Leader's speech, Manchester 1918
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
Commentary:Asquith opened his speech by speaking about the war. The German offensive in France and Flanders had recently failed, and Asquith expressed his confidence in an Allied victory. However, the ensuing peace should guarantee to nations both security and the right of self-determination, and Asquith backed the plans for the creation of a League of Nations, with the proviso that it offered these assurances. He then addressed the question of whether a general election should be held at that time, and argued that it would not be in Britain’s interests because it would break the appearance – and perhaps even the reality – of national unity. Nonetheless, he identified a number of areas where action was required once the war was over. These were: Ireland; the provision of employment, training and disability pensions for servicemen returning from the war; the restoration of those liberties that were curtailed during the war; international trade; the repayment of Britain’s war debt; the construction of approximately 400,000 new houses; and old-age pensions.
I am much touched by the warmth of your welcome, and I can assure you that no pleasure could be greater to me than to find myself once more standing on the platform of the National Liberal Federation, and face to face with the men and women who, through good report and through evil report, have for a generation past maintained and upheld the Liberal cause.
It is exactly ten years this spring since the Liberal Party did me the honour to elect me to be their leader. During those ten years we have done a great deal of hard fighting for good causes. And whether in the field of administration or of legislation I am quite prepared to challenge a comparison with any other decade in our modern history. During the whole of that time our relations of mutual confidence and loyalty have never for a moment been strained or even clouded. And as it has been in the past so I trust, and so I believe, it will continue to the end.
The Nation’s One Purpose
You have naturally and rightly given the first place among your resolutions to the affirmation, that all other purposes must be subordinated to the effective prosecution of the war, till a just peace is secured, and the establishment of a League of Nations to prevent war is recognised as the most urgent duty of international statesmanship.
I heartily endorse that resolution; and if I thought that our meeting together, to discuss and to form conclusions on some aspects of the work of reconstruction which must follow the war, was in any way calculated to divert our interests and energies from that paramount object, I should not - and I am certain that you would not - be found in this hall today.
The Military Situation
The development of the military situation during the last two months, both in the West and the East, has been in a high degree favourable to the Allied cause. The German Chancellor, Count Hertling, has admitted only this week to the Reichstag that the great German offensive in France and Flanders, upon which such high hopes were fixed, has completely failed.
It is precisely six months since that offensive was launched under the most promising auspices, and no one would have been more surprised or incredulous than General Ludendorff, if he had been told at the end of last March - when the only question with him was whether he should take Paris, or the Channel ports, or both - that by the end of September he would be fighting his hardest, and with trembling hopes, to retain his hold on the old Hindenburg line.
In two at least of the Eastern theatres - Palestine and Macedonia - our progress after a long pause is marked and significant. Indeed, there has been in the war no campaign more skilfully conceived, or more brilliantly carried out, than that by which General Allenby has already captured the best part of two armies and cleared the Turk out of the Holy Land.
Homage to British Troops
Let us not forget, with all our well-deserved gratitude to our gallant Allies, the conspicuous and in many instances the decisive part in all these operations which has been played by our own British troops. Few indeed are now left of the original Expeditionary Force who left these shores in August, 1914, a body of men, in all the essentials of soldiership, with no superiors in military history. But the men who have taken their places - most of them, be it remembered, civilians who recruited - of their own free will - have rivalled even that heroic example. They have earned the undying homage of their own countrymen and of all friends of freedom everywhere, and not least among them that gallant and illustrious leader, himself one of the chiefs of the original Expeditionary Force, tenacious, modest, resourceful, indomitable, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
The Navy’s Part
Nor should we fail to remember, as perhaps when our eyes are fixed on more dramatic military exploits we are sometimes tempted to do, the vital contribution which today, as throughout the war, is being made to the Allied success by our British Navy. We are told, sometimes by way of reproach, sometimes by way of commendation, that we were unprepared for the war. Unprepared to take the offensive in a war of aggression, we certainly were. Unprepared we were also to take a leading part in a European land campaign in competition with the gigantic armies of the Continental Powers. But we were not unprepared for our own defence or for rendering, as events have proved, invaluable help to an Ally.
