F.E. Smith

F.E. Smith on ‘The Influence of the House of Commons

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. IV, no. 1, June 1913, pp. 17-18

Sir Robert Hudson1 was the Prior, and the topic was ‘The Influence of the House of Commons’. Sir Robert paid a graceful tribute to the guest, touching on his rapid distinction both at the Bar and in the House of Commons, and said wittily Mr. Smith had so impressed his personality upon the public in a few short years that, if anyone of a frugal turn of mind desired to save in a telegraphic message to him, the postal officials would accept ‘F.E.’ for the full name.

Mr. Smith made a brilliant speech, entirely worthy of his reputation. The more interesting in that respect because, as he himself said, he spoke under restraint, and was unable to indulge in Party philippics. The Club does not recognise Party politics, and therefore, in treating of the House of Commons, he was bound to do so from an impartial standpoint, with sly hits at both sides of the House.

Mr. Smith was quite serious in the view that, under the influence of our present Party system, independent politicians, who could not accept the whole programme of one or the other Party, stood no chance either in the constituencies or in the House of Commons. He instanced the cases of Mr Hilaire Belloc and Mr. Harold Cox, men of rare intellectual capacity, who had greatly impressed the House of Commons, but found their position practically untenable in the existing conditions. Mr. Smith put it that there might be Liberals on the one hand who had no desire for the grant of Home Rule to Ireland, Conservatives on the other who had as little enthusiasm for Tariff Reform. They were bound, however, if they valued the other things more than the one thing, to fall into line and accept the Whips of the Government or the Opposition. The right hon. gentleman held also that the closure system, for which he did not blame one Party in particular, tended to rob the House of Commons of interest. Members of Parliament knew at what hour divisions would take place, and consequently they became indifferent to attendance at other times, and the Chamber was often almost deserted except by those who were waiting to catch the Speaker’s eye.

Mr. Smith deliberately affected an air of pleasantry in most of his observations, and asked at the close that they should not be recorded against him, as he had endeavoured to present not only his own particular views, but those of the gentlemen who differed from him.

There was an animated discussion in which Messrs. E. Wild, D. T. Holmes, M.P., Sir Courtenay Ilbert, and others took part. Mr. Holmes contended that the House of Commons was never so absorbing in its attraction for the public as to-day. But he spoke with all the freshness of a new Member.

1 Sir Robert Arundell Hudson GBE (1864-1927). Assistant- then Secretary of the National Liberal Federation, Kt 1906. He m. 1st Ada Hammerton, d. of Friar John Hammerton, 2nd Mary, the widow of Friar Lord Northcliffe.