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Leader's speech, Southampton 1904

Arthur Balfour (Conservative)

Location: Southampton


Although uncertainty about fiscal policy persisted into 1904 the meeting of the National Union of Conservative Association in Southampton that year was, as The Times observed, ‘altogether different’ from that at Sheffield and ‘a desire to preserve the unity and solidarity of the party prevailed over all other considerations’. The meeting itself was an altogether more low-key affair, in a smaller building than previously, not sold out and other than a Union Jack on the chairman’s desk ‘no other attempt had been made to decorate the severe bareness of the building’. But, whatever the ease Balfour might have felt over domestic policy was surely overridden by immediate difficulties in foreign policy: the so-called ‘Dogger Bank Incident’. On 21st October a Russian fleet, in open fishing waters, fearful of the presence of Japanese torpedo ships, opened fire on a number of fishing trawlers, some of them British. Three British sailors were killed and more wounded. Furthermore, the Russian ships left the area without assisting the wounded and drowning. The diplomatic fallout of the event was serious and Royal Navy ships were placed on a war footing. As Balfour notes the matter was put in the hands of an international tribunal which would in time order the Russians to pay compensation to the families of the lost. Rhetorically the speech is interesting as an instance of a Prime Minister making the most of an opportunity to appear as a unifying national leader as opposed to a partisan party representative. He declares the situation such as to be above and beyond party divisions, and then is able simultaneously to criticize the opposition leader and avoid having to address the fraught fiscal question. Comparison of this speech with other conference speeches delivered close to significant crises might be fruitful – see, for instance, Tony Blair, September 2001. The Times recorded that as a result of Balfour's announcement that war had been averted 'the intense relief of the whole audience was unmistakable. Mr. Balfour's hearers had the satisfaction of feeling that they had been listening to one of the most memorable speeches of modern times. It was a speech worthy of a great historical occasion, and the memory of it must long impress the mind as deeply as did the delivery of it'.

Lord Winchester, my Lords, ladies and gentle­men, I think your Chairman has tonight struck the right note in the few words which he has just addressed to you. It is by no will of mine that this great assembly coincides with a moment of national difficulty (hear, hear). Long ago was it arranged that the representatives of the Con­servative opinion throughout the country should meet here; long ago was it determined that Southampton should be the spot on which, for this year, the topic which interest us as citizens and as members of a great party (hear, hear) should be thrashed out and discussed. Ladies and gentlemen, since all the arrangements which have brought together within these walls the great gathering I am now addressing there have been events which have stirred to their depths the feelings of every section and every class of the community (hear, hear), every inhabitant of the United Kingdom, and every subject of his Majesty beyond the seas (cheers), all the great English speaking peoples of the world (cheers), and I think I may add the general sentiment of civilised Europe (cheers). Ladies and gentlemen, under such circumstances as these I should certainly be doing violence to any own sentiments of what is appropriate, and I think I should be doing violence to your senti­ments of what is appropriate, if I dragged into the larger issue thus suddenly opened up any question, however important it might be, which dealt with any subject on which Britons of all political creeds, however varying their opinions on other subjects, are not in hearty agreement. The Leader of the Opposition, speaking I think two nights ago, uttered sentiments worthy on this subject, worthy of that high place which he holds, and which the Leader of an Opposition must always hold in the political life of a free people (hear, hear). It is true that he felt him­self bound to go into a large number of highly controversial subjects, and I do not blame him for that. I do not see he had any alternative before him, but he would be the first, I think, to agree that this is not the time at which I can most conveniently or appropriately deal with his allegations, tempting as that field of political dialectics may be, I refrain from entering on, and, indeed, the only observations which I shall make in the few words that I am going to say to you tonight which can be regarded as having the smallest party reference whatever are these. My utterances on a certain great question have been received with as many commentaries as if I was a classic, and they have been subjected or wrested into as many different meanings as if they were inspired. I suggest, and it is only a suggestion I make, that no man in or out of this hall should judge of my writings or my speeches upon economic questions by seeing what other people say of them (hear, hear), but they should read them for themselves (applause), and if they do that I am confident they will find that they are neither obscure, nor difficult, nor inconsistent (hear, hear), but that they represent a well thought out body of ideas which may be right or may be wrong, but which at all events stand there for public criticism, and must be judged by themselves, and not by their self-appointed commentors. Gentlemen, I must apologise for having even for a moment lapsed from the programme I have laid out for myself with regard to what I have to say to you this evening. And let me begin what I have to say by telling you that I hope and believe that it is wholly of a favourable