[ocr errors]

however, the final stages of the two principal Bills were now postponed, the changes and chances of the war would prejudice the ultimate passage to the Statute Book of the measures for which they had fought so long. So they argued; and there is no reason to think they were not honest in this opinion. It was true that in July the risk of a breakdown had been imminent, rendering nugatory even a technical passage into law. But the dangers which the Government had realised were never so apparent to their supporters; and in any case a risk which is passed soon appears shadowy, while the risk ahead gains in substance. Unionists, on the other hand, took the broad ground of saying that controversial measures should not be pressed. In particular, however, it was urged that the Home Rule Bill and the Amending Bill were integral parts of one whole. On this point the Prime Minister's previous utterances were quoted ; and it was contended that to pass the Home Rule Bill without the Amending Bill would essentially • prejudice the political position of the party. In the case of the Welsh Church Bill also, the war had introduced new factors, which will be mentioned later, and for which it was claimed that allowance should be made. Indeed, a statement of the Prime Minister * shows that there was substance in the contention.

From this point onwards the course of events moves like that of a Greek drama—the catastrophe inevitable, yet due to misunderstandings which the chorus lament but are impotent to remove. The debate of Aug. 31 showed how beneath the ashes the lava was still glowing; and at length the eruption occurred on Sept. 15. The Prime Minister seems to have been sincerely anxious to find a fair settlement, but failed. It may have been that a waiting policy, often the wisest, was here tried once too often; or else that the preoccupations of the immediate business of the war were too great. In any case the announcement was at last made that the Home Rule Bill, without the Amending Bill, was to be passed into law, as also was the Welsh Bill. A Suspensory Bill † postponing the dates of operation was to be passed

* Aug. 31, Hansard, 437.

+ The Suspensory Act discriminates in a curious manner between the Irish and the Welsh Acts. As regards the former, no preparatory action can be taken. As regards the latter, not only is such preliminary action not barred, but, not being barred, it becomes obligatory. Hence the trouble.

[ocr errors]

at the same time, and a promise was given of an Amending Bill in the future. The effect, however, of the Suspensory Bill was doubtful; and Unionists openly scouted the value of the promise. The whole episode was marked by extraordinary bitterness—a bitterness, indeed, so unusual that it has been remarked * with reason that there may have been some incidents in the negotiations which have not yet seen the light.

It is a thankless task to apportion responsibility, but, if thankless, it is yet in some degree necessary in order to determine what ought to be done in the future. On the whole it is fair to say that the greater share of responsibility falls upon the Government.

There were several extenuating features. The Government was conducting a great war, about which at the outset there had been misgivings within its own ranks. It was therefore loth to offend its own stalwarts. The Irish Nationalists, too, presented a difficulty; and after the experience of the Boer War, it was worth much to conciliate their support, primarily in Ireland but also in America. On the other hand, the loyalty of Unionists was secure in ny event. The Government view, therefore, may not have been profound, but at least it was natural. At the same time it is clear that injustice was done to an Opposition that had given loyal support, as the Government was in a stronger and the Opposition in a weaker position after what occurred. So far, however, as the Irish Question is concerned, the milk has been spilt. The best that can be done promise of a future Amending Bill should be scrupulously kept in the letter and in the spirit. With reference to the Welsh Church Act the situation is different, and the position has been growing acute of late.

The essence of the matter lies in the interval prescribed by the Act to elapse between the date of passing and the date of the Bill coming into operation-a minimum of six months, which may be extended to twelve. This interval was to serve two purposes. The Government

[ocr errors]

is that any

* The Round Table,’ Dec. 1914.

+ I.e. the mere introduction of a measure in a take-it-or-leave-it attitud is thus barred.

[ocr errors]

intended to use it in appointing the Commissioners and creating the machinery necessary to administer the Act. On the other hand, a respite was also vital for the Church. Disendowed, it had to collect fresh funds. Disestablished, it had to create a new system of government. In peace these would be difficult tasks; in war they become impossible. Many of the principal supporters of the Church were away on service, and all resources were drained by the war. It was necessary, therefore, to give some period of respite after peace should be restored.

