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Leader's speech, Bradford 1920

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: Bradford


In this speech, Asquith focused on the economy and Ireland. As regards the former, gross national expenditure and taxation were five to six times higher than pre-war levels. Although a large proportion of this increase was due to the war, Asquith claimed the Coalition government had not helped matters by financing military action against the Bolshevist Government of Russia, and by increasing the number of troops in Mesopotamia, which Britain sought to establish as an independent Arab state. To solve this problem, Britain needed to re-establish free trade between nations, and Asquith called on the Party to adopt a policy of retrenchment. In Ireland, meanwhile, civil war had been raging for nearly six months. Despite widespread opposition, the Coalition Government had repealed the Home Rule Act and was enacting legislation to make three-quarters of Ireland a Crown Colony under British control. It was also encouraging a policy of reprisals, as evidenced in the destruction of creameries managed by members of the Irish Republican Army. Asquith condemned this policy and proposed to give Ireland full self-government under Dominion Home Rule.

I am heartily glad to find myself once more here in Bradford, and as the invited guest of our great independent party organisation, the National Liberal Federation. It is almost exactly a year since I addressed your annual meeting in Birmingham. The horizon even then was overclouded, but I think I may say it was brightness itself compared with the outlook, both international and domestic, which we have to confront today.

At the General Election of December, 1918, we were told that the problems of reconstruction, both at home and abroad, were of such a character that they could only satisfactorily be faced and solved by retaining and developing the machinery of the Coalition, to which, under the stress and for the purposes, and only for the purposes, of the war we had had to resort. The old party lines were for the time being, perhaps for an indefinite time, to be obliterated; the odd party spirit was to be exorcised as an evil influence until the time to come when the foundations of the New Jerusalem had been well and truly laid.

‘Credulous Electors’ Deluded

The credulous electors of that day, many of them exercising the vote for the first time - the credulous electors, I say, of that day - were deluded by those plausible sophistries, and they gave a free hand to the Coalition. What was the immediate result?

The Irish Constitutional Nationalist Party was swept out of Parliamentary existence. The Free Liberals were reduced to a fragment of our old party representation - reduced to a condition in the House of Commons of impotence in point of numbers, though not, I am glad to say, in any sense impotent in fighting strength. All honour to Sir Donald Maclean and to those who, under his gallant leadership, held the fort in the darkest days of our party fortunes. The majority of the new House of Commons - and that remains the case today - was a Tory majority independent in its single strength of the combined vote of all other sections.

The Government, in a word, so far as Parliament was con­cerned, was able to do practically what it liked. That was the immediate result of the General Election, and now, after two years, we are able to take stock of what have been its larger developments.

The Financial Situation

Now, for the purpose of what I am going to say to you this afternoon, I shall not attempt any general survey of the ground - it is too large and too wide an area to cover in a single speech - but I shall try to concentrate both my and your attention on the two most important, significant, and urgent aspects of the situation which we have reached.

First of all, I must say a few words as to our economic and financial condition. I dealt with this matter in some detail in a speech I made two or three weeks ago, but I am going to ask you, for a moment or two, to focus your minds on the salient facts. The expenditure, the gross national expenditure of the country, is in this financial year between five and six times what it was in the year before the war. The taxation which is imposed for the purpose of meeting that expenditure is also between five and six times what it then was per head of the population. The cost of our fighting forces - two years, mind you, after actual or, at any rate, ostensible hostilities have ceased - is between three and four times what it was in the last year of peace before the war.

Wasted Millions

The annual surplus for principal and for interest on the National Debt and funded debt is half as much again as the whole expenditure of the country in the year before the war, and we have a floating debt - a thing then unknown, at any rate insignificant - that remains today after all the fumbling and futile expedients resorted to reduce it, at the appalling total of 1,300 millions sterling.

Now, that is a summary of our financial situation. The fact that a large proportion of the increase in our expenditure is due directly, or indirectly, to the necessities of the war and the increased cost of living made two duties more than ever incum­bent upon the stewards of our finances - the Government of the day. What were those duties? The first was rigorously to eschew and repress new and costly adventures, and to accelerate by all practical means the opening out of the markets of the world. The first necessity of mankind when the war came to an end was that the continuous and growing destructive expendi­ture of the years of the war should come decisively and finally to an end.