complexion (cheers). Had it so fallen out that this meeting had been fixed for last night instead of tonight I cer­tainly could not have dared to preface my re­marks with any observation of that character. I think I may now say without raising unduly hopes which are likely to be dashed that so far as I am able to forecast the future, the lament­able and deplorable tragedy which took place on the night of last Friday will not end in one of those great international struggles (cheers) which, though they may be now and again in the history of the world necessary incidents in the collision of great interest, always leave a deplorable mark behind them, and always have had the effect of retarding the great progress of humanity and civilisation. In order that I may explain exactly the situation in which we now stand perhaps you will allow me to begin with something in the nature of a truism, but a truism which we are constantly apt to forget. The truism is this - That bad as war is to the principals, to the nations engaged in it it never has been, it never can be, it never will be waged between two great Powers without causing suffering and risks far beyond the circle of the subjects of those Powers and neutrals for whose Powers and neutrals themselves never do, and never can escape from some of the collateral evils which the condition of hostilities inevitably brings in its train. In all the great wars in which we were engaged, in which we were the protagonists of the nineteenth century, the period when some of the most glorious naval and mili­tary memories go back, in the days of what is called the great war, think not for a moment that we were able to pr event some of the suffer­ing to those who occupied the position of neutrals. But while that is the inevitable incident of war, and while it is the duty of the neutrals to understand that this cannot be wholly avoided, nonetheless is it one of the most urgent duties upon the belligerents themselves, a duty which they should never be inclined to forget, and never be permitted to forget. But it is their business to make the positi on of neutrals as onerous as is consistent with the due fact of warlike operations. We have striven, I mean the Government have striven, supported by the House of Commons, and supported, I believe, in this matter by the country (hear, hear). We have striven to do our duty as neutrals with strict impartiality (hear, hear). I do not deny that we have had our difficulties. I do not deny that such incidents as those referred to by your Chairman in his opening remarks, such incidents as the sinking of the Knight Commander, such incidents as the strange vagaries of the two ships of the volunteer fleet (laughter), such difficulties as have arisen from the definition of contraband of war. I do not say that they have not strained, and greatly strained, and greatly increased the difficulties we have found in maintaining, as we have consistently maintained, the position of neutrals during the period of this great struggle (hear, hear). Well, everybody has recognised that among the difficulties incident to a neutral position were the possibilities of interference with commerce by the belligerents. Who, until last Monday morning, ever contemplated that among the dangers which neutrals ran was that of being fired upon during the progress of their peaceful avocations? (Hear, hear) Who ever contemplated that among the risks neutrals ran was the risk of being sunk, and having damage done, and even of danger to life (hear, hear), such an incident as that which took place in midnight last Friday? Who contemplated, who thought it possible, and who that did contemplate it, thought such incidents were possible? (Hear, hear) I think myself that these feelings of universal horror, indignation, and surprise, which filled the hearts of the whole civilised world. I think the character of those emotions was largely increased by the fact that it came as a complete surprise. No human being ever thought such incidents possible but everybody thought that if they were possible that these things were too horrible to be repeated. Now when we first heard of this story on Monday morning there was but one account for us, and the world of what had taken place. The horrified and startled fishermen who crowded into Hull on Sunday afternoon were the bearers - the only bearers - of the message of the tragedy in the North Sea. The Russian Fleet had gone on silently (shame), had made no sign, and on that day at all events we had only one version of this lamentable incident, and that was the version supplied to us by the trawlers on the Dogger Bank. The day before yesterday - yesterday morning - the situation changed because for the first time we had a counter story, an alternative version supplied to the Russian Government by the Russian Admiral. In the story of our fishermen there was much tragedy; there was no romance (hear, hear, and laughter). In the story of the Russian Admiral I don’t know that there was any tragedy; but I am driven to believe that there was much tragedy (hear, hear). Now, ladies and gentlemen, for a reason that you will ap­preciate presently, I should under ordinary circum­stances have avoided expressing an opinion upon this part of the subject, because it is to be made the subject of an impartial and International in­quiry (loud and prolonged applause); and strongly as I feel, and strongly as I think every inhabitant of these islands must feel instinctively and without argument that the two stories, absolutely con­tradictory as they are in every particular which of these two stories it is impossible to doubt which is the one substantially true (hear, hear) - there would be no expression of my opinion on the subject until it has been investigated, as it will be by the Coroner’s inquest by a Board of Trade inquiry, which we shall conduct under special circumstances with the assistance, I hope, of repre­sentatives of the