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Leader's speech, Bournemouth 1935

Stanley Baldwin (Conservative)

Location: Bournemouth


The central theme of Baldwin’s address was international affairs, and he began by rejecting the view that Britain should withdraw from the League of Nations. For Baldwin, this move would be highly dangerous because the development of aviation made the defence of national borders more difficult. Moreover, he continued, the Empire would collapse if Britain ceased to be part of Europe. A key issue at the time of the Conference was Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Although Italy and Abyssinia were both members of the League of Nations, this organisation was proving powerless to halt the conflict. A further important issue was German rearmament and the rise of Nazism, and Baldwin closed this speech by emphasising the need to safeguard Britain’s spiritual values and standard of living.

At this critical moment you will not be surprised if I devote nearly the whole of my speech to a consideration of current events and their reactions in this country.

I propose to speak about what is present in all your minds tonight, and must have been for some little time, and will, I fear, be for a little time yet.  Let us try to do a little clear thinking and clarify the issues that lie before us.

There has always been a not unnatural feeling in some sections of our Party that while the ideal of a League of Nations is a great one, there are practical difficulties connected with it that render it extremely doubtful whether we can, or should, give it wholehearted support.

I am not speaking of the moment.  I am speaking of the past, and I want us, for a moment, to consider why it was that the League of Nations was started and why the desire for its foundation found an echo in the hearts of so many of our fellow countrymen.

It is no new thing that, after a great war, the world should feel it ought to be possible to make some arrangement to devise some mechanism that might make such experiences impossible in the future.  No such scheme, no such machinery has yet been devised.  But, I think, what we all felt, at the end of the War, was that war had taken on a new face.

There was something that differentiated the last war from all previous wars, and it was this – that the march of science had placed a power of slaughter into the ranks of modern armies that no armies in the past had ever possessed.

That very nearly resulted, in Europe, in throwing back our civilisation for generations, and people felt that at the rate at which science was progressing it might well be that these perils and dangers might be magnified many-fold in ten or twenty years, and that an effort to make war, if not impossible, difficult in its inception should be taken by humanity, lest its civilisation should be wiped out.

There is no doubt in my mind that, had the whole world joined the League of Nations, and had the will to restrain war been there, the League could have prevented war.

There are various – I am not going to specify – important nations outside the League, and the task is more difficult, but if the task be abandoned now, all chance will be gone of what may still be possible, to get the nations of the world inside it.

But there is a school of thought, and it is sometimes connected with those who share very much the views that I and many others hold on Imperial questions.  It is the isolation school, who would fetch us out of the League, and who would believe that this country and the Empire would be safer outside than in.

I want to say a word or two about that, because I believe that to be a fundamental and most dangerous heresy at the moment and far more dangerous in the future.  I believe it to be dangerous on National and Imperial grounds.  I believe it, in short, to be impossible.

I come again to the march of science that is only beginning.  The world is infinitely closer today owing to the facilities of modern transport than it has ever been, and it will get closer.  Frontiers, which a few short years ago were simply defined and easy to guard, are now neither.  They are not simply defined and they are not easy to guard.

The reduction of distance, now that flying is making the strides that it does – if that be not a mixed metaphor – the effect on this country, so far as its defence goes, is very much as though the land which was submerged in far-distant geological ages, and gave way to that stretch of water between us and the continent of Europe, were once again rising, and making a bridge over which people might pass, and on which we might well, some day, have to defend ourselves.

Let us never forget this.  The centre of our Empire, and, so far as we can see, for many generations to come, lies in, and will lie in, this Island.  If this Island perish with all that it stands for, I doubt if the Empire can hold together, and in my view the maintenance of the Empire will depend on the maintenance of the position of this heart of the Empire in Europe. 

And, unless that heart be secure and beat strongly and firmly, the current of life blood will cease to flow throughout the world where our children are in the Seven Seas. 

I should like to quote you a short passage which I employed last year in the House of Commons, which may be new to many of you, and which was written by a great student of politics, and a great supporter of ours, Mr. Frederick Oliver.  He puts in a few pregnant sentences what I have been trying to express to you in my more faulty phraseology.

He was speaking of foreign policy in the second quarter of the Eighteenth Century, and how impossible it was then for this country to pursue an isolationist policy, and he says this:

'The people whose home is Britain cannot escape from their practical environment.  Isolation is a bubble of a distorted imagination.  Weary with an apparently insoluble confusion, tested by endless provocation, haunted by the memory of a thousand fears, in the past British statesmen have sometimes been tempted to bid other nations of Europe to go their way and let us ourselves go in peace.'

But the very essence of the matter is that no one of us can go his own way.  Individual men may go, as the Pilgrim Fathers went, but the nations cannot go, and it is not the worse that human kind should choose to stay where they are born, and since we are forced to stay, we must play our parts manfully or be borne under.

