Leader's speech, Birmingham 1919
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
This conference was the first held since the end of World War I and the Peace Conference in Paris, which created the League of Nations. It was also the first since the Liberals joined the Conservatives in a Coalition Government, and Asquith accused this body of failing to take the initiative on such issues as housing and Premium Bonds. The Government had also missed a vital opportunity to bring peace to Ireland by proposing to introduce military conscription and a Self-Government Bill on the day after the Irish Convention's report. According to Asquith, the passage of the former measure and the shelving of the latter heralded a return to the days of coercion. Another key issue was trade, where Asquith claimed the Government had betrayed Britain by introducing the Anti-Dumping Bill. This measure would penalise British traders for importing goods from abroad at a lower price than the seller charged in their own country, and establish a Board of Trade with the power to impose a duty on imports. As much of Britain's foreign trade was due to 'dumping', Asquith argued that this measure would greatly harm British interests, resulting in higher prices and protectionism.
It is the greatest possible gratification to me to find myself once more addressing the annual meeting of these great representative Liberal Associations. The Chairman has used language in regard to myself and to my past which, particularly having regard to the evident acknowledgment it provoked from you, touches me deeply. Public life is at all times an arduous and a difficult pursuit. It has its ups and downs; it has its successes and its failures; it has, now and again, the fruition of long-delayed hopes, and, perhaps more often, the postponement of ideals which one had hoped had been possible to attain.
But there is one thing which, to a man - I don’t care to what Party he belongs - who pursues public life in this country in accordance with the best traditions of our historic past, is compensation for failures, is solace for disappointments and gives an added pleasure and intensity to success. What is that thing? It is that throughout it all, he has been able to secure and retain the confidence, loyalty, and trust of those with whom he is working.
The Chairman has tried to arouse by solicitations, and incentives, and suggestions the lurking old Adam which, I suppose, is to be found even in the most placable of mankind. I am not sure, before I have finished, you won’t find some slight manifestations of that melancholy symptom of our fallen nature. In the meantime I will hold myself in such reserve as I can.
Need for the Restoration of Europe
It is a little more than a year since I last had the opportunity of addressing the annual gathering of your Federation. It is a year which will be memorable in history, because it has witnessed the conclusion of the greatest of all wars, and because, also, it has seen the assembling and the work of the Peace Conference, America sitting for the first time at the council chambers of Europe when a prolonged attempt was made to bring into their proper proportions, and to give their due results to, the effects of the war.
It was a stupendous task, perhaps passing the wit of man, and while we may regard with satisfaction and with gratitude that many, at any rate, of the purposes for which we entered into the war have, for the time being, been attained, it requires only a modicum of vision and imagination to view the outlook now, a year after the Armistice was signed, with anything but a quiet mind.
Peace After War
For peace, ladies and gentlemen, is not merely a process of liquidation. It is, or ought to be, a new point of departure for the restarting, on better lines, of the renovated machinery of civilisation; and here we must all regretfully admit that there is so far little progress to record.
The economic conditions of a large part of the world, and particularly of Central and Western Europe, are indescribably bad. You cannot get a new life on its legs in communities where the children - we are told something like three to three-and-a-half millions - are perishing, or on the verge of perishing, for the lack of milk; where even the hospitals are wanting drugs; where the work of production so urgently needed cannot be carried on because there is no coal and no raw materials, and where transport, both internal and external, is not only lamentably deficient, but prohibitively dear.
A General Election Notion Exploded
I want particularly to emphasise at the moment that this condition of things, lamentable as it is in itself, has its reactions elsewhere. The crude notion last December - it was much in fashion at the last General Election - that at the end of the war the victors would walk off with a huge indemnity in their pockets while the vanquished were to be penned up for a probationary period in economic isolation - that notion, so serviceable for electioneering purposes, has in the last year been rudely exploded.
The primary need of the world at this moment is, as we all know, to get to work again, each area devoting itself to those forms of production for which it has the greatest natural or acquired facilities, with the full recognition of the interdependence of all upon each, and each upon all. That is Free Trade expressed in international terms and adapted to existing conditions. To bring that about was the primary duty of those Powers who, on the victorious termination of the war, were allied and associated in the war.
