§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
, who had given notice to call attention to the attitude and declarations of certain members of His Majesty's Government in relation to fiscal policy; and to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to state to what extent the Government purposes to support the policy of preferential tariffs, including the imposition of import duties on food, said: My Lords, I do not think His Majesty's Government will complain if, at this late period of the session, indeed on the last, or almost the last, day on which it will be possible for the House to discuss anything except matters of the most urgent legislative importance, I ask them, if it be in their power, to give us some further information and enlightenment on a question which occupied the almost exclusive attention of the country during the last Parliamentary recess; which has received considerable attention in the other House of Parliament during the present session; which, so far as we can see, will again excite a great deal of interest and discussion during the next Parliamentary recess, and which also must, at some probably not very distant time, form the principal subject for the consideration of the country when next it may be called upon to elect another Parliament.
891 It is possible that His Majesty's Government may consider that discussions have been raised in the other House of Parliament which have been unnecessary or inconvenient; but it certainly cannot be said that we who, in this House, entertain strong opinions upon the fiscal question, have been unduly inquisitive or obtrusive in putting them forward. We have had one debate in this House, which was raised on the Motion of the noble Earl opposite, Lord Crewe, which, although it was confined to a limited portion of the question, did enable us to have a fairly full discussion on the whole subject. But since that time we in this House have been content to be silent spectators of the further development of the position of the Government and their supporters, which has resulted in intermittent and somewhat desultory discussions which have taken place in the other House. But quite recently, so recently as last week, some members of the Government took certain steps, and made speeches, in connection with the reconstruction of the Liberal Unionist Association which seem, in our opinion, to indicate a new departure on the part of some members of the Government, or at least some advance in a direction which had been already indicated, which we think fairly calls for some consideration on the part of your Lordships' House.
Before I refer to those proceedings and speeches I should like for a very few moments to remind your Lordships of some of the proceedings which have taken place in the other House with regard to this question. I am not going to refer to speeches in the other House. That would not be in order; and although the rule is not very strictly observed in this House, it is not necessary, I think, for my present purpose that I should attempt to infringe it. But I do not believe there is any rule which precludes us in this House from taking notice of the proceedings in the other House of Parliament as they are recorded in their Votes and Minutes. There have been in the House of Commons during the present session three discussions on the fiscal question—the first one initiated on an Amendment moved by one of the leading members of the Opposition, and the other two raised by private members of the Opposition on such occasions as 892 were available to them by the forms of the House. The first observation I desire to make on those discussions is that, in the divisions which have followed the debates, His Majesty's Government has, on every occasion, been supported by majorities very much smaller than their normal majority; and it is a matter of notoriety that those majorities would have been much smaller, if they had not disappeared altogether, but for the support which the Government received from a section of their free-trade supporters who had felt able to interpret the declarations of the Government, and of some members of the Government, in the sense that the Government was not committed to anything more than the policy which was expounded last autumn at Sheffield, that they were not only uncommitted, but as a Government opposed to anything in the nature of a policy of protection or preferential treatment of the Colonies based on the taxation of food. The first point, therefore, I desire your Lordships to note is that, notwithstanding the support of this section of their Party, so great has been the divergence of! opinion in their own Party that they have on this question received a very much smaller amount of support from their Party than they are accustomed to look for upon any other question.
There are some curious incidents which have occurred during the course of those discussions in the other House. In the first debate, one of great length, from which the Prime Minister was unfortunately absent, the declarations of the members of the Government who took part in it, and even of the members of the Cabinet who took part were, if not absolutely contradictory, yet of such a character as to lead to the inevitable conclusion that there existed within the Government two sections of opinion—one favourably disposed towards a policy of preferential treatment of the Colonies, the other opposed to it, or at least distrustful of it. On the next occasion, on the discussion that was raised by Mr. Pirie, an Amendment was placed on the Paper which was understood to have been drafted with the approval of the Government and to express the views of the Government. With your Lordships' permission I will read that Amendment—That this House approves the explicit declaration of His Majesty's Ministers that 893 their policy of fiscal reform does not include either a general system of protection or preference based on the taxation of food.But after it had been placed on the Paper that Amendment disappeared, and the Government were unable to accept the expression of the confidence of the House of Commons which was contained in it, based upon their own declarations. I should like to ask the Government whether they can give us any explanation, which I do not think was given at the time, or has since been given, of the circumstances under which that Amendment disappeared. Was it that on further reflection they deemed that it did not accurately represent their own position, or was it that they discovered that an expression of confidence based on those grounds would not command the necessary amount of support from their own followers? I feel that that transaction throws a good deal of light upon the divided condition of opinion, either of the Government or, at all events, of those who support the Government.
On the next occasion, on the Motion moved by Mr. Black, the Government found it so impossible to frame any Amendment which would represent their own views, or which would be accepted by their own Party, that, after more than one attempt, I think, they were obliged to resort to the course of refusing to allow the House to express any opinion whatever upon the Motion, and to move a kind of previous Question," in a form, I think, almost unprecedented, of a vote of confidence—a totally irrelevant vote of confidence—moved by one of their own Members, which, of their it had the desired effect of setting aside the Motion which was really before the House, was laid aside and has never been heard of since. I do not desire to comment further upon these proceedings — I will not call them manœeuvres — but I think they do indicate a condition of uncertainty and doubt in the minds of the Government, and of those who support them, upon a question which, it is true, may not be included in their own policy, but which is a question as fully, if not more fully, before the country than their own policy itself. And I do not think it will be denied that the condition of uncertainty and doubt is confusing and perplexing to the minds of the people of this 894 country in their consideration of the most important subject which they will shortly be called upon to decide; and in this perplexed and confused condition of opinion it is almost impossible that they can arrive at any just or any permanent conclusion.
From these proceedings one thing, at all events, has become perfectly clear, and that is that the Government must know well, and every one of us must know, that there exists at present in the House of Commons a section of their own Party which is sufficient in numbers to have turned the scale against them, and to have put an end to their existence as a Government, which would have made it impossible for them to propose either their own or any other fiscal policy is this or any other session. I say it must be perfectly clear to all of us, and to none more clearly than to the Government itself, that there is that sufficient number of their present followers who would have withdrawn their support from them but for the belief, which they have been able still to entertain, that the Government is not committed, and is, in fact, opposed to any policy which goes beyond the policy which was expounded at Sheffield, and which is known as that of freedom of negotiation and of retaliation, and who are opposed to anything in the nature of the policy of preference based upon the taxation of food. I do not suppose for a single moment that the Government desires to retain office by means of the support of any section of their Party which is founded on a misconception of the real nature of their policy; and I cannot doubt that they will be glad of the opportunity, which, I think, my Motion gives them, of clearly and distinctly showing whether any such misconception as to the nature and drift of their policy really does exist.
In these circumstances it has been thought necessary to reconstruct the Liberal Unionist Association. I am not going to trouble your Lordships with the affairs of the Liberal Unionist Party or of the Liberal Unionist Association, which has up to now represented it. I do not think the history of that Party or of that association is altogether devoid of interest; but that is not the point which 895 is before us to-day; and I will not trouble you: Lordships with any discussion of the difficulties or dissensions which have occurred within the ranks of the Liberal Unionist Party. What does concern us is the proceedings which have recently taken place, which amount to the constitution of a new political organisation, which professes to be founded upon a more democratic basis than that of the organisation which preceded it, and which also openly avows its intention of taking a more active part in general politics than its predecessor, politics not specially connected with the question of the government of Ireland, with Home Rule, or with the Union. Certain members of the Government have been invited to join that association, and have joined it, and to take office in that association, and have accepted that invitation. And I submit to your Lordships that the proceedings of such an organisation, created, as it has been, for a special purpose, and with reference to special questions, have an interest for Parliament which is different from and far greater than the interest which can attach to any proceedings of an organisation already existing, although it may have been conducted on similar lines. I assume, and I think we must all assume; that my noble friends the Foreign Secretary and the First Lord of the Admiralty, who have taken office in this new association, were aware of the proceedings which were going to inaugurate its existence. I think there is internal evidence that they were so aware of them. I have seen a copy of the agenda originally prepared for the first meeting of the new council. After the election of its officers the first business of the council was the submission to the council or a number of resolutions purporting to have been sent up by a large number of local Liberal Unionist associations. There have been certain revelations as to the mode in which those resolutions were obtained, but that is not a question into which I wish to enter to-day. After the submission of these resolutions the next business was to have been the following resolution, to be proposed to the council—That this council believes that a system of mutual preference between the United Kingdom and the Colonies will be beneficial 896 to British commerce and industry, and will tend to consolidate the Empire, and approves of the policy of fiscal reform which has been laid before the country by Mr. Chamberlain.I should like to ask my noble friends whether, before accepting office in this, association, they were made aware of this proposed resolution, and whether it was due to any representations on their part that that resolution was not moved. For that was not the resolution that was moved; the resolution which was substituted for it was the following—That this council, believing that the time has come for a complete reform of our fiscal system, approves of the demand made by the Prime Minister for increased powers to deal with hostile tariffs and the practice of dumping, and further expresses its earnest hope that the ties of sympathy which already unite the British Empire may be strengthened by a commercial union with the Colonies based on preferential arrrangements between them and the mother country.I should like to hear from my noble friends whether it was due to any action on their part that a resolution was dropped which committed the association and the council so directly to a policy labelled with the name of Mr. Chamberlain, as the first resolution did; in the next place, whether the withdrawal of the first and the substitution of the second resolution was due in any degree to their influence; and I should like to hear from them in what respect, in their opinion, the two resolutions differ in substance one from the other, except that from the second resolution was dropped the name of the author of the policy.
