HL Deb 15 August 1887 vol 319 cc462-9

in rising to call attention to Socialistic legislation during the Sessions 1886–7, said, that two years ago he had brought before their Lordships the legislation of the preceding 15 years, and last year he had given Notice that he should bring to the attention of the House the Socialistic legislation of the Session. But he had been unable to do so in consequence of the untimely close of the Session. He was bringing forward this question because the Upas tree of Socialism, planted by Mr. Gladstone in 1870 in Ireland, was now overshadowing our land, and attracting every kind of bird of prey to roost in its branches. We were now going rapidly down the road without any kind of drag or check. He had entertained some hope that his noble Friends on the Government Bench would have acted as a drag upon proposals of this character. But whether it was the necessities of the political situation, or, as the noble Marquess had confessed with cynical candour, the necessity of buying the Ulster vote, Conservatism nowadays appeared to be nothing but the fifth wheel in the Socialistic coach. He could not but admire his noble Friend's foreign policy; but with respect to home affairs he was afraid that the whip and the reins were in other hands. We had now, in fact, the rivalry between the two Parties in the promotion of measures of this character, which had been predicted by the late Professor Fawcett. Now, what was Socialism? It was difficult to define, and the eminent Belgian economist, M. de Laveleye, had said that there was no such thing as a definition of Socialism. He himself, two years ago, had divided Socialism into three classes—first, the Socialism of the streets; secondly, the Socialism of the professors; and, thirdly, the Socialism of the statesman and of the Senate. In this country, happily, we had little to fear from the Socialism of the streets; and, as to the professors, the mass of the people shared in the healthy contempt expressed for that class of men by Prince Bismarck. It was also worthy of notice that however free the professors might be in respect of the property of others, they were careful enough to preserve their own, for in their published writings there was printed on the title-page, "All rights reserved." As he said, the real danger lay in the competition of statesmen to produce measures in curtailment of individual liberty, and in the direction of the confiscation of property. That sort of legislation was, of course, brought forward under pretext of protecting the weak against the strong. The first principle of legislation ought to be to support the weak, to maintain obedience to the law, and to enforce payment of just debts. But that was not the policy of the day. The policy of the day was nominally to protect the weak; but it was really a truckling and "cottoning" to the strong—a truckling to the Saxon with his vote, and to the Irish tenant with his gun. The legislation of the present day was, as had been said of Providence, always on the side of the big battalions. There was a marked contrast between the Socialism of foreign countries and the Socialism of England. Foreign Socialists theorized, held meetings, and passed resolutions, but they practically had no influence on the legislation of their different countries. But, in England, the resolutions passed by the great congresses of trade unions and kindred gatherings of working men were very soon embodied in legislation. He recollected putting a leading question on this subject some years ago to the German Ambassador, Count Münster, and asking him whether it was not the opinion on the Continent that England would be the first country in which Socialism would become the law of the land, and his answer was—"Oh, yes; on the Continent we all think and say so." Since that time the progress on the Socialistic slide in the matter of legislation had been rapid. Think of the state of things in 1870. Lord Palmerston, who said that tenant right was landlord wrong, was dead only a few years. There was no question in 1870 of the three F's; contracts were free and as sacred as the Church was considered to be down to pre-Gladstonian times. But nowadays in almost all Bills contract was interfered with. Hardly an Act of Parliament passed that did not contain those words that so-and-so should be law, "all contracts to the contrary notwithstanding;" and when they came to the legislation with regard to land in Ireland and in the North of Scotland, they would suppose that the Bills were of such a character that they must have been drafted by a new Parliamentary firm, formed of Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, and Barabbas, under the guidance and the authority of the Unjust Steward. As in that parable of the Unjust Steward, the Irish tenant was asked, "How much owest thou?" "£100." "Then take the Land Bill, and sit down quickly, and write £50." Now he held in his hand a list of the Bills which had been introduced of late years. He did not say that some of those measures were not more or less harmless, unobjectionable, or even, perhaps, desirable. But they all proceeded on the principle of the State legislating for everybody in everything, interfering with trade, commerce, and manufactures, forbidding contracts, or prescribing contracts, and, in fact, embodying proposals which 25 years ago no man in his senses would have dreamed of proposing. Both Conservatives and Liberals had had their