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Leader's speech, London 1906

Arthur Balfour (Conservative)

Location: London


Balfour had lost the election disastrously in January of 1905. He had been defeated in his own seat, although it had not taken long for a safe seat to be found and for him to return to the House. This speech – delivered at the Albert Hall on July 27th – was his first to the party since then. There are a number of things of interest in it. As an example of rhetorical argument it is impressive for the focus of its attack on the new administration. A critical framework is established at the start, and discussions of specific policy areas (education, the army, South Africa) are set within its context giving the speech an argumentative unity. But that framework itself is not one that it is easy to imagine being employed today, as it reflects a philosophy of government that is, in general, no longer considered appropriate. Balfour claims that the only justification for policies provided by the new administration is an appeal to electoral mandate. And he thinks this far from sufficient. He accuses them of using this appeal to substitute for proper argument and discussion, particularly of the sort that is supposed to take place in Parliament. He attacks their ‘empty rhetoric’ and their sloganeering. But notice that he also attacks them for their lack of eloquence. There is something more complicated going on here than simply an attack on rhetoric. Balfour is specifically concerned with what he sees as the administration’s elevation of a very general kind of campaigning rhetoric, the sorts of argument suitable for the mass of the voting public. And this, he is suggesting, is squeezing out the true and meaningful eloquence of Parliamentary and reasoned debate. The speech is thus worth comparing to Campbell-Bannerman’s attack on the Balfour administration in his 1905 speech where he accuses them of privileging Parliament over the clear wishes of the people as a whole. The dispute here thus touches on conceptions of the proper role of Parliament, its sovereignty in relation to that of the people and it presages developments to come in the wake of the extension of the franchise in 1918, the changes in the forms and modes of political argument that it would engender. Some background to Balfour’s arguments regarding South African policy may be helpful. The new government had abandoned the Conservatives’ plan to grant self-government after a trial period, and proposed to give full autonomy to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as soon as possible - and in Balfour’s view without adequate opportunity for debate. As he explains, he thought the proposal extremely dangerous, fearful of the possibility that the government of the Transvaal would use its new powers to secure the objectives they had previously fought for without success.

