Skip to main content

The Cromwell Statue

Volume 84: debated on Thursday 21 June 1900

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster without the consent of Parliament; and to ask the Prime Minister whether his attention has been called to a speech of the First Commissioner of Works in the House of Commons, on 23rd February, †in which he laid down as a doctrine of Constitutional Law, that in the case of the erection of a statue upon which no public-money is spent, the First Commissioner of Works is under no obligation to consult Parliament as to the acceptance of the gift or as to a site; and, if so, does

† See The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. lxxix., p. 956.
the doctrine hold good even when the opinion of Parliament has been expressed against the proposed statue or site. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for bringing to your notice a matter which I know is considered by many people to be past and done with. But there are circumstances resulting from it which, in my opinion, are very far from being past and done with. Your Lordships will observe that I have prefaced my question by asking to be allowed to call attention to the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster without the consent of Parliament. I have done so for the following reasons:—First, it is only the facts in connection with this statue which render intelligible the point on which I am going to ask the Prime Minister for enlightenment; and second, I am anxious to take this opportunity of explaining why I have not followed up the Motion I carried in your Lordships' House in October last by a further Motion.* I am aware that the effect of the division I took on that occasion was discounted by the press and only too plainly by Her Majesty's Government, and, perhaps, with your Lordships' permission, while I am referring to this point I may be allowed to allude to what may be considered a personal matter. I have a painful recollection that on the occasion referred to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack characterised the Motion I brought forward as not calculated to add to the dignity of your Lordships' House; but I hope your Lordships will believe that it was very far from my intention to do anything disrespectful. The circumstances were peculiar. It was only when the pedestal on which the Cromwell statue now stands reared itself into view that any one realised the intention of Her Majesty's Government, and petitions came in from all parts of the country. I have a list in my hand of 274 petitions which, I believe, have been presented to Her Majesty's Government protesting against the erection of this statue. The only opportunity I had of protesting was by putting down a motion. Parliament was about to adjourn, and I put down my motion with the sole object of getting Her Majesty's Government to consent to defer the putting up of the statue
* See Vol. lxxvii., page 749.
until the re-assembling of Parliament in the coming year, when both Houses of Parliament would have an opportunity of expressing their feelings and their opinion on the matter. Her Majesty's Government decided to ignore the division that was taken in this House, and on a dark November morning the statue of the great Protector was stealthily unveiled by a workman representing, I presume, the First Commissioner of Works, and without one word of panegyric. It is true that on the same evening a demonstration was held to celebrate this unique and interesting ceremony. I am informed that the anonymous donor of the statue addressed the meeting, but, of course, I have no authority to say so. I eagerly scanned the names of those present on the platform in the expectation of finding the name of the First Commissioner of Works, if not that of the Prime Minister himself. It is strange that not one single member of Her Majesty's Government was present, and I think it is a significant fact that of the party that supports Her Majesty's Government the names of only two members were on the list—one a Unionist Peer, and the other a Conservative Member of the House of Commons who himself had signed a petition protesting against the erection of this statue without the previous consent of Parliament. I fully intended to have drawn your Lordships' attention to this singular proceeding before, but at the time I thought of doing so the very serious aspect of affairs in South Africa led me to think that it would not be convenient to raise the question. Unfortunately, Mr. Swift MacNeill did not share that opinion, and he brought the matter forward in the House of Commons by moving an Amendment on the Vote for the maintenance of the Royal Palaces.* I regret very much that episode, but I think it is worthy of note that the matter was brought forward wholly unexpectedly, with the result that Her Majesty's Government got a very large majority, but in the minority were many Members of the House of Commons who usually support the Government. Thereupon I put down the question on the Paper, which I should have asked the Prime Minister some weeks ago had I not unfortunately been
