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Leader's speech, Scarborough 1937

Neville Chamberlain (Conservative)

Location: Scarborough


This conference was Chamberlain’s first as Party Leader and Prime Minister. A major theme of this address was foreign affairs, notably the wars in China and Spain. As regards the former, the League of Nations proposed a conference of the signatories of the Nine Power Treaty and other nations with interests in the Far East to discuss how this war might be ended. Meanwhile, Britain, France and Italy were co-operating to resolve the conflict in Spain. For Chamberlain, these events highlighted the importance of continuing with Britain’s re-armament programme. Other issues at the time were Britain’s continuing industrial growth, agricultural reforms, and pensions.

It is almost exactly a year since we last met by the seaside and I am glad to see that your high spirits have not abated nor your fighting qualities diminished. In fact you don’t look a. day older than when I saw you last at Margate. As for me I have indeed assumed new responsibilities since I became Leader of the Party but the burden sits easily on my shoulders because I am supported by a harmonious and united Government, and by a Party which has no differences to hide and no division of its loyalty to its leaders. And so I have no need to warn anyone here that if he doesn’t mend his was he will have to be smacked and sat in a corner. I have no need to appeal to you to close your ranks and keep the Party pure from the corrupting influence of outsiders; and I have no reason to fear that any of my colleagues is harbouring the intention of bringing dissension among us by advocating from inside a policy different from that approved by the Party itself.


In these happy circumstances I can proceed at once to my first and most pleasant duty which is to thank you for all the work you have done in the constituencies during the past year. There can have been few occasions when, it was possible to look back on the visible results of your labours with so much satisfaction. We are now nearing the end of the sixth year of National Government and since we last met there have been a quite unusual number of opportunities for the country to express its disapproval, if it felt any, of our record. Yet out of 27 bye-elections which have taken place since last October only two have been lost to our Socialist opponents, while 25 have been retained by supporters of the National Government.

I think we may all claim some share of the credit for such an unprecedented result, the Government for a policy which has kept the peace and maintained the prosper­ity of the country and you for the careful organisation and the downright hard work you have put in which has enabled us to bring our supporters to the poll. And I think it
would be ungenerous not to admit that the Socialist Party has had some share in our success. For surely no Party has ever backed the wrong horse more persistently than they nor bitten one another with greater ferocity when they discovered their mistakes.


During this week they and we have both been holding our Conferences. I shall have something to say later on about one item in the new ‘short programme’ which they have adopted and I will only observe now that though the programme may be short the time is likely to be long before the country returns them to power to carry out proposals which would at once destroy confidence and paralyse employment. Our Conference has been less dramatic but more businesslike. I have already studied or had reported to me the gist of the various discussions that have been taking place and I can promise you now that I will give careful and personal consideration to the views which the Conference has expressed.

Foreign Affairs

This is the one occasion in the year when I can speak face to face with representatives of the Party from all parts of the country, and I want to take advantage of it to review the whole field of politics so far as I can do that without trespassing unduly on your time.

I make no excuse for devoting the first part of what I have to say to foreign affairs.

In these days we never seem to be able to free ourselves for more than a few days from international problems which affect our interests directly or indirectly but which arise from circumstances beyond our control. The primary responsibility for our policy and for the action we take from time to time to deal with these problems rests upon the Foreign Secretary, and no member of the Government is subjected to so continuous and exhausting a strain upon his physical and mental resources as the man who holds that office. Happily, in our present Foreign Secretary, Mr. Eden, we have a statesman who combines all the energy and vitality of youth with an un­rivalled experience of men and affairs in all parts of the world, and we all have reason to be grateful to him for the tact and skill which he has devoted to the maintenance of peace and the care with which he watches over the interests of this country.

At the present moment there are some grave matters occupying his attention. Although in neither case has there been any formal declaration of war yet, there are in fact two major wars in progress, one close at hand in Spain, the other far away in China. Both of them are being characterised by the use of bombing aeroplanes and in both cases non-combatants, men, women and children, are being killed and mutilated by the action of aerial weapons, which we are told are aimed at military objectives, but which in no case can be considered as instruments of precision. It is a sickening and horrifying spectacle from which the mind revolts and it has aroused in many countries the strongest feelings of indignation at its inhumanity - and sympathy with its helpless victims. Yet it seems to me that there is some danger lest these natural human feelings should miss the real point at which they should be directed. Cruelty and barbarity, mutilation and death of non-combatants, destruction of property, starvation and misery are the inevitable accompaniments of modern warfare. The real crime against humanity goes further back than that. It lies in having resort to force at all, in contradiction of engagements solemnly entered into, without even an attempt to settle differences by peaceful discussion and negotiation.