Russian Government, but with a court which we shall constitute with special care, consisting of men who are authorities, and investigated as it will be in the third place and above and beyond all by that International tribunal to which I have just referred. I should not have attempted to prejudge it but for this fact, that if the story of the Russian Admiral be accurate it really is an attack upon our National honour (hear, hear). It carries with it the inevitable implication that we have not been doing our duty as a neutral power (loud applause). Now we are, it is true, the allies of Japan (cheers), and bound to assist Japan in certain well-defined circumstances (hear, hear), but just as we should make it a point of honour, if the case contem­plated by that treaty should ever arise, to use our whole national power to fulfil our ob­ligations (hear, hear), so until that case arises it is a point of honour with this Government, as it would be a point of honour with any British Government, that our duty as neutrals should be scrupulously performed. Looked at from this point of view, what is the story which has been communicated by the Russian Admiral at Vigo to his chiefs at St. Petersburg (‘A lie’). He tells us - he tells the world - that on Friday night he was suddenly attacked (laughter) by two torpedo boats (laughter), that he fired upon them, that he sank one of them (laughter), that the other was injured - I don’t know what has happened to it since (laughter). He tells us, further, that the reason he did not remain to assist the fishermen whose boats had been sunk was that the fishermen showed themselves hostile (laughter), were accessories to the attack, and that the fishermen were guilty of complicity, and en­deavoured to pass through his lines (laughter). Several questions inevitably suggest themselves in this connection, with this account of the affair which I should not put to a British audience in ordinary circumstances because they are obvious, but which I think ought to be stated for the reason I have just given, on the present occasion. In the first place I should like to ask how fishing boats, how trawlers, with their nets down, which, as I need hardly tell the inhabitants of Southampton, are probably the least moveable of floating craft; how they could attempt to pass any lines or engage in any hostile operations is incredible on the face of it. In the second place I should like to ask something about these tor­pedo boats that made the sudden attack. The Russian fleet was 30 miles out of its course (hear, hear), when it went to the Dogger Bank. Thirty miles, I think, is the actual distance. It had every reason to know - because every seaman does know - that at the Dogger Bank you would in all probability find a large fleet of vessels engaged in the peaceful pursuit of trawling. I may be permitted - every seaman knows it, but to empha­sise that general statement, let me read one or two sentences which I have translated from the Russian official sailing directions. On page 13 of these sailing directions you will find these words: ‘The inexhaustible quantity of fish, especially cod, on the Dogger Bank attracts hundreds of fishing boats, which renders navigation difficult, especially at night’ (hear, hear), and you will find on page 142 a sentence which runs as fol­lows, the material part of it runs as follows: ‘The Dogger Bank, which is always crowded with fishing boats’ (applause). The Russian Admiral went 30 miles out of his course, and the place was crowded with fishing boats, and there he found lying in wait among these fishing boats two torpedo boats (laughter). Why did the commanders of those torpedo craft choose that particular station for preparing their attack upon the Russian fleet? Why did they, gentlemen, choose it, knowing the nature of the case involved publicity? The very fact that Dogger Bank is crowded with fishermen, and crowded with fishermen of all nationalities, would make such an operation absurd on the face of it; and if these mysterious craft wanted, as I presume they did, to conceal their very existence from the public eye, would they h ave gone over the whole North Sea and chosen as the only spot open to them that where publicity was inevitable and certain. And, in the second place, if they had wanted to lie in wait for the Russian fleet, by what extraordinary powers of prevision did they foresee that the Russian fleet would go 30 miles out of its course? (laughter and cheers). I think myself justified in publicly expressing - in­deed, more than justified - required to express publicly my disbelief in the existence of these phantom Japanese ships, not merely because, in the opinion of an expert whom I have had the opportunity of consulting, the nearest Japanese ship of war is 14,000 miles away, but because, as I have said, if two Japanese torpedo craft are really hunting the North Sea, or were hunting the North Sea, till one of them was sunk, they must have a base (hear, hear), and unless the sugges­tion is that the base is France, or Holland, or other countries bordering on the North Sea, I presume it is believed by the Admiral - not, I am convinced, believed for a moment by the Russian Government - but it is evidently believed by the Admiral that we have been giving them, contrary to our duty, our plain duty as neutrals, been providing them with a base. It is pure fancy. A base in an island like Britain, where everyone that comes to our shores is scanned, her character interpreted, her nationality known, in a country where all this is public property, and where with all our merits we are not good at keeping a secret is it conceivable by the most hostile witness that we should, for I don’t know how many days, weeks, or months, been harbouring Japanese sailors and Japanese ships of war without knowing it ourselves, without the Russians knowing it, or without its being dreamed of in any part of the civilised world. I enter my most emphatic