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Leader's speech, Liverpool 1921

Austen Chamberlain (Conservative)

Location: Liverpool


In this address, Chamberlain highlighted the need for a decision on the future of the coalition government, and for peace in all spheres of national and international life. This call for peace came in the wake of industrial unrest and coincided with both the Washington Conference, which sought to bring peace to the world, and the London conference, which sought to secure peace for Ireland and avert civil war there. Chamberlain also spoke about South Africa, where the introduction of full self-government had led to peace and the creation of the Union of South Africa.

Lord Derby, my lords, ladies and gentlemen. My first words, my Lord, must be to thank you for the kind words in which you have spoken of an old colleague, and, I venture to say, an old friend. My next must be words of thanks to you, ladies and gentlemen of this great gathering, for the kindly reception and the great encouragement you have given me in my difficult and responsible task. My Lord, you have spoken of my predecessor. He won our confidence; he won something more - he won our affection. (Hear, hear.) And it is as a Unionist speaking to Unionists that I shall address you tonight.

Appeal for Patience

Now, it would be foolish to deny and futile to ignore the existence of great anxiety among our party today. Many circumstances com­bine to produce that state of unrest and anxiety. New problems present themselves for solution, or new problems present them­selves under new phases, and it is not always easy to ascertain what is the proper application of the fundamental principles on which our party rests to these new problems or to these new aspects of old questions.

I recognise that there is that unrest. I recognise that the very fact that the Govern­ment which you are asked to support is not a Government drawn solely from your own ranks, but a Government formed out of a union of parties adds to the disturbance and increases the anxiety. And beyond all above all looms once again the Irish question that has so often dominated over English politics and foiled our British statesmen.

I recognise, and I think it best to recognise at once and frankly, that these suspicions cannot be wholly removed, these anxieties cannot be wholly allayed until the time comes when those to whom you have given your confidence can lay their hearts bare, toll you the whole story and ask your judgement on their actions. (Cheers.)

For the moment, upon all of us, most of all upon those of us who are personally engaged in these negotiations, a great measure of restraint and reticence is imposed.

Ladies and gentlemen, you can make war in the open; you can fight in the public eye, but if you want peace in any negotiations, there must be some measure of patience - (cheers) - some measure of confidence accorded by the different parties to those who represent them. 

Reticence Necessary

There must be some reticence. You cannot conduct negotiations, with any hope of suc­cess, be they between nations, be they in our own public affairs, be they in any industrial dispute, if everything that is said in the council room is at once to be shouted front the house tops, if every tentative suggestion that is made is at once to be blazoned in the street, and no man can indicate that he will make some advance from the position which he first took up without knowing that it will be in the daily papers next morning.

I ask you therefore to show that spirit of fair play for which I appealed in a letter that was in the hands of our conference today. (Hear, hear.) When you chose your leaders you knew something of them; they were not men who stepped into the arena at the moment for the first time. They had a record behind them in which you had some confi­dence.

Give us a little time - We do not ask for much, and the whole story shall be told to you, and you shall judge whether we have kept faith, whether we have betrayed our trust. (Cheers.)

Tonight some measure of reticence is imposed upon us. But I will speak as frankly as I can. Let me say a word first about our party position. We are met here tonight as Unionists and Conservatives - I was born in a different camp. (Laughter, and a voice: ‘A British camp.’)

Let me say the name of Radical doesn’t frighten me, but I have a good deal of affection for the old British word Tory. (Cheers.)

What is our party position? We are met as members of the Unionist party, but my colleagues in the House of Commons who sit around me were elected to this Parliament not only as members of the Unionist party but as supporters of the Coalition based upon a programme approved and signed by the Prime Minister and Mr. Bonar Law. (Cheers.) I am told that Coalition is unpopular. You said so, my lord. (Laughter.) Well, most Governments are unpopular. I remember a wise and witty Civil Servant telling me that the result of his long experience was that he thought all Governments were very much alike, but with a tendency on the part of the last to be the worst. (Laughter.) Well, I make one claim for the Coalition. We have been in office for three years - three such years as you cannot parallel in the history of our country. In those three years we have carried out with a single exception the programme which our leaders put before you at the last general election. (Hear, hear.)

