Leader's speech, Nottingham 1929
David Lloyd George (Liberal)
Commentary:This was the first conference held since the general election of May 1929, after which Labour formed a minority government. This speech focused on international affairs, and Lloyd George praised Labour’s decision to reverse the previous Conservative government’s policy and restore relations with Russia. He also spoke about the settlement with Egypt, before urging the government to wait for the report of the Simon Commission before making a decision on constitutional reform in India. A key event at the time was the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron in August 1929 by Arabs, and Lloyd George condemned the previous government’s decision to remove from the area a small mobile force, whose presence could, he claimed, have prevented this slaughter. On disarmament, he criticised the failure of the victorious nations to honour their commitment under the Treaty of Versailles to reduce their armaments, even though Germany had fulfilled her obligations. In domestic politics, the key issues were unemployment, and the questions of the mines and the congested areas in Britain’s cities.
We are here tonight as part of the army of 5,300,000 men and women who were mobilised under the Liberal flag a few weeks ago at the General Election, the largest poll ever recorded for the Liberal Party, and it will be bigger next time.
It is true that the members of the House of Commons are no indication of the proportion of the electorate which we secured, for as some speakers pointed out here today, each member of the Liberal Party in the House represented three times as many votes as each member of the Labour Party. And it fills us with pride to realise that we are three times better men than either the Conservatives or Labour.
The Socialist Government and its Predecessor
We have got a Socialist Government in power again. Who put them there? And what are they doing?
I am going to deal more particularly with the first question. Although not very important at the moment it will be very much more important in a year or two. When driving about the country during the last election I saw great posters which said ‘The Liberals put the Socialists in in 1924. They will do the same thing again.’
They did not. Who put them in? There was an Anti-Socialist majority of six millions. Mr. Baldwin knew that, but he was in such a hurry to put his Socialist friends in that he could not wait, for 24 hours even, to consult with the representatives of 5,300,000 non-Socialist electors who had voted Liberal. If the Socialists succeed - well, we shall have to thank Mr. Baldwin. But he would not get the credit. If they failed there would be another poster ‘He put the Socialists into power’ and at the end ‘Vote Liberal.’
The next question was ‘How are they doing?’ It was early days yet. They had been singularly fortunate in their predecessors. He read a very witty article in an independent Conservative paper that week. ‘We do not for one moment believe (ran the article) that this is the best of all Governments. We are uncertain in spite of what it has accomplished. It is a good Government, but let Mr. Chamberlain make no mistake, it is a magnificent Government compared with the last.’
The Conservative paper concludes: ‘The country has no certainty that it is going to live happy ever afterwards in a Socialistic regime, but, quite frankly, it has felt a lot better since putting the last Government out.’
‘But still,’ continued Mr. Lloyd George, ‘we must not forget what the last Government was like. You must not speak evil of the dead, but if the dead expect to come back to life in another couple of years, and afflict us again, it’s just as well you should examine something of their record.
It was the poorest thing in the way of a government I had seen in my time. No department tackled its jobs - mines, agriculture, trade, the department of health, labour, go through them one by one, transport - they never tackled a single job. They never faced a single problem.
They did not even seem to realise what was going on. All the staple industries of the country were suffering - textiles, coal, engineering, shipbuilding - go through them all. They were quite oblivious. The crushing taxation, the estrangement with America, the prestige of the country going down throughout the world. They had no conception.
They thought things were going fine, and they said: ‘See what we are doing.’
The fact of the matter is, it was not so much a Cabinet as a kind of opium den. Drowsy, dreamy, oblivious to all realities; supinely and stupidly happy, thinking all things were well; very pleased with themselves! It is only now when it is over that they have collapsed.
And even now the fumes have not evaporated.
Read that speech of Mr. Neville Chamberlain’s, who said: ‘It’s all right: if they misbehave I will slap them.’
Take the Bank rate. It all had its origin in that foolish settlement by Mr. Baldwin of the American debt - which burdened us with £38,000,000 gold payment every year before we had made any settlement for the moneys that were due to us from others.
