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Leader's speech, Leeds 1913

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: Leeds


At the time of the conference, the Conservatives were demanding an immediate general election, claiming that the Liberal government was going to use the Parliament Act to push through the Home Rule Bill behind the backs of the British people. Asquith denied this charge and refused to call a general election, claiming it would be inexpedient and consti¬tutionally unnecessary to do so. He then spoke about the Government of Ireland Bill, which the Lords had twice rejected on Second Reading. This Bill was the first step towards devolution for Ireland, and it was specifically designed to meet the economic and historic conditions of Ireland. In Asquith’s words, ‘you cannot standardise Home Rule.’ He then reassured delegates that the government would not be swayed from this course of action by the threat of civil war in Ireland.

It is a great pleasure to me to find myself amongst so many old and tried friends, and to learn that, both as regards the number of the delegates and the spirit which has animated their proceedings from first to last, this has been one of the record gatherings of the National Liberal Federation. Let me thank you, in the name of the Government, for your general verdict of approval of a legislative and administrative record which, as the Chairman has said, now goes back for eight years. I am quite content to put it side by side with that of any Govern­ment that has held office for anything like the same space of time in this country within the memory of man.

We have, by universal admission, contributed at least our share to the maintenance of the peace of the world. We have drawn more closely than they were ever drawn before, and by measures consonant with the best traditions of Liberal policy in the past, the ties which unite us to our great self-governing Dominions. We have dealt with two of the greatest and most urgent of our social problems - the provision for old age and insurance against sickness and infirmity. We are about to take in hand on the same broad and generous lines a third - I mean the whole group of grievances, urban and rural, which are connected with the ownership and use of land. It is true that we were thwarted in our efforts to deal with such matters as education and licensing questions, the urgency of which I need not tell you we have not forgotten. But the obstacle which confronted us in the early days of our Ministerial life has now, happily, been removed, and we have succeeded in carrying into effect that which, for the lifetime of a whole generation, has been the aspiration of the Liberal Party - the establishment of the constitutional authority of the representative House of the Legislature.

Expenditure on Armaments

There is, so far as I know, only one aspect of our administrative work which chequers your satisfaction as you survey the past. It is your disquietude at the growth of the national expenditure, and in particular of that part of it which is devoted to the fighting services. Do not suppose that I do not share that disquietude. If I cite one or two figures it may, I think, help to put the position of this country in its true perspective. In the first place, let me remind you, as the Chairman has already done, that since we have been responsible for the national finances we have reduced the indebtedness of the State by an amount which at the close of the present financial year we hope will not fall far short, if, indeed, it falls short at all, of one hundred millions sterling. The great bulk of the debt which has been so redeemed, as I need hardly remind you, was incurred for war expenditure in the past. We have been meeting the bill which our ancestors drew upon posterity, and at the same time we have been endeavouring to avoid their bad example by paying our own way and curtailing, within the narrowest possible limits, borrowing for such purposes.

Roughly speaking, the expenditure on the Army during the last eight years has been fairly constant. It has neither risen nor fallen, while that on the Navy has risen something like fourteen millions. But what has been happening at the same time on the Continent of Europe? If you take the five great Continental Powers, and make the reservation one must for the difficulty of precise comparison owing to the different methods in which the accounts are kept, I estimate that in the five years - I do not go further back than five years - in the five years from 1908-9 to 1913-14 their military expenditure has risen by at least eighty millions, and their naval expenditure by at least thirty-five. Those are figures which should be borne in mind when you are estimating the relative proportion of the additional burden which this kind of expenditure has caused the several nations of the world. And there is another basis of comparison which in fairness ought not to he left out of sight - I mean the relative share which our expen­diture on armaments bears to the rest of our expenditure here at home in the present and in past years. I have had the figures carefully taken out, and I will give you just two or three. I am excluding from both sides of the account debt charges, on the one side, debt incurred for the Army and Navy; and, on the other side, debt incurred for civil expenditure and payments for the National Debt; and I include in the civil expenditure the expen­diture on the Post Office. Thirty years ago the Army and Navy, or, as I call it, armament expenditure, was 49.4% of the whole, and civil expenditure 50.6%. That was in 1883. In 1906-7, the first year that we were in office, the two were exactly, or almost exactly, equal - 50 per cent upon each. For the current year, 1913-14, the percentage of expenditure upon armaments has fallen to 42.7, and the civil expenditure has risen to 57.3.