Russia: The Duty of Britain
And I must add, if you turn from the economic to the political outlook, it is almost equally overclouded. The situation on the shores of the Adriatic is grave and perilous. The young States which have either been born again or born for the first time, are struggling with the hazards of a storm-beaten and unsheltered infancy, and behind and over them all, there hangs the problem of the future of Russia.
We can be thankful - I, at any rate, am devoutly thankful - that after many vacillations, after what I regard as the fruitless expenditure of vast sums drawn from the British taxpayer, which our Exchequer can ill afford to waste, we have at last withdrawn - I hope I am right in saying - by sea as well as on land from any participation in her domestic and internal struggle.
We can never forget - we never ought to forget - the magnificent and devoted service which Russia rendered in the early years of the war for the cause of freedom. It is not for us - I say it deliberately - it is not for us or for any outsider to prescribe for her the lines of her self-development. With her enormous natural resources, both in material and men, she must always be one of the dominating factors in the world.
Our one and only interest is to see her - whatever may be the ultimate form of her government - a free and friendly State, and we shall best contribute to that end not by taking sides, openly or in disguise, in her internal struggles, but by seizing and going out to meet every opening towards appeasement and the return of normal national life.
The Government, I regret to say, have spoken on these matters with uncertain and discordant voices, but I am sure that in what I have said just now I am giving voice to the predominant, the practically unanimous, judgment of the Liberal Party.
America And The League Of Nations
One word more before I pass from these external matters. By far the most hopeful, and, as many of us believe, the most fruitful, result of the Paris Conference was the accession of all the States which were there to the solemn covenant which goes by the name of the League of Nations. But here again the prospect is for the moment uncertain. In America there are great difficulties in accepting and in embodying the Paris Covenant. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not for us to transmit homilies or sarcasms to our friends across the water; they are the best judges of their own affairs. They are wedded by a long tradition to the Monroe doctrine which vetoes the interference of Europe in purely American affairs. All these things are matters they have to consider, and as I venture to do on behalf of the Liberals of this country, we can only express unobtrusively, but with great emphasis and with full conviction, our hope that as America - the United States of America - has played a splendid, disinterested, and in some respects a decisive part in this great war, so she may feel that the obligation arising from spontaneous service rendered to the cause of humanity and of freedom may lead her to undertake her share in the responsibilities of the League of Nations.
Experiment of Governing by Coalition
Now let us come nearer home. The outstanding feature of our domestic politics during the last twelve months has been the experiment of governing the country by a Tory-Liberal Coalition. Those who declined, as I did - and who still decline, as I do - to be parties to it, and who foresaw, as we did, and protested themselves against the inevitable consequences, suffered a severe electoral reverse. The Independent Liberals who went to the new House of Commons were in numbers a mere remnant, but a remnant which, under the resourceful and sagacious leadership of my right hon. friend, Sir Donald Maclean, has earned for itself a most honourable place in the annals of free Liberalism.
But, ladies and gentlemen, the question I want to put is this: How does that election and the verdict of which that election was the vehicle, look now, after more than twelve months’ experience? How, above all, does it present itself to Liberals?
An Impossible Compromise
I remember when I was a boy there was a famous essay or lecture by an eminent Nonconformist divine which had the title, ‘Is it possible to make the best of both worlds?’ At this distance of time I am afraid my memory does not enable me to say whether he answered the question in the affirmative or in the negative, or, like a judicious theologian, arrived at a compromise between the two.
But there is a kindred question which sometimes suggests itself to me, and which I am sure must have exercised a good many of my Liberal friends. It is this: Is it possible to make the best of both parties?
We read very often, almost every day now, of great amalgamations in the industrial and financial world, so many shares of one company exchanged for so many shares in another company which has absorbed the first. I am very much afraid that some of my Liberal friends who went into the great amalgamation in December last will find that for every Liberal share they contributed they received two Tory shares in exchange.
A Government That Dare Not Give a Lead
I won’t enlarge on minor points. I might say something on the deplorable flaccidity with which, under the conditions of Coalition life, questions of the gravest moment are almost habitually thrown on the floor of the House of Commons by a Government which dare not announce a policy or give a lead of its own. We have seen that recourse during the last few weeks in the case the peculiarly discreditable case - of the Aliens Bill, in the case the other day of the continuance of the unemployment dole, and apparently we are going to see it again next week in the case of Premium Bonds.
