THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
, in rising "to make further inquiry as to the investigation by His Majesty's Government into our fiscal system," said—My Lords, the object of the notice which I have placed upon the Paper is simply and solely what it purports to be. I do not in any way wish to engage in any disquisition as to the general question of policy. I only wish to obtain information on a subject on which His Majesty's Government have been singularly reticent, and I wish to add to my notice these words, "and to move for any Papers relating to the subject."
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
Everything is in order. I am encouraged to do this by the fact that in the other House, as I understand, the Government have to-day acceded to the request of private Members for Reports from foreign countries, and they have also promised to Mr. Bowles extensive and accurate tables which will assist the nation in some degree to arrive at a judgment on the important issue which is being in so strange and unusual a manner submitted to us. After our discussion the other night I do not think 1146 that I should so soon have returned to the subject if it had not been for the singular and inexplicable levity with which the Government treated this important subject. They have promised an inquiry on a subject which I venture to say is the most vital that has ever been submitted to the judgment of the nation for the last half-century—an inquiry which, if it would do justice to the subject, should be the most deliberate, the most well-reasoned, and—if I may use a word by which I set more stress than His Majesty's Government—the most efficient they could set on foot.
I will say at once in a word why I think so much of the question of inquiry. It is because I believe it is not too much to say of the issue that you are submitting to the country that it is setting the Empire itself at stake. I say deliberately that, somewhat hastily as I think, and certainly without sufficient reflection and inquiry, His Majesty's Government have in the last month done nothing less than put the very Empire itself at stake. Now, when I say that I do not mean that, going one way or the other, the result of their operations may be to put an end to the Empire. No, that is perhaps beyond even the power of His Majesty's Government. But I do say that even already the relations between this country and the outer Empire have been altered by what has taken place; 1147 and how far they may eventually be modified by the operation of the policy of His Majesty's Government—if His Majesty's Government have a policy, and if it ever come into operation—I cannot pretend to predict. But one thing I am quite certain of—that if your hypothetical policy, or the policy of some of you, does come into effect, you may increase the wealth of the country as you promise to do, you may improve the fiscal condition of the Empire as you promise to do, you may increase the price of the food of your people as you promise to do, you may raise the wages of your population as you promise to do; but of one thing I am quite certain, that the Empire which you will produce by these means will be very different from the Empire we have known. We have been anxious to prove to the world that our Empire meant peace. You propose, by your system as far as we understand it—and I limit myself in discussing it entirely to what has been said, and not to hypothetical systems which do not exist—you propose by your policy to make this an Empire bristling with tariffs at every point, brimful of retaliation on the slightest pretext, and no longer affording a peaceful mart to the nations at large, but rather a point of resistance and attack wherever our Empire exists in the world.
I say that the Government treat this matter with levity. I do not for a moment charge them with treating it in their hearts with levity; but I do charge it in their proceedings and in their speeches. I will, however, acquit the Colonial Secretary of any want of earnestness in his speeches. But the rest of the Government in their proceedings and speeches do treat this matter with a levity which is as reprehensible as it is incomprehensible. The other night we ventured to ask in humble accents of the Government some little information as to this inquiry, upon which the future, and to some extent the fate, or at any rate the shape, of this Empire depends. We had two statements in answer—because the Foreign Secretary did not devote himself to that branch of the subject, but addressed himself to the point raised by Lord Portsmouth. We had the speech of the First Lord of the Admiralty, which I think I may say, 1148 without rushing to any hasty conclusion, had been prepared for some other occasion. But how did the First Lord of the Admiralty treat this matter? He treated it in a long preface of jokes; and here I wish to guard myself from bringing any charge of levity against the jokes of the noble Earl. But what he said in a more serious vein was that he was prepared to answer the inquiry as to the nature of the investigations in which the Government is involved. He said—although he is not so reported in The Times, which I consulted this morning, but I heard him with my own ears—he said that it is to be "a grand inquest of the nation." What is a "grand inquest?" I have looked at all the ordinary sources of information, and I find that in the strictest sense it means a grand jury. I am sure that the noble Earl did not mean that we were to investigate this question by means of grand juries. I am sure that he meant to use the phrase in the ordinary and metaphorical sense in which it is used—in the sense of the House of Commons. But it is quite certain that the Government have no intention of investigating this subject through the medium of the House of Commons, because they have denied any possibility of discussing the matter to the House of Commons, unless the responsible Leaders of the Opposition bring forward a Vote of Censure.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
