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Leader's speech, Birmingham 1908

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: Birmingham


Following Campbell-Bannerman’s death, this conference was Asquith’s first as Party Leader and Prime Minister. Asquith began his speech by outlining some of the Liberal government’s achievements during its time in office. These included the broadening of the legislation on workmen’s compensation, the reduction of Britain’s national debt, and the ending of Chinese labour in South Africa. However, the focus of this speech was the importance of maintaining and defending free trade, and Asquith attacked both the basic assumptions of Tariff Reform and the formula of a scientific tariff propounded by its supporters. He then outlined the government’s three key measures for social reform. They were: the Education Bill, which would remove the denominational test and give public bodies control over public money; the Licensing Bill, which would control the traffic of liquor; and a Bill to create a non-contributory system of old age pensions, payable to individuals aged 70 or over whose weekly income was below 10 s.

A former President of the Oxford Union (the debating society of the University of Oxford) Asquith was widely regarded as an especially effective Parliamentary orator. It is interesting, therefore, that this speech seems somewhat flat. Indeed, it is suffused by a mood of defensiveness.

The opening section on the government record is framed (quite specifically) by the terms of the  opposition attack upon it - that much, or not much significant, legislation had been passed. So too are the sections on South Africa. Repeatedly Asquith moves onto an issue and begins by listing criticisms of the government. In the conclusion – as he is about to tell the audience the overall purpose of his programme – he instead tells us what the 'cynics' say about it, putting into our minds the very thought - that it is no more than a pretty scheme to attract votes - that he does not want us to have.

It may be that the verbal and physical style of the speech compensated for what appear to be technical flaws. But it may also be that Asquith’s forensic approach (on display here in his discussion of tariff reform) could succeed in the Commons in a way that could not be translated to the mass meeting. The extent to which the style of the Oxford Union and of the House of Commons shapes the conduct of British politics in general is a matter worthy of detailed investigation.

I remember very well, almost ten years ago, coming here to speak at a meeting held under the auspices of the National Liberal Federation. We were then on the eve, amid considerable party difficulties, of electing Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to be our leader in the House of Commons. I find myself tonight once more face to face with a great gathering called under the same auspices, very soon after he has passed to his rest and it is but natural and fitting at such a moment that before we do anything else, we should recall the work that he did, the example that he set, in those intervening years of strenuous and disinterested labour, by which he won for himself not only the attachment of his own party, but the respect and the confidence of the whole nation. Mr. Chairman, as the man who has been chosen to be his immediate successor, I should be failing in my duty if I did not take this opportunity of acknow­ledging that the dislocation and the delays which are inevitable in any transfer of leadership have in this instance been to a large, I believe to an unexampled, degree mitigated and indeed removed by the unselfish loyalty of my colleagues, and the unstinted good will of the party both in the House of Commons and in the country.

The Government Record

I have not come here tonight to promulgate any new pro­gramme; the aims which for the last three years we have followed, and the spirit in which we have followed them, continue to be the purposes and the inspiration of our policy. I shall not, Sir, attempt any detailed retrospect of these three years; two or three words, however, I will permit myself to say about them. In the sphere of legislation you have only got to look at the Statute book to see how much has been accomplished of useful and too-long ­delayed reform; but I am sure I need not remind you that, for reasons upon which it is not necessary for the moment to dilate, the Statute book - many and valuable as are the chapters that have been added to it - the Statute book is no adequate or trustworthy measure of that which we have attempted. Gentlemen, it is a commonplace among the less well informed of our Tory critics - and they are very numerous - to say when the Liberal party is in power it devotes all the time and the energy of Parliament to tinkering with constitutional changes to the sacrifice, or at any rate the postponement, of social reform. Well, now, looking back upon those three years, I can only recall one measure introduced by us which could be described fairly or unfairly as coming within that category, and that is a measure of which my colleagues and I are not in the least degree ashamed - or of the time and the labour which were unavailingly expended on the Bill for the abolition of plural voting, which was contemptuously rejected on its second reading by the House of Lords. This was a Bill, I say, embodying a reform in our opinion not only urgent, but indispensable, if the object of our electoral system is, as it ought to be, to provide a true and not a distorted reflection of the genuine opinion of the constituencies of the country.