Costly Military Adventures

What, in fact, have we done? We have spent the best part of a year in financing, at the hands of the British taxpayer, military adventures in Russia, directed against the Bolshevist Government of that country, which from first to last have cost us certainly not less - I myself think a great deal more - than one hundred millions sterling - pure waste.

In Mesopotamia, where we had promised that the Arabs should be established - where we had entered the country as emancipators, pacificators, missionaries for Arab autonomy - in Mesopotamia we have an army which, at this moment, amounts to over 100,000 men; which, when the Estimates were produced to Parliament this year, we were promised should be decreased by one-half, but which in fact - now in November - has been raised by more than one-half. What is it there for? There have been large and terrible casualties, both on the one side and the other. There has been an indefinite expansion and prolongation of our military and semi-military expenditure, and we seem as far as ever - I hope we are not further than ever - from persuad­ing the Arabs that we went there to enable the Arabs to govern themselves.

Economic State of Central Europe

Take again the case of Poland. Since hostilities have ceased in that prolonged and disastrous encounter between Poland and Russia, we have not spent much in money - or in life - but that prolonged campaign might, in my opinion, as I have endea­voured to say in the House of Commons and elsewhere, have well been averted. The postponement which has resulted from it of anything in the nature of economic re-establishment and the opening of free markets in the whole of Central Europe, might have been prevented if we had taken the Covenant of the League of Nations to heart, and if we had insisted - as we ought to and could have insisted - if we had made our will and authority felt at the moment, with conscientiousness - in having those matters referred at the first moment to the arbitrament of that great international authority.

Some people talk a great deal, but not so much as they did at the General Election, about reparations and indemnities. We all agree that for many of the wrongs which were done - wanton and wicked wrongs - by our late enemies in Belgium, and in the North of France and elsewhere, reparation is needed, and ought to be forthcoming. But there again, if our councils had been presided over by wise and far-seeing statesmanship, we should not have left for months, and indeed now for years, the burden, indefinite in duration and amount, hanging around the necks of those vast populations. We should have fixed the sum; we should have prescribed, I won’t say upon generous, but upon reasonable terms, the length of time over which it was to be extended, and we should have been in a far better position than we are now to get any reparation at all.

The Economic Barriers

Even more important than that, we ought to have insisted, as we could have insisted from the first, not as a matter of philanthropy or of idealism, but as a matter of pure business, that the economic barriers between all these different countries should be broken down, and that we, and the rest of the world, America and Europe, should - as they might have done twelve months ago - establish a free, unrestricted, unimpeded current of commercial and business intercourse. That is one aspect of the matter, what I might call the external and international aspect.

To come nearer home - if those gigantic new obligations which we have incurred were to be met adequately it could be only in one way. We have reached, or very nearly reached, the limit of taxation. We have reached, or very nearly reached, the limit of possible borrowing. And that being the case, every con­sideration of prudence and of business prescribed that we should ruthlessly cut dawn unnecessary domestic expenditure. What have we done in fact?

Results of Government Control

I am not going this afternoon into an analysis of detail. We have created new Ministries, we have overstaffed old Ministries - we have an unexampled establishment of persons directly or indirectly in the service of the State. So much so, that at this moment there are, for the purposes of our civil and military administration - I am not talking of soldiers and sailors; I am talking of the actual working administration - there are 90,000 men more in the employ of the State than there were when war broke out.

All that results from the continuance - which ceased to be necessary when the conditions of the war had disappeared - continuance of Government control over the industries of the country. And what has been the result? Look around you. Unemployment is growing in every direction. The swollen national expenditure met out of taxation means an increased cost of production, not only of the necessaries of life, but of all the great commodities in which we deal. We have short time - you have it here in Bradford - we know it in all the great industrial centres of the country. The capital which is needed for the maintenance of existing and the development of new industries is not forthcoming. The men who have become accustomed - as they did become accustomed during the war - to trade on borrowed money, find that they are at the end of their tether.

