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Maiden Speech

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 F.E. Smith's Maiden Speech.

Photo above:
F.E. Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead. Photographer: Elliott & Fry.

It follows the full text transcript of F.E. Smith's first parliamentary speech, delivered in the House of Commons at London, UK — March 12, 1906.

The principles and practice of free trade had been previously debated, the debate had been adjourned and was resumed on March 12.


F.E. Smith - Speech 1906 Mr. F. E. Smith: Mr. Speaker, sir,

in whatever section of the House hon. members may sit, or however profoundly they may differ from the economic views which underlie the remarks of the hon. member for Blackburn [Mr. Snowden], they will all, at least, desire to join in a tribute to the sincerity and ability displayed in the speech he has just delivered. Speaking for myself, I confess that I have been struck by the admissions which have been made by those hon. members who have spoken in favor of this resolution.

I venture to ask hon. members on the ministerial side, at the height of their triumph, to consider for a moment what is implicitly involved in their concessions. The hon. member for Blackburn has just told the House that sixty years of free trade have absolutely failed to ameliorate the condition of the working classes. That is a statement upon which the Opposition have reached some degree of agreement with the hon. member.

Where, however, we part company with him, is not upon the great and growing importance of still further ameliorating the condition of the working classes, but upon the feasibility of effectively assisting thirteen million people on the verge of starvation by a revision of railway rates, by unexplained dealings with mine-owners, or by loose, mischievous, and predatory proposals affecting those who happen to own land.

The hon. gentleman spoke with bitterness almost with contempt of persons possessing large incomes. I would entreat hon. members to make quite sure that they have cleared their minds of cant upon this question. When I hear vague and general proposals put forward at the expense of large incomes, without any precise explanation as to the principle upon which, or the extent to which those incomes are to be appropriated or tapped for the service of those who are less fortunate, I should like to make an elementary observation, that there are very few members in this House, whether in Opposition or on the benches opposite or below the gangway, whose principal business occupation it is not to provide themselves with as large an income as they honestly can.

If there is one profession to which that charge cannot be applied, it is, perhaps, the profession to which I myself belong. I, therefore, attach little importance to disparaging observations upon the rich, either from the hon. gentleman or from anyone else. Nor do I believe that the policy of unduly burdening the rich will be found on a just consideration of the action and interaction of economic forces to be of real advantage to the poor. Labour, after all, is immobile, whereas capital is always fugitive.

What other remedies has the hon. gentleman for the evils which he so clearly appreciates? He and his friends are alike barren in suggestion. Unemployment yearly grows chronic over a larger area, while a Parliament of Free Importers celebrates in academic resolutions the economic system which has depopulated rural England, has filled the emigrant steamers with fugitives from these happy shores, and has aggravated the evils of the most revolting slums in Christendom.

The progress of tonight's debate makes one profoundly conscious of the constructive shortcomings of the Cobdenism of today. I myself am a perfectly unrepentant member of the Tariff Reform League. I do not know how many members of the league there may be in the House; it may be that a division would show that they are not more numerous than the representatives of the Liberal League. I have, at least, the satisfaction of reflecting that, if tariff reform is found not to be a winning horse, I have not necessarily compromised my political future. I have in hon. and right hon. gentlemen opposite an admirable example of how to cut the painter of a similar league, with the maximum of political advancement, and the minimum of fidelity to a founder. Such a model of chivalrous loyalty is of great value to a young member of Parliament.

I suppose the resolution has been charitably designed to call attention to differences existing or supposed to exist in the Opposition. I should have thought that we might have looked to hon. gentlemen opposite for a little more charity. Hon. gentlemen opposite have had analogous difficulties. The question of when a tariff becomes protective is no doubt difficult, but not more so than the conundrum "When is a slave not a slave?" or the problem when, if ever, preferential treatment should be given to Roman Catholic schools.

All great political parties have skeletons in the cupboard, some with manacles on, and some with only their hands behind their backs. The quarrel I have with hon. gentlemen opposite is that they show an astonishing indelicacy in attempting to drag our skeleton into the open. Not satisfied with tomahawking our colleagues in the country, they ask the scanty remnant in the House to join in the scalp dance.

