Leader's speech, Brighton 1924
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
Following the general election of December 1923, the Labour party had formed a Minority Government with the support of the Liberals. In the first five months of this government, a Liberal Bill on evictions and rent control had gone to the House of Lords, and the Liberals were working with Labour on the issues of unemployment and electoral reform. The Party also aimed to complete its programme of social insurance against the risks of unemployment, accident, sickness, old age, and widowhood, and to develop both national production and national and Imperial resources. Other key issues at the time were the taxation and rating of land values, and education.
On the eighteenth of last December it became my duty as leader of the Party to tender advice to the Liberal Members of the new Parliament, as to our immediate course of action in the House of Commons. My speech at the National Liberal Club will be still in the memory of many of you. I said that we had not come to Westminster as soldiers of fortune, to offer our swords to this or that combination; and that our unfettered independence had not been, and would not be, compromised by any form of alliance or entanglement. We were not going to become a wing or adjunct of any other party. I declined absolutely to move a finger to continue the prolongation by the Tory Government of their disastrous stewardship of our national and international interests. And as the natural alternative was that the second largest party in point of numbers should, if willing to do so, take their place, I sought to ‘reassure some trembling minds outside’ with the expression of my belief that ‘if a Labour Government is ever to be tried in this country it could hardly be tried under safer conditions.’
I have not a word to retract or to qualify in that speech. We have now had five months’ trial of the experiment to which we then gave our assent. Does anyone wish that we had decided otherwise? The hysterical forecasts which were then rife in the well-informed sections of the Press, of the social and political upheaval which must follow the installation of a Labour Ministry have already passed into the category of old wives’ tales. There has, indeed, been profound and well-grounded disappointment among Liberals, which has been shared with us by many men and women of the progressive faith who are not enrolled under our Party banner, both at some of the things which the Labour Government have done, and at its attitude of impotence and vacillation in regard to some things which it ought to have attempted to do. But so long and so far as it has proceeded, whether in legislation or administration, upon the lines of Liberal policy - as, for example, in the main provisions of the Budget, the reopening of relations with Russia, and the adventure of Singapore - we have not hesitated to give it effective support.
I shall have to point out presently, and not for the first time, how fundamental are the differences, to some extent in ideals, to a far greater extent in spirit and in methods, between the ostensible aims of Labour and those of the Liberal Party. But there is almost as wide a difference between the official programme of Labour, as put forward in electoral manifestoes, and thundered even today with every inflection of promise and of menace, upon Sunday platforms, and the actual daily routine of a Labour Ministry which cannot command a majority in the House of Commons. So long as that situation continues with its limitations and its safeguards, we have certainly no motive for joining with the Tories in ejecting them from office, in order that they should be replaced by a Tory Administration, or, still worse, by any form of Coalition.
A Twofold Task
Our business for the moment is two-fold, first, to keep a vigilant watch in the House of Commons upon what is being done and what is being neglected, whether at the direct instance or, as frequently happens, with the benevolent patronage or fitful connivance of the Government. Next, by diligent work and effective propaganda outside, to prepare the mind of the country, when the present unstable and precarious situation crumbles to pieces, for the battle that will then be waged in the constituencies, between Liberalism on the one side, and, on the other, the forces, with which it is beset on either flank, of Socialism and Protection.
Our reunited Party is working together with the utmost cordiality and good comradeship. I cannot sufficiently acknowledge my own personal obligations to Mr. Lloyd George for his constant co-operation, both in counsel and debate. There have been occasions when we have not all voted in the same lobby. When has that not been the case with the Liberal Party? And particularly with a Liberal Party in Opposition? We have never attained to the ideal of mechanical discipline described in the French song:
Quand un gendarme rit,
Tous les gendarmes rient,
Dans la gendarmerie.
In my salad days, even under the austere and appalling frown of Mr. Gladstone himself, I myself have been an occasional mutineer. As for Mr. Lloyd George, he has been in his time a super-mutineer - almost, I might say, a professional. There is no lack of real and essential unity in our Parliamentary Party, though its appearance may from time to time be now and again disguised either by the unbending honesty or the momentary vagaries of this individual or that.
Evictions and Rent Control
What are the things with which we have been most busy? A large part of the earlier months of the Session was given to the subject of Evictions and Rent Control. Let me in a few sentences summarise the dealings of the Government and Liberal Party with this matter.