This resolution was moved and was adopted, I presume, with the assent and concurrence of my noble friends. It is not a mere resolution of sympathy with a preferential policy; it is a resolution expressing an earnest hope, which I presume my noble friends share, that the ties uniting the British Empire may be strengthened by commercial union with the Colonies based on preferential arrangements. I submit there is a wide and broad distinction between a formal resolution passed by an important political association which at that very moment had been joined by two important members of the Government and a mere casual expression of sympathy with a policy which may easily escape any orator when carried away by the applause 897 of an enthusiastic audience. Therefore, I attach a great deal more importance I to the formal resolutions moved and adopted with the assent and concurrence of His Majesty's Ministers at the business meeting of the conference in the morning than to the eloquent expressions and messages of sympathy which may have fallen from their lips at the meeting in the evening at the Albert Hall.
But I do not think we can altogether ignore the significance of the expressions of sympathy which were communicated to that meeting, on his own part and on the part of the Prime Minister, by my noble friend Lord Lansdowne. Speaking in this House on 19th February on behalf of the Government, my noble friend referred to a declaration which had already been made in the other House by the Home Secretary, and he quoted this declaration and said he adhered to it. The declaration he quoted was this—I have pointed out that preference is not a part of the policy of the Government at all; I have said that the Government are opposed—Mark the words, my Lords—are opposed to any duty on raw material or food.But my noble friend, not content with quoting the declaration of the Home Secretary, went on on his own account to say categorically—We as a Government—and we cannot speak except as a Government—are opposed to duties on raw materials and foodstuffs. Why is it we are told that our policy leads down to the Birmingham abyss? I say that instead of leading to Birmingham—it leads if anything in the opposite direction—as far as it goes our policy is inconsistent with the policy of colonial preference.I am glad to hear behind me a cheer in recognition of this declaration; but I cannot reconcile the expression of sympathy which my noble friend gave to the policy of preference on his own part and on the part of the Prime Minister with this explicit declaration which he made on his responsibility in this House. I admit that my noble friend has not yet got beyond sympathy. Sympathy has been to the Government almost as blessed a word as Mesopotamia itself; it has found a place in almost all of their speeches, and now it finds its way into their resolutions. But when they express their sympathy it is fair to ask them what it is they sympathise with. Are they in sympathy with 898 the idea of fiscal union, or is it with preference founded on the taxation of food which the leader and prophet of this movement has assured us is the only means by which the idea of fiscal union can be attained?
There is an old French proverb, "Quiveut la fin veut les moyens." I think there is a good deal of troth in it, and I think it is a truth which His Majesty's Government do not altogether realise; and unless they are able to define—and the definition they have not yet attempted—whether it is the end or the means or the object with which they express their sympathy, I venture to think that the introduction of the word sympathy into a political resolution purporting to set forth a policy is as irrelevant as would be the introduction of the word into a commercial prospectus. I hope they will be able to-night to give us some clearer definition of the meaning they attach to this word, and meantime I venture to suggest the sense which it seems to me it alone can bear. It appears to me, as I take it, that these members of the Government who express their sympathy with the policy of colonial preference can entertain, in their own minds, no objection to that policy on principle, and that the only doubt that restrains them is the practicability of putting it into force at the present time. It is only fair to the Prime Minister to say that I do not think that he has ever concealed that this is his own view. I do not recall a single word in which the Prime Minister has ever expressed the smallest objection in principle to a policy of colonial preference, or the taxation of food which is necessary to secure it, other than that it is not at the present moment a practical policy the people of this country are likely to adopt. That means, I conclude, that, in the opinion of the Prime Minister and of his Government, they would not be likely at another election to get a majority in the country in favour of the taxation of food, and they are doubtful whether they would get a majority for it even in their own Party.
But, supposing, as the result of the next campaign, Mr. Chamberlain is able to convince the Government that a 899 majority in the country in favour of preference and food taxation is attainable, and that, at all events, it would be adopted by a majority of their own Party, then I ask whether the impracticability vanishes, whether their sympathy thereupon will be translated into active support. I think, my Lords, these tactics in regard to this portion of the fiscal policy which are being adopted by His Majesty's Government are not of a very heroic character. Mr. Chamberlain is sent into the country either as a missionary or as an advance guard. I think he has been described in both terms. If he takes the risk, the Government propose to take the credit and profit of his success. If Mr. Chamberlain fails, then the Government will have committed themselves to nothing but sympathy. If he succeeds it can easily be shown that that success was largely due to the sympathy given by the Government. But I am afraid the Government are giving Mr. Chamberlain something more than sympathy, and that they are indirectly giving him aid which they shrink from openly tending to him.
What is going on all over the country is that the seats of Unionist free-traders and the claims of Unionist free-trade candidates are being openly attacked or covertly undermined by the efforts of the Tariff Reform League, which are now being, I suppose, aided and seconded by the assistance of the newly constituted Liberal Unionist Council. These attacks are never discountenanced by leaders of the Party, and the assailants of these Members can point to the sympathy professed by the Government with their object. On the other hand, where a candidate professes the most deep adherence to the full scheme of tariff reform, then he receives the full benediction of the Government. If a free-trade Unionist unfortunately ventures to give expression to his free-trade principles by giving a vote for a free-trade candidate against a supporter of the Government, then he is denounced as a traitor to his Party. My Lords, I say I do not think these tactics deserve to succeed. I do not think they will succeed. I believe the course taken is more likely to mislead the Government than to guide them to the formation of a true judg- 900 ment on the state of public opinion in the country or, indeed, in their own Party. I believe they are imperilling any prospects of the success of their own policy which it may ever have possessed, by allowing it to be identified or inextricably mixed up and confused with a policy which is not their own, but which through their hesitation and their indecision is slowly and gradually, but certainly, being identified with their policy.
I am afraid that in these observations I may not have succeeded in altogether explaining to my noble friends the points on which I desire to obtain some fuller information; but I will, in conclusion, address two or three plain Questions to them, Questions which I think are plain and susceptible of a plain and definite answer. I ask my noble friend the Foreign Secretary whether he adheres to the declaration which he made to this House on 19th February. I ask him whether, notwithstanding his expression of sympathy for the policy which he said was inconsistent with the policy of the Government, he still opposes preference based on the taxation of food. I ask him whether, in his opinion, that policy is still inconsistent with the policy of the Government so far as it goes. I ask whether his opposition is based on principle, or only on his opinion as to its present impracticability. Finally, I would like to ask him whether he will undertake to discourage the pressure which is being placed upon his own friends to adopt that policy which is not the policy of the Government, until he and the Government themselves arc convinced that it is a policy which is not only a practicable, but also a sound policy.
§ * THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOE FOREIGN AFFAIRS (The Marquess of LANSDOWNE)
My Lords, so large a portion of the noble Duke's observations had reference to myself, that I think it would be convenient to your Lordships if I should intervene at this early stage of the debate, in order to refer briefly to some of the remarks which fell from him. There is one portion only of the noble Duke's speech with which I will ask him to excuse me from dealing. He dwelt at some length at the commencement of his speech upon various proceedings which took place not long ago in the House of 901 Commons. I do not know whether it is entirely usual for your Lordships to review what takes place in the other House of Parliament. But putting aside altogether the question of order, I would much prefer not to attempt the elucidation of those proceedings, because I frankly own that, not having been a Member of that House myself, I am in some difficulty in following the intricacies of what takes place in that Assembly. The noble Duke has, however, had a very long and a very distinguished career in the House of Commons; and I cannot help thinking that it must have been within his experience that the Party Whips usually contrive, if they possibly can, to arrange that the issue presented to the House should be presented in such a shape as' to bring about the most favourable expression possible to the Government of the day; and I have no doubt the Party Whips in this case did not depart from what is, I suppose, the accepted tradition in similar circumstances.
The noble Duke has made reference to the attitude and declarations of certain members of the Government, and has asked Questions with regard to that attitude and those declarations. Let me say a word with regard to those declarations—because, if I was able to follow the noble Duke, I think the only declarations which he singled out for criticism are certain statements which have been made by myself in your Lordships' presence on various occasions, and one made more lately at a meeting in the Albert Hall. My statement in the Albert Hall was not intended to go, and I believe it did not go, beyond the statement which I had already made in this House, nor was it intended to go, nor did it, I believe, go, beyond the statements which had been made by the Prime Minister at Sheffield, at Bristol, and, I think, at other places. In that speech I expressed my concurrence in, and my intention to support, the accepted policy of His Majesty's Government—the policy usually referred to as the policy of negotiation and retaliation; and I expressed my concurrence with the general object and aspirations of those who desire to bring about closer relations between the mother country and the Colonies. The noble Duke would have seen, if he 902 had read my speech carefully, that I took some pains to explain to my audience the gravity of the steps involved in that attempt to bring about closer relations with the Colonies, and that I stated explicitly that in my belief we must know a great deal more about the attitude of our people at home, and still more of the attitude of the great Colonies, before we could safely commit ourselves to any policy of the kind.
