The Future Policy of the Liberal Party
|The Future Policy of the Liberal Party (1891)
|A speech given by William Ewart Gladstone MP on The Future Policy of the Liberal Party. Given on 2 October 1891 to the National Liberal Federation in Newcastle.|
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, -
Relying on your kindness to favour as much as you can, by your indulgence, the exercise of physical powers which are not altogether what they have been, I proceed to address you; and I cannot otherwise commence than by saying that it is impossible to listen to speeches toned so highly in the sense of favour and generosity as those of your President and Mr Burt without misgiving. But I must not allow misgiving, however just, to suppress or to impede the expression of gratitude; and I am truly and profoundly grateful, both for the temper and the spirit which led them so far beyond the bounds of strict justice in what they were pleased to say, and in the reception you have been so good as to give their too favourable remarks. Now I meet you here in part as citizens of Newcastle, that great and distinguished community, but also more particularly tonight as representatives of the Liberal sentiment throughout the country, which we believe to dominate powerfully and effectually the mind of the country at large.
We have fought, ladies and gentlemen, we have indeed fought a long and severe contest. When we look back to the year 1886, we look back upon an epoch of great and crushing defeat; but every one of the five years which has elapsed since the period of the defeat has brought upon our horizon a brighter and again a brighter light. We began with the prospect only of a possible recovery. Next, recovery shortly became probable. It has, according to our best deliberate judgement, now been, humanely speaking, raised to such a point that it is the precursor and it is the assurance of the time, which we know cannot be distant, of a certain victory.
Our duties as they become more hopeful become also more serious. We have to take a more practical view of the particulars of affairs, and were I able to perform it, my duty would be to attempt, this night, aided by your favour, something like a survey of the public situation. But the first difficulty that encounters me, ladies and gentlemen, is this - a surfeit of matter, for there is no other word adequate to describe it. It is not the excess merely, it is the absolute surfeit of work that remains to be done - work that accumulates from year to year; and of work that is certain to fall more heavily into arrear in proportion to the prolongation of the rule of a Tory Government. Yes, gentlemen, it is a surfeit which makes it difficult now to choose the topics of address, and which will make it difficult hereafter, when the time has arrived, to choose proper subjects of immediate and preferential attention. Whatever your victory may be, with all your intelligence and all your zeal, you will want the additional virtue of patience; for such are the demands of this vast Empire, extended and diversified beyond all precedent in human history, that without that patience, disappointment and even confusion might be the results of triumph.
Now, I will endeavour to run over with the utmost rapidity several subjects with regard to which I won their claim to public attention, without attempting to give them, on the present occasion, anything deserving the name of satisfaction.
For instance, if I name to you the question of shortening the duration of Parliaments it is to dispose of it in a sentence; to say that it manifestly demands, and ever will demand, the earliest opportunity that can justly and wisely be chosen for the purpose.
If I speak of the readjustment of taxation, particularly as between various kinds of property, I speak of a subject abounding in complex detail, but which I may also dismiss with the utmost brevity, because I can confidently refer you to the speeches and votes which on all occasions we have given in Parliament as an assurance that when its turn comes it will have practical and decisive attention. I name next a word that it requires some courage to utter in these days - the word economy. It is like an echo from the distant period of my early life. The wealth of the country, and the vast comparative diffusion of comfort, has, I am afraid, put public economy, at least in its more rigid and sever forms, sadly out of countenance. However, I will say this one word in acquittal of my own conscience. Much has been said, and fairly and justly said, of the advantageous change effected by the present Government and Parliament in the conversion of the National Debt, which has resulted and will further result in a large annual saving. But all that saving has already been absorbed, and effaced, as I may say, from the public account, by the enormous increase not only of the charges in supplying the necessary civil wants of the country, but by the enormous increase of our naval and military expenditure. Now, that increase, vast as it is, is as far as possible from satisfying the relentless appetite of those who have laboured most heartily to bring it about; and now and again, and even within the last few days, there have been in some portions of the public Press, and apparently with high authority, complaints of the miserable insufficiency of our military and defensive establishments.
