HC Deb 18 April 1907 vol 172 cc1191-2

To that general statement there is one thing that I want to add, though perhaps the addition is hardly necessary. We are a free-trade Government. This is a free-trade House of Commons. Whatever now resources we can provide for any purpose I have indicated are subject to that governing condition. In a sense, of course, that involves a limitation of the area. [OPPOSITION Cries of "Hear, hear."] I thought that sentence would be appreciated. But it is a limitation of the area only in the sense in which a wise builder, who is seeking to lay the foundations of an enduring structure, recognises the limits which divide firm ground from an unfathomable morass. We do not dogmatise about free trade. We are neither professors nor missionaries. There is nothing we need say to countries which adopt other systems than our own. But for us here, 43,000,000 of people in these two small islands, dependent as we are upon extraneous sources of supply for the food of the people and the materials of the industry, the one free, open, untrammellcd market in the whole world—for us, I say, free trade is the breath of life, and there is no social reform that would not be dearly purchased by its sacrifice. Well, I think we do not always sufficiently recognise the immense advantage which we had in the recent controversy from the fact that protection presented itself to the electors of this country in its most questionable and vulnerable shape. It was entangled from the first, and it was ultimately strangled, by being bound up with the taxation of corn and meat, the first necessaries of life; and, as we showed, must have the inevitable consequence, if the proposed scheme were to be fairly applied as between different parts of the Empire, of taxing the raw materials of our different industries. [OPPOSITION cries of "Why?"] I have argued the question on a hundred platforms, and I am not going to do so again. I am only expressing my opinion that it was that which killed protection, and it is that which will kill it again. But, Sir, I can conceive the protectionist invitation being couched in much more insidious and much more alluring accents. I think, therefore, that it is wise for us who are, as I have said, not only the party of social reform, but the party also of free trade, to make it clear if we can—and I believe we can make it clear—that the attainment of the one is not incompatible with the maintenance of the other.