fair share in this kind of legislation. Of measures dealing with lands and houses, mines, railways, ships, manufactures, the trade in alcohol, education, recreation, he found that there were, between 1870 and 1874, 27 Acts, between 1875 and 1879 there were two less, while between 1880 and 1884 there were 40. In 1885 there were 26 Bills of a Socialistic character; in 1886 there were 53 Bills and five Acts, and in 1887 the number rose to 107, of which 44 were backed by Conservatives, and 63 by Liberals. Of Bills affecting lands and houses there were 39, of which 12 were Conservative and 27 Liberal. They were told that the great solution of the Irish Question was the abolition of dual ownership, but in point of fact, from 1870 downwards, they had been doing their best to create dual ownership. There was an Agricultural Holdings Bill brought in by the Liberals by means of which the tenant, in defiance of his contract, was to be entitled in certain circumstances to a reduction of rent. Again, there was an Agricultural Labourers' (Wages) Bill, prohibiting the wages of the labourer being paid in beer, cider, or alcoholic drinks; and then there was a Leasehold Enfranchisement Bill brought in by Conservatives, giving a lessee the right of purchasing the freehold by compulsion, any agreement to the contrary notwithstanding. Then there was a Bill before Parliament proscribing what the royalties were to be which the owner of a mine was to exact, and either by that Bill or another one, where the owner did not work his property, but left it dormant, which might be the best thing for him to do, he was to be compelled to lease or work it. Then there was a delightful Bill called the Rod Fishing Bill—a Liberal Bill—very Liberal, for it gave the public unrestricted access along the banks of all streams and lochs in Scotland, except where there was a riparian garden not exceeding 10 acres in extent, to allow them to fish with rod and line for any fish except salmon. Not only did the Bill contain this provision, but there was also a clause by which, unless the owner provided a pathway, he was to have no compensation for damages to crops or fences. Then there was the Agricultural Labourers' Holidays Bill, which was worse than the Plantagenets, because, if they prescribed what wages should be, they prescribed that a man should work for those wages; but this Bill prescribed wages to be paid for clays on which no work was to be done. The Crofters Act, again, introduced by a Conservative Government, contained two new principles, which were not to be found even in the Irish Land Bill—namely, the doing away with debt in the shape of arrears; and, secondly, the compulsory leasing of land. The unpractical character of the Waste Land Compulsory Cultivation Bill was shown in its very title; the land was at present waste, and if it was cultivated, it must be cultivated at somebody's loss, either that of the ratepayer or the individual. If there had been a possibility of the land paying, it would have been cultivated long ago. The Allotments Bill meant the compulsory taking of private property at the cost of the rates, as a bribe to the agricultural voters. In that Bill they had laid down some things which went much further than ever had been dreamed of before, and he could not believe that his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor could have seen this Bill, which em- powered land to be bought for allotments, not only for the agricultural labourers, but for the suburban population as well, living on the outskirts of a town, who were now to be found gardens at the expense of the rates. If it was necessary for anyone to have gardens, it was for those who lived in the heart of a city. All this legislation was ridiculous, absurd, impracticable, and most extravagant; and he did not know from which side of the House the worst measures came. There was the Coal Mines Regulation Bill, which prescribed that bandages and stretchers should be kept where there were a certain number of workmen, and that where there were fewer it should not be necessary. This Bill would lessen the sense of personal responsibility among mineowners. Then the Railway and Canal Traffic Bill was a retrospective measure, which took away rights in a manner which would be impossible under the American Constitution. Whatever they went in for in that way of business always had to be supplemented by further legislation. Sir John Lubbock's Early Closing Bill was the first attempt on the part of Parliament to prescribe the hours during which full-grown men, sane men, were to work; and he would remind their Lordships that Mr. Hyndman had said that he looked to the time when Parliament would prescribe that three hours should be the amount of a man's day's work. The Technical Instruction Bill provided for the establishment of schools where modelling wood, carving, and other instruction was to be given, including "musical drill." Now, "musical drill" meant dancing, though it probably would not look well that it should appear as dancing in the curriculum, and be paid for out of the rates; so that "musical drill" was simply dust thrown in the eyes of the ratepayers. He found also that, in the evening schools, Welsh was to be taught, so that the language of "gallant little Wales" would not die out. The moral to be drawn from this kind of legislation was that our liberty was being lost, and that public policy was being made an apology for private plunder. According