If ever there was a question on which the Government ought to have a mind and have the courage to declare and give effect to its mind, it is the case of the proposal, which I don’t hesitate to condemn as an old financier myself, as the attempt to introduce, contrary to our best and finest traditions, the spirit of gambling. I venture to predict, with confidence, that it will be eventually, from the practical point of view, the greatest failure and frost which has ever been known.
Nor can I dwell for more than a moment on the extraordinary dealings of the Government with the question of housing. They have been at it 12 months, and we are told now that on the largest figure there are 124 houses brought into habitable existence. Meanwhile we have had a tornado of recriminations between the responsible Ministers - deep calling to deep - Lord Downham to Dr. Addison, Dr. Addison to Lord Downham - with the result that the one concrete proposal now left is the crude suggestion that you are to dump down £150 for every house completed.
As to finance, I have had several opportunities during the autumn of explaining my view of the expedients made by the Government. We have seen gross miscalculations in revenue, expenditure, and deficit. We have seen little pinchbeck preferences which took in none of us, and least of all our shrewd fellow subjects in the Dominions.
We have seen absolute failure to deal with the two most urgent financial dangers, the extent of the floating debt and our inflated currency.
Tragedy And Farce
The Chancellor’s Blind Financial Policy
We have seen an alternation on the Parliamentary stage of tragedy and farce; we have seen, to put it shortly, a total absence of anything like range of vision, firmness of touch and fertility of resource, and the net result is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government, of whom he is the mouthpiece, have nothing to give us but a blind, bland confidence that somehow, somewhere or another something will turn up.
I pass all these things by because I want, during the short time I am going to address you, to deal with two matters which are even more vital to us as Liberals, because in both fundamental Liberal principles are at stake. The first is the case of Ireland.
It is a commonplace of historians that the history of the relation between these two islands is a long record of misunderstanding and of missed opportunity, but in the whole of that long record there has surely been nothing more fatuous and more futile than the dealings of the Coalition Government with Ireland during the last two years. Memories are short; people’s interests shift rapidly, so let me in two or three sentences recall the history to you.
A Tragedy of Missed Opportunities
In March last year a representative body, the Irish Convention, made its report. It was not a unanimous report, but was made by a Convention to which the great Irish patriot, Mr. John Redmond, devoted the last months of his life, and it developed a greater measure of actual agreement, and, still more, a faculty of free and frank give-and-take unknown in the previous history of Ireland. What happened? The Government seized the opportunity for a blunder, and a blunder of the most colossal kind. On the very morrow of the presentation of that report, when the omens - I have watched this matter for thirty years, and I say it deliberately - when the omens for a fair, equitable, and agreed settlement of the Irish problem were more favourable than they have been in the lifetime of anyone here.
On the morrow of that report they proposed to apply military conscription to Ireland. That proposal was bitterly resented and strongly opposed by the Constitutional Nationalist Party. I myself - I take no credit for prescience in the matter - I myself warned them of its inevitable consequences. The Government, at the same time, pledged themselves to bring in a Self-Government Bill and to resign if the House of Lords failed to pass it.
That was in March and April of 1918. What followed? The Conscription Bill was pushed through and became law, although no attempt has been made to enforce it. The Self-Government Bill was put on one side and up to this moment has never seen the light of day. Military government, enforced by an Army of Occupation, was set up in Ireland, and the office of Lord-Lieutenant was entrusted to a Field-Marshal who, so far as the world knows, has not any qualifications for a most delicate and responsible post except such distinction as he may have won on the battlefield.
The hopes raised by the Convention were ruthlessly wrecked. The constitutional party - the party of Mr. Redmond and Mr. Dillon - had during the sitting of the Convention been gradually, but surely - people have forgotten this - recovering its authority in Ireland. In these months no fewer than three by-elections were won from the Sinn Fein camp, but now it was hopelessly discredited in the eyes of its Nationalist constituents, and at the General Election in December was swept out of Parliamentary existence. Sinn Fein was allowed to become great by this deliberate blundering and miscalculation, and worse than that, Sinn Fein was allowed to become the dominant factor in Irish national life. That was the stage we had reached at the time of the General Election of last year. Another year has passed without any attempt to remedy the broken promises of the Government. While we have been joining in Paris in giving free self-determination to Poles, to Czecho-Slavs, to Jugo-Slavs, to Arabs, and to Armenians, and bringing into existence a League of Nations for the world at large, we have at the same time the unspeakable humiliation of witnessing, and letting the whole world witness, close to our own doors our fellow subjects in Ireland the daily victims of the tragi-comedy of a crudely and clumsily administered system of military law.