Well, there is another subject on which I should have been glad to speak had time permitted, for foreign policy has many and important domestic results; but I will only say this, that, as we Liberals in Parliament understand it, the foreign policy of the present Administration has been well-nigh the inverse and the reverse to that of the Administration of Lord Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli). We endeavoured to make the work of the Beaconsfield Administration difficult, because we thought it was doing ill. But we have striven to make the work of the present Administration in its foreign policy easy, because we think, as far as our information has gone - and we have been so tranquil on the whole subject that our information, I admit, is but partial - that so far as we could discern, its spirit had undergone a beneficial change, that appeals to passion and to pride are no longer sent broadcast over the country, and that on the contrary a more just, more genial, and more kindly spirit is exhibited by the departmental portion of the activity of Lord Salisbury. Accordingly, we have endeavoured to make his work not difficult but easy. One thing only I could wish to say upon this subject, and it is this.
I shall indeed rejoice if, before the day comes for the present Administration to give up the ghost, it be possible for Lord Salisbury to make an effort to relieve us from our burdensome and embarrassing occupation of Egypt. That occupation, so long as it lasts, rely upon it, must be a cause of weakness and a source of embarrassment. It is one which we owe entirely to engagements contracted by the former Tory Government, and the escape from which I greatly fear the present Tory Government, improved as it is in its foreign policy, will notwithstanding, hand over to its successors to deal with. There is much, very much more, necessary to be said in order to give a full view of this subject; but I must at present content myself with this succinct and partial reference.
When I think of the multitude of subjects that I am running over and have to run over, I recollect the device of the Father of all Poets, as he is constantly and justly called, who, when he found the matter crowding upon him inconveniently, appealed to the Muses and besought them that they would give him, instead of the single organ he possessed, that they would give him ten months and ten tongues with which to speak. Were I in a condition to bring such a machinery into play I could treat with tolerable satisfaction of the matters that are before me. As it is, you will recognise the incompetency of human nature, and you will liberally pardon my shortcomings in proportion.
There is a subject that I must next give a word to. It is the subject of temperance. You are so much agreed in regard to it that it does not require detailed discussion. But I have a word to speak to both of congratulation and of hope. I congratulate you, gentlemen, on the ground that has been made. Although the proceedings of 1890 were negative and not affirmative - although they appeared to consist substantially only in the rejection of a bad plan and not in the adoption of a good one - yet they had this silent but most important effect, that they disposed, I really believe for all time, of by far the largest and most alarming part of the question of compensation. And here I must say that my right hon. friend Sir William Harcourt made, by his fearless and energetic expositions, a valuable contribution to that result. The proceedings of 1890, I say, disposed of the possibly monstrous and certainly enormous claims for compensation which must have been made, and which the present Government then acknowledged might have been made, in the extinction of licences. With regard to those claims, I do not hesitate to say that, viewing the foundations of the Bill then introduced, it would have been possible, under the provisions of that Bill, to build up a wall in conformity with that foundation which would have proved an impenetrable and inexpugnable fortification when the time came to any effectual dealing with the drink traffic. There have been, however, some positive results also. In various parts of the country it appears that a new life, a more equitable and a bolder spirit, has been infused into the proceedings of the boards of magistrates, I mean the licensing boards. But I wish also to speak a word of hope. I trust that most of you who are here present; I should be glad to say all of you, except that I fear there may be some who are approaching the period of life to which I have myself attained; that most of you may witness a thorough and effective reform of the laws connected with the traffic in alcoholic liquors. I trust that among the conditions of that improvement you may find a fair and just acknowledgement of the rights of local populations to deal in a proper manner with the question whether there shall or shall not be within their borders any acknowledgement of public house traffic at all. I do now enter upon the particular form and conditions of such a plan; but I affirm that the right of the populations rests upon a basis as sound and solid at least as the right that is now possessed and is now exercised without objection to determine that important question by the owners of the soil.
Well, gentlemen, relying on the firmness of your nerves, I venture next to mention to you for a similar brief and insufficient notice the two questions of the Scotch and Welsh, or it may be Welsh and Scotch Disestablishment. I am careful to avoid all attempts to determine any question of precedence as between the two. It is no affair of mine. I am a resident in Wales, and I am a Scotch representative. I will not embroil myself in what would be for me an empty and fruitless controversy. But I will assure both Scotland and Wales that they have the unanimous support of the Liberal party. It does not depend upon those specially responsible for the conduct of Liberal affairs in Parliament which of these shall take precedence. Each of them has bold, resolute, and active champions who will not consent to wait, and who would be very wrong if they did consent to wait, and to suspend all their personal action until Home Rule has become law and until, in the new order and suggesting of the Liberal programme, their turn has come. One further consolation I venture to offer to both the Scotch and the Welsh: If the Scotch gain the precedence their gain will help onward the Welsh cause, and if the Welsh gain the precedence their gain will help the Scotch.
