Leader's speech, Margate 1927
David Lloyd George (Liberal)
Commentary:This conference took place in the fiftieth anniversary year of the National Liberal Federation. In his speech, Lloyd George recalled some of the key events of that period and attacked the record of the Conservative government. In particular, he criticised its decision to sever ties with Russia, which was damaging in terms of both trade and national security, and its mishandling of the China situation.
MR. LLOYD GEORGE, who was received with great enthusiasm, said it was a real relief to come from the turbulent assembly in the House of Commons at which he was present the previous night to the more serene atmosphere of the well-behaved people in Margate. His first pleasant duty was to congratulate the National Liberal Federation on the great success of its meetings. He saw signs on all sides that the old spirit was thrilling the Liberal Party again.
The Chairman, in the course of an eloquent speech, said Mr. Lloyd George, reminded us that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the National Liberal Federation. My memory goes back as far as that, and a little further, added Mr. Lloyd George. It was a time when things were not going too well for the party. The leaders were not agreed. That has never happened since. There were people at that time who said the Liberal Party was out of power for at least twenty years - the very wise people said fifty years. That was in 1877. Three years later the party won the most remarkable triumph in its history up to that date. That was worth making a note of.
The first meeting of the Federation he attended - if they would allow him to be reminiscent: it was the privilege of grey-hairs - was thirty-eight years ago, in Manchester, he believed. Mr. Gladstone, Mr. John Morley, Sir William Harcourt, Sir George Trevelyan, and all that brilliant array of Liberal leaders were there. That was the first meeting of the Federation he (Mr. Lloyd George) attended. He was present also at the meeting in 1892 at Newcastle, where the Federation forced a great constructive programme upon the leaders of the party, the items of that programme including Home Rule, Welsh Disestablishment, the abolition of plural voting, the veto of the Lords, payment of Members, allotments, and small-holdings, and local option. Every one of those items had been carried in whole or in part, because even local option had been carried for Scotland. They had tried it on the Scotsmen first, and they liked it - in principle. All those measures had been carried, and he was proud of the fact that, so far as the first four of them were concerned, he was the Minister who took a leading part in placing them on the Statute Book.
The Chairman had told them what a difference it would have made had Home Rule been carried when first proposed by that great statesman Mr. Gladstone. There was one thing not clear to the minds of the people of this country, but which was nevertheless a fact - it was thoroughly known by those who were Liberal Ministers in August, 1914. He doubted if Home Rule had been on the Statute Book that we would have ever had the Great War. It was the quarrel over Home Rule, the divisions in the country, the threat of civil war as reported in Germany by the Ambassador that induced the German military staff to come to the conclusion that Britain was out of the reckoning, and, therefore, Germany could crush France and Belgium. Had Home Rule been on the Statute Book, and had the nation been united, Germany would have considered it, not once, but two or three times, before precipitating Europe into a bloody conflict that brought ruin upon themselves. If the voice of the leaders of the Liberal Party had been listened to, it was counsel which would have saved the world from its greatest catastrophe for centuries.
The Fortunes of Liberalism
Since Home Rule was introduced, said Mr. Lloyd George, the Liberal Party had passed through many vicissitudes. They had had three or four major splits and a multitude of minor ones, but they were all happily healed. Mr. Lloyd George referred to the great success of the party in 1906, after the period of greatest dissensions in the party. Mr. Lloyd George said that as they swept the country then they would do it again. There are differences now, he proceeded. I do not mean differences among ourselves, but in the political situation. Then we had two parties. Now we have three. That has obvious disadvantages, but it has some advantages too. I will tell you one. It emphasises the fact that our party is the one party to secure safe and steady progress. One party is on the brink of the precipice here, and the other party is on the brink of the precipice there. We are the only party walking on the safe path.
We have two years in which to work. It is not a bit too long. There are people who talk about an immediate general election. Naturally I do not know. I do not think Ministers themselves know. I doubt if the Prime Minister knows. He never knows many minutes in advance what he is going to do. I have heard people say that the Trade Unions Bill and the break with Russia mean a dissolution. Well, I think you had better wait until Market Bosworth comes in. I am making no prediction, but I shall be surprised if whatever the result is it will encourage the Tory Party towards a dissolution.
The long drought is over. The Liberal Party has had two refreshing showers - Leith in the north and Southwark in the south. It has rained victories on the unjust for a long time. Now the just are going to have a shower. The cracks in the Liberal garden are beginning to disappear. The nation had arrived at a time of great emergency, and the nation would want the party it could trust to bring it through. The Tories had had a chance of doing what they liked, and the country had seen how it was done.
