Leader's speech, Sheffield 1903
Arthur Balfour (Conservative)
Commentary:Such was the interest in this speech (delivered over one hour and twenty minutes at Artillery Drill Hall Sheffield, on 1st Oct 1903), that The Times prefaced its printing with a long article by a ‘special correspondent’ headlined ‘Mr. Balfour At Sheffield: Conservatives and Fiscal Policy’. The background was that of ongoing dispute within the government between advocates of free trade and campaigners for tariff reform. Across the year there had been cabinet splits and reversals of policy. Joseph Chamberlain, from the Liberal Unionist side of the coalition and strongly supported by dissenters, had already been distanced from the government over the education bill. In May of 1903 he launched a campaign for ‘imperial preference’ in trade to secure the empire and raise funds for social polices. Those in the government favouring free trade argued that Chamberlain’s policy would lead to inflation of food prices and launched a rival ‘Free Food’ campaign. Balfour had tried to play off these factions while remaining neutral between them. However, in September Chamberlain resigned in order to campaign for his policy outside of the cabinet. Balfour forced the resignations of several harder-line free trade campaigners but also lost the support of the Duke of Devonshire, an important member of the Liberal Unionist part of the coalition. As the Times’ correspondent observed: ‘Seldom if ever, has the whole nation hung with keener expectancy and interest to a single political utterance’. Balfour was described as ‘the head of an Administration weakened by numerous resignations and not yet, after a fortnight of deliberation and delay, fortified by the filling up of vacant offices’ and ‘while the country was expecting an explanation, the party was looking for a lead and a reassurance of its confidence. An ambitious man could wish for no greater opportunity, and a timid one for no more trying ordeal’. The conference that day had been rowdy, dispute between the two sides very much in the open. In the evening the hall was full and specially created standing room 'early packed by a dense crowd of working men’. Ambulances and police were also in attendance. While the crowd waited for Balfour to arrive they sang patriotic choruses and listened to a brass band’. The appearance of the Prime Minster and his entourage was the ‘signal for a demonstration remarkable alike for its cordiality and magnitude, the whole audience rising to their feet and cheering and waving handkerchiefs with a will’ and ‘not until “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” had been sung and three rousing cheers had been given from those many thousand throats was Mr. Balfour able to proceed’. At the start his voice cracked – but as he outlined his arguments and developed his theme his ‘utterance became more strenuous, his voice more impassioned, and his gesture more free and forcible’ until he ‘had that great audience to a man in the hollow of his hand’. And yet, taking the long view afforded by hindsight, it may be that something which happened outside of the hall was of the greater historical significance than what went on within it. A brief report in the Times noted the following: ‘By the enterprise of the Electrophone Company some two dozen gentlemen in London had the somewhat novel experience of listening to the delivery of Mr. Balfour's speech, at the company's offices in Gerrard-Street...having been put in direct telephonic communication with Sheffield via the London-Glasgow telephone cable which was cut at Sheffield for the occasion. In point of comfort the listeners in London were no doubt better off than those actually present in the drill hall, and so excellent was the articulation of the instruments, in spite of the fact that 200 miles of line intervened, that they lost nothing of what was said. Of course they could not see the action and gestures of the speaker, but still they were not entirely deprived of the advantage enjoyed by those who could, since the thumps on the table or rail in front of him, with which he sometimes emphasized his argument, were faithfully reproduced. So also was was the singing with which the audience amused themselves before the meeting began, and the vigorous cheering with which they greeted many of Mr. Balfour’s points. The only thing of which those in London did not get the full benefit was the occasional interruptions at the back of the hall. That these were heard indistinctly was due to the circumstance that the transmitters at Sheffield – a few little trumpet-shaped objects about the diameter of a watch – were disposed solely with the view of catching what was said on the platform.’ In time that audience, in comfort at home, unable to hear shouts from the floor, and still less to shout for itself, would become far more important than any number of working-men crammed into the standing only sections.
My Lord Derby, ladies and gentlemen, I mean to talk to you tonight upon one subject, and one subject alone, not because there are not many other topics of deep interest to this nation on which I should like to address you, but because I am well aware that you first want to hear what I have to say upon the subject of tariff reform. (Hear, hear.) And if that subject is to be dealt with at all, it had better not be limited by the introduction of other alien themes. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is not a new subject; it is not a new subject in this hall, it is not a new subject discussed by the Conservative Association. On the contrary, all who will look back over the records of this great association, drawn from every part of England, whom I now have the honour to address – all, I say, who will study these records may convince themselves that the subject of tariff reform has never been absent, or but rarely absent, from your deliberations. At all events, within the limits of my political recollection there have been varieties of opinion held upon this subject within the limits of one united Party.