We have already paid over £200,000,000 in gold. The French waited for a better opportunity. The result is they have £300,000,000 of gold now and we have £130,000,000, and it was coming down rapidly.
It is well that the public should keep in mind the fact that the members of the late Government believe that they are the only alternative to the Labour Government. In 1924 the country had had no experience of a Conservative Government. They have now had five years’ experience, and they know what it is like, so that when the Socialists’ time is come for them to put in their ticket, the country must be taught to look for something better to succeed them than the late Tory administration.
The Government’s Foreign Policy
How are the Tories’ successors shaping? I am going to talk fairly and quite frankly about that. Take what they have done. If you take what was done at The Hague, I have nothing but unqualified commendation, praise and admiration for that. The Liberal Party first raised the issue in the House of Commons, but still that does not rob Mr. Snowden of his share of the credit.
Mr. Lloyd George went on to say that Mr. Snowden showed great courage and resolution in face of great difficulties. ‘And perhaps the greatest difficulties of all did not come from foreign Powers but from much nearer home.
I am glad he did it because of the selfish French policy which was damaging British credit. So I give him full marks for that.
Now with regard to the Optional Clause, that ought to have gone through before. There should have been no hesitation about it. It was part of our programme at the last election, and I cannot conceive of any hesitation. I am delighted that it was achieved.
As to evacuation - by the Treaty of Versailles - and I do know something about that because I was there for months framing it - the French, the Belgians and ourselves were to evacuate the Rhineland the moment Germany was carrying out the Treaty.
She was carrying out the Treaty - and it is acknowledged she was - when she was permitted to enter the League of Nations. It was a dishonourable thing to have remained there a single hour after that. And there again - full marks!
Tribute to Herr Stresemann
May I just in passing say with what deep distress I heard of the death of Herr Stresemann. I never had the privilege of meeting him. I think there were three great European figures I never had the honour of meeting. Herr Stresemann, Mussolini and that other great figure - you may disagree with me - Lenin.
He was a great man, Herr Stresemann. He was a man who faced great unpopularity, faced the taunt that he was unpatriotic when he was struggling for European peace. He faced it bravely when his health was completely broken, and he fought right to the end. May God rest his soul.
As to Russia - well, I am glad that they have repaired the blunder - the silly blunder committed by the late Government. You cannot expect quite the same rule of conduct from a revolutionary Government as you can from a settled Government. You cannot expect men in a fever to behave quite normally. It is in the interests of the peoples of the world not merely in the interests of the peoples of Russia, but of all nations, that you should bring them into the comity of nations and gradually accustom them to the methods of a more normal civilisation. Therefore it would have been wisdom on our part to overlook a few errors of judgment - he would not call them breaches of faith. The French are doing it, the Poles are doing it, the Germans are doing it.
But all I can say is why did not the present Government do it two or three months ago?
They entered into the negotiations with regard to questions which had not been settled. Why did they not go on with this and other outstanding questions. I am glad that Mr. Henderson has repaired the error of Sir Joynson Hicks and also his own blunder. Not quite full marks for that!
Misgivings about Egypt
Then there was Egypt. He was full of misgivings about that settlement. It had had the effect of adding another desert which they had got to occupy, and there was the effect it would have when, later, they would have to enter into negotiations with the great people of Hindustan. Neither would it make Sir John Simon’s task as easy as if they had not been so precipitate in dealing with a position of that character.
India and the Simon Commission
I would also like to issue one word of warning about India itself. I see in the Daily News of Thursday that there is some talk of dominion status for India, and there is a letter from the Secretary of State for India which is a rather remarkable and disturbing letter. He says he has been working hard daily for four months, going over the ground, and he thinks he will be able to contribute something to Indian policy which is in harmony with the ideals of the Labour Party. And he says he has a united Cabinet behind him.
Well, you must bear in mind that there is a very important and influential commission with Sir John Simon, one of the ablest jurists in the Empire, at the head of it. It was appointed with the full consent of the Labour Party. They placed two members on that Commission. They have worked hard in the face of very real and dangerous risks to their own lives.
