Leader's speech, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1921
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
Commentary:One of the main themes of Asquith’s address was Ireland, where the Coalition government had recently abandoned its policy of retaliation and reprisals, and adopted the Liberal policy of Dominion Home Rule. A further important matter was the large increase in Britain’s annual expenditure, the causes of which Asquith diagnosed as the Coalition government’s exten¬sion of bureaucratic control in domestic politics, and its military adventures in Russia and Mesopotamia. With regard to the latter, the Coalition had since adopted the Liberal policy of withdrawing troops and granting Mesopotamia the right of self-government. Another key issue at the time was unemployment, and Asquith called on the nations concerned to co-operate in the economic reconstruction of Europe.
It is always a great refreshment to me to come to this annual meeting of the National Liberal Federation wherever it may be held; but it is a special pleasure to come to it today, when it is held in Newcastle, which, in spite of occasional lapses and backslidings, is still regarded as one of the sacred places of Liberalism. Toryism also has its hallowed spots, none, I suppose, more than Liverpool. Liverpool only last week was the scene of a gathering drawn, like this, from chosen delegates throughout England and Wales, but brought together in a very different frame of mind, and for a very different purpose; to avert, if that were possible, or, if that were not-possible, at any rate to postpone, a party split. It was a very instructive spectacle, for the resolution which was proposed, and the amendment which was carried by an overwhelming majority, were respectively an amendment which would have been rejected, and a resolution which would have been adopted, twelve months ago, with enthusiastic unanimity.
Dominion Home Rule was then - yes - and much later than then - a dangerous form of political dementia. To rub shoulders with the leaders of the ‘murder gang’ was an unthinkable form of political contamination. We do not complain of the change. Why should we? It was sudden, no doubt, but to all appearance it has been happily complete. In the twinkling of an eye the Ethiopian has become whiter than snow. There are some people, especially innocent followers of Colonel Gretton and his associates, who are full of surprise, and even of bewilderment, at what has taken place. It only shows that they have either short memories, or a very superficial acquaintance with the facts of history.
Turncoats and Diehards
There is nothing new, and there ought to be nothing unexpected about it. It is a phenomenon which recurs in the history of the Tory Party with the periodicity of a comet or an eclipse. It happened nearly a century ago over Catholic emancipation. Twenty years later it happened again over Protection, when Mr. Disraeli described Sir Robert Peel, the then leader of the Tories, as having caught the Whigs bathing and stolen their clothes. After another twenty years it happened again over Household franchise, when Lord Derby, the Tory Prime Minister of that day with a slight softening down of the metaphor from larceny to chicanery, declared with pride that he and his party had dished the Whigs. It happened again after another twenty years over Free education, and it was almost overdue when it happened this year over Ireland. People talk as if the Diehards were a latter-day political breed, the birth of the twentieth century. They are nothing of the kind. They have quite an ancient, and even a distinguished pedigree. Mr. Disraeli was a Diehard in 1846, when, with Lord George Bentinck, he led the famous procession of the old Protectionists into the ‘No’ Lobby when Sir Robert Peel had gone over to the Free Trade camp. The late Lord Salisbury was a Diehard when, in 1867, he denounced Mr. Disraeli’s Reform Bill as a ‘political betrayal without parallel in our annals.’ In these rapid evolutions of Toryism there is always a rearguard left behind: though I must add, to do them justice, we generally find that in the long run they make up for lost time.
The Progressive Varnish
I have spoken of what is happening, what we are witnessing, as characteristic of the Tory Party, for I regret to say that it would he a travesty of the facts to represent that this latest volte-face could be put down to the so-called Liberal wing of the Coalition. We are still in the dark as to a great deal of these recent happenings, but it is clear from Mr. Austen Chamberlain’s declarations that the new and the deciding move did not come from that quarter. Why should it? It was one of their number, a political neighbour of yours, who was Chief Secretary for Ireland, and as Chief Secretary was for months the principal agent, and I agree a clumsy and maladroit, but still the daily official apologist, of a policy which has now been abandoned by his colleagues as an abject and disastrous failure. That policy, the policy of retaliation and reprisals, of answering crime with crime, was a systematic negation of the first principles of Liberalism. Where were the Liberal members of the Coalition, who were put there to give it a varnish - a progressive varnish? Where were they during all that time? What is their record? They stood by, they approved, they defended all that was being done, and I will just read - it is instructive in view of what is happening and the claims that are being made - I will read a passage which ought not to be forgotten. It is a classic in the records of political ineptitude, from a speech made by Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, in the House of Commons, as lately as February 21st in the present year. These are the crucial words:
'A policy of calculated and brutal arson and murder with all its ghastly consequences remains uncondemned by Mr. de Valera and the Sinn Fein leaders.'