Retrenchment a Liberal Plank

They find that credit is drying up, and sooner or later we shall have to face this and to cut our losses. I am not sure if any class in the community is sufficiently impressed with the gravity of that situation, but I am perfectly sure that the Government is not. Look at the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. They are a small and relatively impotent band, and superiority in debate counts for nothing in the Assembly. To sum up this aspect of the matter, the first piece of advice I venture to give to the National Liberal Federation, and to those great organisations throughout the country of which it is the focus and centre, is that they should throw all their energies into this campaign. Make retrenchment, as it was in the old days, one of the great planks of the Liberal platform.

The Case of Ireland

Now I come to another, and, in my judgment, in some ways an even more urgent aspect of our domestic situation. I refer to the case of Ireland. In the last two years things in Ireland have gone from bad to worse. There was a fateful and - alas! - a decisive moment when a good judgment might have been fruitful of the most beneficent results, but when, unhappily, a bad judgment was taken - I mean the morrow of the report of the Irish Convention. For the first time in the history of our relations with that country there seemed to be a real, genuine, hopeful, even a fruit­ful prospect of reconciliation upon lines of agreement.

The Coalition Government, with short-sightedness - nay, I would use a stronger expression, with fatuity - selected that very moment to seek to impose on Ireland compulsory military service. It was no use - it did nothing for the successful prosecution of the war. It was accompanied by a promise of a large measure of extended self-government, and while the coercive proposals took their place on the Statute Book - where they remained a dead letter - that promise of self-government was delayed for months and months, for the best part of two years. When finally an attempt was made to redeem it, it was made in a form which the Irish nation with unanimity repudiated and condemned. What is the situation as regards Irish self-government today?

The Home Rule Bill

The Home Rule Act of 1914, for the attainment of which we of the Liberal Party suffered exclusion from office and power for years - for which we fought, first under Mr. Gladstone, then under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and subsequently under my own leadership, under which we passed the Parliament Act - is now about to be repealed, and for it is to be substituted, as the House of Lords appears to have decided yesterday, a scheme which no one in Ireland demands; for which only last week no single Irish member in the House of Commons - not even those who are members of the Government - could be induced to vote; and under which three-fourths of Ireland, in area and population, are going to be reduced (for everybody knows they will not work it and will not accept it) to the status of a Crown Colony and governed by the official Executive.

That shows the worthlessness of what I may call the remedial side of the Coalition policy. Meanwhile, what is going on? Ireland is being given up, has been given up for the best part of six months, to the worst excesses of civil war. The Chief Secretary (Sir Hamar Greenwood) two or three nights ago ended up a speech in defence of the Government policy with this declaration: ‘The question is, as it appears to me, “Who is for Ireland and the Empire, and who is for the assassins?”’ A more insolent piece of rodomontade never in my memory pro­ceeded from the mouth of any responsible Minister. Who is he? A Liberal? (A Voice: ‘A coward.’) He is returned, at any rate, as a Liberal for an English constituency. Who is he to say to you and me who are carrying on what he has deserted - the great Gladstonian tradition - who is he to charge us with sympathy with the assassins? The assassins! The assassins - ­ah! Is that a charge which can he made from one side without reflecting on the other?

What is the Liberal Attitude? 

What is the Liberal attitude in regard to this matter? To say that we have any sympathy with, or any disposition to condone the foul and cowardly attacks on the police and the military, such as those which culminated in the brutal murders last Sunday in Dublin - to say that you and I, or those whom we represent in the country, have anything to say, I won’t say in sympathy, but in condonation or extenuation of those acts, is a vile and malignant calumny.

We Liberals believe - we who still hold to the old Liberal faith - that these excesses, the more inexcusable they are, the wickeder they are, the more disastrous they are in the results they produce, the more necessary they make it that the Executive, while sparing no effort to detect and to punish the guilty, should keep its own hands scrupulously clean.

To suppress, or to attempt to suppress, crime by crime, to retaliate upon murder by murder, to visit the sins of the guilty on the innocent, to make the unoffending and law-abiding pay in life and property for the misdeeds of undetected malefactors, is to substitute vengeance for justice.

