― 365 ―

29. Chapter XXIX I Become A British M.P.

THE date of my retirement was January 21st, 1916, when I should complete six years of office. I looked forward to the future with some anxiety. I had always spent an active life, and for many years I was in the very thick of things. I did not feel ready for the tideless pond that seemed waiting for me, because I felt full of energy. London is a splendid place for men of affairs, but deadly dull if you have nothing to do. You seem to belong to a museum or a social sanatorium, when you join the “have beens.”

I did not dream on January 4th that on the 6th I should be “hurrying up” the Governor-General in Council to let me leave office without a moment's delay.

On the 4th I was sitting “over the clock” listening to the Prime Minister's speech when moving the first reading of the first Military Service Bill. A friend in the House—Mr. Hugh Edwards—came up and invited me to join a dinner party he was giving in the Harcourt Room. I did so. I noticed a look of surprise on the face of the Chief Conservative Whip, who was at the next table. He told me some time afterwards that it had been decided to invite me to stand for St. George's, Hanover Square, and a

  ― 366 ―
messenger was even then trying to find me. After dinner the matter was fully discussed by Mr. Steel Maitland and myself. The next day I was invited by electors on both sides to stand as an independent Imperialist. On the following Tuesday I was elected without opposition. No fewer than fifteen times I had been a candidate without a walk over! I had to wait for one at the sixteenth time—and at this end of the world!

The generosity of my new constituents in returning me without a single pledge, on a broad Imperialist footing, without joining the great Party whose seat it was, will be to me a source of everlasting gratitude. Mr. T. G. Bowles and Mr. Mackenzie Bell, by their retirement, helped me to that happy fate.

A record was established when a Conservative and a Liberal Minister—Mr. Bonar Law and Mr. Lewis Harcourt—did me the honour of escorting me to the Table of the House.

Instead of a descent into the “tideless pond,” I found myself in the greatest Parliament in the world, in its most notable period, sitting for one of the premier constituencies of England.

After thirty years of membership, and twenty of leadership, in Australia, I suppose I ought to have felt quite at home in the House of Commons from the first. But indeed I did not. I felt much more at home in the Strangers' Gallery! The fact is, although the forms are very much the same, the difference in the business is almost complete, and so is the difference in the ways of the House of Commons, and so again is the difference between the styles of speaking

  ― 367 ―
that “take.” I was in that most trying of positions—an old hand in a new world. There are almost as many differences in the precincts of the House as I found in the House itself. I am bound to say that most of the differences were, as might fairly be expected, to the advantage of the Mother of Parliaments.

I never saw the power of the Chair or its efficiency more in evidence. The House enjoys Mr. Speaker's sarcastic or humorous touches, which seldom miscarry and never detract from his authority, as they might easily do if he were a less skilful occupant of the Chair.

Of course, this War has put the House on its best behaviour. Party strife, and all those unlovely things that come out of it, are conspicuous by their absence.

The speeches, as a rule, do not strike one's ears forcibly at first. In an Australian Parliament there is more eloquence—of sorts—far more physical emphasis and repetition. Personalities and points of order are not frequent in the House of Commons. They do not form part of the stock in trade of any member so far as I have observed. The style of speaking which catches the ear of the House of Commons is that which suggests information worth having, carefully arranged, tersely expressed, and reasonings that do not soar too high or swerve too much. But, as everybody knows, there have been occasions of great heat which made the House just as excitable and disorderly as the younger Parliaments.

When one remembers the large number in England who can afford the best training for public life from

  ― 368 ―
youth upwards, and the numerous chances which the municipal systems of Great Britain offer to talent short of cash, one's pride in the achievements of the Parliaments beyond the seas is more than ever justified. Take the case of Australia. In an incredibly short space of time her Parliaments have spread over a vast new area forms of administration of a complete and thorough kind. Great schemes of public works have been thought out, legalised, carried out, and worked under Parliamentary control. There is no country in which life and property are safer or prosperity more equally shared. There have been mistakes serious enough, and “scenes” often enough, but these were only spots on the sun, and I am as proud as I ever was of my connection with the Parliamentary life of Australia.

In the House of Commons oratorical fervour never makes up for loose or discursive speaking. A speech that would “bring down the House” in a debating club is hateful in both Houses. Nothing but the conversational style goes down except on great occasions, which are rare, and, even then, departures from that even pace must only be occasional. Except as a study in diction and elocution, the massive beauty of a speech by John Bright might miss fire to-day nine times out of ten. As I write, I remember that even in Burke's days it was very much the same.