He omitted to add that a similar policy remained uncondemned by the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Coalition.
'The authors of that policy hope to terrorise into submission the British people and the British Government. It is the policy of the assassin we are fighting. It is watched by sinister eyes in Great Britain, in Egypt, in India, and throughout the world. Its success would mean the break-up of the Empire and of civilisation. I submit that there are only two alternatives. One is to surrender to the assassins. The other is to fight. I am for fighting the assassins.'
How does that sound today? We Liberals are most anxious for the success of this new and, as we think, wise departure. Is there a Liberal here in this great gathering - and I will put the same question to any gathering of Liberals whom I might meet in any part of Great Britain - who does not share my satisfaction that our hands at any rate are clean of all responsibility, that from the first to the last at every step and in every stage we denounced with the same energy and sincerity - yes, and with added indignation - crimes done in the name of the Executive as crimes done in the name of Sinn Fein, and that we insistently pointed out from first to last the more excellent way, that tardily, but now at last is being pursued? I will only say one word about the negotiations which are still going on. I say it on behalf of the Liberal Party. We have not receded from any pledge - certainly I have not - which we have given against the forcible coercion of this Ulster minority. But I repeat, and I ask all Liberals to assent to this, what I said a short time ago at Glasgow - that it is equally true that we are not going to be parties at the instance, or for the sake, of a corner of Ulster, to the coercion of the great mass of the Irish people.
But it is not only in relation to Ireland that our criticisms have been justified; and I may add that our policy has been appropriated, apparently without any sense of obligation, and certainly without any expression of gratitude. The Lord Chancellor this week described himself and his colleagues as having ‘staggered from crisis to crisis’ as though they lied been the hapless victims of hostile fortune. The successive crises - I quite agree with his description - into which they have staggered, and they are not yet over, have been to a large extent crises of their own creation, and what is more, they have staggered into them with their eyes open, and in defiance of the most definite warnings. I have here a little volume - and though I am not an advertising agent of my own compositions, yet having dipped into this during the last two or three days, I am disposed to make an exception in its favour. It was published little less than two years ago, and is entitled ‘The Paisley Policy,’ and if it ever reaches a second edition I should be disposed to add a second title, ‘The Coalitionists’ Vade-Mecum.’ I do not claim any copyright in the ideas which are here embodied. In fact, the more they are pirated the better shall be pleased. I am going to use it as an illustration of one or two salient points in regard to the policy of our present rulers.
The first thing which the Coalition did, after the electoral period of pledges and professions and promises and perorations, and which it continued to do for two years, was to indulge in an orgy of inflated and misdirected expenditure. A maxim which I believe to be universally true is that public extravagance is the offspring of bad policy and bad management. Both those two factors were here at work. In the first place, we had wild, ill-thought-out, and costly adventures in Russia, in Mesopotamia, denounced as they were in this little volume, and now, after the mischief has been done and the harvest is being gathered in, definitely and almost repentantly abandoned.
I mentioned Mesopotamia, and I should like to recall to life, although I fear it is at present dead and buried in oblivion, another dictum of a prominent member of the Coalition: the date was December 6th, either just before or in the middle of the General Election of 1918. He was defending a policy of annexations, and he used these remarkable and prescient words: ‘Why should we give up Mesopotamia that is so rich a country that it might almost pay for the war?’ Mesopotamia, inhabited by three millions of people on pretty bad terms with one another, liable to constant incursions and irruptions from the Kurdish tribes, and possessing, if it does possess, a highly speculative and contingent commercial proposition in the shape of oil. Mesopotamia, which has cost us over £100,000,000 - perhaps £120,000,000 - on which, in the pursuit of a belated but prudent recantation, the Government are now adopting exactly the policy which I recommended at Paisley two years ago. That is to say they are retiring our forces and allowing the people to look after themselves, and Mr. Churchill, who has assumed responsibility for these matters, is actually claiming credit in the House of Commons for a reduction of £20,000,000 sterling in the expenditure next year for pursuing that very policy which, if it had been adopted when I recommended it, would have saved the spilling both of blood and treasure.
Extravagance At Home
Of course, there is another side, which is of very great practical importance, to this branch of Coalition policy. The gross inflation of our national annual expenditure was due not only to adventures abroad, but to the ruinous and ridiculous extension of bureaucratic control at home. We watched the process. I was not at the first beginnings in the House of Commons, but Sir Donald Maclean was, and with the insight, foresight, and courage which have characterised his conduct during the whole of these years, he at once raised a protest, and he, and I with him, have since renewed the protest at every stage.