Exactly; that is the way in which the noble Duke proposes to deal with a matter which ought to be removed from Party conflict as far as possible. Members of the House of Commons are only to treat it as a Vote of Censure if they wish to discuss this matter of an inquiry. It is quite certain that the Government do not wish to investigate this matter in the High Court of Parliament, and even the occasional and fitful discussions in the House of Lords are not wholly welcome. What is this grand inquest? It is to be conducted, says the noble Earl, by the Press and by all Parties. The Press? Well, the Press was extremely reticent about the matter for a long time after the first pronouncement of the 1149 Colonial Secretary. They carried the banner of protection high, but also they carried it closely furled; and although they are now beginning to open out on the subject, it is not such an investigation—the mere canvassing of this matter by the Press—which is needed on a matter of such Imperial importance. I do not know what the noble Earl means. There is a very popular journal which, in the beginning of August, usually opens a grand inquest on such questions as "Is Marriage a Failure?" and "What shall We do with our Sons?" I do not know whether the First Lord of the Admiralty suggests that at the beginning of August the various newspapers should set up as a subject for correspondence, "The Future Fiscal Relations of the Empire." I confess that I regard the answer of the noble Earl as a rhetorical flourish, which leads us no further and gives us no information on a subject on which we have a right to information. Then there came the noble Duke. The noble Duke told us that there was no need for the Government to require further information. They had already the information; what they wanted was arrangement. The information was at their disposal; they only wanted to arrange it.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
I do not know exactly what distinction the noble Duke draws between information and the materials at their disposal. I suppose he means the Returns of the Board of Trade. We know from an answer of the Colonial Secretary that no information has reached the colonies on this point since the Colonial Conference of last year. Therefore, I can only suppose that the noble Duke looks forward to the preparation of statistics that are now before the Board of Trade, and, to some extent, the country, as the sole investigation which the Government propose to set up. I am led from these answers, and the other answers given in the other House, to the irresistible conclusion that there is no inquiry at all. If there were an inquiry the noble Duke would be able to explain it. There is no one who can make a better statement when 1150 he chooses than the noble Duke, and there is no one who can make his meaning more clear and more succinct; and I confess that I am led to the conclusion, not hastily—and I strongly suspect the great mass of the nation have arrived at it—that there is no inquiry at all, but that the allegation of inquiry amounts simply to this, that some via media has to be found for arranging the irreconcilable differences of the Cabinet; and, therefore, permission has been given which was not, I suppose, in the least degree needed, to each Member of the Cabinet to investigate the matter for himself.
There is one peculiar feature in this inquiry—always taking the hypothesis that it exists—there is a unique condition in this inquiry. Ministers have said that Cabinet inquiries are constantly held, and that the result of them is not necessarily, or even generally, communicated to the public. That is perfectly true. It is a platitude. But who in the world, or in the history of England, ever heard before of an inquiry conducted by a Cabinet into a policy which is already announced? The Prime Minister takes great pride in his plan. He says—Compare my plan with the methods adopted by Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone.Well, I have the greatest respect and friendship for the Prime Minister, but I confess that in matters of precedent, of Cabinet precedent, political precedent, I would rather follow Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone than I would the Prime Minister, with all his virtues and abilities. But he says—Look at my plan and compare it with the plans of Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone; they broke up their Parties; I am keeping mine together. How otherwise would you have proposed to announce a policy of this kind?I will tell the Prime Minister at once. There is an ordinary and recognised method of communicating any departure in the fiscal policy of the country which is furnished by the annual Budget. But I am not aware that there was any indication, except the repeal of the corn tax, in this year's Budget which could lead us to imagine that any great fiscal change was meditated. The Prime Minister says that by his method he is keeping his Party together. I wonder if that is so. I must say that I admired 1151 the courage of the First Lord of the Admiralty the other night. If I had nothing else in his speech to admire, I admired his courage; because it seemed to me that the whole of that inestimable quality for which the Navy is so justly distinguished was embodied in the First Lord of the Admiralty when he taunted the Opposition with their political divisions. Does the First Lord of the Admiralty think that there are no divisions in his own Party? I do not deny that the Liberal Party have had their distractions, but they have only two recognised leaders—Lord Spencer, whom we are all so sorry not to see here, and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman; and I am not aware of any differences in the expression of the public views of these politicians which are notable, certainly not reprehensible. I do not think that the First Lord of the Admiralty can say this of the present Cabinet. I say it is the first time in history in which we have had an inquiry by the Cabinet into a policy which they have already announced, and I say frankly that the explanation furnished by the Government will not do.
