January 29, 1909 (dated January 30 in Liberalism and the Social Problem)
Liberal Meeting, Victoria Hall, Nottingham
We are met together at a time when great exertions and a high constancy are required from all who cherish and sustain the Liberal cause. Difficulties surround us and dangers threaten from this side and from that. Exultant enemies are gathering: weak friends are nervous or disheartened. Voices are raised in counsels, both equally unwise, of impatience or of lassitude. From such a situation you may emerge triumphant, but to do that there will have to be, in leaders and in followers, shrewd clear plans of action, true stout-hearted comradeship, and unwearying determination. [Cheers]
You know the position which has been created by the action of the House of Lords. Two great political parties divide all England between them in their conflicts. Each commands a powerful organisation; each is backed by numbers; each has its functions, its aspirations, and its sources of strength; and to and fro they swing in their struggles with varying fortunes from year to year, and from election to election—and from their struggles, strange as it may appear, over a long period of years, a steady stream of progress is born.
Now, it is discovered that one of these parties possesses an unfair weapon, that one of these parties, after it is beaten at an election, after it is deprived of the support and confidence of the country, after it is destitute of a majority in the representative Assembly, when it sits in the shades of Opposition without responsibility, or representative authority, under the frown, so to speak, of the Constitution, nevertheless possesses a weapon with which it can harass, vex, impede, affront, humiliate, and finally destroy the most serious labours of the other.
When it is realised that the party which possesses this prodigious and unfair advantage is, in the main, the party of the rich against the poor, of the classes and their dependents against the masses, of the lucky, the wealthy, the happy, and the strong against the left-out and the shut-out millions of the weak and poor, you will see how serious the constitutional situation has become. [Cheers.]
A period of supreme effort lies before you. The election with which this Parliament will close, and towards which we are moving, is one which is different in notable features from any other which we have known. Looking back over the politics of the last thirty years, we hardly ever see a Conservative Opposition approaching an election without a programme—on paper at any rate—of social and democratic reform.
There was Lord Beaconsfield, with his policy of “Health and the laws of health.” There was the Tory democracy of Lord Randolph Churchill in 1885 and 1886, with large far-reaching plans of Liberal and democratic reform, of a generous policy to Ireland, of retrenchment and reduction of expenditure upon naval and military armaments—all promises to the people, and for the sake of which he resigned rather than play them false. [Cheers.] Then you have the elections of 1892 and 1895. In each the Conservative party, whether in office or Opposition, was. under the powerful influence of Mr. Chamberlain, committed to most extensive social programmes, of what we should call Liberal and Radical reforms, like the Workmen’s Compensation Act and old-age pensions, part of which were carried out by them and part by others.
But what social legislation, what plans of reform do the Conservative party offer now to the working people of England if they will return them to power’ I have studied very carefully the speeches of their leaders—if you can call them leaders. I have listened frequently to their contributions to our debates in Parliament, and I have failed to discover a single plan of social reform or reconstruction which they have invented, which they are attached to, or which they have proclaimed.
Upon the grim and sombre problems of the Poor Law they have no policy whatever; upon unemployment no policy whatever; for the evils of intemperance no policy whatever, except to make sure of the public-house vote; upon the question of the land, monopolised as it is in the hands of a few, denied to so many, so much of it fooled away for foxes and pheasants, no policy whatever. In other directions where they have a policy, it is worse than no policy. For the distresses of the Irish, for the relation between the Irish and British peoples, no policy whatever; for Scotland the Lords’ veto; for Wales a Church repugnant to the conscience of the overwhelming majority of the Welsh people, crammed down their throats at their own expense. No, I say that never in modern history has the Conservative party approached an election so utterly devoid not only of any published plan, but of any apparent intention or even wish to remedy or to mitigate the grievances, the gross and cruel injustices for the redress of which appeals have so long and so earnestly been made by important classes of their fellow-countrymen. [Cheers.]
