* THE EARL OF LYTTON,
who had given notice "To call attention to certain publications of the Tariff Committee of the Birmingham Liberal Unionist Association, and to ask the Lord President of the Council whether these publications are issued with the knowledge and approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies; whether what is described in them as 'the Chamberlain policy' and 'the fiscal policy of Mr. Chamberlain' is the policy of the Government; if so, when this policy will be expounded in Parliament," said: My Lords, however conscious I may be of my own inability to command your Lordships' attention on the subject with which this Question deals, I do not think. I need offer any apology for asking this House to consider one feature of that great political question which at this moment is absorbing so large a share of public attention in the country. Your Lordships will remember that a request was made a few days ago in a quarter by no means hostile to the government for an opportunity to discuss the fiscal policy of this country in the House of Commons. That request was refused, and, whatever the ground may have been for that refusal, we all know that the House of Commons, unlike your Lordships' House, is a very busy place; and the Prime Minister, at my rate, gave it as his opinion that no useful purpose could be served by interrupting the course of business in the house of Commons by discussing this important question at the present moment.
A few days later an attempt was made to obtain discussion in another quarter. A request was sent to the Lord Mayor for the use of the Mansion House for he purpose of holding a large meeting, 18 but the Lord Mayor was of the same opinion as the Prime Minister, and thought that no useful purpose could be served by granting the request—or, at any rate, that the question was not of a character which lent itself to discussion in that place. No doubt the reasons given on both those occasions were perfectly adequate; but it comes, then, to this, that there is only one Chamber, only one Assembly in this country at the present moment, in which this matter can have free and full discussion, and that is your Lordships' House. We, my Lords, are happily not hampered by any congestion of business, and our debates are not interfered with by any consideration either of prejudice or of procedure and therefore it is to the House of Lords at this moment that the country is looking for full comment upon the extraordinary political situation which has been created. For, my Lords, it is an extraordinary political situation. It is a situation full of very grave considerations, for this new policy which has been put forward so suddenly by a Minister of the Crown—this policy which Mr. Chamberlain has threatened, if I may borrow a word from the noble Duke the Lord President of the Council, that he will use every means in his power to bring before and to carry in the constituencies in this country—is a policy which is bound to divide, and possibly will shatter the great Unionist Party, that Party for which the Colonial Secretary has himself done so much during the last eight years to make a great and a powerful Party; and it is also a policy which we have already been told is intimately connected with the whole future of our Empire.
Now, my Lords, those are grave considerations, and it is therefore to the noble Duke the Leader of this House that we all look for some of that information and guidance which it is not convenient to give in another place. The Question which I have put upon the Paper, deals with the publications of the Tariff Committee of the Birmingham Liberal Unionist Association. If these publications were merely ordinary expressions of opinion of political agitators in the country, if they were merely the usual sort of pamphlets which are circulated about the country in times of political excitement, I should never have dreamt of 19 coming down to this House and taking up your Lordships' time by asking you to give special attention to them. There are plenty of such leaflets and publications in circulation at the present moment on this as upon many other subjects, and I think I must say that almost without exception they are entirely unworthy of the attention of Parliament. But, my Lords, these particular publications have one feature about them which put them in a different category, which differentiate them altogether from other publications of their kind, and that is the fact that they are universally believed—I do not say at this moment whether rightly or wrongly—to be inspired by a member of that Cabinet which at the present moment, owing to acute differences which exist on the subject, is pledged to nothing more than to a policy of inquiry.
There is, I admit, an element of inquiry even about these Birmingham leaflets, because they are sent out accompanied by two circulars which are labelled "Very important" and "Private and confidential." I think by this time they are sufficiently public to relieve me of any charge of betraying a confidence if I draw your Lordships' attention to them. But what are the questions which are asked? They are three. The first is—How is Mr. Chamberlain's proposed fiscal policy being received in your district?Secondly—I should be glad if you would advise me what special arguments are being used with and most effect against Mr. Chamberlain's policy, so that, if necessary, special leaflets may be prepared giving our side of the case.And, finally, a request is made for the names and addresses of gentlemen in the district who public speakers and supporters of Mr. Chamberlain's policy. That is one of the circulars. The other one makes the very generous offer not only that these leaflets will be given gratis, but that all reasonable cost of distribution will be defrayed by the Association which distributes them.
I next come to the grounds for believing that these publications have a connection with the Colonial Secretary. It the first place, they emanate from Birmingham. The telegraphic address of the Association which sends them out is "Consistent, Birmingham." Those two facts alone would suggest—I do not say 20 more—but would suggest some sort of connection with the Colonial Secretary. They I find that the circulars are singed by Mr. Vince, whom we know we as Mr. Chamberlain's most trusted agent, and who not infrequently signs his official letters. Then a very prominent member of the Committee is Mr. Powell Williams, a man who has been associated with Mr. Chamberlain in his official work, land in connection with the Liberal Unionist Association, and who, in fact, has been his right-hand man in most of his affairs of organisation. So far, we only find the connection with Mr. Chamberlain's friends; but it is also openly stated in the Press that no leaflet—and thousands have been issued—is sent out from Birmingham before it has been submitted and directly approved by the Colonial Secretary. That is only on the authority of the daily Press, but the statement is significant for this fact alone, that it has up to the present moment received no contradiction.