Consider what is the history of this matter. The Colonial Secretary goes down to Birmingham and announces his programme quite plainly and clearly. At the moment the Prime Minister is vindicating the repeal of a tax on food to a body of enraged members of his Party—this united Party—in London. The Colonial Secretary stated quite succinctly what his procedure is going to be; I cannot pay that compliment to the First Lord of the Admiralty. I suppose it is supported by the mass of His Majesty's Government. There is, first of all, to be an interminable discussion, or rather a discussion terminable at such a moment as the Government may think it expedient to dissolve Parliament and appeal to the country. The Government are, at a given moment, when they think it most convenient for this purpose, to appeal to the country. If they receive a mandate, which in this case will be a blank cheque, because the plan is not to be previously disclosed—then what are they to do? Are they to produce their plan? No; they are then to consult the Colonies. To everybody outside a pantomime one would have 1152 thought that the preliminary to these discussions, to the disclosure of policy, and to the General Election would have been consultation with the Colonies. Then, after a consultation with the Colonies, I suppose, at last, we shall be made acquainted with the real policy of the Government. I say this will not do; it will not wash. It is not even a representable programme for the Government; and it does not explain the position of the inquiry into which it is the special object of my Motion to investigate.
The First Lord of the Admiralty told us the other night that I was employed in discussing schemes which have no existence, and in rejecting them. I defy the noble Lord to produce any instances to prove the allegation. I will read two capital sentences, on which every intelligent mind of the country is fixed, which represent the clear and intelligible policy arrived at, I suspect after much private inquiry, and which has been laid before the country by the Government. The Colonial Secretary has said in one speech—If you are to give a preference to the Colonies you must put a tax on food.This is an intelligible proceeding. But the second declaration is by far the most important declaration ever made by a responsible Minister in my lifetime, and I want to ask the serious attention of the noble Duke to this sentence. The noble Duke said last Monday that he agreed with the speeches delivered by the Prime Minister and the Colonial Secretary on Friday. He remembered, or did not remember, seven subjects of investigation which they had proposed with which he entirely concurred. I do not, therefore, presume to ask him with reference to these seven subjects of investigation, but I do ask his most earnest attention to this sentence—A system of preferential tariffs is the only system by which this Empire can be kept together.That condemnation of our past and present Empire, that sentence so full of omen to the future of our Empire—because, after all, it means this, that if the country cannot be persuaded to adopt preferential tariffs our Empire is gone—that sentence, I say, is the gravest utterance I have heard by any 1153 Minister in my lifetime. What I have to ask the noble Duke is this: Does he include that sentence in his agreement with the Colonial Secretary's speech? [The Duke of DEVONSHIRE dissented.] Then I think he used words rather wider than he intended last Monday, and I rejoice to hear his explanation and his repudiation; but in view of these declarations on questions of policy which have been put before the country, neither of which have been repudiated by any Member of the Government before this moment, we have a right to know what is this grand inquest on which the Government is engaged. Nothing more important has ever engaged the attention of the nation. It cannot be conducted behind a closed door or a drawn curtain, and it is useless for the Government to try and fence with the question. I do not think that it is possible for Parliament or the country to retain any vestige of that spirit which formerly it was believed they possessed if the Government can keep this secret up their sleeve. At any rate I am sure of this, that they are unworthy of public confidence if they do so.
I will quote the Prime Minister against the Government, and against the position of the Government. Very frequently this year—I am afraid almost ad nauseam—I have urged a plan in which I conscientiously believe that Lord Kitchener for the moment is the best person to hold the Seals of the Secretary of State for War. When I brought forward that proposition I was read a crushing lecture by the Prime Minister. He says that I was digging at the very root of Ministerial responsibility. What is Cabinet responsibility? he asked. It is a body of men united by a common bond and a common policy which they are prepared to defend in public on all occasions. How could Lord Kitchener, it was asked, with no politics, fit into such a system as that? From what I can see of the Government, I conceive that Lord Kitchener could fit in very well if he had no politics, and I am not sure whether he would not be one of the most valuable Members of the present Cabinet. At any rate, I cannot understand how it is that the Prime Minister, when he seeks his pillow at 1154 night, can reconcile the present position of his Government with the doctrine he has laid down so strongly of Cabinet responsibility. I think, then, that I have shown ground for pressing for further information as to the nature and constitution of this inquiry. I think we see a distracted Cabinet. We hear of a programme of proceedings which is by no means in accordance with the best political traditions of this country. We see a studied reticence as to the inquiry in which our future and our fortunes are so largely engaged.