Three days ago the attention of the world was arrested by a clarion call from the other side of the Atlantic, as welcome as it was timely in its utterance. Hitherto it has been assumed that the U.S.A., the most power­ful country in the world, would remain content with a frankly isolationist policy. But President Roosevelt has seen that if what he calls the epidemic of world lawlessness is allowed to spread no country will be safe from attack. In his declaration of the necessity for a return to a belief in the pledged word and the sanctity of treaties, he has voiced the convictions of this country as well as of his own, and in his call for a concerted effort in the cause of peace this Government will be wholeheartedly with him.

You will have seen that on the initiative of the League Assembly, it is proposed to hold a conference of the signatories of the Nine Power Treaty and other Powers with interests in the Fax East. I have little doubt after the President’s speech that the United States Government will agree to be represented at that conference and to consult with other members as to how the conflict in China may be brought to an end. It would clearly be premature at this stage for me to commit this Government to any particular course of action. I will only say that our governing objective, now as always, is the restoration and maintenance of peace, and we will gladly co-operate in any plan which will help to secure that end.

Events in the Fax East have for the moment diverted attention from the Mediterranean, but the war drags on in Spain and the situation in that country is still causing us increasing anxiety. We were sincerely rejoiced that it was found possible to come to an agreement with the Italian Government as to the patrolling of the Mediterranean by French, Italian and British warships, and we felt encouraged to hope that that agreement might be followed up by further discussions between the three Powers with a view to making the policy of non-intervention really effective. We are still awaiting the Italian reply to our invitation but I earnestly trust that it may prove to be of such a character as to bring us all into greater harmony. If we could once make real progress in the settlement of the Spanish problem the way would be opened to those conversations which formed the subject of the recent correspondence between Signor Mussolini and myself.


In the meantime until the world recovers some of its sanity, there can be no halt in the process of rearming this country. On that point there is practically only one opinion now, since the Chairman of the Labour Party Conference, in the sole passage of his rumbustious speech which has attracted any attention outside, declared that this country must be powerfully armed. Certainly we have not had much help in arming the country from the Labour Party, who have consistently voted against all the service estimates, but as there is more joy over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just men who support the National Government and have no need of repentance, we very heartily welcome this belated conversion to the true faith.

Such was Dr. Dalton’s trust in the National Government that he did not think it necessary to ask any questions about the progress of rearmament, but I do not suppose you will be so easily satisfied and I am sure you would be disappointed if I did not give you some account of how we are getting on. Well I must say frankly that progress is not yet as fast as I should like or as it soon will be. But on the other hand anyone who has any conception of the vast scale of our programme, much vaster than anything we have ever attempted before in peace time, must have realised that before we were able to start on mass production an immense amount of preparatory work had to be done. New designs had to be perfected and tried out, priorities determined, sites acquired, factories built, new tools manufactured and placed in position, and contracts placed. All this had to be done before we could even begin our new programme and upon the thoroughness with which this task is performed necessarily depends the smoothness and speed with which subsequent production will proceed.

I am glad to say that this preparatory stage is now practically completed and that production has begun in earnest. All three services are sharing in the general activity. The new Secretary of State for War - you may have noticed his picture in the papers - is devoting his ingenious mind and his untiring energy to mastering every detail that concerns our army and other people’s armies, too. Under his watchful eye I have every confidence that no military problem, great or small, will be overlooked and that though our army will not compare in size with the huge conscript armies of the Continent, it will, when fully equipped, be thoroughly adapted to the task it has to fulfil. As for the Territorial Army, I am glad to say that it is rapidly increasing its strength and as more equipment becomes available I anticipate that we shall have no difficulty in filling its ranks to the full numbers required.

As for the Navy the Foreign Secretary recently gave some figures at Geneva which I am told profoundly impressed those who heard him. I need not repeat them here in detail but I may remind you of his statement that the aggregate tonnage actually now being built or already sanctioned by Parliament for the British Navy exceeds half-a-million tons, while the naval personnel is being extended at a rate never attempted before in time of peace. 