I have another question to pass lightly over, though it is a very wide question and a very difficult question. It is the question of the House of Lords. It is a large and difficult subject. Considering the pressure of the claims of various other subjects, it may be thought that the question of the House of Lords is for the present in the shade. I should not be very sorry if it remained in the shade for some time longer, provided that the additional lease thus gained were gained by its wisdom, forbearance, and moderation in dealing with the public affairs of the country. Though the question of the House of Lords be at this moment remote, there is one mode by which it might be made approximate, very near indeed, and a burning question of the day, and, that is, if an evil hour in the House of Lords were tempted to listen for one moment to the counsel that was so inauspiciously addressed to them but a short time ago by the Prime Minister of the country. Lord Salisbury, in a speech some two or three months back, contemplated the possibility - his mind is open to that extent - of a Liberal victory at the general election. He contemplated the passing of a Home Rule Bill through the House of Commons, but he assured his friends that all would not then be over, for they might still rely upon, I am quoting the sacred words "upon the play of the other parts of the Constitution." Strip off the disguise from these words. There is but one other part of the Constitution that could possibly perform such a prank as to interpose itself between the deliberate judgement of the nation and the incorporation of that judgement in the form of the law, and that is the House of Lords. The House of Lords tried that game in 1831, and threw out the Reform Bill. The consequence was, that it had to undergo a most painful humiliation as the proceed at which it obtained a delay, and no more than a delay, of twelve months in the passing of that measure; and the conduct then pursued destroyed much of whatever confidence was still at that period entertained by the country in its action. Again, gentlemen, I myself, humble as I am, had once the infelicity, or felicity, as you choose to call it, of finding myself in a sort of conflict with the House of Lords. We had a great battle in 1860 and 1861 upon the repeal of the paper duty. It was one of the most difficult and one of the most important incidents in the whole of the Free Trade controversy. You know what some of the consequences have been in the establishment of that Free Press which has done more than any other single cause for the education of the public mind. Without that Free Press it is hard to say whether the vast extension of the franchise effected by the Bill of 1884-1885 might not have produced results much more mixed in quality that those we have actually witnessed. By, and since, the first Reform Act, the electorate has been multiplied tenfold, and the extension has, in my deliberate judgement, unquestionably raised the tone and spirit of the proceedings in the House of Commons. I hope, nay, more, I believe, that the House of Lords will not accept the deplorable suggestion tendered to them by the Prime Minister. I believe that they will decline to let their position in the Constitution be used for so ruinous a purpose. But this I know well, that if they should be reduced to a policy so unfortunate, they themselves will be the first to repent of it. They will raise up a question which will take precedence of every other question, because upon that alone would depend whether this country was or was not a self-governing country, or whether, on the contrary, there was a power, not upon the throne or behind the throne, but between the throne and the people, that would stop altogether the action of a constitutional machine, now, as we trust, if not perfected, yet brought nearer to perfection, by the labour, the struggles, the patriotism and the wisdom of many generations.
The question, the important question, is how are we to decide upon the title to precedence among the many subjects that are before us. In connection with precedence, one name that would leap to the lips of any man addressing you is the name of Ireland. As to the title of Ireland to the precedence, there is no question at all about it; it is a matter fixed and settled and determined long ago, upon reasons which, in my opinion, and what is much more, in the opinion of the people cannot be refuted, cannot even be contested.
There is another question which I think the Liberal party, with much reason, are disposed to lace in a very forward rank, and that is the question of registration. The question of registration is one that diverges, severs itself into two branches - one of them the amendment of registration, properly so called, the necessity for which is urgent; and the other, the establishment of the principle of ‘one man one vote.’ It is impossible at this moment to lay down positive rules, but it seems to me that there is much to be said in favour of this disposition to give to Parliamentary registration a very forward place among the objects of Liberal movements, and the reason is this: It is not merely an improvement in the instrument by which you legislate. It makes Parliament fitter for its work, and even if a little time, I hope not much, but if a little time were to be lost upon carrying good Bills for the improvement of registration, you might say that the time was well disposed of, on the same principle, or that principle upon which a man spends a little time in sharpening or in stropping his razor before he shaves himself.