If the noble Duke will give me some definite assurance that this committee is a thoroughly irresponsible body, that it has never received any encouragement or any assistance in any form whatever from the Colonial Secretary; in other words, that there is no justification whatever for connecting the one with the other; he will, of course, relieve me of the necessity of pursuing that point any further. But in the absence of any explicit assurance of that kind, we must fall back upon the more natural assumption that Mr. Chamberlain knows his own mind, that he is not going to allow the grass to grow under his feet. Mr. Chamberlain probably feels, as everybody else does, thatThoughts shut up want air, And spoil like bales unopen'd to the sun.and, therefore, we may look upon these publications as some of the means which he has assured us he will not fail to use in order to get support for his policy. We are justified, in view of the statement I have just read, in regarding these pamphlets as being directly inspired by him; and, that being the case, some special weight attaches to the arguments which are used. Without unduly taking up your Lordships' time, I should like to direct your attention to one or two of the statements which are there made. There is, first of all, 21 a very engaging leaflet called "The Truth about Taxation of Food," in which we read, on the first page, that—By encouraging British farming, it will bring back to cultivation thousands of acres of derelict land.and when we turn over the page, we find it stated that—The statement that import duties on food are pail wholly by the consumer is contradicted by common-sense…The duty will encourage the production of wheat at home and in the colonies. It will, therefore, increase the amount of wheat in the word; and an increase of supply must mean a falling f price.Now, my Lords, any policy which will both bring back to cultivation thousands of acres of derelict land, and at the same time bring about a redaction in the price of wheat, is a policy which I think we all desire to see put into execution at the earliest possible opportunity and if the Government are able to bring about such a result as that, if they have such a policy as that, I only wonder that they have delayed so long in submitting it to Parliament. But I confess it does suggest some sort of resemblance to a certain famous Amendment which was passed in this House last year on the Education Bill, by which the cost of the repairs to maintained schools was placed on the State, provided that no extra charge was made on the public funds. If these things axe possible, they are very well worth doing. That is not the only inconsistency I find, because in another leaflet I see it stated that one of the great drawbacks to that system of free trade which has existed in this country nip to the present has been that it has driven a number of British workmen out of employment and compelled them to emigrate, where they are finding employment in competition with their comrades at home. Yet on page 1 of the first pamphlet from which I quoted it was stated that—A duty on wheat will provide occupation for thousands of Englishmen who will emigrate to Canada and Australia instead of docking to the towns, overcrowding the slums, and overstocking the urban labour market.I find another leaflet which puts forward this amazing economic theory. First of all it gives a list of the imports and exports, derived from the Board of Trade Returns, and then it says that every item that goes 22 to make up the export Return means employment and wages for British industry—Exports are what we sell, imports what we buy The interest of the wage-earner is therefore in the export Return.And the leaflet concludes by saying—This is Mr. Chamberlain's policy. Is it not worth fair and favourable consideration?We are to take it then, my Lords, that Mr. Chamberlain's object is to induce the working man of this country to submit to a tax upon his food by directing his attention to the export Return of the Board of Trade, and asking him to keep his attention closely fixed on that Return, and that Return only—in fact, to ignore altogether the home market, which I should have thought was rather an important consideration, mind also the Return of imports, which includes both his food and his raw material. If any of your Lordships had credited Mr. Chamberlain with the police which is contained in these leaflets, I think he would have been told by the First Lord of the Admiralty that he was attributing impossible schemes to the Colonial Secretary for the purpose of rejecting them; in other words, that he would be playing at a sort of "political Aunt Sally," but here we have an "Aunt Sally" which comes direct from Birmingham, and which bears the trade mark "Consistent, Birmingham." Therefore it is one which I think those who regard it with some suspicion are justified in demolishing if they are able to do so.
What I want to know is whether policy of the Colonial Secretary has yet been adopted by the Cabinet as a whole, and, if so, when it is to be submitted in detail to Parliament. If it is not the policy of the Cabinet, if they have no policy, if they are still inquiring, then I should like to be informed whether Mr. Chamberlain is the only member of the Cabinet who has made up his mind, and who is actively inviting support for his own views. What are the other members of the Cabinet doing? Are they allowing the grass to grow under their feet? I say that this is an impossible situation, it is a situation which ought not to be allowed to continue. If there is to be a complete change in the fiscal policy of this country, that is a matter of such grave importance that it ought not to be approached except by some definite proposals submitted to Parliament 23 and submitted on the authority of a united Cabinet. No attempt ought to be made to snatch a hasty and ill-considered verdict from the country upon some vague and general proposition—a verdict which may afterwards be used as a mandate from the country to carry out one of the most radical and far-reaching changes in the traditional policy of this country. If the Government has a plan or a policy, I say, and I say emphatically, that that plan ought to be explained and ought to be given to the country and to Parliament in detail; and, if it has not a plan, then I think it is an unconstitutional and a mischievous practice for individual members of the Cabinet to be canvassing the electorate, either directly or indirectly, either openly or by means of their friends, for the support of views which they may hold individually but which have not been put forward on the authority of the Prime Minister and which have not the sanction of the rest of their colleagues. I will conclude by making a strong appeal to the noble Duke the Lord President of the Council to give us some further explanation of this state of affairs, and I would ask your Lordships to believe that I have raised this question with no desire to embarrass His Majesty's Government, and with no intention of precipitating the decision at which they may ultimately arrive.
