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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Buxton 1923

Herbert Asquith (Liberal)

Location: Buxton


This conference was the first since the Conservative victory in the general election of November 1922. In the days before this conference, the Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, had resigned due to illness, and was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. A key issue at the time was the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, which permitted the deportation and detention of suspects without trial, and abolished trial by jury. Asquith called on the government to repeal this Act, on the ground that the creation of the Free State in Ireland had rendered it obsolete. With regard to foreign affairs, the government was in talks to rebuild relations with Russia, while international co-operation was needed to tackle three related difficulties. These were the problems of Reparation and Allied indebtedness, the economic recovery of Germany, and the future security of France. Ideally, a settlement would be reached through the League of Nations, Asquith said, but if this were impracticable, the international community needed to form another, impartial, organisation to arbitrate on these matters as a matter of urgency.

Let me thank you most sincerely for your warm and encouraging reception. The chairman, in the speech which he has just made, has abounded in the felicitous application of the phraseology and even the parables of Scripture to our modern political conditions.      

There was one phrase which he used at the opening of his speech which filled me with a little momentary apprehension. He said that old bottles could not contain new wine, and I said to myself, ‘Am not I an old bottle, and is my capacity or utility therefore at an end?’

Then I reflected that in those days a bottle was not a rigid and brittle thing of glass; it was a leathern receptacle, elastic and tensile, and, therefore, from whatever date it drew its origin it might still be often capable of legitimate expansion. At any rate, we will hope so, and I desire, at the outset of what I have to say, to express my great gratification with the announcement which you have made as to the better and more effective organisation of the National Liberal Federation.

The National Liberal Federation is not and never has been any part of the official organisation of the Liberal Party. It is an entirely independent body so constituted as to give representation, free representation, to all the local Liberal Associations in the country, and in no way bound to a blind support of any single man or group of men in the direction of Liberal policy. It follows that its resolutions, as the spontaneous expression of the views of freely chosen delegates from a vast variety of districts, have in the past been, as they still are to Liberals throughout the Kingdom, of special significance and of peculiar weight.

The Federation is not, and I hope it never will be, the docile mouthpiece of the Party leaders and Whips. It is rather the watchdog which, according as occasion demands, can utter the note either of welcome or of warning.

Tribute to Old Premier and New

The Federation this year meets under exceptional conditions. The late Ministry’s short and by no means tranquil life lasted only two hundred days, and has been brought to an end by the enforced and universally regretted retirement - we all hope it may prove a temporary retirement - of Mr. Bonar Law.

I will only say of him now that he was by far the most formidable personality in his own Government. His successor, Mr. Baldwin, starts with one invaluable asset - the esteem and affection of his fellow members of the House of Commons.

The first-class brains of which we used to hear so much from their possessors at the late General Election are still out in the cold, and, so long as they are not readmitted to the family hearth, I suppose it may sound to them, at any rate, like sarcasm, to describe the present Cabinet as a famous but short-lived Administration more than a hundred years ago was described - as a Ministry of All the Talents. But do not let us despair. The Ministry is not yet complete. It promises to be recruited and reinforced from unexpected quarters, and it is, indeed, curious to us that the hard-shelled Tories, who vetoed the return of Mr. Austen Chamberlain, are prepared to welcome, with more or less open arms, to their innermost council, not a prodigal - the chairman has spoken of prodigals - but a con­vert, an old friend and colleague of ours - a striking and gratifying proof of their confidence in the robustness of his new faith.

The Irish Deportations

The new Government has had only three or four days of Parlia­mentary life, and, in my judgment, it has not started very well. The deportation by its predecessors in time of peace of suspected persons, without trial and even without charge, whether it was legal or illegal, was, in any case, a grave error of policy, and a violent break with the best traditions of our constitutional practice.

It has been declared by the Court of Appeal to be illegal, and though the Ministers concerned are, I think, entitled to little or no sympathy, as they acted in good faith and apparently upon the best legal advice that was available, few people would have objected to their being protected from criminal and even from civil liability, subject to three vital conditions.