protest, as a member of his Majesty’s Government, which is responsible in these matters against the allegation which affects, as I think, our honour as neutrals (hear, hear). More on this point I do not say, because if the truth be, as I think it is, and as I know every man whom I am addressing thinks it is (hear, hear), that truth will, I hope, be made manifest and clear as noonday, when that inquiry which, as I think, in the most, statesmanlike manner the Czar welcomes (hear, hear), when that inquiry takes place. I have mentioned the Czar and the Russian Government. Let me say in this connection that I think it is but bare justice to them to say that they have not at any time underrated the gravity of the crisis or failed to do what they could to diminish it. Remember that the wheels of diplomacy move slowly, and I shall not be thought offensive if I say that perhaps the wheels of Russian diplomacy move specially slowly (laughter). At all events, there have been occasions when that opinion has been borne in upon us. But in this case re­member that the North Sea tragedy was known to nobody until Monday morning, and that with­out delay the Russian Government expressed their deep regret at the occurrence and promised ample compensation to those who had suffered (interrup­tion). Well, that is only part of the subject. I am quite aware of that, but I am coming to the other part. They also, even at the beginning, indicated that any wrongdoer in this matter ought to receive punishment (hear, hear); and in ordinary times I do not think that any special difficulty would have arisen. Whence did come the special difficulties of this case? The special difficulty in this case came from the fact that the fleet which had committed what we, at all events, in this country, must be permitted to call an outrage, was on its way illimitable. If it was done the wrongdoers were fleeing from Europe, and if they had witnesses to produce for their version of what has taken place, those wit­nesses were being carried with them far from the control of any court, national or international. That is the difficulty. That was one difficulty. Well I am glad to say that I think that difficulty has been got over (hear, hear). There was another difficulty. The other difficulty was this. The Parisian Admiral, if the accounts of his views which have appeared in many sources of information be at all correct, and perhaps they are not correct, has a theory of the rights and duties of a belligerent fleet as against neutrals which really make the high seas a place of public danger (hear, hear). He defends naturally enough the action which be took on Friday last in the North Sea. In his name views have been put forward which would seem to justify, in his view, a Russian fleet, or any belligerent fleet, firing at large on any ship, upon any errand, which came too near them (laughter) by night, or I suppose by day. Now we, as your Chairman has remarked, are the guardians of the maritime, are among other great nations guardians of the maritime which ought to bind civilised countries. We must be the first to admit that there are circumstances in the theatre of war in which it is inevitable that neutrals should be put to inconvenience, or if they be rash even to danger. I do not see that in the China seas for instance it is possible for a Japanese or Russian fleet to treat the ordinary commerce of the world as if war was not going on, but there should be the proviso that such powers must be used with the utmost discretion, and reckless or indifference to cruelty ought to be avoided by every man who has the interest of civilisation or of his own country at heart. But while we have to admit that there may be circumstances in certain theatres of war-like operations where the neutral must be conscious in his movements, are we to allow - can the civilised world allow for a moment that all channels of commerce from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok; that all oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, that all the narrow ways of commerce, like the English Channel or the Red Sea, that those situated thou­sands of miles from the theatre of military opera­tions; is the Admiral to pass unscathed, unchal­lenged, unpunished (‘No, no’), if he uses his supposed rights - his supposed rights as a belligerent to the danger of the peaceful neutral carrying on his ordinary avocation? The Russian fleet, I am told, one portion of the Russian fleet, I think, are going down the West Coast of Africa, and the other through the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. I do not know whether - I am only supposing - the principles which seem to underlie the judgment of the Russian Admiral are carried into effect they may meet on some dark night in the solitude of the ocean some homecoming transport, or liner approaches within the magic distance, and the ship which once carried the lives of privileged neutrals is fired upon. The ship is sunk, like the torpedo boat, in the North Sea, and the fleet pur­sues its way, happy in the consciousness that it has destroyed another of its enemies. There is an entry at Lloyd’s that such and such a ship has not returned, and has left no record; the waves close over the tragedy, nothing more is heard, or, indeed, in the circumstances which I have supposed - can be heard, and countless families are in mourning, or a British Regiment is wiped out of existence, or the sailor, who carries out an avocation dangerous enough itself, has found a new danger and an unexpected fate in the course of his perilous undertaking. Is that a position which it is possible for neutrals to tolerate? (‘No, no; never’). A fleet animated by the policy; a fleet of commanders to whom that policy commends itself as the one which duty forces upon him is a fleet which would have to be hunted out of existence (loud applause). If civilised commerce is to pursue its way unimpeded - and I am glad to say