But I go to a more complex subject, a subject which includes and involves many subjects, but which undoubtedly has forced itself into a position among the very foremost, and which can best be presented to you at this time of day by the use of the single word - labour. We have performed on behalf of labour, that operation which is the most essential of all, by the enfranchisement which, in 1885, added three millions to the constituencies in this country. But there is much remaining to be done. One of the things essential to be done is, the rectification and reform of what is termed the lodger franchise, a franchise which, constituted as it now is, works entirely in favour of the wealthy lodger, and has provisions most unfavourable to the labouring man who is a lodger too. And to such an extent does this evil prevail in the metropolis, in consequence of the utter insufficiency of the law for the enfranchisement of lodgers, that the metropolis is represented in a proportion highly unsatisfactory as between its population and its voting list, as compared with the other portions of the country. That is the first item I have to mention in the matter of labour. And the second item I should put down as necessary to be considered is labour representation, as to which I think you will all heartily agree. There ought to be a great effort of the Liberal party to extend the labour representation in Parliament. That representation, so far as it has gone, has been thoroughly and entirely satisfactory. It has done immense good. I can hardly say that it wants or that it admits of an addition of moral force, but an addition of numerical force to that representation is not only desirable, but in the highest degree urgent. I tell you frankly that, in my opinion, nothing proves more distinctly the soundness of the heart and mind of the people of England, than the good choice they have made of their labour representatives. That being so, I say, let us give scope and room enough to choose a few more men, who, I doubt not, will be of the same kind. I say a few I hope they will not be very few, but a good many, and I believe that that sentiment is a sentiment that the whole Liberal party entertains. I am quite sure that as far as regards those who, at headquarters, if I may use the phrase, are charged with the central management of the concerns of the party, they will not lag behind, but will exhibit the utmost disposition, whenever a constituency is favourable to the claims of a labour candidate, to forward the accomplishment of their desire. But I proceed. If we are to have more labour members, more labour members, more labour candidates and members, there are certain consequences which follow from the adoption of these just principles.
For instance, one consequence that follows from it - a consequence that might very well be defended upon its own grounds, but which is very much strengthened by the introduction of a large number of labour candidates - is that which has long been a favourite idea with the Liberal party, namely that the necessary expenses of election should not be drawn from the pockets of the candidates, but from the public funds. It is a public work, and the cost of it justly appertains to be public to discharge. But that is not the only consequence of the same kind which appears, to me at least, to follow from the admission of labour candidates in large numbers, as a good thing not for themselves only, not for their own great class only, but for all classes and for the State at large. I place the extension of the number of these labour members upon a ground no narrower that that. It is for the benefit of us all that there should be a considerable increase of the number of labour members of Parliament. Well, if that is so, are they to be fined for conferring this boon upon the public? It is a boon given to the public.
Why should they, and how can they, bear the expenses which necessarily attend their election to the House of Commons and their residence in London? Is it fair to say that the constituencies, the respective constituencies, should bear those expenses? It would be particularly fair if those constituencies were only conferring a benefit on themselves. But our ground is that they are conferring a benefit on the State, and if they are conferring a benefit on the State, and if labour candidates, from the very definition of the term, are, in most cases, persons who are not in a position to bear the charges of residence in London apart from their homes and their usual occupations, I say nothing can be stronger, nothing can be more irresistible than the claim of such persons, of persons chosen by the constituencies, whose right to choose we admit, and who, in the case supposed, are exercising that right in a specially beneficial manner. Nothing, as I hold, can be clearer than the title of such men, men whose private means are inadequate to the performance of the public duty put upon them, to receive such aid from the public treasury as may be necessary in order to enable them to discharge the task which, for the public benefit as well as under public authority has been imposed on them. I do not enter into the other questions connected with the subject of a pecuniary provision of this kind. I only state, and state with very great confidence of conviction, the proposition which has just proceeded from my lips.
There is, however, another branch of this question, gentlemen, that we must not forget. Although rural interests are little connected with the town of Newcastle, I have no doubt they are very familiar to many of the members of the Federation. I will run very rapidly over the different points belonging to this branch of the great subject of Labour, though, in my opinion, they are points long ago inscribed in the Liberal creed.
