Leader's speech, Birmingham 1933
Stanley Baldwin (Conservative)
Commentary:Baldwin began this speech by claiming that although Britain’s financial situation had improved and trade was increasing, there was still a long way to go. He then spoke of the need for a Disarmament Convention, which would impose limits on the armaments that participating nations could possess, and thus reduce the likelihood of another war in Europe. Finally, Baldwin condemned Labour’s plan to take executive power away from the House of Commons, and called on the Conservatives to fight for the Constitution.
Mr. Baldwin, who was received with cheers, said another year had spent its course, and he had to congratulate them on having once more come through the great annual conference of the Party successfully, and in pretty good temper. Once more they had discussed a number of subjects. They had brought knowledge and skill to the elucidation of difficult questions, and he and those who were counted among the leaders of the Party were grateful to them for the clear manner in which they showed them of what they were thinking and where they would like them to go.
He thought in many ways their conduct of business and the way in which they applied themselves to practical politics compared not unfavourably with what had taken place at the Socialist conference in the South of England. (Laughter) He had not yet been able to acquaint himself with all that passed that afternoon in their discussions on agriculture, but, without having done so, he would hazard a guess that in that great hall all who had heard him would feel that the Minister of Agriculture was the right man in the right place - (applause) - that for knowledge of his subject, sympathy with those for whom he had to work, rapidity of action when necessary, he would be hard to beat.
Their other topics he had followed with much interest, but it might be that before he had finished they would consider he had dealt with the root of the problem which they discussed on the previous morning in a manner that he hoped would not be out of sympathy with their views.
The Financial Recovery
As usual, he had to cover a great deal of ground. He had to indicate to them what, in his view, were the problems immediately facing the government of the country, and possibly to point out things which might have escaped their notice, but must be borne in mind and weighed in forming a judgment as to the line the Government should take on them. If he omitted any subject of particular interest to any individual present, he hoped that he or she would remember that, after all, that was but one speech, that he would have many other opportunities of addressing audiences in the country, and not run away with the impression that because he did not refer to a subject or deal with it at any length, that subject was not of any importance, or one which he did not value or recognise.
He wanted first of all, Mr. Baldwin continued, to say a word or two on the financial position of the country. Of all the things which this Administration was put into the power to do, the first thing, the most clamant, the most urgent, the most necessary, was the restoration of the credit of the country. ‘I claim without fear of contradiction,’ said Mr. Baldwin, ‘that now, at the expiration of two years, that task has been performed with a courage and skill that merits the gratitude of the country.’ (Applause)
He was saying this with less reserve because he was only an ordinary Minister in the Government and they had the Chancellor of the Exchequer there. The credit of the country was his especial responsibility; and as would be admitted by his colleagues, by the House of Commons and by the country, he had established a revolution.
‘Two years ago,’ Mr. Baldwin reminded his audience, ‘our credit had nearly gone. Today, in a world of much less wealth than that before the war, our credit stands high and as unassailable as it ever has done. But here I would remind you that, with that task before us, everything had to make way for it. Great Britain without credit is like Samson without his locks. It was our credit that was the greatest asset to us and to our Allies during the long term of the war; and if you feel anxiety – and anxiety is not foreign to our breasts – as to our position with armaments, remember the balance of risks that had to be run. We felt that at the time the financial risks were so grave, so serious for our country, that until we were in a position where we could feel that these risks no longer existed, everything must give way and must wait. That has been the situation.
A Long Way to Go
‘Greatly as the financial situation has improved, it is bringing in its train what touches more nearly the homes of our people, and that is a trade and an industrial improvement. I am never given, I hope, to words of extravagance. I have spoken candidly in the past two years but with reserve – so much so, indeed, that if I ever say things might be worse those who indulge in the cult of headlines call me an optimist. But I do say deliberately today that the trade of the country is better, it is much better, than twelve months ago, and I will add this – it is better than the trade in any other industrial country in the world today.
‘That does not mean that it is all right yet. We have a long way to go, but we are moving forward with hope, and knowing that our heads are in the right direction.’
