§ Order read, for resuming adjourned debate on Question [14th February], "That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:—
§ "Most Gracious Sovereign,
§ "We, Your Majesty"s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."—(Mr. Mount.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ MR. ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E.)
I propose to conclude my speech by proposing the following Amendment which stands in my name on the Paper—And we humbly represent to Your Majesty that, the various aspects of the fiscal question having now been fully discussed in the country for nearly two years, the time has come for submitting the issue to the people without further delay,Before I proceed to say anything about the Amendment I should like to offer one or two comments on some passages in the remarkable speech which was delivered by the Prime Minister last night. I regret I do not see the right hon. Gentleman in his place. The Prime Minister appeared to be very much shocked at 179 two things—in the first place at the suggestion that there is anything anomalous, not to say improper, in the constitutional situation, and next at the introduction into the debate upon the Address of so irrelevant a topic as the fiscal question. The right hon. Gentleman, unlike other people, sees nothing in the history or in the present condition of the House of Commons, elected in the year 1900, but the effects of the ordinary leakage which in the course of time always tends to diminish a great majority. And as to the fiscal question, why, to judge from his speech, or speeches rather, the fiscal question has no meaning or, indeed, no existence for him, except as a probable subject of discussion in the next Parliament, and a possible matter for decision in the next Parliament but one. I must say, so far as I can form a judgment, there is no man in the Empire who has less excuse for making either of those assumptions than the Prime Minister himself. For let us remember that when this House was elected in 1900 Lord Salisbury was the Prime Minister. Where is the Ministry and where is the Party that Lord Salisbury left to his successor? The one, the Ministry, has disappeared. Nothing would have surprised the country more in the year 1900 than if they had been told that they were voting for installing on the Treasury Bench the Gentlemen who at present occupy it. The Ministry has disappeared, and you have to look and search about for most, at any rate, of its more distinguished and experienced members in all sorts of unexpected quarters—below the Gangway, not always sitting together, of this House and of another place. The Party! What has become of the Party? [UNIONIST MEMBERS: "Here we are," and "Where is your own Party?"] We are able to render a fair account of ourselves. What has become of the Party there? The Party there, as every man I am addressing knows, is split and sundered beyond the salving power of any formula. ["No, no!"] But I should like to ask the Prime Minister, if he were here—[Loud Liberal cheers, during which Mr. A. J. BALFOUR arrived]—I will ask the Prime Minister, now that he is here, what in his view is the disruptive force which has shattered both his Government and his Party? As every one of them but the 180 Prime Minister knows, it is this very fiscal question—a question as undreamt of in 1900 as the constitution of the present Ministry—undreamt of, I mean, by any rational being as a living issue in British politics—which has proved its disruptive power. That is the question which the Prime Minister affects to regard as of the most microscopic interest.
§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
Oh, no! It is very interesting.
§ MR. ASQUITH
Ah! as a speculative and academic topic; but for the practical purposes of present day politics, the right hon. Gentleman affects to regard it as of the most microscopic interest and most remote relevance. It is in the same spirit of illusion, I will not say of make-believe, that the right hon. Gentleman dealt last night with the rather delicate topic of the by-elections. He admits they have gone wrong, but he sees nothing in them that is abnormal or even of any special significance. What are the facts? The facts are that since the election of 1900 there have been fifty-three seats in Great Britain in which the electors have had the opportunity of either affirming or reversing the opinion they expressed at the general election. In 1900, of those fifty-three seats, fifteen were Liberal and thirty-eight Conservative and Unionist. At the present day, of those fifty-three seats, thirty are Liberal and twenty-three Conservative. And that means—because really the figures of the voting are much more remarkable—that there have been summoned into the electoral field and on the side of the Liberal Party at the by-elections, as compared with the general election, an accession of no less than 70,000 votes, or between 35 and 40 per cent, of the whole votes polled. In the last fourteen months there has been a gain of nine seats. I agree that even the Prime Minister does not go as far as the Secretary of State for War, who attributed this series of mishaps to the exceptional predominance in these particular constituencies of the "enemies of England." I should prefer to describe these so-called "enemies of England"—and history will describe them as such—as the enemies of political equivocation. 181 These "enemies of England," as the right hon. Gentleman will find, are pretty impartially distributed among the constituencies of the country, and, unless all the omens are deceptive, are likely to continue to show their enmity whenever they have an opportunity of doing so. The Prime Minister is preserved by a sense of humour, and by a regard for the amenities of political controversy, from resting his case upon any such hypothesis as that. The right hon. Gentleman says that this has always happened, especially under Radical Governments, and they have never paid any attention to a long series of electoral disasters as a ground for a dissolution; and by way of maintaining that proposition the right hon. Gentlemen rather unhappily took the period between 1868 and 1874. He said quite accurately that there was a net loss to Mr. Gladstone"s Government of twenty-four seats, but he did not point out that of the twenty-four seats so lost nine were lost in the final year of that Administration—between March, 1873, when Mr. Gladstone resigned, and the Tory Party were either unwilling or unable to take his place, and February, 1874, when he finally dissolved. The right hon. Gentleman, when he said that Mr. Gladstone did not look upon these by-elections as an important factor in coming to a judgment as to the expediency and propriety of a dissolution, made a statement which I noticed at the time was received with the greatest surprise by Mr. Gladstone"s biographer. With the assistance of my right hon. friend I have refreshed my own memory, and I find that the right hon. Gentleman"s statement is not consistent with fact and history. What happened was this. The letter will be found in the second volume of Mr. Gladstone"s "Life," page 485. In his letter to the Queen announcing the intention of the Cabinet to dissolve Parliament in February, 1874, he placed in the very forefront of the grounds which had moved them in doing so this expression—Mr. Gladstone laid before the Cabinet a pretty full outline of the case as to the weakness of the Government since the crisis of last March, and the increase of that weakness, especially of late, from the unfavourable character of the local indications.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman by "local indications" means by-elections?
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Mr. Gladstone, did use the word "by-elections" specifically in the letter to Lord Granville, which dealt with the constitutional point. The reference quoted by the right hon. Gentleman does not deal with the constitutional point.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I am citing the grounds which Mr. Gladstone gave to the Queen. At any rate, here is Her Majesty"s responsible First Minister on behalf of his Government advising her to dissolve Parliament; and the first ground which he suggests is the unfavourable character of these "local indications." It accounted for the growing weakness of the Government since its defeat, and this is the first ground that he alleges. So that, whatever may be said in defence of the Prime Minister"s constitutional position, at any rate let us have the authority of Mr. Gladstone as he himself defined it.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I must contradict the right hon. Gentleman. I must say specifically that Mr. Gladstone laid it down that it was not a reason, and that it would be an evil precedent to make it a reason when the Government lost by-elections. That is my statement, and it is a true one.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I do not think it possible to have a document of higher authority than the statement made by the First Minister to his Sovereign as to the grounds on which he advised her to take such a serious step as dissolving Parliament.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman means by that, We have the authority of his own account; there is the document in extenso, and the right hon. Gentleman can read it if he likes. There is a third thing which apparently the Prime Minister resents more than the two suggestions I have hitherto dealt with. That is the notion that there can be in the mind of any reasonable and intelligent man a doubt, a shadow of a doubt, as to the exact meaning and scope of his own fiscal policy. The right hon. Gentleman regards it as an outrage on common sense that there should be any doubt, but all the same such doubts do exist. They are entertained bona fide; they are not felt merely by the malevolent or the stupid; they prevail in his own Party as much as in the Party of his opponents. I should have thought that this matter was worthy of more investigation. My right hon. friend the Leader of the Opposition last night quoted the statement of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, in a letter to a correspondent, that there was "in principle" no difference between the Prime Minister and himself. The Prime Minister in his speech made no reference to that. That surely is a very plain question. Do you or do you not agree with the right hon. Member for West Birmingham that in point of principle there is no distinction between your position and his? [OPPOSITION cries of "Answer."] I say that this is a plain question which does admit of a monosyllabic answer. Let the House remember that there is no sort of doubt what is the principle of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham"s policy. I am going to state it in terms to which I believe he will himself assent, for I may say that I have been a careful, even a laborious, student of his speeches. The policy of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, as I understand it, is in principle made up of two heads. In the first place, the abandonment, in the interest of British trade, of the antiquated system of so-called free trade, which he has told his audiences over and over again that we alone persist in pursuing in defiance of common sense and the common practice of the rest of civilised mankind. In the second place, the creation, in the interests of Imperial 184 unity and strength, of a preferential system based on the taxation of foreign corn and flour. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will differ from me.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)
; If the right hon. Gentleman appeals to me, I beg to say that I neither accept nor deny.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I must be content with that answer, but I regret to see that the malaria of ambiguity, one of the most contagious poisons in the political atmosphere, is beginning to cross beyond the Gangway and to attack those who at any rate hitherto have been completely free from its maleficent influence. I will take, however, the right hon. Gentleman"s answer; he does not deny. If he wants chapter and verse, I would refer him to the speech which he made at Limehouse in December last. He said there, "I am going to submit to the country two issues"—and they are precisely the two issues I have just described. I do not make that quotation with a view of suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman was guilty of anything in the nature of arrogance in using the first person singular, and in regarding himself as the arbiter of the situation. On the contrary, I think that he showed true political instinct, for it is better to have plain language. It is the issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, and no other, that the country will regard when the election comes to be held. But I want to know from the Prime Minister, does he or does he not agree in principle with these two propositions? If I may slightly expand them I would ask, does he, as he has more than once suggested, think that it is only stupid and antiquated prejudice which historical associations and sentimental follies have engendered in the mind of the people of this country that prevents them from accepting a change in their fiscal system which involves the taxation of food? Does he or does he not sympathise with the efforts which the "missionary of Empire" is making to dispel the clouds and cobwebs which at present prevent our people from looking for fiscal salvation in that particular 185 direction? They are very plain questions, and not difficult to answer.
But the matter does not rest there. I said something about the condition of the Party opposite. It is quite true, I admit, that it is no longer embarrassed by those difficulties of nomenclature and classification with which it had to contend last year. The fence, of which we have all heard, which was then crowded with dubious and balancing figures, is now altogether vacant. A considerable number of them, including some of the most respected names in this House, unable to face the choice that lay before them, have resolved to commit political suicide, and no longer are appealing to their constituents to return them. Another large and important section have become out-and-out followers of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. Whether they call themselves protectionists or not, they are in favour of preference sans phrase. But as to the rest—those whom I may call the pure Balfourians With or without Chamberlainite hankerings—we know very well the formula of the pure Balfourian:—"I am in favour of the clear and statesmanlike policy which has been indicated by the Prime Minister, and for the moment at any rate I take my stand upon that. But at the same time, do not let it be supposed that I do not regard with cordial, and even with ardent, sympathy the patriotic efforts which the right hon. Member for West Birmingham is making to introduce a still more extended change in our fiscal system." That, put in more elegant language, will in substance be the staple of the election addresses of a considerable number of hon. Gentlemen opposite. What is the pure Balfourian? He is a man who, having tried for a year to live up to the Sheffield programme, now finds an exhaustive statement of his fiscal creed in that lucid and comprehensive sheet of notepaper which was exhibited at Manchester. I want to imagine one of those Gentlemen at the approaching election appealing to the electors for their confidence. What is he going to say? Of course, he will begin with the conventional little prologue about retaliation—about the importance and the supposed necessity, never discovered until the right hon. Member for 186 West Birmingham proposed to tax food— [Cries of "No."] well, it may have been discovered as a matter of scientific interest, but it was never advocated as a practical policy in this House—he will begin with the importance or necessity of what is absurdly called "recovering our fiscal freedom." That particular topic will not last him long, for the simple and sufficient reason that, apart from the sugar duty, no human being has yet been able to suggest when, where, and how, in respect of what commodity, or against what country, this doctrine of retaliation is to be given practical effect. There are two or three elementary questions in regard to it, which I put a year ago in this House, and which no one has yet attempted to answer. Are you going to create a general tariff which is to be applicable at the will of the Executive of the day? Or are you to have two tariffs, as so many protective countries have, or are you, as is much more probable, to remain exactly as you are? In other words, are you to remain with the power which we have never surrendered, and never shall surrender, of dealing as we please and in regard to the merits of each particular case, and with each foreign country, subject to the control and consent of the House of Commons? I do not believe the true Balfourian would pass a satisfactory examination in those questions; and I think he will soon leave the unpromising topic of retaliation, and draw out the only other arrow in his quiver, and that is the colonial conference.