Social Reform

But, ladies and gentlemen, as a matter of fact, as the Statute book shows, and will continue to show, our main energies have been during these three years to measures of social reform. I will give you two or three illustrations. Workmen’s compensation; we have admitted to the benefit of the law millions of workpeople who under the legislation of the late Government were excluded from it. And small-holdings; we have for the first time set up a really practical machinery for bringing within the reach of those who demand it - and there are many in all parts of the country - the opportunity of acquiring and of working small-holdings for them­selves. And criminal appeal; we have obliterated a blot - for it was a blot - upon our judicial system by giving to everyone con­victed of crime the same opportunity which a person mulcted for damages in a civil case has always had of having his case reheard and his sentence reviewed. And this year, in the case of old age pensions, we continue the same work upon the same lines. Why do I mention these things? Ladies and gentlemen, these are all things about which the Tories have been talking, and preaching, and gesticulating, and perorating for years. We have carried them into law.

Administration - Finance

And if I may say one word about the other sphere, the equally important sphere of administration, I will take only two illustrations. First of all, I will venture to take that with which I myself have been personally associated - the domain of finance. What have we been doing there? Paying off the liabilities incurred by pre­decessors. We have brought back the National Debt to what it was twenty years ago; we have reduced and we are reducing the taxes upon tea and sugar - necessaries of life; we have made the income-tax at the same time more equitable and more productive. In that way I claim for us, that without deviating one hair’s breadth from the principles of Free Trade, we have set free the finances and have re-established the credit of this country to a degree which will make it able to meet any legitimate calls - and such calls will be many - which are made upon it for the exigencies of social reform.

South African Policy

The other illustration I will take is derived from a totally different sphere - I refer to our policy in South Africa. You will remember - well, every politician in this hall remembers - the con­fident predictions made when we came into office, that what with our unhappy pledges on Chinese labour, and what with our rash policy and plea of immediate autonomy, our ship was certain, sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, either to founder among the shoals, or be shot among the rocks of repatriation of the Chinese. It was said to be midsummer madness. It would lead to irreplaceable shortness in the labour needed for the mines, and cause in South Africa financial and industrial collapse, and here in England and in Scotland widespread ruin among innocent widows and orphans - those innocent widows and orphans whose little all at that time was largely invested in the faith of the continuance of Chinese labour, but since that time appears to have been shifted. How arguments repeat themselves! As to self-government, the notion of placing power in the hands of the unreconciled, irreconcilable enemies of this country was only worthy of faddists and fanatics, who were prepared to contemplate the permanent estrangement of the two races and the ultimate loss of South Africa to the Empire. How does it all look after twelve months of actual experience? The Chinese are going, before many months are over the last of them will have re-embarked for his native shore, but the mines are prosperous, the labour supply is abundant and increasing, and the output of gold is larger than it ever was at any time. And as regards the constitutional question in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, you have two Ministries in power recruited largely, indeed mainly, from those who only a few years ago were bearing arms against us in the field, and whose loyalty no one now ventures to impeach, under whose wise and statesmanlike rule racial divi­sions are rapidly being obliterated, and a way is being paved for the natural evolution of parties on ordinary lines. Never in the whole history of our Empire has the policy of Liberalism been more rapidly and more completely vindicated by our party.

Tariff Reform

But, gentlemen, I am not going to speak of the past, for you will naturally expect me, and it is my duty, to say something both of the present and of the future. Before I sit down I shall say a word or two on the legislation which is now before the House of Commons. But before I do that I want, if I may, to recall you for a few moments to the issue raised here in this city five years ago, which for three years dominated public interest and public controversy, and which some people - I myself was never one - believed to have been settled for a generation by the election of 1906. Gentlemen, what is called Tariff Reform is in these days not much talked about in the House of Commons. We have every Session one full dress debate which, I am afraid, to be absolutely faithful, I must say cuts a very sorry figure. It is not much written about in the Press, but in the constituencies it is the object, never forget, of an unceasing and a ceaseless propaganda. In my opinion, it is every whit as necessary now as it was five or as it was three years ago, that the case for Free Trade should be constantly presented to our fellow countrymen, not only in its broad and general aspects, but in its application to particular industries and particular districts, and with special reference to the chameleon colourings, to the ever-shifting variations of the fallacies which are always at the service of the cause of Tariff Reform. You must have noticed during the last few months considerable change in the temper and spirits of the Tariff Reformers. While our over-sea trade was booming they were, to use a homely expression, down in the dumps. But they are beginning to recover their spirits under the stimulus of a monthly decrease in the Board of Trade returns. It is no wonder that they were a little depressed, for every assumption which they took for granted, every prediction which they hazarded five years ago, has been woefully falsified by the facts.