The chairman has recalled to our memory the last time that I had the pleasure and the honour of speaking to the National Union of Conservative Associations, and he has reminded us, if we required to be reminded, that since that day many things have happened (laughter), including the defeat of the Unionist party. The country has, of course, in consequence of that event, had the privilege of living for six or seven months under the rule of our opponents, and it is almost time that we should begin to take stock of their performances. (Hear, hear.) The election of last January provided us with a new Government. (A voice – ‘What do you call it?’) (Laughter and cheers.) No collective name in our political vocabulary enables me to answer the question just put to me (laughter and cheers); however we describe the new Government, we have certainly got one. But what I am going to discuss tonight is not the fact that we have a new Government­ - a Government belonging to a different party, composed of different individuals - but that we have got a new kind of Government, not differing merely in members, but differ­ing fundamentally in method. (Cheers.) We have got government by mandate. (Cheers.) Now, what is a mandate? What is its origin and genesis, its character? I have listened to the various speeches of the Ministers and their supporters, trying to collect an adequate answer to the question. I think I have found an answer. The origin of a mandate is usually to be found in some catch­word or phrase which is only a success on an election platform to a stormy audience, but which neither speaker nor audience thoroughly understands. (Cheers.) A mandate is a phrase which does duty for argument, which does duty for sense, which saves the necessity of eloquence, which is incapable of being translated into practice except at the loss of administrative justice, of admini­strative ability – which is, above all, an instrument which cuts short and saves thorough discussion. (Loud cheers.) Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, you may go further, and you may say that Government by mandate is an im­possibility unless you combine it with Parliamentary closure. I will give you, if I may, two examples of what is called a mandate. The first is a phrase echoed and re-­echoed from every Radical platform in the country, or from many Radical platforms in the country, and which takes the form of saying ‘No tests for teachers.’ No human being knows what that phrase precisely means, and directly you attempt to give a precise definition of it you find yourself either admitting that no tests for teachers were ever imposed or that tests for teachers cannot be avoided. If you mean by ‘no tests for teachers’ that the teachers in our schools, whether provided or voluntary schools, are not to be asked to sign elaborate theological formulae, I quite agree. Who has ever asked them to sign elaborate theological formulae? There is a clause, a pretentious and absurd clause, in this Bill which specifically forbids any teacher to sign such a formula. I should never think of dividing against such a clause. You may as well put in an Act of Parliament, ‘It is hereby enacted that two and two make four.’ So they do (laughter); and if you like to forbid that which never was done, you spend so much Parliamentary ink and Parliamentary paper, and you do no harm. (Laughter.) This is one horn of the dilemma. The other horn of the dilemma is that the tests for teachers did not mean requiring for the teacher that he should sign some elaborate religious formula; on the contrary, it means only that you should make no inquiries at all about the readiness or the capacity of a teacher to give religious education to the children of the school. (Hear, hear.) And I say that in that form the so-called mandate which forbids tests for teachers is absolute nonsense (hear, hear), and must be known by every man who gives five minutes’ thought to the subject that it is nonsense. (Cheers.) What did the House of Commons declare the other day by an overwhelming majority, a majority drawn from every party in the House? It declared its desire that the compulsory education of the children of this country should not be secular education (cheers), and it admitted, as everybody admits, that if you are going effectually to give religious education that work must in the main be carried out by the ordinary teachers in the school. (Hear, hear.) Well, if you hold those two propositions - and 90 per cent of the House of Commons holds both (hear, hear) - then, I ask you, is it not mischievous nonsense to say that the children are to receive religions education, that the teachers are to give religious education, when the body appointing the teachers is not to ask whether they are competent to perform that duty? (Hear, hear.) But this irrational and unconsidered mandate was, in the opinion of the Government at all events, given at the general election, and these unfortunate Ministers who are endeavouring to govern us by mandate, and not by reason or by argu­ment (hear, hear), have been struggling in the meshes, having been endeavouring to disengage themselves from the network in which that so-called decision of the electorate has involved them. Ladies and gentlemen, it was no decision of the electorate. (Cheers.) Had anybody at these meetings, of which we heard so much, come forward and said to these crowds which no doubt vociferously cheered the Radical victor when he talked about tests for teachers - had put to these people this plain proposition: ‘You want your children taught religion, and you want that religion taught by the teachers. Are you going to ask no questions, make no inquiries, take no steps for satisfying yourselves that the most important of all the functions which a teacher can ask to give (cheers) is one which he is capable of giving’? That is the illustration of what is meant by a mandate.

South Africa

Well, there was another mandate of which we have heard much, but of which we heard more, I may incident­ally say, five months ago than we hear now. (Laughter.) I mean the mandate in relation to Chinese labour. (Laughter and cheers.) Again, the Government found themselves entangled in the empty rhetoric of their followers. They struggled gallantly at first to carry out the mandate, but they found, as all men of common sense would have found in their place, that the mandate - the so-called mandate - was issued by the electorate in ignorance of the facts of the situation, and that no responsible government in this country - I do not care from what party it was drawn - would venture or could venture, without the immediate destruction of our South African position, to carry out in its integrity, in its entirety and immediacy, the so-called mandate of the people. Here again the easy phrases, the clap-trap utterances (cheers), the rash promises, the facile rhetoric of these gentlemen who received a mandate, has been an embarrassment from the moment they came into office until now; and, as I shall show you before I sit down, the evils which have been begun by this rash and intemperate dealing with the delicate and difficult problem of South Africa has produced, is producing, and, I fear, is likely to produce in the future, the most serious perils to the Empire. (Cheers.) Now, I told you just now that if you attempt to govern by mandate you must also govern by closure, and you must govern by closure because a policy founded upon mandate, a policy founded upon the kind of mandates that I have been describing to you, is one that will not stand argument. (Hear, hear.) Argument must be stopped at all hazards (hear, hear); if you cannot answer, you must gag; if you cannot meet reason by reason, you must meet reason either by clamour or by closure. (Hear, hear.) I do not discuss the question of clamour. (Laughter.) Closure we have had and had in abundance. Now I am not going to make the mistake, as I think it is, tonight of arguing before a great popular audience the details of House of Commons procedure. The House of Commons, according to my experience, is a body which is never understood, and never can be thoroughly understood but by those who form part of it, and even those who form part of it have an extraordinary gift of forgetting what they learned when they were members in that Assembly. We must manage our affairs as best we can and rule our procedure as best we may, and I am not coming here to appeal to this audience to support us in our opposition to the Government method by closure. What I do want to speak to you about is that which directly or immediately concerns yourselves, which is the fact that this closure gives the Government a free hand where a free hand ought not to be given them, and enables them to pass almost sub silentio proposals which, if adequately discussed in and out of the House of Commons, would, I am convinced, never receive the assent of the people of this country. (Cheers.)