A Drain on the Resources for Social Progress

Those figures are worth bearing in mind, and you will see that great and lamentable - no one would, if he were at liberty, use stronger language than I could - great and lamentable as has been the increase in our own and other nations’ expenditure for the purpose of armament, yet the percentage of the expenditure to the rest is substantially less in this country than it was thirty years ago. We - and when I say we I mean my colleagues in the Government and myself, every one of them, without exception - we lament as much as any man in this hall this huge diversion all over the world of national wealth into non-productive channels. A Ministry of this country which, out of wantonness or levity, in a spirit of vainglorious rivalry, or of reckless provocation, added as much as a pound to our expenditure upon these purposes would commit a national crime. We cannot plead guilty to that reproach. We are charged with a solemn trust, and in its perform­ance it is our duty to maintain a vigilant watch on what the rest of the nations are doing, and to have always steadily and constantly in view the worldwide interests of which, for the time being, we are the stewards. But you may ask, and ask it rightly - Are these things to go on for ever until by this ever-increasing leakage - for such it is - the material resources for social progress are drained ever drier and more dry?

I took the opportunity a fortnight ago, at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, to address a warning and an appeal both to the statesmen and business men of the world. But you may say to me, ‘Words are well enough, but what is to be done?’ My answer is - and I am neither a rhetorician, as you know, nor a sentimentalist, so I am told, and I am afraid it is true - that nothing can really effectually be done without the co-operation of the Great Powers of the world, brought about by the demands of their peoples. I believe myself that every growing stress and strain of new taxation and of swelling indebtedness may accomplish, may succeed in accomplishing, what philanthropists and idealists have so far failed to do. Speaking for my colleagues and myself, what I say to you is that you may rest assured that we shall seize eagerly every opportunity that we can discover or create to promote a concerted alleviation of the burden and waste which press upon the hopes and aspirations of mankind.

The Opposition and Home Rule

Gentlemen, if you survey our domestic political situation, perhaps its most striking feature at this moment is the unanimity with which our political opponents are pressing for an immediate General Election. For the case which they put forward - I will try to state it fairly - is this: They tell us that a Home Rule Bill, which may and probably will lead to a civil war, is about to be carried, through the automatic operation of the Parliament Act, behind the backs of the British people. ‘So long,’ they say to us, ‘as you had a majority independent of the Irish you never took up Home Rule seriously. You deliberately burked it during the whole Parliament of 1906, you only brought it back into your pro­gramme when you needed the Irish vote, and even so when you had made your compact with the Irish you successfully hoodwinked the British electorate and kept them in the dark. Let them now pronounce upon it, and if they are in your favour, we’ - and this is a great concession – ‘we will withdraw the countenance which we are now giving the contingent armed rebellion, and if Ulster fights, Ulster will have to fight alone.’ Now, gentlemen, that is the legend which is current. It is seriously put forward, as lately as last week, by speakers of the authority of Lord Lansdowne, and by dint of constant reiteration and industrious circulation, it is probably by this time widely believed. I am, therefore, under the painful necessity of occupying your time for a few moments with a short historical recital of facts which are perfectly familiar to you, and which ought to be equally familiar - and I hope will be tomorrow - to the authors of this singularly audacious myth.