He wanted them to bear in mind that this was a country depending largely on export trade, and some time there would come a saturation point, a point when we had advanced in the direction of prosperity as far as we cold advance on our own without world improvement.
‘And I want to say a very serious word or two on that question. World conditions are not good. They are affected largely by economic conditions, but there is a psychological cause over and above the economic – an absence of confidence. I particularly want to put this to you because, living in this island, we do not always realise the psychology of foreign nations. That want of confidence is largely the child of fear, and fear on the continent of Europe is the fear of war. We have smiled at that, and felt that now this nation and now this suffering from undue apprehension. It may be; it may not be; but you have the fact to recognise, and that is one reason – if, indeed, there were no other - why it is imperative, if it can be done, to bring about a disarmament convention.
A Real Limitation
‘I know there are many sections in our party who think lightly of these matters. But I want them to think them out. First of all, let me say this: When I spoke about disarmament convention I did not mean disarmament on the part of this country and not on the part of any other. I mean a limitation of armaments, a real limitation, such a one that if we, by the many gestures we have made of disarmament, find ourselves on some lower rating than the figures in such a convention, and some other country has higher figures, that country has to come down and we go up until we meet. (Applause) No other form of convention would be negotiated by the Government; no other form of convention is in contemplation. But even to get that may be difficult, and if it be attained, in my view – and I am sure you will agree with me – it will be of vital importance to see that every signatory to that convention carries out what is in that convention in the letter and in the spirit.
Sanctity of Agreements
‘I would only add this: If that convention be signed, the nation that breaks it will have no friend in this civilised world. The same is true of any nation which deliberately prevents such an agreement being reached by putting forward demands which might be acceptable after a time, but which would not be accepted today to the other co-signatories. But – and really I apologise even for alluding to this – there is a fear in the world that our country has less regard than she had for the sanctity of agreements entered into since the war which might contribute to the peace of Europe. I say this, and I take the Treaty of Locarno as the most typical one, that Great Britain has signed she will adhere to. (Hear, hear) She adhered to her signature in regard to Belgium; her signature in these agreements is sacred.’ (Applause)
The Penalty of Failure
He wished to say a word as to the possible failure of a Disarmament Convention. Governments had to contemplate success or failure. There were many people who believed quite sincerely that it would not make much difference to the world. ‘Well,’ added Mr. Baldwin, ‘it would make this difference: the fears of which I spoke in the event of failure to agree might well become panic in some countries, and if there were no prospect of the limitation of armaments there is no country but would put to itself the question, “Are we secure with our present armaments?” And I think myself, with my knowledge of the world and of world politics, that the answer to that question today in many countries would be “No, we are not safe.”’
‘I see that problem drawing nearer and nearer to us until it grips us by the throat, that problem of rearmament and all that it involves. If rearmament began in Europe you may say “goodbye” to any restoration of cuts and to any reduction of taxation for a generation.’
It was just as well to face these things, and realise what it was they were up against. With many nations, or with some nations, the expenditure that would be involved in increasing armaments would bring them much nearer to financial catastrophe; it might even bankrupt some, and they might imagine from that what the effect would be on the trade of the world. Psychologically they would be back in 1914, with more knowledge than they had then.
‘I have never disguised my own view,’ added Mr. Baldwin, ‘that another war in Europe would be the end of the civilisation we know. Few can be so careless, so ignorant as not to have noticed how the very foundation of our mid-European and Western-European civilisation have rocked in these last fifteen years. They cannot stand a second explosion akin to the one that wrought such damage at that time.’
They could not wonder, said Mr. Baldwin, at the anxiety with which the government was endeavouring, in every way it could, to ensure some agreement with regard to the limitation of arms. (Applause)
There were many people who said: ‘Well, cut away from Europe; cut out from Europe.’ It always struck him that before the intention of the internal combustion engine that might have been an arguable proposition. Today he thought it was both crude and childish. Traffic in the air was only beginning. The air linked them to the Continent in a manner that would not have been thought of by their parents, but very often those who expressed their desire said at the same time: ‘Let us devote our minds to our empire.’