At no time in our history was the British Navy better equipped in ships, in armament, in personnel. During long years of peace we spared no care and no money in maintaining, against all possible rivalry, the naval supremacy, which is essential to the safety of these islands and to the unity of our Empire. Few indeed could have dreamt of the part, the controlling part, for such it is, which the Navy could play in a worldwide war.
What have we seen during these last four years? The great German fleet, on which so many millions had been spent and such vast ambitions and hopes were centred, is sealed up in impotence in its home waters. The German flag is not to be seen on cruiser or on merchantman in any of the highways of the ocean. The whole naval activities of the enemy are confined to the piratical adventures of his submarines, which prowl beneath the surface seeking, and too often finding, their prey, in defiance alike of law and of humanity, among innocent passengers, or among the sick and wounded and the nurses devoted to their care.
The safe and rapid transport of troops, the supply of food and of the sinews of industry both to these islands and to the Allies, the progressive and effective constriction with an ever-tightening grip of the outside resources of the enemy - these are the things which have enabled us and the Allies for four years to carry on the war, and which in any event must bring us victory.
Confidence in the Result
I have never doubted - even in the darkest moments I have never doubted - that the continued pressure of the Allied resources - naval, military, and economic - would prove in the long run to be irresistible. It is true that we have lost the help of Russia. But the New World has stepped in to uphold the cause of freedom in the Old; and it was undoubtedly the need for striking a decisive blow, before America could cast her full weight upon the side of the Allies, that led the German High Command to undertake that grandiose and ill-starred offensive of which Count Hertling admits the defeat.
But the more confident our faith in ultimate victory the more it behoves us to be on our guard that the unexampled sacrifices we have made are not wasted or frittered away. They will be wasted - I say it advisedly - unless we can secure what I called a year ago a Clean Peace, and the setting up of a new International Polity which will chain up for ever the Furies of War. I will say a few words, if you will allow me, on each of these two points.
A Clean Peace
First, what do we mean by a clean peace? We mean - I at any rate mean - a peace which attains for the world the objects for which we have been fighting which is clean in the sense that it cleans the slate, but clean also in another and a higher sense: that (as was wisely said here in Manchester the other day) it does not offend the conscience either of the victor or of mankind. You can have no clean peace if you have a continuance of veiled war. A peace which is designed to inflict permanent humiliation, to dismember what is by nature and by affinity united, to leave open wounds - such a peace, as all history shows, is at best but a precarious armistice, and is not worth the parchment on which it is engrossed. The Germans have given us an object-lesson at Brest-Litovsk of what a peace should not be.
The Austrian Note
We have quite recently had a peace overture from the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Burian. There has been much, as I think, rather futile speculation as to what were his motives: whether his proceedings were a manoeuvre or a genuine advance? How far he was the conduit-pipe or the cat’s-paw of Germany? I am quite sure that Count Burian wants peace. No man in Europe has more reason for seeking it and ensuing it; for among all our enemies, not even excluding Turkey, the plight of Austria is the most pitiful - Austria politically disintegrated, economically on the verge of ruin, and yet tied, with or against her will, to the chariot-wheels of a losing cause.
I am bound to say, whatever its motives, that Count Burian’s present suggestion does not commend itself to me as a practical proposition. For what does it come to? The representatives of the various belligerents are to hold a secret confabulation behind closed doors to discuss what are called ‘basic principles.’ I have not - perhaps because I was trained in the old bad school - quite such a horror of what is called ‘secret diplomacy’ as some of my friends. I am prepared, as I think all those who conduct the policy of the Allies are, to explore any and every avenue of peace, but I do not want to find myself or my country bogged and befogged in a jungle. Count Burian has, perhaps, not yet said his last word.
Peace, a real peace, is so immeasurably the greatest blessing that could befall humanity, that neither honest misunderstanding, nor deliberate misrepresentation and concealment, should be allowed to stand in its way. I suspect there is abroad at this moment a great deal of both. Our objects have, as we think, been plainly stated both here and in America, and the oftener, the more clearly, and the more authoritatively they are restated the better.