The Prime Minister went through the whole of his speech last night without a single reference, direct or indirect, to the colonial conference—a really remarkable achievement even for so accomplished a master of the art of opportune taciturnity. What are the pure Balfourians going to say about the colonial conference? And here I should like to put some plain questions to them, and to the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. Are our representatives to go into this conference, as far as the fiscal question is concerned, with blank instructions? Are they to raise the fiscal question on their own responsibility, or are they to wait until it is 187 raised by some one else? Are they to be authorised to make any proposal, and, if so, what, on behalf of the Imperial Government? Are they to have authority to entertain in principle any proposal made by any one else which involves the taxation of the food which comes to us from abroad? And, above all, is the next Parliament, assuming a conference to be held, and the fiscal question to be discussed at it, and assuming some provisional scheme to be arrived at—is the next Parliament to be disabled from acting on any conclusions which the conference may come to? "Is it to have its first and only practical result, at the earliest, after another general election here, and after a series of elections throughout the length and breadth of the Empire? I know that the Prime Minister would answer the last question in the affirmative. He has said so more than once. But what is the opinion of the right ton. Member for West Birmingham? I read his speech at Luton, in which he stated with unanwerable cogency and force the practical objections to this preposterous proposal. He pointed out that it would involve interminable delay; that the whole trade of the country and of the Empire would be hung up in suspense for years and years until the final settlement was attained; that in the meantime other issues might and probably would arise; and that, whether you regarded the maintenance of the existing system or the introduction of a new one as the first interest of the Empire, this scheme of a general election referendum was absolutely impossible. I should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman has modified or withdrawn any of those objections. In his speech at Gainsborough after the Prime Minister had reiterated his original position, the right hon. Member for West Birmingham did not renew his objections; but he used a remarkable phrase. He said—You are asked to meet your own friends and relations and see whether, both having the same object—namely, to unite the Empire more closely together—you can find some means of doing so on the basis of a preferential policy.Thus, the conference, as it is contemplated by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, is to proceed on the basis of preferential policy. One would 188 like to know from the Government whether in their view, if they are responsible for the conduct of the conference, the representatives of Great Britain will be authorised to treat on the basis of preferential policy. The issue is, What instructions are our delegates to receive? This leads up to the conclusion to which I ask the House to come—namely, that this intolerable confusion, menacing and perilous as it is to our industry and Empire, can only be cleared up in one way, and that is by a prompt and direct appeal to the people. That brings me to my Amendment, which is very short and in these terms—And we humbly represent to Your Majesty that, the various aspects of the fiscal question having now been fully discussed in the country for nearly two years, the time has come for submitting the issue to the people without further delay.In moving that Amendment I believe that I am in the happy and perhaps unique position of making a proposition which, it it could be discussed and decided on its merits, would receive in this House a practically unanimous vote of assent. The right hon. Gentleman last night imagined a secret ballot being taken. Suppose we had a ballot on this Amendment now. I should count with great confidence on the vote of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. I should even be sanguine of obtaining the vote of the Prime Minister himself; because I do not really believe that in their heart of hearts and mind of minds either of those right hon. Gentlemen contemplates the prolongation of the existing state of things without apprehension and alarm. Is there any candid disputant who will deny the modest statement of fact that this matter has been very fully discussed, not, I admit, in this House, but in the country during the last two years? When I say that, I do not for a moment imply that argument is exhausted or the evidence closed, or that the last word has been said. Nothing has been more remarkable in the course of this two years controversy than the additional strength which has been given to our case, day by day and month by month, by our industrial experience. From the very beginning many of us thought that this so-called movement of tariff reform was vitiated by 189 bad history, bad logic, and bad arithmetic; as it has gone on it has been further condemned by bad prophecy. Almost every one of the predictions which were made, and confidently made, when the campaign was started have been falsified by the actual experience of the two years that have since elapsed. But it will not be denied either, I am sure, that the controversy is not in any sense academic, not in any sense even of that much-abused term; for let us remember that these changes were put forward by the authors of them, and by no one with more emphasis, and, indeed, vehemence of language than by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, as of vital importance and imperious urgency. The right hon. Gentleman has hardly made a speech without uttering a note of warning as to the evil consequences which must happen to us if we do not adopt this new departure; and even the Prime Minister, when he was putting forward the comparatively nebulous formula of the Sheffield programme, even he announced—and that was nearly two years ago— that he was in favour of a fundamental reversal of our fiscal tradition. Well, now, Sir, one set of tariff reformers say that the Existing state of things is sapping slowly, but surely, the very foundations both of our trade and our Empire; the other set, the Prime Minister and his particular followers, say that it leaves us defenceless, like an army without quick-firing guns in the presence of our better-equipped rivals and enemies on the battlefields of international trade. On their own showing, then, both wings of the party of so-called fiscal reform are in this dilemnia—either a great part of what they have been talking on the platforms during the last two years is idle and insincere rhetoric, or they are deliberately prolonging a situation which is full of the gravest dangers both to our commerce and our Empire. And yet, Sir, I know very well—at least, I suspect very strongly—that there is no Amendment which will be moved to this Address which is likely to bring together in the division lobby to oppose it a larger number of the Party opposite. That is one of the ironies of the position. Dr. Johnson said of a celebrated criminal 190 of his day, who spent his time in literary activity between sentence and execution—Depend upon it, Sir, when a man is going to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.In the same way experience shows that there is no expedient which is more effective for concentrating a majority, particularly a disintegrating majority, than anything which brings nearer to their doors the shadow of a dissolution. Therefore, I am not surprised, or I shall not be surprised, if hon. Gentlemen turn out in great strength in the division lobby. Yes, because when the accused is able to dominate the tribunal he naturally gives himself the benefit of the doubt. But, Sir, whatever the division may be, there is no man in this House, whither he believes in a fiscal change or whether he does not, there is no man in this House who does not know that the uncertainty and the unsettlement which now prevail are in the highest degree prejudicial to the best interests of the British Empire. The idea that this controversy can be allowed to go simmering on from general election to general election, both here and throughout the Empire, is an idea which I venture to submit to the House is preposterous in theory and unworkable in practice. The people recognise that, whatever may be the formula that politicians devise, the real issue for them is between preference and no preference, between drawing freely for their supplies upon all sources or only upon some, between the taxation and the free admission of corn and flour and meat. They know the facts; they have listened to the arguments; vast interests, industrial and Imperial, are involved in and wait upon their decision. Let them decide.
Amendment proposed—At the end of the Question, to add the words, "And we humbly represent it to Your Majesty that, the various aspects of the fiscal question have now been fully discussed in the country for nearly two years, the time has come for submitting the issue to the people without further delay." "—(Mr. Asquith.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there added."
THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER (Mr. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN,
191 Worcestershire, E.)
None of us on this side of the House complain that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen the earliest moment open to him to bring before the House the Amendment, the advent of which has been so loudly proclaimed. The right hon. Gentleman has brought before the House a clear question of confidence in my right hon. friend the Prime Minister and in the Government which now exists, and we are as ready and anxious as he to have the verdict of the House on that question. [OPPOSITION fries of "The Country."] He inquires of my right hon. friend what has become of the Party to the leadership of which he succeeded. That, Sir, is what the division on this Amendment will show. We shall see then whether there is any foundation for the taunts which the right hon. Gentleman has hurled across the House, or whether the disunion which has become chronic, so chronic that it no longer excites attention, on the benches opposite has spread like the malarial affection to which he referred to this side of the House. I confess that I think not less extraordinary than the speech in which the right hon. Gentleman has supported his Amendment were the terms of the Amendment itself. The Amendment is, as he said, a brief Amendment. It declares that the fiscal controversy having now been fully discussed for two years, an immediate appeal to the country upon that issue is desirable. Yet from beginning to end, whenever he touched on the fiscal question, the right hon. Gentleman complained that he was still without light, without understanding, without knowledge as to what were the issues involved or the proposals which we submit. The right hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks referred to the answer which my right hon. friend the Prime Minister made last night to a demand for an immediate dissolution based upon the figures of our electoral returns. The right hon. Gentleman thought he had disposed of the quotation which my right hon. friend made from Mr. Gladstone"s letter to Lord Granville by producing another quotation from Mr. Gladstone in a letter to the Queen, which on a cursory and careless perusal may appear inconsistent with it. It is not my business to reconcile Mr. Gladstone"s Deeming inconsistency. That he would 192 have shown that his later letter to the Queen was not inconsistent with his letter to Lord Granville no one can be more confident than I. But I am content to recall the actual words of his letter to Lord Granville in which he dealt with this demand as a constitutional problem. He said—A Ministry with a majority, and that majority not in rebellion—[Cheers.] I expected those cheers. I invite my hon. friends to take note of them. Is the Party in rebellion? The division lobbies will show. This at any rate we do know. We have received from our hon. friends on this side of the House a constant and loyal support which has enabled us to do the work which we were sent here to do, and to place on record, both in our relations with foreign Powers and in the legislative sphere, great and far-reaching measures which, in our opinion at any rate, are of the utmost consequence to the future of the country. But I will return to the quotation from Mr. Gladstone—A Ministry, with a majority, and that majority not in rebellion, could not resign on account of adverse manifestations, even of very numerous constituencies, without making a precedent, and constitutionally a bad precedent.I think that is conclusive as to Mr. Gladstone"s views on the subject, and if he attached more importance to elections after he had been defeated in this House, well, we will not wait for any further test. If you withdraw your confidence from us we will resign the duties with which we are at present charged. The right hon. Gentleman is now clamorous for a dissolution upon the fiscal question. I contrast his attitude with that, I think, of himself, and certainly of his friends, when this question was first brought before us in its present form for our consideration. Lord Rosebery—I quote with hesitation any Leader of the Party opposite for fear that what is the manifesto of to-day should be disavowed by the Chief Whip to-morrow—but I presume I may still class Lord Rosebery among the Liberal leaders. [An HON. MEMBER: Hear, hear!] Faint assent from a recent adherent of the Party, who, perhaps, will pardon me for saying that he is not yet competent to speak in their name, but a nod from the right hon. Gentleman who preceded me may encourage me to 193 proceed. What was Lord Rosebery"s first observation on this question? He did not say that the question was so urgent that you must have recourse to the country at once, but his one absorbing fear was lest the country should be rushed into a premature decision.
§ MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN
That was on November 9th, 1903. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are now agreed that it would have been wrong to bring this question to an immediate issue in November, 1903; but such a change, it is contended, has now taken place that a moment"s delay is ruinous to the country. I confess this exact apportionment of the time necessary to the consideration of a great question does not seem to me capable of the scientific precision which the right hon. Gentleman arrogates to his calculations. I suspect that if we lived in the Palace of Truth we should find the change in his view to be due not to any regard to the merits of the question itself, but to some calculation which he has drawn from recent electoral successes which leads him to think, on general grounds, that the present is a desirable time for a general election. What constitutional justification is there in practice or precedent for this new theory that when some great question is being discussed in the country an immediate appeal to the electorate is necessary? Take this very question of fiscal reform. Was that course pursued when the great revolutionary change from which our present fiscal condition dates was enacted? No, Sir; the Parliament which carried out those fiscal changes met with no conception whatever that it would be called upon to perform any such task. The country was not consulted on this issue until after the change had been made. I do not criticise the action of Sir Robert Peel. I do not desire to say whether in the circumstances of his time he acted rightly or wrongly; history has not dealt altogether kindly with him in that respect, but, at any rate, in the circumstances of to-day, my right hon. friend has chosen the more liberal course, the more democratic course, of saying that the Government will propose 194 no change until an appeal has been made to the country, and the country itself has given him authority to deal with the question. When did the right hon. Gentleman develop the doctrine that when a question has been sufficiently discussed you must take the immediate decision of the country on the subject? I will tell the House he has developed it in opposition; he would have repudiated it with scorn when he was in power—or, rather, I should say, when he sat upon this side of the House. There is power and power; and, weak and discredited as the Opposition are pleased to say the present Government is, there has not been a day of its existence when it has not had greater confidence in this House, a freer power and a greater influence on legislation and administration than the last Liberal Administration could arrogate to itself at any point in its career. The right hon. Gentleman had not discovered the sanctity of this doctrine when he was a member of the last Administration. Home Rule was discussed, some of us thought sufficiently, and the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues thought more than sufficiently; but, when the Home Rule Bill was rejected in another place, did the right hon. Gentleman appeal to the country on that issue? No, Sir; there was nothing from which the Liberal Government would have shrunk more; and they were right, because when an appeal was made it was shown that they had not the confidence of the country on this subject.