What are these conditions? The first is, obviously, that the protection given should be confined to the particular Order, and to persons who executed it in good faith. The second is that full compensation should be provided to innocent victims from whom rights of action were being retrospectively taken away; and the third, and in my opinion the most significant and most important of all, was that immediate and simultaneous steps should be taken to get rid once and for all of the so-called Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, and of the long series of regulations, many of which were of the most arbitrary and aggressive character.

When the Indemnity Bill - and the discussion of it is still going on in the House today - which the present Government inherited from their predecessors came to be carefully examined, it was found not to comply with any one of these conditions, and the utmost that could be extracted from the Government in the debate last Monday, on the second reading, was some very vague and nebulous assurances. There was, therefore, in my judgment, and in that of the fellow Liberals who act with me in the House of Commons, no alternative but to vote against the second reading. It is perfectly idle to pretend that this would have involved, if it had been successful, a denial of indemnity to the threatened Ministers and officers. It would have involved nothing of the kind.

Liberal Action Vindicated

The Government had only to take back their ill-conceived and ill-drawn Bill and produce a satisfactory substitute, and an indemnity, properly safeguarded and hemmed in, would have been readily assented to by Parliament. Our protests were unavailing. The Second Reading of the Bill was carried by an exceptionally large majority of variegated composition.

The debate in Committee amply vindicated our action. It was shown that the language of the Bill could be construed to cover not merely this particular transaction, but other acts done in the past, or acts that might be done in the future, in pursuance of the eighty-odd regulations which have been made. That contention was at first strongly denied. I was told I knew nothing about the subject when I raised the point in the House of Commons, but it was ultimately admitted to be unassailable and unanswerable by the representatives of the Government, and amendments cutting down the Bill to its avowed purpose were inserted, together with a not inadequate compensation clause proposed by the Government.

The Bill, as I have said, is not yet disposed of, but through the vigour and vigilance of the Opposition it has been transformed into a comparatively innocuous measure. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a strong example of what can be done by an Opposition which understands its real functions.

It has not only to criticise but to oppose, and, let me add, that there is no more difficulty now than there ever was in the old days in a man finding his way into the right lobby with or without the guidance of the Whip. But nothing has been done or promised to meet the third of the conditions which I enumerated a few moments ago - I mean the complete repeal and obliteration of the Restoration of Order Act. But for that Act and powers conferred by it, this incident would not have occurred. The Act is still on the Statute Book, and though the creation of the Free State in Ireland has, as one might have supposed, rendered both the Act and the regula­tions made under it obsolete, yet, as these adventures and experi­ments by the Law Officers of the Crown sufficiently show, it is high time that the possibility of executive encroachment upon the elementary liberties of the subject should be put an end to definitely and without delay.

We ought not to be put off with any promise that the Govern­ment have made of a Cabinet Committee to sit and discriminate. The whole thing should be swept root and branch out of existence. People’s memories in these days are so short, and there is such a natural anxiety in some quarters to wipe out with the sponge of oblivion quite recent history, that I make no apology for asking you, for a moment, to go back not very far, less than three years, to the month of August 1920, when, under the guillotine, this Act was hurried into law. Remember, this was not war legislation; this was post-war legislation. The war had been over nearly two years. The sole justification for the arbitrary powers conferred upon the executive by the Defence of the Realm Act was the supreme necessity of providing for the safety of the kingdom in time of war. That state of things had entirely passed away. The state of Ireland was bad, very bad indeed, worse, perhaps, than it had almost ever been, and the question for British statesmanship was to find the best way for a solution. This Bill was the then contribu­tion of the Coalition Government. Lord Robert Cecil last Monday thought fit to make the gibe that it was framed and introduced by a Liberal Prime Minister, with a Liberal Home Secretary and a Liberal Chief Secretary. That is, unhappily, the truth, although, of course, it is absurd to suggest that Conservative parties in the Coalition were not as fully responsible for its authorship. Let me recall what was the attitude of the small Liberal remnant who had survived the coupon election, and who sought to keep alive and alight in those dark days the torch of Liberal tradition.