I feel that the matters they are inquiring into are of sufficient importance to necessitate a very serious and careful investigation; and so long as that inquiry upon which they are engaged is carried on in good faith, so long as the Government is merely investigating the deficiencies, if any, of the present system and trying to find some possible remedy for them, so long as that is the nature and the object of their inquiry, I think that the Government will have both the sympathy and the support of everyone who has the best interests of the country at heart, and the country itself will be quite willing to possess itself in patience until such time as the facts arid figures may have been duly arranged. But, my Lords, if the inquiry is merely a temporary makeshift, if it is merely a sort of spurious flag of truce, calculated to give a false sense of security, and under cover of which active preparations are being made for war, then I think we have a right to 24 ask that an end shall be put as speedily as possible to a state of affairs which is opposed to all the accepted traditions of Ministerial responsibility, and which is without precedent in the political history of this country.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (The Duke of DEVONSHIRE)
My Lords, the noble Earl has placed on the Paper three clear and distinct Questions, and it would be discourteous on my part if I did not give them an immediate answer. But as I understand that it is desired by several Members of your Lordships' House to continue discussion upon this subject, I hope I may be excused if I do not follow any part of the noble Earl's speech, and if I venture to ask the indulgence of your Lordships to make some further observations later on. The noble Earl asks whether these publications are issued with the knowledge and approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. On that question I have consulted with my right hon. friend and his answer is in the affirmative. They are published with his general consent and approval. Mr. Chamberlain, however, is not a member of the Tariff Committee and is not aware of, or personally responsible for, all that appears in its publications. The noble Earl then asks whether what is described in them as "the Chamberlain policy" and "the fiscal policy of Mr. Chamberlain" is the policy of the Government. The answer to that question is distinctly in the negative. The fiscal policy of Mr. Chamberlain has been explained in his own speeches, and he has expressly stated that he spoke only his own opinion, and did not intend to commit his colleagues. The noble Earl in the third place, when this policy will be expounded in Parliament. As I have already said, the Government have up to the present time no new fiscal policy to propose, and the answer therefore is that it cannot either now, or at any short period, be expounded to Parliament.
§ LORD JAMES OF HEREFORD
My Lords, I feel sure that the great majority of the House will agree that we have arrived at a condition approaching a crisis which may possibly have results disastrous to the nation. It is 25 unprecedented in the political history of this country that a member of a Government should separate himself from the action of his colleagues and announce that "a big fight" is to take place under his leadership, and not with the co-operation, and perhaps not with the sanction, of his colleagues. This is a position which has shaken the confidence of the people in Parliamentary action, and the position has been aggravated by what has occurred since the pronouncement in question. Your Lordships heard the other day of a great inquest of the nation being held. That great inquest ought to be held in this Chamber or in the other House of Parliament; but forgetting the usual practice, and what would be the course not only convenient, but almost necessary, for public safety, we have this great war announced to take place under conditions that are most fatal to fair warfare. What is announced is not a policy, but the outline of a policy, which is sent out under pressure to the people to discuss first what it means, and then express an opinion on what they do not understand.
If this were a question affecting only this country internally—such a measure, for example, as the repeal of Church rates or the extension of the franchise—we might regret that it should be launched under the present conditions; but this question affects not only the home country, but every self-governing colony and every foreign nation, and our relations with it. It is, therefore, a question that ought to have been launched after the gravest consideration and with the greatest care that no wrong should be done. Under the present conditions may we not apprehend that as this uncontrolled war proceeds the consequences will be that we shall be teasing every colony, irritating every foreign nation, and disturbing every interest at home. This strange result will proceed from the fact that there has been forgetfulness of the responsibility of Parliament, a responsibility which we are willing to accept, but which His Majesty's Ministers refuse to give us. The distinction between Parliamentary discussion and discussion on the platform of a public meeting is self-evident. In the one case von have assertion made and answer given at once; in the other, statements may be made that 26 are not quite accurate and no immediate reply is possible.
I am not going to reply to the leaflets, lint there was one grave mistake made by someone when he said there was £100,000,000 of trade with our colonies and that such trade was equal to £10 per head. That is repeated in one of these pamphlets and scattered in millions throughout the country, and people believe it. If such a statement were made in Parliament it would be refuted at once. I will make one practical suggestion to the Government. This discussion is raised in no hostile spirit, but became those who have initiated it are supporters of the Government, anti are anxious to know what can be done to remedy the sad prospect before us. On May 28 there was a clear statement made of a definite policy of duties on food so as to give preferential treatment to the colonies. That is the subject upon which the feeling of the nation is centred. Is it not possible that an ad interim report may be presented to the nation? Can it be possible that in a matter so vital, so much affecting almost the very lives of our people and our relations with our colonies, the opinions of the Government can be still in the air and unknown. If Parliament discussed this great question in the first place the great danger that might arise from the sensitiveness of our colonies would be avoided. I know that it is said that the report as to the result of import duties on food cannot lie presented before. Parliament rises; but the announcement of May 15 should never have been made if the time was so inopportune that between then and the rising of Parliament that report could not be presented.
