3 MARCH 1961, Page 8

Sound and Fury


TN the past three weeks the House of Commons has changed 'from a rather soporific legislative assembly into a parliamentary battleground. When Mr. Enoch Powell announced his changes in National Health Service charges on February 1 he gave the Labour Party, already palely con- valescent after its post-Scarborough upheaval, the first issue for some time on which it could hope to mount a major united campaign. But it was not until a week later that the Government Chief Whip, in a classic display of the dangers of a weak man suddenly trying to act with strength and decision, ensured that the main struggle should be concentrated where he and the Govern- ment must surely have least wanted it—in the House of Commons and not in the country.

All that Mr. Redmayne did was to indicate that he was going to move the closure unreason- ably early on the first stages of the debate on Mr. Powell's proposals. and then, when the Opposition protested noisily, but not unex- pectedly against this intention, he proceeded to Move it earlier still. Presumably he saw himself engaging in piece of cool and daring general- ship which would have filled the great Whips of the past with a mixture of envy and admiration. In fact, all that he achieved was to give Sir Gordon Touche the doubtful pleasure of being a public figure for a week, and to disrupt both the Government's legislative programme and the sleep of the legislators. Since General Redmayne's action the House has met for nine full days. On six of them it has sat after midnight, on five after 3 a.m. and on one after 8 a.m.

During these late sittings a great deal of non- sense has been talked. Much of the time has been taken up with spurious points of order, with motions to report progress when none has been made, and with all the ingenious circumnavigat- ing of the rules of order which is inseparable from a parliamentary 'go-slow.' Does this mean that the Opposition, in the pompous words of some commentators, has been misusing the time of the House, or detracting from its dignity, or making a public exhibition of its own irrespon- sibility? How intolerable, it has also been sug- gested, that the Labour Party should force Parlia- ment to take important decisions at four in the morning in an atmosphere of semi-hysteria 1 These charges seem to me to be based on false premises. In the first place, the House of Com- mons, under the British system, does not take important decisions, either at four in the morning or at four in the afternoon. The Government takes them (presumably at times which appear convenient to its members) and the House of Commons is merely called upon to record its reactions, and, perhaps, by the nature of these reactions, to affect the course of future decisions. And one of the most compelling ways for the Opposition to express an unfavourable reaction is to take an inconveniently long time to do it.

Nor is it a misuse of the time of the House for the Opposition to appropriate it for effecting a change (even if a slight one) in the balance of political power. This was done most signally by the Conservative Opposition in 1950-51. Several months of almost intolerable parliamentary life helped to force the second Attlee Government, with its tiny majority, to go to the country earlier than was wise. The objective of the Labour Party today is, I fear, a much more modest one. It is neither possible nor desirable for it to force the Government to the country. But the Chief Whip's attempt at generalship only began to make sense on the assumption that he was deal- ing with an impotent and demoralised Oppo- sition. Either the assumption had to be accepted or it had to be shown to be palpably false. The concentration of the conventional weapons of parliamentary power in the hands of the Govern- ment is always such that the Opposition can only retain the liberty of free debate by the occa- sional display of the deterrent of full-scale ob- struction. And the use of parliamentary time for this purpose is not only legitimate but positively desirable.

Furthermore, the Opposition's case in the past few weeks has been strengthened by the fact that its feelings about the central issue—the de- sirability of Mr. Powell's charges—were in no way simulated. Of course, a great number of the subsidiary manoeuvres—including Mr. Harold Lever's brilliantly contrived two-and-a-half-hour marathon on the White Fish Bill—owed more to intellectual ingenuity than to emotional in- volvement. But they were all deployed to delay the passage of a genuinely disliked measure. In this respect they were different from, say, such a classical exercise in obstruction as that prac- tised by Lord Randolph Churchill and his Fourth Party allies at the beginning of the 1880 Par- liament. The nominal issue was the right of the atheist Bradlaugh to affirm and take his seat. But I doubt whether anyone believes that Lord Randolph was deeply stirred by the iniquity of non-believers sitting in the House. His real pur- pose was to destroy the self-confidence of the Gladstone Government in its early days and to expose the vacuity of the official Opposition under Sir Stafford Northcote. He succeeded brilliantly in both tasks and dissipated most of the energy of the new Parliament in• its first months of existence.

This leads on to the point about the dignity of Parliament. In the first place, it is tempting to paraphrase Dr. Johnson and say that 'dignity,' used in this sense, is almost invariably the last refuge of a bankrupt politician. Second, it is surely the case that the House Of Commons has recently been in far more danger of declin- ing from inanition than from want of dignity. Certainly in the days when it perhaps appeared' to be more the centre of the national life there was no excessive respect for dignity of behaviour and no 'excessive fear of the consequences of sitting late and taking important votes at un- propitious hours of the morning.

In part, this was a consequence of a curious Victorian liking for late hours as such. The whole pattern of nineteenth-century parliamentary life was much later than our own. The House did not meet until 4.30 p.m. and great debates, even when there was no question of deliberate dilatori- ness, extended well into the night—and long after the newspapers had gone to press. Palmerston, it may be recalled, when he delivered his `civis Rontamts sum' speech of 1851, spoke throughout the length of a short summer night. When he rose, shortly before ten, it was still twilight. When he sat down, some time after two (there was then no daylight saving time). dawn was beginning to break. Again, in 1886, on the second reading of the Home Rule Bill, the divi- sion, the most significant of the decade, for it marked the break of Chamberlain, Bright :old Hartington with the Liberal Party, was not taken until 1.15 a.m. Gladstone did not rise to reply to a House which had already listened in rapid succession to Goschen, Parnell and Hicks-Beach until a little after midnight—and this was on the twelfth night of the debate.

Deliberate obstruction was developed to its highest peak by the Irish in the late Seventies and early Eighties. But their task was then a relatively easy one; there was no closure. Their most famous performance, although one which marked the end of an epoch, was on the Coercion Bill of 1881, when they carried on the sitting of January 31 until nine o'clock on the morning of February 2, until Speaker Brand rose from his chair and insisted on his own responsibility that the question should be put forthwith. Hence- forth the Government always had the power of closure.

Precedents from the Trish Party may be held to be misleading on the ground that the object of its members was not to work the parliamentary system but to secure their own exclusion from it. They taught something of their tactics, how- ever, to others who had less limited objectives. Lord Randolph Churchill was one of their earliest pupils. Paradoxically it was always the Conservatives who learnt most from the Irish. They finished off Gladstone's parliamentary life by keeping him up night after night on the com- mittee stage of the second Home Rule Bill, and they came into their own again at the time of Lloyd George's 1909 Budget.' It took seventy parliamentary days to get those proposals through the House, and forty-two of them were spent on the committee stage of the Finance Bill. All-night sittings took place at an average rate of two a week, and the 'dignity of the House' was upheld by endless points of order about whether it was permissible for the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Churchill) to pass through the division lobby in his pyjamas.

It is therefore possible to be much too squeamish about present parliamentary be- haviour. Sometimes—as when Mr. Macleod's Rhodesian statement was held up for half an hour by points about a misprint in a Government Bill—proportion seems to be lacking; and it would no doubt be foolish to attempt to repeat in the next three weeks the regime of the last three. But if the Opposition chooses to keep the House up and by so doing imposes a greater sacrifice on its own than on Government mem- bers (because Labour members are older and, on the whole, live farther from Westminster), it is doing its duty, enlivening Parliament and acting well within the British constitutional tradi- tion. And it may even do something to shake the complacency of the Government.