It is perhaps the condition of the Air Force which has been the subject of the greatest amount of attention, and some anxiety has been expressed about the pace at which it is expanding. Yet there is plenty of evidence apparent to everyone who moves about the country that its activities are increasing with great rapidity and, I am afraid, with a good deal of disturbance to the peace of the countryside. Powerful machines unsurpassed in design and equipment are now steadily coming forward from the manufacturers. The volume of supply will very soon be greatly augmented. You have heard of the shadow factories. Where 12 months ago was nothing but bare ground, aeroplane shops have sprung up, and today in half-a-dozen different places an army of workers as keen as they are skilful is at work operating the very latest types of machine tools. These men, moreover, are working under conditions second to none in the world in the provision that is made for their health and well-being. The result of all this and of the ready response to the call for men which shows no sign of diminishing can be seen in the fact that in the space of the last two years the strength of our home based force has been nearly trebled, an expansion at a rate and on a scale never attempted before.


It might naturally be expected that with this rapidly growing production of armaments our ordinary commercial business would be showing signs of getting squeezed out. No doubt it must be suffering some disturbance from the pressure of munition orders, yet it continues to show an astonishing resilience and there is still no visible sign of that slump which our political opponents continue to prophesy with such obviously pleasurable anticipation. No doubt it is distressing to them that the policy of the Government which they describe as a public danger should have produced results which compare so strikingly with the conditions which prevailed when they were last in office. Let me give you one or two figures which will demonstrate the improvement.

In the first six months of this year industrial production as a whole was 50% greater than in the first half of 1931. Production of pig iron was 100% more, of crude steel 120% more, of artificial silk 220%, and of motors more than 100%.  

During the 5 years 1932-1936, 2,688 new factories were opened in Great Britain providing employment for a quarter of a million workpeople. Nearly 250 of these factories (many of which employ processes new to this country) were set up here by or in association with foreign concerns, attracted here by the tariff.

The amount of merchant tonnage under construction in our shipyards at the and of June was 120% greater than at the end of June 1931, while the amount of British shipping laid up was only 3% of what it was six years ago.

Those who pretend that our tariffs obstruct inter­national trade should note that our retained imports in the first six months of this year were 40% greater in volume than they were in the corresponding period in 1931, and those who maintain that they injure our export trade may be reminded that taking the same two periods our exports have risen by 32%. The effect of our policy on employment is shown by the fact that the number of insured persons in employment excluding agricultural workers has risen by two millions.

There is a story that someone once complained to George II that General Wolfe, who afterwards took Quebec, was mad, to which the King replied, ‘Mad, is he? Then I wish he would bite some of my other Generals.’ And if the Government that has achieved the results I have quoted is a public danger, the Opposition will have to catch some of the infection before it can hope to be given employment again.

Now before I leave the subject of industry there is one point on which I should like to say a few words because I notice that our opponents are trying to represent that the recent increase in the cost of living is somehow due to the Government, and their suggestion is that under a Socialist Government prices would at once fall. Well the first remark I would make is that the cost of living is still below what it was in 1929, while the average level of weekly wage rates is substantially higher than it was at that time. But of course the fact is that the present rise in prices is an inevitable accompaniment of the general improvement in conditions. One of the most marked features of the slump was the disastrous fall in the prices of primary commodities and the consequent loss of purchasing power in those countries which depend for their prosperity upon the money they can get for their exports of those commodities. Countries like Australia or the Argentine live on their exports of wool and meat and maize and wheat and when prices of these articles slump, their purchases from this country are bound to fall off. We should therefore welcome the better prices which are now ruling for these growers of food and producers of raw materials since we are reaping the benefit ourselves in the increased export trade which we are doing with them today.

It would be too much to expect that the weekly earnings of the workers should keep an exact relation to the cost of living, but I am satisfied that apart from increases in wage rates, earnings have been largely increased not only by the grading up of individual workers but also by the substitution of full-time for part-time work and by the addition of overtime. And no doubt that is in fact the explanation of what has struck many people as a truly remarkable fact, viz., that this phenomenal increase in the activity of trade and employment has been unaccompanied by any serious labour disputes. That does not mean that the workers have refrained from putting forward their claims. What it does mean is that the gains which have accrued to them have been won by peaceful negotiation instead of by conflict, and I should like to pay my tribute to the wisdom and reasonableness which has characterised both employers and employed in these negotiations and which was strikingly illustrated in the agreement recently reached in the engineering trades. It is with special gratification that I observed the inclusion in that agreement of provision of a holiday period with pay for the wage-earner.