Early in February Mr. Gardner, a private member of the Labour Party, brought in a Bill:
- To extend control to 1928;
- To prevent eviction, unless the landlord could find alternative accommodation for the tenant; and
- Providing for reduction of rent on reduction of rates.
This Bill received the approval of the Government, which, however, declined to take any responsibility for it beyond its benediction; it went to a Committee where, after an enormous waste of time due to two causes - obstruction, and refusal of the Government to define its attitude - it foundered, and is now a Parliamentary derelict.
Meanwhile, on March 26th, a Liberal member, Mr. E. D. Simon, brought in a Bill which permitted a landlord to obtain possession if he could show that the hardship to him would otherwise be greater than to the tenant, but in cases of all post-July-1923 landlords the Bill required, as a condition of eviction, the provision of alternative accommodation.
Thereupon the Government at last produced an Eviction Bill of its own, of which Clause I empowered an unemployed tenant to stay on without paying rent, at the cost of the landlord. This was so glaringly iniquitous that it was not sought to be defended by its authors. It could not survive an evening’s debate, and the Government, after a good deal of fencing and fumbling, attempted to substitute for it a clause of which no one has succeeded as yet in grasping the meaning, and which was apparently quite unintelligible to its own framers. The consequence was that this Bill was refused a Second Reading.
Meanwhile, as I have said, the Liberal Party has not been inactive. Mr. Simon’s Bill went to a Committee, where it was mutilated by a combination between Government supporters and Tories; it came back to the House where, with the belated consent of the Government, it was restored in substance to its original shape; it has gone to the House of Lords, and it is only a question of days when it will become the law of the land. Nor do the efforts of our Party rest there, and two of the main grievances against which the Government’s Bill was ostensibly directed, will be removed by further measures introduced by two Liberal members - Mr. Trevelyan Thomson and Mr. Ernest Brown - which have every prospect of speedily reaching the Statute Book.
One other case. At the last General Election we were all confronted with problems arising out of abnormal unemployment. There was no Party which appealed to the electorate with more confident and profuse assurance that they and they alone were ready with a remedy than the Labour Party. It is true that their specific proposals were conveyed in vague and nebulous terms. The debate last night sufficiently lays bare the actual nakedness of the land. Upon one point indeed they were committed by the plain and unequivocal declaration of their leader, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, a year or more ago. These were his words: ‘The great temptation of a Labour Government will be to offer doles instead of prosperity. Doles are temporary expedients of short-sighted and irresponsible politicians.’ What foresight! That is exactly the temptation to which the Labour Government have succumbed. What have they done to decrease unemployment except to multiply doles? The hotchpotch measures introduced this week are frankly nothing more nor less than a dole-increasing expedient.
I do not object, few Liberals object, to the increase of benefit by 3s. a week or to doubling of the child’s allowance from one shilling to two shillings without any increase of contribution, if the fund will stand the strain. But this is the best that the Labour Ministry after all its election promises, can, when it gets into a responsible position, offer as the product of months of official incubation. Let me add that it is at least ominous that this scheme anticipates an annual average of one million unemployed for, I think, the next three years, and a permanent average of eight hundred thousand. Personally I take a more sanguine view, and if I thought this a probable forecast I should tremble for the future of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But its real significance is that in the view of the Minister of Labour there is nothing that the Government has in hand or in contemplation which can encourage us to hope that we can get below these portentous and even appalling figures.
I could easily multiply instances, but these two will suffice for the moment to prove that the Liberals in the House of Commons, so far from being subservient auxiliaries of a Labour Government, are effectively playing the part which we took upon ourselves of independent criticism, of fruitful suggestion, and of constructive legislative work.
The Open Road
I pass now to what is really the main business of this great and representative gathering - the immediate task which lies before the Liberal Party in the country.
The Parliamentary situation is, as I have said, precarious in the highest degree. No one can tell how soon the electors may be called upon once more to make their choice. Let me say parenthetically that it is a reproach to the present Parliament that no effective step has been taken to secure a real correspondence between parliamentary representation and electoral strength. A few weeks ago we asked the Labour Government - without any form of menace, and in perfectly friendly terms - to co-operate with us in promoting speedy legislation for this purpose. The measure actually before the House embodied the scheme which goes by the name of Proportional Representation, but it was capable of being amended and supplemented in Committee. For my part, I am not so wedded to Proportional Representation that I would not for the time being accept the alternative vote or any other simple and practical proposal, so convinced am I that nothing could be more delusive and misleading than our existing machinery. A combination between the Tories and the rank-and-file of Labour has rendered any such change impossible for at least another year.