Yet we are told they are confident of victory [laughter]; they are persuaded that the country has already forgotten the follies and even the crimes of the late Administration, and that the general contempt and disgust in which they Were dismissed from power has already passed away. They are already busy making their Cabinet—who is to be put in and what is not less important who is to be put out. [Laughter and cheers.] Lists of selection and lists of proscription are being framed. The two factions into which they are divided—the Balfouritcs and the Tariff “Reformers”—are each acutely conscious of one another’s infirmities, and through their respective organs they have succeeded in proving to their apparent satisfaction what most of us have known and some of us have said for a long time past—that they are an uncommon poor lot all round. It would be bad enough if a party so destitute, according to its own statement, of political merit, so devoid of new and needful political ideas, were to return untaught, unchastened. and unrepentant to the place of power. It would be bad enough if they were to return with the intention of doing nothing but repeating and renewing our experiences under Mr. Balfour’s late Administration—of dragging through empty sessions, of sneering at every philanthropic enthusiasm, of flinging a sop from time to time to the brewers or the barons or the landed classes. [Cheers.] That would be bad enough; but those would not be the consequences which would follow from the Tory triumph. Consequences far more grave, immeasurably more disastrous would follow. We are not offered an alternative policy of progress; we are not confronted even with a policy of stand-still; we are confronted with an organised policy of constructive reaction. We are not to go on. We are not even to hold our own. We are to march back into those shades from which we had hoped British civilisation and British science had finally emerged. Not for many years have the working people of this country been menaced with such an aggressive attack.
If the Conservative party win the election, they have made it perfectly clear that it is their intention to impose a complete protective tariff, and to raise the money for ambitious armaments and colonial projects by taxing the poor. They have declared, with a frankness which is at any rate remarkable, that they will immediately proceed to put a tax on bread, a tax on meat, a tax on timber, and an innumerable schedule of taxes on all unmanufactured articles imported into the United Kingdom; that is to say that they will take by all these taxes a large sum of money from the pockets of the wage-earners by making them pay more for the food they eat, the houses they live in, and the comforts and conveniences which they require in their homes; and that a great part of this large sum of money will be divided between the landlords and the manufacturers in the shape of increased profits, and even that part of it which does reach the Exchequer is to be given back to these same classes in the shape of reductions in income tax and in direct taxation.
Do not allow yourself to be drawn from this plain view of what is called the Tariff “Reform” movement by ingenious sophistries which have often been exposed, by appeals to sentiment of a cheap and false character, or by delusions about taxing the foreigner. [Cheers.] Such treacle is scarcely fit to catch flies with [laughter]—and if you face the policy with which we are now threatened by the Conservative party fairly and searchingly, you will see that, stripped of its disguises and stripped of its ornaments, it is nothing less than a deliberate attempt on the part of important sections of the propertied classes to transfer their existing burdens to the shoulders of the masses of the people, and to gain greater profits for the investment of their capital by charging higher prices. [Cheers.]
It is very natural that a party nourishing such designs should be apprehensive of criticism and of opposition, but I must say I have never heard of a party which was in such a jumpy, nervous state as our opponents are at this present time. If one is led in the course of a speech, as I sometimes am [laughter and cheers], to speak a little firmly and bluntly about the Conservative Tariff “Reformers,” they become almost speechless with indignation. [Laughter.] They are always in a state of incipient political apoplexy, while as for the so-called Liberal Unionists, whenever they are criticised they run off whining and complain that it is unchivalrous to attack them while Mr. Chamberlain is disabled. [Laughter and cheers.] Sorry I am that he is out of the battle, not only on personal but on public grounds. His fiercest opponents would welcome his re-entry into the political arena, if only for the fact that we should then have a man to deal with and someone whose statement of the case for his side would be clear and bold, whose speeches would be worth reading and worth answering, instead of the melancholy marionettes whom the wire-pullers of the Tariff Reform League are accustomed to exhibit on provincial platforms. [Laughter.]
But I hope you will not let these pretexts or complaints move you or prevent you from calling a spade a spade, a tax a tax, a protective tariff a gigantic dodge to cheat the poor, or the Liberal Unionist party the most illiberal thing on record. [Cheers.] But if the Tariff “Reformers” are so touchy and intolerant that they resent the slightest attack or criticism from their opponents as if it were sacrilege, that is nothing to the fury which they exhibit when any of their friends on the Conservative side begin to ask a few questions.
Whatever we may think of the Tariff “Reform” proposals which are now being urged upon us, no one can deny that they raise some of the gravest and most momentous social and economic issues which can possibly be brought before the public, and that they involve consequences of the utmost complexity and importance not only to the working classes, but to all concerned in the trade and commerce of our country. One would have thought, at least, that matters of such gravity and such novelty should be considered fairly on their merits. One would have thought, at least, that conscientious scruples, honest doubts, or differences of view would be accorded some measure of respect.
But what does Mr. Austen Chamberlain say? I refer to him because I am told he is a very important person. [Laughter.] He tells us that no hesitation will be tolerated from Unionist members of Parliament in regard to any tariff reform proposals which may in a future Parliament be submitted by whoever may be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. No hesitation will be tolerated—not opposition, not criticism, not dissent, but no hesitation will be tolerated. [Laughter.] There is to be no hesitation about a tax on bread, no hesitation will be tolerated about a tax on meat, no hesitation about a tax on timber, butter, cheese, eggs, about a tax on every conceivable article of convenience or of comfort used by the working classes of this country.
