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Leader's speech, London 1912

Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative)

Location: London


This conference was the first since the two branches of the Party became one in name. In his address, Bonar Law attacked the government’s land legislation, and its policies on Welsh disestablishment and Home Rule. With regard to the latter, he objected that the Bill would establish border controls between Ireland and the rest of the UK, and would allow Irish MPs to vote on matters that affected the UK. Although the Home Rule Bill had been defeated in Parliament on the previous day, the government proposed that a new vote in the Commons should declare this defeat immaterial. This move gave rise to a political crisis, and Bonar Law pledged to continue the fight against Home Rule. Other important issues at the time were tariff reform and the so-called ‘food tax.’

Mr. Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen. Under the circumstances in which we are met tonight I expected that you would give your leaders a warm welcome. (Cheers.) But the welcome which you have just given to me so far exceeds anything which I have experienced or have been a witness of that I am so touched by it that I find it difficult to begin speaking to you. (Voices – ‘You deserved it!’) It is a privilege to me to stand for the first time in our new position on the same platform as Lord Lansdowne. (Cheers.) I rejoice in it not merely because it is a sign that the two branches of our party, which during my whole political life have been one in fact have become also one in name. I rejoice in it because during the year in which he and I have shared the responsi­bilities of leadership I have had opportunities of knowing him better, and the result of those oppor­tunities is that if it is possible I respect him more than ever for his single-mindedness, his ability, and his devotion to the duty of his country. (Cheers.)

Lord Lansdowne has spoken to you on Tariff Reform. That is a subject on which I have made more speeches than on any other, and it is a subject on which for that reason it is perhaps easier for me to speak. I shall say now only this - that I concur in every word which has fallen from Lord Lansdowne (cheers), and if I have time after I have spoken upon some other subjects I shall perhaps say a few words on that subject also. Tariff Reform has been de­scribed, and truly, for years as our first constructive plank. (Cheers.)

A Government of Gamblers

But for the moment we have another duty, another necessity which comes before anything else, and that is to get rid of his Majesty’s present advisers. (Cheers.) I am not, and I do not pretend to be, impartial. (Laughter.) But it is not, I think sincerely, party prejudice which makes me say and believe that at this moment we are governed by what the late Professor Lecky described as the worst of all possible Governments - a Government of gamblers and adventurers (loud cheers), a Government which, if it is allowed to carry out its programme, will lead this country headlong to ruin. (Cheers.) All Governments in this country have been party Governments. But there is a distinction. Up till now every Govern­ment when it assumed office ceased to be the repre­sentative of a party and became the Government of a nation. (Cheers.) From the first day on which this Government assumed office to this present hour they have not been national statesmen; they have been wire-pullers of a political caucus. (Cheers.) Their one idea of statesmanship has been and is to use the influence and the patronage which Govern­ment gives them in order to strengthen their party ties and to do the one thing which they understand - and they do understand it - to use the power which is placed in their hands to strengthen their party and to win elections.

The Land Inquiry

If you wish proof of this, take their latest escapade, to which Lord Lansdowne has referred - their land inquiry. It is not the inquiry of a Government. They have not even the courage to be responsible for it (cheers), though it is they who are the sole cause of it. It is, as Lord Lansdowne has told you, con­ducted in secret by backstairs arrangements, and it is conducted in such a way that every honest man in their own party must be ashamed of it. If there is need for land legislation, and I think there is, and if there is a necessity for a previous inquiry, and I am sure there is, if the object of that inquiry is to legis­late for a nation, surely any honest, any decent Government would have had an open Commission (cheers), which would have examined into it openly and impartially and which would have given the means of making the changes which are in the interests not of a party, but of the whole people. (Cheers.) But that is not their object. They do not wish legislation for the nation; they wish a party cry for a political party. They wish to find some means by which they can preach again, in a new sermon, the old gospel of class hatred, on which they have unfortunately thriven. They succeeded once: the people know now how much these promises were worth, and I can venture to prophesy that they will need a new tune before they will get them to dance again to their piping. (Cheers.) Burke once said this in speaking of the men in power in another country: ‘They have had power given them, like that of the evil principle, to subvert and destroy, but none to construct, except such machines as are fitted for further subversion and further de­struction.’ There you have written in advance the life history of the present Government. (Cheers.) They have no power, except to destroy; their one constructive effort was a machine of destruction - the Parliament Act. They have set that in motion, but I think they are finding that it is something in the nature of a boomerang (laughter); that it is not going, as they thought, to destroy their enemies, but is coming back to wound and to kill those who are wielding it.

