2016 11 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


On 22 February 1917 MPs debated an amendment to a Bill providing for compulsory industrial conscription. The amendment was moved by Percy Alport Molteno, Liberal member for Dumfriesshire and seconded by Thomas Edmund Harvey, Liberal member for Leeds West.

Percy Alport Molteno (12 September 1861-19 September 1937) was a Cape Colony-born lawyer, director of companies, politician and philanthropist. As a Liberal, he was on the radical wing of the party. His brother James was briefly leader of the opposition in the South African parliament (Cape House of Assembly) before becoming speaker. Percy Alport was a staunch anti-imperialist.

For five years before the War, Thomas Edmund Harvey (4 January 1875-3 May 1955) was warden of Toynbee Hall, the social reform centre in east London. He came to prominence, however, during the War as the MP who was largely responsible for ensuring that the so-called ‘conscience clause’ was enacted in the Military Service Act 1916.


I beg to move to leave out from the word “That” to the end of  the Question, in order to add the words, “this House declines to agree to a Bill conferring upon the Director-General of National Service an authority which may include without further legislation powers to impose industrial conscription upon the country.”

I regret that I am not quite so easily satisfied as the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member who have preceded me with regard to the contents of this Bill and the pledge given by the Home Secretary. I do not at all doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would at any time carry out his pledges, but the matter appears to me to be one of immense importance. I am not one of those who think it possible to go through with the War without taking measures of a very exceptional character, and I am not averse to the House giving to the Government powers of an exceptional character, but I do feel that in a matter of this immense importance it should be the House of Commons and not any autocratic body whatever that gives the power. The terms of the Bill raise the whole question of Parliamentary Government. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that there is not an industry in this country which is not going to be affected by the Bill. Consequently, the whole existence of this country is going to be affected. It cannot, therefore, be denied that the matter is one of supreme importance. There is no limit in the application of this Bill to the industries of this country.

I want to put a question to the Home Secretary. He said there was no compulsion in this Bill. He said it would be for the employer to help the employee to volunteer, and it would be for the employee to volunteer, and that, in this way, the Bill was going to be the means of limiting labour. He also told us there was to be power under the Bill to limit industries, and, if necessary, to suppress them. I want to know, is that a voluntary power or is it a compulsory power?

Sir G. CAVE:

The power is not in the Bill, but any limitations in respect of labour in non-essential industries will be imposed by Orders in Council.


An industry may be on the point of stoppage already, and if many more men are taken away it must go under. Is the Director of National Service to have power to take these men.

Sir G. CAVE:

There is no power in this Bill which would enable the Director of National Service to take compulsorily any men from any industry.


Do I understand that he will have power under Regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act?

Sir G. CAVE:

There is no power to compel anybody to leave any industry under the Act, and there is no Regulation, under which it can be done.

Mr. PRINGLE But you can make Regulations.

Sir G. CAVE:

The only Regulation is to prevent men being taken into certain, existing non-essential trades. It does not compel any men to go in or come out, but in respect of new labour, it will prevent it going into certain non essential industries.


I want to draw attention to the fact that this Bill is enormously important and that under it very wide powers may be exercised by the Director of National Service. What I complain of is that the Bill is a mere skeleton to be filled in not by this House, but by Orders in Council and by Regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act or otherwise. I should like to direct attention to the Clauses in which these powers are to be taken. The Bill consists of only three Clauses, and the third merely recites the title, in the other two Clauses there are powers taken for ousting the authority of this House and that is the point to which I wish now to direct attention. If we look at Section 2 of Clause 1 we find it provided that— The Director-General of National Service shall, for that purpose, have such powers and duties of any Government Department or authority, whether conferred by Statute or otherwise, as His Majesty may by Order in Council transfer to him or authorise him to exercise or perform concurrently with or in consultation with the Government Department or authority concerned.

