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The World’s Famous Orations.
Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman

I. On the Policy of the Liberal Party

WE are met to-night as Liberals in a position which we have not occupied for ten years. The Unionist Government has gone. It has executed what we may call a moonlight flitting. It has run away. Not in the broad day of the Session, not even in the twilight of October, but in the murky midnight of December. They have gone. They had long ago lost, as they well knew, the confidence of the country. They still boasted in a feeble and uncertain way of holding the confidence of the House of Commons; but, last of all and worst of all, they lost confidence in themselves. And they are gone. We were told—told emphatically and abundantly—that the method of their going would be a masterpiece of tactical skill. Tactics! Tactics! Ladies and gentlemen, the country is tired of their tactics. It would have been better for them if they had had less of tactics and more of reality. But they have lived for some years on nothing but tactics, and now they have died of tactics.

Two characteristics are outstanding above all others in the late administration: first of all, their infinite cleverness, which was not always clever; and, secondly, an inexhaustible fund of self-approbation. Of this last quality they were possessed of so much that they have even now some of it left for their obituary notices, for you will observe that each of them is going about giving himself and his colleags the most marvelous testimony. They even carry self-esteem so far that they convinced themselves that they were the only people in this kingdom who could form a government, and that if any one else tried the effort, any cabinet which could be got together would be at once distasteful to the country and destitute of strength and unity. You see here in what the wonderful tactics consist. That was the design that lurked in the December resignation. And it has come to naught; for a Government has been formed amid the respect of our opponents, which I gratefully acknowledge, and amid the confidence and satisfaction of our friends. What lesson, then, are we to draw—for let us always be taught by the conduct of our enemies—what lesson are we to draw from their discomfiture? Surely it is to avoid those evil practises of boastfulness and over-cleverness which have brought them to ruin.

If one had had any doubt—and for my part I protest I never had any—as to the wisdom of our taking office, I think it would be dispelled by certain reassuring circumstances. In the first place, there has been no shudder through the chancelleries of Europe such as Mr. Balfour kindly anticipated. Sir Edward Grey tells me that the foreign ambassadors come to see him just as if nothing had happened. Again, consols, instead of tumbling down as they ought to have done, have actually risen. In the third place, Mr. Brodrick, who ought to know all about these matters, can not be laboring under any misapprehension as to the effectiveness of the military defense of the Empire, because this is what he said the other day: “The army required a judicious review of past efforts rather than fresh schemes, and he believed that a period of rest from doubts as to their prospects would be of great advantage to officers and men.” The doubts of which he speaks, let me add, can only have come from the operations of himself and of his colleags. And last of all, we have the late prime minister who, his stratagem having completely succeeded and the trap being full, yet continues as confident after his resignation as he was before it that the general election will leave his friends in a woful minority.

What has been going on in quite recent days in India? There has been an unbroken rule—a wise rule which we, assuredly, shall not be the first to violate—to keep questions of the internal administration of India outside the area of party politics. So far as questions of the day are concerned, I expect that it will not be your friend and my friend, Mr. John Morley, in whom the doings of the late government will find their most eloquent and energetic and unsparing critic. No; it will be one of the most distinguished and powerful members of their own party—I mean Lord Curzon. One of the problems arising from the system of military administration in India has raised an angry controversy in which a prime minister, a secretary of state, a viceroy, and a commander-in-chief, have taken their part, and which has been marked by a vehemence of altercation and recrimination that would be unedifying anywhere, but is more than unedifying where the stage of such a scene is the great dominion of India. Talk of imperialism! I know nothing, I can imagine nothing, less like a sense of our imperial responsibility than the spectacle of this controversy, so rashly raised, so tactlessly handled, so recklessly published. You may be sure that it will be our aim to restore that spirit of caution and vigorous common sense which has been the basis of British rule in India; and you may also be assured that we shall make ourselves party to no steps that involve any invasion of the sacred principle—for it is a principle recognized by each party throughout the realm of the king—the sacred principle of the subordination of the military to the civil authority.

Now, Mr. Chairman, I turn to the Colonies. It is surely unnecessary for us to make public protestations of our affection for the Colonies and our desire to bring them closer and closer to ourselves. I would say this: that the relations between the Colonies and the mother country have never been settled on the lines of party politics, but if it were that they had been so fixed and were to be so conducted, surely the democratic and progressive instincts and institutions of those great communities would find more affinity among us than among our opponents. But I have heard with relief and pleasure from Lord Elgin that he finds no trace of that tendency to disruption of which we were told but a few months ago. There is no sign of tension or friction; everything is smooth save the one ruffled spot—South Africa. Ladies and gentlemen, in South Africa the difficulties and complications are, as you know, great. I have no general statement to make to you, for we have not had time adequately to examine them. But one conclusion his majesty’s government has arrived at, and it is this: to stop forthwith—as far as it is practicable to do it forthwith—the recruitment and embarkation of coolies in China, and their importation into South Africa; and instructions have been given to that effect.