The noble Duke asks me whether I can reconcile the statement which I made upon that occasion with the statement which I made to your Lordships' House on 19th February. That statement is distinctly present to my mind. I then ventured to tell the noble Duke that in my view it was scarcely reasonable of him to call in question the accepted policy of His Majesty's Government, because if that policy—I mean the policy of making commercial arrangements with foreign countries—was pushed to the furthest point possible it would have the effect of throwing difficulties in the way of that other policy of special commercial arrangements with the Colonies which filled him with so much apprehension. It was a debating point and I thought it was worth making, and I believe it to be absolutely true in logic. Surely it is incontestable that if the policy of retaliation and negotiation were carried out successfully—so successfully as to cover the whole ground with a great system of commercial treaties between the United Kingdom and foreign nations—you would have less room than you otherwise would have for special arrangements with the Colonies. That seems to me to be incontrovertible; and I imagine that if such a thing were to happen the only course open to you, if you desired to make special terms with your Colonies, would be to negotiate commercial treaties with them just as you had negotiated them with foreign countries. That seems to me something nearly approaching to a truism, and I do not know why the noble Duke should have taken exception to it. I cannot get rid altogether of the feeling that if on that particular platform I had announced that in my belief two and two make four, the noble Duke would have discovered some faint trace of heresy in that proposition.
903 Then the noble Duke asks me whether I still adhere to another statement which I made in this House, I believe on the same occasion. I said that we, as a Government, were opposed to preferential arrangements with the Colonies based on the taxation of food. To that statement I adhere. Proposals of that kind are not included, and never have been included, in the programme of His Majesty's Government; and it is only on what we are prepared as a Government to put before the country that we have, as a Government, any right to speak. When we get beyond that we pass into the region of conjecture and prophecy into which, it seems to me, we cannot profitably travel.
With regard to the attitude of the incriminated Ministers, what is the charge against us? The charge against us is that we accepted office in the reconstituted Liberal Unionist Association, that we took part in the meetings of that association, and that we did so in spite of the fact that the majority of the members of that association are probably in favour of a policy which goes a good deal further than the policy which as a Government we have accepted. I ask your Lordships to consider what the position of the Unionist members of the Government was when this reconstitution of the association took place. We were, and had been for many years, members of the Liberal Unionist Party; and I am sure that I am representing the views of my friends and colleagues who belong to that Party when I say that we look back on its history with no little pride, and that we certainly could not without deep reflection and without a very bitter pang have separated ourselves from it. My Lords, the Liberal Unionist Association, as far as vie are aware, holds the same views as we do upon most of the matters with which it is concerned. I admit that upon this one question of fiscal policy the majority probably goes further than we do. But the fiscal question is not the only question before the country. I conceive that there was no reason whatever why we, on account of the mere fact that a good many of our friends desire to go faster and further than we do, should separate ourselves from the Party to which we have so long belonged; and if we were to remain members of 904 the Party, we had to consider whether we should do so as members of its rank and file, or whether we should maintain the old connection between the official members of the Party and those who were not official. I confess it seems to me that, if we were to remain in the Party, it was our business to have the courage of our opinions and to take in the Party a position corresponding with that hitherto filled by its official leaders.
But the gravamen of the complaint is that the association was at that time reconstructed upon a new basis. The reconstruction of the association was, in my belief, absolutely inevitable. I remember once listening for a considerable time to a statement in which the noble Duke ex-explained to his audience the recent history and present position of the association. The noble Duke is one of the clearest exponents of a case that I have ever had the good fortune to listen to, but I am bound to say that at the end of his observations I found great difficulty in discovering whether the Liberal Unionist Association had any organisation at all, or, if it had any, what the nature of that organisation was. At any rate, it seemed clear to us, that the time had come when it was absolutely necessary that the association should be brought into closer contact with the Party in the country and reorganised on a more popular basis. The reorganisation took place; and at the first meeting at which that reorganisation was discussed, the meeting of 4th February, it was clearly laid down by Mr. Chamberlain and in the resolutions handed in from the country that the main object of the reconstitution was to maintain the Liberal Unionist Association. What we had to consider was whether the association was to be maintained or whether, as I believe the noble Duke desired, steps should be taken to dissolve it altogether. We believed, and I remain of that opinion, that we were right in thinking that efforts should be made to keep it in existence. The noble Duke, deeply to our regret, found it impossible to remain with us; and when he determined to leave us he must have realised that it was inevitable that the statesman who, next to himself, had taken the most prominent part in the affairs of the 905 Party for many years past would take his place at our head.
Now I come to the proceedings of the 14th of this month. The noble Duke has referred to the fact that upon that day two different resolutions were discussed, one at the morning meeting and one at the evening meeting at the Albert Hall, and he has commented with much minuteness on the text of these resolutions. The first resolution is that which gives him most offence. Let me in the first place deal with a comment which the noble Duke made upon it in passing. He noticed that the resolution which was actually put, moved by Dr. Sinclair, of Manchester, and expressing an earnest hope that the tie of sympathy which already united the British Empire might be strengthened by commercial union with the Colonies based on preferential arrangements, was not the resolution which appeared originally in the earlier edition of the agenda paper. I believe that is perfectly true, but neither the original resolution nor this resolution were drafted by the central body. They were resolutions that came up from branches of the association in the country. I say frankly that the resolution actually adopted was chosen on the ground that it was of a complexion which rendered it more acceptable. to the whole of those who were present than the somewhat more strongly worded resolution which engaged the attention of the noble Duke. Both that resolution and the resolution passed in the evening no doubt indicate a strong desire on the part of those who supported them for some arrangements of a preferential kind between the mother country and the Colonies.
The noble Duke apparently was ready to accept under protest the word "sympathy" in this connection, but the word "hope" seemed to him much more shocking and dangerous. I confess I am not able to discern the precise difference between the two expressions, but even if we assume that hope carries us further than sympathy, what was there in these resolutions to oblige us to dissociate ourselves from the Party to which we belonged? Is not this entirely a new doctrine that the noble Duke is advancing I mean the doctrine that the 906 leaders of a Party have no business to take any part in the proceedings of their followers if those proceedings carry them beyond the officially accepted programme of the Government. I believe that, if the noble Duke will look into the history of these matters, he will find that no such doctrine has ever been accepted by any Party with which we are familiar in this country. I have here a series of resolutions which in past years have been put forward at the conferences of the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations, the Party organisation of the Conservative Government. The Prime Minister has usually been at the head of it. Lord Salisbury was at the head of it; he attended its meetings on several occasions, and the present Prime Minister has done the same.
I find that in 1887, 1891, 1892, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1898, 1900, 1902, and 1903 resolutions were carried at these annual meetings inviting the Government to take up the question of promoting a mutually favourable Customs arrangement between the Colonies and the home country, in favour of the preferential reduction by the Colonies of fiscal duties on home goods, the commercial federation of the Empire, and so on. No one ever supposed for a moment that there was anything irregular in the Prime Minister remaining at the head of such an association, although those particular proposals were not taken up and at the time were, if I remember right, considered impossible of adoption by the Prime Minister and the Government of the day.
Then the noble Duke goes on to ask us a Question. He asks us to state to what extent the Government purpose to support the policy of preferential tariffs, including the imposition of import duties on food. My answer is that we do not support that policy. We have, on the contrary, pledged ourselves as a Government not to support it. But for that which lies beyond, for the unborn Governments, which may be drawn from that side of the House or from this, how is it possible that we can give any pledges? We do not know what the next Government will be or what the position of these great questions will be. We do not know what the attitude of 907 the people of this country will be or, what is still more important, what the attitude of the great Colonies will be with regard to those questions. The noble Duke considers that, because we are not prepared now, immediately, to pronounce a final and irrevocable decision on these immense Imperial questions, we are to be accused of indecision, and that our attitude is certainly, I think he said, far from heroic?
I confess I do not see anything pusillanimous in a refusal to be hurried into a decision on questions so momentous. This is a tremendous problem. If I may use a homely simile, we are asked to ride at a fence a fall over which might break every bone in the body of the Empire, yet you accuse us of indecision and hesitation because we express a desire to know what there is on the other side. You ask us to draw a hard and fast line. You tell us that virtue is to be found on one side and vice on the other, and that unless we take up a position on your side of the line we deserve the condemnation of all right-minded men. I venture humbly to protest against that doctrine. I protest against the doctrine that, no matter what terms our great Colonies may propose to us, we are to treat this question in advance as a chose jugeé. I object altogether to the idea that when they stretch out their hands to us across the seas and ask us so draw closer to them we should refer them to some early Victorian treatise upon political economy and tell them that their proposal is out of order. Our attitude is a much humbler one than that of the noble Duke and those who think with him. It is a humble and a cautious attitude; but I can assure the noble Duke that it has not that Machiavellian character which he endeavoured to impute to it.