I appeal, then, to His Majesty's Government to give us some further information. I would ask them if the inquiry is definite and organised. I would ask if it is collective or individual, because I am bound to say that from some indications I am inclined to think it is much more individual than collective. I will ask them if there are any defined subjects of inquiry, or whether anyone can inquire about what he thinks fit. I ask them, further, if the results will be made public, or whether the nation is to be left entirely without guidance as to the proceedings and objects of this grand inquest. I will hand the noble Duke my Questions if he wants to look at them more carefully. [The noble Earl handed a paper over to the Duke of Devonshire.] I think I have the right to make a personal appeal to him in this matter, because he has laid down the doctrine which I did not think was peculiarly applicable when he laid it down, but which, at any rate, has peculiar pertinence at the present moment. He will recognise his words which I turn into the plural—I think the country will be disposed to take, at their true value, the declarations and criticisms of statesmen who, for reasons which are not very easy to understand, declined to give their guidance to the country or Parliament at a moment when that advice and guidance might have been useful to influence the decision of Parliament, and, I will add, the opinion of the nation.These were words addressed to me by the noble Duke, because I declined to join in a Vote of Censure on the Government. I think the noble Duke might take them to heart at this moment, and might respond more fully and largely than hitherto to the 1155 just demand of the nation for further information as to this inquiry.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (The DUKE of DEVONSHIRE)
My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Earl for his kindness and courtesy in presenting me with a list of Questions, to obtain answers to which has been his sole object in addressing the House to-night. I only regret that it did not occur to the noble Earl, if he required information in answer to these Questions, to have taken what I should have thought would have been a very obvious step—namely, that of giving me notice a little earlier. But the noble Earl avails himself, I think somewhat fully, of the rather lax rules which govern the proceedings of this House. Under cover of a notice to make further inquiries respecting the investigations that are being conducted by the Government—a notice absolutely vague and indefinite in its character—the noble Earl takes occasion to make a speech in which, so far as I can recollect, only in the last sentence has he asked for any information whatever respecting the investigation which is going on. The noble Earl has taken advantage of this somewhat vague notice which he has given to reply to speeches which were made in this House two nights ago, and to some speeches which have been made in the other House and in the country. My Lords, I have no doubt that all of us sometimes feel, when we go home after taking part in these discussions, a deep regret that we had forgotten to say something, or that we had not thought of something which we very much wish had occurred to us in the course of the debate. But it is not given to all of us to make for himself an opportunity, by putting down a perfectly colourless and meaningless notice, of saying all the things which he wished he had said on a previous occasion.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
May I ask my noble friend how I could have answered the speeches on a previous occasion when I spoke before those speeches were made?
§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
The noble Earl has made a good many 1156 references to speeches which have been made not only here, but in the other House of Parliament and the country, and the noble Earl might, if he had thought fit, have taken advantage of the debate which we have already had in this House on this subject to reply to those speeches without raising a fresh debate on his own account. If all of us, even in this House, took that course, I think it would be somewhat inconvenient, and obviously one which it is quite impossible could be permitted in the other House of Parliament. I do not suppose that either the notice itself which the noble Earl has given or the speech which he has made upon it would have been allowed for one instant to be in order in the other House of Parliament. And I doubt very much whether it is to the advantage of our debates that such extreme laxity as the noble Lord chooses to assume for himself should be permitted in our House. The noble Earl charges us with treating this question with extreme levity. He says we have put the Empire at stake—I do not know exactly how he formulated it—but I understood him to say that we have put the Empire at stake, and that our explanations and our statements in respect of the grave issues which have been raised are wholly inadequate and insufficient. The noble Earl was very indignant when I suggested that it was possible that a Vote of Censure should be brought forward. If the noble Earl holds the opinion he has expressed to-night, and as I gather from his speech that he does hold, that His Majesty's Government are trifling with a great subject, why does he not put that opinion in the form of a Resolution? Why does he not invite the House to express its opinion upon that culpable negligence on the part of the Government? And if the noble Earl replies, as he probably will, the day after to-morrow, to my speech—
§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
If he replies with his usual complaint that he is in a helpless minority in this House, I ask the noble Earl whether there are not in the House of Commons members of his Party who sufficiently agree with him to challenge the conduct 1157 of the Government in that House on what he considers to be the culpable negligence of the Government. The noble Earl at last concluded his speech by asking some Questions about the nature of the inquiry. I have not been able to give sufficient time to the extremely condensed Questions which he has addressed to me; but I will endeavour in the course of what I hope will be the not very long observations which I shall address to the House, to try—I am afraid I can do little more than repeat—to try to explain to the noble Earl what, in my judgment, is the nature of the inquiry which the Government are instituting. My Lords, the noble Earl has, I think, on two occasions gone back on the history of this question, and I may say one or two words about it, as, in order to explain myself, I think I ought to do. The