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Leader's speech, London 1922

Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative)

Location: London


By the time of this conference, Britain once again had a Conservative government. In this speech, Bonar Law spoke of the Lausanne Conference, which sought to secure peace following the end of the First World War. Although the matter of reparations was proving difficult, Bonar Law expressed his confidence that it could be resolved through co-operation between delegates. A further issue at the time was unemployment, which, Bonar Law argued, warranted urgent government action.

Mr. Chairman, my Lords, ladies and gentlemen - I am deeply touched by the warmth of the welcome you have just given me, but I know that your feeling of goodwill will extend even to this extent that as I have been making in the last few weeks a larger number of speeches than ever before in my life you will not be disappointed if I do not take up a great deal of your time now.  We are met today, partly at least, to express our sense of rejoicing at the result of the last election.  (Cheers)  Whatever may happen in the future, that result justifies, in my belief, the action which was taken by us.  (Cheers)  It justifies it, not merely because we have once again a Unionist Government, supported by a Unionist majority in the House of Commons, but because the change, in my sincere belief, is one which has been good for the nation as a whole.  (Cheers)

‘Political Meteorologists’

Now, ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt about the completeness of our success.  I dare say you have noticed that some people who have been taking an interest in showing that although apparently we have a majority, in reality it does not exist.  (Laughter)  That kind of political meteorologist – (laughter) – has not been unknown in the past.  I have myself, when in a minority, occasionally amused myself by dealing with that kind of subject.  (Laughter)  I was rather surprised that Mr. Lloyd George, with all his experience, should have thought it worth his while to start that ancient game.  (Laughter)  It is a proof at which we all rejoice, that his freedom from great responsibilities has enabled him to begin again to enjoy life on a lower plane. (Laughter)  

Now, what are the conditions?  It is that we represent a minority.  Let us examine it.  If you have four or five parties fighting in a great many of the constituencies, it is obvious that no single party can expect to get a majority of the votes, and the sole ground for any justification of that kind would be the assumption, which, of course, is made, that everyone who does not vote for us would have voted for some other Parliamentary Party which the political meteorologist had in mind.  What truth is there in that?

I think it is safe to say that those who supported particular candidates, if they had not had those candidates, would have been more likely to give their vote to us than to any other party.  (Laughter)  Take, for instance, the two sections of the Liberal Party.  There may be Liberal reunion – I confess I would be rather glad to see it – but at the last election – I am, I think, not uncharitable in saying that a supporter of either of the Liberal parties would rather have given his vote to us than to his other Liberal.  (Laughter)

In regard to the Labour Party – which we call by courtesy the Labour Party – (hear, hear and cheers) – but who by no means represent Labour to as great an extent as we do – (cheers) – if we can judge by what I have seen in the House of Commons – (laughter) – I think that they, too, although they have no special love for us, would, if they had to choose, have given their votes to us rather than to either of the Liberal parties.  (Laughter)  Mr. Lloyd George went on to say that the fact that we were the representatives of a minority in the nation made it impossible for us to deal as a Government could deal who represents the majority.  That would be a strange doctrine from anyone, and from him it is peculiarly strange.  For five or six years, from 1910 onwards, the Government in the House of Commons represented the Liberal Party, who, so far from having a majority vote, had not so large a vote as was given to the Unionist Party, and all through our party was equal in numbers, and latterly exceeded, the Liberal strength.  You will perhaps remember that this Government of a party which was in a minority did not hesitate to carry through Parliament the most extreme measures of every kind.  I am not alarmed by that criticism.  We have our majority – (hear, hear) – and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that we shall use it to pass the measures which we think in the interest of the country.  (Cheers)

‘Not a Bad Government’

I would like to say a word about our Government.  I do not think it is a bad Government.  (Laughter)  We may not have – at least I would not like to assert that we have – a monopoly of first-class brains.  (Laughter)  But we are, I hope, and I believe, a Government composed of men with good judgement – (hear, hear) – and what is perhaps not less important, they are a Government of first-class loyalty.  (Cheers)  We are working together, and I am sure will continue to work together as a team without personal ambitions or jealousies, with the desire to serve the country.  (Cheers)

Our party in the House of Commons has, during this short session, been very severely tried.  We have had a number of late sittings, which, I think, is always deplorable, but which I certainly believe in this case were inevitable.  The crisis which caused the election came so late that we had no choice as to the time that Parliament could be called together.  A certain amount of business had to be done, and, thanks to the loyalty of our supporters, it has been done.  (Cheers)