We do not desire to be rushed to a premature decision either by the Tariff Reform League or by the noble Duke and his friends. We have before us the example of other nations who have drawn the constituent parts of their realms more closely together under arrangements of this kind and who have thriven under them. We know that our Colonies earnestly desire that this question should be further examined. We know that 908 these proposals have moved the people of this country as few questions have moved them within our recollection. Therefore we decline to closure the discussion or to withdraw our names from our own Party organisations simply because those organisations desire that these proposals should receive the attention and the examination to which they are entitled. I shall, I hope, never say a word—I hope I have not said a word to-night—which is disrespectful towards the noble Duke who has introduced this subject. I can assure him that no day in my political life was more painful than that on which I ceased to acknowledge him as my leader. I am willing to accept his judgment, I am willing to be corrected by him, if he thinks correction deserved. But I do honestly believe that the tests and standards which he asks us to apply to our political life are new tests and standards, and that the restrictions which they involve will be intolerable to those who believe, as we do, that free discussion and independent thought are the very life and breath of our political existence in this country.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
My Lords, if the question which is before us were not so serious it would be a subject of perpetual delight to dispassionate observer to watch the gyrations of His Majesty's Government in the presence of the anxious inquiry of the country as to what their policy may be. I venture to think that whatever doubt they may feel with regard to it will not have been removed by the speech of the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who has plunged us into deeper darkness than before as to what that policy may be, but has at any rate given one correct description of it as cautious and as humble. He said the Government are not so unwise when approaching a big fence as not to take some reckoning of what may be on the other side. The Government are approaching a general election, and they are extremely anxious, if they can, to face that general election perfectly free on both sides—either to adopt the policy of Mr. Chamberlain, if it should succeed, or to repudiate it if it should fail.
The noble Marquess has attempted to prove that in becoming a vice-president 909 of the reconstituted Liberal Unionist Federation he has done nothing unusual, nothing abnormal, but has, on the contrary, followed the true traditions of sympathetic partisans and refused to desert the association at a moment when his services might be required. I will not pour upon the Conservative Association, or whatever it may be called, all the contempt and contumely which the noble Marquess poured upon it in reading the long disregarded resolutions which that assembly has annually passed. He said that for years past they have been endeavouring to urge upon the inattentive leaders the question of tariff reform, and vet that never prevented those leaders from attending in the evening and haranguing them on the popular questions of the day. Why, then, said the noble Marquess, should not we go to an assembly which has just passed a resolution of which we entirely disapprove, which is opposed to our most public and repeated declarations, and cheer them up in the evening and give them the benefit of our countenance and eloquence?
I will point out to the noble Marquess what does not seem to have occurred to him, and if it has occurred to him he has at once suppressed the hideous thought that there are two very great differences between the position of these annual and customary meetings of the Conservative Association and the meeting of the Liberal Unionist Association which he attended in the capacity of vice-president. One difference is that the Liberal Unionist Association had just undergone a violent upheaval and disruption, and had lost its president and its head. Why? Because of a difference on the fiscal question, which tore that association from top to bottom. But there is a greater difference between the two cases. What has never happened at these meetings of the Conservative associations, and what I believed would have broken up the Party if it had happened, is that the Minister who spoke in the evening should have expressed unabated sympathy with the resolution passed in the morning. That is where the cardinal difference exists between the two cases.
The noble Marquess has not thrown any fresh light on the policy of the Government, because we already knew that it 910 was humble and that it was cautious. He has, as I have said, infused a new element of darkness into what was murky before. He has repeated that the Government's policy of retaliation is in direct opposition to Mr. Chamberlain's policy of Imperial preference. I may note in passing that even as to the Government policy of retaliation the noble Marquess has not hesitated in a debate this session on the coasting trade to make some very withering remarks, so that even of the policy of retaliation he is by no means sure in his own mind. But he has pointed out that the policy of retaliation is entirely opposed to Mr. Chamberlain's policy of preference. Why, then, may we ask, if there is that direct opposition, should the noble Marquess have thought it necessary to attend the meeting and give his benediction to the resolution which has been read out to the House? The association had simply been destroyed in order to give effect to this policy. It was reconstituted to democratise it, but it was also reconstituted to further the fiscal policy of Mr. Chamberlain. Yet, though the noble Marquess has truly said that the policy of the Conservative Government, so far as we can obtain a glimpse of it, is wholly opposed to the policy of Mr. Chamberlain, no sooner has the association been reconstituted, no sooner have they passed a resolution in support of Imperial preference, than the noble Marquess and his colleague the First Lord of the Admiralty find it convenient to become the only two vice-presidents of the reconstituted association, and go and give it their public benediction in the evening. If that be so, the policy of the Government is more confused than ever. The noble Marquess gives a doubtful approval of retaliation, except in the case of the coasting trade; but he is wholly opposed to the policy of Imperial preference. Yet he takes the earliest public opportunity of giving it the most unequivocal support he can.
Let us come to the democratisation of the association. Here let me observe on the extraordinary number of coincidences which have occurred in connection with this fiscal question during the past year. If the late Professor Morgan were still alive—and I daresay there are distinguished mathematicians who still take 911 an interest in the doctrine of coincidences —he would find fruitful matter for thought in the number of coincidences which have accompanied the development of the fiscal policy of His Majesty's Government. The series began with the coincidence of the repeal of the shilling duty on corn, promptly followed by the speech of 15th May in which the new policy was promulgated. Then there was the coincidence that, whereas the treatment of Canada by Germany had remained unnoticed for four years, simultaneously with the promulgation of the new policy it was thought necessary to notice that treatment. Now we have this further extraordinary coincidence—that when the noble Duke finds it necessary to retire from the presidency of the Liberal Unionist Association it is found that that association requires democratising. In the eloquent words of Mr. Chamberlain, it has been transformed from an oligarchy into a republic. There have been a good many kinds of republics. There was the republic which was established under the first Napoleon on the 18th of Brumaire, the constitution of which almost exactly resembles the democratic constitution of the Liberal Unionist Association. There was the First Consul, the Second Consul, and the Third Consul. I hope the noble Lords the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the First Lord of the Admiralty will not mind my reminding them that there was no alarming amount of individual liberty under that Government, and that, whilst the name of the First Consul remains permanently identified with its policy, the names of the Second and Third Consuls have been absolutely forgotten except by careful students of history. That may give them some cause for reflection.
But we already see the process of democratisation in full force. The noble Marquess took up the resolution which caused the noble Duke so much uneasiness—the first unamended resolution—and when questioned about it by the noble Duke said, "Yes, no doubt we thought the other one preferable, but there was no inspiration about this resolution. It only came up casually from one of our provincial centres." And at once a bright vision of liberty accorded under the new rules of the association proceeded to spread itself before our 912 eyes. But I suspect that there is a little interference with these provincial centres from headquarters, and they are not entirely left to their unguided genius. I do not know whether Lord Belper is in the House. If he were in the House he could furnish us with a very interesting document which came from the headquarters of the Liberal Unionist Association, and which went to the branch at Nottingham and pointed out to that branch that, though they had by a tangible majority refused to send any representatives to the federation to be held in London, it might be well if the minority—behold the democratic order of the new constitution—sent up at least a dozen representatives to the central body. Therefore I should not be exceedingly surprised to learn that even this resolution, which came like water from the rock, springing apparently from the fertile mind of a provincial association, had been to some extent inspired by the central office in London like that communication to Nottingham.
Let me here pause for one moment to say that the noble Marquess seems to think that there is nothing strange, in spite of the differences which appear to exist between him and the majority of the Liberal Unionist Association, in his going to attend their meeting and becoming their official, because, as he says, fiscal reform is only one of the many questions before the country, and it is the custom to discuss all the main questions of the day at their meetings. Well, I might call attention to what passed at the meeting, but I will give him a very exact analogy of what might have happened in the year 1885. If in that year Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke, who were then in the Cabinet and who were supposed to be not unfavourably inclined towards Irish aspirations in a modified form, had thought fit to become vice-presidents of the Irish Home Rule Association, what a hullabaloo there would have been. I can see almost every noble Lord on the Benches opposite who was then alive springing to his feet in a fury to denounce this ambiguous action on the part of two of the Ministers of the Crown, though as a matter of fact Home Rule was only one of several questions of policy at that moment before the country, and by no 913 means the most prominent. I offer that analogy for the consideration of the noble Marquess when he is next about to become vice-president of some political association
But the morning and the evening proceedings of this remarkable association, this democratised association, do deserve a little more attention than they have received at the hands either of the noble Duke or the noble Marquess. In the morning we had a really drastic resolution, a resolution approving of Imperial preference. We had other resolutions, one of which, I think, was rather remarkable, which urged—and that ought to be an answer to the distrust of the noble Duke —which urged that support should be given to all Liberal Unionist candidates without regard to fiscal considerations. It is a resolution which I have no doubt will give great comfort to Sir John Dickson-Poynder and other Members of the House of Commons who have been openly attacked in their seats under the inspiration of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. Altogether the proceedings were so interesting and remarkable that one gentleman went so far as to say that he still hoped that he might remain a member of the Liberal Unionist Association although he was a convinced free-trader. But at all events what happened was this. A preferential tariff resolution was passed in the morning, and all this doubtful and possibly ambiguous business was got out of sight before the noble Marquess appeared in the evening. I am not sure whether the noble Earl accompanied the noble Marquess.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
Oh, he did. Well, the noble Earl is the head of a militant branch of the Government, but I think that on that occasion he adopted a safer course than the noble Marquess and made no speech. In the evening we had most harmless and beneficent resolutions. There was a resolution against the dropping of the Aliens Bill by His Majesty's Government, which appeared in some way or another to have been the fault of His Majesty's Opposition. We had also the usual resolution about the Anglo-French Agreement, which the noble Marquess declared was an excellent 914 bargain and which at any rate received the approval of that vast assembly. And then we had the speech of the president of the association, cast in the old slap-dash style which he has too much neglected of late, banging the Opposition about and giving great refreshment to all his hearers. Then came the speech of the noble Marquess. I hope the noble Marquess will not be offended, but will consider it a compliment in this hot weather if I say that his speech appears to have exercised a somewhat refrigerating influence on the assembly to which it was addressed. It is true that he came to announce the unabated sympathy of Mr. Balfour with the resolutions which had been passed, but it is also true that the main mass of his speech was couched in a tone of such extreme good sense with regard to the resolution which had been passed in the morning that I honestly think there is hardly a word of it which those on this side of the House who distrust Mr. Chamberlain's policy from the Imperial point of view could not heartily have adopted; and I am given to understand, and can well believe it from reading the speech, that the exercitation of the noble Marquess caused a somewhat depressing effect on the audience.