If we allow our prestige to become impaired, if we shirk responsibility and let things of moment go by default – in other words, if we cease to care whether our strength is recognised or not, whether our voice is audible in the councils of Europe, we lose the chief security of our independence.

We risk our own ruin, we injure the whole Continental fabric.  Confusion and disaster will follow as certainly as if one of the planets of the solar system should cease to pull its weight.

These words might have been used to meet the crisis facing us at this moment.

Without pursuing the subject, I would like to add one sentence.  I spoke of our Imperial responsibilities.

In my view the time may come when events in Europe may have repercussions that may be felt throughout the whole British Empire, and we cannot afford, not only nationally, but as an Empire, to refuse to play our part in the continent in which the hand of God has placed us.  (Cheers)

We are pledged by our signatures to the Covenant of the League; we have signed the Kellogg Pact.  It is not only, in my view, our vital interests which dictate our policy, but it is the fulfilment of our solemn international pledges.

I have noticed, during the last weeks, while the present grave issue between the League of Nations and Italy has been debated in Geneva, that it has been represented in many countries abroad as an issue between this country alone and Italy.  Though amongst our own people the nature of the dispute is fully realised, I wish to remove any shadow of misunderstanding on this point, if it should still exist anywhere.

We have, from the very beginning, spoken and acted on this issue solely in our capacity as a member of the League and in fulfilment of our obligations under the Covenant.  There never has been, and I hope never will be, national enmity between my country and Italy.

That we should urge our fellow members of the Council to oppose Italy from selfish or mean motives of our own would not only be repugnant to our national self-respect, but an abuse of the whole spirit and intention of the Covenant, to which his Majesty’s Government would lend no countenance.  (Cheers)

I go still further.  This country resents, and indignantly rejects, the suspicions which have been caused by its sincerity in defending the country.  It will bode ill for the League of Nations if one of its leading members, in proclaiming its fidelity to obligations to which all are equally bound of their own free will, can be held up to suspicion and misrepresentation of these motives.

I trust that we have heard the end of this (cheers), and in making it clear that we are actuated by no such motives, I wish to make it clear that the Government have not, and never have had, any intention of taking isolated action in this dispute.

If the security which the nations of Europe regard as a primary need for their peaceful development can best be achieved by collective counsel and collective action, then the responsibility for any action that may be taken rests on all, and must be faced squarely by all.  The Secretary for Foreign Affairs laid full emphasis on this essential aspect of the problem now confronting all of us who are members of the League, and I wish to call attention, once more, to the words which he spoke to the whole world on the occasion of his great speech at Geneva:

I have said already that we must all share the responsibilities, and so all will share the benefits, and don’t let us underrate or overlook the benefit to ourselves.  I regard collective security not only of real and practical benefit to this country, but as something which affords us greater security than can be obtained by any other policy which I have yet seen advocated.

But we cannot achieve our policy and our goal by mere words.  The Government have made up their mind as to the wisest course to pursue.  Our primary necessity is to see that peace is preserved in Europe.  We believe that, from collective security and the League of Nations, we have to our hands the best means of preserving peace, or of exercising some measure of control over events should peace be temporarily broken.

It is certainly the hope of His Majesty’s Government - and I believe I can say of all the Governments represented at Geneva - that is the desire to help and to be maintained.

I should like to pay tribute to the unswerving loyal support we are receiving at Geneva from every representative of the Empire, from every quarter of the globe.  Grave reports have reached the Council of the League within the last day or so regarding the movement of troops and aircraft within the boundaries of Abyssinia.  The situation thus created will form the subject of the Council’s deliberations at their meeting tomorrow morning.

You will not expect me to say anything now which might prejudice, in any way, their work or the issue.  I am confident, however, that I am voicing the sentiments of the whole country in appealing to Italy in this dispute, even at this hour, to refrain from action which will render the task of the Council more arduous.

Let us keep before our minds, during the difficult days ahead, the main objective of the League and its members, that any action taken must be with the approval and support and collaboration of all, and that it should work for the shortening of the conflict and the hastening of a satisfactory agreement.

I would only add, on this subject, that there is no truth in the propaganda that is being assiduously put forward abroad, and which I have seen stated in this country, that we have not advised Italy of our views for many months past.  From the earliest days in this crisis there has been frequent and constant diplomatic touch maintained, and if that be challenged, the Foreign Secretary will be ready at any time in the House of Commons to meet it with more detail than would be suited to a large public meeting of this kind.

But I want to say to you that recent events have confirmed my own doubts and anxieties, which have been present with me and my colleagues for some time past.  We have, as you know, since the War, done more in the way of practical disarmament and more in reducing expenditure on necessary equipment than any other country – I was going to say in the World – but I will certainly say in Europe.