The Rise of Tariff Reform
What is it, ladies and gentlemen, which has suddenly brought this topic – I am sorry my voice is not all I could wish – (cheers) – what has suddenly brought this subject, often before you previously, into the exceptional prominence which it now holds. There are those who would attribute this new importance which it has acquired to a great speech delivered by a great man – (cheers) – in the month, I think it was, of May last. But, after all, it was not in May last that Mr. Chamberlain – (loud cheers) – not in May last – Mr. Chamberlain first uttered sentiments which he there expressed with such burning eloquence, and something more is required to account for a phenomenon unparalleled in the political experience of any man whom I am now addressing. What, then, is the reason why tariff reform has suddenly come so much to the front. I attribute it to more than one cause. In the first place, remember that the late war has brought us into closer and more conscious touch with that great Colonial Empire, of which this country is the centre. Remember, also, that the Prime Ministers and representatives of those Colonies brought before this country and the Empire, in the most categorical and explicit terms, the question of tariff reform in connection with our Colonial Empire. And, remember, also, that there has been for some time past – long, indeed, before the recent developments of this tariff controversy – there has been a growing uneasiness as to the condition of British trade in its relation to the trade of the world. (Cheers.)
If you want to have evidence of that fact, don’t look at the speeches that have been delivered since tariff reform came to the front. Look at the speeches delivered before that epoch, then you will have some impartial test, some undoubted guide as to the opinions held on this subject; and if you look at the speeches, the papers, the pamphlets, and the articles written on the subject of technical education, written on the necessity of meeting foreign competition by increased efforts in this country – a movement which I heartily sympathise with – (hear, hear) – and which I have in my way to the best of my ability, done my best to promote – (cheers) – if, I say, you look at those speeches, delivered by men of all shades of opinion, you will see that I am not exaggerating when I say that there has been or some years past a feeling of growing uneasiness as to the industrial place of Great Britain among the industrial nations of the world. (Hear, hear, and cheers.) Therefore, when Mr. Chamberlain made his speech, the speech no doubt to which we date back – and naturally date back – this particular movement; the speech itself would have had no effect comparable to that which was actually produced had it not fallen on ground prepared for it by circumstances – (cheers); had it not dealt with a problem that every man conscientiously or unconscientiously began to put to himself. Now, that feeling was greatly intensified by what occurred in relation to Canada’s Imperial effort to give preferential treatment to this country. (Cheers.) You all have the particulars of that incident in your mind, how Canada gave preferential treatment to our manufactures, and how thereupon Canada was threatened by at least one foreign Power with some species of retaliation for the effort she had made. That brought home, I am convinced, to many minds the consciousness of our helplessness under our existing tariff system to deal with a situation of that kind.
Tariff to Meet Tariff
You can’t go to war over tariff questions. Tariff attacks can only be met by tariff replies. (Loud cheers.) And I think every Englishman felt, when he heard that there was some danger lest that great Colony should be penalised for her efforts after closer Imperial union; every Englishman, I say, felt that we were helpless indeed, under our existing tariff system, to meet with a situation so unexpected and so dangerous – (cheers); and that feeling of helplessness has not been diminished by a survey of the commercial history of the world during the last two generations. Sixty years have passed, or nearly 60 years, since the greatest, or at all events, the most notorious step was taken in the direction of tariff reform in this country, in the great epoch between 1841 and 1846. Those sixty years have been filled with refutations of the prophecies made by the great tariff reformers. (Hear, hear.) I am not going to say a word against those tariff reforms. I believe them to have been appropriate, and indeed necessary, at the time they were made. (Hear, hear.) But the time they were made is very different from the time in which we live – (cheers) – and every year which has passed, at all events in the latter half of that sixty years, during the generation of which we in this room have some personal recollection, is a contradiction of all the hopes, all the aspirations, and all the prophecies which then filled the mouths and the minds of men. (Hear, hear.)