Now how are we to take all these proceedings in their entirety? Do they give the impression of straightforward dealing with the country upon a matter of high national importance? Are the Government dealing fairly with the country at this moment in extending sympathy to Mr. Chamberlain's proposal although they profess to be altogether opposed to it? The noble Marquess says, "After all, this is only one item of the programme." But I would ask him to remember this. The British are essentially a commercial nation, and to consider the fiscal policy of this country as merely an item in a vast number of subjects which have to be considered by the nation at large is very seriously to misapprehend both the feelings of the nation and the policy itself. Is it credible, would it not be incredible had it not existed, that His Majesty's Government should keep the country on tenter-hooks as to what their future fiscal condition is to be, with unabated sympathy towards Mr. Chamberlain's policy on the one 915 hand, with deep affection for retaliation, which is opposed to it, on the other and by this cautious and humble policy leaving the mind of the country absolutely blank as to what the fiscal condition of this country may be after the next general election
That is the point which I earnestly press upon His Majesty's Government. It is not a question of minor importance; it is a question of the very breath of the nostrils of this country. Do you suppose that this irresolute and undecided attitude has not already had its effect on the commerce of this country? If you ask men of weight from any of the great commercial centres of the country you will hear but one tale of the prejudicial effect which your indecision is exercising upon their prosperity and their commerce. I really think that is a matter which His Majesty's Government cannot treat in the jaunty manner in which it has been treated this evening and on too many previous occasions. There is another side to it too, and to that I attach not less importance than to the consideration of what the future policy of His Majesty's Government may be. It does seem to me that these proceedings call for not merely the gravest suspicion, the most unceasing vigilance, but the closest union among all those who, with whatever opinions they may be ticketed, hold that free trade is essential to the prosperity of the country.
I confess I am somewhat disquieted, when I see the considerable skill, the variegated manœeuvres, with which the policies of Mr. Chamberlain and His Majesty's Government are carried on, as if in concert, to see that there does not appear to be on this side enough of union, enough of cordial co-operation, enough of withdrawal of opposition in the constituencies, and that that dangerous condition of want of cohesion may lead, in the opinion of some wise judges, to a disaster which the Opposition, excited by their by-elections, do not seem to apprehend. The Times, the devoted organ of the Government, at a very early period of these transactions gave us a warning, which we should not have neglected, that the Prime Minister and Mr. Chamberlain were playing their game like two skilful whist players, each 916 of whom well understood what the other was about. It is against that policy, which has been followed by the action of the noble Marquess and the noble Earl, that I desire to enter my most emphatic protest, because I believe that the country does not understand it, that it is one which is causing disaster now and which may cause ruin in the future, and that, at any rate, it is setting an example of political conduct which will long be deplored in the annals of this country, and which will reflect no credit on the names that are associated with it.
§ * LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I waited some time before rising because it seemed to me that the remarks of the noble Earl who has just sat down merited some reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government. I do not desire to occupy the time of the House for many minutes, but there are some considerations which occur to me which I think I should be wanting in my duty if I did not humbly and respectfully put before this Assembly. This is no mere matter of a dispute between two sections of the Liberal Unionist Party. A good deal, not unnaturally, of the speech of the noble Duke, and, in consequence, of the reply of the noble Marquess, was taken up with the discussion of these matters and of the transactions in the Albert Hall last week, with which I frankly say I have no personal concern. But, my Lords, those of us who, like myself, are intellectually convinced that free-trade is the best policy for the commerce of this country, cannot be expected to be satisfied with the present position of affairs; and I think the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs scarcely did justice in his reply to that part of the speech of the noble Duke which recounted the history of this matter and the declarations which we have received from time to time from His Majesty's Government.
I think I shall carry all your Lordships with me when I say that no man in our recollection has led this House with greater acceptance than my noble friend the noble Marquess, and no one, I venture to say, has so rapidly increased his influence amongst us as the noble Marquess has done since lie assumed that responsible place. But, my Lords, I ask him, and I 917 ask the House, whether in his dealing with what is known as the incident of the Wharton Resolution he quite did himself or the House justice. The noble Marquess said that he could not follow all the intricacies of what had gone on in another place because, as I understood him, he had never had the honour of a seat in that House. I am in the same position. I do not profess to he an authority on the details of the procedure of that illustrious Assembly, but I venture to think that the main issues of that matter were quite plain, and the reason I do not understand them is not that I have never had a seat in that House, but because I was not a member of His Majesty's Government at the time they occurred.
The Resolution put down in the name of Mr. Wharton was a perfectly plain, straightforward, and simple Resolution. It was—That this House approves the explicit declaration of His Majesty's Ministers that their policy of fiscal reform does not include either a general system of protection or preference based on the taxation of food.We have had those statements made over and over again. They have been made to-night by the noble Marquess; and if it is the case, as I know it must be the case, that they mean what they say, why is the House of Commons, on the initiative of one of their most loyal and trusted supporters, not to pass a Resolution in that sense? I should like to ask two plain questions. I want to know whether it is the case that the Resolution was withdrawn because it did not express the opinions of the whole of His Majesty's Government, or whether it is not the case that it was withdrawn because a certain number of the supporters of His Majesty's Government intimated that they would not consent to it, and that if it had been persevered with the Government would have been placed in a minority.
I hear a great deal from time to time of the disloyalty of those Unionist Members who do not come to the House of Commons to support His Majesty's Government. Many of those with whose opinions I am closely connected have been singled out for this form of obloquy. If what I have said is true, why is it to be laid to the charge of a free-trade Unionist that he is disloyal in not voting for a policy which is against his con- 918 scientious convictions, if those who threaten to put this same Government in a minority for another reason are not also to be regarded as disloyal to the cause which they have been returned to support? I pass from that topic to what is really the subject of the noble Duke's notice—namely, to call attention to certain declarations of certain members of His Majesty's Government in regard to fiscal policy. I need not recapitulate the history which the noble Duke gave us further than to say this, that I entirely associate myself with the noble Duke in his acceptance of the declarations made in this House on 19th February, as at that time perfectly satisfactory to us. But, my Lord, we have since had these proceedings at the Albert Hall, and the announcement from the lips of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the unabated sympathy of the Prime Minister with the resolution then passed, which covered a good deal, in fact, of the policy known as tariff reform.
It has, I think, escaped notice in this debate that this is the first time that there has been any public expression of unabated sympathy on the part of the Prime Minister with the whole policy, as I understand it, of tariff reform. At the time that the Prime Minister spoke at Sheffield we had never heard anything about the average 10 per cent, duty. That appeared for the first time in the speech of the ex-Colonial Secretary in Glasgow; and the question I should like to ask is this, whether the expression of unabated sympathy conveyed by the noble Marquess on behalf of the Prime Minister to the meeting in the Albert Hall was or was not intended to express sympathy with the policy of the average 10 per cent. duty? That is a very plain and a very simple question, and I do not think it is unfair on the part of those who, like myself, greatly dislike that policy and are determined to oppose it, to ask simply and plainly if we can be told whether the Prime Minister sympathises with it or whether he does not.
I should like to ask also how far this sympathy is intended to mean practical aid. Is it a policy of neutrality which isannounced, or is it a policy of benevolent neutrality, or what is the precise meaning of the word "sympathy," and 919 is it or is it not to be translated into action at some future time, say after the next general election. It is admitted that at present the Government is not only not committed to the policy of tariff reform, but we have been told to-night that it is actually opposed to it, that the policy of the Government is inconsistent with it. I ask, what, then, is the barrier which the Government offer to those like myself upon which we can really rely—to those of us who find we cannot accept this policy of preference, who are against its adoption, but who are afraid that in the fulness of time a vote which is now given or will be given at the next election for the Government will be translated to mean, and understood to mean, a vote in favour of the wider policy which is also before the country. In other words, is the opposition of the Government to this policy a real opposition? And if it is a real opposition, how, in the ordinary use of language, is it possible for members of the Government to express sympathy with that which they intend to oppose.