Both Toryism and Labour are obliged for the moment to veil their real colours. No intelligent observer can doubt what is the real goal of the vast majority of the rank-and-file of either of those Parties. The Tory goal is Protection; the Labour goal is Socialism. Both end in blind alleys - the enthronement of sectional interests, the sterilisation of enterprise, and the undermining of freedom. It is Liberalism and Liberalism only which pursues the Open Road. This is what you should keep steadily in view and make the keynote of your propaganda.
The Tories are keeping their general tariff in cold storage, but nine-tenths of the arguments used in support of the inflated and artificial agitation for the maintenance of the McKenna duties are pure and unadulterated Protection. In the same way the Labour Party in the House of Commons are shy and reticent about the Capital Levy and the Nationalisation of Industries. Yet only the other day the whole of them (including the members of the Government) voted in favour of a Bill for the so-called Nationalisation of Mines. It was a sham nationalisation, it is true, for it proposed to place the raw material, production, organisation, marketing, and export trade of one of our greatest industries in the hands not of the community - employers, managers, workers, and consumers - but of what was, to all intents and purposes, a sectional Miners’ Trust.
Liberalism is opposed to every form of Sectionalism, however small or however large may be the class or interest selected for favoured treatment. Its task is to safeguard and to enlarge the freedom of each class in the common interest of all.
We are not satisfied with existing conditions - still less are we the blind disciples of dogmas and abstractions. And the two main directions upon which our efforts in the immediate future are to he concentrated are:
- Security of livelihood, and
- The development of national production and of both national and Imperial wealth.
The first is security of livelihood for workers by co-ordination and completion of social insurance against the risks of sickness, accident, unemployment, old age, widowhood. This is our peculiar business, for upon this path the Liberal Party are the pioneers, and at every stage of the road they have led the way. The last Liberal Government, of which I was the head, was the first Government in history to attempt to achieve security for the worker against the hazards incident to his life. The first step was effected by the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, and the second by the National Insurance Act of 1911. This Act was resisted by the Tory Opposition, and nothing but the energy and tenacity of the Liberal Party enabled it to become law and be put into actual operation. All subsequent legislation has been by way of addition or supplement to its governing principles, which have stood the test both of war and peace, and to which all parties now render homage.
We believe that, after more than ten years’ experience of its working, the time has come for another advance in security, fashioned on similar lines, built on this experience, and filling up gaps which could not have been immediately dealt with in the experimental stage.
The first is provision for contributory pensions for men and women over 65 years of age through the development of insurance in the interval before they receive at 70 the non-contributory State Old Age Pension. Next, the provision of pensions for widows and allowances for orphans up to the end of school age - or so long as they attend school - when the breadwinner is struck down by death. These and other modifications and additions to the security, insurances have been considered for more than two years by a committee of Liberal members and Liberal ex-members, with the advice of economists and experts, who have formulated a scheme now to be submitted to the Party. We will not offer hopes of benefits which are not actuarially sound or which cannot be fulfilled in practice. We shall not embark on large or impossible schemes for putting upon industry a burden greater than it can bear.
We believe that in industrial development, for the present, without undue demand on the taxpayer, the employer, or the employed, we can so complete the structure of our national insurance as to save men and women from the Poor Law and enable them, as a right and not as a charity, to safeguard themselves against the risks of life against which no providence can guard.
National and Imperial Development
I pass to what is not only of equal, but in the long run of even more, capital importance. It is in the opening up of fresh fields for production and employment, and of the more economic and fruitful development, both of our national and Imperial resources, that the only effective and lasting remedy is to be sought and found. We believe that this result can never be attained either by Protective tariffs, whether in the form of Imperial Preferences or otherwise, or (with rare and carefully guarded exceptions) by State ownership and bureaucratic control.
