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Leader's speech, Hull 1910

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: Hull


Since the last conference, the House of Lords had rejected the Liberal government’s Budget. This decision triggered the Dissolution of Parliament, and a general election was held in February 1910. The Liberals fought this election primarily on the questions of whether the Lords’ power of veto over finance should be abolished, and whether their power to veto legislation should be reduced, and they won this election with a substantial majority. In the new Parliament, Asquith had won the Commons’ assent to the Liberals’ Veto proposals, and would have submitted a Bill to give them effect straight to the Lords if it were not for the death of Edward VII. While this event initially produced a political truce, later efforts to reach a settlement by consent failed, and the Liberal government decided to dissolve Parliament for a second time. For Asquith, the best way to resolve the constitutional question was to put it to the electorate, as it was only with a new mandate that the Party could proceed with its programme. Aside from constitutional reform, the key elements of this programme included: Welsh disestablishment, Home Rule for Ireland, licensing reform, and the abolition of plural voting.

Ladies and Gentlemen, - It is a great pleasure and privilege to me to find myself at such a moment face to face with so large and representative a gathering not only of the Liberals of Hull and the East Riding, but of the delegates from the National Liberal Federation who throughout the length and breadth of England and Wales are the staff officers of the Liberal army. For some months you have been condemned, for what I believe to be good reasons, to enforced inaction, but the time for truce and parleying is over. Within three days Parliament will be dissolved, and by the end of next week you will find yourselves in one of the most momentous political struggles in the annals of British history. I rejoice to know from the reports that reach me from all quarters that whatever may be the case elsewhere, our party is in good heart. There is no division of aim, there is no competition between sections, there is no rivalry of persons. There is everywhere unity, discipline, loyalty, and faith.

A Tory Fiction

We are told that this Dissolution is the wanton and unscrupulous manoeuvre of a desperate and discredited Government, that we are springing it upon the country in order that we may extort, without adequate discussion, from a dazed and bewildered electorate a pre­cipitate assent to a revolutionary scheme for setting up Single-Chamber government. That is a fiction which is widely current and seems to have played a conspicuous part in the recent debate in the House of Lords. Let us just for a moment or two see how the matter really stands, and how far we can be justly charged with rushing a Dissolution upon an unprepared and uninformed nation.

The Issue at last General Election

It is barely a year ago since the last Parliament was dissolved. What was the cause of the Dissolution? The rejection, for the first time in our history, of the Budget by the House of Lords, and I speak within the recollection of all of you when I say that, not indeed the sole issue, but the main and dominating issue at that election was upon these two points - first, Shall the veto of the Lords in regard to finance be altogether put an end to; and, next, Shall the veto of the Lords in regard to our legislation be limited and cut down? That was the issue which was debated upon a thousand platforms throughout the length and breadth or the United Kingdom for more than six weeks.

The Result of last General Election

What was the result? You had a House of Commons returned to Westminster in which there was a majority against the continuance of the Veto of the Lords of something like 120. And if you look to Great Britain alone a majority against the continuance of the Veto of over 60. We are told that we are trying, by means of Irish votes, to thrust our policy down the reluctant throats of the British electorate, and I see the Tories have now got a new motto or war-cry from Mr. Balfour, ‘Great Britain shall manage the affairs of Great Britain.’ I have always thought, being a better Unionist than many who call themselves by that title, that the Budget was not an affair that concerned Great Britain alone. I have always thought that the Constitution was not an affair that concerned Great Britain alone, and that we are living now in a United Kingdom. But if we are to look to Great Britain alone, the result of the last election was that by an emphatic and decisive majority of over 60 the electorate of Great Britain declared itself in favour of the Budget and against the Veto of the House of Lords.