I invite the attention of the House to the terms of the Resolution. It is one calling on the Government to appeal to the electors on the policy they intend to pursue in the future. I should have thought that in the circumstances it would have been more in accordance with precedent and constitutional usage that in the Resolution to which the House is asked to commit itself some indication should have been given of the policy which our successors would pursue. If the subject has been sufficiently discussed, why should not the Opposition tell us clearly in the Resolution itself what are the principles to which they adhere, and what is the mandate they seek from the electors? We are driven to investigate their speeches to get some glimpse of 195 what their policy would be. In his speech to-night the right hon. Gentleman confined himself to pure negation, and made not one single constructive proposal, not one single suggestion, for dealing with any of the admitted evils of our present social or industrial state. But we are not left wholly in ignorance of his views, because the right hon. Gentleman has made many speeches. What is the mandate for which he asks? To stimulate bounty-fed competition with our own industries, to maintain our present system of free importation without free exchange. According to their own constitutional maxims, that is the only subject with which the Opposition would be entitled to deal if, as the result of the adoption of this Amendment, they came into power.
The right hon. Gentleman says we are to make an appeal at this moment, because the present state of uncertainty is disastrous to trade and industry. But almost in the same sentence he boasted to the House that we never had had two such magnificent years of trade as the last two years, and that the Board of Trade Returns were sufficient to dispose of the whole case for fiscal reform. The right hon. Gentleman has no positive proposals to make for admitted evils. What is his answer to the statement that we have 13,000,000 of people on the verge of starvation? He says you must have more education and drink less. Manufacturers are to be told, if they find increasing competition in all their markets, that the reason they do not do so well as before is that they are lacking in enterprise, education, and adaptability. Where, according to the right hon. Gentleman, are manufacturers in such circumstances to go to learn their business? To Germany, a country where a high protective tariff has, we are told, killed all incentive, energy, and enterprise. The reason why the American or German manufacturer is more ready to adapt himself to circumstances, to sacrifice capital invested in machinery that is no longer the best, to embark new capital and run new risks, is because he has some security that he will enjoy the fruits of his labour, and will not be subjected to competition which is artificially produced and artificially stimulated. I am not afraid for the future of our 196 industry if we have fair terms and no favour. But we have not got them, and under our present fiscal system we are making no advance towards obtaining them.
The policy of the right hon. Gentleman and his friends may be summed up in much less than the proverbial half-sheet of notepaper. It is, "Do nothing, change nothing, shut your eyes to all that is passing around you. Neglect the signs of the times; do not attempt to forecast the future, but cling [Opposition; cries of "To office"] with all your faith and all your strength to the wisdom of your ancestors and the tradition of sixty years ago." His Majesty"s Government are not prepared to adopt that attitude in face of the problems with which we are confronted. We are not content to sit still and make no effort to remedy a state of things which no candid man can view without some anxiety, and to leave, without any attempt at redress or remedy, evils which every man is forced to admit. My right hon. friend the Prime Minister has asked on his own behalf and on behalf of his Government for greater liberty in dealing with fiscal questions. He has asked that we should cut ourselves adrift from the growth which has crystallised around our present fiscal system, and that we should resume to ourselves the liberty which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we have perhaps never constitutionally lost, but which requires nothing less than a revolution in our fiscal system to use effectually. We ask for greater liberty in respect of the taxes which are imposed to meet the expenditure of the State, and to render effective negotiations which may be undertaken with foreign Powers in regard to our commercial relations with them. The right hon. Gentleman professes his inability to understand how we could use such a power if we got it, and he administered an interrogatory of several questions as to the exact methods and means which might be adopted of putting it into operation. I do not propose to respond to that interrogatory. I think that a man who, on going into negotiations with foreign Powers, lays down beforehand exactly what he will do and what he will not do, 197 and who pledges himself not to consider this means or that, but only to move in one particular path, has done his best to render his negotiations abortive before they are begun, and to render improbable the attainment of the very object for which he has set out.
I will say in a word what appears to me is the only reasonable position for any Government to take up on this question. We desire to have full liberty to make the representations which are demanded by our trade, to enforce those representations by effective measures of fiscal change, if persuasion and argument prove ineffective, and to employ whatever methods are needed in order to carry that policy to a successful issue. The right hon. Gentleman says that this need for a power of retaliation against those who treat our commerce unfairly is a new discovery, invented by my right hon. friend the Member for West Birmingham in the course of the last few years.
§ MR. ASQUITH
If the great invention is to be attributed to its real and original discoverer, I think it is the hon. and gallant Member for Central Sheffield.
§ MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN
No, Sir; will the right hon. Gentleman, in the course of his fiscal researches, refer to a not unknown book by Adam Smith? Will he ask the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose, who sits next to him, to point out the relevant passages in the works of John Stuart Mill, or, if for the opinion of mere economists he does not care, will he read the weighty words of Lord Salisbury, addressed to his Party and the country on more than one occasion, with his unrivalled experiences of foreign affairs and of these very commercial negotiations? Lord Salisbury pointed out that we had voluntarily deprived ourselves of the only means of making our representations effective, that all around us negotiations for commercial privileges and reciprocal arrangements were going on, that each country showed great anxiety to obtain the best terms possible from the others, but that none of them cared about us. Why was that? It was because we went empty-handed to market, and he who goes empty-handed to market will come 198 empty-handed away. We have voluntarily given up the only means of influence which we possessed, and, therefore, the representations which we have made have been treated with neglect, or waived aside with a polite refusal. I am unable to understand the attitude taken up in this matter by hon. Gentlemen opposite, who consider themselves to be the heirs of Mr. Cobden"s policy, and the true prophets of his doctrines; and who, I suppose, would defend as warmly his French treaty as they would denounce any attempt on our part to purchase a similar treaty to-day by similar methods of negotiation. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose shifts uneasily in his seat. He has been the special champion of these methods of negotiation. What does he say in his life of Cobden? He says—It is not enough, therefore, to remove our own protective duties, though Peel may have been right under the circumstances of the time in saying that the best way of fighting a hostile tarriff is by reforming your own. It is the business of the economic statesman to watch for opportunities of inducing other nations to modify duties on imports; because the release of the consumers of other nations is not only a stimulus to your own production for exportation, but has an effect in the supply of the imports which you declare to be the real object of your solicitude.I can guess the right hon. Gentleman"s reply to this argument. He would say that the treaty with France was not a treaty with France only, but with all the world, that the benefits were not exclusive to France, but were given to all other nations. Yes; that is the reason why, with no other nation in the world, have we since been able to make an equally satisfactory arrangement. We had already given them all we had to give before entering into negotiation. So much for that branch of the question.
There remains one other purpose for which His Majesty"s Government desire greater liberty of fiscal action. It is in order that they may seek freely in every way open to them and along every line, without having one single line closed, to promote a closer union between ourselves and our colonial possessions beyond the seas. I wish I could convey to the House some sense of the profound importance which I attach to this side of the question. It is, I believe in my heart of hearts, big 199 with the fate of Empire; and I can conceive no subject demanding more than it does the earnest and dispassionate attention of our country, and more fraught with good or evil for the future of our Empire and of the race of which we are a part, none on which a wrong decision come to now, permanently and finally, would bring more certain disaster in the future, or a heavier weight of responsibility for this generation in the eyes of posterity. The last century was remarkable for the growth of national feeling and for the building up of great and still growing nations, and it was only with the closing years of the century that that national feeling became merged, or I would rather say expanded, into a great Imperial and world policy on the part of the great Powers of the world. I beg the House to consider what is to be our future position. We are 40,000,000 of people in these islands, a race endowed with much energy, great activity, great enterprise, a race of born colonists and explorers and leaders of men, who have played a big part in the past in the development of the world. What part are we to play in the future? If you look only to these islands, they are already over-shadowed in area, population, and resources by great Powers in Europe and America. But beyond the seas we have new nations of our own blood and kinship, growing into force and strength. We have vast possessions in other climes, not suited to white colonisation, which render the Empire capable of producing almost everything that we want and of developing a great and increasing inter-Imperial trade. What is to be the future of this great inheritance? We cannot stand for ever as we stand now. Forty or fifty years ago it seemed impossible that peoples and nations so widely scattered should be for ever closely linked in the bonds of common government and common purpose, and the statesmen of those days thought their highest duty was to prepare the way for the peaceful and friendly separation of those who sooner or later must part. Are any of us prepared to accept that solution of the problem to-day, who will bid farewell for ever to the hope of maintaining these scattered portions of our race 200 still bound together for a common purpose, and by a common tie? If we are not prepared to sacrifice that great ideal, would it not be mad of us to close the door on any road by which we may approach it, to refuse to consider any suggestion which has for its object this closer union?
The right hon. Gentleman complained that the Prime Minister had said nothing about the proposal for a Colonial Conference. My right hon. friend was replying to the Leader of the Opposition, whose only reference to the subject, I think, was an inaccurate reminiscence of an answer my right hon. friend gave in the House last year. My right hon. friend is alive, no one more than he, both to the great possibilities and perils of the future. We have a great problem to deal with, such as has never confronted any race in the history of the world. He desires that we should enter into conference with our fellow-subjects from across the seas, freely, unfettered—listen to all they have to say, and bring our views and our arguments to bear on them. [OPPOSITION cries of "What are they?"] The right hon. Gentleman called that proposal for a conference a preposterous and fantastic scheme, but afterwards explained that he is all in favour of a conference, only it must be of a different kind. If he has his way the Government of the United Kingdom are to issue to all the self-governing Colonies an invitation to attend a conference to discuss affairs of common interest, but they are at the same time to inform the Colonies that the particular subject that interests the Colonies most must not be mentioned. I suppose he will have a detective at the door to examine these colonial representatives, and see whether they have in their pockets any scheme which suggests preferential relations, and, if so, to exclude them. The subject which has excited the greatest common interest throughout the Colonial Empire is to be tabooed at this great Conference.
§ MR. ASQUITH
I have always said exactly the same thing. In the first place the quotation that was made was on the proposal that we should have a Colonial Conference summoned for this purpose, and for this purpose alone, with no reference whatever to the Colonial Conference as now proposed.
§ MR. ASQUITH
It was so understood. What I have said, and say now, is that in any Colonial Conference any constituent member of the Empire can, of course, raise any question which they regard as important. We ourselves, if we go into such a conference must send our delegates with definite instructions as to what attitude they are to take.
§ MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN
I do not lay any stress on the word now when I say that that is now the position. The colonial representatives are welcome to come and raise this question if they like, but the right hon. Gentleman warns them beforehand that if they do he will have nothing to do with them, he will not entertain it for a moment. No matter what arguments they may adduce, what facts they may bring to his knowledge, what offers they may make, what sentiment they may represent in other parts of the Empire, he and his Party refuses to touch the accursed thing, and any representations they may make will find him deaf to all their offers.
§ MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN
Then with what power or influence would he go to urge on those colonial representatives other questions in which we in this country are greatly interested, but in which our colonial kinsmen perhaps see the common interests of Empire less clearly? What chance will he have of persuading them to take a larger share in the responsibilities and liabilities of 202 the Empire? The idea of such a conference as that is indeed as preposterous and fantastic a scheme as, in his own words, has ever been evolved from the brain of a statesman. But I appeal from the right hon. Gentleman to wiser and more far-seeing heads in his own Party. Lord Rosebery, anticipating the proposal for such a conference, said—One thing was certain, that before any real change was made in our fiscal system we must, as a practical measure, have a conference around a round table or square table, as the case might be, a private conference,And I agree with him, private—not for the delivery of speeches to the gallery, but a real and business conference between the best financial and commercial experts of this country and of the Colonies to say whether such a new system of tariffs was practicable and advisable or not.That is our view, and we must have a conference at which neither our representatives shall have their hands tied, nor the colonial representatives. I regret that such a proposal should, even for a moment, have become a matter of Party controversy or a dividing line between the two sides of the House. I still hope that from amongst the members of the Party opposite many will be found who will listen to wiser counsels, and take their share in endeavouring to frame by constructive statesmanship bonds of union amongst the British race where-ever it may be found. But if it is to be a Party issue I know of no Party which, by every tradition of its existence, by the faith which its leaders have preached, by its daily principle and past practice, has a greater claim to make that policy their own than that to which I have the honour to belong.
§ MR. ELLIOT (Durham)
said that it was a melancholy thing that the question whether or not the Colonies should be heard should be made a matter of Party controversy. But the question, if he mistook not, had been already settled, and a conference would in due course be held, whichever Party was victorious at the polls. He must say he regretted the tone that had lately become common, amongst those who advocated these new fiscal reforms, with reference to our colonial relations. A repeated attempt 203 was being made to persuade our fellow-subjects in the Colonies that the home country was shutting the door upon them and treating them badly. The reverse was the truth. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said we must remember we were a small country, with greater areas and rapidly growing populations round us. Did he forget that in spite of those disadvantages our Fleets, our commerce and our trade covered every portion of the world? And how? By the methods we had followed during the past forty years. By the fact that as traders and merchant-men we had looked to the enterprise and the, energies of our own race, and had looked to the removal of restrictions to secure the pre-eminence we now enjoyed. The right hon. Gentleman had spoken as if he had never looked back to the system in our Colonies in former times. When a different system prevailed our relations with the Colonies were not such as they were now. Then, indeed, there was much trouble, and there would be again if there was an attempt to revive the worn-out and exploded commercial policy which formerly prevailed. Were we to be asked to enter into negotiations which would hamper the individual Colonies in the exercise of that freedom which they now enjoyed, and which left them as free as we were to enter into negotiations and to make arrangements for themselves? Those who knew the Colonies best knew that they would be indeed unwilling to depart from that system. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had talked of the desire to give freedom to this country in regard to trading matters with the rest of the world. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman: In what respect were we hampered at present? Could we not put up and down the taxes upon any import whatever except sugar? There for good or evil, we had lost our freedom. The results, which would be shown by more experience, would make us better aware of the effect of the Convention. Let the House recognise this, at all events, that the Convention had not freed our hands but had tied them in regard to the commodity of sugar. The British Government, by the methods known to and approved by the House and the people, except with reference to sugar 204 alone, could make what arrangements it chose. We had supreme command of the taxing of commodities which came into, and, for that matter, of commodities which went out of the country, except sugar.
§ MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN
The terms do not include any provision that we shall raise or lower the tax on sugar.
§ MR. ELLIOT
asked whether there was any commodity besides sugar which came to this country as to which we were under a similar disability. He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would answer that question. He himself knew of none. Therefore, do not let us talk of regaining our freedom in this country. That was the way to tie our hands and not to gain our freedom.
He wished to say one or two words on the Amendment to the Address, and upon the position in which that Amendment put the House, and also on the position in which the country found itself. His right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had dealt with the question of fiscal reform in a vague and perfunctory fashion. He did not blame him for taking that course. It was not suitable for him to go into the wide and extensive and, to a certain extent, the detailed policy which had been put before the country. But the policy had been before the country for nearly 100 years, and if the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or any Gentleman on the Front Bench, desired that the policy should have been fully discussed it might have been tabled, and it might have been gone through point by point. They might have considered one point after another in relation to duties on imported manufactures and duties on the commonest articles of the food of the people, and after a proper and enlightening debate they would have seen the proper and straightforward 205 course for the (Government to have pursued. That, policy had been before the country, and it was because of the fact that the policy had been before the country that it became material for the House to review the situation.
He had begun to think that it was hopeless to get from the Prime Minister a simple answer to the question whether he was for or against the policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. Of course, he was told when he left the right hon. Gentlemen"s Government, which he did with great sorrow, that he was showing a want of confidence in the fiscal policy of the head of the Government. He felt that want of confidence still, but he should have been glad if in time past some efforts had been made to remove that want of confidence. His right hon. friend the Member for West Birimingham had detailed his policy. There was no mistake about his position. He entirely disagreed with his reasoning and his conclusions. He believed his policy would injure this country in its material prosperity, and that it would tend to produce bad relations between the Central Kingdom and our Colonies, and also have a demoralising influence on British policy. At the same time he admired his frankness and the ability with which he had presented his policy to the country. But they had a right to know what the Premier thought and believed as to the merits or demerits of that policy because he was claimed as a supporter of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. If anyone was claimed as a supporter in his own presence, and he did not condescend to negative the claim, he gave some kind of approval to it. Ever since this controversy began he had looked not only at the reasoning of his right hon, friend at the head of the Government, but also at the conduct of the Government in dealing with the matter. What was the use of, he was about to say pretending, not to be in sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham when in the constituencies they did all they could to bring forward, and press forward, the representatives of the policy of the right hon. Gentleman. He had heard mutterings and grumblings from hon. Members who asked why he did not cross the floor of the House, and make his 206 speeches from the other side. He would tell hon. Members that he would do so the next time he rose to catch the Speaker"s eye if the Prime Minister told the House that his policy as to the fiscal question was that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. This position he had taken in that House, and on the platform. He would not remain a member of any Party which made a system of antiquated protectionism a principal part of their policy.
§ MR. ELLIOT
reminded the right hon. Gentleman that he had claimed that in principle the Prime Minister was a supporter of his policy. If that were so, and the Premier said it was so, he and not a few others would find it necessary to cross the floor of the House at once. This was not a question between one right hon. Gentleman and another, but a question of policy. Was the House to be kept alive in order that tactics might be pursued rather than that it might aid effective debate and discussion of the great issue in the mind of the public and in which alone the public was interested? They had been told on the one side that it was the duty of the Prime Minister to dissolve, and on the other side that it was his duty to prolong the existence of the House of Commons. They had heard of precedents as to the influence of by-elections and as to what Mr. Gladstone had or had not done, but, after all, these were subsidiary to the great principles which every one of them knew ought to govern the case. What was the distinct feature of the House? It was that they were not speaking merely as individuals, but as representatives, and that whenever a great change had come over the whole condition of things, it should be followed by a dissolution. In this case they had not only changed the Sovereign, but the Prime Minister and the Ministers who were his chief supporters. The whole conditions had changed, in fact, and a new policy was now before the country. He sympathised enormously with the difficulties in which the Prime Minister was placed. But he must say that it was with a feeling 207 of deep despondency that last night he had heard the right hon. Gentlemen treat a very serious question, which the country regarded as serious and on which the country was feeling deeply, as a matter of Party chaff. What they wanted, and what they had a right to expect from the Prime Minister, was a little guidance on the main issue. He wished to speak of the right hon. Gentleman with great respect, and he regretted more than he could state that the right hon. Gentleman had not seen his way to take a firmer line, and to lead the public on this great issue. But the right hon. Gentleman had not done so. He knew that the Prime Minister was feeling how essential it was that his Party should be kept together. That was from no selfish interest of the right hon. Gentleman"s own, but from what he conceived to be his duty. His own Party feeling was not so intense as to make him feel that the business of the country could not be carried on if this or the other Prime Minister were not in power. He believed that this was a self-governing country, and that if half-a-dozen Prime Ministers were to disappear, the country, though it might suffer great loss, would find some way of getting on. What they could not afford was that the best minds and characters among them should not take the place that belonged to them, but leave the country in the net of mystifications set before them in the unhappy policy presented by the right hon. Gentleman. To say that this was not a case in which there was difficulty within the Party was, as everybody knew, contrary to fact. In every constituency in the country at the present moment there were many hundreds and even thousands of men who had been good Conservatives and Liberal Unionists all their lives, and who were now determined to go over to the other side rather than enable the Government to carry into effect the fiscal policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham. Therefore, he appealed once more to the Prime Minister to see where he stood on this matter.
This vote would be taken—he hoped the House would remember it—and rightly taken for or against the fiscal policy of the right hon. Member 208 for Birmingham. The country liked to look at things rather broadly, and they would know that real free-traders, men who were prepared to sacrifice something for free trade—old co-operation, for instance, with friends and relations—must vote for the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. The Chancellor of the Exchequer"s intervention certainly had not tended to clear the position, either one way or the other. It seemed to him to make the connection somewhat closer between the Government Bench and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham. Well, where were they? Where were they in this House, and in the constituencies? The constituencies had a right to be taken into the confidence of the Government. Was preference to be made effective at once as representing the views of the Government? If the Government wished to stand clear with the country, let them answer that question. He hoped that in the coming struggle, which ought not to be very far away, the people would look upon this as the greatest issue ever put before them for many a long year. He hoped that they would do as they had done eighteen or twenty years ago on another great issue. There could not be a doubt—as every right hon. Gentleman on the Government Bench knew in his heart—that if the country was fairly consulted, on the question of free trade on the one side, and the fiscal policy of the right hon. Member for Birmingham on the other, the country would give an enthusiastic and overwhelming verdict in favour of the case for free trade.
§ MR. DAVID MACIVER (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
said that the Amendment moved by the right hon. Member for East Fife had been enforced by a reference to the by-elections; but he should like to point out that the policy of both the Prime Minister and of the right hon. Member for Birmingham had been utterly misrepresented at these by-elections. That was within the knowledge of all, and he thought that the Prime Minister had some reason to complain of the speech which had just been made by the hon. Member for Durham for the misrepresentations therein made. He remembered well what the Prime Minister said at Sheffield. He was present and listened 209 to that speech, and had also read the pamphlet "Economic Notes," and had heard all his speeches in public and in the House. To his mind these were perfectly intelligible, and it was quite clear—he spoke his own views—that the Prime Minister sympathised with the policy of the right hon. Member for Birmingham. The Prime Minister at Sheffield pointed out that the old fiscal theory had broken down in practice, and that the time had come when that policy ought to be reconsidered. There were, as he understood the Prime Minister to have said, certain difficulties in the way of adopting the wider policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, and that these difficulties hung round the question of the taxation of imported food, which would be a necessary part of preference. He thought he was right in his recollection that the Prime Minister"s statements were not in any sense hostile to anything said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, but rather pointed to this: that the proposal to tax imported food was in his opinion one which the country was not at the present time prepared to accept. He agreed with the Prime Minister that to-day this country was not prepared to go the whole length of the right hon. Member for Birmingham; but the time was coming when that policy would be less misrepresented and better understood. He was heartily in support of the policy of the Prime Minister. It seemed to him that the Prime Minister"s views were clear and definite, and that the policy of recovering our powers of negotiation with those countries which at present did not treat us fairly was of the very greatest value, and might well stand apart by itself. As a tariff reformer he welcomed that policy. He, however, did not regard the two policies as antagonistic. The policy of retaliation was in itself a wise one, and it seemed to him that those who sought to defend the present fiscal system of the country must necessarily find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They were bound to show either that they were the only depositories of wisdom, or that all other countries which were protectionist were foolish. Now he did not think that they could show either the one or the other. He believed that business men—not 210 of narrow, but of wide experience,—were thoroughly convinced that our competitors in Germany and the United States understood their own business interests quite as well as anybody in this country, and that they were by no means the fools hon. Gentlemen opposite imagined them to be.