We have done, perhaps, no more than justice to the Government in acknowledging that they deserved well of the country by passing a County Councils Bill; but we are not satisfied with the County Councils Bill, except for the principle it embodies. It is based upon the principle of local government, and just as in the case of the Household Suffrage Bill of 1866 it fell to the Liberal party to lay hold upon the acknowledgement of the principle and then, in spite of opposite influences, to give it full effect, so we now lay hold on the principle of County Councils. And we affirm that it is among the high and indispensable duties of the party, when it has the necessary power and influence in Parliament, to proceed to provide for the establishment of district councils and parish councils, and thereby to bring self-government to the very doors of the labouring men throughout the country. Further, I will add boldly that it will be their duty to enact compulsory powers for the purpose of enabling suitable bodies to acquire land upon fair and suitable terms, in order to place the rural population in nearer relations to the land, to the use and profit of the land which they have so long tilled for the benefit of others, but for themselves almost in vain. That also is among the great duties which lie before you in connection with the labour question.
Let me add yet one more, though the subject is a complex one, and does not bear being unfolded here, that which is known as the reform of the land laws, a great subject, both economical and political. That reform of the land laws, that abolition of the present system of entail, together with just facilities for the transfer of land, is absolutely necessary in order to do anything like common justice to those who inhabit the rural parts of this country, and whom, instead of seeing them, as we now see the, dwindle from one census to another, I, for my part, and I believe you, along with me, would heartily desire to see maintained, not in their present number only, but in increasing numbers over the whole surface of the land.
I am afraid, ladies and gentlemen, I have tried you severely upon these subjects. But one word more I must say, though it will be a very brief one. I don’t intend to enter as the utterer of a definite judgement upon the difficult questions that have been lately raised with regard to the hours of labour further than this: All persons, I am sure, have witnessed with satisfaction and sympathy - ay, with the liveliest pleasure - the large reductions in the amount of toil exacted from our fellow subjects and fellow citizens which have been achieved within the last twenty or thirty years. We wish well to all further reductions which can be achieved without violation of the rights of any man. We wish in an unqualified manner to see the progress of such changes, for the lot of labour it is absolutely certain will, as long as this human dispensation lasts, continue sufficiently severe, and it ought to be a subject of unmixed joy to us that there have been improvements which have not militated against the principles of liberty.
Upon the further question whether it is possible to pass a compulsory law binding upon all labourers for reducing their labour to a certain time, or by a certain number of hours, I would say, before uttering a word on that principle, that I should be very glad to be assured that those who now receive for long hours very low wages for the short hours. But, gentlemen, it will require more than a mere majority in certain trades that are highly organised, it will require more even than a majority in all trades all over the country, so to bind the minority that they shall be the subjects of coercive proceedings of they are unwilling, or if they find themselves unable in justice to those dependent upon them, to conform to the new standard. I give no absolute judgement upon a question which has not yet, I believe, by an appeal to the country been sufficiently examined; but I recommend much circumspection, and much careful examination before proceeding to steps, or even to the recommendation of steps, which may prove to be at once premature and irretrievable, and which therefore ought not to be hastily adopted.
Now, gentlemen, I have named to you the name of Ireland. You will not be surprised if I think it requires to be more than merely names. I always observe that instead of getting tired of the name of Ireland, our Liberal meetings hail with eagerness at the mention of it, for this reason, no doubt, among others, though not for this reason alone, that they know that the constitutional machine never can do its work until the great Irish question is disposed of.