* 23rd February, 1900. See The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. lxxix., page 949.
laid up, and unable to attend your Lordships' House. On the occasion of the debate referred to, the First Commissioner of Works stated that it had never been the practice of his Department, when a statue was paid for by public or private subscription and not out of public funds, to consult Parliament. That claim, my Lords, does not square with the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Churchill, who represented Her Majesty's Government when I brought my motion before the House in October last. Lord Churchill said:—
"The understanding on which the work [the statue] was to be executed was that a suitable site, satisfactory to the donor and to Parliament, should be given by the Government."
I was astonished at that statement, and I asked the noble Lord why Her Majesty's Government, in face of that understanding, did not think it necessary to consult Parliament, and the noble Lord replied that the terms were arranged by the late First Commissioner of Works and not by Mr. Akers-Douglas. The fact that Mr. Herbert Gladstone arranged and Mr. Akers-Douglas accepted those terms distinctly negatives his claim that the First Commissioner can deal with all such matters proprio motu without consulting Parliament. The claim of the First Commissioner of Works, reduced to its logical conclusion, amounts to this— that the First Commissioner of Works has the right to give a site and erect a statue in any of the Royal palaces, without consulting Parliament, to any obscure or undeserving person which some generous person might be willing to give. Suppose some enthusiastic pro-Boer offered a statue of Mr. Kruger—the First Commissioner of Works, according to this doctrine, is perfectly entitled to give a site, and your Lordships would not be allowed to say a word. Suppose that somebody presented a statue of Guy Fawkes—in the same way Parliament would have no voice in the matter. There is one further point upon which I desire the opinion of the Prime Minister. Assuming that it is no part of the duties of the First Commissioner of Works to consult Parliament in these matters, but that, as a fact, Parliament has expressed an opinion, is the First Commissioner of Works entitled to disregard that opinion, for that is exactly what the First Commissioner has done in this case? On June 17th, 1895, the House of Commons decided, by a majority of 137, that they would not erect a statue to Oliver Cromwell.* This was during Lord Rosebery's Administration. It is true that, technically speaking, the decision of the House was against a reduction of £500, but the tenor of the debate, and, more especially, the tenor of the speech of Mr. Balfour, who led the Opposition, shows conclusively that the House voted against any statue at all to Oliver Cromwell; and I cannot believe that anyone who has read or who heard that debate can seriously attempt to put aside the decision of the House on the plea of so trumpery a technicality. Four days after the 17th of June, Lord Rosebery's Government fell. During those four days the anonymous donor came forward and offered to Lord Rosebery, as head of the Government, a statue which Lord Rosebery, as head of the Government, accepted. He did that in the teeth of the division in the House of Commons against a statue of Cromwell, and it seems to me that this action was a cynical defiance of the wishes of Parliament without parallel, probably, since the days of Cromwell himself. I hope I have not detained your Lordships too long, but I feel strongly on this subject. I believe that the question which I now put to the Prime Minister is one involving a constitutional point of considerable importance. If the noble Marquess holds that the doctrine which the First Commissioner of Works has laid down is correct, that the First Commissioner is legally clothed with this almost papal authority, then, I submit, the sooner his powers are reduced to the level of those of other members of the Government the better for the appearance of the Palace of Westminster and the dignity of our monarchical Constitution.