Reference had been made to the by-elections. They had one coming on in Liverpool next week, in the Everton Division. It was said that one ought not to prophesy unless one knew, but he was as certain as he stood there that, if all other questions were eliminated, the fiscal reform candidate would win that great constituency. The Liverpool constituencies were mostly in favour of the retaliation policy of the Prime Minister, while others also approved the policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. Being connected with the shipping trade, he was in a position to tell the House that the leading shipowners in Liverpool, almost without exception, were not only in favour of retaliation, but also looked with a kindly eye on the policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. They included such men as both the present and late Chair-man of the Liverpool Steamship Owners" Association, as Sir Alfred Jones the President and Mr. Welsford the Chairman of the local branch of the Tariff Reform League, and practically very nearly the whole of the steamship owners who were engaged in the general cargo trade. There was however, no rule without an exception, and the exception frequently proved the rule. Who were the people who were opposed to them? There was one Gentleman whose name was known to this House—Sir William Forwood. He had taken a conspicuous part in Liverpool in endeavouring to raise an agitation against the fiscal policy of the Unionist Party. Sir William Forwood was formerly a partner in the firm of Leech, Harrison & Forwood, but the West Indian shipping business in which he was at one time engaged had been sold by his successors to the Hamburg-American Company; and the firm of Leech, Harrison & Forwood remained the agents of the company. That ought to keep Sir William Forwood quiet, because he could not possibly speak with authority as a Liverpool shipowner. He did not in the least 211 suggest any corrupt influence on the part of Sir William Forwood, who was far too high-minded for that; but he thought that Sir William"s former association with the firm of Leech, Harrison & Forwood, who were now so closely connected with the Hamburg-American Steamship Company, was not unlikely to have affected his views. Mr. Charles Booth, junior, read a paper in Liverpool the other day, and took a view in opposition to those he had endeavoured to express; but it should be remembered that a far wiser man, his senior partner, the Right Hon. Charles Booth, the chairman of the great shipping company of which he was one of the directors, was a member of the Tariff Commission. Another gentleman, whom it would not be fair to name, because he had not as yet taken any conspicuous part in opposing the policy his brother shipowners believed in, was interested in the China trade, and had very close and intimate relations with the North German Lloyd. They employed Chinese labour also largely in their ships, but he did not blame him for that. He thought these circumstances would probably keep that gentleman quiet. His case was that the people in Liverpool who had most to do with the general cargo carrying trade were almost, if not absolutely, without exception in favour of the policy of the Prime Minister. He could assure the House of that; he knew the people and spoke with full knowledge of their views. Why was it so? Because all in the shipping business who were engaged in the general cargo carrying trade had seen and felt the increase in foreign competition and in unfair competition. The South American Republics, for instance, were growing in prosperity, wealth and importance. At one time, the importation of manufactured goods was almost entirely British; now Belgium, Germany and the United States were, thanks to their fiscal system, making a heavy inroad into that business. The result was that these Republics were now trading more largely with the Continent and the United States than with us. They in Liverpool knew the reason why; and for business reasons, whether they were Unionists or Liberals, they were almost without exception in favour of the policy of the Prime Minister. The 212 returns of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board furnished a very fair indication of the general trade of the country. The Chairman of the Board the other day pointed out how great the increase in trade had been; but he wished to point out what the character of the increase was. The returns of the Board showed an increase in almost every item of revenue except one. Everything which competed with the agricultural and manufacturing industries of this country showed an increase. Although the dock rates and town dues on imports last year as compared with the year before showed an increase of £13,353, the receipts from exports showed a diminution of £1,156.
§ MAJOR SEELY (Isle of Wight)
asked if the hon. Member had seen the figures which showed an increase in the trade of Liverpool of £36,000,000.
§ MR. DAVID MACIVER
said he did not know to what figures the hon. and gallant, Gentleman referred; but they did not affect his argument. Their free trade friends were never weary of telling them that all was well with the trade of the country. He would endeavour to prove that this was by no means the case, and he would call as a witness Mr. John Williamson, a gentleman not of his politics, but a well-known Liverpool shipowner of great experience, who was till quite recently a director of the Cunard Steamship Company. At the 27th annual meeting of the Chamber of Shipping, held in London on the 5th of February last, Mr. Williamson read a most important paper, which deserved their very serious attention. He pointed out that the statistics of exports as usually presented related only to values, and that such statistics might sometimes be misleading, inasmuch as prices of the raw materials for our industries were subject to very considerable fluctuations. For instance, as happened some twelve months ago, cotton: rose in price, and immediately the value of every bale of manufactured goods went up because the price of cotton had gone up, but nevertheless a bale remained only a bale although its export value might have increased. The same kind of thing was true of other manufactures, and, of course, when raw material went down the process. 213 would be reversed. Quantities might remain the same, although statistics based upon value seemed to show either an increase on the one hand or a decrease on the other. Mr. Williamson pointed out that the true basis for statistical comparison was not value, but volume. Mr. Williamson, at the cost of much tedious labour, had succeeded in transforming the Board of Trade statistics of value into statistics of volume for every year since 1869 down to the end of 1903. Looking at it from a shipowner"s point of view, he took the trouble of turning the Board of Trade values into tons of twenty hundred-weights as regards dead weight cargo, and into tons of forty cubic feet as regards measurement cargo. The results were most remarkable, and showed that, taking the whole of our export trade, foreign and colonial together, we had, so far as our manufacturing industries were concerned, been losing ground steadily for the last sixteen or seventeen years. He began with the year 1869, and gave every year separately, but for the sake of brevity he would merely give the round figures of every tenth year. The exportations of manufactured goods in 1869 came on this basis to 5,497,000 tons; in 1879 they were 6,065,000 tons; in 1889 they were 8,927,000 tons; but when they got to 1899, a "change came o"er the spirit of the dream." Hostile tariffs were then effectually doing their work and our exports of manufactured goods showed a drop of about a 1,000,000 tons. The position had steadily worsened since, and our exports of manufactured goods last year were another 1,000,000 down. He thought that was a state of things which no free trader could by any possibility explain away. Mr. Williamson"s figures made it clear beyond any sort of reasonable doubt or question that as regards manufacturing industries the export trade of the country was, under our existing fiscal system, going steadily and rapidly to the bad. His figures showed 7,942,000 tons for 1899, and only 7,092,000 tons for 1903. The figures for 1883 were 8,342,000 tons, and the conclusion therefore appeared inevitable that our manufacturers were to-day doing less export business than they were twenty years ago. The increase of our exports consisted absolutely and entirely of coal.
214 The shipowners of Liverpool were, as he had said, almost unanimously in favour of the policy of the Prime Minister and of the greater and grander policy of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. Why were not all business men in favour of it? The reason to anyone who "knew the ropes" was perfectly obvious. The banker, the broker and the middleman wanted to earn commissions. Capital was cosmopolitan, and from a banking point of view there was more money to be made in financing the business of our foreign competitors than in helping traders at home. The banker made legitimate profits out of all financial transactions of every kind involving a money payment for importations. Comparatively speaking, he got nothing if we paid for importations with our wares. He got much when we paid for them by transfer of securities. Improvement of the export trade in manufactures was therefore by no means specially desired by some of our banking friends. Their interest did not lie in that direction, nor was it particularly wanted by those shipowners who never carried manufactured goods, whose ships were not good enough for the job, and who had no ambition higher than coal currying. Such shipowners were either indifferent to the proposals of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham or opposed to them, and the reason was obvious—they had nothing to gain. They might even have something to lose if by any chance these proposals led to others, such as might well arise if our existing fiscal system came to be so completely reversed that the country woke up to the fact that excessive coal exportations were perhaps not altogether desirable. There were those who believed that in sending abroad large quantities of the more valuable qualities of South Wales coal we were parting for an inadequate consideration with national capital which could never be replaced. To the Liverpool shipowners, who expected to make their living out of the carrying of British products, fiscal reform would make all the difference in the world.
The real difficulty in the way of the policy of the Prime Minister and that of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham was that there were a number of vested interests which it 215 would not suit to see the present conditions altered. The fiscal policy of this country could not be varied without affecting those who made their living out of the existing state of things. To such it was a matter of life and death that the country should continue on the present system, but this was not in the interests of the people of this country. This free-trade country of ours—GreatBritain—was the only civilised country in the world of which it could truly be said that one third of the people were underfed and living upon the verge of hunger. He looked upon the free food cry as one of the greatest impostures of the age. The free-fooders did not seek to diminish the burdens on our food in any way. They did not seem to care what burdens fell upon the producers in this country. It was only the protective taxation of food that they objected to; and when they declaimed against food taxation, it was the taxation of foreign food that they meant. Now, whatever doubt there might be as to the incidence of the duties levied by the Customs, there could be no doubt whatever as to the incidence of local taxation. Whether the burden was distributed equitably or not, it was all paid by ourselves. He had had some difficulty in finding out what the rates and taxes amounted to, but he found, according to the Local Taxation Returns, that the local taxation of England and Wales in 1902–3 was £129,206,784. Much of this was a charge upon the food-producing and manufacturing industries of this country. The actual sum drawn from the people of this country in the shape of local taxation was larger than that drawn from them in normal years by Imperial taxation. Let us free the food we grow at home, and let us free our manufactures. As a business man, he asserted that what governed the incidence of Customs taxation was almost entirely the question of supply and demand. The countries which sent corn to us could not sell it elsewhere except against import duties much higher than any which were suggested by the right hon. Member for Birmingham. Such import duties as had been suggested would not have the slightest effect in reducing the volume of importation. The shilling import duty on wheat had no effect in raising prices, nor did 216 the remission of the duty cause prices to go down; and he believed that a two shilling duty on wheat would have no more effect. Such a duty would not be large enough to restrict the supply, and the foreigner, confronted as he would be with the competition of free colonial production, would have to reduce his price sufficiently to enable him to sell his wares. The working man certainly would not suffer. The larger duty which would fall upon flour as a manufactured article would tend to encourage the importation of wheat. Wheat would come instead of flour. The shipowner would have more to carry, which would mean more work at the docks, more work for our milling industries, and cheaper offals to help to feed the cattle of our agriculturists. The interests of the country were bound up with the interests of the argiculturists, and it was one of the most serious factors in the present situation that the number of people engaged in agricultural pursuits should be diminishing.
The sugar-refining industry was brought to ruin by unfair competition, but the Sugar Convention had already had some effect in bringing about a better state of things. Personally he regarded the Convention as a somewhat clumsy free-trade device, and he would have preferred to see countervailing duties. As to the contention that the Convention formed any part of the wider policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, one had only to point to the fact that it contained provisions which prevented the giving of any preference to our Colonies to show how absurd the contention was. The pretence that the Convention had had anything to do with the rise in the price of sugar was an absolutely hollow one. The quantity of sugar previously received from countries that were now prevented from sending was so small compared with the total quantity consumed that it could have had little or no effect on price. In conclusion he desired to express his strong disapproval of the Amendment before the House, and his hearty support of the policy of the Government.
§ MR. EMMOTT (Oldham)
said that in regard to what had been said by the hon. Member who had just sat down he wished to state that he had been informed 217 by one of the large shipowners he had named who was a supporter of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, that protection would not be a good thing for the shipping trade, although he believed it would be a good thing for the country as a whole. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had made a speech which seemed to be of great importance, and he had dealt at considerable length with the question of colonial preference. The right hon. Gentleman accused the Opposition of desiring to exclude the discussion of colonial preference at the suggested conference, but when a Liberal Government came into power they would be willing to discuss any questions of that kind introduced by any Colony. What they complained of was that the prime Minister would not state whether, if a scheme involving the taxation of food was recommended by the suggested Colonial Conference, he would recommend it to the country or not. It was trifling with the British Empire to talk about such a conference without first of all settling whether they were going to tax food or not. The right hon. Gentle-man the Member for West Birmingham was perfectly straightforward upon this, for his contention was that they ought to decide this question first, but the Prime-Minister, in order to keep a semblance of Party unity, adopted another attitude and it was because of his manoeuvring with this question that the country had become disgusted with the present Government. The case of Lord Peel cited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was absolutely different to the present situation, for Peel resigned when he changed his mind and the Opposition of the day agreeing with him in his new policy declined to take office. In the present case a new question had been sprung upon the country by the Member for West Birmingham. The Prime Minister had stated that he regretted the raising of this issue, but it had been raised, and it would be the principal issue at the next election; and yet the Prime Minister was putting off the next election upon no grounds which he could explain to the House, and in the hope that something would occur in his Party to give it a better appearance of unity than existed at the present time.