This deals with powers already in existence, but now I come to the words to which I take strong objection: And also such further powers as may be conferred on him by Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, 1914, and Regulations may be made under that Act accordingly. Here authority is taken to confer new powers upon a Minister under the Defence of the Realm Act; we know already the extent to which the Defence of the Realm Act has been stretched. Indeed, there is a question before the House whether that Act has power to override an Act of Parliament, and the Food Controller is to give us an answer on that point. I do not believe there is any such power, but however that may be, there is power taken under the Defence of the Realm Act to confer new power on the Director of National Service. What has been the usual custom of this House up to the present time? The custom has been, when establishing any authority, to define under the Act the power which that authority is to exercise. You may make certain Regulations as to how he is to exercise his power, but in regard to further powers this House has always retained in its own hands any power which it is going to give and it has laid them down in the Statute establishing the authority. Here is a matter of supreme importance. It may have been done in other cases. I do not know, and if it has, I do not like it. But I do submit that, in a matter of such importance as this is to the people of this country, it is essential, if this House is to retain its authority in the country, that it should define these powers and settle them by Act of Parliament.

Unless you do that, you will be destroying Parliamentary government. What is Parliamentary government? We have the King, the Lords and Commons, and it is essential, in any vital matter, that the concurrence of these constitutional authorities should be secured for the granting of any power over the people of this country. I maintain, therefore, this proposal is constitutionally wrong, and any action taken under this Bill will be upset by the highest Courts of the realm if we proceed by Order in Council to confer these powers. The utmost power of imagination possessed by any human being will not enable him to tell us what can be done under an Act of this kind. It is absolutely impossible—it is a case absolutely of blindfold legislation. It is really giving to the Executive power to legislate by decree. This proposal was made in almost similar terms to the French Chamber. What did that body do? They had a discussion on it; they referred it to a Committee; the Committee brought up a unanimous report against it, and the Chamber absolutely refused to give the Government the power. I ask that this Parliament should remain as free as any other Parliament in the world, and I contend, therefore, that the powers to which I am referring should be set out in and defined by the Statute.

Why is this matter one of such urgent and immediate importance? We have given immense powers to the Executive, which they have been exercising all this time. The difficulty is this, that indispensable men have been taken away from the industries of the country, and in that way industry has been disorganised. Now an attempt is being made to bring back to those essential industries the men taken away, or others to fill their places. I should like to give an illustration, from a speech delivered by a distinguished Member of this House, to whom we were all listening yesterday with pleasure during his exposition of the naval position—I refer to the First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir E. Carson). The right hon. Gentleman’s attitude in regard to taking away men from industry is really the key to what has occurred in connection with many of our industries.

In December, 1915, we were discussing the Military Service Act, and the then Prime Minister laid down the principle that indispensable industries were not to be destroyed, and that indispensable men were not to be taken away from them. The right hon. Gentleman the present First Lord of the Admiralty was then in opposition, and he laid down his principle in this way: What my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham is trying to do is to make his own measure of what is necessary to carry on what he believes to be the economic industries of this country. What he wants to do is to give the surplus to the Army. I say they ought all to be given to the Army, and the surplus ought to be given to the hon. Gentleman’s business and other businesses. That is the principle he laid down. But listen to the same right hon. Gentleman a year later. On the 15th of November last year what did he tell us? Speaking on the question of the difficulties in connection with our industries, he said: I am not going in detail into all the many points upon which the right hon. Gentleman touched. He told us of the depiction of agricultural labour; he told us of the absence of mechanics and of various other matters of that kind. It really does shake one’s confidence in the power of organisation of this country—I am not saying it by way of casting any slur, as the right bon. Gentleman knows, upon himself or his Department or any other Department—but it does seem to be a great pity and to shake one’s confidence in the  power of organisation of this country that after two years’ experience of war we are only now beginning to find out that we have sent away men who are essential for the industries which go to the very root of the support of our Armies in the field and of our people at home.