I do not think we can complain of the tone of a single speech which has been made from the opposite side of the House. We were particularly pleased with the remarks which fell from the hon. member for East Toxteth [Mr. Austin Taylor], for he entered the House, not like his new colleagues, on the crest of the wave, but rather by means of an opportune dive. Every one in the House will appreciate his presence, because there can be no greater compliment paid to the House by a member, than that he should be in our midst, when his heart is far away, and it must be clear to all who know the hon. member's scrupulous sense of honor, that his desire must be at the present moment to be amongst his constituents, who are understood to be at least as anxious to meet him.

The resolution before the House consists of two parts. In the first, we are asked to recognize the merits of what is described on an obscure prescriptive principle as free trade, and, in the second, we are invited to register the proposition that the country gave an unqualified verdict in its favor.

The word "unqualified" is in itself ambiguous, and may have more than one meaning. If we say that a man is an unqualified slave, we mean that his condition can be honestly described as completely servile, and not, merely, as semi-servile. If, on the other hand, we say that a man is an unqualified medical practitioner, or an unqualified Under-Secretary, we mean that he is not entitled to any particular respect, because he has not passed through the normal period of training, or preparation. It is, on the whole, probable that the word is used in the first sense in the present motion.

But, perhaps, it is necessary to distinguish even further. When hon. gentlemen opposite are successful at the polls, it is probably used in the first sense. In the comparatively few cases in which I and my friends were successful, it is used in the second. Birmingham, under circumstances which will never be effaced from the memory of hon. gentlemen, on whichever side of the House they sit, displayed the rare and beautiful quality of political constancy, and voted in all its divisions for tariff reform. [Laughter.] The result is sneered at, in the spirit of the laughter which we have just heard, as a triumph for Tammanyism, or, more profoundly analyzed by an eminent Nonconformist divine, as an instance of that mysterious dispensation, which occasionally permits the ungodly to triumph.

Hon. gentlemen opposite are, in fact, very much more successful controversialists than hon. members on this side of the House. It is far easier, if one is a master of scholarly irony, and of a charming literary style, to describe protection as a "stinking rotten carcass" than to discuss scientifically whether certain limited proposals are likely to prove protective in their incidence. It is far easier, if one has a strong stomach, to suggest to simple rustics, as the President of the Board of Trade [Mr. Lloyd-George] did, that, if the Tories came into power, they would introduce slavery on the hills of Wales.

Mr. Lloyd-George:
I did not say that.

Mr. F.E. Smith:
The right hon. gentleman would, no doubt, be extremely anxious to forget it, if he could. But, anticipating a temporary lapse of memory, I have in my hand the Manchester Guardian of January 16, 1906, which contains a report of his speech. The right hon. gentleman said:

"What would they say to introducing Chinamen at 1s. a day into the Welsh quarries? Slavery on the hills of Wales! Heaven forgive me for the suggestion!"

I have no means of judging how Heaven will deal with persons, who think it decent to make such suggestions. The distinction drawn by the right hon. gentleman is more worthy of the county court than of the Treasury Bench. I express a doubt whether any honest politician will ever acquit the right hon. gentleman of having deliberately given the impression to those he thus addressed that, if the Conservative party were returned, the hills of Wales would be polluted by conditions of industrial slavery.

The alternative construction is that the right hon. gentleman thought it worth his while, in addressing ignorant men [Cries of " No"] — In relation to the right hon. gentleman they are ignorant. Is that disputed? to put before ignorant men an abstract and academic statement as to Chinese labor on the hills of Wales. If he did not mean his hearers to draw the false but natural inference, why make any reference to Chinese slavery as a conceivable prospect on the hills of Wales?

Was even Manchester won on the free trade issue? [Cries of " Yes."] I hear hon. gentlemen opposite say "Yes." I think they must be from the south of England. If Manchester was won on the free trade issue, perhaps hon. gentlemen will explain why repeated meetings were devoted to the less effective and attractive cry, and why specialist speakers like Mr. Creswell were brought down to discourse to the electors on the evils of Chinese slavery.