Some Tariff Reform Assumptions   

I do not think I am wasting your time if I recall to your recollection one or two of those assumptions. It will not take me very long. In the first place, you will remember well that they told us that one of our greatest dangers as an industrial nation was the appalling rate at which the dumping foreigner was pouring his goods, and particularly his manufactured goods, into our markets and underselling the home producer, driving British labour out of employment. Well, what are the facts? In the extraordinary development, the enormous development, during the four years that followed, of our overseas trade, the one item which showed the least elasticity was the imports into this country of foreign manufactured goods. In 1902, the foreign manufactured goods imported and retained were valued at 115 millions. In 1907, notwithstanding the enormous expansion, as I have said, that had gone on in the interval, they had only risen to 128 millions, or a rise of 11 per cent. Now come to the other - second - danger, and the most interesting and edifying contrast it presents. The second danger alleged was the relative inelasticity of our own export trade, particularly in regard, again, to manufactured goods. What are the facts? There in 1902 we exported of manufactured goods of British produce 227 millions, in 1907, 344 millions, an increase of 50 per cent. The imports of foreign manufactured goods here rose 11 per cent, our exports of British goods rose 50 per cent. Finally, I would give you one other illustration, and one other only. We were told of the growing relative importance of our colonial as compared with our foreign trade. What were the facts about that? In 1902, foreign trade was 61 per cent, in 1907 it had risen to nearly 68 per cent, and the colonial trade, which in 1902 was 38 per cent, had dwindled in 1907 to little more than 32 per cent. That is in regard to the past; but they are now fixing their hopes on the declining trade, which is common to us and to every country in the world. Well, if Free Trade stood, as it has stood, the test of abounding prosperity throughout the whole of the industrial world, still more, I venture to predict, will it stand the test of declining prosperity. For depend upon it, the less prosperous your trade and other people’s trade becomes, the more need you have here in this country for the cheap and unimpeded inflow of all materials for food and industry.

‘Not a Diamond, but a Formula’

I must, before I leave this question, ask again a question. I have often asked it before. What is the remedy which the Tariff Reformers have to offer? Are we any nearer understanding it than we were three years ago? I do not know whether you noticed  some proceedings which have been going on in Paris this week in regard to an alleged invention of a process for producing artificial diamonds. The professed discoverer of this valuable secret was allowed his time to give a concrete demonstration, of its efficacy. The time expired; the appointed hour struck; the discoverer failed to appear, and he seems to have left behind him, not on a half-sheet of notepaper, but in an envelope, not a diamond, but a formula. Yes, and the formula is a delightfully simple one. You are to take some carbon; put it in a crucible; heat it till it crystallises; then apply the requisite pressure, and, as the formula runs, ‘it remains only to take out the diamond.’ I am not surprised to read in the papers this morning that the experts to whom the practical trial of this process has been referred report that the consequences are not wholly satisfactory. After all, this formula is just as lucid, and I think just as likely to yield the desired result, as is the formula of our friends who propose to give us a sort of scientific tariff.

What is the Formula of a Scientific Tariff?

What is the formula of a scientific tariff? Take a lot of import duties; make them low enough to bring in an abounding revenue; make them at the same time high enough to exclude the unfair competition of foreign goods, and you have a scientific tariff. That is the formula of what may be called the full-blown and full‑blooded Tariff Reform. But so far we have only the formula. When we ask for the diamond - I mean the tariff - they say, as Mr. Bonar Law, one of the cleverest of them, said in the hearing of many of us in the House of Commons the other day, ‘Oh! wait till I am Chancellor of the Exchequer.’ That is the way in which history repeats itself. But there is another formula, also invented in Birmingham - an older formula, offered, I think, in this very place where we are now, less than a year ago, by Mr. Balfour. (Some cheers.) I am quite prepared to join in that tribute, because I think what has happened in our time, even in Birmingham, has done the Liberal party quite as much good.

Mr. Balfour’s Formula 

Mr. Balfour has not wholly committed himself, apparently to the Protective side of Tariff Reform, but he has a formula of his own, a very simple one, today, a lot of small duties, but they are not to be put on raw material - not, for instance, upon hops - and they are not to increase the burden on the poor, or the cost of the necessaries of life. Gentlemen, this is the mildest, most diluted version of Tariff Reform - the authorised, orthodox version, which affects to regard it as merely an instrument for raising revenue. Is it an easier one to apply in practice than the other? I do not think it is. As a method of raising revenue it is open to a crowd of objections, of which I will mention two. First of all, experience shows, our own experience in this country especially, that a network of small duties is of all fiscal expedients the most costly, the most irritating, the most obstructive to trade, and the most unproductive in the end. That is what the fine phrase of ‘broadening the basis of taxation’ comes to when you translate it into actual practice. The next objection I make is this. The wit of man has not yet succeeded, and what is more never will succeed, in evolving a workable definition of raw material. For you can never escape from this plain and simple proposition, that which is the finished product of one industry is the raw material of the next.     