Why the Tories had no Alternative Policy

But we are told there was then no alternative policy before the country. Whose fault was that? It was hardly our business to produce an alternative policy, and the reason why there was no alternative policy was this, that at the time the discovery had not been made by our Tory friends that the House of Lords, as it exists, is a decayed and crumbling structure which has got to be rebuilt from its very basement to its roof. No, that was the heyday of those peers, who went by the name - poor innocent men - of the Backwoodsmen, who must now in their remote retreats be rubbing incredulous eyes when they read every morning of what is going on at Westminster. I must not be tempted into unbecoming flippancy. I have been rebuked, urbi et orbi, by no less a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury, because I ventured, by the citation of an almost classical passage from one of the most classical of English works, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, to import levity into the discussion of so sacred a theme as the House of Lords. Indeed my case is even worse. I have got into trouble with both the Archbishops. The one complains of my pleasantries and the other of my metaphors, so I am going to be careful and try to mend my ways, but at the same time, respectfully observing that it is not I and my friends, but Lord Rosebery and his associates, who, within the last fortnight, have pronounced sentence of death upon the House of Lords, and are now casting about to see if they can find somebody who can take up the succession. But a year ago, ignorant of what was in store for them, the rank and file of the House of Lords, who, after all, constitute a very large numerical majority in the body, were, with the benediction of their leaders, going about from platform to platform trumpeting its virtues and relying, above all, upon its last and supreme achievement - the salvation of the country from the iniquities of a Socialistic Budget.

Misrepresentation of the Government’s Policy

There was no alternative policy then. But let me follow the matter out through its later stages. The new House of Commons met, and there has been so much misunderstanding and so much misrepresenta­tion of the declared policy of the Government that I will venture to read to you what I said within a week or ten days after the meeting of the House of Commons on February 28 last. This is what I then said. I said on behalf of the Government in the new Parliament: ‘If the House should assent to our Veto proposals, a Bill to give effect to them will, without delay, be introduced. The Bill will give effect to the operative part of the Resolutions, but’ - and observe these words - ‘but without waiting for the Bill to pass through all its stages in this House we have come to the conclusion that, in order to avoid waste of time and labour and to bring the main issue to trial and con­clusion at the earliest possible moment, the resolutions so assented to by this House shall be submitted to the House of Lords.’ We refused, we deliberately refused, and I think we rightly refused, to go on with an operation which used to be known by the name of ploughing the sands to pass a Bill through all its stages in the House of Commons - First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, and Third Reading - involving an infinite waste of time and labour when, during the whole process, perfectly aware that at the moment it reached another place it would be ignominiously repelled and rejected.

The Conference and After

Those resolutions received the assent of the House of Commons after an exhaustive discussion on April 14 last, and in due course of time and but for unforeseen events they would, with as little delay as possible, have been submitted to the House of Lords. There intervened that most lamentable event, the death of our beloved Monarch. It was followed, as was natural, by something in the nature of a political truce and by an experiment which was new in our political history but which, I think, though it has for the moment failed, was well worth trying. We sought to discover by Conference between representative leaders of both great parties in the State if it were possible to find some common basis of agreement for settlement by consent. Those efforts having failed, I would like to know who would suggest that we might have done or ought to have done other than that we are doing. Ought we to have prorogued Parliament? Ought we to have reintroduced in another Session our Resolutions and our Bill? Ought we to have wasted another twelve months of the time of the country over a futile and impossible enterprise? Why, we should have lost, and deservedly lost, the confidence of our friends and the respect of the country.

‘Dissolution was necessary’

Dissolution was necessary, and I cite and commend to the attention of the Tory platform orators, the Tory writers in the Press - I commend words their own leader used in the House of Commons in the hearing of many of us only a week ago when he said in reply to me - I quote his exact words - ‘I agree it is almost certain that a General Election could not be deferred for more than a relatively small number of weeks or months. That I grant.’ Well, if Mr. Balfour thinks so, if he agrees with us that a situation had been arrived at from which the only outlet was to be found in an immediate, or at any rate a near, General Election, what becomes of all this hollow cry against the Government for having rushed upon the country wantonly and unscrupulously an election which it did not require?

Another Tory Fiction

Then there comes the other fiction - namely, that we are rushing a Dissolution in order that the Lords might have no opportunity of pre­senting their case and that, at the same time, we might avoid submitting our Budget to the House of Commons. And this nefarious stratagem is supposed to have been defeated by Lord Lansdowne’s masterly and patriotic counter-stroke of asking that the Parliament Bill should be introduced into the House of Lords. There is no word of truth in the story. The Government never had any such intention. They had made up their minds before Parliament reassembled that they would present their Budget in all its essential features for the assent of the House of Commons and that the House of Lords should have any opportunity they desired, either of criticising our Veto proposals or of putting forward proposals of their own. That intention never varied for a moment, and it was literally carried into effect. I do not think anybody will dispute that the case for the House of Lords, such as it is, has been presented in the course of the last ten days with adequate fullness of exposition and argument to the country.

