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Leader's speech, London 1941

Sir Archibald Sinclair (Liberal)

Location: London


In the weeks before the conference, the German army had invaded Russia, and the United States had despatched an expedition to Iceland. The central theme of Sinclair’s address was freedom and the need to defend it against the Nazis. Although Germany was a strong enemy, Sinclair was confident of an Allied victory, particularly given the increased intensity and success of RAF bombing raids on occupied France and on Germany. Despite the war, the coalition government had made progress in improving the social security system, with key measures including the establishment of a Committee of Survey under William Beveridge, whose remit was to examine the working of all the social services, and the introduction of a system of supplementary pensions in respect of contributory and old age pensions.

I welcome this opportunity of meeting - for the first time for two years - the Liberal Party Assembly, and of meeting it under the chairmanship of its trusted President, now, after his recent illness, so happily restored to health and strength, Lord Meston.

Though public duty has kept me away from your deliberations, I have followed them with keen interest, and I have kept in touch, though not such close touch as in other circumstances I should have wished, with the work of your committees which have been studying important political, social and economic problems.

The Report of Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s Committee on Family Allowances; and the interim report of Mr. Harold Glanville’s Committee on the reform of our electoral system and methods are bold and lively documents.

They must not be pigeon-holed! Scrutinised certainly, amended if you will, further elaborated perhaps in certain respects, they must be regarded not merely as texts for speeches, but as starting points for action.

For this Assembly will have been held in vain if the delegates do not leave it with a vital sense of the fresh responsibilities which the war has brought to the Liberal Party, and if they do not impart to their constituent organi­sations when they return home a new understanding of the opportunity which will present itself to them when the war is over - the opportunity and public duty of organising the huge body of Liberal opinion throughout the country and of obtaining for it effective representation in Parliament.

For it was a leading member of the Labour Party who said in April in the House of Commons:

'It is true that there is only a small Liberal Party in this House, but there is hardly one Conservative and hardly one Socialist. The war has brought us together as Liberals in defence of liberty… the over­whelming mass of all the people on our side in this war are Liberal.'

Freedom and Law

Liberal, not of course in any narrow technical sense - not in the sense that they would approve of every line of every resolution ever passed by the Liberal Assembly - but Liberal in the sense that they feel that freedom - freedom of the mind and spirit, freedom to seek out truth, freedom to speak and write as conscience dictates, freedom to criticise the rulers of a country, freedom of trade and intercourse between countries, freedom of enterprise and initiative - that freedom buttressed by law is the indispen­sable condition of human progress and civilisation.

In the troubled truce between 1918 and 1939 the Liberal Party never wavered in that belief.

It strove to build up under the aegis of the League of Nations a peaceful order based on justice, guarded by force, as the instrument of justice against lawless aggression.

Never did the Liberal Party for one moment bow the knee to tyranny or aggression.

It was prepared for all sacrifices and to contribute to the world forces then available for resistance to aggression, on a scale fully commensurate with the wealth and responsi­bilities of the Empire.

There was no other way to preserve peace without sacri­ficing freedom.

So after the war, when the world will be ready for revolt against tyranny and dictatorship, it will be our task to provide a broad and strong rallying ground for those who think with us in putting first among all political causes the cause of freedom.

In the van of these new recruits to the Liberal Party will be the young men and women of the country.

Even before the war, the most hopeful sign of the increas­ing vitality of the Liberal Party was the growth of the University Liberal Clubs and of the Young Liberals.

No one will persuade me to become sentimental about youth. I doubt if the rising generation is noticeably wiser of braver than our own. True they are a good lot. I firmly believe that in no country now or at any time in history could you have found a more resourceful, strong-minded and valiant company of fighting men than the pilots and aircrews of the Royal Air Force today. None of you can realise quite so sharply as I do how miraculously they have fought. So, as they know well, did their fathers who flew out to fight the enemy day after day, without self-sealing tanks and without parachutes. So did their fathers who fought at Jutland, on the Somme, or at Passchendaele.

The world might have been a better place today if those who returned as young men after the last war had played a bigger part in our affairs in the last twenty years.

I do not believe that youth likes adulation - they won’t get it from me - but in the life of a nation, youth is the sap imparting growth and vigour to the tree. If our politics are to be healthy and robust after the war, we must encourage the flow of that sap through the body politic.

Youth has one handicap for politics - lack of means - we must remove it. Therefore I commend to you the sugges­tion made by Mrs. Corbett Ashby that constituencies should raise savings funds for service candidates.

Remove the obstacles from the path of those young men and women, and let them bring into our counsels and into those of the nation the fresh outlook and strong impulses of youth.

Tyranny, dictatorship, materialism, the rule of force, these things spell decay.

Progress, beauty and happiness are gifts of the spirit conveyed to us through extraordinary men and women in every generation.

Only in the atmosphere of freedom can their energies bear fruit and their light shine for the comfort and inspira­tion of their fellow men.

Two Revolutions

During the present month we have celebrated two great anniversaries, the 4th July and the 14th July. The first was American Independence Day, commemorating the occasion 163 years ago when the triumphant leaders of the American Colonies proclaimed the citizens’ right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ On the 14th July, 153 years ago the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the building which stood there as the symbol of feudal privilege and arbitrary power.