Count Hertling and Belgium
But let me, without reiterating all the points, take two test cases, the one from the West and the other from the East. Take first the familiar but crucial case of Belgium. Count Hertling, as we know from the speech which he has delivered this week, is quite impenitent about Belgium. ‘Only to defend ourselves,’ he declared, ‘did we invade Belgium’; violating, as he admits - he says so in terms - the most solemn written obligations, in deference to what this pupil of St. Augustine considers the higher law of self-defence.
The repetition of this monstrous and threadbare fiction - for such it is - is accompanied, not for the first time, by the avowal, at once naïf and cynical, that Belgium was offered peace and compensation for damage, if she would only give a right of way through her territory, and a jumping-off ground, for the German Army, which, in obedience to the sacred duty of self-defence, was about to make, by the shortest route, a spring upon Paris. The inference, of course, is that for all that followed - the ghastly series of outrage and devastation which has stamped the history of the German invasion of Belgium with undying infamy - Belgium alone is to blame, and Belgium must bear the consequences. There is no case here at all, Count Hertling implies, for indemnity or reparation. And this comes from the mouth of the statesman who is at this moment engaged, with the connivance of the Bolshevik Government, in extorting £300,000,000 from Russia on, as one of his colleagues calls it, ‘a carefully adjusted calculation of German claims.’
The Plight of Russia
Belgium, you may say, is an old story; so let me for a moment go farther east - to Russia. That great country, which has contributed so much to the intellectual and spiritual wealth of mankind, and which in the first two years of the war was a bulwark of strength to the Allied cause, exhibits at this moment one of the most tragic spectacles in history.
Its stupendous unity, which in the past has weathered so many storms, is for the moment torn and riven into discordant fragments. Moscow and Petrograd, the ancient and the modern capitals, are dominated and ravaged by cutthroats and criminals. The Autocracy is dead; the Duma is no longer alive; Bolshevism is tottering into a dishonoured grave. Germany, naturally enough, is making the most of the opportunity to exact so-called indemnities, and to develop disintegration, in order that she may find political and economic compensations in the East for the failure of her attack on the liberties of the West.
There are in Russia itself some sporadic centres and rallying-points. The Czecho-Slovaks are waging a gallant fight against the hordes of German and Austrian prisoners; and there has been of late at Murman, at Archangel, and in Eastern Siberia, a tardy - perhaps a necessarily tardy - intervention of the Allies. That intervention, I wish to say clearly, is justified, and can only be justified, by a purpose which is conformable with their settled policy in the war - not to dictate to Russia how she shall be governed, not, as the Germans aim at doing, to exploit her for the profit of others; but to give her a free chance, when her internal fever has run its course, to become the mistress of her own future, and, under whatever form of government she pleases, to resume her place and her authority among the great Powers of the world.
Lesson of the Two Examples
I have taken those two examples to show to Count Burian and his Allies that the only peace which we can accept is one that guarantees to nations, small or great, security against sinister and predatory ambitions, and the full right of self-determination. And, let me add - and it shall be the last thing I shall say on that part of the subject - that in the official statements made to the Reichstag this week the Vice-Chancellor, Herr von Payer, not only adheres to the Brest-Litovsk and supplementary Treaties, but expressly refuses to submit them to the Peace Conference. In this connection he advises his countrymen - I quote his own words - not entirely to forget the old saying, ‘Try to hold what you have.’ If this were to be regarded as the last word of Germany it might well fill those who hope, as we all do, for peace, with despair. Let us trust that it is the last word, not of Germany, but of a dying era of military and bureaucratic dominance.
A New International Polity
I come now, before I pass to matters of domestic concern, to the other point I mentioned as with us the governing object - the creation of a new International Polity. A great deal has already been said and written about what is called the League of Nations. There has recently been formed among us a ‘League of Free Nations Association,’ which is promoted, I am glad to say, by men of all political parties. And I should like here to repeat one or two points which I have already brought before them. They are both negative and positive. Let me briefly recapitulate them.