Welsh Disestablishment

In the meantime the machine goes merrily. But for the change in the procedure of the House of Commons which has taken place today (cheers), and to which I shall refer later, they would have been engaged tomorrow in destroying, or trying to destroy, the branch of a great Church which is doing a great work in circumstances of great difficulty. (Cheers.) They are trying to take away from that poor Church its poor endowments, all too small for the noble work which is being done by them. (Cheers.) They are trying to take them away, not because these endowments are not well used, but because they are too well used (cheers) and are exciting the worst passions of envy and of malice. They are trying to take them away, and what has been the effect on the country? It is the meanest proposal, and it is pressed forward in the meanest way of any proposal which has come before the House of Commons. It is not Churchmen alone who are ashamed of it. Great bodies of Nonconformists look upon it with disgust. (Cheers.) And I venture to say this, that through­out the whole of Nonconformity - and I can speak without prejudice, for I am not a member of the Church of England - there is this distinction: Those desire it who put their politics before their religion; those hate it who put their religion before their politics. (Cheers)

The Home Rule Bill

The next object of their destructive violence is the integrity of the United Kingdom. Twice they have tried to carry out their destructive measures by persuading the people to accept them. They are trying now to carry them out not only without the consent but, as they know, against the will of the people of this country. (Cheers.) We have been discussing Home Rule in the House of Commons. It is a kind of discussion (laughter), but short as it has been, ludicrous as it has been, it has been too long for the Government. (Cheers.) Day after day the injustice, and what is more damaging perhaps the absurdities, of that Bill have been proved to demonstration in the House of Commons, and they have been met with one answer only - the fall of the guillotine.

Now I am not going - it is not worthwhile (laughter) - to attempt an exhaustive analysis of the Home Rule Bill, but I shall refer to two aspects of it which affect the people of Great Britain. The first is the arrangement in regard to Customs. I remember that, when I was speaking in this hall at the beginning of the year, I expressed a belief that one of the reasons for the delay in the production of the Home Rule Bill was that the Nationalists were demanding the control of the Customs and that the Government did not then see their way to give it them. I pointed out then that to surrender the Customs would be to break pledges given up to the hilt by his Majesty’s Ministers. I do not think that was a great safeguard (laughter and cheers), and it has not proved to be a great safeguard, but I did think, and I think now, that that is something which the people of the United Kingdom will not stand. (Hear, hear.) I have some reason to think so. Perhaps some of you may have noticed that on Monday the Government were defeated (laughter and loud cheers). It was on a resolution which affected this question of the Customs, and we know from statements made in the House of Commons that there is a large number of Liberal members who have declared to the Government their opposition to this proposal. I do not suggest that their opposition means that when the time comes when they have to decide between their convictions and their seats (loud laughter) that they will not prefer their seats. But I do suggest that the fact that they have expressed that opinion does show that their constituents, who have not got seats, will have no hesitation in expressing their opinion on the subject. (Cheers.)