The members of the Unionist party are to go to the next Parliament, not as honest gentlemen, free to use their minds and intelligences according to the view which they may take at the time of what best suits the public interest. No; they are to go as the pledged, tied-up delegates of a caucus, forced to swallow without hesitation details of a tariff which they have not even seen, denied the right which every self-respecting man should claim—which no self-respecting man can surrender—to give their vote on grand and cardinal issues according to their faith and their conscience; and in order that those who would refuse to be bound by these dishonouring conditions may be smelt out and excluded from the House of Commons, a secret society of nameless but probably interested busy-bodies is hard at work in all the dirtiest sewers of political intrigue. [Laughter and cheers.] Such are the methods by which this great and noble policy which is to raise our taxation from the foreigner, to abolish unemployment, and to consolidate the British Empire is being advanced. [Cheers.]
But, after all, these methods are an inseparable part of the process of carrying a Protectionist tariff. [Cheers.] Every interest that is on the side of the new taxation expects to be paid for its trouble and support, and to be paid promptly. The whole question resolves itself into a matter of “business is business,” and the predatory interests which have landed themselves together to finance and organise the tariff campaign cannot be expected to put up with the conscientious scruples and reasonable hesitations of members of Parliament or what they would consider any nonsense of that sort. It will be a cash transaction throughout with large profits and quick delivery. [Laughter and cheers.] Every would-be monopolist in the country is going to have his own association to run his own particular trade. Every constituency will be forced to join in the scramble, and to secure special favours at the expense of the common-wealth for its special branches of industry. All the elections of the future will turn on tariffs. If the first set of tariffs were framed with some desire to benefit the trade of the country, mistaken though it might be, the second set of tariffs would be framed only for the purpose of enabling a political party to pay its debts to particular sections of its supporters. [Cheers.] Why, you can see the thing beginning already. That egregious “Tariff Commission” has been dividing all the loot among themselves, before the battle has been won—dividing the lion’s skin while the beast lives [laughter and cheers]—and I was reading only the other day that the Conservatives of Norwood have decided that they could not support their member any longer, because, forsooth, he would not pledge himself to vote for a special tax on foreign imported chairs and window panes. [Laughter.] No hesitation can be tolerated in regard to a special tax on chairs and window panes.
It is the same in every country. I received a report last week at the Board of Trade upon the subject of American tariff revision—and tariff reform in the United States, remember, means a reduction and not an increase of duties in which it was stated that the people in Kansas and Missouri, where there were large mining communities who thought their interests would be affected by the tariff alterations on zinc ore, were singing in chapels a hymn, the refrain of which was:
So now we humbly pray that we be saved from ruin’s brink.
We will accept whate’er must be, but, Lord, remember zinc.
Such is the great conspiracy with which the British democracy is now confronted, a three-fold peril, an attempt to place the main burden of taxation upon the shoulders of wage-earners and not on income-drawers, a disastrous blow at the prosperity, the freedom, the flexibility, and the expansive power of British industry, and a deadly injury to the purity of English public life. These will be the consequences, momentous and long enduring, of a tariff victory at the general election; and remember it has been said that it takes ten years to carry a tariff, but it takes a hundred years to abolish it. [Cheers.]
Did I not tell you that this would be an election in which the stakes would be high? Yes, for our part, let us, too, be plain and clear. The Conservative party tell us if they win the victory they will screw a Protective tariff on our necks. What do we say? What of the House of Lords? We say that if we win we will smash to pieces the veto of the House of Lords. [Loud cheers.] If we should obtain a majority at the next election—and I have good hopes that if we act with wisdom and with union, and, above all, with courage, we shall undoubtedly obtain an effective majority [cheers]—the prize we shall claim as the result of that victory will be a final change in the relations of the two Houses of Parliament, of such a character as to enable the House of Commons to make its will supreme within the lifetime of a single Parliament, and except upon that basis, or for the express purpose of effecting that change, we will not accept any responsibility for the conduct of affairs.
I have spoken to you of the constitutional and economic issues which divide great parties, and which will be brought to the test when the electors are next appealed to. But there is another issue which must not be overlooked. I mean the social issue.