How were our protests treated? They were brushed aside by the highest authorities, the Prime Minister and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer - I use their own words - as the ‘rant of party platforms’ and the ‘screaming of political epileptics.’ Here again we have not had long to wait for our justification.
There is a secret conclave set up, superseding both the Cabinet and the House of Commons, presided over, by an irony, by the arch-prodigal, Sir Eric Geddes - it is like appointing Captain Macheath to be head of the police - with instructions that, in Milton’s phrase, like ‘the blind fury with the abhorred shears,’ they shall hew and slash at the Departments. I await with curiosity, but; I am bound to add, with chastened expectations, the fruit of their labours.
For the rest, what has happened? Time has been spent, largely spent, in passing Acts in haste and repealing them at leisure. And during this very session, the session which has just come to a close, when the problem of unemployment was growing month by month more menacing and more urgent, whole weeks were squandered in passing through the Bill which now goes by the name of the Safeguarding of Industries Act, a measure for introducing into our foreign trade a maximum of wanton confusion, friction, and inconvenience, without any compensating advantage to anybody in the world. It is safe to predict, as I predict today, that, whether by repeal or otherwise, it will sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, join the long and weary procession on its way to the scrap-heap.
What Liberalism Has Done
It is the first duty of an Opposition to oppose and to withstand bad policies, not by mere negations, but by offering better alternatives. That is a duty which, as is proved by the illustrations I have given to you just now, we may claim to have diligently and efficiently discharged. But I am not going to leave it at that. A great party, with a great past, and as it believes, and as I believe, with a great future, has a larger mission than that of mere opposition. What are our credentials for that undertaking? I saw the other day that one of the present Ministers had gone down, I think to Cambridge, explaining to the young men there the fundamental differences between Liberalism and Toryism. He told them that Liberalism was too busy catching votes to do anything for uplifting the life of the people. (A voice: ‘Hear, hear.) Apparently there are two people, at any rate, who share that opinion here, and I am very glad they are here, because I am going, to reason with them. Let us see. Do not let us take refuge - it is not necessary - in ancient history.
I will confine myself for two or three minutes to what we have done, or attempted to do, within the memory of all but the youngest in this theatre. Take the seven or eight years which immediately preceded the outbreak of the war. We were engaged in those years in one of the greatest constitutional struggles in our history. We were asserting, and it took a long time to do it, the legislative supremacy of the House of Commons, as against the House of Lords. We went through two General Elections in 1910 on that issue, and as a result we were able to carry the Home Rule Act and the Welsh Disestablishment Act. What is more, we made one of the greatest achievements in the free development of our free Empire. We gave a free constitution to our late enemies in South Africa. It was denounced by Tory leaders and the Tory party of the day as a mischievous and even a fatal surrender; and what Liberal did not read with satisfaction, in the report of what took place at Liverpool last week, the manly and honourable recantation of Mr. Austen Chamberlain, speaking, as I hope and believe, not for himself alone, but for all the intelligent opinion of his Party, when he described it - regretting and indeed repenting the attitude he had then assumed - as a great and daring act of political faith which had been abundantly justified?
Yes, but that is only half the story. What about uplifting the life of the people? Now -(disturbance in the gallery) - I am coming to my friend there. Here we are closer home. What about uplifting the life of the people? We reduced the National Debt and remitted taxation upon an unprecedented scale. We set up old age pensions. We established a system of National Insurance against ill-health and unemployment. We brought into existence and operation Trade Boards, to deal with the conditions of industry where, through sweating and other circumstances, the workers were unable to protect themselves. We brought in and passed through the House of Commons - it would have passed into law but for the action of the House of Lords - a Licensing Act, which, if it had been now in operation would have been found to solve the great question of temperance in this country.
For all these I say we found time in the middle of great constitutional struggles, and when the war broke out in 1914 we had developed, and were about to present to Parliament, a land policy to make the best use of our internal resources, not only as a source of national revenue, though that is a very important aspect of it, but to secure a happier, a better housed, better instructed, and more prosperous population. These are our credentials, and let any party, the Tory Party or any other, produce, if it can, a similar record.
What the Liberal Party Would Now Do
That task was suspended necessarily, but only suspended, by the war. It has now to be taken up under conditions which the war has profoundly modified, and in many respects completely transformed. What is the change that the war has brought about? I think I can sum it up in a single sentence. The war, which has impoverished the whole world to an unexampled degree, has at the same time intensified the interdependence of all its parts. It is a moral as well as an economic interdependence, and as such it finds expression in a new instrument, as we hope, of ever-growing authority, the League of Nations.
