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On February 15 the vote for the Civil Services and Revenue Departments was passed in Committee of Supply. On the report of this vote on February 21, the Government had to face a revolt on the part of their supporters in connexion with a proposal to include 75 per cent. of the War Bonus of Civil Servants as a permanent part of their pensions. The opinion held by many of the supporters of the Government was that the professions of a desire for economy could not be reconciled with the proposals made in this matter. Lord Eustace Percy pointed out, for example, that the bargain made with the Civil Service would make a difference of 360,0001. in the supplementary estimates. Sir Donald Maclean considered that the Government were doing an injustice to the taxpayers of the country, and urged that the Treasury should take advantage of their power under the statute to review the whole situation. Sir F. Banbury inquired if the present was a proper time to be over-generous to anybody. Why pick out the present time, he asked, when they had appointed a Committee to reduce expenditure, and everybody was groaning under the burden of taxation, to stretch a point and do something they were not pledged to do by contract, implied or otherwise ?
In reply, Mr. Hilton Young pointed out that the maximum pension a person could get, who had served the State well for forty years, included only three-eighths of the bonus, but this declaration did not placate his critics. Only the Labour Party promised support, Mr. Walsh contending that the Civil Servants had the same right as other employees to expect consideration owing to the increased cost of living. Both he and Colonel Wedgwood promised the Government the support of their Party. Lord Wolmer observed that it was only when the Government embarked upon extravagance that they could count on the support of the Labour Party. What right bad the Government, he asked, to tax the agricultural labourer, who had only 358. a week, and when he retired got no pension, in order to give a pension of over 21. a reek to a man who had a wage of 888. a week? Following further criticism, Mr. Hilton Young announced that he would undertake that, before any further estimates were introduced in the House of Commons dealing with these pensions, he would investigate the possibility of a scheme for making pensions vary in accordance with the cost of living by periodical reassessments. The debate was then adjourned until the following day, when, after further discussion, the vote was passed.
The future of the Government was discussed in a speech by Mr. Austen Chamberlain at Westminster on February 21, when he made a powerful appeal to his supporters of the Unionist Party for co-operation with the National Liberals at the next General Election. He pointed out that, for the first time in our political history, a considerable majority of the electors were unattached by tradition, study, or conviction to any of the great parties, and a new attack was being launched against the very basis of our society and the economic system upon which our prosperity depended. In these changed conditions, he said, it was the duty of Unionists to maintain our great imperial and foreign interests, and at home to defend Unionist principles, and to secure those economies in administration and that reduction in expenditure which our financial position demanded, in order that we might re-assume our great place in the economic, industrial, commercial, and financial system of the world. He did not contemplate a coupon election, nor did the Prime Minister and himself contemplate that they would issue a joint election address, but there would be an understanding between them as to what they wanted to do and as to the method by which it should be accomplished.
Lord Birkenhead, speaking two days later, also warned the Unionist Party that there was not the slightest chance in existing circumstances of an Independent Unionist Government obtaining an adequate working majority in the country. He said that all the nations of Europe, with their instabilities and uncertainties, had felt that in Great Britain at least there was a stable Government. It was said that the time had come to dissolve the Coalition, and that the Conservative Party should make an independent appeal to the electors. He took the view that this was a counsel of insanity, and so far as he knew there was no responsible Unionist leader in the Government or out of it who took a different view. There was not the least hope of an Independent Unionist Government obtaining an adequate working majority in this country. There was no other formidable enemy to their cause than Labour and Socialism, and there was no other means by which they could defeat the Unionists than if, at that moment, the Unionists split and dissipated themselves. He put to Mr. Clynes and Mr. Henderson a plain question, which he invited them to answer at the earliest opportunity. Were they, or were they not, in favour of the socialisation of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange ? Unless this disunion, which had recently manifested itself in one branch of the Coalition, developed to such an extent as to drive from the Coalition their Liberal colleagues, he would continue to give them his support because he thought that they were indispensable allies. If, on the other hand, a new situation was created, if the growing humiliations, the threats of abstentions and of hostility drove them from the Coalition, he would himself carefully consider where, as an individual, he stood, but if the Coalition Parties went together, as he was persuaded they must, for the salvation of the country, to the next election, he would speak throughout the election on behalf of all his Unionist friends.
The Irish Free State (Agreement) Bill was introduced by Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons on February 16. Although he did not seek to disguise the present dangers of the situation, he said that he looked beyond the immediate present and saw a vision of a new and resurgent Ireland, a nation indeed, and the friend of Britain. The situation, he said, was grave. Was not the best thing, therefore, to clothe the Provisional Government with lawful authority? Was it not fatal to peace, to social order and good government, to have power wielded by men who had no legal authority? A Provisional Government not sanctioned by law yet recognised by the Crown was an anomaly unprecedented in the British Empire, and its continuance for a day longer than was necessary was derogatory to Parliament, the nation, and the Crown. What wonder was it, he asked, that in the circumstances the Provisional Government should be set at defiance by the more turbulent among its followers ? Not only would the Bill clothe the Government with authority, but it would enable an election to be held in Ireland at an early date under favourable conditions, or under less unfavourable conditions. The first object to be sought at that election was a national decision upon the Treaty by the Irish people. The election would also secure an adequate constituent assembly. What if Mr. de Valera won the election ? He did not think there was any advantage in speculating upon that hypothesis, in which case the position of Southern Ireland would be one of the greatest weakness. He discounted the suggestion that there was a prospect of a coup d'état and the establishment of a Soviet Republic in Southern Ireland; such a development would ruin the Irish cause for a hundred years, but he declared his confidence that there were no people less likely to turn Bolshevist than the Irish. Further, the men at the head of the Provisional Government were not men who would sit still and suffer the fate of Kerensky.
