THE RIGHT TO ASK A QUESTION
By Michael de la Sedogere
FAR too little attention has been
paid to the question of the Government's refusal to answer questions in Parliament on the nationalised industries. It is true that a compromise has been reached, according to which the Speaker's judgment will be invoked as to whether any particular question should be answered, but this is no more than a grudging concession.
The importance of the matter lies, of course, in its relevance to the
whole question of democratic procedure at the present time. The Government is hard at work pretending that it is guarding and improving democracy, and so we get debates on the reform of the Lords, the abolition of the University vote and the use of cars at elec. tions. All this, in fact, if it is not deliberately meant to improve the position of the party in power, is but dealing with the fringes of the real problem. When it comes to defending real democratic rights, the Government is as hard and relentless as nails.
The right to ask questions in the House of responsible Ministers has grown up, like so much else in our political way of life, organically. It has grown up through free men and women constantly adjusting themselves and their liberties to changing conditions. As the technique of government grew more complex and secret, members felt the need of convenient powers to watch ever more jealously what might be going on behind the scenes. And in this way perhaps the most original and useful of our defences of liberty grew into a custom so deeply rooted that no one, short of a Communist government, could challenge it.
A Patent Evasion of the Issue
NOW the point to note carefully
is this. Had this custom not developed with the years, and had some less effective alternative such as the right to interpellate Ministers on major issues grown up instead, any suggestion brought forward to-day that Ministers should be ready to answer daily whatever questions might be put to them by the people's representatives would be promptly turned down as utterer extravagant and totally incompatible with the proper discharge of public
business. It must, in fact, be an enormous bore as well as a heavy expense for the heavy research involved. Yet these disadvantages count as nothing in comparison with the power this custom gives of checking administrative behaviour and defending the injured rights of any citizen. The mere publicity accorded to the suggestion of abuse is alone a vital part of this country's real working democracy.
To-day Parliament has decided to hand over to the State vast industrial enterprises intimately affecting both the well-being of the country as a whole and the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of peoples. This may or may not be a good thing. but at least it is clear that if our representatives possess the right, as a matter of our democratic procedure, to question Ministers on policy and the running of their departments. they should a fortiori possess the right to keep a check in the same way on those great economic enterprises the ownership and responsibility for which now lies with the State. The excuse that these industries are autonomously run by Boards, and not by responsible Ministers, is complete tommy-rot and not worth the paper on which it is written. The Government's responsibility for nationalised industries is a fact which no details of ways and means of discharging it can hide from the ordinary citizen. The plain fact is that the Government is denying a vital liberty, just as it would have denied the right to ask questions at all were it not for a precedent so well established as to be unchallengable.
Is the Opposition Pulling its Punches?
HERE is a vitally important issue " which the Opposition should get its teeth into and hang on to, as a terrier with a bone. It is an issue that can be put squarely before the electorate, and, as such, earn far greater respect than the litany of complaints which form the substance of Opposition speeches in the country when every intelligent person realises perfectly well that the economic position of our country is such as to pose problems which no Government in the world could handle to the general satisfaction, One fears. alas, that the Opposi. tion, having had such a long taste of the sweets of office in these technocratic days, is pulling its
punches when it becomes a question of defending We rights of the legislature at the expense of the executive. No more than the Labour Government would a Tory Government relish having to face a bombardment of questions on State industries as it has had to on political matters.
These vested interests of politicians who hold. or have held, office stand four-square in the way of any democratic reforms which give real meaning to liberty as opposed to that continuous process of reducing intelligent men and women to easily countable heads which in these days passes for democracy.
The Struggle that Ought to Make the News
nN another page of this issue '""' Douglas Hyde interprets the great struggle at present developing in Czechoslovakia and Hungary between the Church and Communism, with the eyes of one who can read as the Communist himself reads and with the keen interest which a convert to the Faith must have in praying and working for the defeat of the subtle and powerful forces of materialism.
What he has to say is of the first importance because he knows exactly what the Communists are looking for, what they approve of and what
they dread. Thus the report that Gottwald went straight from the Presidential election to the Cathedral of Prague to attend a service of thanksgiving, presided over by the Archbishop, struck him at once as a notable Communist success, just as the firm stand of the Cardinal of Budapest and of Archbishop Beran himself in the schools questions revealed to him how far the regimes in both countries still needed to progress before liberty was well and truly crushed. In this struggle the fate of the Church is quite simply and clearly the late of liberty, civilisation and what the Western world is fighting for. The Catholic Church, as so often before in history, stands alone in the midst of the enemy, and she does this not because she claims to be democratic or liberal in the political sense of these words—she does not—but because spiritual liberty is of the essence, the very make-up, of true religion. And two hundred years of modern history have made it self-evident that spiritual liberty —the rights of the God-created human person—is the only possible basis for a working philosophic liberalism and political democracy. How immensely far people in general are from appreciating this truth is shown by the continuing attacks on a country like Spain. 1 here the self-same Catholicity which has for more than ten years preserved spiritual liberty as against anarchy and totalitarianism is itself dubbed totalitarian or Fascist,—even by some Catholics themselves. Yet the persistent Catholic refusal to compromise on this inner core of any human freedom, whatever else may have temporarily to be surrendered. is the one remaining hope of the world to-day. If our politicians and our Press knew their business and possessed any real historic insight, this many. fronted and many-phased fight by Catholic Christianity for the defence of spiritual liberty would be our first political concern and the obvious matter for the newspaper headlines.
The Case of a Schoolboy C.O.
SOME sections 9f the Press,
including Peace News, have rightly given publicity to the case of a schoolboy who has been sent to a Borstal institution for refusing to register for conscription. It appears from the testimony of his Headmaster and others that the boy has taken this step for sound and serious reasons and that it is consistent with his previous attitude towards war.
In so far as this case is accurately reported, it seems a most extraordinary case of official stupidity to say the least. That a boy should be " reformed " for adopting a conscientious attitude towards so anxious a question constitutes an astonishing reversal of commonsense and indeed spiritual values. A boy who, for serious reasons, can stand Out against the common view that we must arm again in order to make yet another attempt to win peace by force may indeed need special treatment, but such treatment, if the State is not to make a fool of itself, should be about as far removed from the " reforma tory " as possible. The need for the reformatory is very much on the other foot !
We might do well to meditate these days on the state of affairs which demands indulgence • for a more ruthless criminality than we have known for many years, avbich enables 11 Soviet " fellow-traveller" in the House to talk about Spain's " murderous regime," and yet which sends a thoughtful and conscientious boy to Borstal to be licked into orthodox shape.