Negatively, in the first place, the proposed League does not aim at or involve the separation or curtailment of the political independence of the constituent States. Secondly, still less does it seek to obliterate or fuse the national individualities of the peoples who compose those States. Each will continue to pursue its own lines of self-development, and to contribute its special gifts or faculties or services to the common stock of mankind. Those are negative points.
What ought it to aim at on the positive side?
First it seeks to do for the community of nations what the law and opinion have already done for civilised society - to abolish war as a mode of settling disputes. Next, for this purpose it must equip itself with machinery for intervention and conciliation and judicial arbitrament in all international differences. Thirdly, in the last resort, its decisions must be armed with the sanction of the common will, and if need be of joint coercive action. Further, it will become in time - and I attach great importance to this - the clearing-house of discussion and negotiation between States through which - and this ought to give satisfaction to those who are suspicious of secret diplomacy - covenants and treaties will pass before they take their place upon the international statute book.
Again, it will open its doors, and offer a seat at its council table, from time to time, to all States without exception who can give an earnest of their loyalty to its purpose and its spirit. It will take under its protection, and secure against aggression and selfish exploitation, the smaller States, and the backward and unorganised races and territories of the world. And, lastly, it will seek by all legitimate and pacific methods to extend both the area and the effectiveness of its operations, and will be free to treat as outside the comity of nations such States as still adhere to militarism and the rule of force.
Revelations of the War
I agree with the Chairman that this is a scheme not so Utopian as it still sounds to many people. The war has been in more ways than one, if I may adapt an old phrase, an Evangelic Preparation for such a League. In the first place, by its revelation of the infinite and still not fully developed potentialities of the application of science to the machinery of destruction, it has already gone a long way to convince the world that war under modern conditions has become a form of insanity and suicide. Nothing is more certain than that, if the competition in armaments is allowed to continue for the lifetime of another generation, the next great war will bring about the practical extinction of civilisation, and the permanent crippling of the human race.
But, further, the war has also shown, and I speak here more particularly of the experience of ourselves and of our Allies, the practical possibilities of co-operation and of joint counsel and action, between nations as diverse as any in the world in their traditions, their methods, and their habits. The inter-Allied pooling of resources in money and credit, in men and materials, in strategy and policy, which has been progressively developed since the beginning of the war, has submerged, if it has not effaced, many old national and racial barriers. True, this has been brought about, and is being carried on, under the driving stress of a supreme emergency. But the effect will remain. Insularity, particularism - call it by whatever name you please - will be found to have lost its edge, and unity of counsel and action, co-operation of each in the common purposes of all, will be felt to be not only a rational but a natural scheme of international relationship.
Its embodiment in a working constitution will, I agree, tax to the uttermost the statesmanship of the world. It is a matter for hard, clear, co-operative thinking. I cannot but think myself - and I throw out the suggestion for what it is worth - that the time has come when the best heads among the Allies, who can be spared from combatant and administrative work, might be assembled in conference to attack the practical sides of the problem, upon the solution of which the future of mankind so largely depends.
The General Election
To turn now to our domestic problems. One question is uppermost in the thoughts and perhaps on the lips of all practical politicians like ourselves. Is there or is there not going to be a general election? This Parliament, elected for a maximum term of seven years, came into existence in January 1911. In that same year, by the Parliament Act, it voluntarily curtailed its own term and that of its successors to five years, which would have brought it to an end in January 1916 - nearly three years ago. Since then it has five times extended its own life. I was myself responsible for several of those extensions, and I have supported them all. On what ground? Simply that it was in the highest degree undesirable to have a General Election during the war; and with each fresh extension we have entertained, I won’t say an expectation, but a hope, that the additional term might carry us over the duration of hostilities.
The result, it is not to be denied, has been a very anomalous Parliamentary situation. Those who were elected in 1911 and still remain, have an ever-waning title to act as the living mouthpieces of the constituencies which they ostensibly represent; those who have been returned at by-elections have come in under a party truce, which binds them above and before all things to support the Government of the day in the prosecution of the war.
