Leader's speech, Huddersfield 1896
Earl of Rosebery (Liberal)
Commentary:Some 4000 people crowded into Rowley’s music hall, Huddersfield, on March 27th 1896, to hear Lord Rosebery address the Federation for the first time since their crushing defeat at the hands of the Conservative and Liberal Unionist coalition the previous August. The speech is pugnacious and often humorously so. In particular, Rosebery attacks the new government for doing very little and squandering a huge majority. We can here make an early sighting of the charge of elected dictatorship that would become ubiquitous in twentieth-century British politics. The central focus of the speech is foreign (or imperial) policy with Rosebery developing a systematic and detailed criticism of the government’s strategy. He finds it inconsistent, contradictory and opaque. He makes particular mention of the government’s inability (as he sees it) to give a clear explanation of why British forces were helping the Egyptian army to recover the province of Sudan from the Madhi. Domestic issues are addressed more briefly at the end of the speech: Ireland, and also temperance, both issues used to affirm the intellectual principles of Liberalism, those ‘eternal principles of self-government’ which, he concludes, ‘stimulate and develop the resources of our race’. A couple of things may strike the contemporary reader: the open-ness with which Rosebery refers to differences between himself and the party, and the way in which he criticises ‘the people’ for their choices in the election and for being ‘mislead’. These are perhaps indicative of the extent to which the speech is created for the internal consumption of the party, but are also evidence of the acknowledged distance between leader and his party, a patrician sensibility of Parliamentary independence which slowly fades from the conference speeches across the twentieth-century.
Mr. Walker, ladies and gentlemen. It is very difficult in this great assembly to feel as disheartened as one ought. And I have not merely the right of a Liberal to feel disheartened, but I feel that I come among you in a somewhat perilous capacity, for I cannot altogether divest myself of the character of an official Liberal. I have been an official Liberal; and though, as you, sir, justly said, I am not very anxious to be an official Liberal again, yet I fear that the fragrance of that character clings round me still. Now, we know that that is a position of some suspicion.
Questions of Organisation
It would be affectation to ignore the fact that we have recently had much good advice from unexpected quarters as to the conduct of this National Liberal Federation. It is said that the serpent of officialdom has crept into the garden of Eden which had been hitherto unsullied by any such reptile. Well, all I can say is, that if the serpent has crept in I suspect he got his head very considerably bruised. My experience of officialdom and of the National Liberal Federation is that it is a relation in which officialdom plays a very subordinate part. If I had ever expressed a secret hope on the subject, it is that officialdom had sometimes a little more to do with the National Liberal Federation than it has. At any rate, I have not been often let into its secrets. I remember two occasions on which the National Liberal Federation took the bit between its teeth and, certainly uninspired by officialdom, took very remarkable action. The first occasion was when it made at Newcastle a programme, a very celebrated expression of faith which, I confess, was in my opinion too long for practical purposes. I see Dr. Spence Watson sitting there. I hope he will forgive me for saying so, but it was not the officials who imposed that programme on the National Liberal Federation - it was the National Liberal Federation who imposed it on the officials with all its consequences, good and evil. When I was an official - very much of an official - I woke up one morning and saw in the papers that the National Liberal Federation had decided to hold a conference on the subject of the House of Lords. I do not believe that a single official of the Government knew of that purpose except through the newspapers, yet it was a very momentous decision. It gave great impetus to a great cause; yet I am very certain that, if the officials had been consulted, it would not have taken place at that precise moment. Well, that is all I have to say, about officials and the National Liberal Federation. I have one word to say on your proceedings as far as I know of them. The Federation has not come here, as I understand, to promulgate a policy or a programme, nor have I come here tonight to promulgate a policy or a programme. Nor have I even come to recite the Liberal creed. There has been a little too much recital of the Liberal creed. It has this fatal disadvantage, that, supposing there to be thirty-nine articles of the Liberal creed - as there are of other creeds - and you only mention thirty-seven in your recital, you are at once denounced as being unsound on the other two, and therefore an enumeration of the full Liberal creed has got to be a fatiguing thing for the speaker and the audience. It is not the time now to tell our political beads. We have a different course before us from promulgating an active policy. We have before us a course of opposition, possibly long, which involves intelligent, vigilant, active, honourable, and far-sighted criticism. I think you, too, will admit the validity of these epithets. But may I say a word on the last? I say far-sighted criticism because I want you, when you criticise, to look ahead to the time when you will have to be criticised, and that you shall not adopt in opposition a policy which you will be unable or unwilling to carry out under the responsibility of power.
