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Leader's speech, London 1900

Lord Salisbury (Conservative)

Location: London


The 1900 conference of the 'National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations' took place at the Hotel Metropole in London on December 18th. A fortnight earlier (on December 3rd) the party had achieved a resounding victory in the general election, and Lord Salisbury was returned to Downing Street for a third time. This was the so-called 'Khaki election' for the main issue had been the Second Boer War. Much of the conference, unsurprisingly, was taken up with the representatives congratulating themselves on their conduct of the election campaign and with expressions of support for the conflict in Africa. According to The Times of December 19th, 'SIR E. ASHMEAD-BARTLETT M.P., moved the following resolution: - "That this conference of the National Union offers its hearty congratulations to Lord Salisbury and her Majesty's ministers on the successful issue of the war in South Africa, which has freed the Empire from a grave peril, and prepared the way for the complete realization of Lord Beaconsfield's policy, viz., the federation of South Africa under the British flag." In his speech supporting the motion Ashmead-Bartlett engaged in the kind of mockery of opponents that we might now think common for the leader's speech but from which, at that time, patricians such as Lord Salisbury preferred to distance themselves. Salisbury's brief address was delivered, as was customary, outside of the formal context of the conference, during the break for 'luncheon'. The Times recorded that 'upwards of 700 gentlemen were present', such numbers being 'much too large for the accommodation of the banqueting-hall, and two other rooms, the oak-room and the Victoria-room were requisitioned'. Salisbury spoke of great social changes while demonstrating his own continuity of policy with regard to the provision of housing for the working class. But the emotional force of the speech was reserved for 'The object of the hour' - victory in the Boer war - which he does not need to name for his audience who know exactly what 'duties' they are being called to fulfill. Flushed by recent victories they could not know that 'this state of things', as Salisbury calls it, would last for the shortest of times.

My Lords and gentlemen, I thank you very heartily for the kind manner in which you have received this toast, and I desire to express my gratitude to you and to my noble friend who on this occasion has kindly brought us together.  (Hear, hear.)  The National Union owes much to him for his constant and unsparing support, and every triumph which we can register and is achieved by it, falls to his glory in no small degree.  I am very grateful for the kind expression you have given of your feelings on this occasion, but it impresses strongly the conviction on my mind that, as for what we have done, it is mainly the workers of such societies as this that have achieved the great victory over which we are able to rejoice. 

The Change of Political Feeling

It has been indeed a very remarkable victory.  (Cheers.)  There is no other case in the life of the Queen, or I think since the time of the great Reform Bill, where a Ministry has twice referred its conduct to the judgement of the constituencies and has twice been returned with the strongest evidence of their approval and support.  We cannot be vain enough to attribute the main operation in this great change to any action on our part.  We rather point to it as a proof of the marvellous change which has come over the political feeling of the country and of London (cheers), where the instincts of the country are first to be discerned.  I am old enough to remember a very different state of things.  (Cheers.)  I can remember when London was the highest expression of Liberal enthusiasm, when the strongest trust of the party leaders of the Whig or Liberal party was in every part of London; and I remember, when I lived there, it was most of all in the borough of Marylebone that the fire of Liberalism seemed to burn bright and perpetual.  The sort of people who stood then for London boroughs were not the aristocratic Whigs (laughter); they were not any modified expression of Liberal orthodoxy; they were the extremest Radicals which the populace could get together.  I remember well a great election when the two members were Sir Benjamin Hall – all that could be desired of the fine flower of Radicalism – and Mr. Harper Twelvetrees, whose name sufficiently expresses the kind of orthodoxy he represented.  We had no chance in those days, and any one who should prophesy that in half a century these London boroughs would be the safest refuge for Conservative statesmen would have been regarded as simply insane.  It has been a very great change.  The City of London has become so Conservative that it is not only safe from those attacks of Radicalism, but it is the principal object of every Radical hatred.  Much the same has been the case in most of the London boroughs, and you know very well what the balance of our losses and gains in the last few elections has been.  But what strikes me as most extraordinary is that the great strength of Conservative feeling lies among the vast number of owners of villas of every kind who surround London.  In my time they were a certain ‘find’ for every Radical candidate, but a notable change has taken place there.  The question naturally occurs to us whether this state of things will last and how are we to make it last.  My answer is that you will make it last by trying to do your duty.  (Cheers.)