They are now approaching the stage when they will come to some definite conclusions and recommend them to the Government. Surely the Government will not form their judgment or make their contribution according to Labour ideals until first of all they have heard what is the report of this influential and able Commission.
Well now, I thought it necessary just to say one word upon that, and we will suspend our marks until we see what they do.
With regard to Palestine, they were undoubtedly caught napping, and I am not disposed to criticise them very severely for that reason. They had not been in power very long before the trouble began, but they were undoubtedly unprepared. I am much more inclined to blame their predecessors.
Had not a small mobile force, which was not expensive, been taken away, he thought there would have been no disturbances, or at any rate no massacre.
This question was of great international character. There were Jews in every country, and the Commission of Enquiry should command not only the confidence of people at home, but from its constitution and membership the respect and confidence of other nations as well. The report of the Commission would probably be the basis of action in the future. It was a great pity they had appointed a weak Commission instead of taking time to confer with other parties, because, after all, they were a minority Government.
Dealing with disarmament, Mr. Lloyd George said that he rejoiced heartily in the steps that had been taken in re-establishing good relations with the United States of America, and from the bottom of his heart wished well to the mission of the Prime Minister. The whole peace of the world depended upon whether disarmament was a reality and not a sham.
First of all there was naval disarmament. It was vital that there should be an understanding between the two greatest naval powers in the world - the British Empire, and the United States of America. The success of the efforts at such disarmament did not, however, depend on the mission to America, but on the Five Powers’ Conference which would take place a few months hence.
A more important part of disarmament to which he called attention last year at Yarmouth, was the land and air armaments. He then pointed out that the victorious Powers had given an undertaking that if Germany reduced her forces to the figure in the Treaty of Versailles, i.e., 100,000, they would reduce their forces alike to the lowest proportions consistent with security. That was 10 years ago. What reductions had been effected?
We proceeded at once to carry out our part, and also entered into negotiations with America for the reducing of naval armaments and at that conference such armaments were reduced by 1,800,000 tons. What had been done beyond that? Let people examine the position in regard to men. Germany had reduced her gigantic army of millions to 100,000, and at the present moment had 98,000. France’s total effective peace establishment was 614,000, but her reserves of trained men were 3,000,000, so that in the event of war she would have 3,614,000, and Germany 100,000. That was what was called reducing the Army to the minimum consistent with security.
Now let us turn to munitions. No army is of any use as a fighting machine unless effectively equipped - thus the possession of equipment is a vital factor in war, and the reduction or absence of equipment an equally vital factor for peace.
The Russian Army was one of the bravest in the field. There had never been anything to exceed their gallant daring. They went with sticks in their hands to fight those with rifles, bayonets, and machine guns under the terrible cannons of Germany. What happened? Although they were trained, although their bravery was superlative and their sacrifices were enormous, they were beaten down. It was two years after we entered the war that we could equip those men. Had we been able to equip the Russian Army the war would have been over in 1916.
At the beginning of the war we had 1,955 machine guns, and during the war we manufactured 210,000. At the beginning we had 800,000 rifles, and at the end we had 5,316,000. Except those that were destroyed in the war, they were all there now. At the Armistice Germany handed over 107,000 machine guns, 6,000,000 rifles, and 83,000 cannon. They were all broken into scrap iron, and the rest ought to be. The French equipment was almost as great as the German was formerly, and the Italian equipment was also enormous. What was still worse, this machinery of destruction had been ‘perfected’ since the war.
All this in spite of the fact that the Treaty of Versailles, and the Covenant of the League of Nations, which were signed by all the great powers of the world, and which dictated conditions to Germany as to her disarmament, contained a pledge that if Germany observed the conditions imposed upon her the other parties to these documents would reduce their armaments to the minimum compatible with security.