Why is the announcement made at a time when Parliament is shut out from the power of dealing with the subject? The most convenient place for discussion is in the other House, responsible for the taxation of the people, and not by means of discursive debate or distribution of leaflets. I venture to make an appeal to my noble friend the Lord President of the Council. It is thirty years since I became a follower of my noble friend, and I never set more store upon that leadership than I do to-day. Throughout the country there are many men of different Parties who have drawn the inference from my noble friend's long political life that he is always actuated by a stern sense of honesty, common-sense, and 27 good feeling towards his fellow men. Seventeen years ago, at a time when many men thought a great danger, a great peril, threatened the country, my noble friend forgot those obligations to which he has always given the greatest allegiance; personal friendships did not prevent, and long political associations did not discourage him; he took the course of standing in the way and saving the country from what he and his followers believed would prove a great disaster. History repeats itself, and again an opportunity is afforded to my noble friend to stand forth, to give his aid and advice to the people of this country, who will cheerfully follow him in averting a great disaster.
§ EARL SPENCER
My Lords, my noble and learned friend who has just sat down spoke as a warm supporter or the Government. I cannot say that, but I share the feeling with which he has referred to the Lord President. I entirely endorse what has been said as to the high qualifications of the noble Duke to speak on the subject. In my own position I have been unfortunately separated politically from the noble Duke for seventeen years, before which I was as intimately connected with my noble friend as any Member of the House, and I can fully endorse what has been said as to the confidence in his judgment. His great common-sense, his loyalty, and Ids great courage are well known. I regret to have again and again to put my noble friend into what may be an awkward position. His views on the subject are known; his powerful, lucid speech made on the first occasion when this matter was raised, assured us that the noble Duke is a free trader. Therefore it is with some regret that I add to the noble Duke's difficulties by asking Questions on the policy which Members of the Government pursue. That cannot be avoided. He is in a very responsible position, and the duty of answering falls to him.
What is the position of His Majesty's Government? My noble friend Lord Rosebery said inquiry was an ingenious mechanism for keeping the Government together, and in a more feeble way I called the inquiry a bond 28 for uniting a great many of those who, though they might differ from Members of the Government on this great question, still desired to maintain the Government and give them support. Now, my Lords, is the inquiry real or sham? It is reported that there was a compact among members of the Cabinet to the effect that for a certain time, at all events during the sitting of Parliament, no one Member of the Cabinet was to advocate any particular view he might entertain on the subject. If there was such a compact, and if the inquiry was not a sham, what is the meaning of these leaflets? I can see no distinction between a speech from a Minister and a leaflet issued with his authority. The fact that the leaflets are circulated and prepared with great ingenuity and ability seems to me to be an entire breach of the compact. We hear that the leaflets are being sent into every constituency, not only into those represented by Members of the Liberal Party, but also where Unionist Members have seats, and where the Members have declared against the fiscal policy advocated by Mr. Chamberlain. This seems to me a state of things which His Majesty's Government should speedily bring to an end.
What are we to look forward to? The Colonial Secretary Las announced his intention to commence a campaign in favour of his policy early in October, and it appears that this is not merely a threat; while from a letter to a distinguished person in the City there seems to be an intention to bring this campaign to a close in the Metropolis in January. Can this take place while Mr. Chamberlain remains Colonial Secretary If so, it will be almost impossible to dissociate his views and arguments from the responsibility of the Cabinet as a whole. It is hardly possible, unless the Cabinet accepts his policy, which we know is not the case, that Mr. Chamberlain can continue to maintain his position; I cannot suppose the noble Duke taking the field and making speeches against the policy of Mr. Chamberlain, his colleague. It is absolutely essential that as speedily as possible an end should be put to a state of affairs that impairs the responsibilities of Government and is opposed to our notions of sound 29 government. Before Parliament rises there should be some distinct announcement of policy; and I should like to know from the noble Duke whether the Government still maintain the position of treating every attempt in another place to raise the subject as a proposal for a vote of censure and so preventing discussion. The question must be submitted to the country when the policy is defined, and I have no doubt as to the decision of the country.
§ VISCOUNT CROSS
May I ask His Majesty's Government a Question? I understand that, so far, the policy of Mr. Chamberlain is not the policy of the Government.
§ * VISCOUNT CROSS
Then that fact ought to be proclaimed. Speaking as one who has been a free trader all his life, I think the present position is a very anomalous one. It is the duty of the Cabinet to decide, after they have made the inquiry which they desire, what, in their opinion, ought to be the policy of the country. They ought to come forward before Parliament rises and explain what the policy of the Government is I do not think there is a warmer supporter of the Government in your Lordships' House than I am, but I feel a sincere compassion for the supporters of the Government in the other House who, on meeting their constituents, will be asked—
"Do you support the Government in their fiscal policy or do you not?"