‘Back to Coercion’
Now, by way of climax, while we are officially informed that a Cabinet Committee with a strong infusion of Ulster Covenanters is hammering out a still undiscovered scheme of up-to-date Home Rule, our almost exhausted faculty of amazement and indignation receives a further shock in the announcement of the Proclamation of Sinn Fein.
In a word, we are back to the worst days of coercion - coercion unveiled and unashamed. What a letter of introduction to a Home Rule Bill! By whom is it done? That is the question which we have got to answer. It is done by a Liberal Prime Minister, by a Liberal Chief Secretary, and by a Liberal Home Secretary. It is done in a Cabinet in which three out of five of the Secretaries of State are Liberals; and the Minister of Education who, if not the parent, is to wheel the perambulator of this new bantling, is also a Liberal.
A Lead to Liberalism
I speak strongly on these matters. (Great cheering.) All my political life has been given to the cause of Ireland. (A Voice: ‘Give us a lead.’) I am trying to give you a lead. I say to you this - You, the National Liberal Federation, and that great body of Liberals whom you represent in every part of this kingdom - if Liberalism and the Liberal Party is going to tolerate or condone this betrayal of their past traditions, they will deserve the disaster which will certainly be their doom.
Was it for this that Mr. Gladstone gave the labours and sacrifice of his heroic old age? Was it for this, to come later down, that under my leadership you fought and vanquished, after two General Elections, the obstructive power of the House of Lords? Let us be thankful that we took hostages from fortune.
Through the operation of the Parliament Act we put the Home Rule Bill on the Statute Book, and in that fact we have at this moment the best, indeed the only security that the cause for which our party laboured for thirty years shall not founder among the rocks and shoals of the Coalition.
Anti-Dumping Bill: The Paris Resolutions Examined
I pass for two or three minutes to another betrayal. I use plain language. It is another betrayal, equally flagrant, in that portentous birth of this ill-assorted union, the Anti-Dumping Bill. That is a measure on which I should feel it difficult to speak seriously, so full is it of the very genius of topsy-turvydom, were it not that it is in direct and irreconcilable contradiction to the fundamental principles, not only the fiscal, but the political and constitutional principles, of the Liberal faith.
We could spend the whole afternoon pleasantly and not unprofitably in analysing its manifold and multiform absurdities. But as many of you have to catch your trains I must be content with two or three salient points.
Please let me say by way of parenthesis that any attempt to found this Bill on the so-called Paris Resolutions of 1916 is due to one of two things - either ignorance or disingenuousness. Many people talk or write about these Resolutions, but very few take the trouble to read, and fewer still to study them.
I will quote - not for the first time - what I said in Parliament in 1916 when these resolutions came under discussion. I pointed out they were a reply to a challenge thrown down by Austria and Germany earlier in the year at a conference in Vienna, which aimed at establishing as a condition of their policy at and after the conclusion of the war the complete economic predominance of Germany and Austria.
The preamble to the Paris Resolutions shows that that is the case. The preamble, which recites that aggressive intention, is the keynote of the whole proceedings, and emphasises the fact that the view of the delegates to the conference was that their deliberations were, as I have said, defensive and not offensive. It was a defensive proceeding from first to last. Each Ally was left with a free hand to maintain liberty of action and have regard to the principles which dominated its economic policy. And I added that I was then speaking as head of the Coalition Government.
I said then, ‘I carried on the fight for Free Trade, and I think I might fairly say as strongly as any man in this country, for the best part of ten years. If I did not believe in it I should not be standing here today, and in asking the House to sanction the policy of the Government to approve this resolution I believe we are left free to pursue the policy most fitted to our economic needs and did not surrender any conviction I ever held.’
I need not say, ladies and gentlemen, that the state of things contemplated by the preamble to the Paris Resolutions of continued aggressive economic war after and at the conclusion of the military war by Germany and Austria against this country has not arisen, and is not in the least degree likely to arise. Even if it did, it is clear from the declaration of myself, we should be left perfectly free to pursue our own policy based upon our well-established fiscal lines.