The Customs Question

Now just think what it means. For nine years these people have been preaching to us about the dis­advantage and the crimes of Tariff Custom House barriers. But they are proposing to erect barriers, not between us and a foreign country, but between different parts of what they still call the United Kingdom. (Cheers.) That is no exaggeration if this Bill passes. (Voices - ‘If!’) I have not much doubt about it. (Laughter and cheers.) But if this Bill passes the Irish Government can lower or take away altogether the duty on tea or on tobacco. If they do that it will pay you and me to take an occa­sional trip to Ireland to lay in a store of these com­modities. (Laughter.) Whatever other industry may languish, a new industry will be created. There will be a good time for smugglers. (Laughter.) It will pay us still better to have all our supplies come by parcel post. Now think what that means. It means that every ship which comes from Ireland to England must be subjected to the same restraints which are now put upon the foreign-going ship. It means that every passenger between these different parts of the same kingdom must be stopped and examined as we are at Dover and Calais in order to see that he has no tobacco or tea. It will mean that every parcel which comes through the Post Office must be opened - and that is done by a Government which, above all things else, is devoted to Free Trade. (Laughter and cheers.) But there is another aspect of that question, and a serious one. The whole experience of the world has shown that a single Custom House system is not only the symbol of national unity, but is a necessity to national unity. That is true of every country. It was the single fiscal system which made the German Empire possible. It was not the War of Independence which made the United States a nation. After the war differ­ent States, from jealousies between those on the coast and those inside, were more than once on the point of war. That great statesman, Alexander Hamilton, succeeded in establishing a single Custom House system, and then, and then only, the United States became a nation. (Cheers.) It is true of our own colonies, every one of them. When, the other day, or a few years ago - it seems the other day - the Aus­tralian Commonwealth was created, one of the States of that Commonwealth believed, and believed strongly, in Free Trade. But the statesmen belong­ing to that State realised that a real union of the Commonwealth was impossible unless there was a single fiscal system, and for the sake of unity they sacrificed their Free Trade view. What are our Government doing? They are sacrificing their Free Trade views, not to unite, but to divide. (Cheers.) I said in the early days of my leadership in the House of Commons, without premeditation, as it happened, that this was a Government without convictions. That was in the days of the new style (laughter and cheers), which has become the old style already. There is no mystery about it: it consists in saying what you mean and meaning what you say. I said it then because I thought it. I think it still. (Cheers.) They have preferences, but they have no preference which they feel strong enough to sacrifice on the altar of party advantage.

The Irish Vote at Westminster

There is only one other aspect of the Home Rule Bill on which I should like to say a few words to you. It has been already referred to by Lord Lansdowne. That is the retention of the Irish members in the British House of Commons. The Government today are not very popular. They know it and we know it. They give many explanations of lost elections; but in my belief the cause which more than any other is influencing the people of this country is the feeling that we are under a Government where responsibility is in the hands of one set of men and where power is in the hands of another set of men. (Cheers.) And the people of this country have got tired of having their affairs governed by a faction which does not profess to be interested in them, which does not profess to under­stand them, which does not give its votes on what it thinks the merits, but gives them to secure ad­vantages of another kind. (Cheers.) We are getting tired of that. It is part of the price we have to pay for a United Kingdom, and a United Kingdom is worth the price, but are we to go on paying the price after the United Kingdom has ceased to exist? (‘No!’) On what ground do they justify Home Rule? They say that the Irish people - I do not know who they are (laughter) - are entitled to manage their own affairs. If that is true are we not entitled to manage our own affairs? (Cheers.) When we have not the smallest voice in anything which concerns them, are they to have a voice in everything which concerns us? And it is not merely a voice, but through the closeness of party ties - and the ex­perience of the last year or two has shown, I think, that they are too close - they will not only have a voice, but they will decide affairs which do not concern them, but which vitally concern us. Such a system Mr. Gladstone declared would mean the creation of a sovereign and a subordinate Parliament, but he added, and added truly, that under such an arrangement the sovereign Parliament would be in Ireland and the subordinate Parliament would be in Westminster. (Cheers.) Well, I am not an Englishman, but I have had the honour of representing two English constituencies. I know that the English are a magnanimous people, and I know that they are a long-suffering people: but they are not fools. (Laughter.) They will stand much, but there are limits. That is trying them too high, and the Government will find that they will not stand that.