I am afraid these gentlemen will be obliged to say that they do not know what the fiscal policy of the Government is. All the information I have at present is the comforting statement of the noble Duke that the fiscal policy attributed to Mr. Chamberlain is not the fiscal policy of the Government. If that declaration may be published as the opinion of the Cabinet declared to us by the Leader of the House it will be something to go upon. But can a more miserable state of things be conceived than that in which one particular member of the Cabinet should press his policy in the constituencies? Are other Members 30 of the Cabinet to go about saying, as I understand the noble Duke to say, that Mr. Chamberlain's policy is not the policy of the Government, or are they to say that they throw this matter before the constituencies and leave it to them to give the lead? This course would not be in accordance with the Constitution. It is the duty of the Government to lead, and of the country to turn them out if it thinks the lead wrong. For them to go about making speeches first for one policy and then another is like throwing the reins of a horse upon its neck instead of driving it in the right direction.
§ * THE EARL OF NORTHBROOK
My Lords, I consider the situation to be both anomalous and dangerous. The inquiry has lasted long enough, and it is the duty of the Government to give some indication before Parliament separates what their policy really is. The noble Duke has said that the result of the inquiry cannot now or within a short period be announced. In using those words he has, no doubt, expressed the opinion of the Cabinet. I appeal, however, to the noble Duke to use great influence to modify the opinion of the Cabinet which he has just announced. There are two distinct questions before the country. The first question—raised by Mr. Chamberlain in the other House—is whether it is desirable to make preferential arrangements with the colonies, involving a duty upon imports of food into this country. There are other questions which, I think, are subordinate—important questions which have been most ably dealt with by my noble friend the Foreign Secretary—such as the questions of negotiations with Germany and the possibility of retaliation in respect of the conduct of Germany towards Canada. I consider these two question to be separate and distinct. I cannot understand why the Cabinet can not now come to a definite determination whether the policy of preferential duties in the colonies, coupled with a duty on food imports in this country, is or is not the policy of the Government. The question is one which ought to be determined by the Cabinet before Parliament separates. I hope the noble Duke will exercise all the authority he possesses in the Cabinet to obtain such a decision.
§ THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
My Lords, I do not think it is possible for me to decline to address a very few observations to your Lordships in answer to the appeal which has been made to me, not only from the front Bench opposite, but also from my noble and learned friend who sits behind me. I am bound to say that I am not aware in what way I can add anything to what I have endeavoured to place before the House on former occasions, nor am I able to see in what respect the position in which the Government and Parliament stand towards this question has in any degree been altered since last we discussed this question in this House. From a very early period of the discussion the position which has been taken up by the Secretary for the Colonies has been very clearly defined. It does not seem to me to make very much difference to that position and to his relation to this question that certain pamphlets or leaflets should have been published with his authority; because, so far as I know—I have not seen those pamphlets and leaflets—so far as I have heard anything in the discussion this evening, they add very little to what we have all read in the published speeches of the Secretary for the Colonies.
As I have said, the position of my right hon. friend has from the outset been perfectly clear. He has made his inquiry into the results which have been obtained by the system of free imports during a period of fifty years. He has formed his conclusion, and he has definitely announced his intention of endeavouring, so far as he is able, to obtain from the constituencies, from the people of this country, authority not to carry out a certain plan, but authority to make certain overtures to the colonies of preferential treatment, authority to propose certain changes in fiscal arrangements. There is no doubt what the policy of the Colonial Secretary is, and I venture to think that the position of the Government is equally clear. No member of the Government, so far as I am aware, has said a single word to identity himself with the policy which has been thus announced or sketched out by the Colonial Secretary. What the Government have said is that they consider that there is a case for inquiry. I stated on a former occasion when I addressed the House on this subject 32 some of the grounds on which we thought an inquiry was necessary, and I do not think any object would be gained by recapitulating the statement of those grounds. But we have not in the least changed our opinion that such an inquiry is necessary, and until it is completed, and until we have had time to consider the results of that inquiry, we have no policy to propose.
With reference to the question of Lord Cross, I have only to say that, until we are convinced by the results of the inquiry which we are making that changes in any direction are required, the policy of the Government with regard to the fiscal arrangements which regulate our commercial system is the policy which now exists. My noble and learned friend behind me made a suggestion which, I think, on reflection, he will scarcely conceive to be a practicable one. He suggested that before the end of the session we should make what he calls an interim report. My Lords, this inquiry is not being conducted by a Royal Commission. It is being conducted by the Cabinet itself, and the result of this inquiry will not be a report; it will be either that we adhere to the fiscal policy of the country as it now exists, or that we adopt such changes as have been suggested, or that we adopt some minor modifications of the existing system. What my noble and learned friend calls a report would he an interim declaration of policy; and until the Cabinet are in a position to frame their final conclusions upon the inquiry which they are conducting it seems to me that they will only be adding confusion to confusion if they do anything in the nature of proposing an interim policy to the country.