218 He wished to speak upon this matter from a business point of view. The best that could be said about the new fiscal proposals was that they would help some trades whilst they would injure others. If they helped agriculture, they would certainly injure the general body of consumers because they would have to pay more for their food. They might help the earlier stages of the iron and steel trade, but only at the expense of the. tin-plate and machinery trades. The real question they had to consider was, were those trades which would be injured of greater magnitude and importance to the country than the trades that would be helped? The silk and glass trades which would be helped by protection were very small and minor trades, but great trades like the iron and steel industry, as a whole, would certainly be injured by protection. The cotton trade would be ruined by protection, the woollen trade would be made worse, and the greater trades as a whole would suffer under a protective system. Under these circumstances each trade wanted to know definitely what was going to happen. A feeling of uncertainty was a very bad thing for trade, and the matter ought to be settled by an appeal to the country. Although they were allowed to discuss the question they were not allowed to decide it upon the. fair and square issue of protection and free trade. A great deal had been said about Cobden, but Cobden was never afraid of debate in the House of Commons, and he converted the country to his views about the Corn Laws by constantly debating the question in the House of Commons. Why the Government and the tariff reformers were afraid of debate in the House and a division on a fair and square issue he could not understand. It was monstrous that such a great change, affecting every man, woman, and child in the country, should be debarred from their decision.
As to how the cotton trade would be affected, he had never heard even the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham attempt to show how protection would do any good to the cotton trade, which had nothing to gain but everything to lose by protection. The export trade of cotton from this country for every man, woman and child 219 amounted to between 35s. and 40s. per head; for Germany the amount was from 5s. to 6s.; France, 3s. 7d.; United States, 1s. 6d.; and Russia, 2¾d. The exports varied inversely with the amount of protection. Those figures did not form a very strong argument in favour of protection. Why were they able to beat other nations in the cotton trade? Because the cost of mills, machinery, and plant in this country was so much lower than in foreign countries. With regard to the United States, it was a very curious fact that wages should have been so largely reduced at Fall River, whereas they were talking about an increase of wages at home. It had been calculated by experts that the cost of even a 5 per cent, all round duty on food and manufactures would amount to a tax on the cotton industry of £600,000 per annum. The cotton trade was threatened by two different changes, the one proposed by the Prime Minister, which was an unreal policy backed by consistent arguments; and the other put forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, which was the real policy backed by extremely inconsistent arguments. At present the greater part of cotton trade was good and Lancashire appeared to have made up its mind that the country was not going to have protection, for it was rapidly extending its cotton mills. Far-sighted men, however, most naturally recoiled from new ventures, because they did not know what the new tariff was going to be; and even if protection would be for their advantage it was of the utmost importance that they should get this matter settled.
Just one word about the matter as it affected other nations. There had, of late years, been a tendency to recoil form protection in foreign countries, because high protective duties meant a diminution of exports. In America they were talking about the reduction of the tariff, but the most important case at the present time was the case of Germany. The Chancellor of the Exchequer talked a good deal about Germany and the German protective system in modern years, but the trade and exports per head of the population decreased from the 220 time that protection came into force until the period of 1892 when the tariff was reduced. For the years, 1882–3–4, the amount per head was £3 10s., in 1890–2 £3 3s. 2d., and the great increase had come since and was now, for 1900 to 1902, £4 0s. 2d. per head. Now they were putting up the tariff again. That must check the export trade. He did not think there was an economist in Germany who pretended anything else. They were increasing their agricultural duties. The effect of this new tariff had been undoubtedly to make Russia, Austria, and Switzerland, the three neighbours of Germany, put up their tariffs. He thought we might learn a lesson from this. Retaliators might learn the lesson that when they put up their tariffs their neighbours were liable to do the same. He maintained that it was very important that we should settle this matter without delay. The question of protection was trembling in the balance in other countries as well as here. It was very noticeable that the campaign of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham had been welcomed by protectionists in all nations and in our own Colonies. In the campaign textbook of the United States of America, much use had been made of the statements as to the decadence, of this country, which had been so largely made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. England had been the one great argument by which free-traders all over the world had stood, If we gave way there might be an orgy of protectionists in other countries. If we stuck firm to our free-trace practice he was as convinced as he could be that, before long, both in the United States and in Germany, there would be a recoil from protection, and that they would resort to a system in which tariffs would be less than they were to-day. He hoped this question would, without further delay, be put to the country, and that the country would decide upon it.
§ MR. PURVIS (Peterborough)
said hon. Members on his side of the House were very much impressed by the hurry indicated by the Amendment that the fiscal question should be submitted to the people. Why was it absolutely 221 necessary to have a general election without further delay? There was, he suspected, something behind the proposal, and the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife had added to the suspicion. He and his friends were strongly of opinion, and the opinion was growing stronger every day, that the Opposition had a lurking fear that time was on the side of the tariff reformers. That lurking fear told them that they should try to snatch a short spell of power before time had done its work. They wished to snatch a verdict amid the confusion—the natural confusion—in the public mind, caused by the novelty of the proposals. If they were not afraid that time was working against them they would not be so desirous of a general election. Why raise this terrible stir throughout the country? The tariff reformers proposed to tax goods from foreign countries, because foreign countries taxed the goods which we sent to them. He denied the accuracy of the term "free trade" as generally used. Free trade was a perfectly free exchange between different countries, but we had no such thing here in England. Virtually free trade did not exist. It was a complete misnomer for their opponents to call themselves free-traders, and he said that they were sailing under false colours. On the other hand he denied that the term "protectionist" applied to the class to which he belonged. Protection was an old exploded policy by which certain products were protected from fair competition, and not unfair competition by foreign countries, as was the case now. There was a cry about the taxation of food by free-trade politicians. It was not intended to resort to the old sliding scale which put 38s. 6d. on the quarter of wheat and raised the tax to 50s. That was protection with a vengeance—protection of home industries from the competition of foreign countries. The shilling a quarter duty which was imposed in 1902 had no effect whatever on the price, and he submitted that the imposition of a two shilling tax would not have had an appreciable effect. But even if there was any increase in the price of food by such a tax the impost would be counterbalanced by the remission of taxation in other ways. That would 222 be protection in the proper sense of the term. These were easy things to realise, but their opponents gave them the go-by.
The increase in the price of sugar was due to an accidental cause—namely, the short crop of beet. When bounties were paid on beet sugar by foreign countries cane sugar could not compete against it, and the result was that our great sugar industries in the West Indies were ruined. That was not all. The importation of beet sugar already refined had the effect of destroying the sugar-refining industries of London, Bristol, and Greenock. It was all very well for their Cobden friends to say that cheap sugar was so much the better for our confectioners and jam makers, but now the cry of distress arose from them and kindred trades. The time had arrived for foreign countries to withdraw bounties on sugar. The confectioners had built up their prosperity on a false foundation of cheap sugar, which was obtained far below its cost. What had happened to the confectionery trades only showed the effect of dumping and the necessity for fiscal reform. The same effects would be felt by every other industry unless we were wise in time and put an end to dumping of every sort before it was too late. Our Colonies had only shown us the way, and why should we scorn their counsel and co-operation. We must learn to think Imperially, for he believed that if our Colonies began to make reciprocity treaties with foreign nations the idea of Imperial trade, one system of defence, one Flag, one Throne, would be gone for ever. That must not be, and when the proper time came the House and country would declare that it should not be.
§ MR. LOUGH (Islington,W.)
said that the statements made in the course of the debate were most amazing. The hon. Member who had just sat down had commenced by saying that owing to the extraordinary situation at present, certain industries, formerly very flourishing, were suffering very greatly. The hon. Gentleman said that these industries had built up their prosperity on a false foundation; but that was not very consoling to them. Who could tell whether or not 223 they were built on a false foundation? They must not begin examining these things too closely. If they did so with the whole national trade they would land themselves in very curious conclusions. His hon. friend said that considerable prosperity had been enjoyed by the sugar-manufacturing industries, and now he admitted that they had been destroyed. There were valuable witnesses on the other side who said that delay in bringing this issue to the country had prevented the Government redeeming the pledge given to the House. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that this new policy would not be introduced in the present Parliament, but their own supporters did not confirm that at all, because the new policy was going strong at the present moment and formerly prosperous businesses in the country were suffering. He had been greatly amazed at the line of argument taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, considering that the right hon. Gentleman was an eminent exponent of Parliamentary procedure. The right hon. Gentleman had said scarcely anything at all about the Amendment, which practically set forth that we had carried on this discussion long enough and that it ought to be decided by a reference to the people of the country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, had made the most protectionist and preferential speech that any right hon. Gentleman holding his position had delivered in the House for the past sixty years. It was little less than shocking for the chosen representative of the trade of this country under free trade to go almost out of his way to lay down the foundations for protection and preference—the very policies which were not to be spoken of in this House for a year or two. He thought that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer only reflected on the injury he might cause to the vital interests of this country by even talking in that way he would be a little more careful in what he said in the House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was, in his opinion, not free to take that tone, seeing the position he held in the Government. The right hon. Gentleman was supposed to be a follower of the Prime Minister and they could not get him to admit that his policy and that of the Prime Minister were the same.
224 The Prime Minister"s attitude was very curious. He was asked by his own supporters to state plainly whether he agreed or not with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, and he refused to give any answer, but sat strangely silent. He supposed the silence of the right hon. Gentleman gave consent. It was said that the Party"s allegiance to the Government depended on whether that pledge was given, but the Prime Minister did not give any indication, even by a nod of the head, of the mind of the Government on this matter. That was a state of things that could not be prolonged. It was so early in the session that the House had not had time to exactly realise what was the situation; but if they saw what was going on outside, they would recognise that the situation here was nothing more than a farce and could not be prolonged. The Government were not able to keep the promise they had made to prevent the discussion of the fiscal policy. Large experiments were being made in the way of protection.
He wished to say a word in regard to a certain business which had been affected most disastrously by the policy which the Government were pursuing—he meant the growing and distribution of tea. A most powerful deputation had been organised in connection with that business. He had nothing to do with that deputation himself, but it had gone to three different members of the Government in succession for the purpose of laying before them the case of their ruined industry. First, they went to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who indicated that he was limited at present by the condition of the finances, but there might be a change in the condition of the country which would enable their burdens to be reduced. If that promise was to be given to large businesses, ought not the Government to take steps to enable the promise to be fulfilled? He believed that the promise was that two-thirds of the duty on tea would be taken away, although they had the Government deciding to put on an additional duty. Between the promise and the performance a great national industry was brought almost to ruin. Then the deputation went to the Secretary of State for India, who took the opportunity of making the most interesting speech on tea he had 225 ever heard, but the right hon. Gentleman did not give the deputation any help. He said that their sufferings were inevitable, that the people were saturated with tea, and that if the tea-growers were practically ruined the Government could not help it. It was for the general good! What a position for a Government to take up!
§ MR. LOUGH
said his complaint was that they could not get the Government to listen to what they said. They were talking about the Prime Minister and the Secretary for India, but they were not present. He understood that the deputation from this ruined industry next went to the Colonial Secretary and, so far as he could make out, they got no more satisfaction from him. The only other Secretary of State which the deputation could wait upon was the President of the Poor Law Board who might find for them an ultimate refuge in the workhouse! This was not a matter on which to joke. The hon. Member for Peterborough had spoken of another ruined industry, although there were others which had been most injuriously affected by the state of indecision which existed in the public mind in regard to the fiscal policy. This was the great finance market of the world, and the state of the money market had been most injuriously affected by the situation and the condition of the national funds. That condition could not recover until the country adopted some settled policy, and until the great financiers knew in what direction the country would proceed. Our great national financial securities were not alone affected; the difficulties of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of our municipalities, and of everybody engaged in commerce, were increasing. It was extremely difficult to start any new enterprises, and he believed that the ranks of the unemployed were greatly swelled by the extent to which industry was affected throughout the country by the prolongation of the existing situation.
