Leader's speech, 1932
Sir Herbert Samuel (Liberal)
Commentary:By the time Samuel delivered this address, the Liberals had decided to resign from the National Government over the Ottawa Agree¬ments. These agreements, which authorised preferential tariffs and quotas on trade between Britain and the Dominions, were the focus of Samuel’s speech, and he argued that they harmed Imperial interests. He also claimed that the food taxes they introduced would lead to higher prices in Britain. Samuel expressed his support for the principle of free trade, on the ground that it would increase employment levels, and warned delegates to prepare themselves for the possibility of a general election.
I thank you most warmly for the cordiality of your greeting. I take it that your welcome is meant not only for me but for all my colleagues who sit upon this platform.
I believe that our action in withdrawing from the Government at this juncture meets with the almost universal approval of the organisations and the members of the Liberal Party throughout the length and breadth of the land. When we joined the Government fourteen months ago, although there were some doubts expressed here and there, on the whole there was a large measure of unanimity then. When the Prime Minister resolved upon a General Election then, indeed, there was some difference as to the course that we ought to pursue. I can only express my own conviction, which is fallible; I may be wrong; but to me it is very clear that if we had resigned from the Government at that time, in that crisis, and fought the Election on Party lines, Liberalism would have been split from top to bottom. The Free Trade issue would have been overlaid by the financial crisis. Some injury would have been done by our action to national interests, but Liberalism would have been brought to complete disaster.
It is one of the conditions of a coalition that the minority are compelled to acquiesce in many things they greatly dislike. Others before me have experienced that. I shall have something to say later this evening about disarmament. A letter was published yesterday with regard to which I shall only make one observation. It takes two to make a quarrel, and I shall not be the second one. That is all that I shall say on that topic tonight or at any time.
I am more concerned to convince the country, as we are ourselves convinced, that our action in withdrawing from the Government now was necessary in the best interests of the nation and of the Empire. The main task for which we joined was accomplished. Mr. Baldwin, speaking a few days ago at Blackpool, bore testimony to that. He said that, although the conditions today were not without anxiety, the general financial position has improved beyond all belief. We have effected a wonderful conversion and we no longer suffer any anxiety about our currency. Those were the objects which we set out to achieve; and, although no doubt there are many and grave difficulties surrounding our nation and afflicting the whole world, still they can be dealt with in the ordinary course of government.
In January we accepted the agreement to differ, and of late some of our opponents have done me the honour to quote statements of mine made earlier in the year defending our action then, and they ask why it should not be continued now. But they omitted one quotation. I used these words when speaking last March of that situation. I said: ‘It may be unavoidable for us to leave the Government in spite of all its disadvantages if some further division should arise in the Cabinet on a matter of large and permanent importance.’ What was foreseen in March has occurred in September, and we should be false to sound principles of politics and to all the honourable traditions of British public life if we consented to suppress or to conceal or to mitigate our differences with regard to these Ottawa Agreements, or if we failed to leave a Cabinet which was resolved upon so disastrous a policy.
For any Minister it is a sacrifice to lay down a high office of State. For my part, I greatly regret that I must forgo the opportunity in the next Session of introducing a comprehensive measure of Penal Reform which, as Home Secretary, I had planned; but, after all, I have had the privilege of holding responsible offices of State at home and abroad for as many as seventeen years. But for my colleagues who, for the first time, have had experience of the absorbing interest and the wide opportunities which ministerial office presents - for them the sacrifice is far greater. Sir Archibald Sinclair, Mr. Isaac Foot, Lord Lothian, Sir Robert Hamilton, Mr. Graham White, all of whom have conducted with remarkable efficiency and success the affairs of their several offices; and our admirable band of Whips: Mr. Rea, Sir Murdoch McKenzie Wood, Mr. Harcourt Johnstone, Lord Allendale: all of them with complete unanimity forewent the offices which they held and made the sacrifices which public duty required.