It is the language of our opponents at present that the Government deserve well of the country for these reasons: first, that they are going to introduce a Local Government Bill for Ireland; and secondly, that their policy in Ireland has been successful. A very few minutes will not be thrown away upon some examination of these propositions. A Local Government Bill is to be introduced, but it to be introduced in consequence of what may fairly be called a deathbed repentance, for this is the sixth year of the Parliament. There was a pledge at the last general election to have no coercion. There was a pledge not to engage British credit for the purchase of Irish land, and there was a pledge to have local government in Ireland. They have spent the first five years in breaking two of their pledges, and in the sixth year, when in articulo mortis, they have a scheme for redeeming the third pledge, and so large is the clemency of the Liberal party that I am sure their altered resolution will be received with open arms. We rejoice in their intention to do the right, even at the last minute of the eleventh or twelfth hour. I admit that one of the reasons why we rejoice is this, that whatever local government they establish in Ireland must assist the Irish people in the demand for their national rights. Every popularly-elected body in Ireland, whatever you may call it, will be a new focus of thought, and will give a new vent for its expression. You may say it will be one of excitement or of agitation, but a focus it will be of something or other which will tend in the direction of the fulfilment of the national wish. And as we have seen the mode in which Toryism received free education this year, and in which it has received some previous measures, so we shall see what sort of a smile the Tory and Dissentient countenance will put on when the Irish Local Government Bill is presented. One thing we know: this Bill will not be a real affirmation of the principle of equal rights. If I have gathered correctly the intentions of the Government from the public journals, it has been announced already that no control of the police will be allowed to the Irish people. Well, but what is the control of the police? First of all, it is that of which in Newcastle I have myself enjoyed the advantage tonight in obtaining access through the admirably ordered streets to the great building in which we are assembled. The towns of this country have full control of the police, and the counties of this country are acquiring it, and very soon will have it in full.
Gentlemen, it is idle to talk of local government without control of the police. Control of the police means making local provision for the safety of life and property, and I affirm that the whole history of local government, from its cradle to its majority, has been the history of a system devised for this purpose before all others - the purpose of enabling the inhabitants of each district to make provision for the security of their own lives and properties. If you talk of a system of local government which does not include a power to the people to secure their lives and property through the police, you might just as well talk of establishing a House of Commons, and yet depriving it of the power of regulating and deciding the taxes of the people. I think, under these circumstances, that we at any rate can afford to wait with perfect calmness and satisfaction the production of the Local Government Bill of the Government. And you may depend upon it that we shall do when it appears is what we have done on all occasions. We shall endeavour to resist and to arrest what is bad; to extend and develop what is good, and to make it subservient to the purposes of sound and enlightened government.
Then you are told also that there has been a great success of the system of government that has been pursued for the last five years in Ireland. I do not accept that assertion. I believe it to be perfectly untrue, and I will give you a very few particulars in support of my disbelief. You will admit that I have got a long way in my speech without troubling you with a single figure. I will give you two or three as I now draw near the close, and I think they are tolerably instructive.
When our opponents talk of crime in Ireland, you must understand that the word bears a totally different meaning to what the word means in England. They do not mean murders, robberies, arsons, rapes, housebreaking, and the like; they mean resistance to the payment of rent. That is the interpretation of the word crime. I admit that out of the refusal to pay rent crime has grown; but then it should be punished as crime, whereas the sole policy of the present Government has been not to punish crime, not to wait to see whether opposition to the payment of rents believed to be unjust or impossible develops into crime, but to interfere with private liberty in a manner which in this country would not have been tolerated for a moment. They would not have dared here to interfere with it, and to have prevented these combinations which have received but too much of justification from the old laws and the old administration of Ireland, which at times undoubtedly have assumed the most formidable character and have been a great plague and curse to the country, while themselves springing out of other evils the nature of which it is not possible now to examine and set forth.
But gentlemen, the present Government have never had to face a serious state of crime in connection with these combinations. In 1885 there were 944 agrarian offences, and that was an increase of no less than 182, or about 20 per cent upon the preceding year. In 1885 the Tories came into office, and proceeding under that view, with that increase of 20 per cent, they declared that they would have nothing to do with the imposition of Coercion upon Ireland. In 1886 there was a further but very much smaller increase. The Election was over; the compact with the Irish National party was at an end. The increase was 112, or say about 10 or 12 instead of 20 per cent. The Tories introduced their Coercion Bill. I will go presently to the cause, the circumstances, under which that increase took place. For the present I only refer to its amount. In the last five years the number of 1056 has been happily diminished to 519, or by one-half. This is trumpeted as a marvellous, as an unprecedented, an almost miraculous success, which nothing but the very climax and perfection of statesmanship could have effected. I see my right hon friend, Sir George Trevelyan, who was in Ireland with Lord Spencer, and what happened then? When Lord Spencer went to Ireland, and when a Liberal Coercion Bill was passed, the number of 4439 was reduced not to one-half, it was reduced to one-sixth. The number in the year 1884, the last year of unbroken Liberal Government, was 762.
