Pandemonium in the House of Commons, November 1912

Author: Gordon Lucy

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Gordon Lucy


On 9 May 2002, Patrick McLoughlin, the Conservative MP for West Derbyshire, was obliged to apologise to the House of Commons for throwing a section of Hansard at Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, during the Martin Sixsmith debate. However, instead of hitting its target, the flying Hansard landed on the clerk’s table in front of the Speaker.

This incident is reminiscent of a similar episode almost 90 years earlier. On that occasion, though, the Unionist MP who hurled the Speaker’s copy of Standing Orders of the House of Commons across the floor of the Commons at Winston Churchill’s head did not miss.

During the course of 1912, the Liberal Government’s ruthless application of the guillotine to curtail debate on the Third Home Rule Bill had infuriated the Opposition. On 11 November, during a debate on an amendment to the financial provisions of the Home Rule Bill, Opposition whips noted that the House of Commons was thinly attended and saw an opportunity to get their own back. They summoned their MPs to the House by means of a coded telegram: ‘Meet me at Marble Arch at four. Susie’. Conservative MPs poured into the chamber in strength and succeeded in ambushing the Liberal Government in a snap vote that resulted in a Government defeat by 228 votes to 206.

On the basis of a precedent established 17 years earlier, there was at least the possibility, albeit a remote one, that the Government might resign. That precedent occurred after an unexpected vote in the Commons on 21 June 1895 had recommended that the salary of Lord Rosebery’s war minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (who was Liberal Prime Minister between 1905 and 1908), be reduced by £100 to punish his failure to supply the army with sufficient cordite. Rosebery could have disregarded the vote — on an essentially trivial issue — but, having grown weary of government, he chose to resign.

Arguably, the 1912 Opposition’s amendment to the financial provisions of the Home Rule Bill was a much more serious matter because it had far-reaching implications; but Asquith, who had become Campbell-Bannerman’s successor as Prime Minister in April 1908, was in no mood to resign or give Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party since November 1911, the satisfaction of a general election.

Two days after the adverse vote, Asquith shrugged it off, explaining that it did not represent the considered judgment of the House and that the vote would be rescinded. Heightened and, on the whole, unrealistic expectations dashed, Sir William Bull, the MP for Hammersmith, a committed supporter of Ulster and a gunrunning friend of Fred Crawford, denounced the Prime Minister as a traitor and subsequently refused to withdraw his unparliamentary remarks. Opposition MPs, probably spontaneously, began chanting ‘resign, resign’. Bull walked out of the chamber and calm was temporarily restored.

In the evening there was renewed disorder, this time orchestrated rather than spontaneous, with the purpose of disrupting the Government’s parliamentary timetable. As Sir Rufus Isaacs, the Attorney General, rose to speak, the Opposition benches broke into a chorus of ‘adjourn, adjourn’, preventing Isaacs from speaking. The Speaker, James Lowther, appealed in vain for order and adjourned the House for an hour to allow passions to cool.

When the House reassembled, there was further uproar and the Speaker was obliged to leave the chair after ten minutes. As Unionist MPs trooped out of the chamber, Winston Churchill taunted them by waving his handkerchief. An infuriated Ronald McNeill hurled the Speakers copy of Standing Orders of the House of Commons across the floor of the House at Winston Churchill’s head, striking him on the forehead and, according to Alexander Mackintosh’s memoirs, drawing blood. Philip Snowden’s autobiography differs by stating that Churchill was merely bruised. Only with great difficulty were Churchill’s parliamentary colleagues able to restrain him from retaliating. Robert Sanders, a Tory whip, noted in his diary that ‘it would have taken very little to make a general fight’. The next day, McNeill made a full apology, which was accepted by both Churchill and the House of Commons.

Although born in Torquay in 1861, the impulsive McNeill was of Ulster-Scots ancestry, his family having settled in County Antrim in 1676, McNeill was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. After he had graduated in history, he was called to the Bar in 1888.

However, he abandoned the law for journalism, and became assistant editor and then editor in rapid succession at the St James Gazette. Between 1906 and 1911 he was assistant editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica and contributed articles on a wide range of subjects. The first book of this ardent Unionist was Home Rule: Its History and Danger (1907).

In 1908 he contributed a chapter on socialism to The New World Order. His erudition extended to ‘The History of Australia and New Zealand’, an article he contributed to The Historian’s History of the World. His most important work was undoubtedly Ulster’s Stand for Union (1922), an invaluable account of the Ulster Unionist campaign against the Third Home Rule Bill.

McNeill was fascinated by politics. Between 1906 and 1910 he made four unsuccessful attempts to enter the House of Commons by standing in various Scottish constituencies, before being returned unopposed for East Kent (Canterbury) in 1911.

To all intents and purposes, McNeill was an Ulster Unionist representing an English constituency. Although he held very definite views on such matters as tariff reform, which had national significance, he was also closely involved with his contemporaries within Ulster Unionism in their fight to maintain the British link. He was even a member of the Provisional Government. People tended to underestimate his real ability because of his often uncompromising and vigorously expressed views. A conscientious parliamentarian, he became a skilful and patient debater, and in the 1920s he had a successful ministerial career.

In 1922, Bonar Law appointed him Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and he served in Stanley Baldwin’s administration in the same capacity. It may not be appropriate to draw attention to the fact that Baldwin, like McNeill, was an Old Harrovian.

McNeill became a member of the Privy Council in 1924, and in November 1925 was made Financial Secretary to the Treasury, his departmental chief being none other than Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of Exchequer and another Old Harrovian. Churchill and McNeill had much else in common: they were both impulsive, generous and did not harbour grudges.

In October 1927, McNeill became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and, in Austen Chamberlain’s absence, was acting Foreign Secretary. Two years later he was raised to the peerage as Lord Cushendun, taking his title from the County Antrim village in which he owned property. He died there on the 12th of October 1934.

It is said that McNeill may have been Britain’s tallest ever MP. Whether his height contributed to the accuracy of his assault on Winston Churchill is unknown.



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