Liberal Nationals and Liberal Unionists
I have no doubt that this common action, this unanimity, would have been approved by our great leaders of earlier days, whose example we seek to follow: Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, and would most certainly have had the concurrence of our dear friend and colleague, Donald Maclean. I am sorry that we have not got companionship in this action from all those Members of the Government who in the past have borne the Liberal name. When you consider the events of the last twelve or fourteen months and are inclined sometimes to criticise our action, bear in mind, if I may venture to ask it, how our hands were weakened by the action of those Liberal Members of the House of Commons who accepted completely and without demur the whole Protectionist policy of the Conservative Party: two in the Cabinet; four or five in the Government - there are several more now; another twenty in the House of Commons. At every stage, at every crisis, their abstention almost halved the efficacy of our action. But our hands were upheld by the rank and file of the Party throughout the country and by every one without exception of its central and district organisations.
I have repeatedly uttered a warning that the Liberal Nationals of today are treading the path of the Liberal Unionists of a generation ago. Now that is confirmed completely from another source, more authoritative, if I may quote once more Mr. Baldwin. He has made an interesting and a very useful speech, which we shall have occasion to quote somewhat often. He said at Blackpool the other day: ‘The situation reminds me very much of that which I remember so vividly when I was a boy at the time of the defeat of Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule, and the Liberal Unionist Party under Mr. Chamberlain… We worked for them; we did not oppose them, and in a few years looking back there was not a member of the Tory Party which did not rejoice at that infusion of fresh blood and fresh strength. I assure you that none of those who support the Ottawa Bill right through must suffer from it at the election.’ I wonder whether the Liberal Associations who adopted those Members, and the Liberal electors who supported them, approve of and rejoice in this cordial welcome to them by Mr. Baldwin, as bringing an infusion of fresh blood and fresh strength to the Tory Party. Perhaps it was not kind and not tactful of Mr. Baldwin to have been so frank so soon.
As for the policy embodied in the Ottawa Agreements, we have given in our letter of resignation the reasons for our condemnation of them, and I shall not repeat them. I shall limit myself now to giving some answer to the replies which have been attempted by those who defend the Agreements.
The Dangers of Hard Bargaining
By far the most important of our objections to the Ottawa Agreements is the view that we hold that they do damage to Imperial interests and imperil the whole future of the British Empire.
This process of hard bargaining is very dangerous. Mr, Neville Chamberlain takes exception to our use of the words ‘hard bargaining.’ Speaking at Blackpool, he said: ‘“Hard bargaining” was a word invented by Free Traders in order to create prejudice.’ In our letter it appears, but within quotation marks. It is taken from a letter to the Times, of September 5th, describing the Ottawa Conference, signed with the name of Mr. Amery. I am afraid that Mr. Amery’s feelings will be hurt that his Protectionist colleague in Birmingham should describe a phrase of his as ‘having been invented by Free Traders in order to create prejudice.’ Hard bargaining there was, and much injury it has done, and this is the gravest aspect, I repeat, of the whole business.
I am one of those who believe, and I feel sure that the great majority of you share the view, that on the whole, in spite of many failures, many blunders, and some follies, the existence of the British Commonwealth of Nations is a service to the world at large. Over a quarter of the whole globe there is mutual peace, and, as a rule, goodwill, and that quarter of the earth does influence for good the other three-quarters of mankind. It is untrue that Liberals have been indifferent to the problems of Empire. Our Commonwealth has been built up on Liberal principles. But for them it could not have endured, and never has more eloquent or more sincere expression been given to a noble and a wise Imperial patriotism than fell again and again from the lips of Gladstone. Indeed, I am one of those who would wish that the rest of mankind should imitate the principles of this Commonwealth of Nations. When we find at Geneva 60 nations gathered together endeavouring to frame some common policy the difficulties are very great. If only there could be groupings or federations, with full local autonomy, with full scope for variety of national characteristics; if that 60 could be reduced to 16, or even to 6, I believe that that would conduce to the welfare of mankind. But for the opposite to take place, for our own Commonwealth, as it is, to break up and dissolve, that would indeed be a disaster for us and an injury to the world. But that, according to Mr. Neville Chamberlain, was in prospect but for Ottawa. We must have this watery cement of tariffs and quotas, or the Empire will fall to pieces.