Afraid of the People’ Yet Dissolving

They are always telling us we are afraid of the people. The motive of our scheme is supposed to be to enable the House of Commons to steal a march on its constituents and to carry out revolutionary measures in the teeth of those who elected them. Well, it is curious if that is so we should be dissolving now. We have got an ample majority in the present House of Commons for all the ordinary purposes of government and legislation, and yet we, who were supposed to be so afraid of the people, supposed to cling to office by any desperate device that imagination can conceive, I say, we who were supposed to be so afraid of the people, are dissolving - and why? Because we are pledged to get this question out of the way before we proceed with Liberal legislation, which, under existing conditions, is a perfectly hopeless task. The only and, at the same time, the effectual method of getting it out of the way is to ask and to obtain the judgment of the country.

The Question for the Electors

So much for that; but what is the question which the electors have to put to themselves and to answer in the course of the next fortnight or three weeks? They have to determine whether we are to continue to carry on the King’s Government, or to hand over the duty to our opponents. It is hardly necessary to say that the electors, at any rate, are free agents; they are not under the domination of Mr. John Redmond. They are not compelled to toe any particular line. There is another thing to be observed about the electors - they know precisely what the consequences of giving us a majority will be. There is our plan in black and white, and everyone can understand it. The question for them simply is, Do they, or do they not, authorise us to carry it into law? I believe they will.

If the Tories Won

But, as it is above all things desirable that they should come to their decision, whatever it is, with their eyes open, let me try for a few moments, if you will bear with me, to trace the consequences of a vote adverse to the present Government and putting the Tory Party into power. In imagination, at any rate, we can try and trace it out. I say nothing tonight, or nothing in detail, though I shall in course of the election, of the effect of such a change on the general policy of the country, on its administration, on its finance. I say nothing, or I only mention it in passing, of the certainty that such a change would bring sooner or later in its train under the guise of Tariff Reform a return to that system of Protection which less than a year ago was emphatically and decisively repudiated by all our great industrial districts. But the sole point to which I want to direct your attention is the effect that such a change would have on the settlement of the Constitutional question; and this brings me to examine - it is time that it should be done - examine at rather close quarters what we now know to be the alternative policy. It is well worthy of examination.

What about the Backwoodsmen?

Let me first point out without any imputation upon anybody’s good faith that it is at least doubtful how much of the crude and complex scheme - for it is both crude and complex - which has been so pre­cipitately put together during the last week will ever travel even within measurable distance towards the Statute Book. The House of Lords, I know, has carried all these proposals without a division in hot haste, and on the eve of a Dissolution, but if and when it should come to real business, I am not sure that those backwoodsmen, of whom I spoke a moment ago and who, I have said, are a majority of the House of Lords, will be found to be such a negligible and moribund factor as they have been made to appear during all the discussions of the last week.     

The Country would be Worse Off under the Lords’ Scheme

Nor is it easy to believe that a House of Commons with a real Tory majority, if you can conceive such a thing, would let this scheme through without large and even vital modifications. Indeed, Lord Rosebery has already, I see, last night put in a caveat that they must only be taken to have associated themselves with the general spirit and trend of the vote. There is much virtue in the word ‘trend,’ but let us take the scheme as now presented to the country as illustrative of their policy and assume that it is going to be carried into law. The proposition which I lay before you and which I lay tonight before my fellow countrymen is this - that the country would be no better off, that in some respects it would be materially worse off, than under the existing system, which every one now admits to be utterly intolerable. 

The New Second Chamber   

What is this plan or scheme which is now presented to the country as the solution of the Constitutional problem? In the first place, what is the new Second Chamber which is to be substituted for our ancient, venerable, and historic House of Lords? In the Second Chamber of the future there are to be three classes of peers, hereditary peers, official or qualified peers, and peers who are chosen - nobody knows by whom, nobody knows from whom, but peers who are chosen. What is to be the size? What is to be the proportion between these different elements, or factors, which make it up? How and by whom and by what process are the chosen ones to be admitted? All these so-called details are left open for future manipulation. But I think we can easily foresee the general result if the process of adjustment is to be in the hands - as, upon the assumption I am now making, it would be - of a Tory House of Commons, with the supervising counsel and judgment of a Tory House of Lords. In the present House of Lords the proportion of Tory to Liberal is something like twelve to one. For effective voting purposes it is about five or six to one. The party predominance in the new Second Chamber may be less odiously and offensively marked, but with such an absurdly wide margin of superiority you can afford to be generous and to give away a good deal - but does any rational man doubt that, on the basis of this scheme of Lord Rosebery’s, according to the views of a Tory House of Commons and House of Lords, you will have a Second Chamber which will be overwhelmingly and permanently Conservative? And, in the meantime - for this is the very essence of the scheme - you will have sacrificed the Royal prerogative of the creation of peers. In a word, you will be confronted once more with the old problem, the problem of chronic or recurring deadlocks between the two Chambers, the one Chamber responsible to the people and the other Chamber composed of - Heaven knows what elements - and the knowledge that a possible outlet for such deadlocks will be permanently blocked.