The Political Crisis

Now I daresay you are thinking - my mind is full - of what happened in the House of Commons yester­day. (Cheers.) I know, nobody better, how serious it was. I know that when in a Parliament, through disorder or from any other cause, debate is not permitted, a fatal blow, or a serious blow which may be fatal, is struck at Parliamentary institutions. I realise that, and in spite of what has happened to­day and let me say I rejoice in what has happened today - (cheers) - what occurred yesterday will leave serious and lasting effects. I realise that. It is right that you should realise it. But it is for you and for our countrymen to judge on whose shoulders the responsibility rests. (Cheers.) I am proud of the House of Commons. I hate disorder, and I have found - I say it freely - that in the House of Commons, even from my political opponents, both before and since I became in that House the leader of your party, I have been fairly treated. I hate disorder. I prize, no one more, the traditions of the House of Commons, and we have shown that we prize them. During the year that I have had the honour of leading our party there, there has been no disorder, and never in the whole history of Parliament has there been such provocation. (Cheers.) Never in the whole history of the House of Commons, except during the Long Parliament, has that House been so degraded and have the minority been so ruthlessly trampled upon.

And that is not the only provocation. A member of the Government, a Cabinet Minister, actually went to the country and taunted us with our meekness. He went to the country and boasted that because we still respected the traditions of the House of Commons there was no reality in our opposition, and they need not be afraid of not being able to carry their pro­gramme. (Cries of ‘Shame!’) Even that provoca­tion did not move us. We still respected the tradi­tions of the House. But there are limits which pass the powers of human endurance and limits which ought not to be endured. (Cheers.) These limits were passed yesterday. Whatever injury was done to the House of Commons was not done by us. It was done by the Government, whose one duty it ought to have been to have cherished the history of the House of Commons, to have regarded it as some­thing for which they were trustees, and to do nothing which would break down that wall of common law on which the liberties of the House and of the people depend. (Cheers.)

Mr. Bonar Law’s Responsibility

Now, I wish to tell you quite plainly and quite openly what my responsibility in connexion with yesterday’s events was. I did not suggest a dis­turbance, but I have this responsibility - I felt it then; I feel it now - I did not shirk from it. (Cheers.) I did not attempt in any way to interfere with what my colleagues in the House of Commons desired to do. (Cheers.) I do not know - the passion against injustice was so strong - whether my interference would have made any difference, but if I had thought it my duty I would have tried it, whatever the effect. I did not try it (loud cheers), and under similar cir­cumstances I never shall try it. (Cheers.) If that resolution of the Government had been allowed to go through and become a precedent the House of Commons would have been destroyed, and de­stroyed for ever. (Loud and prolonged cheers.)

What did they propose? The Prime Minister (hisses and groans, and cries of ‘Traitor’), in a speech which I suppose made the best of his case, but it was worthy of the case (laughter and cheers), treated it as if it was a matter of no importance. They actually proposed that a vote of the House of Commons should declare that the previous division was of no consequence and that the House should treat it as if that particular day had never existed. (Laughter.) Well, what does that mean? If that is a proper method - we know they have a majority­ - why should we divide, why should we discuss, why should we go to the House of Commons at all? Why should not the Cabinet pass their laws and call the House of Commons together once in three months to sanction what they had done? That is what it means. And I say deliberately that if we had allowed that to be done we, too, would have shared in the responsibility (loud cheers) for the destruction of the liberties of the House of Commons. Well, as I said, I am glad that a way out seems to have been found. We do not like disorder. We shall rejoice if it is possible, and I think it will be possible from the Speaker’s intervention - (hear, hear) - we shall rejoice if it is possible to continue again discussion under even these truncated Parliamentary forms. We shall be glad to do it.