Mr. Speaker, I am not unaware that, owing to the eccentricities of municipal geography, Salford is not, technically, a part of Manchester, but a Salford member is near enough to wear the green turban of a pilgrimage to Cobden's Mecca. The hon. member for Salford [Mr. Hilaire Belloc] has stated that he was returned to the House, pledged to urge insistently on the Government, which profited by a false cry, the immediate repatriation of the coolies now on the Rand. Shall I be told that in that case the electors were giving an unqualified verdict for Cobdenism, or for what is called in this resolution free trade?

I do not think that the hon. and learned gentleman, who fought so strenuously in East Manchester [Mr. T. G. Horridge], will get up and tell the House that in his constituency the verdict was an unqualified one for free trade. I have some choice specimens of the bread that he threw on the waters in order, I suppose, to elicit this unqualified verdict.

He is reported, in the Manchester Guardian of 13th January, to have said that the Chinese had not been the means of bringing one single piece of white labor to South Africa. The hon. and learned gentleman appears to think that white labor is introduced in slabs. He said:

"You are voting, if you vote for Mr. Balfour, for the exclusion of white labor from South Africa"

— not for Cobdenism. The hon. gentleman continued: "Where was that thing going to stop?"

Mr. Speaker, this is precisely what we should like to know today. "Were they going to have Chinamen working in the mills at Bradford? Let the people of this division show by their votes" what? Their devotion to free imports? No "That they would have none of this wretched coolie labor in South Africa, and strike a blow for freedom tomorrow at the polls."

There is an interesting point of analogy between the hon. and learned gentleman and the "wretched coolies," of whom he has so low an opinion. Today he is in, and they are in, and it rather looks as if they are going to remain in as long as he and his friends.

It was in this way that the poorer districts of Manchester were captured Cobden's Manchester. Did the hon. member, the Under-Secretary for the Colonies [Mr. Winston Churchill], use his great and growing local influence on behalf of what in his heart and conscience he knew to be the truth? I say "on behalf of what he knew to be the truth," because the hon. member is reported in the Manchester Guardian, as having said on June 12, 1903, that he was quite sure that supplies of native or Chinese labor would have to be obtained, and ought to be obtained for the mines in the interests of South Africa as a whole.

I will not weary the House with the whole of the Under-Secretary's peroration. I rather think it has been at the disposal of both parties in the House before undertaking a provincial tour.

Mr. Speaker, it is easy for the Under-Secretary to come to the House and state in the debate on the Address that he attempted to confine the issue at the election to the single point of Cobdenism, to the single merits of free trade, and that he had therefore no responsibility for an incendiary campaign. To that I reply, proximus ucalegon ardebat, which I may venture to construe proximus, in an adjacent constituency; ucalegon, the hon. and learned gentleman [Mr. T. G. Horridge]; ardebat, was letting off Chinese crackers.

The Under-Secretary did not then explain that the coolie processions, which his learned friend was so forward in organizing, were merely contributions to the problem of the unemployed, or that slavery was a terminological inexactitude. He profited by the storm of generous anger which these falsehoods, being believed, excited among the Lancashire democracy. He took what he could get, and thanked God for it. Mr. Speaker, the role of the receiver of stolen reputations is rather less respectable in the eyes of the man of spirit, than that of the principal thief.

I must, however, in candor admit that the question of cheap food was brought forward in many constituencies with great persistency and ingenuity. The hon. member for North Paddington [Mr. Chiozza Money], with an infinitely just appreciation of his own controversial limitations, relied chiefly on an intermittent exhibition of horse sausages as a witty, graceful, and truthful sally at the expense of the great German nation.