I am never one of those who attack Mr. Cobden because he has made a great many prophecies which have been falsified. Any of us who are rash enough to make prophecies, and are famous enough to have those prophecies recorded, are pretty sure sixty years hence to find ourselves very much in Mr. Cobden’s position. At all events, if he was unfortunate, he was only a little more unfortunate than the rest of his fellow creatures. (Laughter.) The observations I have to make upon these prophecies is not by way of criticism of Mr. Cobden, but, if criticism at all, of Mr. Cobden’s followers; because he laid down, or he is supposed to be responsible for laying down, a certain doctrine of fiscal policy adapted to the world in which he lived - adapted to the world which he thought he had the right to foresee; but not adapted to the world in every respect, at all events, in which we at this time live. (Cheers.) What was Mr. Cobden’s ideal? No one will deny that he was a patriot, but I think few who have studied his life and writings will pretend that the sentiment of nationality had any large place in his philosophy of politics. He looked forward to a world in which national divisions might indeed remain, but their emphasis would be largely diminished, if not wholly effaced, in which the divisions between nations would in no sense correspond with fiscal or commercial divisions, in which Free Trade would have swept asunder altogether all rivalry between men of different race, of different creed, and of different political institutions, in which the world would commercially be one without artificial barriers, and in which production would follow its natural line, and in which international manufactures would take, not a competitive, but a co-operative shape. That was his ideal, and he drew from it the conclusion that upon a world thus industrially organised, that in such a world war would be a practical impossibility; that nation would be so linked to nation by commercial and financial ties, it would be impossible for either national ambition, or for national vanity, to break the great peace which was to brood over the face of the world. Who shall deny that that ideal had in it elements of great nobility? Not I, for one. But that ideal world is not the world in which we live.
Face the Actual Facts
It is not merely – and let th is be noted, for it is important – it is not merely that Protection has survived this relic, this barbarous relic, as Mr. Cobden would have thought of a past time; it is not merely that nation is still divided from nation by political and racial peculiarities. The actual facts are far stronger and more significant than that. What has happened is that the sentiment of nationality has received an accretion of strength since that time of which no man then living can have dreamed for a moment, and that contemporaneously with this growing sentiment of nationality we have found Protection in foreign countries, not holding on as the creed of an obscurantist minority, but growing in strength day by day, and day by day more and more separating the nations commercially from one another. I regret it. I regret it. I think it is a matter of profound regret, but, after all, we have to take account of the facts of the world in which we are living, and neither an individual nor a nation can venture, with any prospect of felicity or success, to act as though he lived in an ideal world, and not in the world which actually, and, as a matter of fact, surrounds him. (Hear, hear, and cheers.) Well, I am afraid that in these years we have too much been in the position of dreamers, confident in the beauty and the virtue of our own ideal, refusing to see that it was not conformed to by our neighbours or the world with which we had to deal; and the result is that we have watched for 50 years, without saying a word, or making a sign; we have watched the wall of hostile tariffs growing up, dividing nation from nation, and dividing us from the Protective nations of the world. (Hear, hear.) And we have seen our own Colonies, our own flesh and blood, the very sinews of the Empire that is to be – (cheers) – building up one vested interest after another, with a system of Protection which, when it reaches its logical and its natural conclusion, will have made it as hard for us, their Mother Country – pledged to defend them, bound to them by every tie of affection and regard – it will make it as hard for us to export the results of our industry, enterprise, and capital, as we now find it to export those results to America, or to other Protective countries. I don’t know whether there is anybody who has faced these facts in their integrity, who can look at them with indifference. But the fact remains that for the whole period of the lifetime of any man I am now addressing, we have done nothing whatever, either in regard to foreign markets or in regard to our own Colonies, to hinder a state of things so absolutely inconsistent with Free Trade as Mr. Cobden understood it. (Cheers.)
Cobden’s French Treaty
I ought, however, to make one exception. I have said that no effort has been made. That I believe to be, in strictness, incorrect. One effort, one great effort, and in its measure one successful effort, was made, and it was made by Mr. Cobden himself. I allude to the famous commercial Treaty with France negotiated in 1859, and brought to a successful issue in 1860; and when I consider the history of that treaty I ask myself whether Mr. Cobden was indeed a Cobdenite. (Hear, hear, and laughter.) What was the essence of the treaty of 1860? We were then in process of completing that great series of reforms – for which I may incidentally remark it was Tory and Conservative statesmen chiefly, who obtained the credit for that great system of reform which did so much for English commerce, and set so good an example to the world. In 1859 there were certain taxes still in existence which the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and the financial authorities of the day thought might well be repealed, but for the repeal of which they desired to obtain from the French – at the time perhaps the most Protectionist nation with whom we had large dealings – they wished to obtain from the French Government some concessions in the direction of free exchange of goods. Now I want to put to you this question; the duties which were promised to the French Government as a consideration for some diminution in their Protective tariffs were, as I have told you, duties to which no value was attached, but the contrary, by the British Exchequer.