I am bound to say, my Lords, that I do not understand the extreme and nervous anxiety with which some of my friends appear to regard the position of free trade. Free trade has now had in this country full and fair and complete trial for a period of fifty years. The inquiry which we are conducting is not an inquiry into the merits of any rival policy; it is an inquiry into the results of that fifty years trial, its results, economical, financial, industrial, commercial, social, and political. If those results should be found—and it will depend upon what is 33 proved or what we hold to be proved as to those results, as to whether they have been on the whole beneficial to the comity or whether they have in any respect failed in the carrying out the expectations with which they were introduced—it will depend on the results of that inquiry whether we have any change to propose or not. As I have said, this policy has now had a full and complete trial for a period of fifty years. A Minister, no doubt a powerful Minister, has impeached that policy. But because a few speeches have been made in the country, and a few leaflets have been issued by a branch of a political organisation, and because the Government have admitted that they consider that the time is ripe for an inquiry, then we are told that the very foundations of our free trade policy are being sapped. What is this policy, which at the blast of the trumpet of a single Minister, however powerful, is to collapse because its results are to be exposed to examination I have a better opinion of free trade than some of those who feel this nervous anxiety about the possible results to the permanence of the principle if it is once exposed to inquiry.
If any very definite assertions have been made impugning the policy of free trade, it seems to me that it would be far more useful if, instead of indulging in these plaintive appeals to the Government or the free trade members of the Government, those who are strongly convinced of the soundness of the principles of free trade would devote a little of their time to the examination of these allegations that are made, and would prove them to be entirely wrong. For myself, I believe that these allegations are unfounded. I believe also that even if free trade has not done for us all that some of its authors expected that it would or could do, it is not very difficult to prove that any alternative policy would not remedy the evils complained of, and might involve us in greater evils still. But when this inquiry has been assented to, not only by the Government, but also by such a man as my noble friend Lord Goschen, by, I think, the noble Earl who sits on the cross benches, Lord Rosebery, and, I think, admitted also by other Members of the Opposition, I cannot see why we are now 34 suddenly to abandon the policy of inquiry or, before that inquiry is completed why we are to announce an interim or final policy.
I have not heard the expression tonight, but I have heard it said very often in the course of these discussions that the Government are sitting on the fence, and that that is an undignified or unconstitutional position. Well, I quite admit that there may be circumstances in which what is called sitting on the fence may be an undignified and unconstitutional position for any Government. In circumstances where a prompt and immediate decision is required, to occupy a position of doubt and uncertainty and to wait until the opinions of the constituencies can be ascertained— I can conceive that that may be extremely undignified. When the policy of the disestablishment of the Irish Church was proposed by a responsible Minister and his friends an immediate decision was required of every man who had any responsibility, and to occupy a doubtful and uncertain position on such a question as that would have been pronounced unworthy of any man who called himself a statesman. So again, when the policy of Home Rule was proposed by that same responsible Minister, I hold that it was the duty of every man taking part in public affairs to make up his mind whether he would support that policy or whether he would oppose it to the best of his ability, and not to wait until he had ascertained what would be the prevailing opinion in the country on the subject.
So, again, when it was a question of our relations with the Transvaal Government whether this country should enforce its claims or yield to the position taken up by the Boer Government, it was impossible for any man with a sense of responsibility to refrain from taking a decided line and giving his vote on one side or the other. But in a case of this kind, where there is no proposal by the Government to make any change in our fiscal arrangements, where all to which we are committed is a policy of inquiry into the results of a policy which has been in force now for fifty years, I cannot see that this position of caution, or, if you will, of hesitation, is in any 35 way undignified. It seems to me that you might just as well say that a Judge in a Court of law is sitting on the fence because he declines to give his judgment until he has heard the evidence and until he has heard counsel on both sides. That is the position which the Government have taken up in this matter. The policy of free trade has been impeached. We say that there may be a case; but until that case has been argued, and until we know the evidence and the arguments founded upon it, we decline to be driven into a premature announcement of the con elusions which we have or which we I may form. What all these discussions amount to is that the position of the Colonial Secretary and the line which lie is taking in the country is an unconstitutional one.
I can only refer to what I have already-said. It all comes to this—that in the opinion of those who address these appeals to us, it is necessary, in the highest constitutional interests of the country, that somebody should resign. I asked a question the other day to which I have as yet received no answer. Who is to resign? I gather from the speeches which have been made this evening that a self-respecting Prime Minister would have told Mr. Chamberlain that he ought to resign. That seems to me to be a somewhat illogical position, having regard to the inquiry which we have undertaken to carry out. If the result of that inquiry should be to convince the Prime Minister, or any of his principal colleagues, that the impeachment of free trade was a well-founded impeachment, and that changes in that policy ought to be effected, the Prime Minister would probably find himself in rather an absurd position if he had to go back to Mr. Chamberlain and say, "We find that you were quite right. No doubt we turned you out before we made that discovery, but we shall be glad if you will now come back and help us out of our difficulty." That seems to be a practical difficulty in the way of demanding the resignation of Mr. Chamberlain. Then I ask, who else ought to resign? Ought the Prime Minister to resign before the result of the inquiry which he is conducting is known? Or ought 36 we, who are supposed to be the Members of the Cabinet most averse from any tampering with the doctrines of free trade, to resign and deprive the Cabinet of such humble assistance as it may be possible for us to give in the defence of the principles of free trade? My Lords, I cannot see that that is a practical solution of the question. Neither can I see that the position is in the smallest degree altered from what it was when we last discussed it in this House, or when the Prime Minister challenged the Opposition, if they thought that our position in this matter was an illogical or unconstitutional one, to take the straightforward Parliamentary course of moving a vote of censure, and inviting the opinion of the House of Commons on the question whether our conduct was unconstitutional or whether it was not. Under our Parliamentary system I cannot see that there is any solution but that well-known and time-honoured one of bringing such matters as these to a decision. It is of no use for noble Lords to come down to this House and utter these complaints and appeals unless they are prepared to take some definite action, to place in a definite form the grievance which they have against the Government, to say in what respect they think it has departed from its duty, and to challenge the opinion of the House and, through the House, that of the country.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
My Lords, in discussing this question we who do not agree with the noble Duke and the position which he takes up are in a position of singular difficulty. In the first place, it is to be remarked that, out of the several hundred independent supporters which the Government have in this House, not one, as far as I know, has risen to justify the action of the Government in this matter. The debate to-night has been one of almost unmixed censure upon the position of the Government.