I ask if votes are given to the Government on the faith of their speeches, is there not a danger that those votes will be counted as supporting the policy of Mr. Chamberlain? Is there not a danger that those who support Mr. Chamberlain, and Mr. Chamberlain himself, will be led into a belief that his policy has a much wider support than I believe it really has? The noble Marquess spoke at the Albert Hall, as the noble Earl has said, in a strain which almost any of us might have accepted. He said of the policy—We are dealing with communities which have reached robust manhood, communities to which we have given freedom and liberty with open hands, and we must be able to tell them exactly what it is that we propose—exactly what sacrifices, if any, we ask of them.and he went on to say—We must be able to explain exactly what it is that we intend to the people of this country.It is exactly my complaint of the method in which this question has been raised that that is not what we are asked to do by Mr. Chamberlain. We are asked by him to commit ourselves to the policy before we know what it is; we are asked to commit ourselves to it in principle; we are asked to say we will go in for Imperial preference before we know what sacrifices are demanded, either from the Colonies 920 or from the people of this country. The Colonial Secretary said the other day, with regard to colonial preference—I appeal to my friends and to my opponents not to close the door upon it. They ask us not to support it. Let me beg of them not to commit themselves against it. I have said distinctly, on several occasions, that I think the policy of colonial preference and its details require further discussion—anxious, deliberate discussion—before it is embarked upon.The noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty and the noble Marquess cheer that sentence. They cheer it under the impression that it was Mr. Chamberlain's, but it was Mr. Lyttelton's. I associate myself with it entirely, because it is in direct antithesis to the demand which is made upon us by Mr. Chamberlain, to the demand which was made upon us by Mr. Chamberlain while I was yet in the Government, that the whole principle of colonial preference was to be given away by giving a preference of a 1s. duty last year to Canada. The whole principle would thus have been in effect abandoned.
I agree with the noble Marquess as to the gravity of the step. I claim most strongly to be as good a friend of the Imperial connection as exists in your Lordships' House or anywhere out of it. It is because I am a friend of that connection, it is because I dread the danger to it on account of the way this question has been rushed, that I give my unqualified opposition to the policy outlined by Mr. Chamberlain. It is always assumed by those who support this policy that it will be a bond of union. It is precisely because I distrust that assumption, precisely because I do not believe it to be true, that I give this policy my profound opposition. If I thought it would lead to closer union I would be only too glad to consider it. But, my Lords, I am afraid that these great free communities will not—I am sure they will not—give up their freedom, and I am apprehensive that in the process of bargaining for this amount of duty or that amount of duty upon a specific article, we shall run a greater risk of friction than if we depend upon the sentimental tie which has served us so well in the past. I am told that the United States of America and the German Empire are examples which we should imitate. In both these cases there is a complete commercial free trade between the constituent parts of that great republic 921 and of the empire. There is one taxing authority for the whole of them, and if you could in the nature of things follow that example to the full, no one would be more cordial in support of it than myself. It is because I know that at the present time we cannot do that, that I think it is unfair to quote those two great countries as examples which we should imitate. It is because it is impossible to give up the freedom which each of our communities have to settle their own fiscal system, that I dread the danger of difficulty and of friction. Sometimes it is asked, are you not prepared to make some sacrifices for this great ideal? Yes, my Lords, I am prepared to make sacrifices; but I think it is not only fair, but, as I have said, absolutely necessary that we should have at any rate some idea put forward by the responsible authority of what these sacrifices are to be, what the demands made upon us are to be, and precisely what return we are to get for it, before in principle we commit ourselves to this great step.
The noble Marquess says it is a stirring ideal, and he expresses sympathy with it. I suggest to him and to this House that that is a dangerous attitude for a man in the responsible position that he is in to take, because he will be expectedto arry that sympathy into practical action, and we know from him not only that he does not at present see his way to do that, but that the Government are going to oppose it. Therefore, I think it is likely to lead to difficulties if he expresses sympathy in this more or less vague way, and has no idea of how it is afterwards to be carried into action. Look at this vague talk that we hear about a corn duty. Is it to be a shilling, or eighteenpence, or two shillings, or half-a-crown? What is it to be, and what are we to get in return for it? One of the difficulties of the method in which this question has been raised is that we have never had in an authoritative form any collection, either of the resolutions or speeches, or so-call id offers, which have been made from the other side of the sea. I say if these things exist, let us see them collected and presented to Parliament on the authority of a Government Department, so that we may know how far they take us and how far we may rely upon them. I object to 922 committing this country to a tax on corn, meat, dairy produce, or on any staple article until I have some assurance as to the extent to which it is likely to go. From that position we are not prepared to depart until some definite proposal is made to us.
I see in the ordinary channels of information that there is a 10 per cent. duty proposed upon manufactured iron. I do not know that anybody has as yet ever suggested more than 2s. upon wheat, and part of that is to go back in the form of a preference to Canada. I do not know whether the President of the Board of Agriculture realises that 2s.a quarter is not even 10 per cent. upon the value of wheat; and what will the agriculturist think of it when he finds that the maker of iron is to be better treated with his 10 per cent. than the producer of wheat? But that does not prevent vague appeals being made at the time of a by-election. I read a letter in the newspapers yesterday from Mr. Chamberlain to the candidate for he Oswestry Division, in which there occurs this paragraph—Fanners can make little profit, and although the labourers are better off than they were fifty years ago "—that is an admission worth having—" they have not progressed as much as the workers in other trades, and they are constantly being driven into the towns for want of well-paid employment on the land.And the letter suggests that if they vote for Mr. Bridgeman these things will be remedied. I want to know whether by this reform the President of the Board of Agriculture sees his way to confer any real benefit on the agricultural population, whose interest he has at heart? If we are asked to commit ourselves in violence of all the traditions of fiscal policy of the last half century, then the least that can be done is to make the demand that is to be made upon us as distinct and as certain as it is possible for language to make it.
I want to say one word as to my personal position. We are told that this issue is above and beyond all other issues. My Lords, I have been a Conservative all my life. I agree with those with whom I have been associated on matters affecting the government of Ireland, religious education, and the establishment of the Church; I believe myself to be as good an Imperialist as any of them; and I hope that before this debate closes I will receive 923 some assurance from the Leader of the Conservative Party in this House as to what is the proper policy for me and those who think with me to pursue. I do not know whether I should appeal to the noble Marquess the Lord President of the Council for advice as to what I am to do to remain a free-trade member of the Conservative Party; or whether I should appeal to the noble Marquess sitting next to him, who by hereditary right and, if I may say so, by personal character and position, will be gladly welcomed by many Conservatives as their Leader in this House; or whether the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture will undertake to advise me. Last, but not least, there is the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack, for whose lifelong devotion to the Party no one has a greater admiration than I have.
I want to continue a loyal member of the Conservative Party, but I cannot accept this new policy. I believe it would be disastrous, as I have indicated to your Lordships, to the best interests and even to the unity of the Empire; and I ask my Conservative friends to say distinctly whether or not they intend to allow the next election to be made a national plebiscite on this new policy. You say you do not, and I am bound to, and I do, believe you most fully. But if that is your view, then these declarations of sympathy—whether unabated or not—ought to cease. If you do mean to make the next election a plebiscite on this new policy, then it is upon you, and not upon me and those who think with me, that the ruin of the Unionist Party and of the causes with which it is associated will rest. I wish to impress upon those upon that Bench not only the profound regret with which I find myself differing from them, but, whatever it may cost me, my profound determination to oppose to the uttermost a policy which I believe to be disastrous to the best interests of the Empire.
§ * THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, I think His Majesty's Government are entitled to a reply in the debate raised by the noble Duke, and as no member of the Front Opposition Bench has risen, I presume they are going to treat this as a disputation—I use that word without any offence—between old friends and are not going to intervene. I must ask 924 your Lordships' indulgence if for a brief moment I allude to what I may call the personal aspect of this case so far as it concerns me. I have been censured from more than one quarter to-night, because I am a vice-president of the reconstituted Liberal Unionist Association. I have now for sixteen years held office in that association, and I hope I always shall. I can conceive no policy, no resolution that the majority of that Party might adopt, which would cause me to leave that body so long as their raison ďêtre was determined opposition to Home Rule, and so long as opposition to Home Rule was the only test of membership of that body.
The difference of opinion between the noble Duke and some of us as regards our position on the Liberal Unionist Association is really this. The noble Duke and many of his friends think that the fiscal question is now more important than the Home Rule question. They are perfectly entitled to their view, but they cannot complain if the great majority of the Liberal Unionist Party, who do not take that view, decline to accept their advice as to the attitude they ought to adopt. And, my Lords, I do not think it is very difficult for one who has been born into politics in the middle of the Home Rule strife to show your Lordships why the great bulk of the Liberal Unionist Party in this country, to whatever particular shade of fiscal opinion they may adhere, differ absolutely from the noble Duke in thinking that the fiscal question is a more important question than that of Home Rule. Whatever mistake might be made in formulating tariffs for this country, the same authority that made it might remedy that mistake. It has been done over and over again in this and in other countries. But once an independent Parliament has been established in Dublin, then, I say, my Lords, without hesitation, it is not the Imperial Parliament that could repeal that local Parliament. It could only be repealed by the sword.