But can anyone assert that under existing conditions our national resources, actual and potential, are being put to the best account? We are, indeed, in some vital matters falling behind our European competitors. Take, for instance, the generation and application of electrical power. In France there has been an increase of three and a half times in the kilowatts generated. The coal stations employed have increased their output nearly six times, and the water Stations three times. The case of Germany is still more striking, when it is remembered that the Treaty of Versailles not only deprived her of important coalfields, but also required her to make large annual deliveries of coal to the Allies. Nevertheless, as compared with pre-war figures, the capacity of her electrical works has more than doubled, while the actual production has more than trebled, and this is largely due to the increased use of cheap fuel - lignite. The progress made in this country is not comparable. We do not ask that the work should be done by the State at the cost of the taxpayer, but we do say that here (and this is only one typical instance) there should be a general and co-ordinated plan, to be carried out in the different areas whether by individuals or by corporations, with limitations of the same class as those imposed on our railways. In that way you would find, without any risk of exploitation or of undue profiteering, a field for unemployed labour and for the investment of British capital which now goes to discharge relatively unproductive functions abroad.
The mining industry is another capital case. I stated what I believe to be the Liberal view more than four years ago when I was first a candidate at Paisley. I may perhaps quote what I then said: ‘I think there is abundant evidence that under existing conditions the coal mines as a whole are not being worked to the best advantage or with the most economical organisation. Starting from these premises, I say to my nationalising friends, “If you mean by nationalisation the acquisition by the State of mineral rights and royalties, I agree with you. I think the case is made out. But if you mean that our mining industry is hereafter to be worked and managed under State supervision and control, I say no.”’ I went on to advocate the establishment of joint boards or councils on which both employers, managers, workmen, and not less important, the consumer, through the State, would he represented, and which, without throwing away the incalculable advantage of skilled and experienced management, would enable the miners to feel and realise that they were partners, not only in name, but in fact and reality, in a great common adventure.
I will only say one word upon Housing. Let me advise the careful consideration of the instructive report of the Trust Commission, now some years old, and the carrying of its recommendations into practice. But you will never get to the root of the problem of housing unless you treat it as a part of the larger question of the tenure and use of land, and tackle that question upon the well-known lines of Liberal policy, whether you are dealing with it in its rural or in its urban aspect. The taxation and rating of Land Values is, in our opinion, a reform which is long overdue.
Again, do not forget, or be false to, our party record in National Education. The first great step was taken - the foundation of the structure was laid - in 1870 by Mr. Gladstone’s Liberal Government. I do not claim for us any monopoly rights in its subsequent development, but strange as it may seem, there is none of our institutions which is of more incalculable and ever-growing value, and yet which stands in more constant need of vigilant and even zealous guardianship. I have spoken of the need for making the most of our potential and often wasted national resources. Of those resources the children of the nation - their muscles, their brains, their character - are infinitely the most precious. Waste, which is a blunder everywhere, is here a crime. By perfecting your school system - from the most rudimentary to the most advanced - with an unblocked road for capacity and promise, with a larger variety of type, with greater elasticity for experiment, with better methods of selection, and with a rigorous veto upon any encroachment, direct or indirect, upon the length of the child’s educational life, it is in these ways that we Liberals can render as good service as any to the future of our country.
In regard to foreign affairs, for the moment there is a breathing space and, I trust, a better hope than for a long time past that the wise counsels which alone can lead to real appeasement, to the revival of industry and economic stability, may prevail.
Finally, in regard to the Empire, we have a much better title than any other political combination to the credit of having created and consolidated the Empire. That title will not be invalidated in history because we decline to believe that we should add to its strength or its unity by taxing foreign imports and raising the price to the British people of the food and raw materials which they need. Our Dominions enjoy and exercise, with our absolute goodwill, the most unfettered fiscal autonomy, and no one is more anxious and eager than the Liberal Party to co-operate with them in Imperial development.
I have only one thing more to say, I know that I am addressing a meeting of you who are the representatives of Liberalism of the whole country. You belong to a Party which is rooted in great and illustrious traditions, which has a record - we have glanced at one or two of its pages tonight - unexampled among all the parties in the State in the development of freedom and of national and Imperial unity and strength. You cannot, and I am sure you will not, be content to rest upon the associations and inspiring memories of that glorious past. You have got to continue the work in the spirit of those who went before you. There are great problems yet to solve, there are greater tasks to discharge than ever fell to the lot of the illustrious Liberal leaders and their faithful followers in the days gone by. Be worthy of your traditions; stick to your faith; do not be led aside by the catch-words and the lies of the hour; and Liberalism will prove in the future, as in the past, the sheet anchor of Great Britain and the Empire.