Gentlemen, the last time that I met this Liberal Federation was in the city of Cardiff. I do not think those of us who were there will ever forget that meeting. It was harmonious in every sense of the word, but much has happened since the Cardiff meeting. The Government that existed at Cardiff is dead. May I say one word of that Government? It had one great defect. It was strong in policy, strong in experience, strong in administrative capacity, strong in honesty, but it was weak in one thing - it was weak in Parliamentary support.
The Government and its Majority
Now, that is a fatal weakness in the long run to a Government, and it may have been that the country, observing that weakness in our Government, determined that there should be no such weakness in the next when it entrusted to the new Government what is practically a dictatorship. I know that dictatorship is not an accurate expression, because it only speaks of a person and not of a group of persons. Even then it is not so wholly inappropriate, because when you find that the Prime Minister is also Foreign Secretary, and that during some months of foreign complication no Cabinet is held we may presume, I think, that there is some element of personal dictatorship in this country. But if the Government cannot receive a dictatorship they have, at any rate, received as large a measure of absolute power as is possible under our Constitution. The electorate, you, all of you, when you gave your votes, you knew that the Government possessed the undivided confidence of the House of Lords, and you gave it almost the undivided confidence of the House of Commons. Out of 567 members that were elected in this land of Great Britain no fewer than 390 were Tories, and 176 were Liberals; that is to say, that you gave the Tories two to one as against the Liberals. Over and above that two to one, you gave them a further majority exactly as large as the whole majority with which Mr. Gladstone’s Government began in 1892. I leave out of the calculation the Irish members; they work under different political conditions and act independently of British parties: I speak of the relations of Liberal and Tory as established by the last general election in Great Britain. I think, then, that I am justified in saying that the electorate of this country gave the Government supreme and absolute power. No such power has ever been enjoyed by any English Government in constitutional times, and I can well imagine the splendid dreams that may have floated before the people who really love their kind and wish well to humanity when they saw a Government comprised of men of ability and men of high character endowed with such dominion. In view of such splendid possibilities and such a magnificent majority I think that visions must have floated before all of us, however much we may be opposed to the Government. It may have seemed impossible for them to evoke a new heaven, but they could almost have made a new earth for us. They almost promised to make a new earth. They might have made this country a paradise of equal rights and equal opportunities. They might have pared and pruned away the anomalies of our Constitution with so wise and timely a hand as to withstand the tempests of time and revolution. They might - but why pursue the subject? They promised a paradise, but it was not a paradise of that kind - ample employment, cheap beer, and a pension in the case of the deserving. I will not recapitulate their promises - perhaps they have not had time to carry them into effect. That was at any rate the prospect at home which was held out to us. What was the prospect abroad? We were to have a reign of universal peace, in which the voice of Great Britain would be potent, if not supreme. I am bound to say that so far these visions have not been fulfilled. I do not utter a word of blame on the Government because they have not been fulfilled, but I do utter a word of regret, and I also utter a word of hope that, taught by experience, at the next general election their language will be somewhat less blatant, and that the credulity of the British voters will be something considerably less. As regards foreign affairs, it is a cause of complaint by the Government that we speak too much about them, and that we are disturbing the continuity which ought to exist in the conduct of foreign affairs. I can give you two sufficient reasons why we should talk a good deal about foreign affairs. In the first place, the Government has given us nothing else to talk about, and in the second place there is a real uneasiness felt about them.