Let us go back for a moment to the General Election of 1906. At that time, as we all remember, there was one great dominant issue before the electorate - the issue of Free Trade. The leaders of the Liberal Party, and of all sections of the Liberal Party - feeling that we were standing at a crisis in our national history, when, if the verdict of the electorate went wrong, it was, I won’t say the end, but the most serious menace to our industrial supremacy, and even of our national existence - urged upon the electorate to concentrate entirely upon that point. And we solemnly pledged ourselves before the country that if we obtained a majority in that Parliament, we would not use it for the purpose of carrying Home Rule. That is a simple historical fact. We got a majority, and we are now taunted for not having violated our pledges, and used it for the very purpose which in advance we repudiated. We should have had very good precedent for doing so. Most people here, I suppose, remember the election of 1900, and the patriotic appeals which were then made to Nonconformists and others to sink everything in their determination to present a united front to the enemies of their country and bring the war in South Africa to a successful determination. And what followed? Within two years a Bill was introduced, passed through the House of Commons, passed into law with the connivance, the dumb connivance, of the House of Lords, behind the backs, as we now know, against the will of the vast majority of the electorate of England, completely revolutionising the foundations of our system of national education.

When the Referendum was Undreamed of

We did not use to hear much in those days of the Referendum. I will undertake to say that the average Conservative citizen in 1902 would have been more than surprised if he had been told that this - which he no doubt then regarded as a new-fangled ultra-demo­cratic expedient with a barbarous foreign name - that this in the course of ten years was to become one of the principal arrows in the party quiver of his Tory associates. The Referendum was never dreamed of so long as the House of Lords had its old power unchecked. All Tory legislation could go through, while Liberal legislation could not without any fresh appeal to the people. The result was that, considering ourselves bound in honour to fulfil the pledges we had given, we, in the Parliament of 1906, proposed, as our only legislative measure dealing with the government of Ireland, the Irish Councils Bill - a Bill, in my opinion, of administrative importance, but a Bill which had by the admission alike of friends and opponents left untouched the fundamental underlying problems of Irish government. But we were not content with that. In March, 1908, when that Parliament had been in existence only two years, Mr. Redmond brought forward a motion in the House of Commons to the effect that the solution of the problem of Irish Government could only be attained by giving to the Irish people legislative and executive control of purely Irish affairs, and there was added to it, at the instance of my friend the present Attorney-General, ‘sub­ject to the supreme authority of the Imperial Parliament.’ That was on the 30th of March, 1908, and this was in the Parliament in which we were supposed to have burked Home Rule, because we were not then dependent upon the Irish vote.

A Home Rule Declaration in 1908

I spoke on behalf of the Government on that motion. It was almost within a week, certainly within a fortnight of my becoming Prime Minister, but I was speaking in the regrettable absence, through illness, of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. I was speaking on behalf of the Cabinet and of the Liberal Party. And I should just like to quote to you two sentences from what I then said. They tell us that we never took up Home Rule until we had become dependent on the Irish vote. We had then a majority of about 200 over any possible combination of all the parties there. This is what I said:

'For twenty years, and more than twenty years, I and many of my colleagues have steadily and consistently voted for propositions which, while explicitly safeguarding the supreme authority of the Imperial Parliament, declared that the ultimate solution of the Irish problem could only be found in a system of self-government in regard to local affairs.'

From that opinion I have never receded, and I hold it just as strongly tonight as ever I did. And I went on to say, if you will forgive me quoting one more sentence - because these are not my words only, they are the words of the Government - I said:

'I have always regarded what is called Home Rule in Ireland as part and parcel - a most urgent part, I agree, in point both of policy and time - of a more comprehensive change. The Constitutional problem is to set free the Imperial Parliament for Imperial affairs, and in matters purely local to rely more and more on local option and local machinery.'

‘Ireland,’ I added, ‘is by far the most urgent case because it is the one undeniable failure of British statesmanship.’ Well, gentlemen, that is the kind of language we are using today, and I challenge any critic to discover one hair’s breadth of difference from the policy which, speaking on behalf of my colleagues and the Party, I then declared to be the settled policy of Liberalism, when we were in a majority transcending all parties in the State - to discover one hair’s breadth of difference between the policy then enunciated and the policy we are now seeking to carry into law.