Complete Justification of Paisley Policy

I had myself fallen a temporary victim to the determined attempt which was made to submerge the Liberal Party as an independent political force, and after a year’s absence from the House of Commons I was returned by the electors of Paisley on a policy which, I do not hesitate to say, in every important item, whether negative or constructive, has in the course of three years been vindicated by the events.

I will venture, therefore, to quote some of the language which I used in the House of Commons on August 5th, 1920, when this Bill came up for the Second Reading. I said then: ‘I have seen in my time many proposals of a coercive character, and I do not hesitate to say that in my judgment of them all, this Bill is the worst in conception. It gives the Executive, without reference to trial, the power, unlimited in point of time, to supersede the ordinary con­stitutional safeguards of personal liberty. It permits the imprison­ment of suspected persons without trial, it abolishes trial by jury, it puts military officers in the places of trained judges, and it will hinder, not help, the Executive in what is already a most impossible task.’

I should like to add to what I said then - for I was not content merely with destructive criticism - I said to the House then, and I reminded them that I had stated six months before at Paisley, that matters had reached a stage in Ireland at which it was impossible to procure to Ireland lasting peace by any measure which did not, to all intents and purposes, put Ireland on the same footing as our great self-governing Dominions. I finished by saying that, if you deal with Ireland on the same lines and in the spirit which I have been trying to indicate, the cry for an Irish Republic will very soon dwindle and become extinct.

Scouted and Flouted - Then Adopted

I will not quote the reply which was made to me immediately after I said that, by the then Prime Minister, because I am not here, as you know, to indulge in personal recriminations. But what followed? It is a most instructive story.

This is not a reference merely to the past, for the evil that men and Governments do lives after them. The second Reading was carried by a majority of something like four to one. Under its authority 84 consecutive regulations were made. Neither the Act nor the regulations were, or ever have been, worth the ink which the King’s printer spilled in giving them publicity. There followed, as we all know, months which constitute a black chapter - one of the blackest - in the history of our relations with Ireland. It was an era when the British Government first connived at and then openly adopted the fatal policy of reprisals. The policy I suggested of Dominion Home Rule was flouted and scouted as an absurdity and as an impracticable proposition. Exactly a year after I had spoken in August, 1920, the leaders of the Irish people, the ‘assassins’ and the ‘gunmen,’ and the representatives of the then Chief Secretary were in conference, and a settlement was arrived at on the basis of the fullest and most unfettered form of Dominion self-government.

Why do I rehearse these indisputable facts? Not with a purpose, as some people seem to think, of opening old sores. I rehearse them to impress upon you Liberals, to whom I am primarily speaking, to impress upon you, first, the folly and the fatuity and the far­-reaching evils which result when Liberals turn their backs on Liberal principles. And next, if I can, I would emphasise the supreme importance, the paramount urgency, which lies upon all who call themselves Liberals to reassert at every available opportunity the necessity of putting an end once for all to the possibility of executive autocracy, and of blotting out from the Statute Book this stain upon the scutcheon of our free constitution, whose twin watchwords are law and liberty.

Russian Affairs

Now, Sirs, I pass to another aspect of the present situation. I will say a few words about external policy. The new Government succeeded abroad as well as at home to an unenviable inheritance. There are, I am happy to say, signs at this moment of a break in the clouds in one quarter which, a month ago, overhung the inter­national situation.

It seemed then that we were within a measurable distance of a complete rupture of our relations, such as they were, with the Government of Russia. I am glad to believe that, through a process of conferences and discussions, difficulties are now in the way of being removed, and that the Russian Government are being brought along the only road by which they should be brought to realise that it is at least as much to their interest as ours to comply with reasonable demands.

As you know, I have never uttered a word during all these years in explanation of or in apology for the methods of the Soviet Administration. But I have urged, in season and out of season - as a rule upon deaf ears - I have urged the expediency of regular communication, through authorised and accredited channels, between the two Powers.

