THE DUTY OF FREE-TRADE UNIONISTS.
WHAT is the duty of Free-trade Unionists in regard to Mr. Morley's amendment to the Address F— such is the question in all men's minds at the present moment. That they cannot vote against Mr. Morley's amendment is clear, for it exactly expresses the position maintained with so much courage by the supporters of the Duke of Devonshire. The problem, then, resolves itself into this,—Shall they or shall they not vote against the Government and with Mr. Morley? In our view, the only way in which they can reach a satisfactory solution is by considering whether the Government are or are not, by the attitude they have adopted, impairing the safety of the cause of Free-trade. If the Government are the enemy, either open or concealed, of Free-trade, and are endangering the continuance of that policy of the free market on which our prosperity at home, and indeed the whole Imperial fabric, depends, then clearly no Free-trade Unionist can support the Government or lend them help or succour. If, on the other hand, the present Government are not a source of danger to Free-trade and to our existing fiscal system, but support it, or at any rate are genuinely neutral, then un- questionably Free-trade Unionists have a perfect right to give them their support. Nay, it is their positive duty to do so. They are Unionists as well as Free-traders, and if it can be shown that a Unionist Government are not opposed to Free-trade, they have no right to vote against them. All, then, depends upon what is the real attitude of the Government in regard to the policy of Protection and of anti-Free-trade,—that is, to the policy of Mr. Chamberlain.
How is the true attitude of the Government to be deter- mined ? What are the signs by which we may discover the real nature of their views ? By their official utterances in Parliament ? In certain instances these might, we admit, be a satisfactory guide ; but they cannot possibly be so in the present case. And for this reason. The Government during the fiscal debate have spoken with two voices. Not only have different exponents of the Government position said totally different things, but even in the same speeches two opposing views have been apparent. Mr. Gerald Balfour and Mr. Lyttelton were poles asunder. One made a Free-trade, the other a Protectionist, speech. In Mr. Gerald Balfour's speech, however, there were indi- cations of a spirit in essentials inimical to Free-trade, though we confess there were no equivalent and compen- satory signs of Anti-Protectionism in that of Mr. Lyttelton. Furthermore, there was no attempt on the part of the Government leaders to reconcile the two opposing lines of thought, and to declare which was the true doctrine. We are driven, then, to the conclusion that it would be most unsafe for the Free-trade Unionists to base their action• upon what was said in debate by the Government speakers. What was said in favour of Free-trade from the Govern- ment benches was pleasant hearing, no doubt, and we have every right to regard it with satisfaction ; but it was not in any true sense authoritative, and it was neutralised by the things said in other directions. A Prime Minister might conceivably have given verbal pledges so strong as to override anything said by his subordinates, but a President of the Board of Trade certainly could not do so. In other words, the general effect of the debate is to leave the real attitude and intention of the Administration in doubt. The very most it can be said to have done was not to prove per as that the Government would like to see Mr. Chamberlain's policy triumphant. Of genuine denun- ciation of that policy as dangerous and to be condemned (3) (5) there was not a word. The Free-trade Unionists must find, then, some less shifting and obscure indications of the Government attitude towards Free-trade, and must determine their action by surer tests than the words used in the stress of Parliamentary debate. The only tests which they can safely use and abide by are the deeds of the Government as distinguished from their words. Here, at any rate, is sure ground. Here they can get real data to show whether the Government are prepared to work for or against Protection. Let us consider their actions :— (1) If the Government were really opposed to Protection, would the Prime Minister have written to Mr. Chamberlain the letter he did write when the latter left office,—a letter in which he in effect wished success to the Protectionist propaganda ? The way in which Mr. Balfour parted from Mr. Chamber- lain was an act, not a mere abstract expression of opinion, and an act of which the whole nation took account. It was a notice that the man and his followers who were avowedly going to preach Protection up and down the country would do so with the blessing of the Prime Minister.
(2) Equally significant on the negative side is the fact that when the Free-traders left the Cabinet, avowedly to oppose Protection, they received no message of encouragement from the Prime Minister. No hope was expressed that they would be able to convince the country of the justice of their views. In the case of all save the Duke of Devonshire, it was tacitly admitted that such complete and unyielding Free-traders could not expect to continue in the Adminis- tration.
The next act to be noted is the appointment to the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer of Mr. Chamberlain's son. Mr. Austen Chamberlain was known on all hands to be in entire agreement with his father, and one of his first public' utterances after taking office, made at one of his father's fiscal meetings, was to the effect that he agreed in every particular with his father's programme. Surely that appointment is an act the significance of which cannot be overlooked. A British Chancellor of the Exchequer is not a person whose views on the question of Free-trade and Protection are quite unimportant, and Prime Ministers do not place at the Treasury men with whose fiscal views they are in direct disagreement. The appointment of a Protectionist Chancellor of the Exchequer is a fact infinitely more important than a Parliamentary speech by the President of the Board of Trade.
