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Unemployed Marchers Petition 

November 11, 1936 — House of Commons, UK Parliament, London, UK


I rise only to make a brief appeal to the Prime Minister. As far as the Jarrow marchers are concerned, and also in regard to these other marchers, their object has been to be heard at the Bar of this House. It is true that that would be a new thing and that a precedent would be created, but we are in fact in a new situation. I admit that the Prime Minister or the appropriate Minister met the Jarrow Town Council when we asked him to do so, and we had no grievance against the Government on that ground, but the Jarrow marchers and the Jarrow Town Council deliberately asked for their petition to come before this House because they wanted to appeal to this House, because literally they had tried everything, every kind and sort of constitutional procedure, and there was no point in going through it all again, always to be met with a blank wall and the remark of the President of the Board of Trade that we must work out our own salvation. So we took him at his word and came to the only possible place where finally the grievances of the subject must be heard.

I suggest to the Prime Minister that, far from taking in any way from the dignity of this House or of the democratic representatives in this House by asking to be heard at the Bar of the House, the petition of these men and women enhances the dignity of the individual Members of this House. We say that there must be parties, that there are such things as Cabinets, and that Executives must rule, and all that, but when it comes to the final stage, the individual Member cannot hand over all his public responsibility to the Government and to the Executive which, for the time being and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, he is anxious to stand by. I suggest that the case of these marchers is just that hundredth case and that this House might very well permit itself to hear the actual statement of these men before the Bar. After all, when it is a matter of life and death in the Law Courts of this country, the very fullest kind of appeals are allowed to be made. When it is a matter of life and death every point is pressed that a man should be heard in his own defence, and I would ask the Prime Minister whether it is not possible to stretch a point in this case, because, quite literally, it is a matter of life and death when the infantile mortality of Jarrow is double and more than double what it is in the rest of the country.

It is insufficient to say that their representatives can be heard in this House. As the hon. Member for Gorbals [Mr. Buchanan] has said, with all the good will in the world there are things which we cannot understand. As I marched down that road with those men, all of whom I knew well, whom I had worked with in my own constituency, as I marched with them hour after hour, just talking — I come from the working class myself, and my father was unemployed, but I have never known what it was to miss a meal that I wanted — it was just as we walked and talked so intimately that I began to understand something of what it meant, day after day after day, to get up and not know what you were going to do, and never have a copper in your pocket for anything. I mean that it was a revelation to me, and no amount of investigation, and going down for a week, and no amount of talking with these men in the ordinary political sense would have taught me so much.  Is this House quite sure that it can dispense with that kind of direct experience? The Prime Minister has made some very wonderful speeches about democracy, both in this House and out of it, but should there not be a richness about democracy that autocracies and totalitarian States do not know? Should it not be a flexible thing, a human thing? The Prime Minister has often spoken in this House of this country being a family, but in any family would it be the weakest who could not go to the head of the household and be heard direct?

It seems to me that we are making rather a fetish of precedent. It is so easy, where people want to, to get away from precedent. Here we have people who feel, and who have every right to feel, not only that they are up against the Government, but that behind the Government there are very sinister forces at work. We have seen it in the iron and steel trade. We do not feel that this House understands the position. We feel that there are things to be said and that before these Regulations come into force on 17th November Members of the House should know what they are going to mean. They ought to know. They ought to be willing to know what the results of their handiwork will be, and they cannot hear it from us. I do not know how a woman in a back street brings up three children on an unemployed income, and if I do not know you do not know either. The only way to get to know is to hear these men and women at the Bar of the House.



Source: Hansard, House of Commons Debates, Vol. 317.