He thought the Government ought to give a more reasoned answer than they had done to the appeal which had been made to them. Precedents had been 226 referred to, but these were not of any great help. They were, in an entirely new situation from that in which they were forty or fifty years ago. The people were tired of this fiscal question and wanted to have a general election, and have this subject brought to an issue at once. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had, however, made a long speech on quite another subject. In their secret hearts he believed that the Government were aware that the farce could not be carried on too long. The Government ought to consider the feelings of the country. See how the private business of the country was being affected, and how the business of this House was being thoroughly disorganised by postponing the dissolution. Why should any time be wasted? The Government ought to decide what was the most convenient time for taking this important step. There was another reason, which might not appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, but which was a very substantial one. The beginning of the year was the best period to consult the opinion of the people of the country. If the question were delayed people who were now entitled would not be able to vote. This was the time when a vital question of this kind should be referred to them. He thought some members of the Government ought to give the House an answer as to what was the real Ministerial mind with reference to the Amendment. No one would deny that there was not a feeling of unrest and unreality and that there was a situation which it would be to the interest of the country to put at rest.
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
said he had followed the debate with the closest attention, and had, during the period he had been in the House, rarely heard a number of speeches so little calculated to support the contention which the speakers had in view. His hon. friend and colleague charged the Chancellor of the Exchequer with being one of the members of the Government who did not explain the position. He would have expected that his hon. friend would have been the last to make that charge against the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who did not state that the Government were disinclined to consult the electorate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer devoted 227 one of the most powerful passages in his extremely powerful speech to showing why the decision of this question should not be hurried. The right hon. Gentleman"s contention was that the electorate should have the facts fully and squarely before them. The hon. Member for Oldham said that the Government had shown themselves unwilling to allow the fiscal question to be discussed in the House; they were frightened, he said, of the decision. As a matter of fact, during the two days of the session the House had been discussing scarcely anything else but the fiscal question. He did not say that that was desirable; indeed he did not think it was. He thought that the time of Parliament could be better disposed on other matters which had been submitted to it. He would not say that the time of the House had been wasted, but it had been spent wholly and exclusively on a question which the present House of Commons would not decide. They would have done better to have concentrated their attention on the very urgent questions which had been submitted to them in the Speech from the Throne, and which would not have aroused such an amount of Party feeling as did the fiscal question. There was the question of the unemployed, that of valuation, and other questions which were referred to in the gracious Speech from the Throne. He was not confident that all these questions would be discussed, because of the concentration of the time of the House on an issue which had been repeatedly declared by the members of the Government as one which would not be decided by the present Parliament.
In the extremely powerful speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Fife, he was good enough to state the several divisions into which, according to him, the Unionist candidates would be divided at the next election and he referred mainly to the candidates whom he called not very elegantly "pure Balfourians." If he understood the right hon. Gentleman"s contention, he himself avowed himself a "pure Balfourian." By that he meant that he agreed with every word which the Prime Minister had said at Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Manchester. Although he did not differ from everything 228 that had fallen from the Member for West Birmingham, yet he would not be able to follow him with that absolute concurrence with which he was able to support the Prime Minister. He understood that the Prime Minister was anxious for a Colonial Conference. The right hon. Gentleman wanted to know what the Colonial Governments were about to offer in return for advantages they asked from this country. He was anxious that preference should be given to the Colonies, but he was not willing to pledge this country before-hand to give preference to the Colonies, until he knew that they were about to give in return a preference which he believed would be beneficial to the entire Empire. That was a business-like attitude to adopt. He had been brought up on the Stock Exchange and spent a great portion of his time there, and the first maxim—he might almost say the first axiom—taught him was that he should not indulge in a certain loss for a doubtful profit. There would be nothing more prejudicial to the interests of the Empire at large than that the working classes of this country should acquire the idea—he would not say the conviction—that their food was being made dearer simply for the purpose of promoting the prosperity of the Colonies. He did not believe that the Colonies wanted that, and he did not believe that that was the intention of the Government. Accordingly he supported the proposal of the Prime Minister, because he had stated over and over again that he desired to send the representatives of this country into a conference with the Colonies unfettered and unbound. They wanted to know what the Colonies had to offer, what their concrete proposals were, and what they were prepared to exchange for the preference which he himself was only too anxious to extend, and which, in his opinion, the Colonies would be glad to accept, in order to promote real union between the Colonies and the mother country. He thought that the Government should not be afraid of submitting that issue to the country when the proper time came. He very much deprecated that the time of the House should be wasted in discussing the fiscal question instead of proceeding with the questions of the 229 unemployed, valuation, and redistribution, which he considered were very urgent.
§ .MR. CATHCART WASON (Orkney and Shetland)
said he did not know how the Chancellor of the Exchequer would appreciate the speech which had just been made when he thought of the one which he himself had delivered a few minutes ago, when he appealed to a united Party to support him in the division lobby. If they did support the right hon. Gentleman it would mean that the Unionist Party pinned their faith to the policy of protection and nothing but protection. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman was a long tirade in favour of protection, and in the course of it he tried to bring in other countries in order to assist the Government and draw a false trail over the real issue. The right hon. Gentleman had tried to drag the Colonies into a domestic affair of this country. No statesmen did so much harm to this country and the Empire as those who were following the right hon. Member for West Birmingham in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had reproached the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Fife because they deprecated the way in which the Colonies had been dragged into this discussion. Hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House approved of Colonial Conferences from time to time. It was not the right hon. Member for Fife who wished us to go to these conferences with tied hands; it was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham who said—"If we are not going to lose the Colonies we must tax the food of the people here; if we do not give the Colonies a preference we shall lose them, and in order to give them a preference we must tax the food of the people." As one familiar with the Colonies he could emphatically declare that there was a considerable amount of opposition in every colony to the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman. He did not doubt that the desire of hon. Gentlemen opposite to promote the prosperity of the Empire was just as great as that of hon. Gentlemen who sat in opposition, but hon. Members must remember that our Colonies were independent States and that our 230 relations with them in the future were not to be those of treaties, but what they always had been, relations of brotherly love and affection. We were deeply attached to our Colonies, and they to us, and he was satisfied that this suggestion for the taxation of the food of the people did not in any way come from the Colonies. There were no starving millions there. In their manufacturing industries they had an eight hours day and 8s. a day, and often far more; the farmers were all well-to do and were the very last men in the world to ask English labourers who had to struggle on on a few shillings a week to tighten their belts, in order that they might get a little extra profit on their wheat, or, so far as South Australia was concerned, on their wine. This demand never came from them. In Canada and New Zealand they had differentiated between British and foreign goods by imposing a tax on the latter, and in that way given a preference to British goods, but what was it worth?
"With the permission of the House he would like to read a letter from a personal friend, a prominent member of a New Zealand House—It angers me very much to read references to "what the Colonies have done," "New Zealand's noble action," and all the rest of it, and I am amazed that those opposed to Mr. Chamberlain"s scheme should not have taken the trouble to examine and analyse just exactly "what New Zealand has done".New Zealand has done me nothing—for England. New Zealand never intended to do anything—for England. New Zealand says in the Act itself that for value received she is willing—nay, anxious—to chuck England to everlasting blazes. That is New Zealand as represented by Seddon and his infernal Act.The Act does not reduce duty on British goods. It simply increases duties on foreign goods. Three months before he introduced the Bill, which he forced through at one continuous sitting of thirty-six hours directly after its introduction, Seddon observed—5th August, 1903, Hansard, Vol. 124, p. 262—"At the Conference of Premiers in London. it had been proprosed that a rebate of 10 per cent, should be made on British merchandise carried in a British ship: but he had been afraid it would weigh upon their own struggling industries, and proposed, as a remedy, increasing the tariffs on goods from other nations. This course would not increase imports from the mother country but would check imports from alien countries." Yet that was the course followed in this Bill which, he called loud and long, was essential if England was to be saved from overwhelming ruin. Section 13, too, simply means that if America, we will say, or Germany, would 231 remove the duty upon our meat or wool, we would make a corresponding reduction upon American boots or German pianos, and the British manufacturers could whistle.I am opposed to Mr. Chamberlain"s scheme, whether for Britain or for the Empire, and I voted against Seddon"s Bill with both hands. But if I had been a supporter of Mr. Chamberlain I must have voted against Seddon all the same. For his Act is from first to last nothing but an excuse for another measure of protection for New Zealand spoon-fed industries (so-called), and to pass it in the name of Imperialism amid all sorts of maudlin blubbering about" "the dear old Motherland" was sickening hypocrisy, of which even Seddon might be ashamed. On top of all this he has the assurance to declare that if England will not "reciprocate" that is by taxing food stuffs (see same pp. Hansard) or by exempting our loans from stamp duty (Vol. 123 p. 573), New Zealand "will be driven to make arrangements with other countries.This precious Act could only be forced through (1) at one continuous sitting of thirty-six hours; (2) at the fag-end of the longest session on record; (3) in which long hours and legislation by exhaustion had reached their high-water mark; (4) as a question of dissolution or not, for Seddon made it a No Confidence Motion, and you know what that means. So if you ever hear of "what New Zealand has done" and so forth, you know the answer to it all.He could assure the House from his own personal knowledge that the writer of the letter was a man of position and was the last man in the world to write such a significant letter unless he was perfectly satisfied that he had a large body of colonial opinion behind him. This scheme was not a scheme of the Government, but one to he put before the country at the next general election; it was a most intolerable scheme, and one which could have no other effect than straining the bonds which held us to our Colonies. Upon this question the Colonies had made no offer at all. If 40 per cent, was put upon our goods it was no comfort to them to know that 60 per cent, would be put upon German goods. They might be certain that the manufacturing interests in the Colonies would not admit British goods free, because in this country in regard-to production they enjoyed so many advantages and could manufacture much cheaper. The only advantage they would get would be a small export duty upon corn which would go into the pockets of the landowners. He was sure that the Democratic Party would scout any proposal to give the farmers an advantage which would cause the labourers and manufacturers to suffer by their industries 232 being shut out. The Colonies never would allow English goods to compete with their own, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham could not make them do this even with his great abilities, all the forces which money could command, and the newspapers which he got hold of in one way or another, by means of which he was able to disseminate false and spurious opinions throughout the country. They should be very careful how they dealt with proposals for putting an extra tax upon food. The unity of the Party opposite had been spoken of by right hon. Gentlemen, but they all knew that every hon. Member who was not prepared to swallow everything that came from Birmingham was hounded out of the constituency he might, perhaps, have represented for so long and with so much honour. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon deserved the greatest honour for having repealed the tax on bread, and what was his reward—drummed out of his Party and supplanted by a fervent supporter of the Birmingham policy.
§ MR. EVELYN CECIL (Aston Manor)
said the object of this Amendment was to strike a destructive blow at the Government. The question of the necessity for an immediate dissolution was not one of which the Opposition were the best judges, and there was no constitutional precedent for a Prime Minister dissolving Parliament at the bidding of the Opposition unless a hostile vote was obtained. Of course he did not blame the Opposition for angling for the support of hon. Members on the Ministerial Benches who attached more importance to particular grievances than to Conservatism as a principle. As for the junior Member for Oldham, who had transferred his allegiance bodily to the other side, he reminded him of some lines which he believed had been quoted before in the House, about Canning—The turning of coats so common has grown, That no one would think to attack it; But no case before was so flagrantly known Of a school boy turning his jacket.That seemed to him applicable to his hon. friend, and he trusted he would take it to heart. The Amendment before the House suggested that 233 this subject had been fully discussed. He thought there were a good many people in the country who had some doubts whether the discussion had been so ample; at any rate a good many had not fully made up their minds. There were still a considerable number of persons sitting on the fence, and so long as that was the case he was not sure that they could say that full discussion had taken place. Why, there was even dispute as to the precise meaning of free trade. The Opposition maintained that free trade meant free imports, and it was worth quoting the evidence of Sir Robert Giffen before the Steamship Subsidies Committee, when that recognised authority said—There is quite a common opinion that free trade means free imports and nothing else. That is not my opinion, and I believe it is not the opinion of economists who have studied the subject.Fiscal reformers did not desire any policy which merely bolstered up industries. They did not want what his friend the hon. Member for Durham had called antiquated protectionism. What they did desire was to introduce some system of tariff reform which would prevent that unfair foreign competition to which our industries were now subjected. Nearly every trade was more or less in an unsatisfactory condition.