The Meaning of Home Rule

But do not be under any mistake. That does not end the crisis. (Cheers.) The Government, under the Parliament Act, are attempting something which they have no moral right to do. (Cheers.) The Bill in connexion with which they were defeated was the Home Rule Bill. What does that mean? They call it a Bill to give self-government to Ireland. It is not a Bill to give the Nationalists a right to govern themselves. It is a Bill to give them the right to compel, or rather to call upon British troops to compel, a great homogeneous population which is separated from them in everything more widely than you are separated from them - it gives, under the name of local self-government, the right to compel those people to change their allegiance, to go out of the Union of which they are proud and in which they are content, and to accept a foreign yoke, as they regard it, which they look upon with horror and dismay. That is what it means. Does anyone think that that can be done? (‘No!’) For this nation to do it deliberately is impossible, and they have shown that it is impossible. But for a body of political geniuses (laughter), who are there today and will be gone tomorrow (loud cheers) - for those people to attempt to do it is not only a crime, it is a folly worse than any crime. And how can they do it? The people of Ulster (cheers) have shown in a way which must command the respect of every sincere man what their wishes are, and they have shown what their determination is. They have shown it without bluster. It would be bluster if they did not mean it, and to people who mean nothing even it does seem bluster. (Laughter.) But they do mean it. They say, and they have the right to say, that this outrage is being inflicted upon them without the consent of their fellow citizens in the United Kingdom. (Hear, hear.) They will not submit to it. (Cheers.)

The Intention of the Opposition

And we have shown in a way which now no one can misunderstand that so long as the people of this country have not clearly expressed their intentions the cause of Ulster is our cause (cheers), that it is not the case of a wretched Government dealing with the people of Ulster alone; they will have to deal with the overwhelming majority of the people of Great Britain as well. (Cheers.) We shall try, and continue to try, to wreck this Bill in the House of Commons. But if - though that if will never come - if it becomes law we shall not try; we shall wreck it then. (Cheers.) The thing is impossible. It is impossible because Ulster will not submit, and because Great Britain will not permit Ulster to be coerced. (Cheers.) Now under these circumstances we make the claim, and by every means in our power we shall press the claim, that they have no right to carry through a programme like that without the consent of the people of this country. (Cheers.) We claim, and we shall press the claim, that if they pretend that they have the approval of the country they are bound to submit to the test and let the people decide between them and us. (Cheers.) Till they do that we shall respect the traditions of the House of Commons, but we shall also try to avert a calamity greater even than the degradation of the House of Commons - we shall try to prevent civil war within the United Kingdom. (Cheers.)

Tariff Reform

I am afraid it is impossible to speak to you on the subject to which I referred. I shall try to say a few sentences only about it, and in the first place I would remind you of this - that in submitting these proposals to the people of this country we have behind us the experience of the whole civilised world. There are people, ignorant themselves, or who trade upon the ignorance of others, who tell you that there is a move­ment in other countries towards what they call Free Trade. I was told when I was a boy at school a long, long time ago that America was on the point of adopting Free Trade. She was nearer it then than she is now. (Laughter and cheers.) Radical papers claim that the victory of Dr. Wilson is a victory for Free Trade, and a member of the Government, a member who has distinguished himself in other directions, actually suggested that a telegram of congratulation should be sent to him on that account (Laughter.) Well, Dr. Wilson ought to know more about it himself. He had noticed this thing in British papers, and he was so afraid it would destroy chance of winning the election that he said openly, and more than once, that neither he nor his party stood for Free Trade or anything like Free Trade. (Cheers.) At this moment throughout the whole world there is not a single Government and - what is stranger - there is not a single Opposition which proposes to return to the system which is still good enough for the United Kingdom. They have all abandoned it, and it is the working classes who are responsible for its abandonment, because they have realised the obvious truth that you cannot raise the standard of living, that you cannot protect labour, without also protecting the products of labour. (Cheers.)

Now, there is one other general observation I should like to make. I am, and I have been for many years, a Tariff Reformer. But I am a Conservative, not only as a party name, but conservative by nature and by instinct. And I can assure you of this - that any change for which we are responsible will not be a revolutionary change, and will cause the smallest possible dislocation of the ordinary business arrange­ments compatible with making this necessary change.