Here I would draw your very special attention - because this goes to the very crux of the matter, to the very essence of the difference between us - I would draw your attention to these sentences from Mr. Neville Chamberlain’s speech, and, after all, he is the hereditary high priest of this policy. ‘When he first got to Ottawa,’ he said, ‘he had the impression that the ties binding the Empire had begun to get dangerously frayed, and if something were not done to change the tendency of recent years the time would come when disruption of the Empire would actually begin. He believed that great danger had been averted at Ottawa.’ Is there one man in this country who would say that he would cast off the Dominions if they did not reserve their markets for our trade? Not one. Then why accuse the Dominions that they would cast loose from us if we would not reserve our markets for their trade? Why suggest that the love of the Dominions and Colonies for the Motherland is nothing more than cupboard love?
The Conference of 1930 broke down on these trade matters. Did the Dominion representatives go away angry, resentful, filled with thoughts of separation? By no means. They said their policy was Canada first, or Australia first, and they understood fully that the Mother country had a complete right to consider also its own economic interests. I have no use for this new brand of pseudo-patriotism. I am one of those who regard it as a degradation of religion to consider it as based upon some personal benefit to be obtained whether in this world or in some other, and so it is a degradation of patriotism to make it dependent on a material advantage to be got out of it.
‘St. George for the Meat Quota!’
If this is to be our doctrine we may roll up the colours of our regiments; we may haul down the White Ensign from our ships, we may lower the Union Jack on the Houses of Parliament, and adopt a new flag with a glorious device, the words: ‘Tariff preference.’ St. George for the Meat Quota! Rule Britannia, provided always there is 2s. a quarter duty on wheat! We shall have, no doubt, long and vehement discussions upon these Agreements, but I hope we shall hear no more of this commercialised prostitution of patriotic ideals.
There have been set on foot political discussions that can only be harmful in many parts of the Empire. In Australia, Mr. Scullin, the Leader of the Opposition and ex-Prime Minister, looking at the matter from the opposite standpoint to that from which we look at it, has declared formally that he and his Party if they come into power will not regard these Agreements as valid.
In Canada, Mr. Mackenzie King, the ex-Premier and Leader of the Opposition, criticises the Agreements most vehemently, and has declared that the attempt to establish them for five years and make them unalterable is, in his view, and to use his own words, ‘fundamentally wrong.’
He proposes a completely different plan, and his policy has been remarkably vindicated at a striking test by-election which took place in Canada only a few days ago. Here, in this country, both the Liberal and the Labour Parties contest the constitutional right of the present Government to try to make these Agreements unalterable by Parliament. This is not the occasion to argue in detail the constitutional aspect of what we regard as a grave departure; we shall do that from our places in Parliament, and we shall substantiate there our assertion that it is contrary to the spirit and to the practice of our Constitution to deprive Parliament of the right to lower or to alter any of the duties which it imposes unless the assent has been obtained of His Majesty’s Governments in other parts of the Empire. The Liberals of an earlier day did not fight, as they did fight, to establish self-government for the Colonies, free from Downing Street control, as it used to be called, in order to establish the converse - that Ottawa or Canberra, Wellington or Pretoria, should control the actions of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster.
The Slender ‘Advantages’ of the Agreements
Some trade advantages for our industries these Agreements undoubtedly will bring. Mr. Neville Chamberlain says that we have declared them to be worthless. That is not an epithet we have used. On the contrary, in our letter of resignation we said that they would undoubtedly bring some benefit to some branches of our trade; but we assert that those benefits are comparatively small and often doubtful. The Agreements in all their details will be published tomorrow. You will see as their most conspicuous feature that they involve a flat refusal of anything approaching Empire Free Trade. The Australian Agreement, you will observe, fully justifies the statement of Mr. Bruce, the principal Australian delegate at Ottawa, that it involves no radical departure from Australia’s fiscal policy, and we know what that is. In Canada, you will observe that the staple branches of our textile trades get practically no advantages, while the iron and steel concessions were arranged outside the Ottawa Conference by agreement between the industries concerned; and although there is a formula which appears to give some assurance for equal treatment for British goods in competition with the Dominions in their industries, that is vitiated by one most formidable exception. Any industry is taken right out of that provision and may be granted any protection, no matter how high, ‘if’ (and these are the words of the Agreement) ‘it is not fully established and has reasonable prospects of success.’ What industry in the Dominions is there which would not claim that it is not fully established and has reasonable prospects of success? We know well these infant industries in protected countries; infant industries forty years old, weighing 15 stone, but still wearing baby clothes and calling out for ‘Nurse.’ All of these are wholly excepted from these provisions, which are supposed to give an equal chance for British industries, and whatever small advantages there might be, in our view the disadvantages are greater.
