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The Liberties Of Britain

January 10, 1910. Friends’ Institute, Birmingham

I have come before you to-night for one reason. I think it is time that Birmingham should strike another blow in defence of the liberties of Britain.

The Metropolis of the Midlands has always been a historic centre from which all the principal steps in the extension and consolidation of democratic government in our country have been driven forward. It was so in 1832, in 1867, and in 1885, and now, in 1910, Birmingham is not going to be unworthy of its sires [cries of “No”]; is not going feebly and pusillanimously to allow the rights which they won to be filched away from them.

The democratic character of the British Constitution is at stake. Some of our friends of the opposite party will say, “How can that be true when all that the House of Lords have done is to invite the electors to pronounce?” It is true for this reason. The Tory party arc demanding two great and momentous changes. Each is of memorable importance, and both are violently reactionary.

First, they ask the nation to agree to the establishment of a protective system, including taxes on bread and meat; and, secondly, they ask that the Lords shall be granted not merely the veto they have used so freely over legislation but a hereditary veto over finance as well. I say that both these claims affect the democratic character of our Constitution. [Cheers.]  The House of Lords have no right to touch finance. [Cheers.] Custom, authority, precedent, and usage all forbid it. The control of finance by the representative Assembly is the keystone of the constitutional fabric under which we have all dwelt so safely and peacefully all our lives. It is by the application of the power of the purse that we have moved forward, slowly and prosaically, no doubt, but without any violent overturning, and have grown from being a small island in the Northern seas to be the centre of a world-wide Empire.

It is not merely a question of the rejection of the Budget that we have to discuss [A voice: “We pay taxes,” and a disturbance, during which a woman was removed from the gallery], but the claim of a hereditary Chamber over which you have no control, which may be civil to you if it likes, but which if it chooses to cut up rusty is altogether beyond the reach of your remonstrances the claims of that Assembly to make and unmake Governments. The recognition by the country of that claim means that the House of Lords must become the main source and origin of all political power in our country. The quarrel is one upon which we had believed the sword had been victoriously sheathed for nearly 300 years.

Do not think that these constitutional doctrines are pressed upon you out of mere pedantry. They are matters of vital and striking importance to all of you every day. Upon your votes hangs your political status as citizens. [A voice: “What about the status of women?”] Some day I hope women will have votes too. [Cheers.] But they will have to adopt another plan to get them. [Cheers.] If you allow that power of finance upon which alone the reality and strength of the House of Commons depend to be taken away, or to be divided even in the smallest degree, you will have weakened the value of your votes. Your votes may remain, but they will be only votes to elect members to an inferior Assembly, much less powerful than now exists, and that involves an immense contraction and diminution in the democratic character of the government of the country.

Underneath all political action there is usually a social cause, and there is a deep social cause underlying the present attack on representative Government. Workmen are beginning to use the electoral machinery for their own purposes. The House of Lords has had an increasingly poor opinion of the House of Commons for a very long time. It was bad enough when Catholics and Jews and Dissenters claimed and captured equal political rights. It was worse still when pushing, bustling manufacturers from Lancashire and the Midlands shoved their way into the House of Commons and took their seats on the benches by the side of the sons of peers and their nominees. But now that small tradesmen and school teachers and trade unionists and co-operators and working engineers and an actual navvy and even one or two avowed Socialists have begun to come into the House of Commons, the opinion of the House of Lords has, I am afraid, sunk to a very low ebb indeed. [Laughter.]

But, gentlemen, you and I here to-night who try to look at the real truth of things see in this process, which is bringing new classes into the governing machinery year by year, the same old process by which we have always grown stronger, more stable, more generous, and more free.? [Loud cheers.]

I feel myself offended by the air of aristocratic insolence in which the House of Lords indulge. Lord Curzon [prolonged booing] — Lord Curzon quotes a great French agnostic and adopts his phrase: “All civilisations are the work of aristocracies.” [Ironical laughter.]  It would be much more true to say that the upkeep of aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations. (Prolonged cheering.)