Colonial Minister made a speech, as he stated, entirely on his own responsibility, and not committing the Government to any expression of policy which was contained in it, in which he said that his attention, as Colonial Minister, had been directed to certain questions affecting the fiscal policy of this country, especially as regarded their bearing on, and connection with, the colonies and closer colonial union. He referred in that speech to the present fiscal relations between ourselves and our colonies, between ourselves and foreign countries, and also between foreign countries and our colonies; and he expressed his desire that these questions should be fully considered and examined by the country before the country is called upon to proceed to another election. The Colonial Secretary stated on that occasion, with perfect clearness, as the noble Earl has admitted, what he hoped the result would be. He hoped the result of such an inquiry would be that the Government of which he is a member would ask for a mandate, and that the country would give to the Government a mandate, which would enable him to enter into negotiation with the colonies with the object of ascertaining whether it would be possible to establish any closer fiscal relations between ourselves and them. Well, I believe that was and is the position of Mr. Chamberlain. The 1158 noble Earl and the House will see that that position is a very long way from the point of making definite proposals to Parliament, as to which it will be, of course, constitutionally necessary that the Government, when it makes such proposals shall be united in opinion as to the action which we may propose to Parliament. The noble Earl says that the proposed process is a wrong one. He says that we ought to have consulted the colonies first. I am not going into that matter now, but this is a subject which has been fully dealt with by the Colonial Secretary himself. He has said—whether he is right or wrong—that he holds the opinion that it would be most impolitic to ask the responsible colonial statesmen to come and discuss with him the question of preferential tariffs when he had no authority from Parliament, or when Parliament had no authority from the country, to justify him in entering into such negotiations. What would be the position of the Colonial Minister if he was to ask the Colonial Premiers—
§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
He discussed the subject generally, but he had no authority. He expressly told them on that occasion that he had no authority to make proposals to them. In the Colonial Secretary's view, and I am bound to say also in my view, I do not see what would be the advantage of asking the Premiers to come here and discuss definite detailed proposals for preferential treatment of our colonies if, after they had returned to their colonies, they should find that the Colonial Secretary had no authority either from Parliament or from the country to make such proposals. That, I understand, is the position of the Colonial Secretary. When I come to the position of the Government, I admit it is a different one; but I do not admit that it is a position which in any degree conflicts with that of the Colonial Secretary. We are agreed with the Colonial Secretary that the time is ripe for a review of the results of our fiscal policy of the last fifty years—that the time is ripe for a review of the results of 1159 a policy which alone amongst all the great nations of the world we have adopted—of the results of that policy upon our home trade, our trade with foreign nations, our trade with the colonies—of the results of that policy upon our manufacturing industries, and on the condition of our people—of the results of that policy on our relations with our colonies. We entirely agree with the Colonial Secretary that the time is ripe for such a review. But, whether the result of such an inquiry will be to join us in asking the country to give to the Colonial Secretary the mandate which he hopes to receive—that is a question which can only be decided after the inquiry is concluded. My Lords, it will depend on the result of that inquiry whether we shall be in a position to ask the country for a mandate at all on the subject, and, if so, what mandate—whether it be a mandate extending to the large policy which has been indicated in the Colonial Secretary's speeches, or whether it be a mandate far more restricted in its scope. But until the time comes when we are called upon to ask the country whether we are to receive a new mandate on this subject or not, I fail to see that any case has been made out why it is necessary that we should all be in perfect harmony and agreement in our views upon these questions.
The noble Earl wants to know what is the nature of the inquiry. I do not think it is possible, at this stage at all events, fully to answer the question. I have always said, and I desire still to say, that it is not inquiry alone, but discussion, that is necessary, in my opinion. I do not think it is possible at this stage of the inquiry and discussion strictly to define or to limit the subjects which are to be inquired into and discussed. I referred the other night to the speeches delivered two days before by the Prime Minister and the Colonial Secretary. I did not say, or at all events did not intend to say, as the noble Earl seems to have understood, that I agreed with everything that was contained in those two speeches. I referred to them as indicating the nature and scope of the inquiry. The Prime Minister indicated four points which he considered were subjects for inquiry. The first was whether the necessary provision of 1160 capital applied to our industries was imperilled by the importation of foreign goods below cost price. He instanced in connection with that question the Sugar Convention, which has already been entered into; and quoted, I think, some words of Mr. Gladstone in elucidation of his point of view. The second subject for inquiry was whether tariff negotiations with other countries were not rendered increasingly difficult and almost impossible by our present fiscal system. The third was whether the colonies were unable to give us, even if they desired it, preferential treatment without running the risk of foreign intervention. The fourth point was whether union with the colonies by closer fiscal relations could not be made possible. And the Prime Minister further indicated, although he did not name it as one of the subjects of the inquiry, that in his judgment there was no logical or substantial reason why such a policy as was indicated by the Colonial Secretary should not be carried out without any increase in the cost of living to the working classes.