There is a whole range of food taxes, and that we most vehemently oppose. Mr. Chamberlain tells us that the foreigner will pay for the privilege of entering our markets. We are told that the dear food cry is a mere bogy raised for political purposes, but sometimes we get words of candour coming to us from distant quarters. Yesterday the Times reported that Mr. Latham, the Federal Attorney-General of the Dominion of Australia, said that ‘the Agreements offered very fair advantages to Australia, while for Great Britain they involved the imposition of taxes on food and restrictive arrangements which would increase food prices.’ There is testimony from a wholly impartial source. How can any member of the present Parliament who gave pledges - and many members of all Parties gave pledges against food taxes, how can any who undertook to their constituents that they would vote against the taxation of the people’s food now consent by their vote in the House of Commons to implement these Agreements? For my part, at the beginning of the last General Election campaign, opening the campaign in a speech at a great meeting at Bradford, I stated clearly and categorically that the Liberal Party was opposed to tariffs upon foodstuffs, and we shall oppose now such measures with all the energy at our command.
It is true that world prices have been dropping during the last twelve months, and that has neutralised the rise in retail prices that would otherwise have taken effect, but, when world prices begin to rise, then there will be complaints of the dearness of the cost of living, and then these food taxes will be swept away. Already there are, it appears, some doubts. In February Mr. Neville Chamberlain said in the House of Commons that they were clearing the way for the restoration of prosperity. Then all was bright and hopeful, but last week, in October, Mr. Baldwin said at Blackpool: ‘If Protection fails I do not see our Party sticking to the carcase of dead policies.’ And there are some whiffs already of an unpleasant odour.
As for the three purposes which were declared last year to be the objects of the adoption of tariffs, we never hear mentioned today the question of the balance of trade; that is wholly forgotten; its name is never heard. As for revenue, these duties will provide very little, and I think it is true to say that Protection by hampering trade and business always destroys more revenue than it brings. The third was, Tariffs to lower tariffs. What a mockery! Next month we shall have the World Conference, at which the British Government is to give the lead for the reduction of tariffs and the abolition of quotas, while this month it will be passing a Bill through Parliament, every clause of which imposes additional duties or authorises further restrictions, and, worst of all, would make many of them permanent and unalterable for a period of five years, no matter what the World Conference may propose or may agree. So much for Ottawa.
Peace and Disarmament
Our policy, the Liberal policy, must be laid plainly before the country. We must face in our own way the problems that surround us. We must lay before the country the distinctive Liberal view. And what, in any declaration of Liberal policy, must have pride of place, must come first and foremost, beyond compare and beyond challenge? There can only be one answer: Peace and disarmament. In the old watchword of Liberalism peace came first. We see in these days in the League of Nations the only hope of the world. When I was at Geneva this summer for several weeks, as many of our friends who were there will testify, I laboured long days and often far into the night to endeavour to secure the maximum agreement for the maximum disarmament to which the nations could be brought to consent. Great and formidable are the difficulties in bringing countries into line when the feeling of goodwill and loyal confidence is not there; but the spirit of the Versailles Treaty and the Versailles undertakings, no matter what their letter may say, do undoubtedly require the general disarmament of all Europe. I shall rejoice in the strong expressions of public opinion from Liberals, and from men and women of all Parties, here and in all countries, in the Parliaments and out of them, which may help to save the Conference from the grave dangers which do now threaten it, and will help to bring it to the full success which the hopes and the needs of mankind so imperatively require.
Liberals are reformers. We exist to promote progress, to make headway against poverty, to enlarge the opportunities for all men and women to live a full life. I care deeply for these things. I came into politics, now forty years ago, for the sake of social reform. If Liberalism does not stand for that I take no special interest in it. But social reformers are terribly handicapped in these days by the financial situation and by the immense and excessive burden of taxation. The war has made the whole country poorer. You cannot blow off into nothingness the value of ten thousand million pounds’ worth of labour and not make any difference to all who are affected. Our first task has been to maintain financial stability; financial stability is the first condition of social progress. We have restored it during the last twelve months with great difficulty and with much sacrifice. Our prime duty now is to see that that financial stability is not imperilled.