Retaliatory Taxes Justified
When Mr. Cobden negotiated that treaty, he and those who sent him, must either have been resolved to keep on those duties if the treaty failed, or they must have been resolved to give them up in any case. If the latter – if they were determined to give up those duties which on their merits they desired to repeal, then they were asking from the French Government consideration without value received. And the most complimentary epithet that I can imagine for a diplomatic transaction of that kind is that it was extremely dexterous. (Laughter.) The epithets that I should be inclined to apply are of a less complimentary description. (Renewed laughter.) But I do not think that those less complimentary epithets are deserved. I believe that Mr. Cobden, who was the emissary, and Mr. Gladstone, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when they were dealing with the French Government of the day, did not mean to indulge in these over-dexterous tactics, but they did say to them, and meant to say to them, ‘If you will give us increased facilities for our exports, we will remit these taxes; if you will not give us increased facilities we will retain these taxes.’ I think that is the only interpretation I can put, consistently with the honour of the persons concerned, upon that great commercial transaction. But if so, then in the opinion of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Cobden in 1859 and 1860, it was legitimate to keep on taxes which would have been from a purely Treasury and Revenue point of view, illegitimate, in order to put pressure upon a foreign Government to relax theirs.
There is no economical distinction. There may be a distinction from the point of view of practical difficulty, but there is absolutely no economical distinction whatever between keeping on a tax for diplomatic purpose which you would otherwise repeal, and putting on a tax which you would otherwise not have put on for carrying out the same objects. (Cheers.) I do not know, ladies and gentlemen, whether this point has ever been dealt with by the Cobden Club. (Laughter.) If not, I respectfully commend it to their attention. Well that, so far as I know is one exception in all these years, the one effective exception of our attitude to a somewhat self-complacent indifference to the tariff proceedings of our great commercial friends and rivals, and the tariff proceedings of our own Colonies. I don’t think it is to our credit. (Hear, hear.) And I confess that when I hear criticisms – criticisms in which I sympathise, taken by themselves – when I hear criticisms upon the American and the German policy, which has caused those great industrial nations to accompany their marvellous commercial expansion with Protective duties, which must have thrown a most heavy burden upon the consumer, I feel that they have a retort to which I, at least, have no reply. They may well say to us that, although they have been thus Protectionist, at all events within the limits of their own country they have established permanent Free Trade. And at this moment, within the circuit of the German Empire, and within the vast ambit of the American Commonwealth, all duty, all restriction upon Free Trade, everything which can hamper production, everything which can limit the increase of wealth, has been abolished by their patriotism and their foresight, and they may well ask whether we in the British Empire can point to a similar picture, and whether at this moment that Free Trade of which we talk so much, and of which we boast so justly, is a Free Trade extending beyond the limits of the four seas, and whether it even includes those great self-governing Colonies which we proudly boast are to be the great buttresses of our Empire in the future. (Cheers.)
Sufferings under Free Trade
I take it, ladies and gentlemen, that it is quite impossible for any man to say, I know it is quite impossible for any Free Trader to say that we have not suffered deeply and profoundly by foreign tariffs in this country. (Hear, hear.) Free Trade is indeed an empty name, and a vain farce, if, in fact, foreign nations are setting themselves to work to divert our industries into channels into which they never would have naturally flowed, to exclude our manufactures from their markets, to limit as far as they can the international play of supply and demand – I say Free Trade is indeed a farce if those things do not produce an evil effect, not merely upon the country which imposes Protective duties, but on the Free Trade country – and there is but one – (cheers) – which has to endeavour to the best of its ability to pierce them. And I do not believe that the evil of foreign Protective tariffs is limited to their mere exclusion of our products from their markets. There has been a development of which Mr. Cobden and Mr. Cobden’s contemporaries never dreamed, a development of the trust system under the protection of those tariffs which inflicts an injury upon the capital, and still more upon the workmen – (hear, hear) – of these islands. The phenomenon is so new that I dare scarce venture to prophesy what developments it is likely to take, whether it is going to expand into a great national danger, or whether it is going to be limited to the evils which I fear it has already inflicted; but of this you may be absolutely sure, that in the combination, that in the alliance of trusts and tariffs, there is a danger to the capital, to the enterprise of this country, which reacts, not mainly, not principally, upon the capitalist, for he is always at liberty to go to those happier regions where his industry will be looked after, but will fall with the heaviest weight upon the artisan and labouring classes of this country – (cheers) – who have no methods, or no methods known to me, by which they are capable of protecting their interests against such a calamity. (Hear, hear.)