to the French saying. La démocratie c'est l'envie, and it might be added c'est le vol; and though the attack of the Socialists in this country had commenced against the land, capitalists and traders and manufacturers ought to awaken to the fact that their turn would certainly come. On the Continent the Socialistic war was against the bourgeois and all employers of labour. The most manifest instance of the failure of this class of legislation was in Ireland, where, after a series of measures confiscating the landlords' property, failure stared the Government in the face, and those who were sought to be conciliated remained unconciliated. Those who were responsible for these measures ought to suffer the keenest of all remorse—the remorse of feeling that crimes had been committed in vain. He was sorry that the Front Opposition Bench was not more fully occupied — [Lord DENMAN and Lord MOUNT-TEMPLE were the sole occupants]—for a few nights ago his observations in defence of freedom of contract were received with sneers and jeers by noble Lords sitting on that Bench. The principle of free contract, which was the very soul of commercial enterprise, was barred in every possible way, nominally for the sake of the welfare of the masses, but really for the purchase of votes. Both sides of politicians were responsible, but the tone of the two differed materially. There was a time not so very long since when the Liberal Party under Lord Palmerston walked in the path of economic virtue. In 1870, however, they went after Mr. Gladstone, just as the Jews, according to Scripture, went after strange gods, and had gone from bad to worse, until they now found them—politically—soliciting every man who could vote. If he thought that this change of views was due to a bonâ fide conviction on their part he would respect them; but it was known that that was not the case. Their conversion was as sudden as that of St. Paul; but it was not brought about by a light from heaven, but by the flash of an Irish murderer's gun, which they had not got the courage to face. The Conservative Party now appeared to have gone in for the same line of business; but they, at least, had the decency not to sneer and jeer at those who, however feebly, endeavoured to uphold the sound economic doctrines of the past, which, until recently, had been the basis of all legislation. He had said that there was nothing to dread from the Socialism of the street and the froth and scum thrown off there. The Socialism of the stree was not making considerable progress in this country. At the same time, there was something significant in the meetings which were held in Hyde Park, one of which assembled yesterday near the Marble Arch, and in the great number of debating clubs in which Socialistic doctrines were advocated. In many of these clubs there was a close imitation of Parliamentary forms—there was a Government and an Opposition and Ministers of State. There was one in particular, which met near where their Lordships were assembled, and was called the Charing Cross Debating Society. The Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury was Mr. Champion; Mrs. Besant also held office; and the Chief Secretary was the Rev. Stewart Headlam, editor of The Christian Society. [The noble Earl then read extracts from the Queen's Speech, in which deep regret was expressed at the unequal distribution of property, at the luxury of the rich and idle classes, which tended to the depression of the poor, and to the wasteful and unbusinesslike management of Public Departments.] Taking all these symptoms into consideration, and taking also into consideration the conduct of Members of Parliament, and even some Members of their Lordships' House, he could not think that the outlook was very encouraging. Where, then, were we to look for hope? He believed there was still hope, and that hope was to be found in the conduct of the great body of the people on the celebration of Her Majesty's Jubilee, when it was clearly demonstrated how thorough was the loyalty and how sound the heart of the people of this country. It was not to the Leaders in political life that we must look. They must look elsewhere. In a speech made in "another place" by a man of conspicuous ability and great oratorical power, who possessed immense influence with the masses of the people, he was glad to find the true doctrines of self-reliance and individual responsibility laid down with great force. In a speech against the proposal to prohibit the work of pit-brow women, Mr. Bradlaugh denounced the attempt to make men and women moral by legislation, and spoke of the general tendency in modern times to diminish the sense of personal responsibility. It was to men like Mr. Bradlaugh, and not to the occupants of the two Front Benches, that we must look for the enforcement of just and sound principles on such questions as the non-interference of the State in private bargains. If the Government had the courage to speak out as Mr. Bradlaugh had done, and to say that legislation was hurtful which checked individual enterprize, or diminished commercial responsibility—hurtful above all to those for whose supposed benefit it was carried, then, in the midst of this Socialistic legislation, which was sweeping away all the old landmarks of enlightened legislation, they need not despair. In conclusion, he thanked their Lordships for having listened so patiently to what he could not help making a long story.