Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

A Government Is Defeated

May 15 1944

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

A Government Is Defeated

May 15 1944

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER


A Government Is Defeated

THIS letter must begin with a confession. Believe it or not on March 28 I defeated the Government. Strange as it may seem Churchill’s administration sustained its first defeat because of an alteration in my plans.

Before my critics get out of hand let me offer an explanation. On that day w'e met in a Committee of the whole House to discuss further clauses in the endless but magnificent Education Bill which is being piloted through the House by 41-year-old R.A.B. (“Rab”) Butler.

I am so determined that you will understand exactly what happened that I must explain what the committee stage, of a Bill is. With the Speaker in the chair a Bill receives its first reading, which is no more than a mere introduction. Some time later, with the Speaker still in the chair, wo have the second reading when we debate the general merit of the Bill and dissect its soul but deal with it as a whole and not clause by clause. During the debate on the second reading an M.P. can only speak more than once by special permission of the House, and even then that indulgence is usually reserved for the Minister in charge.

When we go into Committee to discuss the Bill, clause by clause, the Speaker leaves the chair and the Chairman of Ways and Means takes his place at the table. Amendments are moved and you can speak as often as you catch the Chairman’s eye.

So vast is this Education Bill, so formidable its ramifications, so violent the interest of sects and sections that the confounded thing has taken simply endless days. In case you wonder w'hy we are bothering about such things on the eve of the Second Front and with the shears of destiny ready to snap do not blame the author of this letter. The old axiom, “In peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace,” still dominates the Mother of Parliaments.

By dint of sitting late on many days we eventually reached Clause 82. 1 ask you to note the number 82 because it has become a significant figure in Britain’s Parliamentary history.

It is now necessary to explain that a ginger group known as “The Young Tories” has sprung up within the Tory Party. Some of the group are young in years and others young merely in spirit. But for a time they have been conducting a guerilla warfare in the name of progress, not hesitating to vote against the Government when it seemed safe and expedient to do so.

One last explanation and 1 shall get on with the story. That is that we have a Coalition Government under Churchill with the Tory, Socialist and Liberal Parties as the triple alliance and all three of them having Ministers in the Government.

Forgive me for these dull details, which you probably knew, but I wanted to make the setup clear.

Now Clause 82 dealt with the remuneration of schoolteachers and it happened that the Young Tories put down an amendment to the effect that male and female teachers should be paid the same salary. It was duly called by the Chairman of Ways and Means and was brilliantly moved and seconded by Mrs. Cazalet Keir and Major Thorneycroft.

At once it was obvious that the Committee (in reality the House) was widely sympathetic to the idea. Women have played such a marvellous roie in this war that it seemed wrong that they should be regarded as cheap labor. Dr. Edith Summerskill pointed out that

M.P.’s received the same pay regardless of sex. She also scored heavily by telling us that men and women doctors who examined school children’s bodies received equal remuneration but that schoolteachers who examined their minds had different rates of pay based on sex.

Jimmie Maxton, the hollow-eyed, cadaverous, black-haired Scot from the Clydeside, said that he was once a schoolteacher and was the son of parents who were both schoolteachers. “As a family of teachers,” he said, “we could assess each other’s qualifications and 1 have no hesitation in saying that my mother w'as the best of the three.”

Lady Astor did not help particularly by saying that women teachers were better than men but Major Thorneycroft scored heavily when he pointed out that as marriage and children’s allowances were certain to come it was no longer possible to argue that men, as potential or actual heads of a family, should receive more pay than a woman doomed to spinsterhood.

Someone else pointed out that a married male schoolteacher could go home where his evening meal and his slippers were waiting for him, whereas a less salaried woman, unable to employ a domestic servant, would have to prepare her own meal. Yet at school they had to do exactly the same work.

Still another M.P. reminded us that each succeeding war added to the number of women deprived of any chance of husband and children. That was the most moving of all the speeches and it was obvious that the tide was running heavily in favor of the equal pay amendment.

Storm Gathers

AT THAT juncture a bomb was hurled by an official L spokesman of the Labor Party. Speaking on behalf of the second largest Party in the Coalition he announced that the Socialists would vote as a body for the amendment.

“Rab” Butler, who was in charge of the Bill, looked at the gathering storm and his face was pale with resentment. For endless months he had worked on this monumental Bill, w'hich was to alter the whole scope of education in Britain, and he now saw his timetable menaced by this all-Party revolt. The Chief Whip came in and held a council of war with him. Finally Butler rose to intervene.

He said that he was not averse to the equal pay principle but it must be obvious that he could not accept the amendment. There was a Committee of officials and teachers in existence to deal with wages and it was against all precedent that Parliament should instruct an impartial tribunal (cries of “Oh Oh” and “What about the minimum wage?” were heard). At any rate equal pay between the sexes could not possibly be granted to only one section of the community. Its implications were so far reaching that it could only be debated as a fundamental issue embracing our whole economic future.

If Parliament insisted on the amendment then we would have to find some other Minister to pilot the Bill through. In other words he threw the gauntlet into the ring and resumed his seat. Undeterred the debate went on.

At this juncture I inadvertently became part of England’s Parliamentary history. There was a new play which 1 had promised to review for the “Evening Standard” and leaving the House I started off for the theatre. Almost within sight of the gathering firstnight crowds I tapped on the window of the taxi and asked the driver to take me back to Westminster. How could one sit through a play with such a drama being enacted in Parliament?

When 1 got back the atmosphere was tense. Anthony Eden, as Leader of the House, had arrived,

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hïs face unusually grim and his whole manner determined. He took his seat by Butler but he neither spoke to him nor addressed us.