No Cure, But Only a Palliative
Now, if I have rightly described the dangers, and the evils from which we suffer, you have a right to ask me whether I know of a cure. (Cheers.) My answer, I am afraid, will be a disappointing one. I know of no cure; but I do know of a palliation. (Cheers.) I am not going to stand up here on an occasion when it is my duty to advise the great Party of which, for the moment, I am the chief – (cheers) – it is not, I say, my duty to draw an imaginary picture of the blessings to follow from the remedy, or from any remedy which I have to propose. I know of no cure; the ill has gone too far. You will not get the great commercial nations of the world to abandon Protection. You will not get, I fear, our great self-governing Colonies to retrace all the steps which we have, without remonstrance, permitted them to take. I therefore say there is no complete cure of the evils that I have described. But I think there is a palliation, and it is that palliation which I am here to recommend to you today. (Cheers.) Remember what the situation is which I have endeavoured to describe to you. Mr. Cobden supposed that the world was going to be a Free Trade world, in which trade would follow its natural courses, unhampered by the devices of statesmen and politicians, untouched by the influence of international treaties. That is what he hoped. That is what he believed. What, in fact, we have got to deal with is a world in which these international commercial relations are regulated entirely by treaty, and are governed entirely by the arrangements come to between the different nations concerned.
An Impossible Position
It is common sense that in a world which is commercially governed by treaty we, the greatest commercial nation of all, should come forward and say, ‘We will endeavour to arrange treaties with you. We have nothing to give you – (laughter) – we have nothing to withhold from you. We throw ourselves upon your mercy, and upon your consideration. (Renewed laughter.) Remember, please remember, how good we are to your commerce, how we throw no impediments in its way, how we do all we can for you, and please don’t forget us when you are making your next treaty.’ (Laughter.) Well, well, I am incapable of believing that a nation which deprives itself of its power of bargaining is a nation which is likely to make very good bargains. I have been asked by friends of mine whether there really is any ground for believing that we should make better bargains if we had the freedom of negotiation which I ask you to give us. (Loud cheers.) I confess that the very question seems to me to show that the questioner lives in a world of economic phantasmagoria, with no relation whatever to the realities in which, fortunately or unfortunately, our lot is cast. Are commercial bargains different from every other bargain? Are negotiations between nations, which have to deal with duties upon manufactured goods – are they different in essence and in character from other negotiations carried on for other purposes? (Voices: No.) And did any man ever hear of a country going into negotiations for these other purposes, which ever came out of those negotiations with a trace of success, unless they had in the course of those negotiations something which they could offer, and something which in case of necessity they might withhold? (Cheers.)
Freedom of Negotiation: Mr. Balfour’s Demands
My request, therefore, to you tonight is the fundamental and essential request to which everything I have to say in the remainder of my speech is subsidiary and accidental – my fundamental request is that the people of this country should give to the Government of this country from whatever Party that Government may be drawn, that freedom of negotiation of which we have been deprived, not by the force of circumstances, not by the action of overmastering forces, not by the pressure of foreign Powers, but by something which I can only describe as our own pedantry and our own self-conceit. (Cheers. Voice: ‘How can we give you that power?’) I have stated the fundamental proposition, which I wish to affirm, but I agree with my friend opposite that it is necessary for me, though it may not be interesting to you, that I should answer some questions which will inevitably be asked as to the manner in which that freedom for which I ask is going to be used. (Hear, hear.) I would, however, observe that that question is often put in a manner which I regard as highly unreasonable. I suppose there is not a man in this room who denies that we ought to have a fleet, a navy, but am I, or any other Minister standing in this place, am I to tell you how that navy is to be used in 1904, 1905, 1906, or 1907? (Cheers.) That is a kind of prophecy which neither I nor any other man can make. (Hear, hear.) All you can say is this: That it is absolutely necessary for this country to have at its command, in case of need, a great navy. (Cheers.) And it is necessary, though I admit less necessary, but it is necessary in my judgement, that this country should also have at its command those instruments of negotiation for which in general terms I have already pleaded. (Cheers.) But though I think the question is thus put very often in a most unreasonable fashion, I am perfectly ready to answer it, so far as in my judgement it can be answered, by hypothesis and prophecy. Well, let it be noted that I have brought before your attention two separate aspects of one great problem. I have pointed out to you that we have allowed, so to speak, the world to slide into this system of high Protective duties against this country without effort and without remonstrance, but that world which has thus acted partly consists of our own Colonies, our self-governing Dependencies, who have fiscal, and must always retain fiscal autonomy, and partly it consists of foreign nations properly so-called.