that in those views the Russian Govern­ment agreed with us (hear, hear), that they take the view, as I understand, which I am sure com­mends itself to other civilised nations, and they are giving orders, or have given orders, which shall prevent a recurrence (loud applause) of the tragedy which has filled our hearts with sorrow, and, I think, the hearts of most, of all, of those who have heard of it at all with something ap­proaching indignation. Now, I have nearly done (‘Go on’), because I have surveyed the case from the beginning to the end, and I have shown you what it is that the Government think we ought to obtain, and I have indicated to you that what they think they ought to obtain we believe that we have attained (loud applause). The Russian Ambassador authorises a statement to the following effect: ‘The Russian Government, on hearing of the North Sea incident, at once expressed its profound regret, and the Russian Emperor tele­graphed to the King in the same sense. The Russian Government also promised the most liberal compensation. The Russian Government have now ordered the detention at Vigo of that part of the fleet which was concerned in the inci­dent (loud applause), and those officers responsible and those officers who are material witnesses will not proceed on this voyage to the Far East (loud applause). An inquiry is to be instituted into the facts, and we and the Russian Government are agreed that an International Commission on Crimes, as provided for by the Hague Convention - I ought to any that is nothing to do with arbitration - shall find out the facts, and any person found guilty by this tribunal will be tried and punished ade­quately (cheers). The Russian Government say that precautions will be taken to prevent a recur­rence of such acts, and that special instructions with this object will be issued (cheers). Now, ladies and gentlemen, I think we must admit that the Russian Government has shown an en­lightened desire that truth and justice in this matter should prevail (hear, hear). Only a few hours ago I had myself taken a very gloomy view of the possibilities of the circumstances, and therefore of a peaceful solution of the question. I think the Czar has shown himself an enlightened judge of what is right in this matter as between nation and nation. We have asked nothing of others that I believe we should not gladly have granted had we been in their places. We have shown no desire - and I don’t think such a desire was in the heart of any man - to take advantage of what perhaps might be called Russia’s difficul­ties to enforce our demands. We have appealed simply to justice, to equity, to the principles which ought to govern the good relations between nation and nation (hear, hear), and we have not appealed in vain (applause). It might have been far otherwise. We might have seen the delays of diplomacy intervene, we might have seen one excuse urged after another, until either the Rus­sian fleet had vanished into the Far East or until other things had happened (hear, hear, and laughter). That we have not seen this is due, I hope, in part to the justice and moderation of our requests, is also due to the far-sighted wisdom of the Emperor. The world has now got its eye concentrated on one great warlike tragedy moving through its appointed course in the Far East. It would have been appalling if that great tragedy had been doubled by another, the greatest calamity that could perhaps befall mankind, a struggle between two First Class Powers. Speak­ing for the Government, I am sure we have done all we can consistently with national honour (loud applause) to avert that calamity. And speaking for my colleagues, I gladly grant that we have been met in the right spirit by the Government with which we had dealings. To say that the incident is closed and over would be too much, but surely, after the account which I have given you tonight of what has occurred, after the glimpse you have had of the national diplomacy of the last four or five days, you will not think me sanguine in hoping that the spirit of reason and justice which has brought us through the most difficult parts of this controversy without the supreme calamity of war, will still preside over the councils of nations, and that the greatest of all calamities, the calamity of a war between two European nations will be avoided. If it is I can promise it will be avoided without dishonour to this country. I think I may also venture to say that it will do nothing but credit to the ruler of that great Empire whom we have been so nearly coming into collision, but with whom it my earnest hope and sincere belief that our good relations shall remain undisturbed (cheers). I hope tonight I have brought you good news (cheers, and hear, hear). I have, indeed, touched upon no question which divides our countrymen. I hope I have said nothing which can in the smallest degree embitter international relations (hear, hear), and though I have spoken, as you may well see, under a heavy sense of responsi­bility, and under considerable difficulty, I do think that the events of the last few days, though they can never wipe out the tragic occurrence of Friday, will not bring in their train any of those widespread calamities which at one time I almost feared they might do. Ladies and gentlemen, I have done. I do not suppose that at any meeting of the Conservative Associations has a Minister had to speak under the circumstances in which I have had to address myself this evening. Certainly, never has a Minister had a more sympathetic audience (hear, hear), and you will allow me, while congratulating the country and Russia and Europe and the world on what I believe will be the result of the last few days’ negotiations, you will allow me to add those larger wishes, my own thanks to you for the manner in which you have received me upon this historic occasion (prolonged cheering).

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