What are the Government measures that have resulted from their long and brilliant programme? There is the measure of procedure in the House of Commons, which I was rather inclined to welcome, as I welcome anything which seeks to restrict talk in the House of Commons. But I am told by those who have experience in the matter, that it is an unworkable method of procedure. There is a London Water Bill, but as it only concerns the metropolitan district I do not think you care to hear much about it, so I will only say this, that in its consistence it is well adapted to its subject. All this may be very good, but it does occur to the philosophic observer that they might have effected it by a much smaller majority than you gave the Government at the last election. There was another Bill - the Diseases of Animals Bill. This is a Bill which has not been held as popular by the agriculturists of my native country of Scotland. It takes the place of provisional orders which our Government issued for the slaughter of animals at the port of imbarcation, and places a provision on the Statute book which may be right or wrong - I am not offering my opinion on that point - but is at any rate wholly inconsistent with the pledge which was given us the night before last at the Canadian dinner. At the Canadian dinner we were offered a scheme of Imperial federation. I will not discuss that subject now. I have no time, and I would no hastily dismiss any scheme of Imperial federation. The subject of an Imperial Zollverein, of a Customs union between the colonies and ourselves, is one which demands very grave consideration. But I want to know this: how is it that two or three days before making that proposal, the Government proposed this Diseases of Animals Bill, which, if put on the Statute book, would be a fixed danger to one of the great sources of trade of the Canadian breeder with the mother country - that is, the importation of store cattle? I do not know how they reconcile the two, the suppression of the practical Bill and the promulgation of the Imperial Scheme, but I strongly suspect that the Canadian dealer and the Canadian politician would have preferred not to have the great scheme promulgated if they could by that means have stopped the lesser Bill. There is one word more to be said about it, and that is this - I do not think the Colonial Secretary at all underestimated the views held in this country and the difficulties that he would have to surmount, both with regard to the principles of free trade and also of our foreign trade. It almost seems that you in Huddersfield had some knowledge of what was in the air, because I observed when I arrived at the station yesterday that the statue of the great Sir Robert Peel had been washed and renovated as if in view of some such proposal.
Continuity of Foreign Policy
I will give the Government one disinterested hint. If they want us to give up talking about foreign affairs, let them give us something else to talk about. If they would give us some Bills, that would have a treble advantage: it would distract our attention, it would fulfil their pledges, and it would also be an original departure. We have often read in history of unscrupulous Governments, in difficulties at home, embarking in foreign complications in order to divert public attention from these domestic difficulties. There would be something pleasing in the novelty of a Government that embarks in a domestic policy in order to distract attention from their complications abroad. Now, we are told that our discourses on foreign politics disturb the continuity of foreign policy. That is a grave charge, and if I felt that there was any truth in it I should feel considerable uneasiness. But what is this continuity of foreign policy? In my view it is this - that one Government should, so far as it is practicable without sacrifice of principle, endeavour to interweave its foreign policy with that of the preceding, Government, so as to preserve a consistent attitude abroad and prevent foreign Powers from building on our party differences and dissensions at home. This continuity of foreign policy was first laid down as a maxim by Mr. Gladstone’s Government in 1886, and since then it has been on the whole fairly and honourably carried out. But that definition of mine is not the Tory definition. The Tory defines continuity as something of this kind. When the Liberal party is in office the Tories are to attack Liberal foreign policy, to describe Liberal ministers as pusillanimous, deplorable, muddle-pated politicians, who bark but do not bite, who cringe before the strong and bully the weak, who are isolated from all sympathy in Europe, and whose course is a series of bounds from the fire into the frying-pan and from the frying-pan into the fire. When the Tories are in office the definition seems to be something like this - that we are to listen with bowed heads and in a deferential manner to whatever may be said on that subject. That does not seem to me to be a tenable proposition. We do not want to impair the authority of Great Britain abroad, but we should not be upright citizens if we could timidly and silently watch the ship of State buffeted and storm-tossed about as it has been in the seas of foreign policy during the past six months. At one moment we seemed to be on the verge of war with the United States; at another moment we seemed to be on the verge of war complications with Germany; and at the present moment we are embarking on war ourselves with no particular enemy that I can discover. But there is this further question, I think, before a Government asks us to respect the continuity of foreign policy. They preach the continuity of foreign policy; if they preach they should practise it, if only with themselves.
Lord Salisbury’s Inconsistencies
What I deplore in the conduct of the present Government is a melancholy want of continuity in foreign policy. I am not now alluding to that black and bloody page of Armenia - a chapter of our history to which we shall always look back with shame and with remorse. If I began on that I should be taken too far. But that is not an instance of what I mean. That would rather involve the consistency of Lord Salisbury with himself than the consistency of the Government that is now in office. There is only one thing to be said on that point, and it is this. You will remember that Lord Salisbury concluded the Cyprus Convention. He has boasted of it himself that he framed it. This was to secure, as we were told at the time, good government for the oppressed Christians of the East; and after a year or more of massacres which have scarcely any parallel in the history of mankind, we are now told by the author of the convention that it is only a sort of pious opinion, that it is only a few futile sentences inscribed on a piece of paper, and that we are to pay no more attention to its provisions. No. What I wish to allude to now is not the question of Armenia, but the question of the whole subject of our dealing with the delicate relations and grouping of forei gn powers. It has always been understood that Lord Salisbury in the past has leaned rather on the Triple Alliance than on France and Russia. That may be a mistaken opinion - I only state it for what it is worth - but at any rate the island of Heligoland is some pledge of his feelings in the matter. At the end of last December there came the occurrences in South Africa and the difficulties with Germany. This continuous Foreign Minister, starting from this point at the end of December, by the middle of January had landed us into the arms and, I trust, the affections of France, for I can at any rate put no other interpretation on the mysterious convention which comprised in three articles the interests of Siam, the Niger, and Tunis, but was made without any quid pro quo which was observable by any political microscope except the recovery of the good graces of France. That lasted about six weeks, and when we have got that idea fully into our heads, this Ministry of ‘continuous foreign policy’ embarks into a march upon the Soudan, which at once outrages France, and throws us back again to some degree into the arms of the Triple Alliance. Where we may be in May under this ‘continuous foreign policy’ I do not think the most audacious prophet among you will dare to predict. But I wish you to observe I am not criticising; I am only recording; and I am only recording as an apology for our failing, to follow the ‘continuous policy’ of this somewhat volatile Government. They may be practising the best of all foreign policies. It may be the best, the most prudent, the most sagacious, the most farsighted of all foreign policies, but there is one thing it is not, and that is continuous.