But I cannot leave the matter there. I admit that there was a small increase in the number of offences in 1886, and I ask you two questions: first, to what causes was that increase due; and, secondly, to what is due the removal of the increase and the substitution of a diminishing process? That increase was due to two causes. The first was the prevalence of an extreme severity of distress in the year 1886, and the total incapacity of a large portion of the peasant occupiers to pay their rent. That was the first cause; and we know perfectly well that if extreme distress occurs in any district of this country, some increase of offences against the law will infallibly follow. But there was another cause, and it was this: In 1886, Parliament was entreated and conjured from various quarters of the House to make some provision - at least some temporary provision - for meeting this great and heavy pressure of distress in Ireland. But Parliament absolutely refused to make such a provision. The House of Commons did then what the House of Lords had done in 1880, when they were asked to provide compensation for disturbance. They refused to adopt a timely measure that would have adjourned the difficulty until a full examination had been made and a substantive remedy could be applied. The consequence was that an increase of illegality followed the misconduct of the Parliament, that utter and absolute refusal of the Parliament to do its duty in 1886 by making a temporary provision for the incapacity of many Irish occupiers to pay their rent; and that was the cause, and the sole cause, of the increase of offences. The chief responsibility of that increase of agrarian crime, such as it was, rests upon the Government of Lord Salisbury and the Parliament of 1886.
And why have these offences diminished? First of all, because the period of distress has passed away, and with that period of distress the disposition to offence, which of course it stimulated, has passed away also. Secondly, because Parliament in 1887, after the increase of offences had taken place, passed a remedial Act, a supplement to the Land Act of 1881, and in some important respects an extension of the Land Act. The consequence has been that the Irish people have received under the operation of that measure a great amount of relief from difficulties which they were unable to surmount, and therefore the rate of agrarian offences has largely diminished. These are operations with which all persons are familiar who have looked into the history of crime, meaning thereby agrarian crime, in Ireland. As to general crime, I believe I am correct in saying that Ireland does not present a diminution. According to an account which has been supplied me by a gentleman who has himself undertaken the responsibility of authorship on the subject, there is, on the contrary a small increase of ordinary crime in Ireland within the last few years, but of that you hear nothing. No crime seems to be important for exhibiting the state of Ireland in the view of the present Government, except that which touches the collections of the rents of the landlords. But, gentlemen, there is another consideration which has operated more powerfully still in disposing the Irish people towards habits of legality. I am sorry to say that during these five years it is beyond dispute the Irish people have necessarily become more and more estranged from the administration of law, as regards the judicature of the country, as regards the magistracy, as regards the constabulary. For many long years there has not been a time when the people have been more alienated from the action of many members of those bodies, and, above all, from the spirit at headquarters which for the most part controls and governs them. But another counteracting cause of happier origin and happier spirit has powerfully worked upon the Irish people, and that is the friendship of the people of Great Britain. They have seen the conduct of the Liberal party, and they have interpreted that conduct as the true index of the sentiment of the country at large. It is for us to carry to a decisive issue the question whether they are well justified in the interference which they so draw.
But, at the stage which matters have now reached, can we make no appeal to those who oppose us? Can we do nothing to reach their understandings, or to move their hearts? In the hours of silent reflection, and apart from all excitement of passion and of controversy, I ask myself, what is the motive that induces our opponents to persist in this, for them, hopeless contest? Usually a great party engaged in a great battle has some great object before it. What is the object that addresses itself to them? Is it because they are government by fear of the Irish nation? Well the Irish nation are under five millions, and they are always fond of assuring us that out of this five millions two millions are resolute on their side. Then how strange the position! Two millions of Irishmen faced by three millions who it is supposed have diabolical intentions to oppress them! But behind these two millions, a minority one would think not wholly incapable of making some effort at self-defence, behind these two millions there are thirty-five millions of Englishmen, Scotchmen and Welshmen, not one of whom would tolerate for a moment the slightest indication on the part of the Irish majority to oppress the Irish minority. Could fear be at the root of this position? Well, if it is not fear, is it for the reputation of the country that the old policy towards Ireland is continued? Well, gentleman, the reputation of a country is measured by a standard which we can easily get at; it means what its neighbours think of it. The reputation of Russia at this moment is probably very high with certain parties within Russia itself, but would not, I am afraid, be quite so high if measured by the general opinion of the civilised world. But where is the general opinion of the civilised world, where is the reputation of England, with reference to its conduct to Ireland? A condemnatory verdict has long ago been pronounced, and in the whole public opinion and in the whole literature of every civilised country on this or on the other side of the Atlantic, you cannot find a single exception to the rule that every competent, every creditable, every weighty, every decent witness admits, and for generations has proclaimed, in terms most unqualified, that the long inveterate conduct of England towards Ireland has grievously lowered its high character and has been unworthy of its general fame. Is it, then, because they think their policy contributes to the strength of an empire? But the strength of an empire consists in the union of the entire country and all its inhabitants, and it is not strength but weakness which results, and must result from compelling the people of Ireland to continue in permanent alienation from the legislation of this country on those matters which lie nearest to their heart, and which they believe to be the most vitally connected with their interest. Is it, then, to the interest of the public purse? Well, the public purse is a question on which I should always endeavour to speak with strict accuracy; but I will venture to say that a sum not less, probably more, than three millions of money is annually thrown into the sea under the operation of our present legislation towards Ireland, which would be retrieved if that legislation underwent a beneficial change. And unhappily this is not merely money wasted, but money spent if not for the purpose of producing, yet with the effect of producing, alienation and estrangement, and the value of which, could it be stated as a money value, is far greater than waste.