Another Declaration in 1910

A year afterwards, when the House of Lords had rejected the Budget, we advised the King to dissolve Parliament, and, as you know, another General Election took place in January 1910. I was then leader of the Party and Prime Minister, and I went to the Albert Hall, and at a representative meeting pointed out to them and to my fellow Liberals throughout the country that the Parlia­ment Bill - for it was then only a Bill - was regarded by us, not as an end, but as a means to an end. To what end? The attainment of long-delayed Liberal reforms. I enumerated what seemed to me, and seem to us, to be the principal of those reforms, and, coming to the Irish question, I referred to the speech I have already quoted, and I used these words - ‘I repeat here tonight’ - it was before the General Election; we still had the unimpaired integrity of the then existing House of Commons and a majority over all the other parties in the State - ‘I repeat here tonight that the solution of the problem is to be found only in one way - by a policy which, while explicitly safeguarding the supreme authority of the Imperial Parliament, will set up in Ireland a system of full self-government in regard to purely Irish affairs.’ And I added, to make the matter perfectly clear: ‘For reasons which I believe to be adequate the present Parliament was disabled in advance from proposing any such solution, but in the new House of Commons the hands of the Liberal Government, and of the Liberal majority, will in this matter be entirely free.’ Now, in view of these declarations, is it con­ceivable that anyone who voted even in the General Election of 1910 for the Liberal party, and for the passing of the Parliament Bill, did not do so with a full knowledge that it was our intention to make use of the power which the House of Commons had obtained to grant self-government to Ireland?

We had another election in December of the same year. What happened then? I will not go through the familiar tale, but I will just recall to your recollection what was said at the time by Lord Lansdowne. In the course of the strain of that election, Lord Lansdowne, referring to myself, said to a great public meeting: ‘Mr. Asquith has made it perfectly clear that if the Parliament Bill is carried, the first use of it will be applied in the carrying of Home Rule.’ I wonder what they think the electors were really voting for in 1910? Apparently for a series of referenda or, alter­natively, for a series of general elections. 

No Ground for Demanding a General Election

The facts which I have recited, and which are absolutely beyond the reach of contradiction and dispute, are quite sufficient for my purpose to show that this demand for a General Election, in so far as it is based upon the hypothesis that the electors did not give their votes with a full and complete knowledge that the Home Rule Bill would be introduced upon the lines I then laid down, is one of the idlest demands that was ever put forward. No; there is no ground for demanding a General Election. And if a General Election were held, how much further would it advance matters? Is there anyone in this room or outside it credulous enough and ignorant enough to suppose that that election would be fought or could be fought upon the single issue of Home Rule? What about the Welsh Church? They want a Referendum or a General Election all to itself upon that, for it is perfectly certain that the Welsh Church would be brought into the controversy, and would play as conspicuous a part as the indefatigable advocates of the Welsh Church could persuade the English electors to allow it to do - not perhaps a very serious one.

What about Tariff Reform? We have just been told in the most explicit terms by Mr. Bonar Law that if he and his friends are returned to power, although they are precluded for the moment from what is called the full-blown policy, yet they are going to start with a 10 per cent import duty - an average 10 per cent, remember that - upon manufactured goods, the proceeds of which, or some part of the proceeds, are going to be handed over to the farmers to compensate them for not getting their food taxes. Do you suppose you and I are going to allow a General Election to be fought without bringing that up, that we are going to have Tariff Reform or the first stage of Tariff Reform smuggled upon the Statute Book under the disguise of a Home Rule election? It is the right and bounden duty of every elector to take all these things into account, and to remember that under the Constitution in this country - which in this respect I trust will remain unchanged - and of every country which acknowledges the principles of represen­tative government, you send a House of Commons, you send a People’s Chamber, for a term of years to represent you, and make laws for you, and not to be perpetually going back like agents with a limited authority to ask whether or not they may pass these par­ticular laws. I see, then, no ground whatever for this demand for a General Election, and, so far as I am concerned, you may take it from me I shall not advise any such course.