That was last year’s advice of the right hon. Gentleman, and we have had similar advice given us in this House time after time. Here we can see how we have got into this trouble. Are we going to get out of it by taking more indispensable men from industries? Yet that is what is being done at the present moment. There are men indispensable for agriculture being taken away from the land at this very moment—men indispensable not merely in the opinion of irresponsible gentlemen, but indispensable in the opinion of the highest authorities in this country. There are people in my Constituency who send me up certificates from the Board of Agriculture to the effect that their men are indispensable, and yet those men are now being taken away. The Minister for Agriculture himself tells us he is staggered when men indispensable to industry are sent away, and only yesterday he informed us that he could do nothing unless the Government conferred upon him the power of deciding that men were indispensable to agriculture. Yet these men are being taken away, and now it is proposed to set up vast and complicated machinery in order to try and get somebody incompetent to take their places. In this way you are destroying the resources of this country.

Things get worse and worse. Look at the steel industry; you are putting up steel furnaces, but by the time they are completed you will have other steel furnaces shut down because of your labour difficulty. We have been told by the First Lord of the Admiralty that, while we are building more ships, there are vessels which are lying idle because hands cannot be got to discharge them, and the result is there is a serious shortage of steel. I think the Minister of Munitions will not deny that last autumn we had a 50 per cent shortage of steel. You have your munition factories unable to go on because there is no material. An enormous amount of time is lost, and an enormous amount of energy wasted. Then there is shipbuilding. We are all wanting ships built, but we cannot build ships without steel. I wish that something were really done in regard to new ships, but I do not believe there is anything being done, because there is not the steel with which to build them.

For the moment I should like to return to the position in which we find ourselves. The process of ousting the authority of this House has been getting more and more extreme. I do not pretend that this House can conduct a war. No one thinks it can, because it would be absurd. No one but the Executive can conduct the War, but the House is responsible for the Executive and also for any authority which the Executive exercises. It has been so in every other war, and it ought to be so in this War. The Executive ought to get its authority from this House and from nowhere else. This is a skeleton Bill. Who, then, is going to exercise these great powers? The House of Commons is in a position that it does not really know who is going to exercise them. We have had two changes of Ministries, but we have never been informed in the House how those changes came about or what the new Government is. There are two short passages, one in the speech of the present Prime Minister and one in a speech of the late Prime Minister, upon that subject, in which they both said that they did not propose to give any information upon that subject. The House is getting very much in the position of a board of directors who one fine morning find that their manager has been dismissed, no reason being given for it, and they have no knowledge of why he is dismissed. Then the new manager, eighteen months afterwards, is also dismissed without any reason given, and the new manager tells the board or this House——


I do not think that the matters which the hon. Member is now opening up are at all relevant to this Bill.


I am very anxious not to contravene the Rules of Order. I was coming to the point as to who was to exercise the powers, and who was to give the authority to exercise them. The difficulty we are in is that we do not know. I understand that where there is a question of a conflict between Departments— there must be a conflict between Departments—the eventual authority lies with the War Cabinet. We have not been informed in the House that that is so. If it be so, it appears that we are, by Bills of this kind, establishing a bureaucracy or an autocracy which is going to decide the matter. I object to both these processes, because while we are supposed to be doing, and I hope we are, everything to fight Prussian militarism, we are really introducing Prussian ideas. It is the Prussian idea that the bureaucracy should issue orders conferring powers upon an authority. I contend this House is the only body that ought to be able to confer them. The principles upon which that autocracy acts are extremely difficult to ascertain. As the Government is now formed on a principle unknown to the Constitution, we cannot rely upon that. We have to look at the individuals who are going to exercise and establish these authorities and look at them to ascertain what view as individuals they are likely to take. If we look at the body which will eventually decide these powers, we find it is the War Cabinet. So far as I can see, the War Cabinet consists of the Prime Minister, whom we hope to see here to-morrow, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Barnard Castle Division (Mr. Arthur Henderson), to whom we can put questions in this House, and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, who can be here, whom we can see and to whom we can put questions as to what process he is going to follow in giving these directions. As to the other members of the autocracy, we do not know about them. They are not here, and we cannot get at them; we can only look at their views.