The Bill Itself: A Protectionist Demand
Let us come to the Bill itself. It is a curious production: it is just the kind of thing you might expect from a Coalition in which neither party desires to show its own hand, and has to arrange something which neither can pretend to reject. This Bill has been devised to satisfy what is in substance and effect a Protectionist demand - I say that deliberately - without having recourse to what to Liberal ears is the unpopular and discredited word Tariff. That that is its reason as well as its meaning becomes clearer day by day. It is little less obnoxious to the Tariff Reformers than it is to Free Traders. It professes to be an Anti-Dumping Bill.
What is dumping? I see that in a speech in which I referred to the subject I said that I had been looking in the Oxford Dictionary for a definition of Dumping. I discovered that there is a word which is defined as ‘to throw down in a lump or mass, to deposit,’ the word being properly applied to refuse or rubbish.
No Free Trader has ever contended that his creed required him to sit still with folded arms in face - if such a thing could happen - of concerted and hostile action from abroad, aimed at the destruction of a native industry. Free Traders are not Fiscal Quakers or Quietists. But, as I have pointed out repeatedly - I took an active part in the old fiscal conference conducted by people who understood the words they were using and the issues at stake - I pointed out that, so far as our experience goes, in the first place there has never been a provable case on any considerable scale of dumping, that would satisfy that definition; in the second place, if there had, such dumping is always in the long run suicidal and defeats itself; and in the third and most important place, the measures which you attempt to take - defensive, remedial, or retaliatory - in the long run do you more harm than the dumping against which they are directed.
Rings and Trusts
Danger that Prices may be Inflated
But there is a new definition of dumping in this Bill which has never been attempted by an anti-dumper of even the most extreme type before. It proposes to define as dumping the sale of goods here or - (put in another way) - the purchase by Englishmen of goods coming from abroad at prices below those which the vendor has been able to extract from his own countrymen. If this is the definition of dumping, we in this country are the Arch-dumpers of the world; for a large part of our overseas trade has been due to that very practice. And do you suppose if you are going to penalise so-called dumpers sending their goods in here at lower prices than they charge their fellow countrymen, do you suppose that you are not going to
have retaliation? And who will suffer most in the long run? Undoubtedly ourselves. But let us carry the thing a good deal further than that, because I want all Liberals to realise what this thing actually means. The advantage - a great advantage - to the British purchaser which the lower price would give him is to be withheld in regard to a number of commodities - some of them raw material, such as steel billets and plates, some of them food, such as sugar. The first result will be to carry on and aggravate the rise of prices here at home, which is one of the worst and most dangerous features of our existing economic conditions. A second result would be, it would encourage rings and combinations - one of the great dangers of these days in view of our economic situation - it would encourage rings and combinations to put up their prices when by so doing they could stave off competition from abroad.
Further, it is not only on fiscal but on political and constitutional grounds that we regard this Bill as a fatal infraction of fundamental Liberal principles. A large part of the import trade of the country will be put under the control of a Board of Trade committee, officials, and Members of Parliament. They are to be allowed - a year ago I should not have thought it credible that I should be addressing an audience on this point - this irresponsible body is to be allowed to charge a fee, or, in other words, to impose an import duty. It is not fixed - it is not declared beforehand. It varies with what they consider to be the difference between the selling price abroad and the selling price here, and, of course, it will be affected by the condition of the foreign exchange.
Gentlemen, I would far rather have a tariff - I say it deliberately as a Free Trader - than any such arrangement as that. Why? With a tariff you know where you are. But here, with this nebulous, floating, indeterminate condition of things dependent for the decisions given from time to time by a body not responsible to Parliament, and in the appointment of which the public had no voice, no forward contract could possibly be placed, because you would have, in the first place, the uncertainty as to whether or not the selling price would rise or fall; and next, still greater uncertainty as to how a Government department would determine that question.
Question of Control
A Humorous Tilt at the Geddes Brothers
The House of Commons, which has hitherto been the ultimate, supreme and sovereign taxing power of the country, is to be replaced by this departmental committee, and the trade of the country is to be put in a condition of permanent uncertainty and doubt.