It is to step down from the judgment seat and to engage in competition with the organs and the ministers of crime. That is a degradation of government against which those who detest crime the most, whatever its motives may be, should be the first and the loudest to protest.

The Government and Reprisals

What is the Government attitude in regard to this matter of reprisals? I listened to the speech of the Chief Secretary the other night. I should like to see it - I won’t say in extenso, but in substance - circulated by all the Liberal Associations of the country, for it will appear, the more you examine it - whatever lip-service the official exponents and apologists for the Govern­ment policy may offer - in effect they are not only condoning, but they are encouraging a policy of reprisals.

I believe, and I am glad to hear that you have had today ­and you could not have had it from a more authoritative source - from my right honourable and learned friend, Sir John Simon - a detailed exposure of what has been taking place. I should like, although it is not my purpose to go into details today, to detail one aspect of the case - what has been done by the forces of the Crown, military and constabulary, in relation to the creameries in Ireland. I have never heard a more astounding defence than that of Sir Hamar Greenwood. He tells us there are 710 creameries in Ireland, and the total number wholly or partially destroyed is only 41. Good heavens! Is not 41 enough? Is it not more than enough?

The Police and the Creameries

They told us only a few weeks ago that there was not a tittle of evidence that the military or police had been engaged in the destruction of a single creamery. It has now been proved and admitted that a fortnight before that statement was made in the House of Commons there were in Dublin Castle, sufficiently well known to be given out to the Press, reports from the police themselves describing in detail the destruction of one or two of these creameries by officers of the Crown. They talk about our information coming from tainted sources. I am sorry to say that there is no more tainted source at this moment than the information that comes from Dublin Castle.

We could not have a better illustration of the attitude of mind of the Chief Secretary, which, of course, percolates and conveys itself to his subordinates throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, than the perfectly astounding statement which I heard him make with my own ears: ‘I can assure you if there is one creamery in Ireland which is a rendezvous of the Irish Republican Army, or one manager a member of that army, that manager and that creamery are in peril.’

An Anarchic Doctrine

What does that mean? It means that if there is but a single manager of one of those creameries suspected of being a Sinn Feiner, or a member of the Republican Army, in the view of the Chief of the Executive in Ireland, without investiga­tion, without evidence, without trial, that creamery is to be subjected to the blind and indiscriminate vengeance and de­struction of the officers of the law. I have never heard, and nobody has ever heard, since England became a free country - not even in the worst days of Lord North or of Lord Sidmouth, the worst days of reaction - we have never heard, I undertake to say, from a Minister of the Crown a doctrine so anarchic and so subversive of the very foundation of government.

Well, only two nights ago, I asked the House of Commons, in a motion I made myself, to condemn this policy. We had with us only 83 supporters. I might parody the old rhyme and say, ‘He is a slave who dare not be in the right with 83.’ But we were only 83 - a disgraceful indication, for the case was an unanswerable case, and the doctrine which the majority must he deemed to have accepted was the doctrine laid down in the passage I have just quoted from the speech of the Chief Secretary.

Where Were the Coalition Liberals?

We had two Tory Coalition Members with us; all honour to them, but where were the Coalition Liberals, those who were elected as Coalition Liberals? Some had the grace to abstain and hide themselves. Over 70 of them went into the Lobby in opposition to our motion and in support of the doctrines and declarations of the Chief Secretary.

If you want to have clear and conclusive proof of the impor­tance of keeping free and independent Liberalism by itself, and rejecting all those more or less plausible, though not very insidious, overtures which go by the name of reconciliation, ask them first these questions: ‘When and where and in what company did you unlearn the doctrines which are the life-blood of the Liberal faith? What inducement or reason is there for us, as self-respecting politicians, who still believe those doc­trines, who are prepared to maintain them through good and evil report, to join your company and abandon our principles as you have done yours?’

I am reminded that there is one honourable friend - my col­league Mr. Johnstone, of Renfrew - who of the whole band alone remained true to the old traditions of Liberalism.