Those were the two great revolutions of modern history. They made possible the great Liberal era of emancipation which followed in the nineteenth century. What we are fighting today is the counter-revolution, which seeks to undo all the achievements of the great revolutionary epoch - the counter-revolution which destroys liberty, and which pro­claims that there can be no equality or fraternity between the Herrenvolk, the master race, and the other peoples of the world. There is nothing new about the Nazi creed. It is an attempt to re-impose fetters which, a few years ago, everyone believed had been struck off for ever. The system of forced labour by Poles and Czechs, who are compelled to leave their homes for Germany, the announcement that the subject peoples must return to the land, quite irrespective of the capacity of agriculture to re-absorb them, and become in effect tied to the soil through the absence of other occupa­tion; the differentiation everywhere between the ruling caste and the subject races, a differentiation which reveals itself in the food and clothing rations, in the manipulation of exchange rates, in the application of the law and in many other ways - all these are the sign of the modern feudalism.

What needs to be emphasised is that the Nazis are as anxious to impose economic as political regimentation. They are the enemies not merely of free thought and free speech, but also of free enterprise. If Hitler were to win the war, the ordinary man would not only be prevented from speaking his mind or from worshipping or voting in the way that pleased him best. He would also be prevented from earning his living in any manner which did not com­mend itself to the Nazi planning authority. Here again is a reversion to the ideas which prevailed before the age of emancipation. If we are to fight Hitler in the realm of ideas as well as on land, on the sea, and in the air, these distinctions must be made abundantly clear. It would be of no use telling the peoples of the world that we propose to regiment and dragoon them in a slightly different way from Hitler.

Economic Freedom

We stand for freedom as against Nazi slavery. It would be a profound error to limit or circumscribe that freedom. We must boldly proclaim that we aim not merely at freedom from foreign domination or from arbitrary tyranny, but also at the greatest possible freedom of trade and enterprise.

In war time we have had to make many sacrifices of cherished liberties, but at the head of the Government stands a man who is not only the inspired war leader of embattled democracy in its fight against Nazi tyranny; but is also a true democrat and Parliament man - Mr. Churchill - and we have his pledge in the name of the Government that these liberties will be restored to us after the war.

Social Security

Then we must complete and extend that system of social security of which the last Liberal Government laid the foundations. Already we are making progress even in the stress of war. Improvements in Social Services advocated by the Liberal Parliamentary Party which have been carried out or are in process of being carried out since the forma­tion of the National Government under Mr. Churchill include:

  1. The income limit for Unemployment Insurance has been raised from £250 to £420 - bringing in the black-coated workers. The Liberal Parliamentary Party tried to have this proposal incorporated in the Unemployment Act of 1934-35, and have raised it frequently since then.
  2. The income limit for National Health Insurance is proposed to be raised from £250 to £420 by a Bill now before Parliament; this also proposes to raise sickness benefit and disablement benefit by 3s. to 18s. and 10s. 6d. respectively.
  3. The Household Means Test has been substantially modified and freed from objectionable features. The Means Test as established by the Act of 1934-35 was opposed strongly by Liberals who sought to make the Assistance Board responsible to Parliament. The Liberal view was that if a citizen asked for help from the State, the State was entitled in the common interest to enquire if he needed help, but that this Means Test as enacted was oppressive and unjust. This view is now accepted.
  4. A system of Supplementary Pensions has been intro­duced in respect of Old Age and Contributory Pensions.
  5. The compensation limit for disablement under Employers’ Liability has been raised from 30s. to 35s.
  6. The most important step taken by the Government in relation to Social Services is the setting up of a Com­mittee of Survey under Sir William Beveridge. This has been long and repeatedly urged by Liberals, who have pointed out that there is no authority or individual charged with the duty of making a continuous survey of the work­ing of the Social Services as a whole - with the result that there are anomalies, gaps, overlapping, and indefensible discrepancies in the allowances made by different Services to meet the same need.

The Liberal policy in the field covered by the Com­mittee’s work has been:

  1. The establishment of an authority subject to Parlia­mentary control to maintain a continuous survey of the Social Services.
  2. That the task of the Health and Compensation Services should be to restore every worker who is put out of work by illness, injury or lack of work, as speedily as may be, and during the period of restoration to ensure that his family should not be in want.
  3. The same standard of need should apply to all payments made for the same purpose, without regard to the origin of the disability.

A Minimum Standard

If the Committee should proceed on these lines, it should be possible to establish a basic minimum standard of sub­sistence as of right to every citizen in our democratic State.

In another direction, too, we are making progress - in the development of Town and County Planning, in which field again, the last Liberal Government was the pioneer. We must root out the slums, prevent the evils of overcrowding, provide wide avenues for movement and transport into and out of our great cities, and stop the pillage of the public by the speculators. Then within the boundaries of an educated society so housed, so protected against ill-fortune, we must secure the greatest possible freedom for productive and commercial enterprise and initiative so that a man can buy what he likes, where he likes, and at the lowest price it can be economically sold to him.

