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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, London 1922

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: London

Commentary:

The focus of this speech was the record of the Coalition Government. Although a settlement had been reached between the North and the South in Ireland, Asquith noted that he had been calling for negotiations for more than two years and accused the Government of being slow to act on this matter. The same applied to retrenchment, which was a long-standing Liberal policy that the Government had only recently adopted. On the issue of Free Trade, Asquith called for the repeal of the Safeguarding of Industries Act, which he claimed was in fact harming industry. He concluded his speech by asserting that it was in Britain’s interests to get rid of the Coalition Government, as good government was only possible with a steady Administration and a well-organised Opposition.

It is a great gratification to me to find myself face to face with a really representative gathering of the Liberalism of the country, and to have side by side with me on this platform, with one or two exceptions, all the surviving colleagues with whom I fought in the long and strenuous struggle from 1908 to 1916. We miss indeed the venerable figure of Lord Bryce, one of the most accomplished and gifted of our public men and of our writers - one who never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the Liberalism which he had adopted, not as a tradition or an inheritance, but as the result of a profound study of history and of the reasoned convictions of a highly endowed intelligence. Only two or three days ago I received from him a letter, written with all his old, and it seemed to me then his youthful, vigour, in which, being heavily engaged as he was on some literary work in the country, he expressed his regret that he could not be with us tonight and his hearty and complete sympathy with the objects of this meeting.

Welcome to Lord Grey

It is a peculiar pleasure to me to welcome here on behalf of the whole Liberal Party a statesman to whom it owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude, and whom physical disability alone has kept for some time past out of our fighting ranks. Lord Grey is almost my oldest political friend. We have sat together and worked together, and shared responsibilities which few can imagine together, during more than thirty-five years, and casting my memory back on the past I cannot remember that we ever had a serious difference that lasted more than a quarter of an hour. You all know that he brings with him not only a sane and finely balanced judgment, but the resources of an unrivalled experience in the conduct of international affairs.

When the history of this time comes to be written, the record of Lord Grey as a peacemaker will stand out. For the best part of ten years, in the precarious and ever-menacing conditions of the international situation, he kept the peace of Europe, and it was no fault of his that the peace was ultimately broken. The return of such a man to our public life - I do not speak of it from the party point of view; Lord Grey is something much more than a party politician - the return of such a man at such a moment as this is the restoration to us of a national asset of incalculable value.

The Absentees

I said a moment ago that as I surveyed the ranks of my old colleagues there were one or two, not many, notable absentees. (A voice ‘For ever, I hope.’) They have been engaged, in the course of last week, addressing an audience. Of what elements it was composed, whence it came, and how it was recruited, I confess I do not know. That it had any claim of any sort to represent the Liberal rank and file is, of course, a transparent fiction. I am told that out of some 400 repre­sentative and freely elected Liberal organisations in England, not less than 320 have openly declared themselves with us. It is difficult to realise it now, but these gentlemen a very few years ago were in the forefront fighting with us for the land taxes, and facing with us two successive General Elections in a single year in order to assert the supremacy of the House of Commons and to secure the passing into law of such great constitutional changes as Home Rule and Welsh Dis­establishment. The land taxes, where are they? Under a Coalition Government they have been wiped off the Statute Book, and the Parliament Act itself appears to be in considerable danger. I am not, as you know, fond of personal references in politics, but there is not one of these men, or, I may add, of the majority of those whose names are known to me who sat beside them last week on this platform, from whom in those days and much later I have not received professions of devoted loyalty and even of affection.

I have not changed, Liberal principles have not changed, and yet the Prime Minister thought it seemly on Saturday to indulge in a number of personal gibes directed against myself. I am not going to quote them because it is just the sort of stuff some of us can remember in the General Election of 1910 in the leaflets and broadsheets of the less scrupulous of the Tory candidates, and these stale jocularities are brought again to life by my old colleague and fellow-fighter in those days, now the Prime Minister of England, and are reported to have been received with appreciative laughter by those repre­sentative Liberal delegates. I am sorry for my old friend. I am too old and perhaps too disillusioned to look for anything like gratitude in politics, nor, unhappily, is it possible to teach some people good taste and good manners.

The General Election

At the time when this meeting was summoned there was a widespread belief that we were going to be plunged into a February General Election. I see the Prime Minister asks with indignant and ingenuous amazement, ‘Who started all this?’ and he assures us that he did not. Then who did? Someone must have done. It was not a case of what the naturalists call spontaneous generation. At any rate, the kite was vigorously flown with the benediction, if not with the manipulation, of the Prime Minister’s well-known hench­men in the Press and elsewhere.

And after floating for a week or two in what the poet calls the azure deeps of the air, and dominating the whole political horizon, it came down with a heavy bump. The odd thing is no one is bold enough to claim any property in the frag­ments. You remember the old nursery rhyme, ‘Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the sparrow.’ We know well who played the part of the sparrow. My old friend Sir George Younger - unlike the whippers-in of the phantasmal delegates who were in this place last week - is the master of many legions. When the kite was soaring at its highest I was asked by some of my political friends for my own forecast. I said I thought there would be no election, and I will confide to you that I even went so far as to back my own opinion. I do not want to compromise anybody’s character but my own, and so I will not hint with whom the transaction took place.

