Home  »  Great Britain: III (1865–1906)  »  On the Policy of the English Liberals

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

Lord Robert Reid Loreburn

On the Policy of the English Liberals

THE PARLIAMENT which was returned in January is more remarkable for intellectual power, for sincerity of purpose, and for a fixed determination to achieve. its ends, than any parliament in this country for many long years. We have been told that this House of Commons was going to have a short, if not a merry, life, and that it would be replaced soon by something very much preferable. I have no such idea. I believe that this House of Commons represents a feeling and a force in this country which has been retarded already for about twenty years. The forces held back from 1885 have now reasserted themselves, and the spirit of progress will be lasting and durable. Therefore all those who are disposed to be critics of the present House of Commons might well consider whether, if they turned out the 670 evil spirits there now, they might not have 670 still more evil spirits in their places.

The present parliament is, I believe, more intent upon what is called “social reform” than any other class of subjects—and quite rightly. I am not going to dwell upon those topics; I agree with the most advanced upon nearly all—in fact, upon all—those subjects, whether of land, or liquor, or housing reform. We all know perfectly well what are the necessities of our country, and where the shoe pinches. But I wish to suggest to those who hold reforming views that they must not confine themselves simply to one of those questions, or even to all of those questions put together.

They must remember that this country is part of a very great empire, with dangerous foreign relations, and unless we can come to a sound view with regard to what is called Imperialism, and in regard to foreign relations, we shall have to whistle for social reform.

For that reason I am glad so much attention has of late been concentrated upon his majesty’s dominions across the sea. I do not in the least agree with the point of view which has been so pushed by the late government, and which I believed has resulted in immense trouble and immense loss. But it is most important for us to see clearly, and to make up our minds in regard to those questions for ourselves. We are charged with being indifferent to the British Empire. Some other critics, and particularly Mr. Chamberlain, appear to take pleasure in showing how unjust and how unfriendly Liberals are to their colonial fellow countrymen. Nothing of the kind.

I desire, and believe we all desire, unfeignedly and without reserve, to maintain in their present happy relations the ties that subsisted between us and our colonial kindred. We heartily wish and mean that those relations shall subsist for ever, and we are not content to contemplate any other future. But we think it not wise to forbear from facing facts. We have to look at things as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

There are certain things we ought to remember in connection with them. One is that since the end of the Napoleonic wars ninety years ago, almost all the wars and expeditions this country has engaged in, have been due either to India or to the other colonies and dependencies of the crown. Almost with one exception, save for the Indian wars, the cost of all those wars has fallen almost exclusively upon the people of the United Kingdom.

They were small countries and young countries, and required the protection of the mother country. But it is a fact that ought to be remembered that our dangers of collision with other countries arose by reason of their colonial possessions. We have to bear in mind that whereas we were fortunately living in an island, in our dependencies and colonies we are coterminous with every great Power in the world—with the United States in America, with Germany, France, Italy, Russia, China, Persia, and Turkey elsewhere, and practically with Japan, where a short interval of sea does not really separate us.

About a hundred and fifty years ago, at the commencement of the Seven Years’ War, when Washington, then a major serving his majesty, King George II., encountered a force of French and Redskins in Virginia, and fired upon them, it was said that a shot fired in the backwoods of Virginia had set all Europe in a blaze. So it was in Britain now. By reason of the immensity of her frontier and the contiguity of every great power in the world, a rash thing done here, a hasty thing done elsewhere, might bring about a conflagration. “Always be generous to the man on the spot!” Yes; but let them not allow a proconsul to shape the policy of this country.

There is another point: By reason of those vast possessions—of which it is idle and foolish to boast, but the full responsibility of which we ought to feel—we are always confronted with the native question. And I venture to think that in the near future the native question will be a more serious one even than it has been in the past.

What does it mean? To understand it requires an effort of the imagination which people accustomed to the long traditions of civilization can hardly realize. It means that people who are in a state of complete savagery and barbarism, plunged in ignorance and superstition, backward in physical and every other development, are suddenly confronted with the blaze of an ancient civilization in its most hostile and most dangerous form. They were required at once to submit, and expected instantly to appreciate the advantages to themselves arising from their submission. One could not so suddenly quell the primal passions and instincts of mankind.

I should like to give an illustration. About seven years ago I was concerned, as one of the counsel for Great Britain, before the international tribunal which decided the Venezuelan boundary, and I recall perfectly one thing which made a deep impression upon my mind, and which gave me more pride in the British flag—a silent pride, I hope—than could be derived from some of the more uproarious meetings. The point was: What, at a particular place, was the boundary-line between Great Britain and another country? Proof was given of a tradition handed down from father to son among a people so perfectly savage that their whereabouts, their very dwelling, was unknown—a nomad, wandering people of the woods. This was the tradition: “The line where the British territory begins is along this river.” And when the question was asked why it was remembered, the reply was that father had told son, from generation to generation, “If you pass that river you are safe.”

We must also look to foreign relations. We are called cosmopolitan by our critics, the friends of every country but our own. That is not so. We are the friends of our own country first and foremost—but there is no nationalism worth having which does not cast its eye beyond the border of its own nationality. We wish our country to be friendly with other countries in the interest of our own. Why should we not be friendly? I am not aware of any cause which separates us in enmity from any country in the world. I know many reasons why we should cultivate their friendship.

Swift, in one of his memorable pieces, was pleading against the abolition of Christianity. After giving a variety of reasons, he ended by saying that if Christianity were abolished the Funds would fall at least a quarter per cent. Swift reserved that argument to the last, on the ground that his intelligent hearers would probably consider it to be the best and most cogent. I will offer you a fiscal reason to show what quarreling means. Between 1898 and 1905 British consols had fallen about 20 per cent. and Russians about 30 per cent. Germany, which had been much more moderate in that way, had fallen about 10 per cent., but the funds of Spain and Italy, which had both rather forsworn militarism, had each risen 15 per cent. I present that as an argument in the spirit of Dean Swift.

There are hopeful signs for the future. In the first place, our brethren in the Colonies are undoubtedly relying more and more on their own resources. Canada had taken over the garrison. Natal is conducting at her own expense a war which I greatly deplore, and which I hope will soon be ended. I have no doubt that our colonial brethren are just and will act justly and fairly toward them.

In the last few years there have been increased proofs of international cooperation. We all recollect the noble efforts of President Roosevelt to end the Russo-Japanese War and the signal success with which they were attended. We recall the European Conference at Algeciras, where a difficult and perhaps dangerous question was solved by agreement in a spirit which could not have been looked for twenty years ago. We have established most friendly relations with the United States and also with France. I do not know why we should stop with France and the United States, and why we should not also go forward to Russia and to Germany. Lastly, we have The Hague Conference. There was one seven years ago, and there will soon be another held. I am sure you all hope that it may lead to an increased recourse to arbitration and a diminution in the armaments of nations.

The factor which should interest us most, and over which we have the best means of control, is the spirit and temper of our own people. I believe that has undergone a great change for the better, reverting to the time-honored policy of this country; and I trust that, however keen in the work of social reform the new Parliament may be, it will never lose sight of these colonial and foreign questions; but we must remember that it will have to make a choice. If you will have a warlike and aggressive policy, you can not by any possibility have effective social reform.