The Irish Problem and ‘Settlement by Consent’

Setting aside this plea for a General Election, as neither consti­tutionally necessary nor practically expedient, let me for a few moments approach the much-debated problem, of which you read a great deal in the newspapers, of the possibility of a settlement of the Irish question by consent. There are two points in this con­nection which I wish, in view of constantly recurring misconstructions or misunderstandings, to make perfectly clear. I am sup­posed, as you know, to have had a recent lapse into ambiguity or obscurity of statement. In the first place, if, as is the case, we have shown ourselves ready to consider the possibility of settlement by consent, it is not because we are in any way whatsoever dis­satisfied with the Government of Ireland Bill as it stands. Mr. Birrell said very truly, in a speech I think he made this week, that we do not claim for it verbal inspiration. Like all or most of the products of human intelligence or human energy, it is no doubt susceptible to improvement. If the House of Lords, instead of twice in succession curtly rejecting it on Second Reading, had con­descended to exercise in regard to it the appropriate functions of a Second Chamber in a democratic country - the function, I mean, of revision, of amendment, or of suggestion - it may very well be quite possible that some of the problems which are now exercising men’s minds would by this time have been cleared out of the way.

But I am bound to say to you, in view of the things that are said, and apparently believed, that we consider the Government of Ireland Bill to be a well-conceived and carefully constructed measure, with adequate safeguards against anything in the nature of either religious or political persecution. It is specially designed to meet the exceptional historic and economic conditions of Ireland, and we do not say, and we have never contended - I have con­stantly disavowed any such position - that the system which it sets up in Ireland could be applied without substantial modifications to other parts of the United Kingdom. We look upon it as the first and the most urgent step in a process of devolution which will in time set free the Imperial Parliament for purely Imperial concerns, but in each successive step that is taken a similar regard must be paid to the special conditions of the particular constituent part of the United Kingdom with which you are dealing. Devolution is not a merely mechanical problem, and in a country so complex and so varied as ours, if I may use the expression, you cannot standardise Home Rule. That is my first observation.

The ‘Gospel of Anarchy’

The next is this: We are not going - I am sure you do not need the assurance - but we are not going to be frightened, or arrested, or deflected in the pursuit of that which we believe to be right and politic by the menace of civil war. It is threats of this kind - I am speaking in all sobriety and seriousness when I say so - coupled and reinforced by hints such as even Lord Lansdowne thought it proper to give the other day of their possible effect on the British Army, which are in my deliberate opinion the most formidable obstacle at this moment to anything in the nature of an agreed settlement. In many of the recent utterances, even of responsible statesmen like Lord Lansdowne, there is expressed or implied what I described some time ago as the whole gospel of anarchy. If, gentlemen, you once lay down that the individual citizen has in his own bosom a dispensing authority which entitles him to offer armed resistance to the law of the land, and, further, that the servants of the State - be they soldiers or police, be they officers or men - may discriminate at will between the binding force of the various orders which from time to time they receive from those above them - I say, and I say it with all solemnity, once accept such a doctrine as that, do not be blind enough to suppose that its application will be confined to a particular case. I hope it is not necessary, and I won’t give possible illustrations which will occur to every one, but I say, by such a doctrine as that, deli­berately put forward by men of responsible authority, you are undermining, both by your arguments and by your example, the very foundations of democratic government and of civil society.

And let me add that, great as my respect is for Sir Edward Carson - and I say quite unfeignedly that I believe him to be an absolutely single-minded man - great as my respect is for him, I think I know the British people better than he does. And I say to him, and others who act with him, that such an attitude as I have described is not in the least degree in the long run likely to impress either the imagination or the judgment of my fellow countrymen. You can appeal with confidence to their sense of justice, and with equal confidence to their generosity. You can appeal without hesitation to their common sense, to their hatred of extremes, and to their ingrained political wisdom. But the one appeal to them that is sure to fail is an appeal to their fears. I say once more, as I said the other day at Ladybank, and I repeat it here today in the plainest possible terms, that our attitude - and when I say ours I mean that of the Government, and I believe I may speak for my friends and followers in the party - our attitude in this matter now or hereafter has not been, and will not be affected by a moment’s doubt either as to the duty or as to the power of the State to ensure obedience to the law of the land.