Well, lastly, gentlemen, we have the fact of the arrears of public business. You never can overtake the mass of work in which you are already involved, and which increases from year to year, until this terrible Irish controversy is out of the way. The effect of it has been, during the whole of my political life, that a fraction of the population of the United Kingdom, hardly amounting to one-eighth or one-ninth part, necessarily consumes an enormous portion of its legislative time, and makes it impossible for it to perform its proper office. Well, gentlemen, you have come to the period at which it is quite clear that there must be either friendship or enmity with Ireland. But I wish to call your attention to one important circumstance, and it is this: There has been, unfortunately, that alternative before England for centuries; but in other ages, when enmity and not friendship was chosen as the alternative, it was the enmity of states or of classes, and not the enmity of peoples. But you have arrived at a point decisive in your history; and now for the future if, say after the next election, this enmity is to continue it will be the enmity of peoples and not of states. To see one country oppressed by the rulers of another state is heartrending. But gentlemen, this is not a question of cruel tyrants; this is not a question of selfish oligarchies. Six millions of you, by your votes, determine the course which the Imperial policy is to follow, and with that power you must accept the duties and the responsibilities which belong to it. If Ireland is oppressed hereafter it will be oppressed by you, by the people of this country, and allow me to say that the spectacle of one people oppressing another is a spectacle of the saddest, the most heartrending, and perhaps the most revolting which the wide surface of the earth can present to the human eye. I will never believe that this great nation will place itself in such a position. And in truth, gentlemen, this friendship has been considered, and has, as we think, in some degree been decided. The declaration has been made, and made in favour of friendship. It has been made in the most constitutional manner, by the exercise of the elective franchise, and by the results obtained at the polls. Those results, which for a long time were overlooked or ridiculed by the organs and the voices of our opponents, they now begin to see and to admit to be somewhat formidable to their plans, and the only refuge which remains to them is in "the play of other parts of the constitution." No, gentlemen, we believe that those elections which have tested here, there, and everywhere, in constituencies of every possible variety, the sense of the people, have afforded us a safe indication of that which is to come. The sense of these constituencies has been declared, and what has it said? It has uttered words of soberness, of justice, and of truth. But there are some ears in this world to which unhappily that which is sober, just, and true has but a slow and partial access. Let them, then, reflect on this; the verdicts that the constituencies have spoken are not only that which is sober, just, and true, but also they speak what everyone will understand: they speak the inevitable. Upon these verdicts Ireland relies. You have watched the conduct of Ireland in the difficult circumstances of the last nine months, and that conduct I do not hesitate to risk saying on your behalf has evoked in every breast a responsive voice of sympathy, and an increased conviction that we may deal freely and yet deal prudently with our fellow-subjects beyond the Channel. Such is your conviction. On her side she reposes in full trust on the evidence of the recent facts; she believes that when the opportunity arrives, the general sense of the country will ratify the judgement that has already been given at nearly a hundred points of its surface; she believes that the entire people of Great Britain will, by a great and decisive majority, determine to meet and to dispose of those demands which are now made upon them, she believes, alike by their honour, by their interest, and by their duty before God and man.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|