The Soudan Advance
I said just now that not merely did the Government give us nothing to divert us from the examination of their foreign policy, but that there was real uneasiness felt on the subject. Now Egypt is the land of mystery. It has been the land of mystery through all recorded history, and is no less so now. From the dimensions of the pyramids we endeavour to ascertain the predictions of prophecy. You can, if you go to Egypt, still look on the features of the Pharaoh who caused Joseph to be honoured, and there is still in the sands of that country the Sphinx gazing with its sardonic smile on the passage of Kings, races, and empires. In this land of mystery it is perhaps not surprising that the expedition which we have recently undertaken should be involved in considerable obscurity. If we could understand what it was all for, what its real cause was, what its real object was, we might be able to approve, but at present the mere want of knowledge on this point is what causes natural and well-founded alarm. I must ask you to consider this subject with me for a moment, and, in doing so, I will at once dismiss three great questions. The first is our occupation of Egypt and its nature; secondly, our responsibilities for the Soudan and for its present condition; and, thirdly, our traditional policy as an anti-slavery Power. All these questions have been raised in the course of the debate on this subject, but they have only been raised, if I may say so, to discolour and obscure the waters of controversy. These are vast questions, but they do not bear on the point. It is not alleged that this expedition has anything to do with our tenure in Egypt. It is not even alleged that the Egyptian Government had anything to say to it. We have pressed the Government on that point, and they have never been able to say that they proceed at the request or the instance of the Egyptian Government. All they said is that they proceed at the instance of the military authorities. Gentlemen, we come to the facts, and the facts are perfectly simple. The Italians underwent defeat at Adowa, and immediately the Egyptian army was ordered to march 80 miles into the desert. That is the problem; and that is the problem for which we have to find a solution. It is evidently not directly to assist the Italians, because Kassala, the town which is besieged by the Dervishes, and which is garrisoned by the Italians, is at least 600 miles from the point to which we are marching; and it is equally obvious that, if we are to assist the Italians, we should do it from our base at Suakin. That, at any rate, is what the Italians, I venture to say, would infinitely prefer. Well, of course, it may be said that we are assisting them by drawing off the Dervishes from Kassala to attack Egypt. Mr. Walker, I have great sympathy with the Italians. We have no alliance with any Powers, but we have a disinterested and historical friendship for the Italians. But if our object in this matter is to draw the full strength of the Dervishes off Kassala to Egypt, I think we are carrying our sympathy with the Italians rather too far. It is a little difficult to say how the interests of Egypt, which we have mainly in view, can be served by attracting the Dervishes to attack that country when it is not otherwise threatened. I know that Egypt is benefited by the inundations of the Nile, but it is, I venture to say, a new rendering of the conditions of Egypt that it should be benefited by periodical inundations of Dervishes. But if it be so, if it be desirable to attract the Dervishes to Egypt, we may at once say this. Why not await the Dervishes at Wady Halfa, the position we have left, which is impregnable, instead of marching, with a chivalry which I think misdirected, to meet the Dervishes in a very unpropitious and a weaker position, and apparently to attract them by advancing to meet them?