The Only Remedy

I want to pass from that to ask you this question: Are we to continue to look on exasperated, humiliated, indignant but impotent, at this method of Irish government? Depend upon it, the prospect grows not better but worse every day. There is, in my judgment, as you know, one remedy, and one remedy only - to give to the Irish people the fullest form of self-govern­ment which is compatible with our safety, and the fuller, the ampler and the more unfettered form which that self-govern­ment assumes, the fewer in number and the rarer in occurrence will be the occasions for friction between the Irish Government and ourselves.

Remember that you are dealing today in many respects with a new Ireland. It is a different country from what it was 50 years ago, different in many ways from what it was when Gladstone first proposed Home Rule, and carried it on. It is a prosperous country. The present tillers of the soil have been made, by beneficent legislation, owners of their holdings, or potential owners of their holdings. The stream of emigration which for two, and even three, generations after the famine drained away the young manhood of Ireland to America and the Colonies - that stream has been checked.

You have in Ireland now, self-contained, staying at home, working on their holdings and in various forms of in­dustry - in these creameries, for instance, and other aspects of the co-operative movement - a body of virile young men, and middle-aged men, such as you see in the best parts of rural England and Scotland. And, side by side with that economic change and distribution of the population, you have seen grow­ing up - through propaganda, partly literary, historical, if you like - a far keener and more intimate sense of nationhood than ever existed in Ireland before. And it is not confined to one class or to one area.

The Feeling in Ireland

Nothing is more remarkable than that through the length and breadth of Ireland, with the exception of a small - important I grant you - almost secluded corner in the North-East of Ulster the feeling of a common nationality, common fraternity, common interests, both historical and actual, is far more wide­spread and deep-seated in Ireland today than it ever was at any period in her history.

That is the Ireland you have to deal with. There is no quarrel, except an historical quarrel. Its interests and those of ourselves, economically, socially, commercially, and, indeed, politically, are so absolutely interlaced and interdependent that the very idea of permanent separation is inconceivable and becoming as inconceivable to them as it is to us.

It is a country in that situation, with those tendencies con­stantly at work, which has now been so reduced by the follies, fatuities, and misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the so-called statesmen to this appalling condition of tragic civil war.

Give Ireland Freedom

Give it freedom - freedom upon the largest scale with the fewest irritating restrictions and restraints - and, unless all our reading of history and Liberal traditions and convictions is at fault, freedom will produce there, as elsewhere, its own fruit in reconciliation of the best kind, and in the creation of a new sense of unity and brotherhood.

I have put forward, as you know, my own - I will not call it a plan, because it is not a plan - my own outline of the way in which this great task can be accomplished.

Dominion Home Rule

I would give to Ireland Dominion Home Rule. I would place her on the same footing as the great self-governing Dominions of the Crown. I am glad to think that in putting forward that view I am in complete sympathy with my noble friend Lord Grey. I am speaking here, deliberately, to Liberals, some of whom may have doubts and misgivings. Let us see how far we travel together on the same road.

In the first place, we would give to Ireland complete fiscal autonomy, which is denied to her by the Bill of the Government now being foisted on her. In the next place we would give to her the most generous treatment in the adjustment of our relations in regard to finance, to payment and contribution to the Imperial Exchequer. There are great arrears which we owe to Ireland; not perhaps on an accountant’s statement of debtor and creditor, but in point of justice.

The Army Bogey

Again, as regards foreign relations, Lord Grey says, as I have said: ‘Put Ireland on the same footing as all the other Dominions.’ They don’t ask for a separate foreign policy of their own. They do ask, and we would give them and give to Ireland also, a freer and fuller consultation in regard to our Imperial and external relations.         

The Army is a bogey, one of the most ridiculous bogeys that has ever been raised in the history of this controversy. The Premier tells us that they might raise an Army of 500,000 men in Ireland. For what purpose? Self-governing Ireland, which has no quarrel with England, to raise an Army of 500,000 men to be a constant menace to us, and expose us to the hazards of conscription! That is midsummer madness.