A Colonial and a Foreign Problem
The problem connected with the two is evidently a distinct problem, though it arises from the same difficulty, and springs from the same root. And as regards the first of those, our relations with our Colonies, let me say I think we have in this country been strangely blind, and strangely dull – (hear, hear) – to the abnormal and anomalous situation in which the British Empire is placed in these fiscal matters. You will find many cases in which fiscal union has been the prelude to that closer, and more intimate union, which is the basis of national strength. (Hear, hear.) I may mention as a Scotsman – (laughter) – the case of England and Scotland. If any of you will consult your histories you will see that what reconciled the smaller kingdom to union with the greater kingdom was no love of being under a British Parliament, but the sense that it was absolutely necessary for national existence, or, at all events, for national prosperity – (hear, hear) – that England and Scotland should be fiscally one. (Cheers.) And that union, which began merely, so to speak, on a fiscal basis, has grown, as we all know, in a manner which has welded the two people together in an inseparable unity, which it will not be given to any hostile force ever to divorce. (Cheers.) If I wished to load my speech with historical illustrations, I might, of course, point to the case of Germany – different in many respects, but resembling the case of Scotland in this respect, that the fiscal union began before that political union, which has been the greatest incident in modern European history. (Hear, hear.) Well, we have been content apparently, so far as our Empire is concerned, to see divisions, fiscal divisions, growing with our growth, and strengthening with our strength, and at the very moment that the population and the wealth of our Colonies are increasing, and in other respects the sentiment of a common interest of a common blood, and of common institutions is gaining strength, at the very moment I say we see these fiscal divisions growing up, of which no man can prophesy the ultimate result, but which I venture to say no man of sober judgement or any knowledge of history can contemplate without disquiet. (Cheers.) Well, that is the first branch of the problem. I am disposed to say that in many respects it is the most important branch, and I have sorrowfully to admit that it is also the most difficult branch. And for this reason. The evil has been allowed to grow, both by us and by our Colonies, to a point in which it is probably incapable of any complete solution, and in which even an attempted solution, so far as I am able to see, would involve taxation of food in this country.
Impossibility of Taxing Food
Now, I do not think the public opinion is ripe in this country for the taxation of food. (Hear, hear.) I have given the matter my most earnest consideration, and this is the conclusion at which I have arrived. Of course, all must admit - I don’t care what their opinions are - all must admit that the taxation of food - indeed, every kind of taxation, is in itself an evil. (Hear, hear.) But I think that the evil of the taxation of food, so long as that taxation is kept within very narrow limits – I want to tell the whole truth to this great audience – the evil of taxation on food, kept within these narrow limits has been exaggerated beyond what reason and logic justify. But I think, nevertheless, that for historic reasons that feeling, though it does go beyond what logic and reason seem to justify is one of those ingrained – perhaps ingrained means necessarily permanent – but is one of those sentiments born of the history of a people, of which it is absolutely necessary that every practical statesman should take account, and of which I do take account, and which I believe you cannot traverse with impunity. And the reason is not far to seek. Compare the case of France and of England. In France at this moment it would be impossible for any legislator to attempt to make a breach in that theoretical equality which for historic reasons, burned into them by the great struggle of the French Revolution, every Frenchman believes in, or most Frenchmen believe in, as an immutable creed. An Englishman cares little for speculative equality, what he wants is liberty. (Hear, hear.) Very well. The Frenchman, however, is tolerant to a degree incredible among us to any taxation of food, all his food. You remember it is a country governed under as democratic a government as our own, and taxation on food is part of their normal system, and they are not content with having taxation on food for what we should call national and Imperial purposes, but they pay what we pay out of our rates very largely by taxation on food. (Hear, hear.) Very well. Now take the case of England. In England we had no French Revolution. There is not burnt into us by our historic experience any of the feelings which animate the French on the subject of equality; but the memory of the misery endured by our working classes, and especially by the agricultural labourer, in the days when wheat was at 70s., 80s., or 100s. per quarter, has become associated, though I admit with very little historic propriety, but is has become associated with the question of the abolition of the corn tax. It burnt into the historic imagination of the people; it cannot be eliminated by the best logic, the most conclusive reasoning, or the most eloquent speeches. (Hear, hear.) I am therefore distinctly of opinion – I am speaking here as one who is bound to give advice to a great Party on the policy which they should regard as their official policy – (hear, hear) – I am bound to give you, as the best results of my reflection, to ask you to adopt the conclusion that a tax on food is not – with the public opinion in the state in which it is – within the limits of practical politics. (Cheers.) So much for the Colonial branch of the question.