One question remains for settlement - the reform of the House of Lords - (hear, hear, and cheers) - and the revision of its powers, and I think, without betraying my Privy Councillor’s Oath, I may tell you that the Cabinet Committee has been busily at work upon that question, and we shall be ready to submit our proposals when Parliament meets again next year. (Cheers.)

But the very name of Coalition indicates that it is a temporary expedient, a passing state of things. There have been coalitions and coalitions in the past. Some, after the emergency which called them into being has passed away, have broken up, and parties have resumed their old boundaries, and the party fight has been resumed upon its old lines. Others there have been, and we here as we meet tonight, are the creation of one such, are gathered together in a great emergency, even in their common action the basis of the future opinion which broadened the ideas of both, strengthened the Conser­vative forces in the country, and wrote a chapter in the new chapter in the history of the Empire. (Cheers.)

A New Party

I will not prophecy. The future is in the lap of the gods. Sooner or later, sooner rather than later, the decision must be given. Either we of the present Coalition dissolve, breaking the forms of order, weakening the party of stability and con­stitutional progress. I don’t hesitate to say that out of that Coalition, formed in the midst of war, at a time when national necessity, cemented by common action in years of difficulty and danger, since the war hardly less so, out of that Coalition will come a new party, constitutional, demo­cratic, national. (Cheers.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the future will bring its own problem, and one of our great historic party, whether associated with others welded into one with them, or standing alone, will face those new problems with a new pro­gramme of constructive, administrative, and constitutional reform. (Hear, hear.).

But before that time comes there is other work for us to do, work which cannot be done without our help, work which cannot be done by us alone. The need of the world at this moment is for peace. (Hear, hear) Nowhere is there greater need of peace than here, peace, national and international, peace political, and peace industrial - (cheers) - peace and security, the confidence which peace and secu­rity bring, to set going once more the springs of trade, to restore our shattered finances and lighten our burden to enable us to face the world - a great nation emerging from a great struggle, united, hopeful, and determined. (Cheers.)

Need For Peace

Trade - and I speak of trade at a moment when a million and three quarters of our fellow citizens are out of work, anxious how they shall afford bread for their household; at a moment when the Government, bound by every tie of duty to try and reduce expenditure, has had to dip deep into the taxpayers’ pocket to alleviate distress - trade cannot re­vive without peace. Trade cannot revive without confidence. Peace and confidence are greatest gift that any Government can bring to our people at this time. (Cheers.)

I am glad to find that there are some signs of a revival, but confidence is a tender plant. A single unkindly frost will nip its buds and prevent its growth. Watch it, guard it, help it in its recovery.

Whet is happening among employers and employed? We have passed through the greatest industrial conflict that this country has even seen; we have passed through it be it said with all credit to the law-abiding character of our people - (cheers) - to their good sense and to their patriotism, and may I add - not without credit to the poor discredited Government. (Cheers and laughter.)

We passed through that great crisis in peace and in good temper such as no other country could have preserved throughout such a struggle. (Cheers.) What is happening? In countless industries and trades employers and employed have met in conference; conference has led to understanding, understanding has brought sympathy, and out of these confer­ences have come agreements where before they entered upon a prospect of agreement appeared hopeless.

Is there not a lesson that we politicians can draw from our fellow men, employers or employed; who are conducting the great industries of this country. There are at this moment two momentous conferences meeting, one on this side of the Atlantic and one on the other. One seeks to bring peace to the world; the other seeks to bring peace to these islands. (Cheers.) Give us your goodwill in both efforts. (Loud cheers, and a voice: ‘Give us your security.’)

The Washington Conference

I will come to that. The first conference is that which is meeting at Washington. The opening address of President Harding and the statement made by Secretary of State Hughes mark a new page in the world’s history. (Hear, hear.) They open a new era. By one great act of faith they have removed moun­tains of misunderstanding - (hear, hear) - and swept away suspicion. By one great act of faith they have secured the success of that conference and opened for the world a happier and a better era.