‘A General Election,’ I said - and it turns out I was right – ‘at this moment would, of course, be a profligate political gamble in which grave national interests would be subordinated to personal and to party necessities.’ That would not be decisive. There was another consideration, which was it would split the Coalition into fragments and would justify a coroner’s verdict of felo de se. I said then, and I say again today, that we Free Liberals can afford to regard a dissolution whenever it comes with the most perfect equanimity. No word of protest came, or will come, from us. We have no interest and no desire to delay by a single day the national assize upon the Coalition.

Coalition Claims

Speeches, intended, I presume, for Liberal consumption, at the meeting last week were all directed to prove that the Coalition Liberals had been justified by events in being in the Coalition, and - so long as their presence is tolerated - in remaining there. I want to examine this claim. By way of illustration we will take one or two crucial matters in the domestic sphere. Take these two crucial instances - things about which they are pluming themselves most at the present moment - Ireland and retrenchment. Their claim, when we come to analyse it, amounts to this - that in both cases they are now doing under the stress of circumstances - under electoral necessity, actual or contingent - things which they might have done, which they could have done, which they ought to have done two or three years ago, and what is even more important, to the doing of which they have by their own policy or want of policy them­selves interposed the most formidable obstacle.

They are now in search of a motto, or, indeed, of a series of mottoes. The Prime Minister has found one in the New Testament; the Attorney-General, as befits a subordinate member of the Government, takes a lower, a more modest course, and pro­poses to appropriate to the Coalition the time-honoured Liberal formula - peace, retrenchment, and reform. If the Coalition could live on mottoes, how happy its state would be. Un­fortunately, in this sublunary world, a party has got not only to live on mottoes, but to live up to them. Let us see what title they have to the inheritance of the oldest of Liberal watchwords. They are all lyrical, and even dithyrambic, over the Irish settle­ment. No one has more reason than we have to rejoice over the Irish settlement. No one welcomes more heartily the agreement, which is published today, between the North and the South. I myself have been urging for more than two years - and particularly from the moment the truce was called and the hideous civil war ended and real negotiations began - that we free Liberals should give the most cordial and open encouragement to such negotiations; and we have not said one word from first to last that would embarrass their conduct or prejudice their success.

But what were the Coalition doing in Ireland fifteen months, twelve months, even nine months ago? Where were they - the Hewarts, the Fishers, the Churchills, and the Liberal Prime Minister - when the Liberal Chief Secretary was letting loose his Black and Tans in their retaliatory campaign of arson and out­rage? Did they ever raise a finger of resistance? No. For what we know they were dumb, except when they turned on the stream of their eloquence in the denunciation of Dominion Home Rule. And when the Prime Minister came forward - we now know from Mr. Chamberlain’s public announcement - it was not they, it was the leader of the Unionist wing in the Cabinet who pointed out to the Prime Minister the necessity of kennelling the dogs of war and coming into free and open parley with the leaders of the ‘assassins.’

It is better to be converted late than not to be converted at all, but to claim that this is a triumph for men who now repre­sent themselves as following in the footsteps of, and carrying on the traditions of, Mr. Gladstone is nothing short of a piece of political effrontery.

I could tell you if time permitted some things in regard to retrenchment. We are all now, so the Prime Minister tells us, ruthless economists - economists of what and applied to what? In a large part to the profligate expenditure which in an impoverished and devastated world they themselves have since the war - not during the war - created, to develop inflated wild indulgences and costly, vast, top-heavy, lop-sided and hopelessly incompetent bureaucratic experiments at home. They are all abandoned now, all on the scrapheap; though when Sir Donald Maclean and I were denouncing them we were derided - and it is only two years ago - for epileptic screaming and economic rant. Now, when it is to a large extent too late, comes the pure cream of the Coalition milk. Now, do not let me be mis­understood. I do not in the least object to policies wise and sound which I and others have advocated being borrowed or even stolen, as they have been, in regard to Ireland, to retrench­ment, to a large though still undefined degree in regard to reparations and indemnities.

I have no disposition to cry ‘Stop thief!’ and send for the police, but when these people having nakedly and openly appropriated the only means for removing the difficulties which their own policy has created or aggravated - when they ask the world to ignore their past and to acclaim, as the Prime Minister does, the Heaven-sent wisdom of their belated resort to common sense, they are, I think, imposing too heavy a tax on the presumed ignorance and credulity of the British people.