I respectfully but entirely demur to the noble Duke's differentiation between the Liberal Unionist Association as reconstituted and the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations or another body of which the noble Earl on the Cross Benches has from time 925 to time heard—the National Liberal Federation. I deny in toto that there is any distinction whatever. Why should I—forgive the personality—holding these views on the duties of a Liberal Unionist, and with my connection with the Liberal Unionist Association, dissociate myself from that association or refuse to take office in it? Why should I cast the dust of that association off my shoes any more than the noble Earl on the Cross Benches, who, when Prime Minister, inherited all the resolutions of the Newcastle programme—
§ * THE EARL OF SELBORNE
With a very large percentage of which I believe the noble Earl did not agree. And, my Lords, we know, projecting our eyes into the future, that if a Liberal Government were returned to power after the next general election the National Liberal Federation is committed to Home Rule for Ireland. But we also know, through their recent speeches, that some of the most distinguished members of the future Liberal Cabinet have abjured the doctrine of Home Rule. And am I to be told that the freedom and liberty of political conscience and opinion which has been enjoyed in every Cabinet of which our history has record, which were enjoyed in the last Liberal Cabinet and will be enjoyed in the next, are alone to be denied to members of His Majesty's present Government? When the noble Earl on the Cross Benches was seeking for a parallel to his travesty of the position of the reconstituted Liberal Unionist Association, when he imagined what would have been said of the loyalty of Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke if they had joined a Home Rule Association while they were members of Mr. Glad-stone's Government, he forgot another parallel, and perhaps a closer one, not to the actual facts, but to the travesty of the facts which he presented to your Lordships. He forgot that a few years ago the unity and mutual co-operation of the Liberal Party was largely assisted by the inauguration of a body called the Liberal League, which I have always understood was not on the best of terms with the National Liberal Federation. The noble Earl asked me what the genesis of the 926 resolution was which was passed at the meeting of the Liberal Unionist Association. I do not know. I only saw the resolutions after they were printed on the paper sent up from the local branches; but I do recollect that the particular resolution which was singled out was sent up by the Liberal Unionist Association of Crewe—an interesting fact which I thought the noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Crewe) might like to know.
Having dealt with what seems to me the personal aspect of this case and the status of the Liberal Unionist Association, I turn to the gist of the speech of my noble friend who has just sat down. I think he will not contradict me when I say that when I use the words "noble friend" to him they are no formal or meaningless words; and any regret which he feels at the difference of opinion which has come between him and many of his political friends on this fiscal question is more than shared by me. But, my Lords, what is the real gist of the accusation— an accusation of a very damning kind, if all the words used by the critics of the Government would bear the weight that their users put upon them—that is made against us? We have propounded a policy which has been described to-night as one of negotiation and retaliation; it is that policy to which we adhere, and it is that policy to which we intend to adhere to the full during the whole of the life of the present Government. Did noble Lords opposite doubt that? They did not Then what are we asked? We are asked what is going to be the future policy. I reply respectfully, but without any hesitation, that to ask us what is going to be the policy of an unborn Government in some future time is a question that has never yet been asked by Parliamentary critics of an existing Government, and which no existing Government would ever be so foolish as to answer.
The extraordinary part of the matter is this, that, to judge by the speeches of my noble friends even when they are asking this question, they at least are confidently assured that this Government are not going to be returned to power again. Therefore, they are asking a question not as to what will be done by the successors of the present Government, but by a future Government of which we 927 do not know who will be Prime Minister, or what will be the component parts. I say, therefore, it is not reasonable, it is not constitutional, it is without precedent to try and press us to commit ourselves as to our opinions in an unborn and unforeseen future. I would ask my noble friends the same question as they have asked me. If we have shown any sympathy, which I think is a word they admit, on this question of colonial preference, why is it? It is because to us the possibility of a closer unity of the Empire is the greatest of political ideals. My noble friend who spoke last shares that ideal, but he believes that the particular road of preference will lead not towards the realisation of that ideal, but away from it. He is perfectly consistent in his view, but why should he complain of us if we are unable to share that perfect certainty which pervades his mind? What we say is that toward this ideal we will close no roads in advance if we can help it. Is my noble friend prepared to say that in no circumstances whatever, whatever offers or suggestions might come from the Colonies, would he consider preference as a road to that greater unity? I do not believe he is.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
I beg the noble Earl's pardon for interrupting him; but an offer has come from the Colonies, I understand?
§ * THE EARL OF SELBORNE
What offers have come from the Colonies the noble Earl knows just as well as I do. He knows that the Colonies have, great groups of them, given us certain preference already. He also knows quite well that I was not speaking of past transactions. I was asking him and my other noble friends whether it was reasonable to ask us to say, what I do not believe the noble Lord himself would say, that in no circumstances, whatever offers might come from the Colonies, would we consider the question of preference.
§ * LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
The point I endeavoured to make was this. I quoted extracts from a speech of the present Colonial Secretary, asking us not to make up our minds against the policy at present; but I said that was not the demand of the late Colonial Secretary. 928 Mr. Chamberlain's demand is that we shall make up our minds in advance to accept the policy of preference before we know anything, or practically anything, of the offer or what it is to lead to.
§ * THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I have not Mr. Chamberlain's speeches with me, but I do say, without hesitation, that that is not the general impression that those speeches have made upon my mind, and I do not think, if the noble Lord would re-read them, that he would be able to adhere to that description as a really just one of Mr. Chamberlain's attitude towards us and himself on this question. And I would remind my noble friend of what Mr. Chamberlain said only the other day at the Albert Hall. It is quite true that the words which my noble friend the Foreign Secretary cheered when read by Lord Balfour were the words of the present Colonial Secretary, and when I joined in cheering them I knew that fact; but my noble friend the Foreign Secretary had in his mind these words which Mr. Chamberlain used on the same occasion—I do not under-estimate the difficulties in our way. Difficulties exist in order that statesmen may overcome them. We do not ask them "—I believe the reference is to the Government and the country—" for a hurried decision. We do not ask for premature action. We desire in this great matter that we should carry with us the goodwill of all that is best in the nation.I do not think that can fairly be described as endeavouring to bind the country in advance, or to proceed precipitately to the realisation of the project.
§ * LORD BALFOUR of BURLEIGH
I hope the noble Earl will excuse me again interrupting him. I think I can supply him hereafter with the quotation to which I referred; but the particular matter which was uppermost in my mind was this, that long before our separation I asked repeatedly before committing myself for or against the policy of preference for information on this very point, and it was studiously withheld.
§ * THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I think my noble friend and I are rather at cross purposes. I do not wish to misunderstand him; but what I maintain, as strongly as he maintains, or as strongly as my noble friend the Foreign Secretary or Mr. 929 Lyttelton maintain, is that this question involves the gravest issues for the whole Empire, and that no part of the Empire can be rushed into it, but that the country —meaning both the people of the United Kingdom and of the Colonies—should know exactly what they are going to give and what they are going to receive. I do not think Mr. Chamberlain has ever said that he will ask the Empire or any part of it to accept without discussion and mutual assurances any scheme he or anyone else might propose. Before I sit down I should like to answer the direct Question put to me by my noble friend. He asked to how much of the policy did the sympathy expressed by the Prime Minister refer. My answer is that the sympathy referred only to closer union between the different parts of the Empire, and to, maintaining and developing commercial intercourse between the mother country and her dependencies.
Now, my Lords, I have only one further word in conclusion. My noble friend rebuked me in advance for being actuated in this matter by an ideal, and I understood him to say that no expression should be given to an ideal in a matter so serious unless a practical solution had been found in regard to it. It seems to me that that is a barren and sterile theory, for if it was adopted I do not know any great political movement that would have been evolved, much less realised. I cannot accept that as a standard which those should adopt who believe in this ideal of greater union and do not wish to close any possible channel towards that unity. I realise, I think quite as fully as he does, the great responsibility that rests on those who advocate this ideal, but it seems to me that a responsibility also rests on those who, while not repudiating the ideal—who, while sharing in the ideal, might seem to lead the Colonies to suppose that their preconceived ideas on other subjects would make it necessary for them to turn a deaf ear to any proposal in that direction that the Colonies might make. I do not believe that is really the attitude of my noble friend, and I think it is a great pity that he should give that impression.
§ LORD STANMORE
Will not the noble Earl give some answer to the Question 930 with regard to the attitude of the Government towards their loyal supporters who are free-traders?
