David Lloyd George – 1928 Speech at the National Liberal Federation

The speech made by David Lloyd George, the former Prime Minister, on 12 October 1928.

I have to apologise for interrupting your agenda and for taking up a part of your morning conference, and I should not do so if I had not what is known in Parliamentary language as a definite matter of urgent public importance to put before you.

We are on the eve of what may turn out to be one of the greatest and most momentous general elections in the history of the country, and there are questions which arise before the election and in reference to the conduct of the party after the election with regard to which it is well we should take counsel.

We have had the group system in the Parliamentary affairs of this country for some time. It is difficult to predict what may happen in the future, but it looks as if it were to become an integral part of the democratic machinery of this land, at any rate, for a long time to come. Extremists to the Right and extremists to the Left will probably always have their separate organisations, and there will always be a body of sane opinion in the middle that will also seek definite expression. The problem in front of us is what will happen to us in the next Parliament if none of those groups is able to secure a definite majority that will enable them to form an Administration and to carry through their task during the lifetime of that Parliament.

There has been a good deal of discussion on the subject. The Prime Minister, addressing a meeting in Yarmouth, issued a challenge to the Liberal Party as to what we should do if we were in a minority. Would it not be better that he should have answered that question himself? Is he not just as likely to be in a minority as any other party? If he is, will he support a Liberal Government or a Labour Government? I know which he would prefer, but he dare not say so. But we are just as entitled to ask the question of him as he is to address it to us.

And the Socialists have been very busy discussing the same question, and rightfully so. It is a matter of growing urgency, and may become a very urgent problem in June of next year. It is right we should all be in a position to give our answer when the time comes. On the last occasion, owing to the action of Mr. Baldwin, that crisis was precipitated upon the parties without our being ready, and we had to come to our decisions in a hurry. Now we have plenty of time to think about it. Let us do so.

Some of the Socialists are discussing it in a manner which is temperate, courteous, and fair. There are others who are exceedingly offensive. They rudely refuse invitations that were never extended to them. It will be time enough for them to answer, to refuse offensively, when they get a card from the Liberal Party with R.S.V.P. written on it. It has not been issued yet, but that does not prevent us from being alive to the importance of discussing it among ourselves, or clearing our own minds so that when the crisis arises leaders will have the mind of the party upon the subject, and will be able to come to a clear, definite decision.

A Question that must be Faced

During the last few weeks more particularly the leaders of the party have been meeting to discuss the matter between themselves, and what I say about it will not be the expression of my own opinion, but the collective opinion of the leaders of the party. I know it would be very easy to shirk giving the answer. There is the famous answer given by Abraham Lincoln when he was asked what he would do in a certain contingency. He did not particularly want to answer, so he said: ‘I never cross the Fox river until I come to it.’ Well, I do not think that will do now. Candidates are being asked what we mean to do in certain contingencies. Liberal electors want to know, and the general electorate of this country, especially the wavering electorate which is terrified of Socialism, want to know what Liberals will do before they make up their minds. We propose to answer them, and I am going to ask your patience even if I refer more than I am in the habit of doing to notes, because this is an important occasion, and I want not only to weigh my words, carefully, but to give as careful expression to them as possible.

Let us review the possibilities of the next general election. I am much too old a hand to commit myself to a forecast, especially under present conditions. If it were a straight fight I would predict to you that the Tory Party would not get 200 members in the next Parliament. But it will not be a straight fight.

There are three predictions I will make. The first is that there will be an overwhelming majority of votes recorded in condemnation of the present Government. They are in a minority of a million now. There will be many more millions against them the next time. It will be an avalanche. The next prediction I make is that there will be an enormous accession of strength to the Liberal poll; and the third is that whatever party will be in a majority it will not be the Socialists.

Our Grotesque Electoral System

But even if there is a sweeping reduction in the Tory poll and a doubling and trebling of the Liberal vote, that is no guarantee as to the composition of the next Parliament, and that is the new element of doubt which has been introduced. We have an anomalous, unjust, and grotesque electoral system which is a fraud and a mockery of democracy. Just look at it. In the present Parliament there is one Tory member for every nineteen thousand votes recorded at the last election. There is a Socialist member for every thirty-six thousand votes. There is a Liberal member for every seventy thousand votes. Under those conditions no one can judge what will happen with a system of that kind. In the South of England, as everybody knows, there are eleven counties, and for four hundred thousand votes recorded for the Liberals there is only one Liberal member. And if it had worked in the same sort of way in the rest of the country there is no reason why the remaining two and a half million votes should not have only four members. We were lucky enough to get forty. Really we might have got five.

