchill and the Tories were swept out and “the century of socialism” had begun.
YVe Tories were only a remnant but, by heaven! how we fought. We attacked by day and by night until we almost did away with sleep. Rut of course the tremendous cleavage was there. What we had to determine was the economic philosophy under which Great Britain would advance into the future. Eventually two general elections in 1950 and 1951 brought down the huge socialist majority and then turned it into a minority. The century of socialism had lasted for six years.
It is to the eternal credit of the British character that such a convulsive revolution could have taken place with so little damage to the nation. But men like Attlee, Ernest Rev in, Cripps, Morrison and Ede showed a sense of responsibility that transcended the noisy claims of platform oratory.
Yet why in those years of Labour rule were there such fiery debates, whereas now that the Tories have a government with only a tiny majority there is this strange pallor and decline? Have the Labour men lost faith in their own creed? Is it possible that they have realized that theirs is a policy that only works in Opposition?
The explanation is not quite so simple. If one goes deeper into the matter we might find that neither unrestricted socialism nor unrestricted capitalism can ever again be a workable policy for an administration. The Labour Party nationalized the railways, electricity, gas, coal, mines and steel. It has not cheapened any of these things nor has it made the workers radiantly happy.
But, to use a platitude much beloved by politicians, you cannot unscramble an omelette. We have denationalized steel but do not imagine that the steel firms can do what they like: control remains. We also denationalized road transport but private enterprise is being very coy about it. They want to know if a Labour Government would be willing to buy them out again.
As far as the welfare state is concerned both parties claim the title of Santa Claus. “We planned the National Health Service!” cry the Tories. “Ah!” say the Labourites, “but who brought it in?”
Thus you will realize that the battlefield on which the two sides can fight is becoming more and more restricted. As a cynical friend of mine said the other day, “The only difference between the Tories and the socialists is one of pace. The socialists want to give everything away at once. The Tories want to give everything away as slowly as possible.”
But there remain the immense problems arising out of the international situation with its threat of war and world revolution. Who brought in conscription so soon after the defeat of Germany? To their eternal honor it was the Labourites. So there is no conflict betwee?! the two great parties on that issue.
India? There was an almost indecent haste in the way Attlee handed it. over to that self-infatuated mystic and old Harrovian Jawaharlal Nehru. But the Tories also knew that the march of t he centuries could not be held up indefinitely.
Korea? Attlee’s response to Truman’s action was brave and immediate. Again there was no cleavage with the Tories.
But what of the British Commonwealth and Empire? What has happened to the days when our opponents denounced us as jingoes and as outdated imperialists? They might call us many things today but certainly neither jingoes nor rabid imperialists.
Therefore I come back to my original argument. Where there is so much agreement (tacit or actual) between the Conservatives and the socialists how can the House of Commons be a place of passionate debate? And if there be so wide an area of agreement why go through the motions of disagreement?
Basically and temperamentally the differences are still there. You may point to a cat and a dog snoozing amicably by a fireside but that does not abolish their basic distrust and antagonism. Socialism cannot survive if it merely becomes pink liberalism. In spite of the amiability and indeed the responsibility of its present leaders the Labour Party must take the road to the Left or the road to the Right. And on both roads there are parties with priority claims—the Communists and the Conservatives.
That is the principal reason for the present unreality of the debates at Westminster. External events are dominating internal policy and not even the letting in of Japanese exports or the weakening of imperial preference can produce more than a sham fight.
There is one more contributory cause to this inertia. With all respect 1 refer to that immortal in our midst—Sir Winston Churchill. His retirement is openly and rather indecently discussed. One newspaper ran a public-opinion poll just to show Churchill that a majority of the nation wanted him to go. At the same time there is constant discussion as to whether Eden or Butler or Macmillan should succeed him.
For all these reasons the British House of Commons is a dull place. The indicator shows that so-and-so is on his feet but the MPs in the smoke room or the libraries do not leave their chairs. The days of conflict will come again. Passion will let loose the flood of oratory and the battle will be joined.
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