The Labour Party, said Mr. Lloyd George, were in office for a short time, but long enough to show that they had no message for a distracted nation. They were a party which voiced discontent, but a grumble was not a gospel. There were essentially two parties in the Labour Party - the Trade Union Party and the Socialist Party, and there was no real agreement between them on any remedies. They had no real common creed, but a faith cure without a faith. The country had seen enough when in difficulty, and when there were obstacles to surmount that would baffle the best brains in the country, that the Labour Party was not the one to call in. They might be called in in quiet times, when there was nothing doing.
As for the Conservatives, continued Mr. Lloyd George, they were tumbling downstairs from blunder to blunder. The Prime Minister had preached ‘Peace in our time, O Lord,’ and then brought in a Trade Unions Bill which excited more class animosity than any Bill of modern times. The Bill is an example of extreme foolishness. Whatever might be thought of the Bill, to have brought it in when things were settling down, when there was a manifest improvement in the relations between capital and labour in many directions, and when there was a real desire to settle down, and co-operate, was an act of supreme foolishness. They had created a position in which there was one law for the capitalist and employer and another for the workmen - a fatal thing to do, and a disgraceful act on the part of any Government. The clause regarding the political levy was drafted in such a way as to give the impression that where there were associations of workmen the full force of the Act would tell against them; but it was not so clear that it would apply to such associations as that of the brewers or the Federation of British Industries, and bodies of that kind.
Again, the Government expressed a desire for peace in the world, and had erected a new shrine to peace in the mountains of the Alps at Locarno. He was quite prepared to worship at that shrine, but, whilst they were building it, the Government quarrelled with two of the greatest countries in the world - countries which covered half Europe and half Asia and embraced one-third of the population of the world, namely, Russia and China.
Even on the question of the gold standard, which was in itself quite a desirable thing, the Government acted precipitately and without consulting the various industries which would be affected. They never considered for a moment what the effect would be on our export trade.
When there was trouble in the coal-mining the Government managed to act in such a way that English coal cost about 1s. 6d. a ton more than any other, and the consequence was that England was, therefore, thrust out of the world’s coal market in many places. The whole thing was done in such a way as to precipitate a rupture. When the rupture came, the Government had a great lead from the Report issued by Sir Herbert Samuel. It was rather significant that when they got into a difficulty, the Government came to the Liberals to get them out of it; and three of the four men who assisted with the matter were Liberals.
The Government were given a very definite lead by the Coal Commission. But what happened was that first the Government said they would do it; the next day they said they would not; the third day they said they would; and the next day they decided to half do it. In the meantime the stoppage went on month after month, and what should have taken at the most two or three months to settle lasted seven months. Everyone knew, and the speaker, who had had a good deal of experience in such matters knew, very well that in trade disputes the most important thing to do was to get on a clear, definite line as to the basis of settlement and what they were prepared to stand by.
The Break with Russia
Continuing, Mr. Lloyd George said that Russia provided another good illustration of the Government’s method, or lack of method. This, he said, is a very serious business. To have a diplomatic rupture with one of the greatest powers in the world is a very serious business. It is not a thing to throw caps about: it is a thing to bend the knees about. It is a quarrel between two of the biggest nations on earth - that is what it is. You never know what its repercussions will be, especially with a Government that is always slithering into positions which it never dreamed of getting into. There had been plenty of reasons for quarrelling with Russia in the past, had we wanted to. The country had the same reasons for quarrelling with her in 1921 and 1922, but he (Mr. Lloyd George) then decided that it was not good for the peace of the world or in the interests of Britain to do so. In 1923 there were plenty of reasons for quarrelling with Russia, but the Tory Government of the day - he thought Mr. Bonar Law was at its head - said, ‘Although there are reasons for a quarrel, we don’t think it wise to have one.’ In 1924 the Labour Government came to the same conclusion. In 1925 the present Government also came to the same conclusion, and in February of this year, although they had plenty of reasons for quarrelling, they would not.
Leaders of the Government in those days told the country that a quarrel in the then disturbed state of Europe was such a serious matter that they did not advise it. Nothing could be gained by it. Why had they quarrelled now? Quite frankly, they never intended it - they tumbled into it. The present trouble was an affair of the police. The Ministerial head of the police in the country has been made the director of the foreign policy of the country, and quite frankly he is not up to it. The most important decision made since August, 1914, was taken, and the Cabinet was never called together. Sir Austen Chamberlain was asked, the Home Secretary was asked, and the Prime Minister was asked about it, but not even those three were called together.