We cannot pursue that path longer.  The whole perspective on the Continent has been altered in the last year or two by the rearming of Germany.

I have no reason to believe any hostile intentions.  I do not look on Germany, or on any other country as necessarily a hostile foe.  I hope, indeed, for a continuance of that friendship which, after the Great War, we have so often succeeded in making with those who have recently been our foes in the field.

But I cannot be blind to facts; that the presence of another great nation, armed, alters the perspective in Europe.

In the fulfilment of obligations under the League of Nations, I cannot conceal from myself that some day the fulfilment of those obligations may be that the nations who are fulfilling them may have to maintain by force of arms the Covenant of the League.

I ask myself, with all the responsibility that falls upon me as principal adviser to his Majesty, how far I am entitled to accept fully those obligations without repairing the deficiencies which we have made, and for which all of us are responsible since the War.  It is a responsibility, but I cannot bear or shoulder a responsibility which I do not think his Majesty’s Government, on examination, would be prepared to shoulder.

We have one other thing to remember in connection with the League of Nations, another pregnant fact – that we have today a new factor in Europe.

We have dictatorships; and we know that, historically, however pacifist the early stages of such forms of Government may be in its intentions, we know too well the tendency that has shown itself later to divert attention from domestic difficulties to external adventure.

While such conditions exist, and remembering the responsibility we have for our people, I am not satisfied with the position as it is today.  It is neither the time nor the place to go into further details on this matter, but I would repeat once more, there is a risk in accepting obligations as a member of the League of Nations unless we are able to carry out these obligations to the full.

I do not like the doubt and questionings which have reached me from the world at large as to our ability to fulfil our obligations.  So long as those doubts exist, our words will not carry that weight in the councils of the world that the word of Great Britain always has carried, always ought to carry and, I hope, always will carry.

In no conceivable circumstances, as I have said in the House of Commons, must we feel that we are inferior in the air of anyone within striking distance of this country, and in no conceivable circumstances should it be impossible for our people, whatever may happen, to be secured in the services of their food from overseas.

I have taken rather longer than I intended on this subject, but I want to say something on the resolution in regard to sanctions that was passed at another seaside town at a Labour Conference there.

I do not want today – the matter is much too serious – to say much that might be said about that Conference.  I want to speak to you of the gravity of that resolution, and I want to give you one or two thoughts that have occurred to me on this subject, and may well have occurred to those who belong to our great Party – and, indeed, to others.

I rejoice in the fact that that resolution was passed – (cheers) – but I do feel this – and I think clear-sighted men in the Labour Party would agree with me – that the Party as a whole will not realise all the implications of their resolution until they acquire that knowledge that is only to be got when they are in office.

Of course, it was supported by the Trade Unions.  Trade Unionism, like the Friendly Societies, is a peculiarly English growth.

This country is the native soil in which such institutions are indigenous.  They are integral parts of the country’s life, and they are a great stabilising influence.  Perhaps some of our Party who take a less wide view than I do in having to look forward, as I do, may say, ‘Oh, well, they did not make things easy in 1926, and some other years we can think of.’  That may be true, but it does not alter the truth of the general proposition that I lay down.

Let me ask you to watch carefully the continuous efforts that are being made by the Communist Party to attempt to destroy Trade Unionism.

They do not want to destroy them for nothing.  The spirit of Trade Unionism is the bulwark of popular liberty.  If Trade Unionism was destroyed, you would be on the road to Communism and from Communism to Fascism.

Let anyone in this island who has a knowledge of industry in industrial regions try to imagine what industry would be like today if there were no Trade Unions.  It would be chaos, absolute chaos, and chaos that would lead to disaster.

I have said these few words because I have no doubt, in my own mind, and I am convinced, that while Trade Unions are wholehearted supporters of the League of Nations in this present action, they no doubt feel that the country, the case of which is now being considered by the League, is a Fascist country in which the Trade Unions have been suppressed.

That would be equally true of Germany and Russia.  In my view Fascism, or any state of Government which will suppress the freedom of Trade Unionism, is a very chimera, a very bogey, a figment of the imagination. 

There is only one risk of a Fascist rule in Great Britain – that is if we ever get Communism first.  Fascism in Italy, as Mussolini himself would confess, was built up on the defeat of Communism, and the success of Nazism in Germany was brought about by the defeat of Communism.

Until the Trade Unions in this country cease to be the constitutional bodies that they are today, and become controlled by Communists, or by people with Communist leanings, and try to form some dictatorship in this country, not till then will you see that swing to the Right that always answers it, and seeks by force to impose its will on the country, as has been tried by the extremists.  No extremists will get into that position by force in this country, because of that respect, born in all of us, of law and order.