Housing of the Working Classes

If you observe that the villas outside London are the principal seed-plots of Conservatism I am afraid that if you look carefully you will find that such Radicalism as still remains attaches to those districts of London, unfortunately still too large, where what is called the great question of the housing of the poor is living and burning.  I would recommend this, that there is no surer guide to the Conservative party in trying to maintain and to improve their hold over public opinion in London than that they should devote all the power they possess to getting rid of that which is really a scandal to our civilisation – the sufferings which many of the working classes have to undergo, in the most moderate, I might say the most pitiable, accommodation.  These things will strike any one who looks at the question, but there has been so much controversy on the matter that in touching it I earnestly desire to protest that I am not trying to blame anybody or any set of men.  I am deeply aware of all the difficulties which attach to this question.  They have been created quite as much by economic laws as by any conscious human agency.  But though I would not dream of hinting at blame upon any persons to the right or to the left, yet, looking at the state of things we find, I would not the less earnestly press upon all over whom my opinion may have any weight that the subject which should occupy their attention more than any other social subject is that of providing adequate and healthy accommodation for the working classes.  (Cheers.)  I beg to say that these are no new opinions on my part.  Some 16 or 17 years ago, when first I took my present office, the question was then under agitation.  There was a vast area of ground, the site of Millbank Prison, which was about to be put on the market.  I introduced a Bill and urged it strongly on the acceptance of Parliament, that this land should be sold, not at its market price, but at its cost price for the purpose of promoting the erection of proper houses for the poor.  (Cheers.)  The measure passed the House of Lords, but in the House of Commons – it was a time of great political confusion – the difficulties of passing it were too great and it fell through.  I merely allude to this to show that, in urging it upon you now as an object of social endeavour more calling for your zeal and exertion than any other, I am supporting no new opinions but opinions which I have cherished for years.  (Cheers.)  I feel that I could not go further into social questions on the present occasion when my opportunities are naturally restricted, and therefore I will not deal further with them.  I would only ask you to bear in mind that you must not allow yourselves to be frightened away from the remedies for social evils by the fact that they are made a cover or pretence for attacks upon property and other institutions.  (Hear, hear.)  You must repel these attacks, but at the same time you must not allow your attention to be diverted from the stern necessities which the vast social changes of our time are imposing upon all who cherish the prosperity of this country.  (Hear, hear.) 

The Object of the Hour 

I am aware that these matters, deeply important as they are, are not the matters which at this moment occupy our attention in the first rank.  We have grave duties to perform and those duties must be fulfilled.  (Cheers.)  They may require strenuous effort, they may require self-denial, but if you wish to uphold the reputation which has been handed down to us from our fathers, if you mean to sustain the Empire which they did so much to build up and which we have sacrificed so many things to maintain, if we mean that the glory of England shall suffer no tarnish at our hands, we must not allow our efforts to slacken until the great enterprise in which we have engaged has been carried through.  (Cheers.)  We are speaking now at a time of some anxiety.  We do not know exactly what is taking place and we earnestly hope that the issue may be better than the beginning; but we have to push it through.  (Cheers.)  It may be that there are matters which have not been explained and which ought to be explained.  It may be that we have to scrutinise every step by which the present result has been reached; but whatever our attitude may be with regard to the efforts that have been made, to the failures or the successes of the past, we must remember that the one thing we have to keep before us is that on the issue of this great enterprise the glory and perpetuity of our Empire rest and that we must spare no effort and no sacrifice by which ultimate success may be achieved.  (Loud cheers.)       

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