The Proposed Joint Session

Let us come to another point. Let us examine this alternative proposal in all its aspects. These deadlocks, we are told, between the reconstituted House of Lords and the representative House of Commons, are to be solved by a Joint Session. Speaking for myself, I have always thought, and have more than once said, that, given a Second Chamber moderate in size and constituted on popular lines - that is a very important qualification - I would not exclude, certainly would not brush aside, procedure by conference and Joint Session as a possible and even hopeful expedient for the avoidance of deadlocks. But the crucial question here is left entirely and purposely untouched in Lord Lansdowne’s proposals. Under what conditions is this Joint Session going to take place? In what relative proportions are the two Houses going to sit in it? - and remember the whole thing only comes into operation when you have a Liberal majority in the House of Commons. When a Tory majority is there the whole machinery falls into abeyance. The question is this, it goes to the very root foundation of the whole scheme - the question I ask is, What kind and what size of Liberal majority in your scheme is to have an effective voice in legislation? Is it to be 50? or must it be 100? or must it be so? Until this is settled the proposal for a Joint Session from our point of view is wholly meaningless and nugatory. It is, in effect, nothing more than an invitation to substitute one set of shackles for another, when the nation has deliberately decided at the polls to entrust its fortunes and the shaping of its legislation to the party of progress.

What are Measures of ‘Great Gravity’?

But one step forward still. There comes in here a doubt - it is more than a doubt - what is meant by the exception from the operation of Joint Sessions of questions of ‘great gravity’? They are not to be decided by a Joint Session, but they are to be submitted by Referen­dum to the people. What are questions of great gravity? Who is going to decide? Obviously neither one House nor the other. What may seem to be grave to the House of Commons may seem to be trivial to the House of Lords, and vice versa. Are you going to call in a judicial tribunal? Are you going to bring in the Courts of Law? I earnestly trust no one will suggest that. And, if not, you must condescend to particulars and you must tell us what is the criterion and what are the categories of questions of great gravity. I presume Home Rule is a question of great gravity. Is Disestablishment? Well, I do not know - I mean in the opinion of Lord Lansdowne and his friends. Is the abolition of plural voting? Above all and most important of all is the question of a Tariff?

The Tories and the Referendum

What are the subjects - surely we are entitled to ask - in regard to which Parliament is to be deprived of its omnipotence and compelled to resort to a plebiscite? Since when and why have the Tories become converts to the principle of a Referendum? It is one of the most remarkable and one of the most rapid instances of conversion in the whole of political history. I have never denied that there were rare but quite conceivable cases in which some such proceeding must be resorted to. Here we have the Conservative, the Unionist, the Constitutional Party advocating that a device that has been adopted with disappointing results in some of the modern States of the world shall become an integral part of the British Constitution.

The Referendum and Dissolution

As such I protest against it, and I hope you will resist it, and I will tell you briefly the grounds. There are three on which I base my protest. In the first place, in effect it would, as regards all important legislation - these questions of ‘great gravity’ - by statute give to the House of Lords the power, which it already claims, and which we strenuously deny to it, to compel, when it differs from the popular House, what would be to all intents and purposes a Dissolution and a General Election. Of course, on trivial matters, if you had a Referen­dum, as has been found in America, in Canada, and in Australia, people would not take the trouble to vote, and the result of such an appeal would be no index to the true state of popular opinion. If you come to really great questions, questions like Home Rule or the Tariff, does anyone suppose that such an appeal would not be attended by all the tumult of a General Election? The Parliamentary machine would be set at work, members and intending candidates would come down to their constituencies to address meetings, canvassing, placarding, the circulation of literature, all the operations of an electoral campaign such as we are contemplating, some of us with mixed feelings, would be in full swing, and the country would be to all intents and purposes involved in all the expense and turmoil of a General Election. And then suppose on a vital question like that the decision went against the Government of the day. Could the Government continue in office? Clearly not. They must either resign or dissolve. If they resigned and their opponents came into power they would have to dissolve, and you would have two Dissolutions, two General Elections, two appeals to the electorate in regard to every vital question of national policy and legislation.