A few weeks ago, at Portsmouth, I referred to our present relations with foreign powers, and I especially hailed with approval and pleasure the agreement with the French government into which Lord Lansdowne wisely entered; and I expressed then the admiration and regard which my countrymen of all ranks and parties entertained for the great French nation. I am glad to say that my sentiment expressed in Opposition is more than confirmed in Office, and I wish emphatically to reaffirm my adhesion to the policy of the entente cordiale. Even more important than any actual amicable instrument is the real friendship developed between the two peoples; and one of the objects of our policy will be to maintain that spirit of friendship unimpaired. On the occasion to which I referred I alluded very briefly to the great trial through which Russia is now passing. All that I will say now, as I said then, is this—that we have nothing but good feelings toward that great people. In the case of Germany also I see no cause whatever of estrangement in any of the interests of either people, and we welcome the unofficial demonstrations of friendship which have lately been passing between the two countries. With other European powers our relations are most friendly. And when we pass beyond the bounds of Europe we have on the one hand Japan, our relations with which nation are sufficiently known to the world by the recent treaty; and, on the other hand, we have the United States of America, with the government and people of which country we are bound by the closest ties of race, tradition, and fellowship. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a most pleasing outlook, which I trust will not be marred by any events that can occur.

As to our general policy toward our neighbors, our general foreign policy, it will remain the same in Government as it was in Opposition. It will be opposed to aggression and to adventure; it will be animated by a desire to be on the best terms with all nationalities, and to cooperate with them in the common work of civilization. I believe, by the way, that in the execution of this policy we have a notable ally in our present fiscal system—a great guarantee of peace and a preventive against the possibility of commercial and tariff wars. We Liberals, let us not forget it, are the heirs of a great and inspiring tradition. That tradition was founded in days when public opinion was opposed to any attempt to regulate differences by an appeal to the reason and conscience of mankind. Mr. Gladstone defied the public opinion of his day. He took his stand on higher ground, and by referring the Alabama dispute to arbitration he established a precedent of priceless value to mankind. How proud and how pleased we ought to be to have among us, and in the circle of the cabinet, a veteran statesman who took part in that great undertaking, and who remains now, as he was then, one of the truest of patriots and the staunchest and soundest of politicians. I rejoice that since that time the principle of arbitration has made great strides, and that to-day it is no longer counted weakness for any of the Great Powers of the world to submit those issues which would once have been referred to the arbitrament of self-assertion and of passion, to a higher tribunal.

Ah! but, ladies and gentlemen, it is vain, it is vain, to seek peace if you do not also ensue it. I hold that the growth of armaments is a great danger to the peace of the world. A policy of huge armaments keeps alive and stimulates and feeds the belief that force is the best, if not the only, solution of international differences. It is a policy that tends to inflame old sores and to create new sores. And I submit to you that as the principle of peaceful arbitration gains ground it becomes one of the highest tasks of a statesman to adjust those armaments to the newer and happier condition of things. What nobler rôle could this great country assume than at the fitting moment to place itself at the head of a league of peace, through whose instrumentality this great work could be effected?

I now pass to the question of economy and finance—a very natural transition—and I think you may look with confidence to the action that will be taken by my friend, the chancellor of the exchequer. But where are we to begin? We want two things. We want relief from the pressure of excessive taxation, and at the same time we want money to meet our own domestic needs at home, which have been too long starved and neglected owing to the demands on the taxpayer for military purposes abroad. How are these desirable things to be secured if in the time of peace our armaments are maintained on a war footing? Remember that we are spending at this moment, I think, twice as much on the army and navy as we spent ten years ago. There may be, and I believe there are, fresh sources of taxation to be tapped. We may derive something from the land, something from licenses; and some irksome inequalities of taxation may be relieved. But even so, with an increasing military expenditure, how can we do the work of reform that remains to be done at home and at the same time bring relief to the taxpayers? Do not let us mind if in their folly they call us “Little Englanders.” I at least am patriot enough not to desire to see the weakening of my country by such a waste of money as we have had for the last ten years.