Is it not a little strange - and I put this question to our Tory friends, to whom, perhaps, it more specifically ought to be addressed - is it not a little strange that people who acquiesced for genera­tions, without demur or protest, in our continued diplomatic relations with St. Petersburg in the worst days of Czarist persecution and proscription, both religious and political, when banishments and judicial murder were the habitual methods of the bureaucracy - is it not rather curious that they should now be clamouring for the complete ostracism of the Russian nation because its new rulers have borrowed, practised, and perhaps improved upon, in the name of democracy, the suicidal weapons of the autocracy which they have overthrown?

The League of Nations

Let me come back for a moment to survey the still over-clouded international sky. We cannot forget that we are now approaching the end of the fourth year since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. That Treaty, as everyone now recognises, settled nothing. Of course, it is easy to be wise after the event, and I am not indulging in, and I have never indulged in, cheap reflection on the good faith of those who were mainly responsible for it. They were presented with an almost superhuman task; but they left a tangled skein of problems, which, after all these years, still has to be unravelled.

The one solid and fruitful contribution of the Treaty of Versailles to international security was, or seemed to be, the solemn enactment of the Covenant of the League of Nations. But where is the League of Nations today? It embraces among its constituent members over fifty of the Powers, great and small, of the civilised world. But it is still a truncated and lop-sided body. America is not in, Germany is not in, neither is Russia, and out of the total population which comes within the pale of civilisation, and which ought (to justify the name of the League) to share not only its counsels but its obligations and active responsibilities, I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that some 300 millions of people not only do not assist in its operations but are not even represented on its Board.

I will go further. I say from the beginning the League of Nations has never been given a fair chance. It was left for a long time in an almost menial position to gather up the crumbs of comfort - or more often of discomfort - which fell from the table of the Supreme Council of the Allies. Difficult jobs which the Supreme Council had not the time or the capacity to settle were relegated to it, most of which, it is fair and right to acknowledge, it handled with courage and a considerable measure of success. There were regrettable exceptions, one in particular - the impotent action, or rather inaction, of the Council of the League in the crucial case of the indefensible suspension of the elementary liberties of the people of the Saar.

I am glad to think, and I say it with the greatest cordiality, that one of the results of the recent change of Government has been, and should be, and is likely to be, that our representation on the Council will be, for the future, put into the hands of Lord Robert Cecil. If the League of Nations is to be made what the Powers who were parties to the Treaty of Versailles profess they desired it to he, it must be backed both by the Governments and by public opinion of the whole civilised world.

Problems for the League

It has never been allowed any initiative or effective voice on the three governing issues on which the whole future, politically and economically, of Europe and, indeed, of the world still depends. They are not really separate issues; they are inter-linked and inter­dependent. What are they? First, the definite - and by definite I mean not only clear but final - the definite settlement, both in amount and as to time and method of liquidation, of the problems of Reparation and Allied indebtedness. The second is the economic recovery of Germany, and the third is the future security of France. These are the three interlaced questions. These are, all of them, not local but world interests. Let me, just by way of illustration, put two or three questions. What is the amount actually due at this moment to complete the restoration of the devastated territories? We do not know. There are as many opinions as there are men who know anything about it.

Next, what is the amount already contributed by Germany for reparations? Is it 500 millions, which, I believe, is the estimate of the Reparation Commission, or is it 2,000 millions, as the Germans contend, or some other sum greater than one and less than the other? When these two figures have been settled, as they ought to be and must be, how can the balance to the debit of Germany best be met by Germany without fatal injury not only to her whole economic future, but to that of the rest of the world? And, finally, how is France to be given - as I have always contended she ought to be given - effectual security for her political and territorial future?