With regard to the ousting of Parliament, the question was asked last week as to where the House came in. We had Estimates before us in regard to which the House knew nothing. Now we have but Token Estimates, and in many ways the authority of this House is being set aside in favour of bureaucratic authority. Upon what policy is that bureaucratic authority going to act? We can only look at the statements of the members of that autocracy, and, when I examine them, I am very much concerned and alarmed. I find that one of the Noble Lords, who is a member of that autocracy, intends to proceed on Prussian principles. He is the greatest exponent in this country of the military principles of Prussia, and he was anxious to apply them to this country. If they are going to act on those principles it is a very serious matter, and we ought to know. This country does not want to be committed to Prussian principles while fighting Prussian militarism, and using all its forces against it.

Again to-day we have had another pledge. What are we to say about pledges given in this House? We have had pledge after pledge given to us and broken. I need not enumerate them, but a very large number of pledges have been given to this House, and it is well within its recollection that they have been broken from time to time. What did the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnard Castle Division tell us when he was speaking on this question? He said that he had given a pledge against industrial compulsion—the very question with which we are dealing—and he said that if he had given pledges, and the circumstances changed, he was going to get rid of his pledges. How was be going to do that? This is what he said: Whereas what I said I would do—and surely my hon. Friend will give me credit for speaking sincerely—was that I would take every means open to me to get release from my pledges, and if I made my pledges, first of all, to the representatives of the great Labour movement with which I have been so long connected I will go to them; If I made my pledges to my Constituents I will go to my Constituency and ask them for release.”— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1917. col. 935.]

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman if, when he speaks in this House as a Minister, he is merely speaking for labour organisations and his Constituents? He is speaking to this House and the country. I want to know from the Home Secretary, was he speaking to his constituents from whom he could get a release if he gave a pledge he was going to break, or was he speaking to this House; was he giving the assurance as a Minister of the Crown or in his personal capacity? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Barnard Castle Division considers that he is quite free to break pledges given to this House if he can get the consent of his labour organisations and his constituents. I deny that. I say that when he spoke he spoke as a Minister. He spoke in this House to the representatives of this country and, through them, to the country. He cannot get a release in that way. I hope the House will not in any way be satisfied with assurances given in that spirit and on these conditions. Any pledges given in this House ought to be embodied—we have surely had warning enough now—in the very clearest terms in the words of the Statute. Nothing less ought to satisfy any of us than the most clear and explicit declaration on that point. I object to this autocratic and bureaucratic principle that is ousting the House of Commons from its proper, legitimate and essential duty to the people of this country—that is, to preserve their rights by exercising its own.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I wish to associate myself with the arguments that my hon. Friend (Mr. Molteno) has placed before the House as to why it should hesitate before giving its sanction to a Bill fraught with consequences which may be very dangerous to the whole structure of our industries. I fully appreciate the spirit in which the Home Secretary introduced this measure. I am quite sure he has no intention that it shall be used in a way which would bring about the dangers which some of us foresee; but as my hon. Friend has made quite clear to the House, it is the duty of this House not to look to speeches of Ministers, or even to their intentions as expressed in those speeches, but to have regard also to the legislative forms their proposals take, and to safeguard the country in regard to the way in which measures may be used not only by the present Ministry, but by any future Ministry.

When we look at this Bill, in spite of the explanation of the Home Secretary, the more closely we examine it, the more we shall feel that there is reason to be dissatisfied with it, both for “what it does contain and for what it does not contain. The provision to which most of us who object to the Bill take most exception is contained in Sub-section (2) of Clause 1. I am sorry that the Home Secretary in his explanation did not make clearer to the House all that that Sub-section implies. To an ordinary man reading it, it certainly gives the impression that it gives to the Director-General of National Service a blank cheque upon the vast bank of the Defence of the Realm Act, which he can fill in subject to Orders in Council framed under that Act, and not in any other way subject to the control of this House.