Under this system in the next general election nobody can tell which way it will work, whether for Liberals, whether for the Socialists, whether for the Conservatives. In 1923 there was one Liberal member for Manchester for every fourteen thousand Liberal votes and one Tory member for one hundred thousand votes. You never know how this special Providence will work.

Next time the Liberals may have only a third of the members they would be entitled to in proportion to their votes, but they might have twice as many as they are entitled to. You cannot predict under those circumstances. This is not government, it is a gamble and, next time, who can tell? When that little ball stops rolling it may drop in the Liberal number. At the by-elections the Liberal strength is growing and the Conservative is waning, and the Labour strength is something in between the two. One of the most encouraging features of the last two years is that we have won five by-elections in triangular contests. The tide is rising. We were stranded on this sandbank in 1924, but the tide of sanity is rising, and next time it will enable the Liberal craft to float over the sandbanks and the reefs of the electoral system.

They say, ‘There is a difference between a by-election and a general election.’ Don’t I know it! There will be a difference this time, and I want to tell you why. When you come to a general election the electorate will be face to face with deciding who is to govern them for the next five years; whether they are going to renew the mandate, the trust, the authority of the people who have let the country down so badly, who have done nothing to pull it through our great trade emergency, and who have thoroughly muddled the cause of peace and disarmament in the world. They will hesitate, and they will look round, and they will say, ‘What is the alternative?’ They will look at the Socialists, and one look will be enough. They will pass by on the other side. And if the Socialists were the only alternative, I honestly believe the electors of this country would say, “Well, all we can do is to put the other fellow in again and trust to Providence; a Providence that has extricated this old country very often from the muddles made by its Ministers and its statesmen, and which may help us through in spite of these muddlers”.

The Alternative Government

But there is another alternative, and we have got to present it – the alternative in policy, the alternative in programme, the alternative in a definite scheme of practical work to extricate the nation out of its difficulties. And I should like you to allow me one word on that. We do not dwell on our assets. We are a modest party. But I want to say this, that Liberalism can command a larger number of men of high distinction who can point to unchallenge­able success in responsible spheres of activity for their country than any other party in the State.

I will just run over a few of the names. Lord Reading, one of the most successful leaders that this country ever had at a very critical moment. To his financial advice we owe more than I can tell you. As Viceroy in a critical moment he pulled us through very grave difficulties. There are men like Lord Beauchamp and Lord Buxton, who showed wisdom in positions demanding judgement, tact, and dexterity as Governors of some of our greatest Dominions. There is Sir Herbert Samuel, who achieved such success as the first Governor of probably the most renowned country in the world. And if you will allow me to say so, there is nothing I am prouder of than the fact that as Prime Minister I had the honour of recommending him to that post to the Crown. There is Sir John Simon, the greatest lawyer in the British Empire, who has been chosen by the present Government, who have on a second occasion shown their confidence in the Liberal leaders. In the first place, they did it for Sir Herbert Samuel and now for Sir John Simon by appointing him at the head of the Commission to decide, I should say, one of the most delicate and difficult problems of the Empire today. I had the pleasure of consulting him about this statement before he left for India, and he is in full accord. And then we have men who have held very high offices in the State, like Lord Grey, Mr. Runciman, and our Chairman (Sir Chas. Hobhouse), Mr. Macpherson, Dr. Macnamara, who was responsible for the whole present system of unemployed insurance, which, in my judgment, has saved a vast amount of suffering, and, I think, saved this country probably from revolution. And if there were testimonials required for another Liberal leader I could get a sheaf of them signed by some of the most distinguished members of the Tory Government today as to the services rendered by him to the Empire.

There is no other party which can call together such an assembly of men for the direction of the affairs of the nation, who can show such a record of successful achievement in exalted and highly responsible positions. I challenge any of them to point to any Ministers either in the present Government or its predecessor who can show such a record. I can point to many who can claim honestly a record of failure which in its magnitude compares with the record of success of some of the gentlemen I have mentioned. So that superior people who write off the chances of Liberalism in a light-hearted way forget that these facts will be present to the minds of the electors of this country when they come to choose next time.