My Lords, my noble friend has led us so deep into the mysteries of constitutional law that I feel considerable misgiving in addressing myself to a matter which really ought to be dealt with by the legal Members of the House. But if I may be allowed to confine myself to answering the question put to me, I will try to do it to the best of my ability. I am asked whether my attention has been called to a speech of the First Commissioner of

* See The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. xxxiv., page 1341.
Works, in which he laid down, as a doctrine of constitutional law, that in the case of the erection of a statue upon which no public money is spent the First Commissioner of Works is under no obligation to consult Parliament as to the acceptance of the gift or the character of the site. Well, my Lords, suppose the converse were laid down, that the First Commissioner of Works must consult Parliament as to every statue which is to be erected throughout the country upon any site over which he has control. I think that is a proposition which will not be found in any of those works on Constitutional law to which I have no doubt my noble friend has referred himself. When I was taught constitutional law, I imagined that the relations of the Executive to Parliament were to be these—not that the Executive had to come to Parliament for leave to act under its executive powers, but that, when the Executive Government had acted in the discharge of its executive powers and had in the view of Parliament committed an error in so doing, the remedy of Parliament was to censure the Minister and to turn him and his colleagues out of office. I believe that to be the sound constitutional doctrine, and I think that the already over-burdened House of Commons would be still more terribly burdened if everything a Minister proposed to do in his executive capacity was subject to debate by Parliament before he exercised his power. I do not think Oliver Cromwell himself would have had any hesitation on this point, and I think even less violent politicians than Cromwell would have protested very strongly against the idea that the powers of the Executive Government are to be exercised by Parliament. Those powers are to be exercised subject to the judgment of and exposed to the review of Parliament. Turning from these grave matters to the smaller details, I will proceed to the next part of the question. I am asked, does this doctrine hold good even when the opinion of Parliament has been expressed against the proposed statue or site? The opinion of Parliament was not expressed against the proposed statue; it was expressed in support of the much more commonplace view, that Parliament declined to vote the money—an attitude which Parliament very frequently takes up, and an attitude which is obviously within its most primary and elementary constitutional powers. My noble friend talks of this as, I think, a piece of trumpery pettifogging. The Vote was refused by a large majority, and therefore my noble friend says Parliament has pledged itself to the doctrine that the statue is not to be erected, even though no public money is required. There, again, I think my noble friend will find it very difficult to summon to the support of that doctrine those lights of learning of which this House is proud. The matter for us is very simple. It is not so much as a matter of constitutional law that the matter appeals to me; what appeals more to my sympathy is the doctrine of continuity of policy. The late First Commissioner of Works undertook to give a site and to accept a statue, and on the faith of that undertaking certain monies were expended by a private individual whose name we shall never know. It seems to me not a matter of constitutional law but of common honesty that when the First Commissioner of Works was changed, his successor should hold himself bound by the promise which his predecessor had given, and should not take advantage of the change, especially when money had been expended by the person to whom the promise was given. It would be impossible to conduct business with the vast number of persons who have to consent to contracts with Her Majesty's Government on matters of very much more importance than this, if the doctrine was once laid down that a change of Government released the incoming Government from all that the former Government had promised. I do not think you can possibly accept such a doctrine as that. I understand that there are three questions at issue. First, ought the money of Parliament to be spent on the matter at all? Secondly, if not, ought Oliver Cromwell to have had a statue at all? And, thirdly, if he ought to have had a statue, ought it to have been placed in the sunken garden to which it has now been banished? I am no adorer of Oliver Cromwell, but if I wished to hand down an unfavourable view of his policy and history I could devise no more outward and visible sign of it than to put him at the bottom of a hole. So long as the anonymous donor, whose political opinions I cannot even guess, is content with that way of honouring the particular hero whom he delights to praise, I do not see that those who belong to what I may call the side of the question to which my noble friend and I belong—to the party which is not supposed to be enthusiastically or extravagantly desirous of honouring Oliver Cromwell—need complain of the arrangement, because I do not see how any arrangement could be devised which would suit our views so satisfactorily. Having a statue, they can hardly have another. No one can lift him out of the depths to which he has been relegated, and I think foreigners will go away from the site, after studying the Statesmen whom we have honoured in the surrounding land, with the observation, "Behold the banishment that a just monarchical Government inflicts upon a rebel and a regicide!"

I would remind the House that the division against the site was taken on the morning or the prorogation, in a very thin House composed of ten Peers, and was only carried by a majority of two. No discourtesy to the noble Lord was intended by me when I pointed out that a division taken in such circumstances was not calculated to add to the dignity of this House or to the respect with which people would regard its decisions.