On the same occasion the Colonial Secretary indicated one or two subjects which he desired to see inquired into. He asked whether it was a fact that the exports of our manufactures to the colonies exceed our exports to all the protected States and the United States of America combined. He asked next whether it was a fact that our exports to the protected States are diminishing in quantity and in value. He asked a further question, the form of which, I believe, was not perfectly accurately stated, whether it was not better to cultivate trade with 10,000,000 of our kinsmen—I believe he stated the figure too high—he said £10 per head—but that does not invalidate the argument—at a large amount per head than to conciliate 300,000,000 of foreigners who only trade with us to the extent of a very few shillings per head. I am not in the least saying that this is an exhaustive or definite list of the subjects to be inquired into. There may be, and undoubtedly are, other subjects which will occur at once to the mind of every man who has paid any attention to the problem; 1161 there are others which undoubtedly will develop in the course of the inquiry. But I ask, taking that list only, whether the noble Earl or noble Lords opposite are prepared to say that these are questions which they have considered so fully and completely as to be satisfied that no inquiry is necessary, or whether, on the other hand, they are prepared to say that those subjects are absolutely immaterial and have no relation to the question whether our fiscal policy does or does not require some revision to meet the altered circumstances of the country and of the Empire.
This being the nature of the inquiry, I say that it is absolutely impossible to limit its dimensions, to confine it within strictly defined limits. It is impossible to say beforehand, at the very commencement of this inquiry and discussion what subjects lie within it and what subjects are outside it. Neither can we, in my opinion, limit the number or the character of those who may be called upon, or whose duty it will be to take part in the inquiry. We have already said that, as a Government, we have considered it our duty to enter upon this inquiry; and we shall avail ourselves of all the means at our disposal to make it a thorough and, we trust, a satisfactory inquiry. We are quite convinced that we cannot—nor do we desire to—exclude any other body of our fellow subjects from taking their part in this inquiry also. In my view, every Member of Parliament, every candidate for a Parliamentary seat, and, so far as he is able to make himself acquainted with the question at issue, every elector is bound to take his share in this inquiry; and I believe that even those who most deprecate the raising of this question, those who are apparently convinced that we live under the most perfect fiscal institutions that can be conceived, will be compelled — indeed, they have already found themselves compelled—to take their share in the inquiry. The noble Earl himself, in his first speech on this subject, delivered, I think, at the City of London Liberal Club, took a very useful and a very prominent part in this inquiry, and produced a great variety of arguments which led him to doubt—as many of us doubt, and as I myself gravely doubt—the expediency of 1162 imposing a tax on the food of the people. Those who have taken up a still more pronounced position than the noble Earl, those who deprecate any investigation whatever, are also bound by the very necessity of their position to join us in this inquiry. Their view is that we occupy the best possible position under the best possible fiscal system; and it is for them, after the lapse of fifty years, and especially after the experience which has been gained during the last twenty years, to establish that view. I think I said on the first occasion that I addressed the House upon this subject that upon those who advocate this change in our fiscal system rests the burden of proof; and I adhere to that opinion. But I also hold that upon those who assert—if there are any who do assert it—that the advantages of the present system are so firmly, conclusively, and absolutely established as to be beyond inquiry also rests the burden of proof of the accuracy and justice of their assertion. I can only say in conclusion that I deeply regret the noble Earl should have postponed to the very end of his able and eloquent speech the Questions of which he might, have given me notice a day or two ago. At all events, I am not prepared to enter into a detailed definition of the scope and course of this inquiry without further notice than that which the noble Earl has thought fit to give me.
§ LORD TWEEDMOUTH
My Lords, I do not intend to enter into the general discussion of this important subject, and so far as I have any remarks to make they will be entirely directed to the speech we have just heard from the noble Duke. The noble Duke took exception to the speech of my noble friend Lord Rosebery, because, he said, until the last sentences there was no attempt on his part to press the Question which formed his notice on the Paper.