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
If the noble Duke is satisfied with it I am, and with one exception that debate has been conducted by the habitual supporters of the Government. But there is one greater difficulty still, and that is 37 that the Government, for the purpose of securing an absolute consistency in their utterances, limit their speaking to one Member of their body, and that is the noble Duke, who has already made two speeches this evening while his colleagues have sat silent beside him. I share in the fullest degree all the expressions of confidence and admiration which have been so freely given to the noble Duke this evening—expressions which I desire to renew with all the more warmth on this the auspicious anniversary of his birth. If my respect for him could have been increased, it would have been enhanced by the very manly, straightforward speech which he has made this evening. We regard his presence in the Cabinet as a guarantee that, as long as he is there, the fiscal system of this country will not be interfered with; and, therefore, if we have occasion to criticise the acts and the position of the Government, it is most ungrateful and distasteful to us that we should appear in any way to associate that criticism with the person of the noble Duke. But I would venture to say that his speech, outspoken as it was with regard to his fiscal faith, failed singularly in appreciation of the position of the Government and of the criticism which it directed against that position.
The noble Duke thinks that it is enough to say that the position of the Government has not changed since we last discussed this question. That is precisely the ground of our complaint—that we think that the position of the Government is an unconstitutional position, and that its remaining immutable is a ground of complaint to the people of this country. The noble Duke seems to think that there is nothing at all unusual—perhaps I am putting it rather stronger than he himself did—in the spectacle which we have before us, of a free discussion of the fiscal policy of the country conducted by one Member of the Cabinet, who is, perhaps, almost the most powerful Member of it, amidst the silence of his colleagues, except when it is broken by the outspoken repudiations of the noble Duke. That is a situation unprecedented in the constitution of this country.
It may seem a simple thing to the noble Duke that the Colonial Secretary 38 should announce that he is about to commence a big campaign against the fiscal system of this country, and that he should be already distributing by the million leaflets which convey rather crude ideas of political economy, in order to further that campaign, while the Government sits and watches, and determines to make up its mind at some late period of the autumn. But was not the noble Duke rather unkind to the late Chancellor of the Duchy in refusing an interim report? The noble Duke says, "I should be giving you a fragment of policy, when we mean eventually to give you the whole." But half a loaf is better than no bread; and, as Lord Cross pointed out, the followers of the Government in the House of Commons are compelled to appear before their constituents—obligations from which your Lordships are happily free—possibly before the Government has made up its mind, and they have to declare their support of a policy of which they have not the faintest notion, and of which the very first element is absolutely unknown. Surely common feelings of compassion for suffering fellow-creatures should have moved the noble Duke. He seems to think that all is solved by the blessed word "inquiry." We must remember how the inquiry came about, if, in the ordinary sense of the word, there is any inquiry at all. We had just got over the Budget which repealed a tax on flour and wheat, and we thought that we were aware of the fiscal policy of the Government for the coming year. All of a sudden the Colonial Secretary comes down and delivers a speech, which was a manifesto against free trade, and which contained several important propositions which, I am convinced from the speech of the noble Duke, he is totally unable to swallow. Now the remainder of the history of this proceeding must rest upon conjecture; but it is so obvious and apparent that it enters the region of certainty. It is obvious that when the Cabinet read that speech their breath was entirely taken away. They had no ground to expect any such declaration. They did not think that any one member of the Government had the right to pledge them to that policy. I venture to predict that the position of the Cabinet at 39 that moment was chaotic. They met, and they had to consider how it were best to deal with the situation, and they hit on the formula of an inquiry which was to satisfy the people, until under the shadow of that inquiry, and in the time that the inquiry might be presumed to cake, the Government could frame a fiscal policy with which to meet the country in the autumn. I say that is as plain and as clear as anything in the world can be. The noble Duke asks us in these circumstances to feel a blind faith in this inquiry. He denies to his followers any inkling of its results, and he tells us that this is a satisfactory position for the Government to occupy—that while one trumpet has been blown from a very conspicuous quarter, the rest the Cabinet are to be allowed to hold themselves in meditation and investigate the simple truths of political economy.