My Lords, I had hoped that some Peer of more importance than I can pretend to be would have intervened in this discussion. The noble Earl who opened it I think satisfied the House that a transaction had taken place that ought not to have taken place. That is the point. I quite agree, if I may take the liberty of saying so, with the noble Marquess that it is not a proper description of the matter to say it is unconstitutional. That is entirely too vague and too large a phrase to describe what occurred; but I do say, and I think everybody who has heard the temperate, concise, and effective statement of the noble Earl will have come to the conclusion, that what occurred ought not to have taken place. I cannot understand how any First Commissioner of Works can find it consistent with his duty to arrogate to himself the right to set up a statue within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster if he knew that the presence of that statue would be objectionable to the great majority of the Members of both Houses of Parliament. If the First Commissioner had such a right why was the statue unveiled in a surreptitious manner on a November night, and why was it accepted from an anonymous donor? I think it is an indignity to both Houses to accept such a statue in such a manner. Is the donor ashamed of his action? Is that the reason he wishes to preserve his anonymity? It is childish to continue to talk of the donor being anonymous when everyone knows in this House and in the street—a favourite place now to appeal to—who the anonymous donor is. He was the Prime Minister of the Crown, and his First Commissioner of Works accepted his statue. What made him so urgent? Was it because Oliver Cromwell disposed in a summary way of the House of Lords, or was it because he was enabled to quote Oliver Cromwell as a great instance to save him from that unpleasant thing, the Nonconformist conscience which objects to racing? The noble Earl—I decline to speak of him as the anonymous donor, for in the Courts of Justice we are in the habit of calling a. spade a spade—with reference to the objection of Irish representatives, said that they should not object to a statue in London when Englishmen did not object to statues in Dublin. To this I reply that I would not raise any protest against a statue of Cromwell in the streets of London provided I was not expected to subscribe to it, but it is quite a different matter to erect such a statue within the precincts of the Houses of Parliament, in which Irishmen have an interest in common with representatives of other parts of the kingdom. The point is not that a statue of Oliver Cromwell was to be put up, but that it was put up within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster upon the promise of the First Commissioner of Works, who knew at that very time it was contrary to the wish of both Houses of Parliament. I do not think that point has been met. It is not a question of its being unconstitutional; it is a question of a thing having been done which ought not to have been done, and which was done to a certain extent defiantly. The doctrine of continuity of policy which has been referred to is seldom carried out in things that are right. If Mr. Herbert Gladstone did wrong, why was Mr. Akers-Douglas. to persevere in that wrong, particularly when he could shield himself under not only the fact that this House did not approve of it, but that the House of Commons substantially disapproved of it? Anybody who reads the debate will see that the £500 was a mere bagatelle. The question discussed was, was Oliver Cromwell a person to whom a statue should be erected within the precincts of the House of Commons? Continuity of policy did not justify the First Commissioner of Works in carrying out the mistaken intention of his predecessor to erect a statue to the man who ended, not mended, the House of Lords, and ignominiously drove the Members of the House of Commons from their place of meeting. If the noble Earl who raised this question had concluded with a motion, I think he would have received considerable support in this House. I would certainly have voted for his motion.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone in this House would desire to go into a discussion as to the merits of Oliver Cromwell; no doubt there are great differences of opinion as to that great historical character. A very considerable time has elapsed since the events in which Cromwell too part occurred, and, for my part, I consider that he was one of the greatest men this country ever produced, and any honour done to him is an honour to the country to which he belonged. Further than that I will not go, nor will I say anything as to the attack made by the opponents of Cromwell. The anonymous donor is a donor whom, undoubtedly, we all know, and that being the case I feel myself justified in saying that I think the anonymous donor, even if he be a member of this House, has done nothing whatever of which he has any reason to be ashamed, but on the contrary I think that everyone who has any respect for the great men of the country ought to be obliged to him for what he has presented to the nation. The only other observation I wish to make is as to the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down. He seems to have entirely forgotten that there is a bust of Oliver Cromwell at this moment placed on a very conspicuous site within the very walls and precincts of the House of Commons, and that it was placed there since the present Government came into office. If it became a question for discussion, which is the more offensive to the opponents of Oliver Cromwell—the statue in what the noble Marquess called a "hole" outside, or the bust in a central position where it must come under the notice of every Member of the House of Commons? Upon the whole, I think that discussions of this kind about one of our greatest men do no honour to the House, and will not meet with the approbation of right thinking men in the country.

I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for the full way in which he has dealt with my question. I disagree with the noble Marquess when he says that the statue is in a hole. Though he is technically correct, it must be borne in mind that it is on a pedestal which makes it one of the most conspicuous statues in London. As to the bust in the House of Commons, to which Lord Kimberley referred, it is a question of degree. The bust inside the House is small and not conspicuous. The statue outside is conspicuously before the public; everyone can see it and everyone who sees it knows that it was placed there by a Conservative Government and will infer that it was placed there to do honour to the memory of one who no doubt was a great man. I regret, after the very strong feeling which I observe exists in your Lordships' House on this question, that I did not move a motion instead of asking a question.