§ LORD TWEEDMOUTH
I maintain that my noble friend's speech throughout was one continuous demand for further information with regard to the nature and the scope of the inquiry 1163 which has been instituted by the Government. The noble Duke has given no information whatever in his speech beyond that which has already been vouchsafed either in this House or in the other. He has not extended by one iota that information, and he has not attempted to answer any one of the four points specially pressed on his notice by my noble friend Lord Rosebery. The noble Duke cited seven propositions.
§ LORD TWEEDMOUTH
Well, seven subjects for inquiry, put forward in the other House by the Prime Minister and the Colonial Secretary, and asked whether they were not fit subjects for inquiry. Of course they are fitting subjects for inquiry, and I hope that especially the points raised by the Colonial Secretary will be taken up in this inquiry and thoroughly searched. We have no fear of the result of such a search. The noble Duke took exception to the weighty words of my noble friend when he described the situation as one which involved the position of the Empire being at stake. Well, my Lords, I think sufficient proof of that may be found from the lips of the noble Duke's colleagues and ex-colleagues. One ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer has described the situation as—A gamble with the food of the people.Another Chancellor of the Exchequer has described this policy as—Deeply injurious to the country, and one which would do more to dis-unite than unite the Empire.Whilst the present Chancellor of the Exchequer says—I cannot be a party to a policy which, in my opinion, would be detrimental both to this country and to the colonies.The noble Duke then says, "If those opinions are shared by the Opposition, if they think that so grave a state of affairs has been arrived at, why do not they challenge the Government by a Vote of Censure? I will answer the noble Duke by another question. Will the Government give us a straight issue on the simple point, Is it good policy that preferential tariffs shall be placed on the food of the people?
1164 I will tell the noble Duke why such a Motion has not been put forward; indeed, he gave the answer to his own question in the very next section of his speech. He said that, after all, there was no policy adopted by the Government; that the Colonial Secretary on his own motion had put forward certain proposals; that those proposals were not adopted by the Government, and that they were merely subjects for discussion. The noble Duke knows perfectly well that if a Motion were brought forward in the other House challenging the point it would be met by the Government with the statement that they had merely offered certain proposals of the Colonial Secretary for examination and discussion by the country, and they would taunt us with the charge that we were afraid of inquiry, and that our cause was so bad that it could not stand investigatian. My Lords, we are not afraid of inquiry, and we find no fault with the proposal for an inquiry, but what we do find fault with are the methods and the manner, and the condition under which this inquiry is going to be held, or, rather, I should say the method and the manner, and the conditions under which this so-called inquiry is not going to be held. This is a matter of the highest interest. It is a matter of extreme intricacy, and one would have imagined that this inquiry would have been held by statesmen, by experts, by professors of economics quietly. One would have thought that even the Colonial Secretary himself might have sat as a learner from the results of such an inquiry. Again and again has it been said that this is not merely an inquiry, but, still more, a discussion. Well, I contend that the words discussion, debate, and inquiry are almost contradictory of one another, and to suppose that a matter of this sort can be fairly, squarely, and impartially decided upon by discussion on the platform and in the Press seems to me to be a curious view of the situation. Then the noble Duke said that this question of preferential tariffs had not been before the colonies. That is one of the most extraordinary statements I have ever heard made. This subject was brought before the Colonial Premiers at the Colonial Conference, and was, moreover, made 1165 the subject of a paragraph in their Report, which I will venture to read in order to remind the noble Duke of what the views of the colonies were as expressed by their Premiers at that Conference. On page thirty-nine of the Report will be found these words:—In connection with the discussion of preferential trade the Conference also considered the point raised by the Commonwealth Government as to the possibility of the colony having most-favoured-nation treatment in foreign countries in the event of their giving a tariff preference to British goods. As, however, the exports from the colonies to foreign countries are almost exclusively acticles of food or raw materials for various industries, the possibility of discrimination against them in foreign markets was not regarded as serious, and as the exports of foreign countries to the colonies are mainly manufactured articles, it was recognised that if such discrimination did take place the colonies had an effective remedy in their hands.Therefore the Colonial Premiers absolutely put it on record that, in this matter of preferential discrimination, they themselves had the power in their own hands to do whatever was necessary in the way of retaliation against foreign countries. The noble Duke says that the position of the Government does not conflict with that of the Colonial Secretary. Well, my Lords, that seems to me to be a strange statement. At any rate the position of the Government so far conflicts with the opinion of the Colonial Secretary that they are not ready to make themselves responsible for this policy which he puts forward as the only one which can bind the various parts of the Empire together. Surely there can hardly be a greater conflict between responsible Ministers of the Crown than when the Minister who is responsible for the Government of the colonies says to his colleagues such and such a policy is absolutely essential to keep the colonies together, and then his colleagues say: "This is a matter of secondary importance. It is one only for inquiry, and we must postpone this policy till some future occasion when further discussion has taken place upon it." If these are conditions under which responsible Cabinet Government can be carried on in this country they are entirely novel ones, and I think the precedent of the present Government will not be held up by future ones in preference to those of earlier Governments and Ministers who 1166 were more careful and particular as to agreement amongst themselves.