I have been a long time a member of the House of Commons, and I say that never in my experience in that House has the attendance of members supporting the Government at these late sittings been so good as it was during the session just ended.  (Cheers)

Danger of Large Majorities

It was suggested to me that I should have called together the members of our party in the House of Commons and addressed them on their duties.  I declined to do so.  I felt certain that they realised them as well as I did.  But as there are so many members of the House of Commons here today they will not, I am sure, take it amiss if I point out to them two or three things which make the present position quite different from what it was in the previous Parliament.  The first of these things is this.  On divisions we very often get very large majorities, and there is a danger that our supporters might think that their absence would make no difference.  I impute no evil motives to anybody, but a Government is a Government, and an Opposition is an Opposition, and you may be sure of this, that if at any time it looks as if the Government were going to be beaten the conscientious objections of all members of all parties in the Opposition will make it impossible for them to support us on an occasion like that.  (Laughter)  We have, therefore, to rely upon ourselves, and that means that there must be closer attendance.  It must be looked upon as a duty that there should be closer attendance than was the case in the last Parliament.  In that respect the members of the Government propose to set an example.  It is, indeed, very often an inconvenience for the head of a Department to do his work in the room in the House of Commons, but we realise the new situation, and whenever possible the work will be done there, so that the members of the Government will be available when their votes are required.

Loyalty to Party

Only one other thing I wish to say in that connection is this: In the last Parliament the majority was so large that people were able to do to a large extent what is impossible in Party Government, viz., to vote on any question in precisely the way it struck them.  (Laughter)  In the new conditions that is impossible, and I can assure you it does not mean any loss of principles on the part of those who support the Government.  There are questions which are vital on which there can be no doubt at all, but the great majority of questions which arise in Parliament on which there might be a difference of opinion are questions on which probably, when discussed in the Cabinet there were certain differences of opinion.  But when, after consultation, we decide what is the best method to pursue we must adhere to it.

I put this with perfect confidence to every member of our Party in the House of Commons, that Party Government must cease unless we support the Party which, on the whole, we believe is right, and that on minor questions we must subordinate our own views to the general interest of the more important causes which we are supporting.  (Cheers)  I say that not at all from any sense that it is necessary to say it.  I do say to you that the Government could not continue unless we had the complete confidence not only of our Party in the House of Commons, but of the representatives of our Party throughout the constituencies.

I said long ago, when I first became leader of our Party, that I would not attempt to lead a divided Party.  I have no fears in that connection.  I have received so far, both from the constituencies and from the members of our Party in the House of Commons, evidences of goodwill and confidence greater than I had any right to expect and greater far than I pretend to deserve.  (Cheers)

I am not going to repeat what I said during the election, and it was not my saying it, but the fact that it was true, that enabled us to win the election – and that is that at this moment what the country needs so far as it is possible for any Government to give it is rest – (hear, hear) – freedom from any controversial question it is not necessary to raise so that our people may devote their own energies to relieving the situation in which the war has left us.  (Cheers)  I need not tell you that when I agreed to undertake the task which has fallen upon me I was not in the least ignorant of what it meant and of what the difficulties were in front of us.  I spoke over and over again and it became a joke – which I did not mind – about tranquillity.  (Laughter)  I promised to do my best to give that tranquillity to the country, but I was never for a moment foolish enough to think I would get any of it for myself.  (Laughter)  I believe that the main thing upon which the recovery of this country depends is the revival of trade and the restoring of confidence of those engaged in industry by making them feel that nothing unexpected or surprising is going to be sprung upon them at any moment.  The best thing we can do for trade is to create a sense of security.