The Referendum and Parliamentary Responsibility

But I have an even stronger objection to the use of the Referendum as a part of the Constitution - that it would impair, if it would not entirely destroy, the sense of Parliamentary responsibility. You send your Members to the House of Commons to give there the best of their judgment and the best of their ability to the transaction of the affairs of the nation on the lines and within the limits of the princi­ples and pledges which they have professed to you, and on which they sought your confidence. You do not want a Member of Parlia­ment to go there an irresponsible item, to say, ‘I will vote against this or for that, because my vote does not matter, because the thing has got to go back to the electorate, and I am here as an irresponsible delegate and not here to represent, to the best what I believe to be, the con­sidered judgment of the nation.’ You are sterilising the sense of responsibility, which is the very soul of Parliamentary Government.

The Referendum and Representative Government

At the same time - and this is the third point - you are really destroying the principle of government by representation, which is the great invention of the modern world. Democracy without represen­tation very soon degenerates into anarchy or Caesarism - one or the other. The only machinery which the genius of man has yet discovered which will enable democratic government to be made into a working concern is the adoption, the amplification, the development of that principle of representation. I speak not as a party man for a moment, but as a convinced democrat and one who wishes to see democratic government made increasingly efficient and capable. When the Tory Party are tumbling over one another helter-skelter, pell-mell, in their zeal and affection for this new-fangled discovery of the Referendum, I ask my fellow countrymen, in the interests not of one party or another, but in the interests of those larger and more permanent concerns which are the common property of us all, to hesitate before, in order to find a plausible way to escape from difficulties which can be otherwise solved, they strike a deadly blow at the very foundation of representative government in this country.

The Two Alternative Policies

I am sorry to have kept you so long with these, though they are not minor points, but I want at the outset of the coming struggle the country to realise clearly what are the two alternative policies placed before them. I can sum them up in a couple of sentences. How shall we stand if this alternative policy now put forward by the House of Lords is approved by the country and its legislative definition and embodiment entrusted to the Tory majority in the new House of Commons? In the first place, you will have a Second Chamber which, from its composition and character, gives us at any rate no greater security against a deadlock than we already possess. In the second place, when deadlocks occur, you will have no greater security than now that the will of the popular Chamber will be predominant, or that its will may not be over and over again, frustrated and delayed by the Second and nominally subordinate Chamber, compelling the country to pronounce a second verdict in addition to the first. That is all they have to offer on the other side, and I venture to say our plan holds the field. Ours is not a plan for Single-Chamber Government. It is not put forward, as is sometimes represented, as though verbally inspired. It is not presented - as I said myself in the House of Commons in moving the Veto Resolutions - as a final solution of all our Constitutional problems. But it is submitted to the country as what is necessary, as the least that is necessary here and now, if we are to make real progress with any of the great enterprises, whether of social or political change, to which the Liberal Party stands committed.

American Dollars’ and Home Rule

In a speech I made at the Albert Hall nearly a year ago I dwelt on some of the causes that we believe are in our keeping. I adhere to everything which I said then. I spoke of Welsh disestablishment, the abolition of plural voting, of a better licensing system, of a truly national education. I spoke, and - in view of the shameful things which are being said, I feel bound to emphasise that point - I spoke of our views of the proper solution of the problem of Irish self-government. What I then said I repeat; to it I adhere, and I believe the Liberal Party adheres. I do not in the least grudge the Tory Party any electioneering capital that they can extract from Mr. Redmond’s American dollars. The American dollars would seem to be, in a substantial pro­portion at any rate, contributed by our Canadian fellow subjects. But whether they are subscribed by that great Imperial statesman, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or by the poorest Irish exile in Chicago or Milwaukee, I see no cause for shame either in those who give or those who take. There is, indeed, a great deal of significance in it. In our efforts to secure self-government for Ireland in the future - efforts which I hope will be followed by further efforts to set free the Imperial Parliament from much of the local work which congests its machinery and which of necessity it does so ill - we shall have with us I believe the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of the great Dominions overseas, who have learned how easy it is to combine local autonomy with Imperial loyalty. But for the moment, and this shall be the last thing I say to you, let us concentrate on the first and the greatest task, the task that lies right to our hands, the task that we are pledged to perform, the task of winning fair play for Liberal legislation and of securing for our people through their own chosen representatives the power of making and of moulding the laws under which they live.

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