The Question of the Navy

What is left outstanding? - the question of the Navy. I have said from the first, and I repeat, that I do not believe that any sane Irishmen, apart from those who are avowedly in favour of separation, desire to have a Navy of their own at all. Why should they? It is a grotesque and futile waste of money.

Our Dominions we have allowed to have Navies of their own under a very stringent condition, which makes them, in an emergency, part and parcel of the British Navy, subject to the commands of the Admiralty.

I quite agree the geographical situation of Ireland - and I am not going to take any risks, as I have said over and over again, any risks of any sort or kind to our strategical security - I agree the geographical situation is different from that of any other Dominion.

I am perfectly satisfied - nor would I consent to the application of Dominion Home Rule for Ireland on any other terms - that any navy raised in Ireland should be auxiliary to the Royal Navy and subject to its orders.

No Difference with Lord Grey 

As far as Lord Grey and I are concerned there is, I believe, no difference in our opinions. I want to get all Liberals, if I can, to unite in that view, because as I have told you before, and as I repeat now, it is only by giving to Ireland, or offering to her - it is for her to take or leave, but offering to her - in the fullest and freest sense, the same powers of self-government you have given to all your other Dominions that you can possibly get rid of this secular atmosphere of suspicion and persuade the Irish that you mean in good faith to make that country part and parcel of the British Empire. I hope the members of the National Liberal Federation will take the same view.

Liberals should Face the Facts with Courage

What I want to put to you finally is this. It is a very serious matter. Let us Liberals, of all people, face the full facts of this tragic situation, not concealing from ourselves their gravity - that we ought not to do - not underestimating either the uncer­tainties or the dangers of the future, but let us face that situation with courage in the true temper and spirit of the Liberal faith.

We have found in the past in the grant of liberty and the creation of that which goes with liberty, the sense of responsi­bility, the solvent for problems of equal, if not even of greater danger and difficulty.

It was never anywhere more necessary to emancipate our­selves from convention, from catchwords, from superficial and time-serving expedients, and get into living contact with realities. Great and growing is the reproach of failure. Great and enduring would be the reward of success.

The Strength of Liberalism

I have confined what I have to say today to those two topics; but I am glad to recognise in the meetings of your Federation, and in the evidence which comes to me from all parts of the country, a new temper, hope, and indeed a certainty, in the ranks of our party. We have been during these last two years in the trough of the wave, and I cannot express with too much emphasis, or sincerity, my own feeling of admiration and grati­tude for the strength and the vitality which the Liberalism, of the country has shown in that most trying and testing experience.

We have seen it proved in many ways, and I think in none - I feel bound to mention it - in none more significant than in the strenuous loyalty to principle and party which has been shown by our agents, who, in spite of the most tempting inducements and allurements, sacrificed their own personal interests in order to remain members of the staff of the great army of Liberalism. All honour to them! And let us, to whatever rank in the army we belong, follow the example which they have so nobly set.

‘Do not be Daunted’

There is nothing to he got by being a Liberal today. It is not a profitable or a remunerative career. There is very little, I can assure you, after a year’s experience, pleasure or advantage to be got by sitting on the side of my right honourable friend, Sir Donald Maclean, night after night, on the Front Opposition Bench of the House of Commons. But if we had the tongues of men and of angels - I am afraid we can hardly claim to have both of them; but if I had the tongue of a man and he the tongue of an angel, in the ears of the people who sit opposite, they would be but as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. Very little can be done except to keep your end up. With the support of a most valiant band of indomitable colleagues we do our best to maintain the position, but the future lies with you outside.       

I make this last appeal to you - not to be daunted, discouraged or damped in spirit by the adverse vicissitudes of party and political fortune in the last two or three years.    

The Certainty of the Future 

Do not lower your flag. Do not be tempted or led astray by plausible temptations to compromise or adjustment. Maintain - and you never had a better opportunity than on these two issues of economy and Irish self-government, don’t be tempted to flinch for a moment - your hold on those good old Liberal doctrines of retrenchment and self-government. Be assured that, however long the struggle, however varying may be its fortunes, from day to day, or even from year to year, you have the certainty of the future.

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