What has it brought us, this waste of money for ten years? Shall I recite some links in the dismal and ugly chain? Dear money. Lower credit. Less enterprise in business and manufactures. A reduced home demand. Therefore, reduced output to meet it. Therefore, reductions in wages, increase of pauperism, non-employment. The fact is, sir, you can not pile up debt and taxation as they have been piled up without feeling the strain in every fiber of society. We are going to have a good deal said for the next few weeks about free trade. Let me add another thing. Did you ever hear a fiscal reformer pleading for economy, or crying out for lighter taxes and fewer of them? No, sir, if peace and retrenchment were the order of the day, Othello’s occupation would be gone. Expenditure calls for taxes, and taxes are the plaything of the tariff reformer. Militarism, extravagance, protection are weeds which grow in the same field, and if you want to clear the field for honest cultivation you must root them all out. For my own part, I do not believe that we should have been confronted by the specter of Protection if it had not been for the South African War.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, so much for peace: so much for economy—two cardinal Liberal principles. And here is another—self-government and popular control. We believe in that principle, not only on the grounds of justice and on the grounds of effective administration, but on this other ground: that it exercises a wholesome influence on the character of the people who enjoy the privilege. But now this is the foundation of our educational policy: that the people of the district should control and manage the schools. It is the foundation of our licensing policy. But if I seek for illustrations, why did I not take the greatest and most conspicuous of all—a crowning instance? What other than this is the foundation of our Irish policy—that those domestic affairs which concern the Irish people only and not ourselves should, as and when opportunity offers, be placed in their hands? Down to last spring we had reason to believe that even the late government and their party had come round to see the wisdom of such a policy. They had already endowed the people of Ireland with the command of county government; they had pledged £112,000,000 of British credit for the tenants of Ireland; and, lastly, their viceroy had been authorized to declare that Ireland was henceforth to be governed according to Irish ideas. They have started back from that position; but, oh! ladies and gentlemen, give them time. They can not escape from the logic of their own acts, and they will return to that which is the path of justice and wisdom, and also of safety.

When I come to the policy of constructive social reform, I am principally conscious that I must make a reiteration of things which I have been saying up and down the country for the last three or four years. But I can promise you this: that it will always be the same story. We desire to develop our undeveloped estates in this country; to colonize our own country; to give the farmer greater freedom and greater security in the exercise of his business; to secure a home and a career for the laborer, who is now in many cases cut off from the soil. We wish to make the land less of a pleasure-ground for the rich and more of a treasure-house for the nation. Now, why can not Mr. Chamberlain drop his project of taxing corn and cheese and so forth, and come back to his old love of three acres and a cow? This question, including these great problems, can not be neglected, because, after all, the health and stamina of the nation are bound up with the maintenance of a large class of the workers on the soil. The town population redundant, the country population decimated—it is a subversion of healthy national life. Now, in passing, let me mention one thing which the government have resolved to do. Few things, we think, are more capable of benefiting both the towns and the country districts than a development, if that can be given to our system, of canal communication, and promoting the use of waterways, which will facilitate transit, which will open markets, which will bring town and country together. We have, therefore, resolved to ask the king to appoint a royal commission to inquire into the whole of that question, because we believe that great benefit to the nation may come from it.

Now, I know that on the great question in regard to which we are to give our verdict in the course of a few weeks your minds are made up, and therefore I will not enter even for a moment on arguments connected with it. I rejoice to think that since the free trade controversy was first raised, there has been no sign of faltering or wavering on our side, and that Liberalism has been true to its historic mission. In the great struggle which will shortly be upon us, I do not think it too much to say that all that we Liberals hold dear is at stake, because, if once you open the door to Protection, what hope is there for those great objects of reform and economy upon which our hearts are set? Depend upon it, that in fighting for our open ports, and for the cheap food and material upon which the welfare of the people and the prosperity of our commerce depend, we are fighting against those powers, privileges, injustices, and monopolies which are unalterably opposed to the triumph of democratic principles. Be confident, therefore; but I would ask you not to be overconfident. Against you is a strong coalition of interests and powers. Against you is a wealthy and a great party, divided indeed—as we have been amused to observe and to watch its little developments—divided in the details of fiscal strategy, but united in its determination to undermine and overthrow the citadel of free trade. Let us, then, be worthy of our fathers, who went before us and won for us this great privilege of freedom; and let us beware lest, through any fault of ours, through slackness, or indifference, or overconfidence on our part, so great and vital a national interest is imperiled.