During the speech of the Home Secretary he alluded to the schedule of essential trades about to be issued by the Director-General of National Service. I ventured to ask whether it would be laid upon the Table of the House, and the Home Secretary at once said that of course it would be laid upon the Table of the House. There is, however, no provision in the Bill that the Regulations framed by the Director-General shall be laid upon the Table of the House, or that the House shall have any opportunity of expressing an opinion upon them. The rights of Parliament should be safeguarded explicitly in the Bill. Every provision under the Regulations framed by the Director-General of National Service should be laid upon the Table of the House, and the usual interval should follow in which the question may be raised. If some procedure such as that were adopted it would go a long way to mitigate the anxiety many feel as to the way in which these powers might be used. I do not want to say a word against the distinguished citizen who has taken the most onerous office of Director-General of National Service. He has done very great service already to his city and to his country, and he is a man of the highest ability and character; but if we were to get an angel from Heaven to take this post it would still be one which could never properly be filled by any one personality if you entrusted to it all the powers which are given in this Bill. There is no provision in it whatever for the association either of industry or labour with the Director-General of National Service, and that is an essential fault. His province will be to control and shape industry and to mould and modify the lives of thousands—it may be millions— of our fellow citizens; and there is no provision at all in the Bill either that Parliament should be associated with his work by any Committee or, still more important, that industry and labour should be associated with it. If this work is to be made acceptable to the great mass of feeling in the country, it is essential that the direct co-operation of the working classes should be sought and obtained to the work of the Director-General of National Service, and I believe the proper way to obtain that is to make provision for it in the very framework of the Bill which gives the Director-General of National Service his power.

It is very well for the Home Secretary to speak of the desirability of having labour mobile and giving power to the Director-General to transfer labour from one place to another, but it is an entirely different thing when you come to turn those fine-sounding phrases into what they mean in human relation to poor men and women. Your labour being made mobile means tearing and rooting up people from all their associations and all their work, transferring them as though they were pegs or cards and not men or women. I do not mean that we ought not to have any better system than we have at present. I admit that it may be desirable to have very great changes, but if we are to make those changes in the right way, it ought to be done with the fullest spirit of co-operation with the workers concerned. They ought to feel that it is not something imposed upon them from without and from above by a great autocrat of industry, a sort of Napoleon of our economic life, shifting and transferring mobile labour where he will, but they should feel that through their association, their own trade union, their own organisation, they have an essential voice in it and a right to express themselves, and that that right is safeguarded in the Act of Parliament itself which gives these powers to the Director-General of National Service. I appeal to the Government to take into co-operation with them in this great task which they have set themselves the people of the country, through their own organisations, and not leave that co-operation out of the framework of their Bill.

My hon. Friend has said very well that a similar measure some time ago was brought into the French Chamber, and he has told the House of the way in which it was treated. I prefer in this matter that we should take France as our example rather than Germany. The Government has framed its measure confessedly on the analogy of a German measure, yet even in Germany we read yesterday in the papers of a semi-official announcement that the German Government had thought it not necessary hitherto to go beyond the voluntary system. I am very glad the Government want to maintain the voluntary system, but after what we have seen some of us cannot help having our doubts about the hopes which are expressed in this way, more especially when the whole Bill is so framed that, under the Defence of the Realm Act, compulsory powers may at any time be taken, and may enable the Director-General of National Service to transfer and move men and women under penalties from one place to another. The Defence of the Realm Act contains far more, I am sure, than its framers ever anticipated when it was passed, and far more than this House ever realised it was giving to the Government. I think we ought to take warning now and see that in the framework of the Bill we do not give such absolutely unlimited powers to the Director of the machinery that is set up, that we associate this power expressly in the Bill itself with the decision of Parliament, that we keep the ultimate control of Parliament over those decisions and that we associate with the details of his work the expression of the life of the working classes of this country through their own organisations. Unless we can get those two essential changes in the Bill I am sure many of us must feel that it marks a further step in the wrong direction, away from the true genius of our people, in the direction which we dread, of the domination of the lives of the citizens of the nation by the iron autocracy of a centralised State. As a Liberal, I must protest against this measure. I believe unless it be modified in the way I have indicated, it must do harm and it must strike at the roots of national life and of civic liberty, and I feel it my duty, believing that, to second the Amendment.