Then, where is the expedition to go to? It is evidently not going to march to Kassala, and it is obvious from its scope and the strategy that it is not going to march to Khartoum. It is apparently going to march to Dongola; but even here the Government speaks with ambiguous confusion. The Colonial Secretary told us the other day that the expedition might possibly advance to Dongola. The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, speaking later with the ardour and confidence of youth, said that Dongola was the natural and admitted objective of the expedition. Now, the two statements do not hang together. The statement of the Under-Secretary outside the Cabinet is much more confident than that of the Colonial Secretary, who is very much inside the Cabinet. But the Colonial Secretary has two or three other qualifications to put on the expedition. He says the advance, whatever it may be, will be limited by two considerations. It will be limited, in the first place, by the security of the communications which we can maintain, and it will be limited, in the second place, by the nature and the extent of the resistance we may find. He adds another qualification, which I will come to in a moment. Now, it appears that these two considerations, the consideration of the resistance we shall receive and the security of the communications are both, unfortunately, opposed to each other, because I read in the Standard, which, as you know, is a Government organ, this telegram
Great hopes are entertained that the Dervishes may be drawn into an action and decisively beaten in the neighbourhood of Suarda. It would simplify matters a good deal, since the prospect of marching through the waste desert as far as Dongola, and at the same time keeping up an immense line of communications to Wady Halfa is viewed in some quarters with apprehension, but it will have to be faced if the enemy avoid a pitched battle and retire on Dongola. This is considered only too likely to happen if they are not brought to a stand within fifty miles of Akasheh.
So it appears that the necessity of keeping up communications demands as an essential condition not a ‘moderate resistance’ but that we shall engage, as soon as possible, in a pitched and decisive battle, or else it may be impossible to maintain those communications. Then the third condition which is laid down by the Colonial Secretary is that the expedition must not remain too great a strain on the finances of Egypt. That is a very easy condition to lay down. It must not be too costly, then, either in money or in blood. Why, if words could bind facts, there never was an expedition so safe and so limited as this; but the misfortune is that in this world, as you and I know in our lives, but as we know still more in the trend of our policy, it is not possible for words to bind facts. Here are the facts of the expedition as far as we have yet been able to obtain them. The expedition is to assist Kassala, 600 miles off. It is, perhaps, to go to Dongola. It has certainly to go to Dongola. It has to repel the Dervishes, and so we leave an impregnable position to repel the Dervishes elsewhere. On the other hand it is feared that they may not attack us. For if we cannot find them and defeat them before we get to Dongola we cannot well maintain our communications. Finally, it must not cost too much money and must not meet with too much resistance. All these hurried, distracted statements, which do not hang together, have tended to cause that wide feeling of uneasiness of which I have spoken. And this want of candour is a great disappointment to me. I thought that the great merit of the new diplomacy, of which we have heard so much, was that in spite of occasional ‘hitches’ it consisted in almost breathless candour on every possible subject. But there is no such candour in this case. It is not so much because of the expedition itself as because of the explanations that there is so widespread a feeling of uneasiness towards it. If the Government would take us into their confidence we might be able to support them. But at present we feel that we are being fooled. I do not say that there is no good reason for this expedition, but if this good reason does exist it has not been given to us. And I am afraid not merely that the Government are deceiving us, but that they are deceiving themselves. Of the two I confess I am much more afraid of the second than I am of the first. They have not yet succeeded in deceiving us, but I am sadly afraid they have succeeded in deceiving themselves.
War by Limited Liability
Why, they propose to limit war, first, in the amount of expense, and, secondly, to the material resources of Egypt. As Mr. Asquith - that brilliant son of Huddersfield - said the other day, with his usual aptness, this is making war on limited liability, limited in cost, limited in bloodshed, and limited in extent. There never was a wilder idea. You cannot so limit operations of war. What the Government actually believes is this - that you should, or they on your behalf, march into the Soudan with this inscribed on their banners, ‘£500,000 and a moderate resistance.’ If they meet with obstacles incompatible with these two conditions, are we to understand that the expedition will have to be abandoned? It is true of all warfare, but especially true of all African warfare, that you may see the beginning but you cannot see the end; and is it not childish to pretend the war is limited by the material resources of Egypt when you know that behind Egypt stands Great Britain, and if Egypt is foiled it is Great Britain that will have to come to the front?