The consequence is - I admit that fully - that we have a House of Commons in whose arteries and veins the old blood is drying up, and the new blood is not free to flow. It is, through no fault of its own, a growingly impotent body, in which even criticism is severely restrained, and there is no place for constructive power. The passing of the Reform Act, with its new electorate and its new constituencies, is, of course, also a very material fact. I have put the case strongly, as strongly as I can, but not, I think, more strongly than it deserves.
A Conclusive Reason against it
But there is one dominating reason which seems to me to be conclusive against holding a General Election at the present time, or until we have reached, or at any rate are within sight of, the end of the war - the very same reason which, as I have said, has induced the House of Commons on five occasions artificially to prolong its life. That reason is in as full operation today as it has ever been. What is that reason? It is founded upon an absolutely certain forecast of what a General Election under such conditions would really mean. It would mean the distraction of interest and the dissipation of energy. It would show the impossibility of concentrating attention on the future while the present, with its daily vicissitudes of fortune, absorbs our attention and anxiety. It would be embarrassed by the insuperable difficulty of presenting clean-cut issues. And more than all, it would mean the certainty that in appearance, at any rate, and perhaps in reality, national unity would be broken, just at the time and in the circumstances when it is of paramount urgency that it should be preserved.
That unity from the first day of the war has been our sovereign asset. To it has been largely due the weight and volume, moral and material, which we have contributed to the struggle, and which in no vainglorious spirit we may say saved the Allied cause and, in the most critical hour of their fortunes, the liberties of Europe and the world. In my judgment a General Election under such conditions would be inconsistent with the best interests of this nation and of the Allied cause.
The Liberal Programme
Why then, it may be asked, are we here today? The answer is that, whenever an election is to take place, it is high time to think out our views, and to state them explicitly, as to the problems which will confront us when victory is attained. I am almost afraid to use the word ‘programme.’ In these days we have got into the habit of thinking and of talking in terms of khaki, and I ought perhaps to speak of ‘a series of objectives.’
You may call a particular plant a rose, or, if you please and are anxious to avoid old associations, you may call it an odoriferous vegetable. It is a matter of taste. It is a matter of nomenclature. The thing will smell the same, and will be the same, and therefore I do not think we need apologise in the least for discussing what used to be called the programme - except perhaps to those people who think that, when the waters of the war subside, all the old party distinctions, which have been temporarily submerged, will prove to have been permanently obliterated. Some of them even go so far as to discern in imagination a new earth, with a new set of commandments, and with new rules both of logic and of arithmetic. Our old Liberal convictions, derived from reflection and experience, from the teaching of history, above all from those momentous controversies of which our own country, with its free public life, has been the secular arena - all these, according to some people, are to be reviewed and revised with the presumption, apparently, that the bulk of them have become outworn and out of date. Some, at any rate, we know are to be regarded as tunes which have had their day, and which are now only fit to be played upon a hurdy-gurdy at some rustic fair. I do not hold these views, though I hope I am not blind to the lessons of the war. I make no apology for meeting you as an organisation of Liberals; for addressing you as an unrepentant fellow Liberal; and for congratulating you on the Resolutions of your Conference, which seem to me instinct with the old and undecayed spirit of Liberalism.
Policy after the War
I cannot, of course, in the compass of a single speech, attempt in the time which is open to me to cover the whole ground, and if I leave, as I must leave, a number of topics untouched, it is not from indifference to their urgency, still less through dissent, so far as I have been able to get possession of them, from your conclusions. So throughout what I am going to say let it be clearly understood that I am dealing with matters which will call for treatment, when, and not until, the war comes to an end.