§ THE DUKE OF RUTLAND
I have no intention of entering into the discussion raised by the noble Earl on the cross benches, but I think the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down may be regarded as the best justification for the noble Duke's challenging those who take such strong views on this subject to produce their Vote of Censure. The noble Lord said they did not know what they had to censure, and then he proceeded to formulate a Vote of Censure. He went on to show that the Vote of Censure which they were prepared to move was to the effect that any imposition of a tax on the food of the people was objectionable. If that is the Motion they are prepared to move—well, why don't they move it?
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
My Lords, I do not think the noble Duke has much reason to complain of the laxity which, he says, I allowed myself in enlarging in my speech the subject of which I had given notice, because I observe that the noble Duke had made no inconsiderable preparations to deal with all those subjects, which seems to me to prove, either that we were both out of order, or that he anticipated with some confidence the discussion that has taken place.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
I trust the noble Duke also knew the House of Lords, although I observe that he indicated a wish to reform its procedure, from which I would advise him to desist, having had some experience of that matter. I would only call attention to one or two points raised by the noble Duke. The Government always tell us what they are going to inquire into. They never tell us who is going to inquire. It is not enough to tell me that I may inquire. I can do that without the permission of the Government. It is not enough to tell candidates for Parliament that they may inquire. They can do that without the permission of the Government. 1167 The noble Duke always says: "We think that the inquiry should do this; we think that after the inquiry has taken place we should do that;" but my question is what the inquiry is, and who is conducting it, and by what methods? The noble Duke must tell us that. Is the Cabinet sitting like the Council of National Defence, to inquire? Is it a committee?
§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
The Prime Minister, answering a Question in the other House, said the inquiry would be conducted by His Majesty's Government, and not by a Royal Commission or a Committee of the House, or by any Departmental Committee. The inquiry would be conducted by the Cabinet itself, and would not necessarily lead to a Report.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
Then may I ask the noble Duke for a distinct answer to this question? Is the Cabinet, or is it not, conducting any inquiry into these matters?
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
Then at last we have a definite understanding. The twenty members of the Cabinet are conducting an investigation into the fiscal system of the country. I am very glad to hear it. I do not deprecate it. I do not think it the non-partisan committee which ought to investigate this matter, but, at any rate, we have at last, after a month of questioning, elicited the information that the Cabinet has begun to inquire. That is really the gist of the whole matter. We now may hope that when the Cabinet hold their meetings they are not conducting the ordinary administration of the country, but that they are investigating the fiscal system. That is all we know. The noble Duke called attention to the fact that I did not challenge the opinion of the House by a Vote of Censure on the proceedings of His Majesty's Government. The noble Duke supplied one answer, and I had already supplied the other. He supplied the answer that it would be preposterous for any one without a considerable 1168 following in this House to challenge a Government which owns the almost unanimous support of the House, and that it would give a very false notion abroad as to the division of public opinion on this matter. I supplied by anticipation the other answer, and it was this—that I do not think that the future or the fate of this Empire as defined by the Colonial Secretary should be made a question of Party recrimination and partisan discussion. For my part, however much the Government may wish to throw it into the arena of Party politics, I, at any rate, shall endeavour to keep it, as far as can be, out of it. The noble Duke in his speech has indicated a perfectly new theory of the functions of Cabinet Government in this country. He says—We are to discuss and we are to investigate, but there is no reason why we should be a united Cabinet on this policy until we have disclosed it.Surely that is one of the most remarkable theories of Cabinet Government that has ever been disclosed in this country or in the world. On the most important fiscal question, and, as it affects the Empire, the most important of all questions which touch the honour of the country, the Cabinet is allowed to be a disunited body, to make speeches in any direction they please until they have arrived at a conclusion, at a policy on which they can unite. I venture to say that the whole theory of Cabinet Government has never been reduced to such a nullity or to such ridicule.
§ The Motion was not pressed.