That is why, as we approach the general election, in spite of one or two setbacks due to the group system, there is a growth of Liberal strength, especially the last year or two. I have never seen a horse race in my life, but I am going to do so next week for the first time. But I will tell you what I am told. There are men who can check me if I am wrong. Sometimes there is a great surprise; the horse that the knowing ones think will win is a way behind, and another horse not supposed to be in the running comes cantering in – owing to atmospheric conditions. There are certain conditions where stamina tells and the flashy ones are no good. You can see the horse at first a long way behind, nobody taking any note of him. You can see him coming along, coming along, and at last passing them one after the other, and getting past the winning-post first, to the dismay of all the experts. That is the Liberal horse. And the electioneering bookies are going to be let down pretty badly. In the last two years he has already passed the Labour horse; our figures are above it. Even in Cheltenham we left him a long way behind. Whatever happens in Tavistock, we shall have left the Labour horse behind. We will soon leave the other one behind.

Possible Results of the Election

So I am not one of those who say that the Liberal Party has only to consider what it will do if it is only a little handful holding the balance between the other two parties. The other parties will have to consider what they propose to do with their balancing power. And there is another factor to which I would like to call your attention, which is encouraging. The larger the number of aggregate votes which a party gets the better its proportion of members. The Tory Party had more votes than anybody, the result was that it secured one member for every nineteen thousand. The Socialists come next with one member for thirty-six thousand. We come third in our aggregate poll, and we have only got one member for every seventy thousand votes, which means that if you increase the aggregate of your votes you increase the chances of getting a larger proportion of members.

Let us have the possibilities. There are roughly only two possibilities: either one party will have a majority over all the others or no party will have a majority, and those are the only two alternatives. There is a third possibility, or I should say certainty, and that is that one of the parties without having a majority will have a larger following than either of the other two.

Let us say that the Liberal Party get the largest number of votes. Then we will have a Liberal Government, and we shall have Liberal measures. We shall have a Liberal spirit in administration at home and abroad. We shall have national and international peace dealt with on Liberal lines. We shall have a policy of peace and disarmament, of economy in expenditure, of development of our national resources leading to the permanent enrichment of the land, and at the end of five years the nation will bless the chance that gave them a Liberal Government.

If Liberals have the largest party they will also form the administration and submit their policy and their programme of work to the judgment of Parliament and the country. And if they are turned out by a combination of Tories and Socialists they will know what to do. Believe me, if there is a combination of Socialists and Tories in the next Parliament it will not be the first time you have had it, either in Parliament or out of Parliament. You will not hear very much said about that, but it would be the realisation of a dream of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, who once upon a time said he had a natural affinity for the Tories because they were gentlemen. And if there is a Liberal Government in power those gentlemen of England, Tories and Socialists together, will march arm in arm through the lobby to turn it out. I should like to see that.

Now, these considerations can apply to any party that has a majority or is the largest party. If the Tories have a majority they will form a Tory Government, and we will have to put up with it and survive it as best we can, and if they have the largest party and will form a Government the same thing applies to the Socialists. So that therefore there is no difficulty about these things. The one difficulty is the case of deadlock.

What if there is a Deadlock?

What the nation wants to know is what will be the attitude of Liberalism in that event – if you had a complete deadlock in Parliament. The Socialists have already given their answer. They have made it clear that under no conditions will they associate or co-operate or enter into any compact or understanding with Liberals unless they swallow Socialism, horns, hoofs, and all. We say at once we are not there, we never shall be there, unless we cease to be Liberals. Socialists are not equally emphatic about what they will do with the Tories.

A Socialist leader the other day said that if the Socialists entered into any compact with the Liberals, that is the straight way to Fascism. That is wrong historically. How did Fascism arise? It has its lesson for us in certain eventualities. There was a failure of the groups in the Italian Parliament, and notably of the Progressive groups, to form a Government at all. There were gaps and intervals of weeks, and that led straight to a dictatorship. Liberals have the supreme trust of safeguarding democracy, and they must see that does not happen.

There can be no doubt as to the attitude of the Liberal Party under those circumstances. The Liberal Party may be relied upon in that case to determine its course in reference to one consideration and one only, and that is what will be best in the interests of the country. It will realise that the King’s Government must be carried on and that there must be no paralysis of the Government of this country. In the highest, and not in the blatant, sense the Liberal is a patriotic party. It does not wrap itself in the Union Jack or stick its plum puddings with little flags. Nevertheless, it is essentially a patriotic party, and when another party claims a monopoly of patriotism we regard it as a piece of impertinence. We have a special reason as Liberals for pride in Britain and her Empire. What is best, what is noblest, what is most enduring in that Empire is something that was brought into it by the efforts of three hundred years of Liberalism in its free institutions, in its free trade, in the condition of the people and the relation of one part of the Empire to another and to the Mother Country, in the very fact that our great Dominions are in the Empire at all. The pillars of British strength have been hewn out of the Liberal quarry by Liberal hands. It is a Liberal Empire, and Liberals therefore have a special responsibility to see the structure is not impaired by any friction or any partisanship on their part.