Free Trade

I will apply one more criterion to the claim of these old associates of ours that they are upholding in the Coalition the Liberal banner of peace, retrenchment, and reform. I speak, as you will readily guess, of Free Trade. It is very amusing to a cynical observer to read the way in which they have handled in their public speeches the Safeguarding of Industries Act. They all speak of it today with bated breath and in perfunctory and apologetic parentheses. It happens to be one of the very few legislative measures of the Coalition which remains, which has not been repealed altogether or completely eviscerated. The Prime Minister described it as a temporary measure to meet abnormal conditions - a totally inaccurate description, as a study of its provisions would have shown him, and he somewhat faintly advanced the ridiculous pretext, the falsity of which has been repeatedly exposed by Lord Crewe and myself, that it is in some way countenanced by the Paris Resolutions. Sir Gordon Hewart tells us that the Act is an unsatisfactory measure and that he is an uncompromising and unrepentant Free-trader. I am going to suggest what President Wilson used to call an acid test.

At the next election, a question which the electors ought to put to every one of these Coalition Liberals who supported that Bill is: ‘Are you prepared to vote for the immediate and unconditional repeal of the Safeguarding of Industries Act?’ I am not familiar with the intricacies of the Attorney-General’s conscience, but some of those candidates will say ‘Yes.’ It will be their only way of making a pretence of Liberalism upon the platform. But it is too late. The mischief is done. The industries of this country in a number of small, but not un­important, cases are embarrassed, hindered, and penalised every week and every month because this Act is upon the Statute Book, to which, if those gentlemen had acted upon their real convictions, it never would, and never could, have found its way.

Stability

Mr. Churchill, in a verbose treatise on things in general delivered here last week, late in his discourse got hold of an illuminating idea, or, at any rate, of what he conceived to be a captivating caption. What was it? ‘Stability!’ He repeated many times that stability is a great boon which has been brought to us by the Coalition Administration. Let us look at it. We had a great Education Bill from Mr. Fisher which has now been rendered administratively largely nugatory in many parts of it. The housing policy of the unfortunate Dr. Addison has been thrown with its author to the wolves. The Agriculture Act which was to revive rural England by guaranteeing prices to the farmer and establishing minimum wages for the labourer - what has become of it? It was repealed within six months of its enactment.

Stability! There have been at least three different, distinct, and irreconcilable policies with regard to coal, and finally - though that does not exhaust the list - the Ministry of Trans­port with its vast staff of salaried thinkers, who as a result of prolonged and secluded meditations were to give us cheap and uniform transport - after a short and costly life - is now in liquidation. That is a pretty good catalogue of the variety of ways in which the Coalition Government may give the country the benefits of stability. These are hard, incontrovertible facts, worth tons of rhetoric and cataracts of sentiment. In face of them, what is the use of the Prime Minister and others reiterating platitudes about the evils of party strife and the need of national unity?

No Administration that ever existed - certainly no Adminis­tration that ever played ducks and drakes as this has done with the fortunes of the Empire - has been less embarrassed by factions and party strife than this Coalition. I myself have been constantly reproached by my friends - good, candid friends - for over-tenderness to them. What this country needs is not the extinction or suspension of party - necessary as it was in the war. What the country needs is good government. Not a Government by spasms and zigzags, not a Government of expedients and experiments - coercing Ireland one day, and the next conceding all her claims, indulging for two years in costly adventures, and then bowing the knee and the neck in abject servility to the blows of the Geddes axe. Real Govern­ment, a Government that the country can trust, and which is a fitting trustee of the country’s fortunes - such a Government you cannot get from a Coalition. What the country needs, almost as much as an Administration with steady and coherent principles, is a vigilant and well-organised Opposition - to assist, to criticise, and, sacrilegious as the idea seems to Mr. Lloyd George and his friends, even in case of need to oppose.

Get Rid of the Coalition

‘Measures, not men,’ Sir Gordon Hewart described as an old Liberal doctrine. Where does he get it? Do you know its origin and history? It was invented in the reign of George III by a little knot of corrupt place-hunting politicians who went by the name of ‘King’s friends,’ and whose one object was to destroy the Whig Party, and, if they could, to overthrow the Constitution. I will read from Burke’s famous tract on ‘Present Discontents.’ He says: ‘It is an advantage to all narrow wisdom and narrow morals that their maxims have a plausible air, and on a cursory view appear equal to first principles. They are light and portable, they are as current as copper coin, and they are at least as useful to the worst as to the best. Of this stamp is the cant of not men, but measures.’

Our position, at any rate, is perfectly clear. We believe that the need of the country is to get rid of the Coalition. We are as eager as any organisation for peace and the restoration of international confidence. We are for free trade, the cutting down of tariffs, the opening up of markets, the curtailment of unproductive expenditure, the consequent possible reduction of taxation, and a drastic policy of disarmament. 

We had an industrial policy outlined at Newcastle the other day which we believe will be far more effective in securing the real interests of the co-partners in industry than any amount of barking and baying at the spectre of Socialism. We desire to see, and we are indeed pledged to attempt, a better constituted Second Chamber; but whatever changes may be made in its composi­tion its functions must be so defined as to make it abundantly and absolutely clear, that it is not to be allowed to usurp the authority of the directly elected representatives of the people. What we want is to see a definite policy - a policy upon settled lines, pursued by men of real conviction, worthy of the tradi­tion and imbued with the spirit of the great Liberals of the past.

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