I do not understand what the Secretary of State for War means by saying that the Liberal Party has no ideas. The Liberal League always was a drag upon the holy wheel of progress. In Wales, apparently, they like it strong, and the President of the Board of Trade [Mr. Lloyd-George] informed one favored audience how large a part horse-flesh plays in the simple diet of the German home. The same speaker is never tired of maintaining that protection has tainted and corrupted German public life. I understand that any trade negotiations which may become necessary with Germany must be conducted through the right hon. gentleman. I am not sanguine of the outcome. If you have a difficult business transaction to carry through with a competitor, a prudent reflection would perhaps suggest that it is unwise to describe him publicly as a corrupt scoundrel, subsisting principally upon the flesh of horses.

I do not suppose that, now the fight is over, now that the strategy has been so brilliantly successful, away from the license of the platform, in the House, where their statements can be met and dealt with, hon. gentlemen will deny that the immediate effect of a 2s. duty on corn will be an illimitable development of colonial acreage suitable for the growth of wheat. [Cries of " Oh, oh," and loud derisive laughter.] I am astonished to hear sounds of derisive dissent, for I rather thought that at the time when Lord Rosebery, from whom I was quoting with verbal precision, made that prediction to frighten the English farmer from tariff reform, hon. gentlemen were in the same tabernacle, or furrow, or whatever was the momentary rendezvous of the Liberal party.

At the moment, hon. gentlemen will recollect, the other ship looked like sinking; there was a temporary slump in the "methods of barbarism " section. I venture to ask hon. gentlemen, to tell us in the candor of victory, whether any one really doubts that Canada would, in a few years, be able, under judicious stimulation, to supply the whole English consumption of wheat? [Cries of " No, no."] Sir Wilfrid Laurier says it can, and hon. gentlemen say it cannot. Perhaps the Under-Secretary for the Colonies [Mr. Winston Churchill], whom I am sorry not to see in his place, will put Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the black list with Lord Milner, [Mr. Churchill had recently stated in the House of Commons that he did not feel called upon to protect Lord Milner in the future.] and refuse to protect him any longer.

Does the House recollect La Fontaine's insect, the species is immaterial, which expired under the impression that it had afforded a lifelong protection to the lion, in whose carcass its life was spent?

There is hardly a Canadian statesman who does not go further than Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the direction of tariff reform. Earlier in the debate some reference was made to Mr. Fisher, and I desire to speak of Mr. Fisher's views and ability with great respect; it is not necessary to vilify any colonial politician with whom you disagree. But, in Canada, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Goldwin Smith are in a minority of two, and Canada has almost reached the stage one day, I hope, to be attained in England of exhibiting Free Importers in her museums.

An official report, ordered by the United States Government in 1902, found the district contributory to Winnipeg capable, within the lives of persons still living, of supplying enough wheat to provide for the consumption of the world. If this be true, or half true, what becomes of the nightmare of apprehension, which has made hon. gentlemen opposite so infinitely tedious for the last few years? If an illimitable supply of Canadian corn is coming in untaxed, what becomes of the little loaf? Once again, I recognize in hon. gentlemen opposite our electioneering masters, and I compliment them, if not on an unqualified verdict, at any rate, upon an unqualified inexactitude.

Some hon. gentleman ventured upon a more ambitious line of argument, and, in doing so, permanently enriched the economic knowledge of the country. We were told that it is not a disadvantage, but rather an advantage, that English factories should be removed abroad. Perhaps some consistent logician will shortly introduce a Bill offering bounties to capitalists who remove their works abroad. Let us by all means drive from the country everybody who has work to give, and then wave banners, like the hon. member for Merthyr Tydvil [Mr. Keir Hardie], in the "Right to Work Committee."

A fortnight ago hon. gentlemen opposite, calling in aid every resource of pathos, indulged in beautiful sentiments about the feeding of starving children. If the matter had been pressed to a division, I should have voted with them, but I should have done so without prejudice to my convictions as to the economic system which gave rise to the necessity. I should like to know how hon. gentlemen opposite explain the growing poverty of the poor. [Ministerial cries of " The War."]

Since this House of Commons met, we have heard a great deal about the war. I would suggest to hon. gentlemen, as a humble admirer of their methods, that, if they wish for targets in that matter, they ought to aim, not at the Opposition Benches, but at right hon. gentlemen who sit on the Front Government Bench.

