14 June 1929, Chingford, Essex
Events have fallen out as I warned you they would unless all the Conservative forces gave Mr. Baldwin the same support as they did in 1924. A Socialist Government is now in control of our affairs. They are in office, but fortunately they are not in power. We are to have another spell of Socialist minority rule. The Conservative party, although sadly depleted, is strong enough to be an effective check upon the Socialist Administration.
The Liberal party has dismally failed. Its wrecking tactics have done an immense amount of harm to everyone except the Socialists, and have done no good to Liberals and Liberalism. Their outlook is forlorn. By running five hundred candidates and sabotaging at least forty or fifty seats, they have, I believe, gained a dozen more members in the House of Commons. It reminds me of a phrase of John Ruskin’s “A wreckers’ handful of coin gathered from the beach to which they had lured an argosy.”
However, all this is in the past and we have to look to the future, and I am glad that in the House of Commons there is a fairly substantial anti-Socialist majority. However bitterly this majority may be divided it nevertheless constitutes a safeguard for the fundamental interests and liberties of our country. This is the explanation of the composure with which the nation has accepted Mr. MacDonald and his colleagues. But the situation is nevertheless precarious and might at any time become dangerous.
The Socialist Party has gained office by making promises they could not fulfil, which probably their leaders had no intention to try to fulfil. As long as the Socialists govern the country in a sensible manner and try to do their duty at home and abroad in the general interest of the British people, no one will grudge them the valuable educational experience which official responsibility confers. Mr. MacDonald has appealed for two years of peace and quiet in order to allow the revival of trade and industry to continue. No one, least of all those would have just laid down the burden, would be anxious to deprive him of his opportunity. The Socialist Ministers have therefore only to follow the well-tried principles of social and economic progress, to seek peace abroad and maintain order and freedom at home to enjoy a considerable reign.
Whether they will do so or will be allowed to do so depends not upon the Conservative party or the Liberal party but entirely upon their own extreme supporters. As long as the Socialist Government drop all this nonsense about Socialism, nationalisation of industry, fantastic expenditure and taxation, wild schemes for “monkeying” with the currency and credit systems on which we depend, and as long as they do not give away the rights and interests of Britain to foreign countries or endanger the safety and unity of the Empire, everyone will be glad that they should have their turn and a fair chance to see if they can make things go a little better. But, on the other hand, if they are forced by their wild men into extreme courses or even into foolish and disastrous experiments it will be our duty to resist them with the utmost vigour and complete fearlessness.
I wish to make it perfectly clear that I consider that the late Government was a very good Government, and that our late Prime Minister and present leader, Mr. Baldwin, has rendered immense services to the country by his calm, steady, and recuperative period of power, and also by his manly, dignified, and straightforward example on all occasions, whether in good fortune or bad. Whatever our difficulties or dangers may be, we face them united under a leader who claims confidence because he represents the soundest principles of British government and the best traditions of British public life. Do not let us waste time and energy in carping and recriminations, but press forward tirelessly and earnestly with the task for a far greater and more decisive struggle with the Socialist menace, which, believe me, will be the next great political issue.
There are two points upon which we ought to require special assurance at the present time. The first is about the Safeguarding and McKenna duties.* We must know and we must know without delay what the Government is going to do. This is no time to bring political spite and partisanship into British industry. We cannot afford to disturb, damage, and discourage important industries by making their affairs mere pawns in the party game. As Chancellor of the Exchequer I have borne a direct responsibility for the imposition or reimposition of these duties. To remove them would be a needless, wanton, and entirely superfluous act.
But whatever is going to be done we had better know it at once. In ordinary questions of finance the Chancellor of the Exchequer is always entitled to reserve himself before the Budget, but the removal of the McKenna and Safeguarding duties are not matters of finance. They are pure politics. The new Government knows perfectly well what they are going to do about them, and we ought to be told without delay. I hope you will approve of my supporting Mr. Baldwin in raising this matter at the earliest opportunity.
The second question which seems to require urgent attention affects the safety and power of the country and the whole life and cohesion of the British Empire. I mean, of course, the maintenance of the British navy at the minimum strength necessary to enable us to guarantee the security of our food supplies and our trade and to preserve the necessary contact with the widespread Dominions and possessions of the British Crown. I am very glad to have recovered my full freedom of speech upon this grave subject, with which in one form or another I have been almost ceaselessly concerned during the last twenty years.
At the Washington Conference of 1921 we agreed with the United States to abandon altogether that supremacy at sea which we had enjoyed for at least a hundred years, which we had never abused, and which in the late war enabled the United States to participate in the general victory. We abandoned that position willingly and sincerely, and we accepted the new principle that Britain and the United States should be equal Powers upon the sea. I was one of those principally responsible for that decision. It was a tremendous decision, and it is irrevocable.
But that decision implied two conditions. The first was that special regard should be had to the entirely different circumstances of this crowded island, which can be starved in a few weeks, and the great continent in which the people of the United States dwell so safely and so prosperously. It would not, in my opinion, be a fair interpretation of the principle of equal power upon the sea if a mere numerical measure of two fleets, each the replica of the other, were to be made the rule. Then we should not have equality, but under the guise of equality an absolute and final inferiority.
Such a result I intend to resist, and I shall claim your support in so doing.
The second condition which seems to me to be vital to the faithful and successful carrying into effect of the doctrine of equal power upon the sea is that any agreement between Great Britain and the United Statesmust be based upon a tolerant and good-hearted spirit towards naval affairs on both sides of the Atlantic. If naval equality is to lead to a jealous and suspicious scrutiny of every ship and every gun and every armour plate between the two navies it would be much better to have no agreement at all and for each of us to go our own way, acting sensibly and soberly and in a neighbourly fashion, but free and unfettered.
Since Mr. Hoover became President of the United States it has seemed to me, at any rate, that a more comprehending and sympathetic spirit has been imparted to the policy of the United States, not only towards this country but towards Europe in general. It was the intention of the late Government, and particularly of Mr. Baldwin and Sir Austin Chamberlain, to make sure that a similar contribution of goodwill and fair play should be forthcoming from the British Empire. After all, the growth of friendship and mutual trust among the English-speaking people remains the supreme object of world politics and is to-day the surest means of the final and utter expulsion from the thoughts of men of the hideous tragedy and hateful processes of war. We shall await from the new Government a very early declaration of the steps which they propose to take in what I believe is an auspicious hour for the achievement of those high and noble aims.
*In the September 1915 budget Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the wartime coalition government, introduced a 33.3 levy on luxury imports to help pay for the war. These “McKenna Duties” were intended as temporary, but lasted until 1956. In 1921 the Safeguarding of Industries act placed duties of 33.3 percent on 6500 items of goods believed to be of strategic importance, such as scientific instruments and glassware (the duty on optical glass was 50 percent). Labour was the party of Free Trade in the 1920s and did allow the Safeguarding duties to lapse. Churchill, as a returned Conservative, was abandoning his Free Trade principles in support of the duties, which his party espoused.