The Necessity for Concentration in our Foreign Policy
There is one more point about this expedition that perplexes me. It is the moment chosen for it. I do not mean the hot and unhealthy season. The Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, by-the-bye, told us the other day that they were going to ‘watch the effect of summer heat’ before they proceeded with the expedition. I respected the gravity of the House of Commons when I saw that they received that statement with silent awe. For I confess that I thought that if we had no other result from our fourteen years in Egypt we did know something of the effects of summer heat there. But I mean something much higher and graver than that. What is it that every indication, every omen, point to as the first condition of our policy? Surely, it is to concentration. France and Russia are said to be hostile to us in this matter. I should have thought that any Power which is hostile to us would have egged us on in this campaign, which absorbs Egyptian arms and resources in the first line, and British arms and resources in the second. What is the situation? It is quite true that we have, it appears, abandoned the boasts of ‘splendid isolation’ which were so large a topic of the Government a few weeks ago, and it is said that we have returned to the good graces of the Triple Alliance. As to that, it may be said that Austria and Italy have always been our warm and disinterested friends; and, as regards Germany, I am glad to hear that we are once more acquiring her friendship, though, if we may judge from the tone of her Press, that friendship is not so intimate and compact as we could have desired. But have we learned nothing from Armenia? Do we know nothing of the forces that are engaged against us there, and which compelled us to abandon Armenia and for a time, at any rate, to abdicate our position in the East of Europe? There are grave issues with the United States - issues which I trust are being smoothed by diplomacy, and which may be further adjusted by appeal to arbitration. But there still remain unsettled questions which might yet affect an inflammable population and rouse it into dangerous excitement. Is there nothing to make us cautious, to give caution to our enterprises, when we look at the Far East and the condition in which China has been left by the war between China and Japan, and the enterprise of various Powers in the direction of that helpless empire? Is there nothing to give us disquietude in Africa? What is the effect of the Italian defeat in Africa? A great expert on this question, who was quoted in the Times the other day, told us that the rebuff of the Italians in Africa was a defeat and a disaster to all Europe in Africa, and that, with the celerity with which savage tribes circulated the information, that reverse would be known all over Africa and would cause a general rising of barbarism against civilisation. That may fall on Uganda; that may fall on Egypt; but, wherever it may fall, surely, it teaches Europeans who are engaged in Africa the necessity of concentration and a defensive policy. Is there nothing in other parts of Africa that may give us uneasiness? The Times, which is an official organ, confirms what comes to us by every post - that the news from South Africa never was more anxious than it is just now; and at this moment, when we are increasing our fleet to an enormous extent - not, we are told, for purposes of offence, but of mere necessary defence, is it wise to weaken our voice, to hamper our diplomacy and lock up our resources by sending an expedition into the sands of a desert which has already before now engulfed monarchs, armies, and empires. And is there no concentration required for Egypt herself? Egypt has prospered under our rule. What is the need of Egypt now? She desires, and has desired for the last three years, to construct a great reservoir at Assuan, which would enable her to enjoy the beneficent operations of the Nile even at the time of ‘lower Nile’ - in fact, all the year round. What would be the cost of this great enterprise? Some four or five millions, while it is estimated that it would at once raise the productiveness of Egypt by the value of seven or eight millions annually, and that the increase of revenue to the Egyptian Government would be not less than £850,000 a year. It is at this moment, when Egypt wants to concentrate her resources upon this great scheme, that we are going to lock them up in this Soudan expedition. Gentlemen, I declare it solemnly, I would support the foreign policy of the Government if I could. There is nothing - these friends who are nearest to me will testify to this - that I have more at heart than to see both parties in the State supporting in common the foreign policy of the Government. I would gladly support the foreign policy of the Government, but they will not give me the chance.
Party Promises and Performances
I am bound to say that in domestic affairs I do not feel the same anxiety to support her Majesty’s Government. I am, I confess, like most of you suppose, dismayed by the meagreness of their programme. It may be that they consider they have received an imperative mandate from the country to do nothing, but that was not what they promised. Of course, I am far from judging the performance of a Government by its promises, more especially of this Government. We had a little instructive instance of this in the case of the Pembroke Dock last night, which would open the eyes of the House of Commons and of the Government’s Welsh supporters - if Welsh supporters they have. But I desire to quote to you a very instructive passage in the speech of one of the supporters of the Government. I need not mention his name, but I will give you his words. He asked how it was that the country was listening more and more to the Press and less and less to the House of Commons, and said it was because they were sick of the inconsistencies of politicians - he was speaking of the present Government, which he supported - who vote for things in office which they denounced when in Opposition. I think, on the whole, that the other process is the most common - to vote for something in Opposition which they repudiate when in office, and that was the case with Pembroke Dock last night. But you may ask me why I quote this passage from this unknown member on this occasion. I quote it because I think it has a considerable bearing on the history of this Government and the Government that preceded it. This Government may fall because of the bad things that are said of them by their supporters; they may fall because they repudiate in office the promises that they made when in Opposition. The late Government fell for pursuing an exactly opposite course. Why did it fall? It fell because, with a chivalrous sense of honour too rare in politics, and with inadequate means, it determined to fulfil all the pledges that it had given in Opposition. It had, I think, given too many pledges - partly owing to you, Dr. Spence Watson. It had, I think, assumed too many responsibilities, it had taken a burden too heavy for its back, or the back of any Government or any Parliament, to bear, but it never shrank, it never blenched. I believe that Government will have its reward. Such a record is never forgotten in this country, for Englishmen, whether they disagree with your items of policy or not, can at any rate recognise and value honesty of purpose and good faith. We did not carry many of our measures, because you did not give us the means to carry them, and even if we had been able to get them through the House of Commons we were sure of the certain, impassive, unchangeable opposition of the House of Lords. But, at any rate, we did our best. ‘’Tis not in mortals to command success, But we’ll do more, Sempronius’ - who, I suppose, is Dr. Spence Watson – ‘we’ll deserve it.’