The First Essential of a Settlement

Now, gentlemen, those two misapprehensions being cleared once and for all, I repeat another thing which I said to my constitu­ents the other day - that in my opinion, which is also that of my colleagues, it is from the point of view both of Ireland and of Great Britain of high importance if such a result can be secured that the new system in Ireland should not start upon the basis of civil strife, with the apparent victory of one section or the apparent defeat of another. It is equally important, again, if it is possible without the sacrifice or surrender of some essential principle, that the de­cision come to should be not, indeed, beyond the reach of amend­ment which subsequent working experience may show to be neces­sary, but it should be regarded, if it be possible, by both sides, and in all quarters, as in substance a settlement, and to repeat the words I used the other day, beyond the risks of electoral and Parliamentary vicissitudes. Otherwise, the Irish question will continue to be the football of our party politics to the infinite injury of both Ireland herself and of the United Kingdom as a whole. It was in that spirit, from a sense of the weight of these considera­tions, that I invited, that I took upon myself to invite, not a con­ference of party leaders nor anything in the nature of formal nego­tiations, but a free and unprejudiced interchange, from all sides, of views and suggestions.

The Door Still Open

I have no reason to complain of the spirit in which that invitation was received by, amongst others, the responsible leaders of the Opposition. Suggestive considerations have already come forward from many quarters; though I should be deceiving you, and deceiv­ing myself, if I were to say that I saw at this moment a prospect of agreement. But I cannot at all concur with some of our impatient critics who say that time has been, and is being, wasted. I must, however, take serious exception to such phrases as were used the other night by Mr. Austen Chamberlain in a speech, to the general moderation of which I am anxious to, and do, bear most willing testimony. He is reported to have said that it is not for the Oppo­sition to solve difficulties created by the Government, or to help them out of the dangers they have provoked. Difficulties created and dangers provoked by the Government! Does anyone suppose that if the Government and their plan had never come into existence, or were wiped out of existence tomorrow, the diffi­culties and dangers would not have arisen or would disappear? They are not of our creation. They are the legacy of centuries of misunderstanding and mismanagement. They are the biggest blot on the scutcheon of the British Empire, and until they are met in a large and liberal spirit, Ireland will remain the one hiatus in our Imperial unity - a reproach to our political genius, the unsolved riddle of British statesmanship. We are constantly being pressed by the case of the minority, a case which I have never denied deserves the most careful and sympathetic consideration. But what of the majority? Do you suppose, can anyone suppose, that if their hopes were to be, which God forbid, frustrated on the eve of fruition, if their Constitutional demand were to he indefinitely postponed or mocked by some half-hearted and unsatisfying com­promise, does anyone suppose you would have got rid of the Irish difficulty? But there would remain the difficulty in a form far more menacing and formidable than ever.

I entirely agree with one observation that fell the other night from Mr. Bonar Law - that no good could possibly result from any party leaders shouting alternative suggestions from rival platforms. Such a method of procedure is doomed to sterility and failure, and I certainly am not going to take part in anything of the kind. But you will understand, from what I have said, that it shall not be said with truth, either now or hereafter, that my hand has closed any door which opens upon a reasonable and an honour­able way of peace.

A Cabinet United and of Fixed Purpose

And now, gentlemen, before I sit down you will allow me to make a few final observations. The first is this: There is not a shadow of foundation for the statements which have been brought to my notice that in this matter, or indeed in any other, we are a divided Cabinet. The stories which you read do much more credit to the imaginations of those who invent them than to the judgment of those who accept them. We have had a free and frank inter­change of opinions, conducted under the most favourable con­ditions. That is the function of a Cabinet, and in my opinion a function of the highest utility. But there is no difference of opinion among us whatsoever, either as to the present or as to the future. The last thing I wish to say is this - I said it at Ladybank, and I must say it again - we are not going to make, either upon our own initiative or at the suggestion of others, any surrender of principle. We mean to see this thing through. We took up the Irish cause from a conviction which time has strengthened and deepened, that as a matter of right Home Rule was due to Ireland, and as a matter of policy it was sanctioned by the highest interests of our Parliament and our Imperial development. The Irish members, representing the vast majority of the Irish people, have trusted us with a loyalty that has never wavered. For that loyalty we hope to show a worthy counterpart, and that trust we shall most certainly not betray.

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