Ireland: An Urgent Matter
I must, however, on the threshold, make one exception in regard to which the need for action is, in my judgment, immediate from the point of view alike of policy and of old honour. I refer, of course, to Ireland, where the situation - already delicate, but, after the labours of the Convention, not without hope - has been entangled by gratuitous difficulties. We are witnessing the easily foreseeable, and indeed predicted, consequences of the crude mishandling this last spring of the Irish problem of military service. I purposely do not go further into that aspect of the case, except to express the hope that Ireland, including Ulster, will, of her own free will, make good the quota which she owes to the defence of world-wide freedom. I desire rather to insist upon that which is fundamental and involves, as I have said, both the honour of our statesmen and, what is equally important, the moral authority of this country as a partner in the Allied cause. We are pledged all of us without slackness and without delay, to arrive at a solution of the secular problem of the relations of these two islands. There is nothing in the whole sphere of our Imperial and domestic policy so immediate in its urgency, or so far-reaching in its consequences, as that, when we meet in the council chamber of peace, we should do so free from the reproach that the only part of our Empire to which we are afraid or unable to grant self-government is that which lies nearest to our own shores.
Provision for the Fighting Men
My next topic is one which belongs to the intermediate stage between the cessation of hostilities and the actual settlement of peace. I refer to a Resolution, which I see you have put in the forefront of your domestic programme, dealing with the rights of Soldiers and Sailors after the war. We agree that the first charge, not on the compassion and sympathy only, but on the sense of justice of the community, is an adequate provision for our sailors, soldiers, and airmen who have come back from serving at the front. And that obligation comes under three heads. First, we have to find employment for those who are able to work. Secondly, we have to provide training for those who are incapacitated for their old occupations in new employments, and assistance in giving them a start. And, thirdly, we must secure for those who are wholly disabled pensions adequate for comfort, and, what is hardly less important, administered with elasticity and expedition.
Back to Liberty
The first result of peace, to which we must look and for which we must work, is the restoration of domestic Liberty. The people have submitted, and on the whole have submitted uncomplainingly, for the sake of the war, to many fetters on their habitual and traditional freedom. The ordinary rights of free expression have been curtailed, and in some cases altogether abrogated, and we have been taught what it is to live under the regime of a censored and controlled Press. This is a price, high as it is, which most of us think was worth paying, and which all of us at any rate have been willing to pay, to prosecute and to win the war. But limitations such as these ought not to last an hour longer than the necessity which led to their being imposed and endured.
Two Liberal Principles
And this suggests to me some considerations of a general character, which, as Liberals, we ought to keep steadily in view in all the processes of after-war reconstruction. There are two principles for which Liberals have always fought, and which will be just as vital to the healthy development of the nation in the future as they have been in the past. The first is that Liberty is a good thing in itself and for itself. Without it, you can never provide that equality of opportunity, which is the foundation of social justice, and the only means by which a nation can make the best use, in the interests of all, of its human resources. Without it, you will never secure the free scope of personal initiative and self-development, which we Liberals believe to be just as essential in the domestic life of the country as, in this war, we have declared it to be in the international domain. The restoration of liberty, complete, unfettered, and at the earliest possible moment, is, in our view, the gateway of the future.
There is a second principle which runs through and connects a hundred Liberal causes, on which I have often insisted as your leader in days gone by - the subordination of special interests and the privileges of particular classes to the general good. You will find that that, too, has practical applications in the work of reconstruction. Negatively, it rules out all attempts at setting up the ascendancy - even though draped under democratic disguises - of any new class with special rights and claims of its own. Positively, it indicates the expediency, not indeed of anything in the nature of a centralised direction of industry - we have before our eyes beacons which ought to warn us off that track - but of keeping under control in the common interest, to avoid the risks of monopoly, and to safeguard social exigencies, such enterprises (I give them only as samples) as those which deal with transit, the supply of light and power, and the production and consumption of intoxicating drink. The principle is plain, though there will always be room in a party of free thought like our own for divergence as to, the limits at any given time of its application.
Free Trade in the War
There is another domain in which both these principles come into play and in which there are abundant signs that we may have to defend them against invasion and attack. I refer to International Trade. I have read with satisfaction and with complete agreement your Resolution on Free Trade. Talk of preparation for war! Under our system of Free Trade, which secured for us a constant influx of the food and raw material we needed, we had become the carriers and bankers, the clearing‑house and the financial centre of the whole world. I spoke a few moments ago of the supreme services rendered by the Navy. But where would the Allied cause have been without our merchant ships? How, without those ships, could even the resources of America in men and material have been made, as they have been this year, effectively available? And, as every one knows who has studied the facts, it is no exaggeration to say that, but for the stability and resourcefulness of our financial system, our Allies could not possibly have been equipped to supply their own needs, and to sustain the unexampled strain of the conflict. Free Trade has enabled us to play a dominating part in the whole course of this war.