‘That,’ said Mr. Baldwin, amid cheers, ‘we have been doing, and not without success.’ He had much else to speak of that night, and he hoped to speak on those subjects later in the year but he would like to say in Birmingham that when he came back from Ottawa he told his friends it would be twelve months before they saw the results of their work. He thought they were seeing the results, and not only the material results, which they had seen particularly in the increase in their Indian trade, but they had seen in the recent Budget in Australia a most welcome token of how the spirit of Ottawa, without which nothing could be done, was working in the financial policy of that great Dominion.
The Fruits of Ottawa
Recalling what was done at Ottawa, Mr. Baldwin said the influence of statesmanship would be found in the decisions there, and as we went on decade after decade, generation after generation, drawing more closely together in our trade, in our methods, he hoped and believed that some would be able to look back to the work that was done at Ottawa and say that, although at the moment there was not much done that struck the imagination, yet the foundations that were laid there firmly, securely and well. (Applause)
There had been criticism of agreements that had been made by the Government with foreign nations. ‘You never hear criticism from the seller who is satisfied,’ said Mr. Baldwin amidst cheers. Many had benefited by these agreements, but it was true that in many agreements they made under the tariff system, they had to give something away to get something; and in giving something away somebody was a little less well off than he was before, but a great deal better off than he was two years ago before we had a tariff. When they looked into one of the last of such agreements – that with the Argentine – they would feel that something substantial had been won by the process of bargaining.
At such a meeting, where they were all of one way thought – with minor differences – (laughter) – he would say a few words on a subject to which he had given a good deal of attention. He sometimes heard it said: ‘Let us get down to Conservative principles.’ When he wanted to now all about Conservative principles, he went back, and always had done, and always would, to Disraeli. Disraeli, after all was the founder of modern Conservatism. He breathed new life into the party after it had been broken up at the time of the introduction of Free Trade. His words lived, his personality lived, his influence lived. He never shrank from democracy; he never shrank from change.
What he shrank from was stagnation, and he shrank from destruction of anything – sheer destruction. ‘His policy,’ said Mr. Baldwin, ‘our policy – sometimes neglected but always the base of the fundamental beliefs of our party – was the condition of our people, the Empire and the Constitution. And, indeed, no more Liberal statesman in the true sense of the word than Disraeli ever lived.
Memories of Mr. J. Chamberlain
‘There was much criticism at the time of his extension of the borough franchise of 1867, but by that he brought in a vast body of the working people of this country to correct the influence of the bourgeoisie , and it is a remarkable fact, which I want you to bear in mind, that with the advent of the people into politics at that time those attacks of the intelligentsia on the Monarchy which had characterised the earlier years of the reign of Queen Victoria died away, and the Monarchy gradually took a place in the hearts and the souls and the minds of the British people more deep, more fervent than it had ever occupied before, a place which it occupies today.’ (Applause)
Disraeli was the first great statesman who took up the question of health. He gave a charter to the trade unions. He passed some of the earliest Acts in connection with housing, which were taken advantage of to the benefit of the city of Birmingham by the father of Mr. Neville Chamberlain. (Applause)
In that hall he could not omit reference to another man who, after Disraeli’s death, breathed new life certainly into the younger men of the Conservative party. He came to them from the Radicals, and his name was Joseph Chamberlain. He rejoiced to think that Mr. Joseph Chamberlain found in the leaders of that day – Lord Salisbury, Mr. Balfour and Mr. W. H. Smith – men with whom he could work in perfect sympathy, and men who helped him and, with his aid, obtained for this country county councils and free education.
He would make no comparison with those days, but it was interesting to remember that Mr. Chamberlain then found more sympathy, more willingness to go forward and less desire to stagnate among the Tory leaders than among some of the rank and file. (Laughter)
Mr. Joseph Chamberlain protested against the tendency to sag into the old negative habits. ‘There is no tendency today, I am thankful to say,’ said Mr. Baldwin, ‘but remember those words: “Long after I have gone, whoever is leading you, remember that when the old tendency to sag comes, kick the party into some kind of life and don’t let ’em do it.”’