§ VISCOUNT GOSCHEN
My Lords, I am most desirous, in the few words that I shall address to your Lordships, to bring back the discussion to the point from which we started with the speech of my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire. We have rather wandered from the question into inquiries whether this or that part of the policy was correct, or whether it was wise, but the original question was: What is the policy? It is to that that we were anxious to direct attention, and I ask how far, if at all, we have made progress in ascertaining what that policy is. I should like to say, in the first instance, that the Leader of the House is in error if he thinks that any censure was being passed upon him for the course he has taken. Such an idea is entirely foreign to my mind; but what I wish to know is what deduction we may draw from the action he has taken; what impression the country is likely to derive from that action; what was contemplated when that action was, as I suppose it was, sanctioned by the Government; what deduction was to be drawn by candidates at by-elections from that action; and what deduction was to be drawn from that action by those who are already in possession of seats, but whose seats were being attacked, partly because it is not thoroughly understood what the position of the Government is?
Some progress perhaps we have made. We have had strong declarations again from the Government that they are opposed to the taxation of food and to a colonial preference based on the taxation of food. But there are candidates who are threatened in their seats and against whom already other candidates are being put forward because they are opposed to that same preference to which His Majesty's Government are opposed. The noble Duke asked the noble Marquess what was the attitude of the Government towards the two sides of the Party. The noble Marquess did not touch that in his answer. Mr. Balfour has had the same question put to him, it has pointedly been put to him by a sitting Member who was threatened in 931 his seat. What is the attitude of the Government towards those who support the Sheffield policy, but who would not support anything that savoured of further development? No reply was elicited. Being without a reply, the public, candidates, and sitting Members must judge by the actions of members of the Government and not by the words of any Resolution. At a moment when the fiscal question has split the Liberal Unionist Association, as to a certain extent it has split the Unionist Party, we watch the action of Ministers closely. The analogy as to the National Conservative Association, or any other association, falls to the ground, because the circumstances are so entirely different at the present moment. What has taken place? The function was the celebration of the triumph of Mr. Chamberlain over the free-traders in the association. Would not ordinary men take that view of the situation and say, Mr. Chamberlain is our general and under his banner we march." I would ask the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he does not think there is some analogy in their taking office in this Association at the present juncture, under the presidency of Mr. Chamberlain—whether there is not some analogy between that and officers on full pay joining the Committee of the Navy League. That Committee wishes to support the Admiralty but they desire to go much further. They wish to put a little more energy into the Admiralty; and I think my noble friend would be surprised if officers on full pay were to join the Committee of the Navy League and say, "The First Lord of the Admiralty himself sends unabated sympathy with your efforts." It is a curious thing that the question whether Mr. Balfour is a free-trader or is not is one of the most frequent topics of conversation is every class of society and wherever men meet together.
But here we come to a point that differentiates this case from those as to which my noble friend asks is it customary to press for information as to what is passing in the breasts of the Government. The curious thing is we are told a great deal about one part of their policy but a greater part is withheld. It is because there is danger in the intimate connection 932 between those measures which the Government have adopted and those which are to follow that not only men who are busy with politics, but the nation at large, want to know what the views of those who ought to guide the country are as to the development of their policy.
Mr. Balfour has told the country that he intends to lead, but on this question he refuses to lead. That is the complaint of many of his followers and loyal supporters. People say he is shepherding his flock, and no doubt he does it admirably. Mr. Balfour says we are not entitled to know more. But the country is suffering from want of knowledge, and Lord Rosebery was perfectly justified when he said that this state of uncertainty was having a baneful effect on the commerce of the country. It is damaging the House of Commons. It is letting down the dignity of the House of Commons. I am sorry to say also — I say it with profound regret—it is damaging, on the whole, the Prime Minister himself. Supporters of the Government are entirely in the dark as to the attitude of their Leader upon the question on which the next election will turn. Every candidate in every constituency is put at a disadvantage. Candidates may pledge themselves to this 10 per cent., and may afterwards find the Prime Minister saying, "No, I am against this 10 per cent. I never said I would support it. You cannot find a statement to that effect anywhere in all my utterances." Other candidates may say they were so confident of this unabated sympathy on the part of the Prime Minister as to pledge themselves to colonial preference and to taxation of food; yet when the address to the electors is finally determined upon, it may be found that this does not form part of the official programme. There is now a state of greater doubt and uncertainty than I can ever remember during the whole of my political life.
As between Home Rule and protection, I think the disruption of the Empire by Home Rule would be the greater calamity; but unless there is vigorous opposition, protection is infinitely more likely to arrive in the near future than Home Rule. It is more insidious than Home Rule. I believe, 933 whatever the views may be of any Party in the State, the nation will continue to be as strongly opposed to Home Rule as they were in 1885–86. At that time we were told that Mr. Gladstone had thrown his weight into the scale for Home Rule, and that we could not resist it. We did resist it, and I can assure my noble friend that, with reference to any fear that this country will ever consent to Home Rule, there is very little necessity for any organisation at the present time. It is good Party warfare to drag this red herring across the path, but it does not frighten me in the least degree. We have to deal now with protection, and we will deal again with Home Rule when the time comes. Mr. Chamberlain's expression, "No preference, no Empire, "was most unfortunate. The country was not prepared to stand declarations of that kind; and I am glad to think that even those who are in favour of colonial preference have now come to much saner views upon that. At that time we were told, at the point of the bayonet—Accept this or your Empire will go. Now we are told that we must not close the door to the examination of this subject. I would not close the door on the examination of any subject that might lead to the consolidation of the Empire. The present Colonial Secretary spoke of the finer tempered links that join us to the Colonies, community of language, community of ancestry, and community of literature, and he has said that besides these it would be well to have commercial union. What a difference there is between this language and that which was used by Mr. Chamberlain! I have made my observations not with the slightest intention of animadverting on the noble Lords, but only because of my anxiety to press for the removal of this cloud of uncertainty, not from us who sit on these Benches, but from the community at large, from the constituencies which will have to decide the question, and from those candidates who will otherwise have to go to the election on an unintelligible conundrum.
§ * EARL SPENCER
My Lords, as the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty rather twitted me, or those sitting on this Bench, with not having spoken on this question, I desire to say 934 a few words. I associate myself with every word said by my noble friend Lord Rosebery, and should be perfectly happy to leave the whole master in his hands after the admirable speech he has made. The noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty put this question as one that could be legitimately left as an open question. I venture to differ from him. There are questions which no doubt may be left open in a Cabinet; but there are questions of such enormous political and national importance that they cannot be kept open, and the decision of the Government upon them must be given. The noble Earl asked what would have happened if members of the Cabinets of Mr. Gladstone and Lord Rosebery had differed on Home Rule, and some Members had spoken in one sense and some in another in Parliament or in the country. I will reply to this and I say that the Government would immediately have broken up. The present Cabinet if they differ materially upon the question now raised ought not to be considered as homogeneous, and as a Cabinet agreed on the great questions of the day.
On the question of associations I entirely differ from the view taken by the two noble Lords opposite who are members of the Cabinet. I see the broadest possible distinction between a political association which has been in existence a great many years, and every year has passed various resolutions which the Government of the day may differ from or not, and an association just formed for the promotion of a particular policy, and which immediately propounds resolutions with regard to it. The noble Lords at the Albert Hall, as has been said, gave their blessing and benediction to this new society, knowing the principles which it had just laid down in particular resolutions passed at the morning meeting. You cannot dissociate this new association from Mr. Chamberlain and his views. They are practically the views of a protectionist, and the country will certainly regard the two noble Lords who have taken office in the association over which Mr. Chamberlain presides, as supporters of those views which he so boldly, energetically, and ably presents to the country. The Government, through the noble Marquess and through the Prime 935 Minister, shows the greatest possible sympathy with the views and proposals of Mr. Chamberlain, and even speaks of the very high ideal held out. Surely, when they express this great sympathy we may suppose that if the constituencies are converted, at that moment they will come forward and heartily support this policy of preference, with which they say they do not at present agree. We have heard a great deal of what has been said by Mr. Chamberlain. My noble friend the Chairman of Committees quoted a letter he wrote to a candidate at a by-election, and I would like to speak further on that point. Mr. Chamberlain wrote strongly supporting the candidate who advocated his views, and argued that free trade had done immense harm to farmers, who should therefore support his policy. What has happened since? The so-called Tariff Commission have issued their first proposal which recommends a 10 per cent. duty on iron and steel—the very thing which will do harm to the farmer, making his industry far more expensive because it will seriously effect the implements which he uses.
In many other respects we have seen Mr. Chamberlain propounding extraordinary doctrines. He boasts of the 200 Members of the House of Commons who support him, and of the enthusiasm with which his views are received at meetings in the country. He also speaks in a remarkable manner of his old colleagues, and uses terms towards them which are far from complimentary. We have heard a great deal from him on the subject of preference, but I cannot touch on that question to-night. I shall merely try to endorse what has been said so ably by many others, and ask the noble Marquess and those who work with him whether they do desire to support actively the general political policy of the Liberal Unionist Association or not. I can hardly believe that after their connection with the great meeting referred to, and with what took place before, they can be wholly opposed to the views of the association. We have a right to ask, Parliament has a right to ask, and the country has a right to ask what they intend to do. How are the electors to be guided? Are they to consider His Majesty's Government opposed to preference and the taxation of food? These are questions of the greatest importance, and I think 936 the debate which has taken place will show in what a state of doubt, uncertainty, and vacillation His Majesty's Government is on this great and national question.
The subject then dropped.