These are the vital problems which, after four years, are as far from adjudication as they were when the Treaty of Versailles was signed. There can be no real or permanent settlement of them except by some impartial international arbitration. We should all prefer, as the appropriate implement, the League of Nations, reinforced and made fully representative, but if that is found to be impracticable, as may be for the moment, let the statesmanship of the world devise without delay some other machinery of international consultation and arbitrament, whose decisions will inspire confidence and command authority.

That is the task upon which, as it seems to me, and I hope to you, our Government, which has shown a lamentable lethargy during these critical months we have been going through, ought to centre its energy, and if it does so, I can promise it the support of public opinion of all parties in this country.

Constructive Policy on Trade and Labour

Now, coming nearer home, it is said by our critics that the Liberal Party has, on the domestic side, no constructive policy to offer to the country. The resolutions which you have been passing here during the last two days on industrial matters, on trade and unemployment, and on agriculture are sufficient refutation of that charge.

Our industrial policy, which is not a policy of improvised expedients, but has been carefully thought out during these years of opposition - our industrial policy has three watchwords. The first, partnership by all those concerned - capital, management, and labour - in industrial enterprises; secondly, security of livelihood for the worker; and, thirdly - and this is an old and deep-seated Liberal principle and tradition; we have never been a party of a class, but always a party which stands for the community - thirdly, I say, our policy is the predominance of public advantage over private profit when the one conflicts with the other.

The application of these general principles, both in industry and in agriculture, are, I think, well summarised in your resolutions, and they may be contrasted with the half-hearted expedients which are put forward by the Government.

There is the Housing Bill, from which it seems doubtful whether the rural districts will derive any benefit at all, and the tinkering measure to give credits to farmers, which was introduced two nights ago.

Taxation of Land Values

There lies at the root of not a few of the reforms I have men­tioned the question of the taxation of land. Two years ago your Federation passed a resolution in favour of the imposition both of national taxes and of local rates upon site values. So far as the Liberal Party was concerned, that was not a novel proposal. It is to be found in the Undeveloped Land Duty, which formed part of the land taxes in the Budget of 1909, in defence of which we fought the House of Lords for a couple of years, and which since has disap­peared from the Statute Book. The Undeveloped Land Duty was avowedly a tentative measure. It did not exceed one halfpenny in the pound. One of its main purposes was to ensure a complete capital valuation of the land of the country.

The tax has gone; the valuation remains; and I am told there would be little difficulty in completing it and bringing it up to date. That being so, it is time for us once more to reassert that we recognise for the purposes of taxation, whether Imperial or local, a distinct difference between two kinds of value - the value created by the energy and enterprise of individuals and the value which is not so created, but which arises from the progress and general development of the community at large. Upon that fundamental distinction we have always taken our stand, and we hold, as we always have held, that so far as practicable local and national taxes which are necessary for public purposes should fail on the publicly created value rather than on that which is the product of individual enter­prise and industry. That does not involve a new or additional burden on taxation, but it would produce these two consequences - first of all that we should cease to be imposing a burden upon successful enterprise and industry, and next that the land would come more readily and cheaply into the best use for which it is fitted. These two things would be two potent promoters of industry and progress.

Position of the Liberal Party

I have not attempted to give you anything in the nature of an exhaustive survey of the work which lies before the Liberal Party in the administrative and legislative field. It is work, which I still believe with as much conviction as when I entered public life forty years ago, that the Liberal Party and only the Liberal Party can adequately perform, but the Party can only perform it if it con­tinues to adhere to the principles and to be animated by the spirit which has made it in the past the pioneer of all political, social, and economic reform.

It is just fifteen years ago since I was elected leader of the Liberal Party, and whatever my shortcomings have been, I believe that I may claim I have never betrayed the trust you committed to me.

It is one of the most gratifying events in my now long public life that after all those years the National Liberal Federation should this week have expressed its unabated confidence in my leadership.

As you well know, I have no personal aims to serve by remaining in the stress and strife of politics. My one object, and only object, is to contribute what I can, as long as I can, to the restoration of our Party, and what is far more important, the restoration of the principles and purposes which our Party embodies, to their old authority in the State.

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