2019 09 – Parliament and World War One

Mr. H. SAMUELS’ RESOLUTION. 23 October 1918

Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL I beg to move, “That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that a Bill be passed forthwith making women eligible as Members of Parliament.”

This Resolution is the natural consequence of the action taken by Parliament earlier this year in enacting the enfranchisement of women. It has now been decided that sex is not to be a bar for citizenship, and it follows from that, I suggest to the House, that sex ought not to be a bar against taking part in Parliamentary life. You cannot say that 6,000,000 women shall be voters, but that not one shall ever be a legislator. By our deliberate action in passing the Representation of the People Bill we have given up the old narrow doctrine that woman’s sphere was the home and nothing but the home. We have given up the old theory that woman’s interests were not on a level with man’s interests, that woman, in fact, was nothing but an adjunct to man, or, as it has been well expressed, the doctrine which laid down that woman was not a noun but an adjective. That principle has been frankly surrendered, and I would suggest to hon. Members that the risks which have been faced in enacting that women may be elected to Parliament would be far less than those which were deliberately undertaken when we enacted the enfranchisement of women.

For my own part, I have always been in favour of the principle of women’s suffrage. I have held the view that the perfect State would include both men and women as its citizens. Life is on a two-sex basis. You cannot put politics only on a one-sex basis. But for many years I had doubts whether the degree of public interest which had been taken by women on the average made it safe at that time to enact a large measure of woman suffrage. The War, however, has brought great changes. It has made women familiar with many aspects of public life. It has drawn the attention of vast numbers of them to questions of industrial employment, of prices, of international politics, and of many matters on which previously they had held aloof. And many of us have been ready during the War to modify our previous view, and to join in the enfranchisement of women. To those, however, who are still doubtful as to the wisdom of the enfranchisement of women and to those who think we have taken, as undoubtedly we have, considerable risks in adding this vast new electorate to citizenship, I submit this argument, that when you deal with enfranchisement you cannot discriminate. You deal with a class in the mass. You have to take into account the capacities of the average person. But when you deal with representation you are not dealing with the average woman. You are dealing with the exceptional woman, and you have to take into account the capacities and character of the woman who will be elected, not the average of the many millions who may be brought in under an Act of Parliament, but the particular qualifications of the individual woman who has such capacities as to command the support of some great party or some body of supporters in a constituency, and, having first been adopted as a candidate, has then won the suffrages of some 10,000 or 15,000 of her fellow countrymen and women. That differentiates the proposal for woman representation from that for woman enfranchisement, and many of those who regard with alarm the sweeping measure passed earlier in the year must realise that this further proposal involves fewer risks and no dangers in comparison with that which has already been adopted.

We, however, in this House, I hope, are a very practical body. The British nation prides itself sometimes on not being logical. If we were to base this case solely on the ground of logic, it might receive short shrift at the hands of the House and of the country, but we have to consider also whether the measure is in itself desirable, and I would submit to the House that anything which renders this body more thoroughly representative of the nation, anything which enables every point of view to be fully and freely expressed here within these walls, strengthens the House of Commons and adds to its utility to the country. Its representative character is its strength, just as the lack of representative character is the fatal weakness of the other House, in spite of the many high qualities which its membership possesses. Women undoubtedly have their own distinctive point of view, and their distinctive point of view ought to be expressed in Parliament and not expressed at secondhand by men who, with the best will in the world, cannot appreciate in its fulness the woman’s point of view; it should be expressed by representatives of women themselves. Many of us realise now, however much the idea would have been scouted by our ancestors, that this House gains greatly by the presence here of direct representatives of labour who can, when labour questions arise, state the workmen’s standpoint from the workmen’s own experience. It is the same with respect to the distinctive standpoint of women. Particularly do I believe that the presence of a certain number of women within these walls would be of advantage in assisting the work of our Committees.

The public at large, misled by descriptions in certain organs of the Press, are under the impression that the real work of the House of Commons consists in a long succession of rhetorical debates, variegated from time to time by disorderly scenes. They do not realise the immense mass of work which is performed week in and week out, year in and year out, in the many Committees that sit upstairs. It is a weakness of our Select Committees that they cannot be so thoroughly representative as the Departmental Committees which are appointed by Ministers. We are accustomed in these days to the examination of any question of difficulty by a Committee before action is taken. Sometimes it is a Departmental Committee, and sometimes it is a Committee of one or the other House, or a Joint Committee of the two Houses. Whenever a Departmental Committee is appointed to deal with any question touching closely the lives of the people, one or more women are always appointed to it, and most useful members they are of Departmental Committees; but if a matter is to be referred to a Select Committee, the Select Committee cannot be representative in an equal degree, because women can be given no direct representation. That is why on many occasions—I speak with some experience in these matters—it has been found necessary to appoint not a Select Committee, although it was known that the House of Commons was interested in the matter, but to appoint a Departmental Committee in order that women should be appointed upon it.