The Army Proposals

Take the case of the Army. (Hear, hear.) The Minister for War (a laugh) made a very able and elaborate speech early in the year, in which he asked for time, and in which he promised a full discussion of any pro­posals which he might make in July. July has come, the proposals have come - what is the amount of discussion we have been allowed? (‘None.’) Do not let us exaggerate. I heard some gentleman say ‘None.’ We had two hours (laughter); that is to say, two hours of independent criticism, as against four hours of Ministerial statement. Do you think that the country would be content with those proposals had we had time thoroughly to sift them? (‘No, no.’) I am well per­suaded that they would not, and I will tell you why in a few sentences. I do not maintain, and never did while I was in office - and I apply no rules to my successors that I am not ready to apply to myself - I do not maintain that the existing principle of Regular battalions in the British Army is fixed and immutable, determined by infinite wisdom, neither to be diminished nor increased in obedience to the promptings of the economical spirit or in obedience to a reasonable calculation of the chances of war. I lay down no hard and fast proposition of that kind. I say that all the investigations of the experts, and of those civilians who have had access to expert knowledge and have been able to criticise experts, show that there are possible duties before the British Army which the present Army can but imperfectly carry out unless there be some means of ex­pansion found to meet a great national emergency. (Cheers.) I do not believe that proposition is seriously challenged by any military critic. I will lay down another proposition which I believe to be unchallenged by any military critic. It is this - that when the time for expansion comes, when that great national necessity meets us face to face, in the immediate future, our main difficulty will be to provide those expert members of an efficient army which cannot be created directly or immediately to fill a gap which no mere patriotic spirit can fill, to provide men who require a training which it is very difficult to give in an auxiliary force alone. (Cheers.) No one rates higher the importance of the auxiliary army than I do; but what an auxiliary force can hardly do is to provide elaborately trained officers, gunners, and professional staff, adequate not merely to the Regular Army as we now have it, but as we ought to have it in the supposed case of national emergency. (Cheers.) If that be the problem we have to meet, we must all admit it is a difficult one. We might not all agree as to what the solution is; some doubt whether a solution can be arrived at without a fundamental altera­tion of the relations between the State and the citizen in his military capacity. But, whatever our differences of opinion on this point may be, there is one thing on which we shall all agree, and it is this - that until you have found your machinery for expanding the Regular Army in time of war, it is nothing short of lunacy to deprive yourself of regiments in which trained men are to be found to supply the wants of the Army, which can give you officers and reserve and much that you will need even in the first months of a great war, carried on, let us say, for the defence of the North-West Frontier of India. (Loud cheers.) Now what has this Government by mandate done? (‘Nothing.’) Well, they have done something - that is just my complaint - or they are going to do something. What have they done or what do they propose to do? Without framing their plan for this Army expansion, without having a scheme or telling us what their scheme is, they have begun to destroy before they have begun to build - before, indeed, they know how they are going to build. That is government by mandate. (Laughter.) Do you suppose the present Cabinet, unhampered by all the irrational talk about extravagance - do you suppose they would have set to work in the clumsy and disastrous fashion in which they have set to work had they not felt themselves bound by what they call this mandate? And when we, in the House of Commons, urge these unanswer­able arguments, we are not met by anything in the nature of a rational reply; we are met by the blunt statement­ ‘This was the mandate of the country. Be it good or be it bad, be it reasonable or unreasonable, be it consistent or inconsistent with the safety of the Empire, thus has the country commanded us at the general election. We are its humble servants, and, despite reason and common sense, we must obey.’ (Laughter.) That is a gross misrepresentation of the country. I do not in the least doubt that everybody would have liked to see a diminu­tion of naval and military expenditure; I am sure I should. Nobody loves paying taxes; I am sure I do not. (Laughter.) But to tell me the country want to cut down these Estimates by no rational or considered plan, but simply and in order to satisfy rhetorical state­ments made in the heat of a general election, is an insult to the country itself; and as to paying reverence to the democracy, it involves the profoundest insult to the democracy itself. (Cheers.)