The situation was early foreseen both by the Prime Minister and others. Unfortunately, however, the greatest extension of time given by the Suspensory Act is only till the end of the war; therefore it does not meet the case. Indeed, in some respects it makes the situation worse. Preliminary steps are still obligatory under the Welsh Church Act; and these are actually causing dislocation.* Still more unhappily, the incidents of the passage of the Suspensory Act and the subsequent debates have again rekindled party animosity and distrust. Into this side of the question it is unnecessary to enter further. On the main point, however, a Bill to meet the situation has been introduced by the Duke of Devonshire in the House of Lords; and it appears from the memorials addressed to the Prime Minister that it has received the support of a number of Liberals and Free Churchmen. Un. doubtedly the situation ought to be met; and some measure on the lines of the Duke's Bill seems as good a method as any. The opposition to it, moreover, does not appear to be great, except from a comparatively small section. At the time of writing, therefore, events look hopeful, as the Prime Minister appears both realise the situation and to be anxious to meet it in accordance with the spirit of his earlier speech. If not a modus vivendi, at least a modus moriendi is in sight.

When so much trouble has arisen over two of the three principal Government bills, it would seem all the more important to avoid controversy over the last. Thus far

* E.g. where a benefice becomes vacant, it is difficult to fill it. Any such appointment since the passing of the Act involves no right to the stipend after the date of Disestablishment is passed, while the state of war precludes a voluntary fund being raised in the meantime.

It is pro

[ocr errors]


the problem of the Plural Voting Bill is not prejudiced
by anything that has happened; and the Prime Minister
in his remarks on Feb. 3 was most guarded in his
references to it. What is the fairest course to take ?
For such a purpose it is necessary to estimate the
chances of the Bill at the time when the war broke
out. That date was Aug. 4, 1914. The earliest day on
which the Bill could pass is June 3, 1915. There was
thus, as has been said, an interval of ten months; and
this interval was evidently all-important.
bable that any impartial observer would come to the
conclusion, that the chances of the Plural Voting Bill
becoming law in this Parliament were infinitesimal. It
may be true, as one irreverent supporter of the Prime
Minister remarked concerning his political good fortune,
*the greater the hole he is in, the greater the convulsion
of nature that gets him out.' But, on the principle of
'no prejudice,' unless some expedient is found of subject-
ing the Bill to as precarious a chance of existence as it
enjoyed last July, the only fair course seems either to
drop it or to pass it with a proviso that it should not
come into force until after the next contested general
election. Whether such a decision would be unpalatable
to Liberals, only inside knowledge can tell; but to the
outsider any manipulation of the franchise, the fairness
of which was at all open to question, would of all
measures appear the most provocative, especially after
the series of preceding events.

Somewhat similar considerations govern the problem of an Election. Questionings and rumours appear rife. As the end of 1915 completes the five years of existence prescribed by the Parliament Act, much no doubt depends on the course of the war. An election during hostilities is inconceivable. But uncertainty in itself is harmful in view of the prevailing condition of mistrust; and it would be to the general good if some statement could be made. Probably a postponement following the French model would be best, with a proviso that an election should take place, say, six months after the conclusion of peace or armistice for negotiations. This could be effected by an amendment of the Parliament Act, or, if this was considered objectionable by Liberals, by an election, uncontested on both sides, with security


for a contested election six months after the date of peace or of the armistice

The preceding suppositions are, of course, all based on the hypothesis that, when the war is ended, British

tics will run again on much the same lines as before it began. On the other hand, a coalition, such as has taken place in France, is always a possible eventuality. It would at least be an evidence of national determination, stronger than any speeches or proclamations, , welcome at once to our Allies and convincing to friendly neutrals. But the likelihood of such a development is not great, as affairs appear at present. In truth, it would not much matter, provided that there can be conservation of energy, and that efficiency is coupled with determination. Unhappily, in the eyes of a critic, it is just this conservation of force and this efficiency which in their full measure are prejudiced by the present internal distrust and antagonism. Even from the merely party point of view it is likely that that party which could fully rise to the occasion, and which would give its life, would find it. From the national point of view, however, the issue is one of much greater significance. What is a nation worth which cannot attain a real unity in such a crisis as the present? What will be the future of Britain, if even now she knows not the hour of her visitation ?

The foregoing pages were written before the Commons debate of March 15. What then happened confirms what has been said above, An agreement as foreshadowed on p. 562 has been reached. Once definitely decided, Mr Lloyd George defended it with characteristic courage, but it is clear that it was only reached after considerable searchings of heart. Again, as pointed out on p. 561, the debate showed how easily the turmoil of party warfare may openly break out; and it is possible that the passage of the Amending Bill in April may show similar expressions of feeling.

* It seems doubtful whether such a dummy'election would prove practicable on closer consideration. The idea, however, has secured the influential support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others.

« VorigeDoorgaan »