MB. GEORGE WHITELEY (Yorkshire, W.R., Pudsey)
remarked that the operatives in the cotton trade were asking for a 7½ per cent, advance in wages because the trade was so prosperous.
§ MR. EVELYN CECIL
observed that this was not borne out by the figures of the last two years. Take the shipping trade. It was true that, judged by the standard of continued increase, certainly British shipping creditably holds its own; but when a comparison is made between the increase of British and the increase of foreign shipping a very different story was told. Between 1880 and 1890 British merchant tonnage increased from 8½ millions to over 9½ millions or 12.8 per cent., and from 1890 to 1902 the increase was equivalent to 16.2 per cent., whereas the increases in foreign tonnage in the same periods were 2.2 per cent, and 234 23.6 per cent, respectively. So that the foreign percentage of increase had been roughly from 2 to 23 per cent., as against the British 12 to 16 per cent. A disquieting result was also obtained by a comparison of some of the returns from British ports. In the large Bute docks at Cardiff, for instance, the proportion of British to foreign tonnage in 1897 was 81.6 as compared with 18.4, but in 1902 the proportions were 70.7 to 29.3. In Hong-Kong since 1886 the tonnage of British ships had increased only 30 per cent., while that of Germany had increased 80 per cent., and that of Japan 100 per cent. He did not contend that tariffs were the sole cause of these differences, but they were certainly contributory causes. Our present policy discouraged the exportation of our own articles into foreign countries. He trusted a Colonial Conference would do much good, for our present policy had largely resulted in London being no longer the clearing-house of the world; the centre of the world"s markets had been shifted to the Continent, and the maritime link between Great Britain and her Colonies had been loosened by substituting foreign produce and communications for her own.
§ MR. AINSWORTH (Argyllshire)
said he would like to refer to one or two instances of so-called unfair competition which might be of interest in view of what had been stated by the hon. Member who had just sat down. The hon. Member had stated that our trade was in a deplorable condition at the present moment. He did not think that statement would be confirmed by any person who knew very much about it. It was certainly not true so far as the iron trade was concerned. He had received information from a Glasgow firm in regard to an order for pipes which was obtained from the United States. The firm were told that unless they could offer at a certain figure they need not offer at all. In order to execute the order they tried to get pig iron in the British market cheap enough but failed to do so. Then they tried Germany and Belgium but could not obtain the raw material at a sufficiently low price. When they were about to give up the idea of tendering, a member of the firm suggested that they should try to get 235 pig iron from the United States. They did get it there and were able to accept the contract. That was an instance of what some might call "unfair competition" They might call it what they liked, but that was the way in which contracts were sometimes got in this country, with the result that labour was provided and wages paid to the working classes. He knew further that large shipbuilding orders had been placed on the Clyde in the last few months. He thought that was a good sign, and it was an argument that ought not to be put on one side. No doubt instances of that kind could be easily multiplied. He would like to ask whether there was any man in this country who was really afraid of competition. He supposed there were ups and downs in all trades. About the seventies the British iron trade was in a most depressed condition and many men were out of work. The price of steel rails then was about £7 per ton, but since then it had been under £4 per ton. If foreign pig-iron had been kept out of the country the result would have been that the steel rail trade would have left the country. He would give another instance of colonial preference. When it was proposed to benefit the Colonies by means of tariffs the intention was to benefit the Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irish who had gone to the Colonies. But, as far as Scotsmen were concerned, they had gone not only to the British Colonies, but to almost every country in the world where there was some profitable business to be done. There was a very large and increasing trade in sheep farming, for instance, in South America, in which Scotsmen played a large part. Why were we to encourage the trade of Scotsmen in Canada and refuse to do so in Patagonia?
Before going into an argument it was most important to know what they were going to discuss. Were they, or were they not, to know if they went into a conference what they were going to discuss with the colonial representatives? Hon. Members who had read Thackeray knew that in one of his novels there was a father and mother who were very nervous as to the marriage of their daughter, and determined to consult a friend who was a man of the world on the matter. The friend"s reply 236 was that it was a very easy thing to go to Jerusalem, but a delicate thing to know what they were going to do when they got there. The Government could call a conference to-morrow morning if they liked, but the difficult thing was what they were going to put before the conference as their colonial policy. Another matter of importance was how far the Prime Minister supported the right hon. Member for Birmingham when the latter said that the Prime Minister was at one with him in principle. It seemed to him that the illumination of that principle had been decidedly wanting in the whole of this discussion. When that question had been answered, the decision of the House would be arrived at a great deal sooner, and the decision of the country would not be very far off.
§ MR. PARKES (Birmingham, Central)
said he had been very much interested in the speeches delivered on this question, particularly in that of the hon. Member who had just sat down, who seemed to have very optimistic views as to the state of trade in this country. The hon. Member, in his opinion, took a wrong view of the state of the iron trade. He did not know where the hon. Gentleman got his information from, but certainly it was not borne out by the facts. He believed that the Annual Trade Returns showed a diminution in the iron trade of something like £2,000,000 in exports, and that the great prosperity in the manufactures of the country was brought about by the largely increased export of cotton goods. If the hon. Member looked at the reports of the various iron companies in the country, he would not find a satisfactory result, for the dividends had, in many cases, been much smaller than in the past. So far as the Midlands were concerned, and Birmingham especially, he was sure that the iron trade was in a depressed condition. The trade of the country was not altogether ruled by exports. They had to take into consideration the demand from the internal trade of the country, and if the hon. Member went to the representatives of any particular manufacturing industry in the Midland districts he would find that these trades were suffering a great deal from foreign competition, and that they were in a most undesirable and disastrous condition. If that were not so, There 237 would not be so many men unemployed .as now.
He would not enter into a discussion of the fiscal question. It was too wide and too large a subject to be discussed there. Two questions had been raised in connection with this subject. First of all, the relation between the views of the Prime Minister and those of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham. They, on that side of the House, would be quite as justified in asking hon. Gentlemen opposite what their opinion was in regard to Home Rule. It would be much more relevant to ask them what they were going to do on the question of Home Rule, if they came into power, than to discuss the fiscal question. The other question asked over and over again was why this matter should be delayed, and not discussed and answered by the country at once. The speeches of hon. Gentlemen opposite on the fiscal question showed a state of fog, uncertainty, and want of knowledge, and the necessity of further discussion of the matter before any final decision was come to. One hon. Gentleman opposite had remarked that the Colonies would not give us anything in return for preference, and that they would not receive our goods; but the Colonies had really shown an inclination to take an increasing quantity of our goods, and that should induce sympathetic consideration for them on our part. The question of free trade was agitated for a period of between twenty and thirty years before the whole of the taxes on corn were abolished, and yet hon. Gentlemen opposite insisted that in the course of the two years in which the present demand for tariff reform had been discussed, the country had become so fully informed in regard to it that it was ready to give a verdict upon it immediately. Why should hon. Gentlemen expect them to take a premature decision on this great question?
There was another and more important reason why premature and immature decision should not be given on one of the greatest questions which occupied their attention at the present time. An essential condition for the right understanding of the question was a 238 knowledge of colonial opinion; and that could only be authoritatively ascertained through a conference such as had been suggested. Hon. Gentlemen opposite said that they did not know what was the opinion of the Colonies—whether they had given an offer or whether they had not—but the only way to ascertain definitely was to invite the Colonies to a conference with this country. The discussion on this question could not be complete until they had obtained the opinion of the Colonies. To have a conference, however, which would have intructions as to what it should or should not do would be a mere travesty; and he believed that colonial representatives would not attend it. For himself, he hoped that this question would not be rushed. The Prime Minister stated he was not prepared to rush it; and it might be years before a definite conclusion was arrived at regarding it. There was no doubt that the question once having been raised, public opinion would not be satisfied to shelve it in the manner proposed by hon. Gentlemen opposite. It would, however, be altogether wrong to try and bring the matter to an untimely conclusion. The country wanted information, and the opinions of many people were as yet unsettled. He desired to give the House an illustration of what the views of the Colonies were. Two years ago there was a meeting of the Associated Chambers of Commerce at Montreal. He himself attended that conference, and a resolution was passed desiring an alteration of fiscal arrangements in order to bring the Colonies into closer union with the mother country; and to that end they were willing to make sacrifices on their part. That resolution was reciprocated by representatives of the business of the whole Empire with absolute unanimity. It would be altogether wrong to the Colonies and to this country to put a veto on this question; and he hoped the Government would remain in power until a conference was held and the matter was seen through.
§ SIR WILLIAM HOLLAND (Yorkshire, W.R., Rotherham)
said that as a business man he desired to express his hearty concurrence with the Amendment. He thought that the interests of 239 business men were more or less injured if their attention was distracted by such important questions as those which were now hanging over their heads. Confidence was necessary if business men were to pursue an even and prosperous course, and that confidence was interfered with as long as the present controversy continued. The hon. Gentleman opposite said that they on that side were satisfied with the present condition of affairs. With all respect, that was not a correct representation of the case. Whether the state of things was good or bad at present, in their judgment it would be likely to be made infinitely worse if some of the suggestions promulgated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham were carried out. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the conference at Montreal. He himself attended it; and although he agreed with the version given by the hon. Gentleman of the resolution passed on that occasion he thought it was only right to inform the House that it also contained the following words—Due regard being paid to the fiscal and industrial needs of the component parts of the Empire.Those words contained a very important element; because he was afraid that if the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham were adopted, very serious injury would be done to some portions of the Empire. That was a reason to give them pause. He should be glad to see the hostile tariffs of other nations much lower that they were now; but he denied that these tariffs could be lowered by weapons of retaliation such as were suggested by the Prime Minister. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his speech stated that the fiscal question was of vast importance and was very urgent. If it were of vast importance and urgent, why not take the issue at once to the country. For himself, he did not wish to disparage the preference that some of the Colonies had given to this country. He himself had derived advantage from the preference which was given by Canada. He did not wish to disparage the preference that some of our Colonies had given to us, but, while in the colonial markets the consumer paid less after preference had been given, in this market the consumer 240 would pay more. That entirely differentiated the two positions, and showed that what might answer very well and be easily carried into effect in the Colonies would not answer here, and would be very difficult of application. With regard to the question of a preference on wheat he could testify that at the congress referred to every colonial who spoke heartily repudiated any desire to adopt any course which might be injurious to the mother country, and if we saw that any injury was likely to be done, it was our duty to our colonial fellow-subjects to point out how that injury would be done.
With regard to the suggestion of a Colonial Conference, if a conference was to be held, it was essential that all portions of the Empire should be represented at the conference, and that each part of the Empire should be proportionately represented. Moreover, if we considered that the taxation of food should not be a subject of discussion at the conference, the Colonies should be informed of that fact. With regard to the colonial contribution to Imperial defence, it seemed to him to be rather a curious way of drawing the Empire closer together to put the screw on the different portions of the Empire to increase their contributions to Imperial defence. The loyalty of our Colonies was a precious asset which had sprung up and had reached its present proportions under the system of freedom, and liberty conceded to them; but if we bound them in a cast-iron system, as a result of the conference, who-could guarantee that in future their loyalty to the mother country would be as real and great as it had been hitherto? In his opinion the views of the Prime Minister and those of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham were diametrically opposed to each other and were mutually destructive, for one claimed a freehand to negotiate with other countries, while the other sought to bind us hand and foot in a cast-iron agreement with the Colonies. It was high time that the question should be decided by an appeal to the country.
And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the debate stood adjourned till the Evening Sitting.