In any survey of conditions in this country the position of industry naturally comes first because we are, and so far as we can foresee we are destined to remain, predominantly an industrial and trading nation. From our industrial and commercial activities the vast bulk of our wealth is derived and in them the overwhelming majority of our population is engaged. Nevertheless there has been in recent years a growing appreciation of the fact that in our national economy a vital position is held by agriculture. It remains our largest single industry, the annual value of its output is in the neighbourhood of £250 million and its maintenance is essential both to our social welfare and to our national safety.

To the recognition of these facts we may attribute the remarkable circumstance that never before has so much time, thought and effort been devoted to the welfare of agriculture as in the half dozen years of National Government.

How best to deal with its needs in a country which is predominantly industrial and commercial is no easy matter to determine. The broad object we have set before ourselves has been to ensure that maximum supplies shall be made available within the purchasing power of the consumer consistent with reasonable remuneration for the efficient producer. There is no single method by which that object can be secured. A policy adapted for products which are mostly imported is not equally suited to those which we produce chiefly at home. Conditions change from time to time and the method which is appropriate today may be out of date tomorrow. Our plans therefore must be capable of adjustment and at different times and for different purposes we have made use of tariff, subsidies and regulation of imports, together with various measures intended to lower costs of production and to increase efficiency both in production and in marketing.

Under the Marketing Acts farmers have special statutory powers to organise their industry and to exercise complete control over the terms of sale of their produce, subject to the necessary public safeguards. By this means milk producers were able to save their industry from disaster in 1933, and pig producers with the assistance of regulated imports have been able to expand the pro­duction of pigs by 40% since 1931. Producers of hops and potatoes have greatly benefited by the stable conditions which their respective schemes have secured. Producers of horticultural products, on the other hand, have received substantial assistance through the imposition of customs duties. In the case of wheat, where home production is small in relation to imports the Wheat Act has given farmers security against slumps in world prices, while the Sugar Industry Act has made it possible to continue the growing of sugar beet and to secure that the industry shall be efficiently worked.

Last session Parliament was engaged on important new policies to benefit the livestock industry and to build up the fertility of the land which has seriously deteriorated during the depression. A duty was imposed on foreign beef. Provision was made for a subsidy of £5,000,000 a year to help the beef producers and its distribution was so arranged as to encourage and assist the production of higher quality beef. The reorganisation of marketing, long overdue, has been tackled and experiments in central slaughtering have been put in hand with a view to reducing the gap between what the consumer pays and what the producer receives. Under the new Agriculture Act we are assisting the farmer to buy lime and basic slag for the purpose of restoring the fertility and productivity of his land and I am glad to say that the number of applica­tions we have already received shows that the farmers fully appreciate the importance of this measure. Under this same Act we are also helping land drainage schemes, we are giving some degree of insurance to growers of oats and barley and lastly we are taking steps to reduce the enormous losses, estimated at £14,000,000 a year, which are now being sustained in consequence of various animal diseases.

This is a long list of measures, some of them very costly, which have been taken to maintain our agricultural industry, and they are evidence of the determination of the Government that agriculture shall not be neglected. There are, however, three branches of the industry which are causing us concern at the present time, namely, those engaged on the production of poultry, pigs and dairy products. The first you have been discussing in the course of the Conference and Mr. Morrison, our genial and very able Minister, has told you what he has in mind on that subject. In the pig and bacon industry, negotiations with the Pigs Board and the Bacon Board followed on the announcement of the Government’s policy in July and they are proceeding satisfactorily. As to milk the general lines of our policy were laid down in the White Paper and put shortly they are these. The key to prosperity in the industry lies in the increase of the consumption of liquid milk. We believe that by publicity and in other ways that increase can be obtained, but it is essential that the public should have complete confidence in the cleanliness and purity of the milk supply if they are to increase their demand for what is one of the most valuable of human foods. Accordingly the Government are proposing to ask Parliament to provide additional Exchequer assistance estimated to amount to £14 millions in the first year for measures to further this object and to supplement the efforts the farmers themselves have been making to improve the quality of their milk.