You don’t need to be told that thirty years ago there was a Mayor of Birmingham who said with a force and terseness certainly never surpassed all and more than all the doctrines that have been put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and when I hear Lord Curzon say all civilisations are the work of aristocracies I only wish that the Chamberlain of 1885, that proud and famous citizen of Birmingham, were able to deal with these contemptible pretensions as they deserve. [Cheers.]

What does Lord Lansdowne say about old-age pensions? He says, “We allowed them to pass.” More than that, he said in a recent speech at Plymouth, “We have allowed a lot of the bills to pass: the Port of London, Labour Exchanges, Small Holdings, the Patents Bill.” We have allowed a lot of them to pass! We have given you a lot of rope, you miserable members of the House of Commons! Why, we have never thrown out a Budget before this year; we have actually allowed a Radical Government to go on governing the country for four whole years; we have allowed all this, and yet you complain, yet you unreasonable Radicals are not satisfied with all our generosity, all our magnanimity! [Laughter.]

That is their point of view. Very often a man shows much more his real inner point of view in a single unguarded phrase which slips out straight from the mint of his mind than he does in the most carefully prepared diplomatic statement or most eloquent peroration.

What does it mean—”We allowed them to pass?” It means that the hereditary institution which Lord Lansdowne leads regards all our liberties and political rights as enjoyed and enjoyable only so long as they choose to let us go on having them. But once we touch reality, once we touch their interests and privileges [here Churchill kicked the platform vigorously]: “Out!” [Cheers and laughter.]

I come to you to-night because the need is urgent and the crisis grave, and I ask you all whether we are prepared to hold our liberties on their sufferance. [Cries of “No.”]  You have heard the saying, “Freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent.” What we are confronted with now is, “Freedom narrows quickly up from privilege to privilege.” [Cheers.]

I do not think that we can hold our rights upon the permission and amiable disposition of Lord Lansdowne and his majority. I do not recognise that they have any rights against representative persons and elected assemblies. [Cheers.]  The people have the right to vote, and as they vote so the action of the legislature and of the Government should follow. We are not a lot of savages and Hottentots in the depths of Africa. We are not children in the schools. We are the leading community in the civilised world. We have taught all nations to fight for freedom. We have taught all nations the principles and practice of representative government institutions. We require no tutelage. If Parliaments are too long, let them be shortened. The policy of the Government is that of five-year Parliaments. If you think some check or delay is needed upon hasty legislation to prevent anything being done in a single session which might afterwards be regretted, if you think some process of revision by another body differently constituted to the House of Commons is necessary, by all means let there be, within proper limits and under proper conditions of constitution, a Second Chamber.

But I stand here to-night on a very simple plan. I ask you to stand for the effective supremacy of the House of Commons. [Loud cheers.]  Your first choice on Saturday is whether you will or will not vote for the supremacy of the House of Commons which you yourselves elect. Some people are afraid of the future if the working man gets what he asks.

Your forefathers looked out on a world far stormier than any which confronts us now. It was darkened with threats of violence and revolution such as we have not known in England now for many years. But they pushed steadily ahead towards a broadening of the Constitution on democratic foundations, and we are to-day a richer, happier, and more contented people, enjoying the fruits of their courage and sagacity.

Working men’s politics must bulk largely in the affairs of a community which has so many millions of educated working men. What would happen if they did not, if working class politics did not receive the attention which they deserve and require? An utter break would soon be Created between the governing forces and the great masses of the nation, and it might easily lead to a bloody struggle to restore the shattered balance and integrity of our national life. [Cheers.]