What an extraordinary Government, Mr. Lloyd George added. They decide upon a rupture with 150,000,000 of the most formidable people on earth, and only those who know what they did in the war, without arms, without rifles, without ammunition - they went into action against the greatest artillery in the world with sticks in their hands, and died valiantly at the word of their Czar - it is only those who read of them in dispatches at the time know what a formidable and what a valiant people they are.
Mr. Lloyd, George referred to the agreement for which, with Sir Robert Horne, he was proud to have been responsible, and which made possible with Russia a trade of £180,000,000 per annum. In the House of Commons the previous night there was an admission by one of the directors of the Midland Bank that he had made arrangements to credit his English traders for orders to the extent of £10,000,000.
Disadvantages of the Break
Russia could not, said Mr. Lloyd George, be described as a trade rival of England. Russia was not producing the same things that we were. Russia was producing the raw materials which England could not produce and materials which we could not buy elsewhere - hides and cereals, and platinum, and timber, and flax, especially flax. He remembered what a shortage of flax there was immediately after the war. The Russians were supplying the very things that we needed, and we were producing the things that the Russians wanted.
A VOICE: Does trade come before honour?
MR. LLOYD GEORGE: Oh, no. Trade does not come before honour, but was not honour involved in 1923; was not honour involved in 1925; was not honour involved in 1926; and was not honour involved in February, 1927? And Lord Balfour - one of the most honourable men in this country - said then in the House of Lords, ‘Although this trade agreement is broken, I say to you it is not in the interests of the peace of the world that you should have a rupture with this great people.’
Now, said Mr. Lloyd George, a disturbing element had been introduced into the peace of the world, and that was the most serious thing of all. Russia could do us more harm than any other country, and there was no other country which was so invulnerable except the United States of America. Russia could do us more harm in China, on our frontier, and in India than any other country. Suppose, he said, they intensify their propaganda. Suppose they increase the difficulties which they are making for us in China and on our frontier. There is nothing more left for England to do. England could not send back the Russian Ambassador, because he had gone. We could not recall our Ambassador, because he was on his way back. We have shot the last bolt, said Mr. Lloyd George, except the thunderbolt of war. What folly, what madness. Without thought, without consultation, simply because the Government has made a mistake. They said, ‘save our faces we will put the country in jeopardy.’ A little more patience would have saved the situation.
A Change Needed
Mr. Lloyd George went on to say that the Government had made blunders during the strike, and another blunder had been made in regard to tackling the China situation. But the Government were able to defend every blunder in turn. The servant who broke crockery could defend each particular case, but people came to the conclusion that they would rather have a change.
Sir Herbert Samuel, said Mr. Lloyd George, had undertaken the great task of reorganising the Liberal forces. As I have said before, he declared, whatever service I can render to assist him I am entirely at his command. What is much more important, I state solemnly here that I will place no obstacle in his way.
The annual gathering of the National Liberal Federation was not merely a festival. Work was wanted; it was a council of war. Those who could speak - and there were lots of them - should go out and do so.
An Appeal for Liberal Workers
Continuing, Mr. Lloyd George said: We really want speakers to speak who will undertake to do what the speakers of the Labour Party do; not merely say, ‘What sort of a meeting are we going to get?’ ‘What sort of a hall is it?’ and ‘Will my speech be reported?’ Get your audience for yourself: I have had to do so many a time, though others do it for me now. Labour speakers get a chair or a soap-box and put it in a convenient, or rather an inconvenient, place, get a man and a boy to hear them start, and gradually, through curiosity, they get a crowd. Sunday after Sunday, I have seen this sort of thing happen. With a reasonable class of language, which would pass muster with the police, the speakers denounced everybody, and at the last general election that party polled five million, five thousand votes.
You must, Mr. Lloyd George added, get men and women to speak who are prepared to take the risk of not having a good meeting. The task is not a pleasant one. We ought to have, just as the Labour Party has, thousands, many thousands, of young men and women who are prepared to take these risks, who are prepared to take the gospel of Liberalism, which I think is the gospel which will save this country, into the highways and byways. Help; don’t think it is merely your duty to cheer. Work; we are right with our programme, and it is a constructive one. That is not electioneering, it is business.
The ablest thinkers and the best economists of today were members of the Liberal Party. When the Liberals went into office they wanted to make sure that they had a programme of reparation for the countryside, the cleansing of the slums and the mean streets that are not fit for men and women to live in, the re-housing of millions of men, women, and children, the reinstatement of our homes, and the reduction of useless armaments.
If, said Mr. Lloyd George in conclusion, we work hard, and work conscientiously, and with the devotion of a noble effort, then generations unborn will bless the Liberal Party that came into being in the third decade of the twentieth century.