This was puzzling for none of us wanted to defeat the Government. We assumed that Eden had been sent by Churchill to make peace. He could have averted the division by promising to convey the mood of the House to the Government and by saying that at an early date he would arrange a full-dress debate on the question of equal pay.

Instead he did nothing. Without saying a word he conveyed to us his decision that we could vote and be damned. The Chief Whip, not quite in the same mood, sent out word to rally the Government supporters.

Finally, late in the evening, the issue was put to the test and we streamed into the voting lobbies.

I decided to vote for the amendment and found myself in strange company. Here were the Socialists en masse, the miniature Commonwealth Party, the solitary Communist, the guerilla Independents, some of the Liberals and the group of Young Tories utterly startled by the dramatic situation which they had precipitated.

Ten minutes later the vote was announced. It was heard with a gasp and then complete silence. By a majority of one Churchill’s Government had sustained its first defeat. I had a queer sensation in my stomach. By ordering the taxi to turn around I had defeated the Government. The Young Tories looked thoroughly wretched. Even the Socialist Party was staggered.

Arthur Greenwood, the acting Labor Leader, got up to explain that this was not a vote against the Government or the President of the Board of Trade. With tears of anger in his eyes Butler made a furious gesture with his hands. Greenwood repeated his statement. Butler took his bound copy of the Bill and tossed it contemptuously on the table. He was through.

“I think we had better adjourn,” said Eden. “The Government will consider its position and make a statement tomorrow.” Silently we left the Chamber and went home. Surely never in the history of rebellions had success been achieved with such gloom. We had voted for a principle which seemed to us to be just and fair but the result was that we had defeated a Government in which we had the utmost confidence.

Churchill Grim

The House was crowded next morning when Churchill rose to make his statement. His face was stern and his words were few. But there was no doubt about his terms. He said that on the next day we would meet in Committee once more on the Education Bill. The Government would then propose to eliminate Clause 82 from the Bill and he would regard the vote as one of confidence in the Government. We breathed more easily but only for a moment.

“Then,” said Churchill, “we will move that Clause 82 be inserted once more in the Bill but without the amendment on equal pay. We shall also regard that as a vote of confidence.”

Twenty M.P.’s rose to protest. This was monstrous! We had carried an amendment and now we were to eat our words. We were to be dragooned into the Government Lobby without argument and Parliament was to be exposed to the world as the docile slave of the Government.

Perhaps a word of explanation is not out of place at this point. To vote against the Government on an amendment or any domestic issue is a political misdemeanor but to go into the “No” Lobby on a vote of confidence means that we want the Government to resign. None of us wished Churchill to go, yet we had voted for equal pay and here he was coolly demanding that we go back on our decision. Churchill had decided to show the world who was master. As one of the rebels I bitterly resented his action and even now that the incident is over I feel that it was unworthy of the great man who leads us.

His defense would be that we are on the verge of a Second Front invasion, that our Allies would doubt the strength of his position after the defeat and that he was therefore forced to fight it out on the very ground where he had been beaten.

The position of the Socialists was desperate and ludicrous. They had voted with arrogance and now they were being told: “Reverse your vote

or out you go from the Coalition.” The Young Tories had become old Tories overnight. The Whips sent out three line whips, which means that you have to turn up and vote even if you come on a stretcher.

What would you have done in the place of any of us who voted for the amendment? We still believed that equal pay was right—no one could change us on that—but none wanted the general direction of the war taken out of Churchill’s hands.

What a damnable dilemma! Churchill was playing his hand with a ruthless disregard for our feelings.

The House was packed and the air was tense when we met next day. To our great relief we saw that Churchill had prepared a lengthy speech and had the notes with him. In my pocket were a dozen telegrams from women’s societies thanking me for having voted in their interest. Thank heaven Churchill was going to show us the way out in his speech and permit us to retain our self-respect.

Tired as he was he had sat up until 3 a.m. preparing his speech which

I am certain was designed to preserve the dignity of Parliament while securing for him his vote of confidence. But none of us, not even the Chief Whip or the Prime Minister, had reckoned with the unalterable rules that govern Parliament.

We were in Committee. We were once more on the Education Bill. The calendar had been put back to where it was two days before.

“I must remind the Committee,” said the Chairman of Ways and Means, “that we are on Clause 82 and those Hon. Members who wish to speak must confine themselves to the merits of the clause. It will be quite impossible for Hon. Members to say why they voted for the amendment or why they intend to vote differently today.”

Churchill blinked with surprise and then tore up his notes. He could not make the speech which he had prepared. Protests came from all quarters of the House, one from the author of this article, who contended that Parliament was being shamed and that instead of joyously giving the Prime Minister a vote of confidence we would be in the position of being herded like sheep into the Government Lobby.

For five hours the battle raged but in the end the closure was applied and we had to vote. The Government, despite its obvious good intentions, was forced to say to us: “Eat your words. Reverse your decision of two days ago. Bow to the will of the Executive.”

We did not eat our words. Those of us who had voted for the amendment proclaimed our faith in it but also showed our faith in Churchill by going in and giving him his vote of confidence.

His majority was overwhelming. Only 24 M.P.’s held out against him. The Socialists voted en masse for him just as they had voted against him. So did the Young Tories. So did I. I am certain Churchill never intended such a humiliation of the House but procedure had won the day over his good intentions.

And all because I ordered the taxi to turn around. That is the story and if you cannot find it in your heart to sympathize at least a little then I have put my case badly.