But let us look at the facts of to-day. Has democratic government in the last three years—has the attention paid to labour matters—injured industry or credit? Let the figures of the last three years be the answer. Take the three first complete years of this Government, the most Radical and democratic Government which has ever borne sway in our land [cheers] and compare them with the last three years of the last Conservative Administration. Oversea trade, imports and exports, in the last three years of a Conservative Administration amounted to £2,797.000,000. During three years of democratic and Liberal Administration that trade amounted to £3,271,000.000, an increase for the period of three years of £474,000,000. Take the bankers’ clearing-house returns not an accurate sign of actual prosperity, but an invaluable sign of business activity. The amounts cleared in the last three years of Conservative Government—a Government of stability and order [laughter]—were £32,900,000,000—gigantic figures, and we are only asking for a little in the Budget. [Laughter.] In the first three years of Liberal Government the amount was £37,561,000,000 an excess during our Government over theirs of £4,500.000,000. That is leaving out the present year, a record year in respect of banking clearances. The grand total for the year is £13,500,000.000, an increase of £1,400,000,000 over last year. This is after the Budget [laughter], since the introduction of the Budget which you were told would ruin everything.

The hereditary veto of the House of Lords not only over finance but over legislation must be swept away. The present agitation is not against the Peers as peers, but against the Peers as hereditary legislators. Nor does the Lords’ veto stand alone. It has to be considered in conjunction with the other tremendous change which is involved in a reversion to Protection. Protection is like dram drinking — it produces a transient exhilaration that is succeeded by other less satisfactory symptoms, and in the cheerless grey of the morning no remedy can be found for the fumes of the previous night’s debauch except another pull at the Protectionist bottle. [Laughter and cheers.] To repeat and increase the dose is the only cure to be suggested. It is easy to get into such habits. To get free again is a much more painful business. [“Hear, hear.”]

I would repeat that to all those who ask “Why not give Tariff Reform a chance?” The choice is irrevocable, in your lifetime at any rate. Once the fateful step has been taken, retreat is impossible. You would have a great network of trusts woven together, joined together on the simple principle of “You scratch my back and I will scratch yours,” all trying to organise themselves to get advantages and favours from the Government, all sitting down to besiege the Government through their millionaire bosses, their political organisations, their multitudes of shareholders, through the working men whose interests would be associated with these selfish trade organisations. The whole force of this great network of tariff-fed trusts will be brought to bear on the representatives of the people in the House of Commons. If you have at the one end this vast organisation and at the other end the veto of the House of Lords, able to dismiss by a contemptuous gesture any Government, why, they will play battledore and shuttlecock* with your liberties. [Loud cheers.]

*Not an original Churchillism, but an example of his comprehensive memory: Battledore and Shuttlecock was a racquet game that evolved into Badminton in the mid-1800s.

The movement of the Conservative party towards these two great changes for which they seek authority from the nation is curiously timed. Their backwash meets in full ebb our onward tide. At the very moment when the Tories are attempting to extend the absolute veto of the House of Lords over finance as well as legislation, we have resolved to restrict it in legislation as well as in finance. [Cheers.] At the very moment when they are forging new chains of monopoly for national industry, we are preparing to break the old chains which oppress the people’s land. [Loud cheers.]

Mr. Chamberlain, of whom I speak with all proper sympathy and respect, is appealing to Birmingham to be true to the traditions of its past. [Voice: “I hope we shall.”]  I am content with that. [Cheers.]  I was reading again this morning pages in Martineau’s History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, in which the crisis of the great Reform Bill is described. The Lords had rejected the Reform Bill. It had been passed by the Commons and rejected by the Lords, and a deadlock was created from which it seemed there was no issue except by the creation of peers or civil war. There is reason to believe, writes the historian, that what passed at Birmingham immediately determined the issue of this mighty contention. A famous meeting of the Birmingham Political Union was held, at which over 150,000 persons were present. While the Scots Greys in the Birmingham Barracks were sharpening their swords and  serving out ball ad cartridge, and the Duke of Wellington was preparing to suppress the people by force of arms, the men of Birmingham assembled to the number of 150,000. and rolled out the tremendous hymn of right and freedom:

God is our guide! From field, from wave.
From plough, from anvil, and from loom.
We come our country’s rights to save.
And speak the tyrant faction’s doom.
And. hark, we raise from sea to sea
The sacred watchword—Liberty!

[Loud cheers.]  Let Birmingham be true to the traditions of its past. [Cheers.] Let Birmingham be true, and “it must follow as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.” [Loud cheers.]

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