Self-Government in the New Colonies

There is one other illustration perhaps even more important than the one to which I have just adverted - one more illustration of this government by mandate to which I must refer - it relates to South Africa. I am most reluctant to touch at a party meeting on that thorny subject, lest I should for a moment be thought to be using our colonial Empire as a pawn in the political game. I do not believe there is a single man or woman whom I are addressing who, if he or she had to choose between the exclusion of the party to which we belong during the term of our generation - to choose between that and the greatness and safety of our Empire beyond the seas would hesitate to choose the latter. (Cheers.) Ill should we deserve the name of the Imperial party if we could hesitate in our choice. (Hear, hear.) But I do not think that what I am going to say can do other than good. I do not think the exposure of what I consider the methods of the Government in this matter can affect in any adverse sense the fortunes of our follow country­men in South Africa. The Government - I will not say the country (hear, hear) - but the Government are on the eve of one of the most momentous decisions which have ever fallen to the lot of a British Government to make.

Consider the conditions under which they intend to make it. You know that the plan of the late Government was to follow an unbroken, or practically unbroken precedent - I believe an absolutely unbroken precedent - not to give self-government without a fair trial, a fair preliminary tria l, of an intermediate stage between govern­ment entirely from home and full autonomy. That plan has been abandoned, and they now propose to give absolute autonomy to our Colonies, to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, with as little delay as possible. I think you will find that even those in South Africa who look with most dismay and most misgivings upon the experiment are nevertheless in favour of its being tried, since the only alternative appears to be government of the Transvaal from Downing Street (laughter and ‘Hear, hear’); and whatever be the ills which may await them in the future from the new Con­stitution, anything, in their opinion, is preferable to this intolerable meddling in their economic concerns of which the present Government have been guilty. (Cheers.) Very well. Let it for the sake of argument be agreed that fall autonomy is to be given; that a Constitution is to be framed which makes the Transvaal - and I presume the Orange Free State also - as independent as Australia, as New Zealand, as Canada, how is that Constitution to be formed? It is a matter of vital moment. The present Government, through the mouth of the Prime Minister, announced that they intended to give complete autonomy, and either in the same speech, or in some other speech delivered later, when asked why he was sending out a Commission of inquiry to South Africa, the, Premier told the House that they were in a condition at deplorable ignorance (‘Oh, oh’) - I think those were his exact words (laughter) - as to the conditions there prevailing which ought to govern the framing of a new Constitution. I should have thought myself, if I had not seen that an opposite procedure was followed both in the Education Bill and in Army reform – I should have thought myself it would have been better to inform yourself of the conditions before arriving at your con­clusion. (Cheers.) That, however, is not the view of the Prime Minister, and everybody has his own methods of working out these questions. (Laughter.) It is not for me to criticise. My criticism comes in not in con­nexion with his own methods of determining his own policy, but when he sets to work to deal with the Opposition in the House of Commons, the House of Commons at large, and the country. He sends out a Commission because he is in a state of ‘deplorable ignorance.’ (Laughter.) Before next Tuesday he and his colleagues will have to make up their minds what the Constitution is to be. For next Tuesday he is going to tell us what it is, and he is going to allow us some four hours to discuss it. (Cries of ‘Shame.’) Do you not think, as impartial men, that he might have given us a copy of the information on which he is going to act? (‘Yes.’) Our ignorance may be less deplorable than his own (laughter and cheers); but I take it that we should all obtain enlightenment from the opportunity of perusing the report of this Commission, for which, as taxpayers, we have all paid, and which has been sent out to supply the Government with information. We are going to have four hours to discuss it on Tuesday. (A voice – ‘A scandal.’) Yes, it is a scandal. (Cheers.) It has never been discussed in the colony at all, so that we now have, for the first time in British history, a step taken which is going to add two new members to the great constellation of self-governing colonies, without either the colony or the mother country having any adequate opportunity of considering either the decision of the Government or the grounds on which that decision was framed. (Cheers.)