I have only said that because I do not myself believe that there is the slightest chance within any period of time that I can foresee that anything of the kind can happen.  This country has its feet too firmly planted on the path of constitutional progress that has served her people well.  I think she will be stimulated to tread in those paths by the sight of what we can see in countries not so placed as we.

But, before I leave the subject of Fascism and Nazism, I want to add this.  In all movements there is good and there is bad.  I spoke earlier about the advent of dictatorship which made the outlook in Europe more uncertain, and made those anxious for the security of their own country more inclined to study the new conditions, and to advise the country to secure itself in certain directions against possibilities in the future.

The good in these movements, which was so obvious in their earlier state, was the inculcation of discipline among the youth of the country, based on love of their country, and the desire to make themselves fit for the service of their country.  Up to a point that is an ideal we would all like to see in this country – our people fit for the service of their country, by which I mean their work and labours to make our country a better and happier place.

Then youth will always be prepared, as men of all ages will, to defend their country if their country is attacked.  But you have got another form of patriotism, which I think is a spurious form, and that is where the danger comes.

When your love of country leads you not only to make your country a better country, not only to be prepared to defend your country if she is attacked, but when you desire your country to make war against other people for purposes of her own aggrandisement.

When you get that idea widely spread in a nation you have got a situation that may be dangerous to the neighbours of that country.

Economic conditions today are a real danger.  I will show you how.  You all know the difficulties we have had.

You all know the work, on the part of Governments and of Parliament and of social workers, to help our unemployed and to find work for them.  We know what great strides have been made in the last four years.  We know that we have not yet conquered that problem, and how for the purposes of political warfare far more stress is laid on those who have not got work than on the many who have got work.

We make no complaint of that, but we see that in some of the countries of Europe, where unemployment has been rife, where the standard of work has been low, the attempt has not been made, as we have made it, to carry the unemployed, but work has been found on the manufacture of material and munitions for war.  That means that some countries are in the process to become fully equipped for war, and those who remember the last war know the part that equipment plays.

Such a situation may be sometimes a situation of danger, it is not a situation that can be ignored by any Government.  We have to guard, in this country, a social life and a standard of life better than any that exists in Europe.

So much for the material side.  But we have to guard certain spiritual values of infinitely more importance and value to mankind – that love of freedom and that love of justice, without which we could not survive.

There are many throughout the world today who still worship silently, steadily, and alone at those shrines at which we worship so freely in this country.  You may depend they are all watching and sympathising with us, and praying that we may be strong enough to hold aloft those torches until mankind has found more wisdom, and recognises that they are the better part for mankind.  (Cheers)

With those thoughts in our minds, we shall in due course, when we come to put our programmes forth, make clear both of these matters of making good equipment and material so long neglected, and what we think should be done.

And I want to tell you that, at the same time, while I know these things must be done, and while I know that the expense must be faced, it is not in my mind – and I am sure it is not in the mind of the Government – that we should slacken our efforts by one little whit in continuing with that social progress which we have been able to bring about in this country in recent years.

We have been examining during the Recess many schemes in connection with the depressed areas, and as the Chancellor told you and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour told you, I think we shall be ready when the House meets to put forward our suggestions.

There are questions of vital importance such as the nutrition and physical condition of our people and maternity services with which we must go forward, and if we, in this country, can only keep from serious industrial disturbance, if we can continue on our work, if our industries can go forward and make such profits that we can get a really handsome share of income tax out of them – (laughter) – I, for one, have no fear that this country can carry all the burdens we propose to lay upon it.

But, I want to remind you that the auspices are good.  This Party is united today as closely as it has ever been in nay time of its history.

To come back:  this next election must come upon us – certainly before another year has expired.  (Laughter)  I think it is obvious to all of us in the present condition of external politics that it would be extremely difficult for me to say anything more definite to you this evening.

I have struggled for this ever since I became its leader, because I believe that we should form the largest nucleus to which might be attracted members of other parties, who at critical times would fight for the same great causes that we fight for.  It was in a great fight of that kind that forces were joined to form the National Government four years ago, and in the next fight we have we want all hands on the ropes again.

We want friends to see eye to eye with us – we want friends from the Liberal Party – we want friends from Labour.

The dictators of the world are saying that peoples inside the democratic countries are inferior to them because they are always quarrelling in their politics, and they will never agree on a policy.

Let us show the world when the election comes that whatever issues there may be at the election – let the people of an ancient democracy show that their  cohesion, their purpose, their will can be no whit inferior to that of nay dictatorship that ever existed in this world, or ever will.

It is for us to show that a great people is united and determined in preserving the peace of the world by collective action and to fit themselves for the task, and to attain that end they will shrink from no effort and no sacrifice that may be demanded of them.  (Loud cheers)

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