They call this ‘reducing armaments to the minimum.’ It was a farce, a dishonour, and a menace. Viscount Cecil had put up a gallant fight for disarmament at Geneva. He had met great opposition and the abuse of the Continental Press. It was after Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Henderson had left, but they ought to have put up that fight. He was not in the least disparaging Lord Cecil, for he was a man for whom he had a very great respect.
He had ability, a great courage, and was respected by all parties in the country, in Europe as well, and in America. But he held no official position, for he only represented the Government in the sense that he was a delegate sent there. The Prime Minister should have dealt with this before he left the conference.
It is a case that ought to have been presented with the full force and influence of the British Government. It was a British Prime Minister who signed that undertaking. The Prime Ministers of the Dominions signed it. The British Parliament passed it and inscribed it on the Statute Book of the realm.
All parties to the Treaty were bound equally in honour. A wrong has been committed against one party to the Treaty and no man who cannot speak with authority in the name of the nation can see that wrong righted, can see that pledge redeemed, can see the British name and the British honour is untarnished.
You must all take risks for the purpose of seeing that our honour is kept untarnished. As long as those gigantic guns are ready to be rolled into the battlefield, those rattling machine-guns that crackle death - as long as they are there peace is a very poor thing.
Do you think they are going to refer vital issues to arbitration when they have got 4,000,000 men behind them and 50,000 heavy guns, and only 100,000 on the other side and no guns?
It means, I tell you, that so long as the deadly instruments of war exist there will be no peace on earth or goodwill amongst men. It is too serious to criticise the Government.
I say here in this Liberal meeting that I appeal to the Government, to its head and to the Foreign Minister, not to leave the matter merely to Lord Cecil but to back him up in his effort.
Home Affairs - Unemployment, etc.
Turning to home affairs, Mr. Lloyd George said here the Government had not done so well. The Labour Conference apparently agreed with the National Liberal Federation as to their failure on the home front.
Proceeding, Mr. Lloyd George said that Socialism would not eliminate or provide remedies for the great troubles of the nation. There was unemployment. It had increased by 62,000 since the Socialist Government came into power. Unemployment is a terrible curse. There was the question of the congested areas in our great cities to be dealt with. Then there was the question of the mines - aggravated by the refusal to accept the Liberal Party’s practical proposals made several times during the last ten years.
Mr. Lloyd George suggested his hearers should look back at their old newspapers and find out what was offered in 1919, 1920, 1921, and afterwards in 1925 by the Samuel Commission.
And look at what they are getting from the Labour Government - after great schemes which would have put the whole situation of the mines right had been repeatedly rejected by the Labour Party who had said ‘No, we will have nothing but nationalisation!’
The Labour Government is not going to propose Nationalisation, but is going to propose something which will be less than they could have had but rejected ten years ago.
Then there was the problem of the decay of the countryside, the great and growing difficulty of the traffic on our roads, improvements in the efficiency of our industries, and the great problem of making the best use of the natural resources of this country in men and material.
It was the one issue that we concentrated upon during the War - how we were to make the best use of our men and material for war. When are we going to put the same question to ourselves in peace?
Mr. Thomas took the lead at the General Election in abusing the Liberal plans. He called them juggling, cheating, and lying, excelling himself in the language he used. And there’s no man who can use such language so well. He’s strong in language, but very weak in action.
Mr. Thomas had not the courage to admit he was wrong, and the Liberals were right, but each day he would realise more and more that the Liberal plans were not improvised, that we had consulted the best business men and the best experts, and we had put them forward after years of consideration.
He won’t admit it, and the result is he is going blindly headlong to destruction.
‘Our plan,’ said Mr. Lloyd George in conclusion, ‘holds the field. If they refuse to adopt it they will inevitably fail. If they accept it they will succeed, if they know how to carry it out, and we will demand to know why they abused it at the election.
Meanwhile, we shall continue in the House of Commons with the very able party we have got there - and when the time comes we shall ask with confidence the electors of this country to return to power the only party that thought out the real remedies for dealing with the great social and economic evils that has afflicted this country, one of the greatest of which is the crying evil of unemployment.’