And, whatever Parliamentary conditions may be, as far as lies in the power of the Liberal Party they will see that the King’s Government is carried on. If they cannot form a Government of their own, and if, unfortunately, the alternative should be either a Tory or a Socialist Government, although I am not so much concerned with which of these parties is in power – it is only a choice of two evils in the end – our main concern will be what they will do or fail to do. We are neither Socialists nor Tories, but Liberals, and as such are equally opposed to both, and have no particular preference for either. There are historical cases of men showing great anxiety as to the method of their execution, but if the prosperity and well-­being of this country is to fall into the hands of either of these two Governments – well, Liberals will have very little to choose between strangling prosperity with a rope of tariffs or drawing and quartering it with Socialism. And therefore our task will be to do our best to minimise the amount and circumscribe the area of the mischief which they will render and to do all in our power to extract the maximum of good out of an unpropitious situation.

But I am not without hope that if there be a deadlock the common sense of this nation, which is, after all, the greatest democratic community in the world and the one country in the world that thoroughly understands democratic institutions, that its common sense will prevail over all party considerations, and that we shall always realise the gravity of the emergency through which the country is passing. We cannot, of course, whatever befall us, enter into any understanding, formal or informal, with another party under any circumstances to advance measures or policies in which we disbelieve and which we in our hearts know to be detrimental to the interests of our country.

For instance, whatever Government is in power we shall resist every effort to overthrow the great fiscal system upon which the trade and commerce of this country have been built. In spite of its depression, it has the greatest international trade in the world. Other nations at Geneva admit regretfully that our policy is the right one, but they cannot get their feet out of the tariff stocks.

We shall resist every attempt to set up what is known as a Socialist State and to substitute the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange for private enterprise. This we shall resist.

The Conditions of Co-operation

But I am not blind to the fact, and I even rejoice in it, that even if a Liberal Government as such were not obtainable next Parliament owing to the operation of our electoral system, there is a vast and fertile territory common to men of progressive minds in all parties which they could, at any rate during this interval, agree to cultivate together without abandoning any of the principles and ideals which they cherish. But under these circumstances the conditions of co-operation and understanding must be honourable to all and humiliating to none. Those who were in the 1924 Parliament know what I mean. But let me say for once and for all, as far as I am concerned – and this is the view of the Liberal leaders I have consulted – we shall decidedly and emphatically decline to admit the possibility of the experiment of 1924 which proved so disastrous. It was only justifiable as an experiment, and history may or may not say it was necessary as such. It was no fault of ours that it failed. But it cannot be repeated.

In my judgment the Socialist leaders, by their ineptitude then, threw away the last chances they will get in this generation of forming and carrying through a Socialist Administration. They have no reasonable hope of securing a Socialist majority in our time, and I cannot see Liberals, after the unfortunate experience of the past, again taking the risk of committing the life and fortunes of their party so completely to the keeping of any other party, be it Tory or Socialist.

A prominent Labour leader, in one of his articles the other day, made it clear what he thinks will happen. He assumes that if we are in a minority we will help the Socialists into power, but once they are there this great Government will introduce measures of such beneficence that we dare not resist them, and we shall be unwillingly chained to the Socialist chariot to the end of Parliament and then will be comfortably put away. In vain is the net spread in the sight of a bird caught in the same net before and escaping with his life, but leaving a good many of his feathers behind. That is my answer to that gentleman.

An Independent Party

The question of our best course to pursue in a particular juncture, or in a particular Parliamentary situation, or on a particular Parliamentary occasion must be left necessarily to consultation amongst the chosen leaders of the party at the time. You cannot dictate or decide this in advance. We must judge them at the time. It would be folly to try now to determine. We can only make our general position clear. We shall fight the general election as an independent party. We shall act together in the next Parliament as an independent party. Our main concern will be to consider the best method of advancing certain ideas and promoting certain practical measures which we regard as being essential to the well-being of the nation, the advancement of the cause of peace, the pressing of a general measure of disarmament as the only security for peace, the grappling with the national emergency with a view to the improvement of trade and employment. This will include comprehensive measures for reconditioning the country, the development of our national resources in and under the soil, the cleansing of the land of slums, the solution of the problems of transport, and measures of temperance reform. We shall claim the full and free right to censure incompetent Ministers either by speeches or by votes in the lobby, whatever the consequences may be, and whether it be Tory or Socialist or anybody else.