Do not let us in our zeal for the great causes which are at stake in the political and economic field forget the crying, humble needs of the neglected millions of our population. [Cheers.] We have taken a great step already. [Cheers.] I must say that he is rather a sour kind of man who can find nothing to notice in the Old-age Pensions Act except its little flaws and petty defects. [Cheers.] How can anybody suppose that such a tremendous departure into ground hitherto entirely unexplored could be taken without here and there some queer cases, some odd cases and hard cases occurring, which of course can easily be put right by a small “mopping up” bill? I think you will feel, on the contrary, that the establishment of the pensions system, which sprang into being in a single day, is a marvellous and impressive example of the power which British Governments possess and the mighty machinery which they can set in motion.
Without a hitch, without a pause, perfectly smoothly, perfectly simply, punctual to the minute, regular as clockwork, nearly 600,000 aged persons, scattered throughout the length and breadth of the three kingdoms, are being paid their pensions every week, through agencies which are not dishonouring or disqualifying to their citizenship in any way, nor repugnant or wounding to their feelings. [Cheers.] That is a wonderful and beneficent achievement, a good job well worth some risk and sweat to finish. [Cheers.] No; in spite of Socialistic sneer and Tory jeer and glorious beer, and all the rest of it, I say it is a noble and inspiring event for which this Parliament will be justly honoured by generations unborn. [Cheers.]
I said just now that a Tory tariff victory meant marching backwards, but there are some things they cannot undo. It is quite true that the Conservative party, through its responsible leaders, promised old-age pensions to the people to win the general election of 1895, and that they broke their promise, although they had ten years of power. It is quite true that Mr. Chamberlain offered old-age pensions again to the people at the outset of his tariff campaign in 1903, and that the Conservative party forced that great man at the height of his power to cut old-age pensions out of his tariff programme, and to write a letter to say that he had done so. It is quite true that the Conservative party would have destroyed the Old-age Pensions Bill in the House of Commons if they had had the power, and would have destroyed it in the House of Lords if they had had the pluck. But the work is done; the pensions are safe. [Cheers.]
Governments come and governments go. We may be driven from power. We may desire to be released from responsibility; our places may be filled by the representatives of wealth and privilege, by the delegates of the Tariff Reform League, by the nominees of the liquor trade. Much of our work may be cut short, much may be overturned But there are some things which Tory reaction will not dare to touch, and, like the settlement and reconciliation of South Africa, so the Old-age Pensions Act will live and grow and ripen as the years roll by far beyond the reach of party warfare and far above the changing moods of faction. [Cheers.]
If I thought that this great social measure exhausted our strength or completed our design, I should cheerfully join myself with those ardent spirits who wish for an immediate dissolution. But the Old-age Pensions Act must not be the end of the chapter; it must be the beginning of a chapter of social legislation. [Cheers.] There are many political injustices in this country, and many absurd, oppressive, or obsolete practices. But the main aspirations of the British people are at this present time social rather than political.
They see around them on every side, and almost every day spectacles of confusion and misery which they cannot reconcile with any conception of humanity or justice. They see that this suffering is to a large extent due to lack of organisation, to the absence of good comprehensive arrangements. They see that there are in the modern State a score of misfortunes that can happen to a man without his being in fault in any way, and without his being able to guard against them in any way. They see men and women falling constantly from a stairway which has no banisters upon which all jostle together without any proper regulation of the traffic, and that when they fall they are often broken, hopelessly and for ever. They see, on the other hand, the mighty power of science backed by wealth and power to introduce order, to provide safeguards, to prevent accidents, or at least to mitigate their consequences.
They see that much has been done in other countries. They know that this country is the richest in the world. They wonder why so little has been done here. They demand that more shall be done; and in my sincere judgment the British democracy will not give their hearts to any party that is not able and willing to set up that larger fuller more elaborate, more thorough social organisation, without which our country and its people will inevitably sink through sorrow to disaster, and our name and fame fade upon the pages of history. [Cheers.]
Now I say that we have done some of that work, and we are going to do more. [Cheers.] In moving forward in this great struggle which is approaching, we are going to carry our social policy along with us. We are not going to fight alone upon the political and constitutional issue, nor alone upon the defence of Free Trade. We are going, fearless of the consequences, confident of our faith, to place before the nation a wide, comprehensive, interdependent scheme of social organisation; to place it before the people not merely in the speeches or placards of a party programme, but, by a massive series of legislative proposals and administrative acts. [Cheers.] If we are interrupted or impeded in our march, the nation will know how to deal with those who stand in the path of vital and necessary reforms. [Cheers.] And I am confident that in the day of battle the victory will be to the earnest and to the persevering, and then again will be heard the doleful wail of Tory rout and ruin, and the loud and resounding acclamations with which the triumphant armies of democracy will march once again into the central place of power. [Loud cheers.]