At any rate, let us compare the late ‘weak’ Government with the present ‘strong’ Government. I will take two test questions - only two - and I will not make them opportunities for a declaration of policy, as you will not get any declaration of policy from me tonight any more than you got one from the Federation today. The first of these questions is that of Ireland. With regard to Ireland, we had our principle and we had our plan to embody that principle. Our idea was, under certain guarantees, to give the Irish the management of distinctively Irish business. We embodied that idea in a plan. You know that it was carried through the House of Commons by the supreme, almost immortal, exertions of Mr. Gladstone. That plan may have been good or it may have been bad, but at any rate our Government, though weak in Parliamentary support, had a principle, and it had a plan on this question. This Government has neither. I beg their pardon - they have a principle, but they have forgotten it. And, after all, it is of some importance to have a policy with regard to Ireland, because, though our Government has gone, the Irish question remains - a vast and menacing note of interrogation in the midst of the Empire. Well, I looked forward to the plan of the Government, and I was delighted to read the first declaration of the Chief Secretary. It is so liberal that I trust you will excuse me for reading it to you. He said:
We desire to adapt our remedy to the character of the country’s needs. Our desire is to hold the scales equally between the various sections into which the people of Ireland are divided without distinction of creed or class. Our desire is to remedy every grievance from which any section of the Irish people can legitimately be said to suffer. Our desire is to establish an industrial peasantry on the ownership of the land which they at present cultivate; and in those cases where relation between landlord and tenant is not thus done away with, to do something at least to remove friction, which in many cases make relation between them a misfortune to both. Lastly, our desire is to be not only just but generous in promoting the industrial and material development of the country, and so to sow the seeds of future prosperity.
Brave words! I read them with admiration and with some degree of hope, because after all, if we could not have our policy, the Tories might have promulgated a policy on this line to which we of the Liberal party might have given a large measure of support. They might have given, for example, a real measure of local government in Ireland. They could give, they are about to give, they say, a Land Bill; but all their big Bills, it appears, get squeezed out, and it is only the small Bills that get introduced. They might have examined the question of Irish finance and endeavoured to ascertain if that country, impoverished as it is and with a rapidly-sinking population, does not bear too great a share of the burden of the Empire. I only indicate one or two lines on which such a policy might have been carried out, but at last we come to the test of what they were going to do. There was, the other day, a municipal Bill from the city of Belfast. On that occasion a promising Irish member, Mr. Knox, moved what you would have thought a very innocent instruction to the committee in charge of the Bill. It was that they should examine into the possibility of establishing cumulative voting in the municipal borough of Belfast. Now there were no disputes as to the facts. The facts were that a large proportion of the population of Belfast were Roman Catholics, and, what is considered worse than to be Roman Catholics, Home Rulers, and yet there was not a single member of the town council, and, what is more, not a single officer employed by the town council who was either a Roman Catholic or a Home Ruler. That motion was seconded in a very able and thoughtful speech, as I considered it, by Mr. Healy, in which, taking a wider view, he said he did not want this for Belfast alone, but he wanted it for towns in which Roman Catholics had equally the predominance, because, he said, there should be no unanimity of religion and creed in these matters, and a little opposition was healthy for everybody. This was a great opportunity. I rushed to my ‘Hansard,’ for I remembered ‘our desire was to hold the scales evenly between the various sections into which the people of Ireland are divided, without distinction of creed or class.’ What was the result? The facts were admitted by the Government, but they would give no ear to the proposal of Mr. Knox and Mr. Healey. When we were in office we were taunted with being led too much and guided too much by Irish votes. On this occasion the Conservative Government, great and powerful as it is, was equally guided and dependent on Irish votes. They went with their 15 or 16 Orange votes which made them give this decision. I confess that, if I had my ambition realised, I would rather not be dependent upon any one nationality in these three kingdoms unreservedly for my party majority. Yet, if I had to depend upon the Irish party for my Irish policy, I would rather it were the representative of the vast majority of the people of Ireland than of a narrow minority.