The difficulties that are being encountered in dealing with the milk problem illustrate both the inter­dependence of town and country and the need for mutual appreciation of one another’s requirements. A fertile soil with healthy stock upon it capable of responding if need be to a call for increased production is an asset to the whole nation. A prosperous agriculture is a necessity to the towns since it provides industry with one of its best customers. But on the other hand I would ask farmers to bear in mind that in the purchasing power of the towns lies the very foundation of farming prosperity, and that in trying to help them the Government must be careful to preserve as far as possible all the sources of that purchasing power. Only by mutual understanding and mutual tolerance can we hope to preserve the stability which is essential to both town and country.


When I had the privilege last year of addressing a similar meeting to this at Margate I was still Chancellor of the Exchequer. Since then I have handed over the responsibility for the National Finances to Sir John Simon, and it could not be in abler hands. But after nearly six years experience of that great office it would be difficult for me, even if I wished it, to banish its problems from my thoughts, and I cannot refrain tonight from saying a few words of warning to you about the future. It would be a mere hiding of our heads in the sand to imagine that when we have committed ourselves to the vast programme of expenditure on armaments that has been forced upon us, we can at the same time have just as much to spend on other things as if we lived in a peaceful world free from all anxiety and care about the intentions and ambitions of other countries. We may, and we do, deplore the stupidity, the futility of spending our money on weapons of destruction instead of things that would make us all happier and life more worth living, but ‘needs must when the devil drives,’ and the sight of what is going on in China today brings home to us that our safety from such horrors is more precious to us than anything else. But safety cannot be attained without sacrifice, and I say to you that I cannot see any prospect of our being able in the near future to introduce reforms which would add substantially to the present enormous annual expenditure of the country. I say this tonight because I notice that our Socialist opponents are making great play with a new contributory pensions scheme of £1 a week for a single person, and 35/- for a married couple at 65, provided they retire from employment, together with increased allowances to children of widows and to orphans. The full details of the scheme are contained in a report by the National Council of Labour which I hold in my hand. I do not complain of the Report, which goes very carefully into the whole question and concludes with an estimate of its cost. I have not checked the figures, but taking them as they stand, they show that the average cost of the scheme over the first ten years would be £85,000,000 a year.

The authors of the Report state that it is not unreasonable or impracticable to ask for an additional 1/- a week from each insured male, and 9d. a week from each insured female employee and that if the employers also paid 1/- a week for each employee, whether male or female, in addition to what they pay now, the combined contribution of employers and employed would bring in the required £85,000,000. It is further suggested that if Budgetary conditions permitted, the State would find some portion of the £85,000,000, and to that extent the contributions could be reduced, but that the proportions to be contributed respectively by the State and the contributors must be settled when the scheme is intro­duced in the light of the conditions then prevailing.

As I have said, I have not attempted to check the accuracy of these figures, nor do I want now to consider what would be the effect on industry and employment of the imposition of this new burden. What I want to call your attention to is the way this scheme is being presented to the public. It is recognised that they cannot be expected to read through the 32 pages of close print in this Report, and so the plan is dished up in a more attractive form with coloured pictures to be sold for a penny. But there is a significant omission in this broadsheet. Here we are told that ‘Labour in power will immediately increase the present pension to £1 a week,’ and that ‘Labour’s Pension Plan will mean that the vast majority of men and women in your Britain will be assured of a reasonably comfortable retirement.’

But about the £85 millions there is not a word. There is not a word to indicate that Labour’s Pension Plan is not a free gift to the worker but is to be paid for by increased contributions which may be as much as 1/- a week additional to what he pays now. Well, I consider that dishonest politics, dishonest because it omits a vital consideration in any estimate of the value of the plan, and still more dishonest because it promises definitely benefits which, so far as I can see, this country will not for many years be able to afford.


I do not believe that tactics of this kind bring credit in the long run to the Party that adopts them, and I trust that our Party will never promise anything that we are not confident we can perform. There will still remain for us a wide field of practicable and useful reforms which will make no extravagant demands upon the national purse. Such is the new plan for improving the physical fitness of the nation which we have launched and which has aroused the greatest interest and enthusiasm, especially among the young people for whose benefit it has been devised. Let us apply our energies in the next few years to the preservation of peace, to perfecting our defence, to the pursuit of the policies which have brought our country to its present condition of general prosperity, to the introduction of such reforms as can wisely and prudently be undertaken and to the preservation of our free democratic institutions based on the principles of individual liberty and tolerance in which we have grown up. By concentration on a practical programme on these lines we shall deserve better of our country than by making promises, however brilliant, which can lead only to delusion and disappointment.

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