Mr. Chamberlain knew that conventional Conservatism could never hold the country, and it could not. It was Disraelian Conservatism that had as its main objects the well-being of the people of this country, their progress, their well-being in every direction, spiritual and material, and a devotion to Constitution with which they could always win, but if they sagged into the old negative habit they never would.
Mr. Baldwin recalled the last speech of Mr. Chamberlain in Bingley Hall. Mr. Chamberlain, he said, left with them a legacy of Tariff reform, and they had seen that policy carried with enthusiasm by the whole country and so established that it would endure for many years.
A Conservative policy, he said, should never frighten our people if it meant change. ‘We are living in times when change is necessary, when it is essential. We are going, as it were, through uncharted seas economically and industrially, and I myself would shrink from no methods – nor would my colleagues – if they felt they were methods that would help the country.
‘You see these new methods being tried today. You have had a discussion on them this afternoon with regard to agriculture. We are experimenting; experiments must go on, and I am quite sure that all those who look back, as every Tory must look back, to Disraeli for inspiration will never be afraid to go forward, and will never shrink responsibility because it is not one that has been borne by someone else before.’
‘And now, for a few moments,’ said Mr. Baldwin, ‘I wish to speak to you about the maintenance of the constitution. In the last century, those of us engaged in political life – and I was in a humble sphere – used to speak of the maintenance of the Constitution; but really there was very little to threaten it. There have been in the last century growls about the Monarchy, growls about the Second Chamber, but that is all. And, indeed, it is curious to think that in this year of Grace our Constitution, of all others, should be challenged at all.
‘Our Constitution is no ready-made article. It has grown through the centuries, as native to our country and to our people as oak or ash or thorn. It has seen changes; it has seen revolutions. It has seen the country struggling against mighty forces; it has seen her triumph.
‘It has given her people freedom and it has taught her people the difference between freedom and license. And this is the Constitution that is being threatened today, not quite openly yet, but tendenciously, by the sketching of a course of action by the Socialist Party in their conference that, if it takes place, means destruction of the Constitution.
‘You may disguise that as much as you like, but in effect, to take away executive power from the House of Commons is the way in which every tyranny starts. It is a proletarian Hitlerism, and it is nothing else, and it can be nothing else. I want you to realise it in time.
Task for Rank and File
I have spoken about it already on the platform. I warned the people some months ago, but I want to tell you this: This is an Inkerman, a rank and a file engagement. The problems today are so continuous. So multifarious – what time have we to come down into the country and become continually talking on these subjects? We cannot do it. But does not it point out to you the absolute necessity of maintaining, of recreating, if necessary, your organisation, your associations right through the country, and equipping yourselves – don’t go into this struggle unequipped – to deal with the arguments that will be used, and explaining what that kind of stuff which is being put out at Socialist conferences really means and what it will lead to if persisted in? (Applause)
‘In the defence, the maintenance of the Constitution, you will be fighting for one of the fundamental principles of the Conservatism, of Conservatism since there was such a thing politically. But it is not only a fundamental principle of Conservatism; it is a principle deep down in the hearts of millions of Englishmen who do not belong to our party or any party. Join hands with all of them who will fight that thing to the death, who will lay it out flat and beat it and knock it out. (Cheers)
These schemes are not of English origin. They belong to countries who do not know what freedom means and who have not been able to maintain Parliamentary Government. They are alien in their traditions, they are alien in their action. And, for myself, I would only repeat the words of a great Englishman who lived in the seventeenth century, and of whom I am a great admirer. In speaking of himself and his friends he said this: “For the earth of England he would rather die than see a spire of English grass trampled down by a foreign trespasser. He thinketh there are a great many of his mind, for all plants are apt to his taste of the soil in which they grow, and we that grow here have a root that produceth in us a stalk of English juice which is not to be changed by grafting or foreign infusions.”’ (Loud cheers)