Amongst the things in which Oversea Assemblies resemble the House of Commons are the thrust and parry of questions and answers, the pertinacious loquacity of the few as contrasted with the studied restraint of the many, the frequency with which

  ― 369 ―
business is transacted and decisions arrived at outside the Chamber, the snub administered to bores or cranks by a sudden move to the doors, the gradual thickening as more popular speeches are made, the sudden inrush when the Prime Minister begins an important statement, the extraordinarily small percentage of the total number who transact the bulk of Parliamentary business, the quick amusement which the smallest tolerable joke excites, the stealth of Party moves, the modesty, real or affected, which conceals the personal ambitions of men fitted to lead, and the failure of the unfit to disguise their foolish aspirations. The younger Parliaments may use stronger language, and their battles may be fiercer, but in point of chivalry and generosity they are a splendid copy of the Mother Parliament.

When a leader for so many years in New South Wales, and afterwards in the Commonwealth, I got the full benefit of that chivalry and generosity. No man ever had more loyal supporters or colleagues.

Comparisons as to the ability or oratorical power of the leaders of the various Parliaments are almost idle. The surroundings differ so widely. In point of natural ability I do not think there is any difference of level. The weight of most of the public speaking in England would, I think, be greatly enhanced if it came from a warmer temperature of mind; and the weight of most of the public speaking in Australia would, I think, be greatly enhanced if it came from a colder temperature of mind. A little more of the ardour of the sun would do England a world of good. A little less would do Australia a world of good.

  ― 370 ―

In two vital respects, the despatch of public business and that self-restraint of members which promotes it, the House of Commons is still pre-eminent. Unless the Parliaments in Australia have rapidly reformed since I left, many additional volumes of Hansard would be needed if 670 Australians were in the House of Commons!

I hope now that I have completed a year's experience of political affairs in the House—and have sent this book to the press!—to take a more active part in its deliberations. So far, hon. members have suspended their rights and privileges in order to keep the way clear for a vigorous prosecution of the War. I think Sir Edward Carson, when acting as a leader, was very judicious in the way he endeavoured to stimulate without obstructing the activities of the Government.

During my term in England as High Commissioner, I used to attend the House of Commons and the House of Lords on especially interesting occasions. The most important of all these was on Monday, August 3rd, 1914. By that date public opinion had been thoroughly aroused. It was known that the Cabinet had been “at sixes and sevens.” The imminence of the violation by Germany of the neutrality of Belgium did more to quicken the war instinct than anything else; and it is conceivable that if Germany had left Belgium alone our Government would have been hopelessly divided, and thus have made an awful mistake. On the previous day the Cabinet had, by a large majority, I fancy, determined to go into the War if Germany broke the Treaty.

  ― 371 ―

Another point that had great weight was the fact that the western coasts of France were undefended owing to a concentration of the French fleets in the Mediterranean, by friendly arrangement with us.

The House, on that momentous day, overflowed into the side galleries. Every inch of sitting space was occupied by members and spectators. The House of Lords compartment in the Southern Gallery and the Ambassadors' Box were both thronged. Everyone felt that the destinies of our country and its Empire, and those of the whole world, were at stake, and that the House was about to be invited to support a decision that would preserve the honour of our race, or one which, if rejected, would destroy it. The attitude of the Government had not yet been made clear. Sir Edward Grey's statement would call for an answer from the House, which alone could give the Government strength to proceed to extremities. The atmosphere of the Chamber was electric. Memories of former tragedies and triumphs must have flashed across the minds of some of the spectators. How could it be otherwise? The point at which the House pronounced its decision for war was at the conclusion of the following sentence, when thundering cheers, long sustained, showed the loyalty of Parliament to the noblest traditions, as well as the best interests, of the British people:

“My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coast of France, we could not stand aside and see this

  ― 372 ―
going on practically within the sight of our own eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately— doing nothing.”

When the neutrality of Belgium was in discussion before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Mr. Gladstone asked whether this country “would quietly stand by” and witness the perpetration of the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become “participator in the sin.” Even in the view of that veteran peace-loving statesman, quietly standing by in the presence of crimes against the law of nations might be neutrality amounting to a participation in sin.

It is only now that our Ministry deems it necessary to take a decided step towards enforcing national economy in food. What will be done may be quite judicious, but how can economy be enforced if in millions of households skill in the practice of economy —which means getting the most nourishment out of food, and making it go the farthest in supplying moderate wants—is an unknown art? If the troubles ahead of us make our housewives really more thrifty and clever in dealing with larder problems—in other words, compel our rulers to provide girls with a sensible education before they start keeping house—one great blessing will come out of our afflictions.