If you think these are abstract considerations, their practical importance may be measured by some of our recent experiences. This apparatus would be put in the hands of practically the Board of Trade, and the President of the Board of Trade is, as you know, a distinguished gentleman, Sir Auckland Geddes.
The other day, wanting something to read when I went to bed, I happened to take down from my shelves, almost at random, one of the Waverley novels and it turned out to be that admirable romance, Redgauntlet. I don’t know whether you remember the hero, at an early stage of his adventures, finds himself at the house of an excellent Quaker who bore the name of Joshua Geddes. I think it was Sharon Grange, and when he entered the parlour the hero observed there had once been an armorial escutcheon over the fireplace, but it had been defaced and nothing was left but the pious motto, ‘Trust in God.’ And he said to his Quaker host it was a pity the arms had been defaced.
A Page from Redgauntlet
I will just read you what Joshua Geddes said in reply - he said: ‘My ancestors were renowned among the ravenous and bloodthirsty men who then dwelt in this vexed country; and so much were they famed for successful freebooting, robbery, and bloodshed, that they are said to have been called Geddes, as likening them to the fish called a Jack, Pike, or Luce, and in our country tongue a Ged - a goodly distinction truly for Christian men! Yet did they paint this shark of the fresh waters upon their shields, and these profane priests of a wicked idolatory, the empty boasters called heralds, who make engraven images of fishes, fowls, and four-footed beasts, that men may fall down and worship them, assigned the Ged for the device and escutcheon of my fathers, and hewed it over their chimneys, and placed it above their tombs; and the men were elated in mind, and became yet more Ged-like, slaying, leading into captivity, and dividing the spoil.’
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether the President of the Board of Trade and his distinguished brother have replaced the family escutcheon or whether they are content, as I hope they are, with the simple and unadorned piety of the family motto. Be on your guard against Gedding; and I say so not without reason, because we have had - I was about to remind you before I made this digression - we have had a very recent and poignant experience in the matter of control of coal.
You all remember the sudden, the unlooked-for, the uncalled-for increase of 6s. a ton; and it is still fresh in our memories now, the equally sudden and unlooked-for remission of 10s. a ton for the domestic as distinct from the trade consumer. And there are uncharitable people, the world unfortunately abounds in such, uncharitable enough to suggest that there was a flavour of electioneering in it. And if that happened, as it did happen in the case of coal, just consider what will be the case when you place in the same hands subjects of far more complicated possibilities, of all sorts of influence, of trade intrigue, of the promotion of interests of this particular industry or that, the whole of the import trade of the country, and allow a department with this record to play battledore and shuttlecock with it.
A Blow to Free Trade
I repeat here, the question I asked you a few moments ago in regard to Ireland. This is a blow not only at the principle of Free Trade in its technical sense, but, what is far more important, at Freedom of Trade in its largest and widest significance. The British trader is to be compelled to go cap in hand to a Government Department to sue for liberty on payment of a fee to import what the consumer needs.
Ladies and gentlemen, has Liberalism come to that? I hope not. If it has, all I can say is this; that it is high time that it sold off the small, slender remnants of its goodwill, that it put up the shutters, and changed its name.
Message to Liberals
Decide Now: You Cannot Serve Two Masters
Now I have only one more word to say. We live in bewildering times. According to the latest message of science, it would seem that infinity itself may after all be only a vicious circle; but nothing has happened, and nothing will happen, to invalidate the plain maxims of commonsense and political honesty, and one of those maxims is that you cannot serve two masters. (‘We serve Mr. Asquith, not Lloyd George.’) No, it is not a question of persons, but a question of principles.
You cannot serve two masters, and my message today, and if I mistake not the temper and spirit of this great gathering it is your message also, to all Liberals from top to bottom is to cut themselves loose before it is too late from these enfeebling and enslaving bonds. You have shown in the resolutions you have been passing during these last two days some of the great tasks which lie before us, and the spirit in which they ought by Liberals to be confronted.
We are not - I have said it before, I repeat it today, and I shall say it again - we are not, and we do not intend to be, a wing either of the Tory or Labour Parties. We are Liberals carrying on the traditions and the policy of a great historic party, never more needed than it is today. And we call upon our fellow Liberals throughout the length and breadth of these kingdoms - everywhere to cut themselves free and to join us in our march.