Reviewing the situation on the frontier, he expressed the opinion that it had improved as the result of the appointment of the Liaison Commission, and the decision to hold an impartial inquiry into the Clones affair. He trusted that in the near future there would be some sort of parley between the representatives of the two Governments, and he announced that the Southern Government had definitely asked for such a meeting. Turning to the boundary question, he said there was an amendment which definitely challenged the whole position of the Government on the Treaty, and in particular on the boundary question. Nothing that was said, however, could affect the Treaty. There was only one weak point in the position of Ulster. Certain of the districts in Fermanagh and Tyrone might be districts in which a majority of the inhabitants would prefer to join the Irish Free State. If that were true the arguments which protected the freedom of Protestant Ulster lost their application to those districts. He said that if Britain saw Ulster maltreated or mutilated by the Boundary Commission, so that she was no longer an Irish economic entity, Britain would be bound to consider her whole economic and financial position. Not only would Britain defend every inch of Ulster's soil under the Treaty as if it were Kent, but she would be committed to take special measures to secure that Ulster was not ruined by her loyalty to Britain.
Captain Charles Craig, who moved an amendment declining to proceed with the Bill until a pledge was forthcoming that the boundary question should be eliminated from the agreement, or that any decision of the Boundary Commission should only take effect after the approval of the Northern Parliament, contended that Ulster was led to believe that the boundary fixed by the 1920 Act was the last word on the subject. The only hope of a successful issue was to submit the question to a tribunal of two representatives, who should report to the respective heads of the two Governments.
The debate ran into two days. Mr. Moles declared that the Prime Minister was personally and directly responsible for the difficulties that had arisen. The Prime Minister immediately denied that there had been any dubiety in the attitude of the Government, but his explanation did not satisfy Mr. Moles. Sir James Craig, he said, asserted that he had positive assurances from the Ministers co-operating with the Prime Minister that what was meant was only a slight rectification of frontier, and that Mr. Collins had said that he had assurances from the Prime Minister that large areas were involved. Mr. Lloyd George immediately retorted that he had made no such statement, and his denial was afterwards confirmed by Mr. Chamberlain. Sir John Butcher suggested that the Government should approach Mr. Collins and explain that their intention was only to have small adjustments of the frontier of Ulster, that they were pledged to do nothing further, and ask his assistance in averting a great danger which threatened Ireland and this country. Lord Hugh Cecil was also opposed to the inclusion of the boundary clause and condemned the action of the Unionist leaders. Mr. Asquith urged the passing of the Bill into law with the least possible delay, and Mr. Thomas announced that the Labour Party would vote with the Government.
Mr. Chamberlain then took up the challenge which had been thrown down, and declared that he was under no misapprehension as to the responsibility he took and the risks he ran when he signed the Treaty. He staked his whole political life and reputation, and also, what was more to him, the respect of his friends and colleagues. A leader owed great obligations to his supporters, and first and foremost he owed to them courage and truth. Incidentally he mentioned that he had heard from Mr. Collins that he had secured the release of fortytwo of the kidnapped citizens. Turning to the question of the boundaries, he said that the decision they wished the House to make was a decision in favour of the Treaty as it stood and with the Boundary Commission. Their interpretation of the document was not conclusive; it rested with the Commission; and their only share in regard to the Commission was that they would be called upon to appoint the chairman. They would secure some man of high standing, of unimpeachable reputation, of known sagacity-one who would command the confidence of all parties.
The amendment, which had been moved to the Bill, sought to delay the passing of the Act until an undertaking had been forthcoming that the boundary clause would not be proceeded with. This amendment was, however, eventually defeated by 302 votes against 60.
The third Report of the Geddes Committee was issued on February 24. It recommended a number of economies over and above those embodied in the first two Reports. As regards Colonial administration, provision for free passages for overseas settlement was to be 500,0001. instead of 750,0001. Assistance to African Dependencies was to be limited to the most urgent requirements. Grant in aid to Tanganyika was to be reduced from 800,0001. to 600,0001. The Middle-Eastern services were to be reduced by 3,000,0001.
As regards legal services, a reduction of 61,0001. could be made in the office of the Public Trustee, and the provision of 20,0001. for divorce interventions by the King's Proctor could be reduced to 12,0001. Dealing with the Post Office, the Report recommended a regular and systematic check of traffic and staff. The cost of the indoor force could be reduced by 150,0001., and the outdoor force by 200,0001. The cost of telegraph and telephone staff could be reduced by 40,0001. A 5 per cent. increase was recommended in the scale of judicial fees in the House of Lords, and in the fees for private Bills. The Report also recommended the abandonment of the proposed provision for erection of further inland wireless stations. Fresh economies were suggested on public works, on the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service, and on stationery and printing. Finally, the Report pointed out that the State employed directly about 891,000 persons, and to a very large extent paid the salaries of 211,000 teachers and 60,000 police. The total cost as at September, 1921, was 257,000,0001., of which 227,000,0007, was drawn from the National Exchequer. The total of the corresponding salaries before the war was 90,000,0001., and a thorough investigation was suggested.
A discussion of the Geddes Report took place in the House of Commons on a motion for the adjournment of the House on March 1. The Chancellor of the Exchequer took the opportunity to announce the reductions in national expenditure which the Government was prepared to make. The Geddes Committee recommended in all a reduction of 86,000,0001., but the Government could only see their way to adopt the suggestions to the extent of 64,000,0001. He pointed out that, whereas the Opposition a few months ago were denouncing the Govern