A Tariff War Not Intended
Now you will ask me how I mean to carry out, or how I contemplate should be carried out, that liberty of negotiation for which I ask in respect of foreign countries. Well, there are a great many people who seem to think that if we ask for liberty of negotiation in respect of tariffs with foreign countries, we mean to enter into a general tariff war with the whole world. No such idea, no such expectation, is entertained at all events by myself. (Hear, hear.) I don’t know whether most of you have sufficiently followed the practice of foreign countries in their tariff negotiations. What they commonly do, or what they often do, is to have what they call a combative tariff, a very high tariff placed upon all foreign goods, which they then proceed to reduce for the benefit of other nations, who give them something in return. So that they start with an immense general import duty on all foreign goods, which they reduce for consideration received. (Laughter.)
I contemplate no such procedure with regard to this country. I think it would involve far too great a disturbance of our habits, of our practice and of our trade. But I do think that we might with advantage proceed from the other end, and, if it suited us, and if we thought we could do it without disadvantage to ourselves, which, after all, is the guiding policy in these matters – (hear, hear) – we might inform any foreign country who we thought were treating us with outrageous unfairness that unless they modified their policy to our advantage, we should feel ourselves compelled to take this or that step in regard to their exports to our country. (Cheers.) Now, I do not for a moment suggest that foreign countries are animated by a desire to destroy our trade simpliciter; what they want to do is to improve their trade at our expense, which is perhaps rather a different thing. (Cheers, and laughter.) But, in any case, are you not trying them too high by your present system? Is it fair, supposing they want to do us justice – let us assume that – (laughter) – is it fair to go to their negotiators and say, ‘Well, we have nothing to give you; we cannot hurt you. Our principles are such that you may kick us round the room, and we will only say it is according to principle, but please treat us as well as you can.’ (Great laughter.) Now, I do not think that is fair on the foreign negotiator, and I think he will be greatly helped to do us justice if he knows that behind our requests for justice there is a method of exacting it. (Loud cheers.) Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have spoken at an outrageous length – (‘Go on’) – but I have been most anxious to be perfectly clear and perfectly explicit as to the advice I want to give you, and, if I may say so, through you the country at this moment. You will admit I have not clouded my statement by any verbal rhetoric or attempt at eloquent declamation. I have tried to give you the bare outlines of rather a hard and difficult argument.