I am not one of those who go so far as to say that there is no inquiry at all. There is a famous passage in one of Dickens's books in which Mrs. Prig falls out with Mrs. Gamp, and speaking of her favourite heroine, whose name was Harris, she suddenly exclaimed, "I don't believe there is no "sich a person." There are many who will say that there is no "sich thing" as an inquiry conducted by His Majesty's Government. I am not one of those who are inclined to believe that there is such a thing in the ordinary sense, but I believe free licence has been given to every member of the Cabinet to address conundrums to the Board of Trade, and any member of the Cabinet has right to take down the volumes in his library of political economy and to utilise them for his leisure reading. More than that I confess I do not believe, and I think I have some reason. We have had, in the course of our investigations two lights thrown on the inquiry by very eminent members of the Government. One was the Foreign Secetary, who said in the most emphatic way that if such an inquiry were conducted it must be a public inquiry. Some of us have been waiting ever since for the announcement of that public inquiry. Then there was another light thrown upon it in a phrase which has already become dear to us. It was given to us by the First Lord of policy the Admiralty, who said that the inquiry 40 was a "grand inquest" of the nation. I do not say that these expressions, as far as we have gone into the inquiry, are eminently misleading, but they do justify the scepticism of some who doubt whether any inquiry in the ordinary sense of the word is progressing at all. What is the "grand inquest" of the nation? It is, as far as we know, the House of Commons. The House of Commons has made every endeavour to discuss this question, and has invariably been refused.
I do not know a more pathetic, or, I may add, more ridiculous spectacle in the world than that which the House of Commons presents at this moment. Here is she, the mother of Parliaments, exhorted by the First Lord of the of Admiralty and the other members of the Cabinet to proceed to a free and full inquiry on the fiscal policy of the nation, exhorted in loud tones by the Government to do this while they have gagged and bound her to prevent her from doing anything of tire kind. Can there he a more preposterous position for a body which boasts itself to be the free expression of the opinions of this country, to be the mouthpiece of the voice of the nation, than to be told at one moment by the Government, and all day long by the Government, that a discussion is what the Government wants, and then to deny it any opportunity of having it except under a vote of censure?
THE EARL OF ROSEBERY
The noble Duke is always asking for a vote of censure, and I am always answering, him, though I do not think he considers, my answers satisfactory. I will speak my mind on this point to the noble Duke. I say quite truly that if I were in the, House of Commons I would ask for a day to discuss a Motion, "That the House of Commons should resolve itself into Committee on the state of the nation." There is a precedent for that Motion in 1849, when it was moved by the late, Lord Beaconsfield and rejected by a very considerable majority. But the advantage of that proposition is this—that it I does not necessarily pledge Parliament or the country to any particular; in this matter. It does enable the 41 House of Commons to have that free and full inquiry in the matter which the Government are constantly inviting. I do see strategical disadvantages in moving a vote of censure, because it is quite obvious that a vote of censure rallies to the support of the Government all its followers, however critical and unsympathetic they may be in every-day life, on some critical occasion like that. Indeed, gratitude for the manifold benefits lavished on Ireland by the Land Bill might swell the Government majority beyond its ordinary size and might give to the Empire and foreign countries a false opinion of the true voice of the nation with regard to this question of free trade.
That is my answer to the noble Duke. But I do press upon him most earnestly that this policy of telling the country that the Cabinet is engaged in inquiry is not sufficient for a nation so active and inquisitive as this. I hope that I shall not be accused of making any disparaging comparison when I say that it reminds me rather of the case which has excited great interest in France, and which is, I believe, still pending before the Courts, where an enterprising lady raised enormous sums of money by the exhibition of a safe—or it may have been a cabinet—which she represented as containing unbounded treasures. We are in the position of the gullible victims of that lady, but the experience of those in France has already made us cautious. The Government presents us with the spectacle of pointing to the closed door of the Cabinet and saying—"We confess that we are not able to give you any satisfaction with regard to our policy, but look at that door. Inside that door there are treasures of wisdom, experience, eloquence, sound judgment on this subject, and when that door is opened they will be revealed." But I am sorry to say that Madame Humbert's treasures represented only a fourpenny piece in the safe; and I am inclined to think that when the door of the Cabinet is opened—unless it is for a purpose which I should sincerely deplore to see—a large number of its members walking out never to return inside it—we shall not have more satisfaction than the victims in the Humbert case.
I hope your Lordships will excuse me for introducing a semi-humorous epilogue 42 to exemplify what I believe to be a grave situation. I defy the noble I bike, however large and varied the experience he may have, to come down night after night and represent that the position of the Government is either normal defensible. I for one, even if I had the power, which I have not, do not force the situation, because I should not like the inquiry to resolve itself into a question as to which wing of the Cabinet it would be that would have to resign when it came to a contest. I confess that I do not quite agree with the noble Duke that no other member of the Cabinet has given any public support to the proposals of the Colonial Secretary. I understand that the Foreign Secretary and the First Lord of the Admiralty give considerable indirect support; but not knowing which wing of the Cabinet may retire defeated ill this intestinal strife as to the inquiry in which they are engaged, I prefer to wait for what I hope, through the character and ability of the noble Duke, will be the ultimate victory of free trade principles, which have to a large extent made this Empire what it is.