The channels of trade must be freed
The World Conference may bring about monetary changes and bring help to a troubled world through those monetary changes; but they must be international, and with regard to them there is as yet no agreement. But there is universal agreement on one great world problem, and that is that it would be wise to free the channels of trade, that the choking of those channels of trade is the chief single cause of the world depression that is now pressing upon all the nations and throwing tens of millions of working people out of employment. There is universal agreement that the channels of trade must be freed. All say it, but the difference is that, while some are trying to get it done, others - and in this country perhaps more at this moment than anywhere else - are busy choking up yet more than before the very channels of trade it was their duty to clear. We should like to see this country enter into regional agreements for lower tariffs such as have already been entered into by Belgium and Holland. We should like to see us develop our trade with the one half of mankind that live in three countries, China, India and Russia. Large opportunities are there for the expansion of our trade and for bringing people into employment. Russia, with its 150 millions of population, in a state of active industrial development - their Government is their affair, not ours. We did not scruple to trade with the Russia of the Tsars. Why should we scruple to trade with the Russia of the Soviets?
In this great matter of unemployment we see before our eyes, advertised in the press every day, the fact of enormous accumulations of unused capital. The great conversions of War Loan so brilliantly successful give proof of it. They are a very good sign as to British credit, but a very bad sign as to British trade; they show that there is no active demand for money in industry and in commerce; and many of our industries, some that are more depressed, than any, like iron and steel and building, depend for their welfare upon the expenditure of capital which supplies a demand for their products and services. In our view the time has come when lending should not be discouraged but encouraged, whether for private or for public enterprise - I draw no distinction between them - provided that no heavy burden is being imposed upon rates and taxes and that we do not run the risk of again having a great deficit in our Budget.
Those are some lines upon which we believe that Liberal policy may proceed, and Liberalism must have an agricultural policy (A Voice: ‘We have one.’), active and definite, based upon science, upon marketing, upon land tenure reform, including the encouragement of small holdings. As one friend says, up in the Hall, ‘We have one,’ and a good programme it is, for England, Wales and Scotland, and the time will soon come when we should actively propagate it throughout the country. Industrial relations, the proposals in ‘Britain’s Industrial Future,’ those must not be forgotten; and there is electoral reform at home, and in the Empire the building up that great edifice of self-government in India, of which Lord Lothian is one of the principal architects.
Only in a few brief words have I been able to sketch out the policy which must be the main objective of Liberalism at headquarters and throughout the country in the months and years that are at hand. But let us be careful, in promulgating these ideas among the electorate, not to go one inch in promises beyond the prospects of fulfilment. Let us be scrupulous about it and understate our case rather than overstate it. The Labour Party has brought upon itself great discredit by the opposite course. It aroused high hopes among some of the keenest progressive minds in the country. Many of them have been discouraged by its adoption of an impracticable Socialism. I was one of those who hoped after the last Election that the lesson of that Election would have been learned, and that the Labour Party would adopt a carefully considered policy which would stand the test of practice, opening the possibility to some future co-operation between what are called the ‘Parties of the Left.’ That has not come about; the tendency has been just the opposite; and therefore on Liberals and on Liberals alone rests the duty of prudent, progressive leadership of the nation. So tonight I beg our friends to strengthen our organisations in the constituencies - now, in good time. By-elections may occur anywhere at any moment, and the next few by-elections within the next few months may have most important results upon the whole future of British politics. The date of a General Election is always uncertain. In politics it is always unsafe to prophesy, but I am inclined to think that, in view of the character of the last Election and the mandate given to this Parliament, it is unlikely that this Parliament will run its full term; it may fall very far short of it. Let us, then, heighten our zeal, expand our numbers, concentrate our ranks, say clearly what we mean to do, claim national support, and do it. We cannot rest with the country as it is. We in our generation must labour in order to restore to it its prosperity and its greatness, and make it worthy of its past.