The many and varied problems, social, financial, and economic, at home as well as those of world reconstruction abroad, are already being closely studied by groups of Liberals.

The conditions of their study are hard because it is so difficult to forecast the limits of what will be practicable after the war. Nevertheless, those of us who are engaged day and night incessantly in the fight against a ruthless and formidable enemy must be grateful to those who are thinking those problems out for us so that peace will not find us unprepared to deal with them.

Meanwhile, the war must have the first place in our thoughts. For only on the basis of victory can we retain our freedom, and solve the problems you have been dis­cussing at this conference. My faith in victory is un­shaken, but I have never taken it for granted. Its price is, and will be for a long time to come, constantly increasing effort and sacrifices by us all.

Week by week, Germany and Italy are feeling the grow­ing power of the Royal Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force. Our fighter squadrons are daily ranging deep into the industrial centres of Northern France, escorting our bombers to destroy the factories working for the enemy, and the railways and communications which serve them, and serve the military forces in occupation; and, fighting at their extreme range over enemy territory, they have destroyed on an average more than twice the number of aircraft that they themselves have lost. By day also, our Blenheims have carried out with increasing intensity their attacks on enemy shipping. They fly over the ships so low that they sometimes hit and break the masts, and above the docks also at Rotterdam and Havre and Cher­bourg, and even as far as Hamburg, Kiel and Bremen.

Power of RAF

Apart from the raid on Rotterdam, they have sunk in the past four months no less than 300,000 tons of enemy shipping, and damaged as much again. The rate of destruction increases, and the weight of attack delivered on enemy ships in the first fortnight of this month exceeds any previously achieved.

There has been a marked increase also in the weight of attack delivered by our heavy bombers on occupied France, and on Germany, particularly the Ruhr.

In May this year, more than twice the tonnage of bombs was dropped by the Bomber Command than in May last year, and in June more than half as much again was dropped as in May.

The strength of the Royal Air Force is growing steadily, and, as the nights become longer, Bomber Command will strike ever more deeply and more heavily into the vitals of Germany.

Two events stand out in recent weeks. First, the characteristically treacherous Nazi assault upon Russia. It brings Russia where Liberals believe she would have been long ago but for the follies and vagaries of British and French policy before the war - fighting alongside us against the common Nazi enemy. And the Russian troops are fighting as stubbornly and valiantly as they have always fought in defence of their land and homes - but never before have they faced so formidable an enemy - and never have they fought so well.

Geography makes it difficult for us to come directly to their help in the crisis of their battle between now and the autumn rains, but all that we can do to help we are doing, and we shall not relax or stint our efforts.

The second outstanding event was the despatch of a United States expedition to Iceland, which, you may be sure, struck a chill even into the strong heart of Mr. Hitler.

The Germans, with their great armies built up behind the protective screen of appeasement, have won many battles - but we have won battles, too: the great victories of our Army in Africa, and the brilliant naval actions in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean; while in the air our pilots have decisively asserted their superiority wherever they can reach the enemy.

Nazi Myths

But there is one man who stands out as the greatest victor of the war - and that is Doctor Goebbels. The gallant doctor has sunk nearly all the British mercantile marine and more British warships than the Navy possessed at the beginning of the war; but I don’t at all like the spitefulness with which he pursues the Ark Royal - to sink a ship once - well, that’s war; but Dr. Goebbels goes on sinking the poor Ark Royal again and again!

As for the number of our aircraft that Dr. Goebbels has destroyed, I must confess to you, that I haven’t dared to add them up - for I am quite sure that if I did I should find that I had no aeroplanes left at all.

Then, why hasn’t he won the war, you may ask, but he doesn’t shrink from announcing from time to time that the war is over and that the Germans have won.

So far the British people, like Wellington’s troops in the Penisular War, have been too stupid to know that they were beaten, but Dr. Goebbels is not the man to despair of us, and especially if the fortune of war turns against Russia, you will find that he and Mr. Hitler will start a fresh peace campaign.

It will be dinned into our ears that Germany has triumphed - attractive terms will be offered - the assurance of peaceful intentions and economic advantages will not be less clear, definite, and binding than those given to Czecho­slovakia, Poland, Holland, Belgium and Russia.

We shall probably be offered generous slices of other people’s territory.

The gangsters will try and sell out at the top of the market.

But the days of appeasement are passed. We know that Mr. Hitler’s signature is worth no more than Dr. Goebbels’ victories.

We know that it is not pity for the war-torn countries that will move Mr. Hitler to suggest peace, but the rowing weight of our attacks on his war industries, shipping and communications, and the assurances of Mr. Harry Hopkins yesterday that the irresistible industrial might of the United States of America is ranged behind us in the war.

We know the turns and twists of Mr. Hitler’s policy, so his repentance will come too late.

We know that the struggle will be long, and that we may have to endure far worse things than we have yet suffered, but we shall not flinch.

Nor shall we enter into any arrangement with Mr. Hitler and his gang, for not till the cancer of Nazism is out of the body of Europe can health and peace return.

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