But look for a moment at the economic side. The impoverishment of which I have spoken takes many forms and degrees. In Russia you see famine and starvation, in Central Europe millions of people still underfed, in France a large devastated area, still only in the early stages of reconstruction; and even in countries like ours and the United States, which escaped the actual ravages of war, unemployment with the unmerited suffering which it brings in its train. No country in these days lives to or for itself, and that is one of the reasons why domestic remedies for unemployment, whether they take the form of relief works, or the much more objectionable form of doles, are a palliative which does not go down to the roots. What is needed is something much deeper and more far-reaching than any of these expedients. What is needed is a common effort on the part of all the nations concerned for the economic reconstruction of Europe.
There are, as I have indicated more than once during the last three years, indeed over and over again - and I want to repeat them here to my fellow Liberals this afternoon - there are three preliminary steps which are needed to clear the way.
In the first place, you must have a complete revision of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles with regard to reparations and indemnities I put that forward at Paisley. I was then represented as a pro-German, but everybody now knows that we are not going to pay for our ravages and losses in the war by a miraculous influx of German commodities. But even now everybody does not yet understand or realise the difference between Traffic and Tribute. Traffic is a normal condition of free interchange between nations. Tribute is an abnormal disturbing factor, which may he equally injurious to those who receive and to those who pay, and which in the interests of all you ought to eliminate as soon as you can from the international problem. It is a wise reciprocal self-interest which requires the complete revision and the speedy extinction of the policy of reparations and indemnity.
The next point is to cancel the Allied indebtedness inter se of the European States. When those two burdens are alleviated, and ultimately gone, the flow of normal international exchange will be set free. And thirdly, and finally, what is almost equally important is the removal of tariff walls. The post-war period has unfortunately seen the setting-up of some new barriers and the raising of others, and we ourselves, by our foolish and short-sighted Safeguarding of Industries Act, have excited, provoked, and at any rate condoned, what other nations have done.
The Choice of Parties
I would like to say one last word particularly to the younger people among you. You have got to choose to which party you will, in the days that are coming upon us, entrust your political allegiance. (Voices: ‘The Labour Party,’ ‘The Communist Party.’) No one, least of all my friends up there, can regard this disintegrating and moribund Coalition as a real competitor for your choice. It was born in a fit of delirium. Its life has been spent, as the Lord Chancellor tells us, in staggering from crisis to crisis, and the parties to it, especially the predominant party, some with unconcealed eagerness, others with more or less sombre resignation, are awaiting the day when it will be finally wound up. Let us wipe that off the slate.
What about Labour? What is the Labour Party? (A voice: ‘What is the Liberal Party?’) I have been telling you what the Liberal Party is, and shown you what it has done. What of the Labour Party? Let us come to close quarters with that. It was described the other day, and not, I think, unjustly described, by Lord Robert Cecil - who, whatever he may call himself, is, so far as I can discern, in complete sympathy with us on the vital issues of the day - it was described by him as a Coalition. Yes, it is a Coalition. There are a large number of its members who are pursuing the same ends as ourselves - although not, as I venture to think, by equally practical and efficient means. There are others, not an inconsiderable section, for aught I know they may be the dominant section, who agree neither with us, nor with one another. That is my answer to my friend there who asked me, What about the Labour Party? In fact, the only real bond of union between them - I am going to tell them the truth - the only real bond between these warring and discrepant sections is as my right honourable friend Sir John Simon said, with great truth, I think only a week ago - the only real bond of union between them is a bond of class consciousness. That is what unites the Labour Party.
The Liberal Party is not today, it never has been, and so long as I have any connection with it, it never will be, the party of any class, rich or poor, great or small, numerous or sparse in its composition. We are a party of no class. We believe - and that is why I am talking to these young people and asking them to consider these matters in the light of history and of reason - the Liberal Party believes - it is the essence of its creed, both at home and in international affairs - as I am never tired of repeating - the Liberal Party believes that the good of each is to be found, and to be found only, in the good of all. It excludes no one who is at one with it on that fundamental principle which ought to govern our public policy. It invites their co-operation. It will welcome their association in its counsels and in its work, but upon those principles it admits of no compromise.
In the course now of a long public career it has been my fortune to be at the head, at one time and indeed for a long time, of an army of many legions, which could command victory both at the poll and in the House of Commons, and which, as I have shown you, used its strength to carry out its principles. I am now at the head, so far as the House of Commons is concerned, of a handful, insignificant or relatively insignificant in numbers, but supported by a vast and a growing body of opinion which, as we have seen during these three years, with all its Parliamentary disadvantages, can bend and break the policy of the Coalition. I believe, then, as firmly and as fervently as I ever did, in the persistence and the indomitable vitality of our creed. I have spent in its allegiance, without pause and without deviation, all the years of my political life, and for whatever length of days may be allotted to me, I shall persevere in the same faith to the end.