We are told, I know, that the war has shown that in these matters we have much to learn and still more to unlearn. Some of our would-be instructors seem to think that the best way of keeping us up to date is by the reproduction of arguments that were obsolete and fallacies that were exploded, more than fifty years ago. We have never preached - I never have, and I have stood on as many Free Trade platforms as probably any man in this country - Free Trade as an abstract or absolute doctrine. We have always been content with the more modest and more relevant proposition that, for a country in the geographical and economic situation of our own, it is a demonstrable necessity. And there is nothing whatever in the experience of the war that tends in any way to the conclusion that, after peace, we shall be better off by any system of Tariffs, preferential or differential, punitive or prohibitive.
Liberals and Imperial Unity
We Liberals are as much concerned as any body of men or women can be to strengthen the ties which unite our Empire, an Empire unique in history, existing and held together because, alone among empires, it combines a common loyalty and fraternity with complete local autonomy. We should never dream, not a man among us, of seeking to enforce upon any of our great Dominions fiscal arrangements which were felt by its people to be inconsistent with their own richest and fullest economic development. And the Dominions in turn, as we know from declarations of their responsible statesmen, would never dream of interfering, directly or indirectly, with the fiscal policy of the Mother Country. There are many ways - as is shown in the admirable Report of the Royal Commission on Dominions Trade - in which the aspirations felt throughout the Empire for closer industrial relations, and for a better and fuller organisation of its vast and varied resources, could be given concrete shape with practically universal consent. For that purpose, among many others, we ought to welcome the more frequent and intimate interchange of counsel between statesmen of the Dominions and our own.
Nor, again, in this connection are we, as your Resolutions show, insensible to the risks, the possible risks, to national security of dependence for some essential industries upon foreign sources of supply. But the proper way of providing the required safeguards is not by tariffs, which are the simplest and surest road to private profiteering, but by the State giving direct help and encouragement, in such a form, and upon such terms, that, while the necessary quantum of production at home is secured, the resulting gain goes not into the pockets of individuals but into the coffers of the community.
The Economic Boycott
A great deal of loose language is used in regard to what is called ‘the economic boycott,’ and the so-called Paris Resolutions are sometimes twisted to a purpose for which they were never intended. An economic boycott is a perfectly legitimate, and may be the most effective available weapon, whether of offence or defence, for a belligerent State. It may be expedient and even necessary to employ it - I should certainly not hesitate to see it employed - for the purpose of obtaining just terms and a lasting peace. It may well, too, form a part of the armoury by which a League of Nations can enforce the common will against some refractory or aggressive State or group of States. But to use it as a method of conducting guerrilla operations, after war is over, would be wholly inconsistent with what I have said about the requisites of a clean peace.
Finance: The War Debt
I will say a word, and only a word - I don’t want unduly to tax your patience - on one particular aspect of the post-war problem which in a sense overshadows all the others. I mean National Finance. I dealt with the matter at some length when addressing your Council at Derby last March. Let us see what the situation will be.
Even if the war comes to an end in the current financial year, our gross debt will amount to little less than 8,000 millions. If you add to the charge, for interest alone on that colossal sum, the pre-war expenditure of about 200 millions, the new items, the necessity of which we all acknowledge - pensions and allowances, education, health, housing, and other indispensable social services - you will reach a total annual burden surpassing our power of apprehension and almost of imagination.
The first duty of the country will be to lighten as rapidly as may be the load of the deadweight debt. We here have not a bad record in that matter. When I took office in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Government in December 1905, I had to face what in those Lilliputian days seemed the vast addition to the National Debt resulting from the Boer War. During the three years or thereabouts that I was Chancellor of the Exchequer I paid off, out of taxation and savings, the sum of 41 millions, or at a rate on the total capital of the then National Debt of 22 per cent per annum. What was important then is not only important but essential now.