(4) Another act of supreme importance is the opposition offered in their constituencies, without any official protest, to the .Free-trade Unionists. If the Government were in reality opposed to Protection, would they not have uttered the strongest possible protests against the attempts made (to use Lord George Hamilton's words)"to treat the Free-trade Unionists as renegades, and to hound them out of the representation of the places for which they sit ? " If the Prime Minister had publicly declared that opposition to Free-trade Unionists would be regarded as disloyalty to the party, such action would have been a strong indication of that non-Protectionist attitude of which Mr. Gerald Balfour speaks. The fact that no such action took place is, on the other hand, a very significant indication of the true attitude of the Government.
But not only have the Government made no effort to pre- vent Free-trade Unionists being hounded out of their seats by Protectionists, but a Cabinet Minister has actually joined in the attack upon a Free-trade Unionist and has supported his Protectionist opponent. Yet Mr. Long's action was not in any way censured by the Prime Minister, who, we must presume, considered it natural and right that one of his colleagues should oppose a Unionist because he was not a Protectionist, and support a rival Unionist because he was one.
(6) Most significant of all actions, the Prime Minister, as representing the Government, has at recent by-elections sent to candidates avowedly Protectionist, and basing their whole claim to election on the strength of their Protectionism, the heartiest wishes for their success. That is, the Prime Minister has given what may be called an electoral certificate and testimonial to candidates whose views are identical with those of the Tariff Reform League.
Surely when Free-trade Unionists think over these faots they will admit that this list of acts, positive or negative, done by the Government is of more importance as indicating the true attitude of the Administration than the unsupported asseverations of Mr. Gerald Balfour,— asseverations the effects of which are next day, like Penelope's web, undone by the ingenuity of Mr. Bonar Law and Mr. Lyttelton. To be plain, Parliamentary oratory is seldom of any great value in determining what is the real position of a Government or party. The art of dialectic has reached such a pitch of perfection in the House of Commons, and the dividing line on political questions can so easily be shaded off in a speech, that a skilful speaker finds little difficulty in making out that he holds two. opposite opinions at the same time. It is only when matters are brought to the test of action of one kind or another that the real situation is made clear. But, as we have shown, the test of action proves that the Government are not, as Mr. Gerald Balfour would have us believe, opposed to Protection, but, instead, have leant as much as they dared towards Protection, have given Pro- tectionists all the help and encouragement they could, and, on the other hand, have done nothing to safeguard the seats of, or even to secure fair play for, Free-trade Unionists. It seems to us, then, that Free-trade Unionists will simply be allowing themselves to be deceived by words if they are content with Mr. Gerald ]3alfour's assurances, and on the strength of them support the Government 3ither by voting for them or by abstaining We do not, of course, say that no assurances would be sufficient from the present Government. On the contrary, we should be delighted to see real and solid assurances that the Government had abandoned all idea of helping the cause of Protection, and were instead now determined to oppose it with all their power. If such assurances were given, we should be the first to urge their acceptance by the Free-trade Unionists. What should be the nature of assurances which would prove satisfactory to Unionists ? They were well expressed by Lord George Hamilton when he said :—" If I can be assured definitely by subsequent speakers that the opposition to the taxation of food is not based on tactics, and if I am further told that they will have nothing to do with this Protective 10 per cent. duty, then I admit the differences between me and them are infinitesimal ; and if a clear and definite statement to that effect is made, and. if the policy of the Government is brought down to its present very small dimensions and freed from all these excrescences and these extravagances which an unauthorised programme tacks on to them, then, although I am in entire accord with every word of the right hon. gentleman's amendment, I would not vote against the Government." If such assurances as these were to be given; if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would personally join in them, and in a repudiation of the policy of the Tariff Reform League ; and if in addition the Government pledged themselves to dis- courage all attacks on Free-trade Unionist seats, and also declared that they would give no help, encourage- ment, or countenance whatever to candidates who advo- cated Protection, it is obvious that it would be the duty of the Free-trade Unionists to give once more a loyal support to their party. They would have won the victory, and re-emblazoned Free-trade on the Unionist banner. Short, however, of obtaining such assurances, not only that Free-trade is once more the policy of the Govern- ment, but that the policy of Protection will be opposed at all points and wherever encountered, it would, in our view, be madness for the Free-trade Unionists to relax their efforts. They must never forget that their object is to kill Protection in all its protean forms, and to establish and maintain Free-trade. There is no half-way house. Either one is for Free-trade or against it. If one is for it, one must not hope to be able to work with those who will not fight for it, even though they deny that they are actually in favour of Protection.
And here we may suggest a final test of the bona fides of the Government. If they are what they say they are, why should they not move to omit the first elapse of Mr. Morley's amendment—i.e., that stating that effective deliberation on the fiscal question is impaired by con- flicting declarations from Ministers—and then accept the rest of the Amendment as their own—i.e., that which declares "that the removal of Protective duties has for more than half-a-century actively conduced to the vast extension of the trade and commerce of the realm and to the welfare of its population ; and this House believes that, while the needs of social improvement are still manifold and. urgent, any return to Protective duties, more particularly when imposed on the food of the people, would be deeply injurious to our national strength, contentment, and well-being" P. Real Free-traders, such as Mr. Gerald Balfour tries to persuade us the Govern- ment are at heart, could not possibly object to these words. Will the Government, then, give us some such incontestable proof of the genuineness of Mr. Gerald Balfour's assertions ?