The Canadian Preference

As Lord Lansdowne has pointed out, our object is to give to our own people a preference in the over-sea markets of the British Empire. That is as neces­sary for them from a pure trade point of view as security on the home market. Its value is admitted. At the Colonial Conference the present Prime Minister and the present Chancellor of the Exchequer (booing) both said that this preference was of enormous value to the trade of this country. Well, if it is of any value, enormous or not, is it not worth keeping? And was not the next step, the inevitable step, to find out what the value was, to consider what the advantage of it was, and to weigh against that any possible disadvantage? They never dreamt of doing that. Why? Because they realised, and they were right, that the dear loaf was a good party cry. They seized it. It has served them well. The Government have been living upon it, metaphorically, for nine years, and the people of this country have been living upon it, not metaphorically but actually. (Laughter and cheers.) I do not deny that it is still a good election cry, but its value, believe me, depends on this: that our opponents say always, and they get some people to believe them, that they are the party of the poor - they are the party who live on the poor (laughter) - and that we are the party of the rich. It is not true. Disraeli, in one of the greatest speeches he ever made, said this: ‘The Conservative Party is the party of the nation or it is nothing.’ (Cheers.) It is still true. We are not the party of the rich. We are the party of the nation. And I say this: that no matter how strongly I believe that later on it would benefit even all classes in this country, I feel that there is such a large fraction of our popula­tion living, partly because of our fiscal system, so near the verge of poverty that they cannot afford to pay any premium of insurance for the future, that I should not advocate a policy which, whatever its other merits, added the smallest feather-weight to the burden which these people have to bear. (Cheers.)

A Readjustment of Taxation

As Lord Lansdowne has told you, we shall not treat any revenue derived from so-called food taxes, whatever they are, which may be imposed for preference, as ordinary revenue. We shall use it to diminish the burdens which in other ways are falling upon the poorer classes of this country. It will not be an addition to taxation; it will be a readjustment of taxation. And owing to this revenue, and owing to the expansion which I am certain will come with this change of system, I say that instead of adding to the cost of living the adjust­ment which we shall make will make the burden smaller and not larger that falls upon the working classes. (Cheers.)

A Tribute to Mr. Balfour

Now that is all I can say tonight, but I do not wish on this second time that I have addressed the National Union as one of its leaders to do so without saying something a little more personal. I wish, in the first place, to say a word or two about my predecessor. (Cheers.) So long as Mr. Balfour was my leader (cheers), until, at least, I knew that he was going to give it up, I never said a word in his praise, for I did not think it was my business, or would help him, but I can now without any restraint say exactly what I think. (Hear, hear.) I have always had for him - I have today - an admiration both for his intellect and his character which I cannot exaggerate. He has ceased to be the leader of a party, but he is still the greatest Parliamentary figure of his time. (Cheers.) For such a man to come back to the arena which he had dominated so long in a position even nominally subordinate would he difficult for anyone, would be impossible for some, as it was impossible for Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Balfour has tried and has succeeded in making himself not a hindrance but a help to his successor. (Cheers.) In debates such as we have had he has played the most brilliant part, and to the deep debt of gratitude which we as a party owe him for having led us so long we owe the additional debt of the services he has rendered, and will continue to render, since he has ceased to be our leader. (Loud cheers.)

A United Party

Now perhaps you will permit me to say one word only about my own position. As my colleagues know, I did not seek the honour which was bestowed upon me. I was afraid of it. I have held the position for a year, and I can say this - that I have succeeded. (Cheers.) I have succeeded better than I expected. (Laughter and cheers.) For my success I have to thank two causes, one insignificant, the other vital. I have been helped by the bitterness of the attacks of our opponents. They have done more by choosing me as their target to establish me in the confidence of my friends (cheers), they have done more in a year than I could have done with my unaided efforts in a lifetime. (Laughter and cheers.) The other cause is not insignificant. It is due first to the encouragement which on every occasion when I have met our supporters outside they have given me. But it is due, above all, to - I won’t call it loyalty, but to the friendship and goodwill of my colleagues in the House of Commons, who have always shown the best proof of confidence by giving me the most hearty support when I least deserved it. I am not strong enough to lead, and I should not try to lead a divided party. (Hear, hear.) We are not divided. (Cheers.) We are, in my opinion, more united at this moment than any political party has been in my time. (Cheers.) And we are, in my belief - it is not merely my wish, it is my conviction, that we are moving, and moving rapidly, to inevitable victory. (Loud and prolonged cheers.)

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