Once again the United States take their rightful place as a leader among the nations of the world, and we of the British Empire hail their action with enthusiasm. We promise them our support, and throughout the conference our effort will be not to belittle the proposal which they have made, but to fulfil and to complete it. (Cheers.) I say that I believe that the great act of the United States Government has secured the success of the Washington Conference from its opening day. (Cheers.)

What of the other conference, the conference that is meeting in London? Is that, too, to be successful, or is failure once again to dog our steps, to frustrate the efforts of statesman­ship, and to plunge Irishmen, yes, and Englishmen, once more into fratricidal strife? I cannot speak to you freely of the proceed­ings of that conference. Such secrets as they are are other men’s secrets besides my own. (Hear, hear.) Partial disclosure is always unfair - (hear, hear) - nearly always mischievous, and always a betrayal of trust. (Cheers.) I have, therefore, no revelations to make.

But I want to put to you two questions, and I want an answer today. The first question is whether we were right to try for peace. (Cries of ‘Yes.’) We have heard a great deal recently of Die-hards. (Laughter.) I am not going to say an unkind word about Die-hards. I have been a Die-hard myself. (Laughter) If some people had their way I should very soon be a Die-hard again. When the colonel of the Middlesex Regiment fell mortally wounded at Albuera, calling to his men, ‘Die hard, my men, die hard,’ he knew what he was fighting for. He knew it was a cause worth giving his life for, and he called upon his men to do the same. Don’t let anybody die before it is necessary. (Laughter.) I don’t want them to die. I want them to live to fight beside us, and I am convinced that if they will have a little patience, and if they will wait until they know, there will be no split amongst us - (hear, hear) - there will be no discord, and whether the result of the Conference be peace or war, be good or evil, we shall stand a united patty in the great decisions that have to be taken. (Cheers.) No.

I have no quarrel with ‘Die-hards.’ They are men of sincere conviction - (hear, hear) - and of strong faith. (Hear, hear.) All I can ask of them is that they should wait until they have the material for adjusting.

I our not afraid of ‘Die-hards.’ I am afraid of men with hot-heads today, who have cold feet tomorrow. (Laughter and cheers.) You know them, you know the type. We see them in every struggle - the men who halloos you on to fight today, who ask tomorrow whether you weren’t a little hasty, and who a few days later find the means by which you pursue your ends too coarse for their queasy stomachs, and after a few weeks scuttling to the rear ready to surrender anything and make peace at any price.

Peace with Honour - or War

If it must be war it shall be war. If peace cannot be had with honour - (cheers) - if peace cannot be had without broken pledges, there can be no peace, and if the country is convinced that honour is not safe, it will make sacrifices which are necessary, fight out the battle, and will endure for as long as the struggle lasts.

But make no mistake, war is a cruel thing. Civil war is the most horrible form of war. Civil war is the most terrible form of war, and before the country enters on a struggle it will require them to place at the disposal of the Government resources that we have not yet had to raise, forces which do not now exist, to spend millions which we must get as we can, and to sacrifice life again for a great cause as we sacrificed it in the great war.

Before the country is asked to do that, be­fore I ask you to do that - you of my own party - you must know that I have tried to make peace. You must know that I have exhausted patience and conciliation, and that if I call upon you, you of my own party for this sacrifice - (a voice: ‘We shall be there’) - it is not until all other means have been found in vain and no other course is left open. (Cheers.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the limits within which we can make peace are known to you all.

No British Government can barter away the allegiance of British subjects to the Crown. (Cheers.)

No British Government can barter away portions of our great Empire. No British Government can deprive itself of that full power over ports and harbours and seaways which necessary to the life of our nation and to the free communications of the Empire.

No Government, of which your representa­tives are members, no Government, of which the Prime Minister is a member, will coerce Ulster. (Cheers.)

Those are the limits set by stern necessity and solemn pledges to the liberty of those who are negotiating in your behalf. It is within those limits that we seek a settlement. I hope - I dare not say more - I hope that with patience, with goodwill, with consideration, we may yet find a way to peace within those bounds. (Cheers.)

Unionist Support

Now there is a second question that I want to put. I think if I rightly gather your feeling you say as the House of Commons said - yes, and not only the House of Commons - you say that we have a right to try for peace before we went to the extreme measures that were necessary in the other alternative. (Cheers.)