Two Ways Only of Meeting It
There are two ways, and two ways only, in which it can be done: in the first place, by adding to the national production of wealth through increased efficiency in the application of capital and labour; and secondly, by a more equitable adjustment of the burden of taxation on the basis of relative ability to bear it.
Health and Well-being of the People
Two subjects or groups of subjects, both vital to reconstruction, still remain. There is one group, a most important one, which concerns the health and the homes of the nation, the care and education of children and young people, and the provision for those who, through disability or old age, have fallen out of the ranks of industry. I do not agree with the statement that in regard to these matters, particularly as to housing and to public health, we are behind the other great countries of Europe. On the contrary, I believe that we are still well ahead of them, thanks to the sustained efforts of Parliament for nearly fifty years and the ever-growing energy and sympathy both of local authorities and private philanthropy. Diseases which were the scourge of the population have been almost stamped out; sanitation in all its forms has advanced in a degree that can be hardly measured; and our educational system, improved and supplemented, as I am glad to think it will be under Mr. Fisher’s Act of the present year, would have seemed to our grandfathers the wildest and most extravagant of Socialistic experiments.
Housing and Old-age Pensions
But though we may be ahead of others, we are by no means abreast of our own duties and responsibilities. I take Housing. It is estimated that when the war is over something like 400,000 new houses ought to be built, without taking into account the heavy arrears in repairing those which exist, and in demolishing and clearing away both urban and rural slums. All this has got to he made good, and without delay, by the co-operation of central and local activity. And when we remember the rise produced by war conditions both in cost of building and in rate of interest, we have here a new head of expenditure, which, heavy as it promises to be, we are bound to undertake as the best form of national insurance.
Let me add in regard to Old-age Pensions, which I had the honour and the privilege of incorporating as part of the last Budget I introduced in the House of Commons, that, after ten years’ experience, admirable as in most ways has been the working of that system - it is the most economical of all our services in administration by a long way - I think the time has come when we might well have an authoritative inquiry into the whole matter, particularly in regard to the position of the thrifty poor.
A National Minimum
In this, and indeed in every chapter of Reconstruction, I should be prepared to adopt for myself and to recommend to my friends as a convenient and appropriate watchword and summary the formula of a National Minimum. In concrete terms, I understand that to mean that we ought not to be content, until every British citizen, man, woman, and child, has in possession or within reach a standard of existence, physical, intellectual, moral, social, which makes life worth living, and not only does not block but opens the road to its best and highest possibilities.
Capital and Labour
The same idea of a National Minimum ought to inspire and direct the inevitable and much-needed reconstruction of the relations between capital and labour. I observe that you have here in your Resolution - and rightly as I think - taken the Whitley Report as the point of departure. Let me summarise in two or three sentences what I think ought to be our aim. We must provide, first, by means of the machinery of Industrial Councils and Trade Boards a minimum wage. We must provide, next, for shorter hours, especially in the more arduous industries, for definite and regular holidays, and for a proper system of superannuation. Lastly, there is the most urgent and most difficult problem of all: unemployment. There is no task on which the State could more fruitfully expend its thought and energy than the prevention of unemployment, which means the discouragement of slack work, and, what is perhaps still more important, the banishment from the lives of the workers of the spectre of insecurity.
A Question for the Democracies
It is only on those lines that the mass of our population can be secured in the possession of adequate facilities for home life, and of the leisure which it needs for educational progress and for free human development. I might easily enlarge my survey and extend my topics and yet leave a large part of the field of reconstruction not only uncovered, but untouched. But I will, in concluding, ask permission to leave with you one guiding thought.
The great question for the democracies of today is how to reconcile, both in separate societies and in the larger family of nations, the claims of free self-development with the restraints and obligations, which are needed for the safeguard of common interests, and for the attainment of common ideals. This war, with all its tragedies of suffering and sacrifice, is purifying and cleansing the atmosphere. We can neither go back to the past, nor rest in the present; but out of the lessons and the experience of both we may build up a worthier fabric for the future of humanity.