Lausanne Conference

Allies Working as One

But there are circumstances which are beyond our control.  The greatest danger is in connection with foreign affairs.  It is a commonplace to say that at any time, and most of all at a time like this, prosperity and tranquillity at home depend upon peace abroad.  At the election I put it as one of my strongest points that we were going back to the old system of leaving the work of the Departments to be done by the Departments, and that in no case was that so important as in foreign affairs.  (Cheers)

I think, although nothing definite has yet been accomplished, that the change we have made has already justified itself.  Take the Conference at Lausanne.  You know want the position was, that we were at a declared difference of opinion with our Allies, that we were in danger of having to act alone, and of going to war alone.  Under the new system the Allies have worked together as one at Lausanne, and I feel sure that they will continue so to work.  I am equally sure that unity of action, and that alone, will secure that peace which the world so much requires.  (Cheers)

In this connection, though it is absurd for a member of a Government to praise one of his colleagues, I feel bound to say something about the Foreign Secretary.  I have heard – not from him, though he found time to write me a letter almost every day on what was going on, in spite of being at work until two or three o’clock every morning – that there is nothing but praise from all sides for the manner in which his work was conducted.  (Hear, hear)  Everyone who knew him knew that he had mental powers of a very exceptional order.  He has always shown a readiness to undertake great responsibilities, because he knows that the Government is behind him, and will back him up.

Reparations Problem

I was present myself at a meeting of Prime Ministers.  In spite of my desire to devolve all foreign affairs on the Foreign Office that is impossible; I have to take my share.  Here, again, the difficulty was reparations, which had seemed to me almost an insoluble problem, so much so that I hesitated as to whether I could undertake my present task.  It is a terribly difficult problem.  This at least I can tell you.

In the House of Commons yesterday I spoke only about the French.  There were two other Allied Prime Ministers present.  There was Belgium, which has always shown a wisdom and a desire to prevent complications which are above praise.  There was also the new Prime Minister of Italy – and I am sure that neither the Government nor the people of this country will ever forget that Italy came into the struggle at a time when it was vital to the Allies, and that Italy played a noble part therein.  

Whatever the result may be, there was nothing but goodwill throughout the whole of that Conference; and, in my opinion, however difficult any problem may be, the chance of solving it is increased enormously when all those engaged wish to solve it if they can. 

Situation at Home

As regards the home situation, I am sanguine enough to believe – and I get my views from men whom I used to know in business, and on whose judgement I rely – that the worst of the trade trouble is over, and that we are on the way to better times.

That is undoubtedly true in many trades.  I learnt yesterday a fact to which I won’t attach very much importance, but it is worth knowing.  Of all industries shipbuilding is the worst.  Well, I heard from a Glasgow friend something about a gentleman who in past years made a great deal of money – which our Labour friends regard as a crime, but on which I do not take the same view – by buying old ships when nobody else would buy them, and selling them afterwards.  That gentleman has laid down two or three ships as a speculation, because he thinks he could not do better later. (Hear, hear)  That, in my opinion, is a very good sign.

The House of Commons has been greatly instructed, or amused, by the development of views on social questions to which we had not been accustomed in the House.  A great many of the most striking of these speeches came from compatriots of mine.  Perhaps for that reason I listened to them with more interest than, possibly, was given by other members.  It was, to me, a psychological problem.  They spoke very well, so well that I was not surprised that in a city where there is so much unemployment they should have won elections.  Perhaps, again, because they are compatriots, I am not sure that they mean so badly; and I have the hope that contact – (laughter) – with the realities – (more laughter) – as represented by the views expressed in other parts of the House will convince them that the millennium is not going to happen tomorrow.  That will be a great gain. 

Helping the Unemployed

They spoke of unemployment.  I am addressing a gathering from all parts of the country which is supposed to represent, if we are to believe our opponents, the reactionary class.  I do not believe there is a man or a woman here who does not realise what a terrible problem this is.  It is not merely the money we have to spend – though we cannot go on spending it for many years without disaster – but the fact that so many men lose the habit of working.  That is a disaster greater than the money which has to be spent to enable them to live.  Any Government, therefore, must do its best to deal with the question.  We have laid down proposals in the House of Commons, but that is not our last word.  Our Unemployment Committee is sitting continuously.

I will tell you quite frankly what our view of the problem is.  There is not the slightest use in putting men on relief works which are not useful, and which they know themselves are not useful.  But it is right, and we shall not hesitate in the matter, to advance the money when works are useful.  I am not holding out any great hopes, for not many opportunities are in sight.  But we can help in financing work which is in itself useful, and is only going to be done now rather than later.

I thank you again for your welcome.  In spite of what our critics have said, we have received a vote of confidence.  But it is not for those who are putting on their armour to boast as those who are taking it off.  We have to justify that confidence, and, with your support, we shall do our utmost to achieve that end.  (Loud cheers)  

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