Mr. Balfour’s Self-Catechism
But, in order that I may be absolutely beyond reproach, and that no man will be able to say tomorrow or hereafter, that I have been obscure, in order that every misunderstanding shall be apparently and obviously a wilful misunderstanding, I will for one moment – and it shall only be a moment – conceive myself asked certain questions by this audience. It is not in accordance with procedure on this occasion, as it is during a General Election, that there should be self-appointed questioners upon the burning topics of the day. May I erect myself for the moment, on your behalf, into a questioner, and may I put questions to myself? (Hear, hear, and laughter.) Very well. The first question I put to myself is this. I can imagine the gentleman who interrupted me – (a laugh) – most courteously, most courteously, about twenty minutes ago – I can imagine him putting this question. He may say: ‘Do you mean to come forward and ask the country to reverse the verdict arrived at in the great lawsuit between Free Trade and Protection in 1845 and 1846?’ My answer is simple and plain. I regard the controversy of 1846 as of no interest whatever to us now – (cheers) – except simply from a historical point of view. I care no more for the quarrel between Mr. Cobden and his opponents than I do about the Bagarian controversy, which I expect nobody in my audience has ever heard of. All that was appropriate to 1845 and 1846, but it is utterly inappropriate to 1903 and 1904. (Cheers.) Our grandfathers fought out their battles as men, and with a view to the actual situation of the world in which they lived. Let us in that respect imitate their example, and let us not be misled by musty debates, living enough to those who took part in them, but which are as dead to us as ours will be to our grandsons 60 years hence. (Hear, hear.) That is the first question I put. The second question I have imagined being put to me is this, ‘Do you desire to reverse – to alter fundamentally – the fiscal tradition which has prevailed during the last two generations?’ Yes, I do. (Loud cheers.) And how, I may imagine my questioner going on, do you propose to alter that tradition. I propose to alter it by asking the people of this country to reverse, to annul, to delete altogether from their maxims of public conduct the doctrine that you must never put on taxation except for revenue purposes. (Hear, hear.) I say distinctly that in my judgement the country ought never to have stood self-deprived of that liberty; that it ought publicly to resume in the face of Europe and the world that liberty of which it has deprived itself. And though, of course, the liberty so resumed may be abused – I don’t doubt it – it may get into incompetent hands – it should be resumed, and this country should again have what every other country in the world possesses, and that of which no other country in the world would think of depriving itself – the liberty of negotiating with something to negotiate with. The next question I can imagine being asked of me is ‘Why do you want to resume this liberty of negotiation seeing how well the country has prospered for all these years without it?’ To that my reply is, I hope, explicit and distinct. My object is to mitigate, so far as circumstances allow, the injury done to us by hostile tariffs. (Hear, hear.) Those hostile tariffs have inflicted upon us injury of a double kind. (Hear, hear.) They have divided one fragment of the Empire fiscally from the other. They have diverted our industries into channels in which they would never naturally have flowed; they have restricted and hampered our export trade, and by restricting and hampering our export trade their effects have acted and reacted over the whole community – the community of consumers, and the community of producers for home consumption. These are the evils. In addition, the third of the evils is the insecurity which I fear some great branches of our industry suffer, and must suffer so long as we permit protective duties in combination with trusts to pour into this country at unnatural prices goods which, under a true system of Free Trade – under a system, I mean, in which every country produced according to its natural capacities – would never be able to compete and never be able to oust the industries of home origin. (Cheers.) Two other questions, and only two other questions, have to be asked. ‘Will the remedy you propose be complete?’ To that I answer: It will not be complete, even if it could be tried in its integrity, and it cannot be tried in its integrity because I believe that the country will not tolerate the tax upon food. And if the last question be asked me: ‘Then do you think it is of any value?’ - to that I reply with equal clearness, emphasis, and decision, undoubtedly it will be useful. There have been plenty of occasions in the past, and believe me there will be plenty of occasions in the future, when a British Minister having to conduct a great commercial negotiation, will feel his hands strengthened, will feel that he is indeed able to represent the interests of the great country whose foreign affairs he has to manage. If he can say to some other – if he can say to the Ministers of the country with whom he is negotiating, ‘We don’t ask you to reverse your commercial policy; we don’t ask from you anything which is impossible, but common justice and common fair treatment we do ask, and if we don’t get it, we will take our own measures.’ (Cheers.)
‘I Mean to Lead’
Now, my lords and gentlemen, I hope, at the risk of some length and some tedium – (‘No, no’) – I have at all events avoided any kind of obscurity. I have been asked to give a lead. I think the request was a reasonable one. A man who, however unworthy, is called upon to lead a Party must lead it – (cheers) – and so long as I am in that position I mean to lead it. (Loud and prolonged cheers, and ‘What about Joe?’) I have given this great topic my best thoughts, my most earnest consideration, and I am firmly convinced that the policy which I now recommend to the Party and to the country is not only in absolute harmony with all our best traditions – (hear, hear) – not only finds its precedents in the statements of all our greatest leaders, is not only in perfect conformity with the spirit of the great body which we here represent, but that also and beyond all that, it is the best which this country, depending as it does, and depending as it does solely, upon its commercial and manufacturing position in the world, it is the best which this country can adopt. In that faith, in that belief, and with all earnestness of purpose, I recommend to your favourable consideration. (Loud and prolonged cheering, during which Mr. Balfour resumed his seat, having spoken just an hour and 20 minutes.)