Leader's speech, Scarborough 1925
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
Commentary:This conference was the first since the general election of October 1924, which resulted in a Conservative victory and the loss of over 100 Liberal MPs. For Asquith, this result did not reflect the number of votes the Liberals received, and he called for electoral reform. He then criticised the government for introducing new taxes that gave certain industries protective treatment, on the ground that they were protectionist and were inappropriate given the state of Britain’s economy. A further key issue at the time was the government’s proposals to extend the pensions system, which Asquith argued did not go far enough.
LORD OXFORD, who was very enthusiastically received, said that since he last had the honour of addressing the annual gathering of the Federation at Brighton last year a great change had taken place in the apparent distribution and still more in the Parliamentary representation of political parties. Incidentally he was one of the victims of the change. He thought it his duty to accept the gracious invitation of the Sovereign as offering him the best and probably the only effective opportunity of still serving, for such time as might remain, his party and the State. What was much more important than this merely personal matter, the Liberal representation in the House of Commons had been during the same year reduced from over 150 to less than 50 - a grotesque travesty, as they all knew, of the real electoral facts, and of many condemnations perhaps the most striking and complete in our time of our existing representative system. The redress of this dangerous abuse and the reconstruction of our electoral machinery, the defects in which made its recurrence possible, was a reform of vital and even of primary urgency in the interests not merely of the Liberal party, but in the best interests of democratic government itself.
Though, as they were grateful to know, the Liberal Party in the present Parliament was a dominant, and even a predominant, factor in debate, they could make no effective protest in the division lobby. He earnestly trusted that the National Liberal Federation, in all its units and branches, would not be slow or slack in organising the great forces to which it appealed to bring to the earliest possible end that caricature of democracy.
At the last election people thought the country was going to secure some of Mr. Bonar Law’s ideal of stabilised tranquillity, but those who imagined that politics were about to be reduced, for a time at any rate, to the commonplace and the humdrum, must have already realised that they were living in a fool’s paradise. ‘I spoke of tranquillity,’ continued Lord Oxford. ‘Would it have been possible, apart from the introduction of a general tariff - which is for the time barred, or at any rate deferred, by election pledges - to have devised in a Budget any taxation more provocative in itself and more unwarranted by our situation than Mr. Churchill’s new duties? I call them his. One set are his own progeny, and the other set are a little group of cast-off children whom he has adopted into his family.'
Referring to the new miscalled McKenna duties and the new tax on silk, Lord Oxford said he would not labour the topic; it would be slaying the slain - unnecessary and almost vindictive cruelty. It was a monstrous thing for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to play this game of battledore and shuttlecock, because it unsettled trade. It was fatal to what was all important to our fiscal system - stability. To take industries like these and single them out from all other industries of the country for specially protective treatment was not a thing they would have expected from a Free Trade Chancellor.
The Silk Duties
With regard to the duty on silk, he could only say, with the fullest deliberation and with some small knowledge derived from experience of national finance, that he could net conceive an import duty possessing more vices. It was a tax on raw materials, and it was not only discouraging the growth of trade, but indirectly it would, if carried into law, have a very damaging effect on the whole of the textile industries of Great Britain. It was always the case when they began with one trade they would find half-a-dozen other trades were involved. It would further, by increasing the cost of articles, hamper our British manufacturers in competition with foreign producers in the extraneous markets of the world.
Lord Oxford proceeded to inquire what was the need for the duties in question. The need, or the supposed need, he said, was because it was necessary to balance the Budget. That meant in plain language because it was necessary to provide money to meet expenditure. The capital figures involved in those duties were something like three million pounds in one case and seven million pounds in the other. Even if they could be realised, those figures were comparatively insignificant in these days.
Our National Expenditure
What was far more important was the scale of the national expenditure. It was to meet that expenditure that the best part of seven hundred million pounds was to be exacted this year from the taxpayers of this country. That meant a gigantic depletion of the resources which would otherwise have been available for the replacement and extension of capital, for the development of existing and of new industries, and - what was of vital importance to us at this moment - for a shrinkage in the ranks of unemployment.
He wished to impress upon his fellow Liberals that what was needed in these days was not new taxation. ‘The taxation we have got is hard enough to bear, and niggling expedients are nothing to the point. I say in all earnestness there is only one way of escape from our financial difficulties and dangers, and that is not by imposing taxation, but by cutting down expenditure.’
Lord Oxford described the expenditure on the Singapore base as panic-stricken. Singapore, he said, was turned down by the Labour Government, but even it succumbed to the construction of cruisers.
The Pensions Scheme
Turning to the Government’s proposals for extending the pensions system, Lord Oxford said that Liberals had no hostility to the extension and completion of the pensions system. It was their system in every one of its branches. It was devised by Liberal statesmen and carried out by Liberal Houses of Commons. Why, therefore, should they be hostile?
In the first glace he thought widows’ pensions ought to be confined to widows with dependent children, but when they came to dependent children and orphan children he thought the scale proposed in the Government Bill was quite inadequate. He further thought it was open to grave doubt - perhaps more than doubt - whether the provision should cease at the age of 14. Certainly there was a strong case for continuing it to 16 if they were satisfied that during those two years the child was attending a really approved and recognised educational institution.
The scheme was on a contributory basis, but for the time being to impose a fresh burden on industry was a very serious matter, and he should be quite prepared to accept a temporary abeyance of contribution and that the scheme should for the time being be financed by the State.
The Country’s Need
It appeared to him that for the moment their problem as a party was twofold. In the first place it was to seek out and to discharge their function not of a Liberal Government, but of a Liberal Opposition. In the second place it was to prepare the electorate, by propaganda, by organisation, by ceaseless and well-combined work in the constituencies, to replace a Liberal Government in power and to give to that Government the strength to renew its suspended and interrupted tasks of whole-hearted Liberal policy.
Therein lay the supreme and capital importance of building up their Million Fund. The immediate practical problem was to work for the reduction of every unnecessary and unproductive item in our national expenditure; next to resist at every stage any attempt, avowed or veiled, to foster British trade by the spurious stimulant and the impoverishing devices of Protection.
The primary need at this moment was the revival of our export trade. It could never be revived by crippling and curtailing exports.
‘Piecemeal Protection is just as noxious as piecemeal Socialism,’ concluded Lord Oxford. ‘Away with them both, and preserve for the country the freedom which it has won so dearly in every department, and not least in the department of industry - the freedom which is won so dearly, and which is the only enduring safeguard either for the wealth or for the happiness of our people.’