Recently, indeed during this Session, we have made a new precedent in the case of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, and authority has been given for the appointment of outsiders on its Sub-committees, and the same course was adopted in the case of the Luxury Tax Committee, where one or two women were appointed on a Sub-committee of the Select Committee. [An HON. MEMBER: “They resigned!”] Nevertheless it was thought necessary that they should be appointed. It is not obligatory on me to go into the unhappy domestic history of that Committee, but the fact remains that in that case, and in the case of Departmental Committees, it is found desirable that women should be appointed, and if women were Members of this House they would increase the authority and strengthen the representative character of those Committees. This would be particularly the case if women rendered service both within these walls and in the Committee Rooms, in dealing with the new tasks which will devolve on Parliament in the days that lie before us in an ever increasing degree, with reference to questions closely affecting the lives of the people. Health, housing, education, child welfare, employment, the cost of living—all these matters will occupy a great deal of attention in our Parliamentary life. They occupy, and increasingly so, the foreground of our politics. The old controversies which used to rage are passing more and more into the background. Ecclesiastical and constitutional controversies, questions as to the growth of our Empire, the extension of commerce and industry, these matters will no doubt play their part in the future as they have done in the past, but in a decreasing degree compared with matters affecting the condition and life of the people. In earlier centuries our politics have centred round the Church, Parliament, the Colonies, commerce. In future our politics are likely to centre more and more around the home. It is for that reason essential that the assistance of women should be invited, not only in the electorate but also in the representation.

For many long years past we have, experimented with respect to local governing bodies. Women have been made eligible for membership of local governing bodies and they have served on a very large number throughout the country. For my own part I have been for many years a member of an association which has been formed to promote the election of women on these bodies, and I was fortunate enough, when I was President of the Local Government Board, to secure the passage through Parliament of a Bill which removed the last of the barriers to the election of women to town councils. I think the universal experience of those who have made a study of this matter is that women on these local bodies have rendered most valuable service. Hon. Members who have served on town councils, members of the London County Council, and other bodies, will I am sure unanimously bear testimony to the value of their work on those bodies and on their education and other committees. At this moment a woman occupies the important office of deputy chairman of the London County Council. I think there is no one who for a moment would consider a proposal for the repeal of the law which allows women to serve upon local government bodies.

My complaint is rather that there are too few who have yet come forward for election and have secured seats on them. I submit that that is the danger that we are likely to be faced with here. It is rather more probable that too few will be elected to this House than too many. I am well aware that some of my hon. and right hon. Friends take a different view and look with alarm to the prospect that these benches in the future may be tenanted largely or even mainly by ladies. I am not going to argue whether that be desirable or not, for I think the common sense of the House and of the country will agree that it is not in the least likely to happen and that the number of women who are elected in the near future is, I am afraid, likely to be fewer than many of us desire. In any case the matter is one which, as I will point out later on, should be properly left to the decision of the electorate itself. There is one other argument that may be advanced in this Debate by the opponents of this Resolution. It will be argued, no doubt, that even if the principle of the proposal is sound it is at all events premature, and that right as it may be in theory it is wrong in time. It will be said that we are proposing this measure too soon and that women having been so recently enfranchised we should digest the one meal before we are asked to consume another. It will also be pointed out that this change was not proposed in the recommendations of Mr. Speaker’s Conference, that it was not raised on the Representation of the People Act, and that in any event this is a moribund Parliament and it ought to be left to our successors to decide a question of so much importance. From the approval these remarks have met with, I gather I have correctly interpreted the idea in the minds of those who are opposed to this Resolution.

With respect to Mr. Speaker’s Conference, I would remind the House that this matter was wholly outside the terms of reference, and could not therefore in any case be considered by that Conference; and with regard to the Representation of the People Act, this question was outside the scope and title of the Bill and any Amendment raising this point would at once have been ruled out of order. There are several replies to the contention that this proposal is premature. In the first place,  it is certain that at the next General Election, whether it comes sooner or later, the matter will be put to the test. There is no Statute which regulates the inadmissibility of women to Parliament. There is no recorded law case, I believe, which decides the matter. It is regarded by the Law Officers of the Crown as part of the common law that women are not eligible to sit in Parliament, and I am informed that it will be the personal responsibility of any returning officer to decide whether or not a nomination paper handed in on behalf of a woman shall be accepted. If he refuses to accept it he will be liable to legal proceedings. In this way the matter will be put to the test. I would suggest to the House it ought not to leave this matter in a state of uncertainty now that we know that it is certain that the question will be raised in practice. Neither should it be left to the decision of the Courts. This is not a matter of law. It is a matter of policy. It is not proper for settlement in the Courts, but it is proper for settlement in Parliament. Further, it is equally certain that if this Motion should be rejected to-day, or if no Bill is passed by this Parliament making women eligible for Parliament, it will be made a test question in every constituency at the next General Election. I think one can safely prophesy the result. It is a foregone conclusion that a vast majority of the candidates will promise their support at the next election, and when the Parliament comes into being a Bill in the sense of the Resolution which I am moving will be passed into law. But this will mean that women will be excluded from the next Parliament—unless they get in afterwards at a by-election. The General Election would result in the return of no women if it were held they were not eligible. But it is in the next Parliament especially—the Parliament of Reconstruction—the Parliament which will deal with so many of these questions of home policy and social reform, that the assistance of women would be of especial advantage.