Hon. gentle men opposite should remember that the present Secretary of State for War [Mr. Haldane] justly observed that the Boers waged the war, not only with the object of maintaining their independence, but also to undermine our authority in South Africa. And the present Attorney-General [Sir John Lawson Walton] said that the war could be shown to be as just, as it was inevitable, and to have been defensible on the grounds of freedom.

The circumstances of which you complain were anterior to the war. While the only panacea which hon. gentlemen opposite can suggest is the employment of broken-down artisans in planting trees, and constructing dams against the encroachment of the sea, the Unionist party need not be discouraged by their reverses at the polls. We will say of the goddess who presides over the polls, as Dryden said of Fortune in general:

I can enjoy her while she's kind;
But when she dances in the wind,
And shakes her wings, and will not stay,
I puff the prostitute away.

Was the verdict unqualified, having regard to the aggregate number of votes polled on behalf of Liberal members? The votes polled at the last election for Liberal, Labour, and Nationalist candidates were 3,300,000, while those polled for tariff reform candidates and other gentlemen sitting around me were 2,500,000. [Cries of " No ! Not true ! "] I gather that it is suggested that my figures are wrong. [Cries of " Yes."] They very probably are. I took them from the Liberal Magazine.

Perhaps the Minister of Education [Mr. Birrell, formerly Chairman of the Liberal Publications Department] was responsible for them, before he gave up the hecatomb line of business for the Christian toleration and charity department. I venture to suggest to hon. gentlemen opposite, that the figures I have quoted, so far as they are accurate, are not altogether discouraging to those who, for the first time after so many years of blind dogma, have challenged the verdict of the country on the issue of tariff reform.

What would hon. gentlemen who represent Ireland say, if it was suggested that they were Cobdenites? Will one of them get up to say that Cobdenism has brought prosperity or success to Ireland, or to guarantee that a representative Irish Parliament would not introduce a general tariff on foreign manufactured articles? The jury who gave this unqualified verdict are unaccountably silent. The spectacle of the Cobdenite hen cackling over a protectionist duckling of her own hatching in Ireland would add a partially compensating element of humor even to the prospect of Home Rule.

The Irish, and I may add, the Indian case for tariff reform were both once and for all conceded by the " infant community " admission of Adam Smith. Why do we force upon India and Ireland alike a system, of which every honest man knows that whether it be good or bad for us it denies to them the right to develop and mature their nascent industries upon the lines in which they themselves most earnestly believe, and in which every country in the world except Great Britain believes?

The answer is as short, as it is discreditable. We perpetuate this tyranny, in order that our Indian and Irish fellow-subjects may be forced to buy from our manufacturers articles which they would otherwise attempt to manufacture for themselves. In other words, we perpetuate in these two cases a compulsory and unilateral trade preference demonstrably the fruit of selfishness at the sacrifice of a voluntary and bilateral preference, based deep and strong upon mutual interest and mutual affection.

I have heard the majority on the other side of the House described as the pure fruit of the Cobdenite tree. I should rather say that they were begotten by Chinese slavery out of passive resistance, by a rogue sire out of a dam that roared. I read a short time ago that the Free Church Council claimed among its members as many as two hundred of hon. gentlemen opposite. [Ministerial cries of " Oh ! "]

The Free Church Council gave thanks publicly for the fact that Providence had inspired the electors with the desire and the discrimination to vote on the right side.

Mr. Speaker, I do not, more than another man, mind being cheated at cards. But I find it a little nauseating if my opponent then proceeds to ascribe his success to the favor of the Most High. What the future of this Parliament has in store for right hon. and hon. gentlemen opposite I do not know, but I hear that the Government propose to deny to the Colonial Conference of 1907 free discussion on the subject which the House is now debating, so as to prevent the statement of unpalatable truths.

I know that I am the insignificant representative of an insignificant numerical minority in this House, but I venture to warn the Government that the people of this country will neither forget nor forgive a party which, in the heyday of its triumph, denies to the infant Parliament of the Empire one jot or tittle of that ancient liberty of speech, which our predecessors in this House vindicated for themselves at the point of the sword.


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