What About Colonial Preference?

Well, gentlemen, there are two questions which I should still like to put to Tariff Reformers who think for the twentieth time that they have captured Mr. Balfour, and are content for the moment to adopt his formula as a shibboleth. The first is: What about Colonial Preference? You are not going to tax raw material, and you are not going to tax food, at any rate in such a way as to increase the cost of the necessaries of living of the working classes in this country. Your Colonies export nothing but raw material, and how, under those governing conditions, are you going to give them a preference? Another question, and it is equally relevant, I ask these Tariff Reformers - Are they content with a tariff such as Mr. Balfour proposes, which is not framed, and avowedly not framed, to increase the employment of labour in this city? But Tariff Reformers are very angry now when you tell them that Tariff Reform is represented as a panacea for unemployment; yet it is not so very long since their vans, and posters, and daily organs in the Press bore that as a conspicuous motto, and I would venture to refer in this connection to Mr. Chamberlain’s own declarations, written, I think, from Birmingham, in September 1905, when he said: ‘All we want is fair play in foreign trade; to treat our friends and kinsmen across the seas better than the stranger outside the gates. Yes, and then there will be full employment for all, work for all, and with full employment will come a rise in wages and in the standard of living.’ That is the sacred text - are we to understand that it no longer forms part of the economical scriptures?       

‘Who Fares Better Than We? - Who Suffers Less?’

Gentlemen, I have one word more, and only one word more, to say upon this subject, but it is a subject which I entreat you to bear in mind and constantly to impress upon your fellow electors, and on those whom you come across in this country. Put to them this question - with whom would you like the people of England to change places fiscally? With which of the protectionist countries? With the United States of America, which is slowly recovering from a financial and commercial crisis that has inflicted untold loss both upon capital and upon labour? With Germany, which has suspended its sinking fund, which is borrowing enormous sums year after year to defray its annual and normal expenditure - Germany whose statesmen, in the full enjoyment be it remembered of a scientifically broadened basis of taxation, are at this moment at their wits’ end to discover new sources of revenue? No, gentlemen, say to your fellow countrymen what is true, that when the world’s trade is prosperous - ask them this - who fares better than we do? When the world’s trade is slack and depressed, who suffers less? Tell them Free Trade is the open secret and the well-tried safeguard both of your financial and industrial stability.

An Education Settlement

I must pass from that; and while we ought not to forget - and I have endeavoured in what I have said to impress it upon you ‑ while we ought not to forget the continued urgency of the call to maintain and defend Free Trade, our main energies are being given this year to pushing forward at Westminster three great measures of social reform. First of all, with regard to education, we have not abandoned, and we do not intend to abandon it. Our two great fundamental unchangeable principles - popular control where public money goes, and in the national system of education at no stage and upon no rung of the ladder - anything in the nature of a denominational test - they have got to be recognised, not in letter but in spirit. In any settlement that may be arrived at of this problem - and that I believe is becoming now a matter of common acknowledgment - subject to that overruling condition, but subject always to that, we can afford to be reasonable in matters of detail. For which of us is there, what man or woman of this great audience whom I am now addressing, which of us is there who does not feel that the time has come in this matter for men of all parties, and women too, to demand that the interest of the children shall dominate, and shall drown the clamour of the section?

The Licensing Bill

Let me say a word now with regard to the Licensing Bill. That certainly is a Bill for which I myself am primarily responsible;  I staked my own political fortunes, and so far as I could I staked the fortunes of the Government and the party upon it. We were told it was a very foolhardy thing to do. We shall see. For my part I believe we never did a wiser thing. Of the Bill I will venture to say two things tonight. In the first place, on the one side it represents the latest phase of the perpetual conflict which, generation after generation, the Liberal party has been waging to assert the paramount supremacy of public over private and of general over particular interests. The second thing which I venture to say to you is this - that upon the other side it is the boldest and the most thorough-going attempt that has yet been made to attack at its very source the most potent of all the causes of poverty and of crime. I do not pretend to forecast either its Parliamentary or its electoral fortune; but whatever course they may take, we shall persevere with it.