As the House of Commons said - but not only the House of Commons, I should not have been content, I doubt if I should have been here if that vote had been carried only by the help of parties that are opposed to us. I should not have been content - I doubt if I should have been here - if that vote had been carried only by the Allies closely asso­ciated with us but still not of us. It was the fact of the Unionist party in the House, no less than of any other section of the House, and the vote which was approved and repeated in the great conference held here today. (Cheers.) It is to them that I hold my authority. It is to their approval that I find myself strong, and while they support me I will do my best to carry this policy through. (Cheers.)

But now assume, as I think I may, that the great bulk of you are with us so far, you may say, ‘Yes, but we went too far in our offer of the Dominion status or something very like it to the representatives of Southern Ire­land.’ We invited them to take their place freely and voluntarily as loyal subjects of the King, a Free State in the great Commonwealth of nations that makes the British Empire.

You way think we went too far. I want to say a word upon that. Why did our old Unionist policy fail? Not, in my belief, at any rate, because it was wrong. I think it was right. (Hear, hear.) It failed because the country would not pursue it consistently through good fortune and through bad. It failed because, after Mr. Gladstone’s conversion, the Union was no longer a national policy but a party policy, and Ireland is too close to us, her affairs react too constantly upon us, she is too ever-present with us at Westminster, and every day, to enable you to build upon a party basis a permanent solution of the Irish question. (Hear, hear.)

What, then, were we to do? Our object was to find at this great crisis, at this hour, after so many failures, some solid foundation on which to build once again a national policy, to find some policy from which no British Government could or would depart, and once again to remove the Irish question from the scene of party conflict, where it followed our fortunes, upset our fortunes, and was itself the shuttlecock, tossed from battledore to battledore, and a great opportunity offered, and was such as was not open to our prede­cessors and those whose memory we revere.

The growth of the Dominions, the new position which they had assumed the more vital, the most vital partnership of Empire already come to birth before the war, and developed during the war, offered a basis that had never before been at the command of any British statesman. It was the kind of chance that Chatham, with his eagle eye, would have fixed upon. It was a chance which a Disraeli with his deep insight and prophetic vision, would have prayed and worked for - (cheers) - and it is a chance - forgive me for saying this - which Joseph Chamberlain would have seized and made his own. (Loud cheers.) We have taken it. It is perhaps the last chance of settlement that these islands will see. (Cheers.)

I have one more observation to make. It is my last, and it is in the nature of a confession. I have been in Parliament for very nearly thirty years: I have given goodness knows how many votes. There are some that I would not repeat with my later knowledge and experi­ence. (Laughter.) There are only one or two that I would undo, and I will tell you one of them. The South African war was a just and necessary war. (Cheers.) But if the issues then fought out and settled there could have been no lasting peace in that country.

But though peace was signed, though alle­giance was sworn, reconciliation lagged behind. Then came a change of Government, and with the new Government a new policy. By a great act of daring faith - (hear, hear) - they con­ferred upon our recent enemies in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, on the morrow of our victory, full self-government. I voted against them. I thought it a rash and wicked thing to do.

Ah, if we could have seen further into the future, if I could have voted in the division, with the knowledge I have today, I should have known that that great act of faith was not, as I thought it, the destruction of our policy, but its completion and its fulfilment. (Cheers.) That is the vote that I would undo if I could undo a vote once given. That great act, that daring act of faith led directly to the reconciliation of the races in South Africa. It led to the Union of South Africa, it brought South Africa into the war with us - (hear, hear) it added German East Africa and German Southwest Africa to the British ter­ritory. (Cheers.)

Now and again in the affairs of men there comes a moment when courage is safer than prudence, when some great act of faith, touch­ing the hearts and stirring the emotions of men, achieves the miracle, that no arts of may be passing before our eyes now that we statesmanship can compass. Such a moment meet here. I pray to God with all my heart and soul that each of us to whom responsi­bility is brought may be given vision to see the faith and to act with courage and persevere. (Loud cheers, during which Mr. Chamberlain resumed his seat, having spoken for three-quarters of an hour).

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