Conditions in the Transvaal

For my own part, I should have thought that a monstrous method of procedure even in the case of an ordinary colony; but consider what it is you are doing in the case of the Transvaal. You are dealing with a country where the population is almost equally divided between Boer and Briton, you are dealing with a colony where the memories of the war are not distant memories of the past, but almost present memories of what happened yesterday. You are dealing with a situation in which no country in the world has ever attempted, or, I believe, ever would attempt, to give full self-governing powers to a colony. The United States of America, after the great Civil War, did not immediately or for a long period put the South in possession of the full rights which they had possessed before the war. And yet, so far as the United States themselves are concerned, that might have been done with perfect consistency; it is a policy which might have been carried out without really endangering the Union, and for this reason - that the representatives of the South were only a minority of Congress, only a portion of one homogeneous whole, and would not have had that independent power which we gave, and gladly gave and safely gave, to great and friendly populations like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Cheers.) The population of the Transvaal, I hope, will some day - I believe at no distant day - resemble those great self-governing colonies, but can we expect, human nature being what it is, that, if you give full self-government to the Trans­vaal, if you put into the hands of a body which is half or nearly half the whole population of the country the full powers, practically the whole powers, which the Dominion of Canada or the Commonwealth of Australia now enjoy, they will not use them to carry out by means even more dangerous, because they are not necessarily warlike, the objects which they failed to obtain by the arbitrament of arms. (Cheers.) The responsibility of the Government is tremendous. Have we the smallest ground for thinking that the reck­less policy of confounding the power of uttering plati­tudes and the power of governing States - have we any ground for thinking that confusion of ideas which prevails perhaps naturally enough at a general election is not dominating their councils now? Have they a real grip of the actualities of the position? (‘No.’) I fear not. But how can we judge if we are not given information? (Hear, hear.) How can we judge unless we have a Parlia­mentary opportunity of commentary and criticism, of eliciting answers by questions insistently put, which is the great privilege of a great debating assembly like the House of Commons, but which this Government of mandate is determined to suppress. (‘Shame.’) I can promise on behalf of my friends - I promise on your behalf (cheers), with absolute assurance that we shall not endeavour to turn to party or political account any con­troversy which may arise upon this subject. (Hear, hear.) But remember that there is at stake at this moment all that you fought for during the war. (Hear, hear.) Remember, and let the Government remember, if they take a false step we may lose all that was gained for the cause of civilisation by the vast expenditure of national treasure, by the even more to be regretted expenditure of the blood of those whom we most loved. (Hear, hear.) We have established claims against the British Empire in South Africa which we should be dishonoured if we forgot, for which we are bound to expend our last shilling, to fight to the last ditch; and if this Govern­ment, pursuing their policy of mandate and their love of platitude, establish some Constitution which hands over to those who recently were our enemies and who are not yet in any full measure our friends (hear, hear) - although I doubt not they are in process of becoming our friends were a wise policy pursued - remember if the Govern­ment hand over the power to those, our late respected enemies, they are endangering all that we fought for and that we bled for, all that we suffered for, the course of civilisation in those regions is destined to be indefinitely set back, your most sacred obligations will be broken, you will yourselves be involved in difficulties of which no man can see the end, and you will have shaken to its very foundation the basis of British greatness in African continents; and not in the African continent alone, but wherever the British colonist thinks he can rely on the greatness, the courage, the statesmanship, and the honour of England, and who, after any disaster con­sequent on our short-sightedness or policy, will say that henceforth the Empire of which he was proud offers no safeguards to him, and that he must look elsewhere if he is to pursue in security and safety the development of his civilisation. (Cheers.) My lords, ladies, and gentle­men, may the Government in this great decision be animated, not merely by excellent motives - for that I am quite ready to give them credit - but may they be animated by that far-sighted and courageous statesman­ship which is absolutely required if we are to steer the Empire through these difficulties which I have dimly indicated, and which every one who hears me knows to be as real as they are great. If they carry out what I hope - I hardly dare say I expect - but what I hope, if their plan is indeed sober, far-seeing, and just, then they may count, irrespective of party, on the support of their fellow countrymen. If otherwise, they will have dealt the most serious blow to the Empire of which they are but the temporary guardians (loud cheers), which for 150 years it has sustained. (Loud cheers.)

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