And we shall certainly insist with all our strength upon the next Parliament dealing with the outrageous electoral system, which robs millions of good citizens in this country of their fair share of government. We must have a system to enable the will of the people to be fairly expressed in the House. We claim nothing but justice. Quite frankly, neither of the other two parties understands political justice. The Tories and the Socialists alike laugh when we present our case for redress – the fact that we cannot get one-fourth of representation for our voters that the Tories get, who have one man for every nineteen thousand voters, while we must have seventy thousand Liberals to return one Parliamentary representative. They know it is unfair, but they profit by it. Fair play! It is quite unknown to either where their interests are involved. They are both essentially class parties. That is their strength, that is their weakness; both fighting for class advantages and privileges. Socialists are not fighting for the working classes. They are fighting for that proportion of the working classes that vote Socialist.

The Liberal Party will Fight to Win

And I want to say one thing further. After my close observation of what has been going on in the country and in Parliament we must expect no quarter from either of those parties, and we do not ask for it. I can see them conspiring and intriguing, separately and together, to destroy Liberalism in Parliament and out of Parliament. I have seen it in the House of Commons these last four years. We have a small party. We are only entitled to very limited opportunities for raising discussions. I have seen the Tory Party and the Socialist Party meeting behind the Speaker’s chair to deprive our little party of the limited opportunities they have for discussion. And the meaner of the two is the Socialist. I have seen where the Socialist and Tory Whips agreed together to closure a debate on an important financial matter imposing new taxes merely to prevent Liberals from taking part in that discussion. I have given the challenge. If they deny it I will give several illustrations. I throw the challenge out here and now.

In the country there is no doubt they are working together. Why do I say that? If you notice the seats where the Liberals in a straight fight would have an absolute certainty of winning, and both the other parties know they would win, what happens? Even although the Labour Party knows perfectly well they have no chance of getting anywhere near, they put up a candidate to wreck our chances, and the Tories return the compliment by putting candidates in places where they have no chance. In Middles­brough, in Halifax they had no chance, and the Tory Party preferred letting Labour in. Why are they playing into each other’s hands? I can see it in my own county. There is a Labour candidate in the county seat who has no chance in a straight fight, and so the Tories, who will barely escape without paying a forfeit and who have not the ghost of a chance, are putting a Tory candidate up to help him. And there can be no possible purpose except to put the Labour man in instead of the Liberal for that constituency. In my constituency Labour returns the compliment by putting up a candidate to help the Tory win that seat.

They are playing into each other’s hands like this all over the country, and the Socialists and the Tories say, ‘Look at those Liberals; they cannot last.’ They are people who like to talk like that. They are conspiring all over the country in and out of Parliament.

I have seen it in Tavistock, their abuse of Liberals and their respect for Labour leaders. They are combining to attack the Liberals because they think that they will then get Liberalism out of the way, and that it will then be Tory Government, Socialist Government, Socialist Government, Tory Government, and no Liberals to interfere with mismanagement, muddle, wrong policies. The country will have a choice of muddlers with no Liberals to interfere. And they say to each other, ‘Keep it up. This party will disappear.’

They tried that game, the Tories did, with Nonconformity. No careers for them, no bench of magistrates, nor any offices in the House of Commons, no entrance to the university, and even to this very hour there are thousands of schools maintained exclu­sively out of the rates where no Nonconformist can become even a pupil teacher. What did they say? ‘Keep it up and Nonconformity will vanish.’ Its altars call for the devotion of more millions than ever. We have got the same game with Liberalism. They said: ‘Keep them out of Parliament, keep them out of office. See they do not get in. You play the game here and we will play the game there, and in some places we will play it together. We will squeeze them out.’ No they will not, ever. They do not understand the breed of Liberalism. We shall fight in the next election, we shall fight in the next Parliament. If necessary, Liberals will go on fighting one, two, three Parliaments, yea twenty, if necessary. In the end they will triumph, for their cause is the cause of right and of reason.