The last point which I would address to the House in answer to this contention, and indeed on the case generally, is this, that in essence it is not for Parliament to decide whom the people shall elect: it is for the people themselves to decide who their representatives shall be. The Legislature has its functions, vast and important as we know them to be. But it is the function of the electorate to decide who shall be its members. There are indeed some agreed conditions which must necessarily be imposed by law, and which will give rise to no controversy. For instance, felons should not be members of the Legislature, nor undischarged bankrupts, nor unnaturalised aliens, nor persons suffering from insanity. These are matters proper for legislation. What we claim is that in general the electorate should be free to decide for itself whether or not certain individuals should be returned, and Parliament would be going beyond its functions if it were to say, “It is for us to decide whether you shall elect a particular class of persons to this House.” Whenever Parliament or the law has overstepped these lines it has always been compelled by the people to withdraw. There was a Parliament long ago, called “The Unlearned Parliament,” because, wisely or unwisely, it was decided that no lawyer should have a seat in it; and I remember occasions on which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) has treated with proper scorn the unwisdom of the legislators of that day. That rule was very soon abrogated. There was a period not long afterwards in the fifteenth century when Parliament enacted that no one should be elected for a county who was not “a gentleman born.” I presume that borough representation was regarded in those days as being beyond redemption. There was a famous Statute in the reign of Queen Anne which provided that no one should be elected to this House for a county constituency who had not a qualification in land of £600 a year or should become a borough Member who had not a qualification of £300 a year. There have been attempts to exclude Catholics, Quakers, Jews, and Atheists. There was the famous case of John Wilkes, whom the House endeavoured to exclude on the ground that he published a seditious libel. In all these cases the people have resented the action of Parliament and have insisted that it was their function and not the function of the Legislature to decide the classes which should be chosen by them to represent them in Parliament. In every case the usurping attempt has been defeated.

All these barriers have now been swept away, whether class or religion or political opinion, and but one remains, and that is the barrier of sex. It is that barrier which I ask the House this afternoon to decide shall be abrogated also. There is nothing compulsory in this Motion. We do not say that women shall be elected to Parliament; we merely leave it free to the constituencies to elect women if they so desire, and those who oppose this measure would put fetters on the electorate and say that “even if you wish to elect women admirably qualified to be legislators by a long career of public service and after long experience on local authorities, holding opinions agreeable to the constituency, women of capacity, common sense and energy—even if you have such women among you, you are not free to send them here to Parliament, and shall not be permitted by law to do so.” I submit to the House that that is an impossible position to take up, and that you must leave it free to the electorate to decide who shall be or shall not be their representative.

I trust there will not be any attempt to limit the choice, if it is decided that women are to be eligible, in the way that women have been admitted to the electorate only beyond a certain age limit—a limit of thirty years. That obviously is an artificial and arbitrary distinction made in order to prevent too large a number of women being enfranchised in the first instance, and to prevent the number of women electors being greater than that of men electors. But the fact is that we recognise that these distinctions are arbitrary and artificial. In accordance with the principle which I have submitted to the House that the electors should be left free to choose as their own representatives whom they desire, I urge that the age limit should not apply in this case. In an earlier period, it was the law that persons could only be elected who were themselves electors, but that has been for many generations repealed. I was myself a candidate for Parliament some years before I was a voter, and probably other Members of this House are in the same case, and what is the rule with regard to men should also be the rule with regard to women. These are the arguments on which I rest the case for the Resolution, which I now beg to move: In the first place, that it has been recognised by the law that sex is not a ground for exclusion from political life, and that the rule which applies to citizenship should also apply to representation. Next, that this House would be strengthened and rendered more efficient for its work if all points of view were represented here, particularly the point of view of the womanhood of the country, and that the work of the Committees would be more valuable if details of Bills and questions had the discriminating attention of women as well as of men; that the politics of the future will more and more centre around the home, and that on these matters women are particularly qualified to speak. The experience of all our local governing authorities amply justifies this further extension of the sphere of women. The House should not leave these matters uncertain, to be decided by Courts of law. Neither the Courts nor the Legislature should decide who are to be chosen as Members of Parliament. That the electorate should be left to its own free will to choose its own representatives is the first essential principle of democracy, which all parties are now, happily, loudly declaring to be the one sound rule for the government of nations.

Note: Further contributions on this debate will appear in the October Labour Affairs.