Old Age Pensions

The last of the three measures to which I am going to refer is that which is at present under discussion in the House of Commons - the Bill for the establishment of a system of old age pensions. Let me, if you will bear with me for two or three minutes, discuss very briefly one or two arguments that are used, not, indeed, in opposition, for there are very few people who have ventured to oppose it, but in criticism and disparagement of our Bill. It is said that such a system of old age pensions as I proposed in my Budget speech will in the long run, if it is not fatal to it, at any rate will discourage the practice of thrift among the working classes of this country. I wish people who use arguments like this would descend from their studies and their lecture-rooms into the  streets and lanes. What do they find? They would find a man - this is a typical and normal case, as I am sure almost every man here would admit - they would find over and over again a man who is receiving a weekly wage in precarious and not settled employment. He has first of all to maintain a home for himself and for his children. Very often he has also to support his parents, who have passed the years of work, or at least to contribute to their support. He has further, if he is a prudent man, to make provision against sickness and against unemployment. And upon the top of that to say that unless thrift is to be discouraged he has further to make provision for old age, and that this comparatively paltry sum of five shillings per week given to people over seventy years of age, will sap at the very sources of prudence, self-reliance, and independence. The argument needs only to be stated in order to refute itself.

The Objections to a Contributory Scheme

There is another criticism which you see very much used, and which passed muster, I think, lately, if not entirely, in the same quarter - the criticism that we have adopted what is called the non-contributory plan. What are the objections that to my mind will be absolutely fatal to what is called a contributory scheme of provision for old age? In the first place, it involves delay. It will put outside the beneficent operations of the scheme practically all old people now living in this country. In the second place, if carried out fairly, it requires compulsion, and that the British working man, if I know him, is not prepared to stand. In the next place it would imply uneven discrimination as between different forms of thrift. Are you to give a preference to the man who pays contributions into a friendly society or trade union, over one who bought a house for himself, or helps to build a house for himself, or indulges in any form of investment which thrift can procure? And, last, what condemns it entirely to my mind, and makes it wholly irrelevant, makes it out of place, the need is greatest when opportunity and means of contribution do not exist at all.

Essentially a Provisional Scheme

I have said, and my colleagues have said, and it cannot be too fully realised by all friends and supporters in the country, that the scheme which we have put forward is in all its aspects in the nature of a provisional scheme. You can get a thousand cases of hardship out of it, I agree. There is the limit of age. It is hard that the man of sixty-nine cannot have a pension. There is the limit of income. It is hard that a man with 1ls. should not get a pension where the man with 10s. a week should. There is the question of the exclusion of paupers. It is very hard that the poor old man of seventy years of age, who has been receiving 2s. or 3s. a week in the shape of out-relief during the last twelve months, should for the moment be shut out from the benefit scheme. They are all cases of hardship. I could multiply them indefinitely, and no one knows better than I do and my colleagues how many, and how severe, they are. But you have to put this thing upon its legs. You must make a beginning. If you wait to evolve a perfect scheme which shall be no hardship to any one, you will have to wait till the day of judgment, if not later, and the net result of this scheme - provisional as I admit it to be, full of neces­sary anomalies as I admit it to be - the net result of the scheme, do not forget that, is that next year there will be over half-a-­million of these old people in receipt of pensions, who will be receiving the provision for old age which the law has never before made for them.

The Children and Housing Bills

These three great measures do not stand alone. They are part of a large social programme, with at least two further instalments of which we hope to make progress this Session, though others must be left over to the next and the following years. I refer to the Children Bill, now nearly emerging from the Grand Committee, and the Housing Bill of that wise and strenuous democratic statesman, my friend and colleague John Burns. The object of that measure, as you know, is to secure for our people, both in town and country, decent, healthy, habitable homes, a reform both urgent and beneficent, though I certainly agree with those who think its necessary complement is a reconstruction, a complete reconstruction, of our valua­tion and rating system.

The Governing Object of the Government Programme

There is one final question I should like to put to you and to my fellow Liberals everywhere. What is the governing object, what is the ultimate purpose, of this social programme in all its various ramifications and development - improved housing, rating of site values, increased facilities for the acquisition of land both in agricultural and public purposes, the systematised protection, in all its stages, of child life, a genuine national system of education, a more stringent control of the liquor traffic, and a certain and sure pro­vision for old age? Cynics will tell you that this is a mere assort­ment of baits of varying colour and attractiveness with which to carry on the ignoble sport of angling for votes. You know better. The object which runs through them all is this, to diffuse and, so far as may be, to equalise the burdens, to make life brighter, easier, richer, more fruitful for the bulk of our fellow countrymen, to break through and break down the present environment of squalor and temptation, and to banish, if we can, and in so far as we can, the shadow of anxiety for the future which, to so many of them, darkens every stage of the journey from youth to old age. That, as we believe, as we Liberals believe, is the way, and the only way in which to make the best of each in the interests of all - to create and sustain, in the only worthy sense of the word, a community of free men in a free state.

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