The Temperance Question
Now, the other subject - the other test subject - to which I will call your attention for one moment is this, it is that of temperance. We could not ignore the question of intemperance in England. We could not ignore a curse which is the parent of so much crime and so much misery. We had a simple principle in the matter, and it was this, that, considering the education and the civilisation of our people - I am afraid that Sir Wilfrid Lawson will not agree with that remark - I am told that he bears heavily both on the education and the civilisation of our people; but our view, which I still maintain, is that with the education and civilisation of our people, they were the proper persons to whom the control of this question and this traffic should be unreservedly entrusted. Well, that was our plan. If we may judge from the election, the people refused to accept the responsibility which we endeavoured to cast upon them. Well, whether they did that understanding accurately what would be the effect of our plan, or whether they were misled by - I must use a good old English word - lies, they declined that responsibility. They were, misled, I think, by the cry that we wished to deprive the poor man of his beer. There never was a greater fallacy. That would not have been by any means the effect of the plan we proposed to Parliament. I think that some of those who have illusions on that subject carried those illusions too far; but at any rate, that idea was not in the plan of those who proposed it. That plan may have been imperfect - I am not discussing the merits of the plan - but at any rate I believe the principle in it to be incontrovertible, that the people should have the control of itself, the control of its own morals and its own surroundings. Of course, that principle may be given effect to in other ways, but I say that the principle cannot be barely contradicted by any sensible body of men. Well, that was the course of the late Government. What is the course of the present Government, with their great power, in dealing with the question on which, according to their own language, as I can quote from both Mr. Balfour and Lord Salisbury, they feel quite as deeply as we do? They recoil, as it were, from their great power and majority, and refer the question to a Royal Commission - that it may record all the well-known facts and go over the well-known conclusions. That is their way of shelving the question. On that point I will hold no controversy with them, but I observe that last night even the faithful Bishops turned against their policy. You will remember that the Bishops have not had an altogether easy time of it. They came to Downing Street proud of the influence they had exercised over the elections; they asked Lord Salisbury a question on the subject; he made them a low bow and left the room. Even the patience of a Bishop has limits, and last night, when they were told that the Government were going to refer this matter to a Royal Commission, their patience gave way and they murmured with groanings which could not be uttered. I think, then, that the nation has some right to feel some discouragement as to the exercise of the supreme power which it entrusted to the Government at the last election. I confess that I am disappointed, because, although I am not a supporter of the present Government, I welcomed the largeness of this majority, if they were to have a majority, as enabling them to do much good work, and much good work in which both parties might possibly co-operate. But, if in that respect I am discouraged, as a party man I feel nothing of the kind. I cannot feign or profess any discouragement at all.
We hear much in these days of the present and of the future of the Liberal party. On that point I believe the truth to be simple enough. The future of the Liberal party lies in the hands of the Liberal party itself, and your future lies with yourselves. Its fame, its fortune, its influence are no longer as they were sixty or a hundred years ago, the appanage of a dozen great families. Those great families have left us and the times are out of joint for anything of that kind. The fame and the fortunes of the Liberal party lie with the people themselves. The policy of the Liberal party is no longer what a few dukes may decree, but what the people of this country require. What is this Liberalism that we talk so much about? It is not formula, it is not a set creed; it is not a series of fixed propositions; it is a living spirit, the spirit in which great questions are approached, and in which they are treated; broad, unprejudiced and sympathetic, as opposed to a spirit which is narrow and selfish and timid. That spirit cannot lie dormant; it must again arise in our midst, and breathe life into our dormant constituencies, and thrill the intellects and energies of our people. I would not have you force it, but I would have you favour it; I would have you teach it; I would have you practise it; I would have you test men and measures by it; I would have it inspire your homes, your lives and your neighbourhoods. And, if that be so, we shall not simply be good Liberals, but good patriots too, for it is the essence of an Empire like ours that it shall be maintained with equity and justice, and based upon those eternal principles of self-government which stimulate and develop the resources of our race.