TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE MEANING OF MR. ASQVITH'S SPEECH.
SINCE we wrote last week an entirely new situation has been created by Mr. Asquith's declaration of policy at the Albert Hall. Here is the heart of the matter in a single sentence. Besides undertaking to bring in a Bill to make the will of the House of Commons prevail over that of the House of Lords within the lifetime of a single Parliament, he promised to do his best to give Home-rule to Ireland in the full Gladstonian sense. Let us see what that means. It means that if the country gives Mr. Asquith leave to carry out his policy, a separate Parliament will be established in Ireland within the next four or five years. Of course Mr. Asquith says that there is "no question of separation," and that the Imperial Parliament will remain supreme. Mr. Gladstone always said as much. But we know only too well what would happen. The Irish Government would. be controlled by what is now known as the Nationalist Party,—a party which was responsible for intimidation and boycotting, and has been responsible more lately for cattle-driving ; a party composed of men who, though they did not commit extreme deeds of violence themselves, prompted them in weaker agents who were "braver men than they " • a party which has preached disloyalty to the 'United Kingdom more bitterly, more persistently, and more openly than it has been preached in any other part of the Empire. If Ireland were a remote Colony, we should of course say that Irishmen must govern them- selves, because self-government wins its way through to success in the end and is the only ultimate cure for all ills. But Ireland is not a distant Colony. She is an integral part of the United Kingdom every bit as much as Wales is a part or Scotland is a part. It is impossible to conceive any system of Imperial administration which sets Ireland outside her natural geographical area. We could have no scheme of home defence in which we could put our trust for a moment if there were a hostile Government in 'island, supreme within its own borders, exercising its utmost power to prevent the Irish people from co-operating with Englishmen on the higher political issues.
Twice the House of Lords has stood in the way of the House of Commons in order to prevent Home-rule being given to Ireland, and it is our firm conviction that Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Welshmen as a whole have ever since been grateful to the Lords for havinab saved them from a, great peril. Many Liberals—we dare say the raajority—secretly share this view. They cannot disavow Home-rule ; but they would feel themselves under a great obligation all the same to any statesman, or to any chain of political circumstances, which would prevent Home-rule from being once more put upon the programme. Well, once more it is on the programme, and the fact cannot be disregarded. It is the chief fact, and much the gravest fact of the moment. To-day Home-rule would be a greater danger than ever. Will Englishmen be so blind as to agree to this enfeeblement of the very heart of the Empire at a time when the challenge to our naval position in the world is the most menacing that has been offered for a hundred years ? In the old days the French had a traditional sympathy with the Irish, and the Shan Van Voghts were able to sing that the Orange would decay when the French were in the bay. All possibility of the French trying to use Ireland as a jumping-off ground for the discomfiture of England has happily passed away. But is it to be supposed that if we were assailed by any other Power the Irish majority would be animated when we were in the throes of that fearful struggle by sentiments very different from those which prompted them to cheer at the worst of our misfortunes during the South African War ? We have put the question on Imperial grounds because, after all, Imperial considerations come first, and we have not space here to enumerate once more all the numerous objections to Home-rule ; but we have not forgotten the existence of the unhappy minority in Ireland, who would be exposed to an oppression which would be real enough if only half of what the Nationalist Party has foreshadowed during the last genera- tion came to pass. Does any one doubt, in spite of what we have said, that Mr. Asquith'solicy means the destruction of the Union? Let bun read Redmond's words on Wednesday. Mr. Redmond said that Ireland now had the best chance she had had for a century of "tearing up and trampling, underfoot the infamous Act of Union." Again, he said that Mr. Asquith's statement meant "the coming back of the whole Liberal Party to the standard of Glad- stone " ; and, again, that "if the Government returned to power by a substantial majority, the House of Lords would speedily go, and Home-rule would speedily come." We entreat our countrymen carefully to ponder these words.
Mr. Redmond is perfectly right in saying that this is the best opportunity Home-rulers have had for a century of destroying the Union. For the one barrier which has stood in the way of Home-rule is to be removed if Mr. Asquith gets his way. It is true that Mr. Redmond did not formerly approve of the throttling of the House of Lords as the best means of getting Home-rule, but we think that he was wrong then and right now. Just as Mr. Asquith said that there was "no question of separation" in granting Home-rule, so does he say that in adopting the principle of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman for removing the so-called veto of the Lords there is no question of advocating a single Chamber. "I am a Second-Chamber man," he says. We do not know, of course, exactly what his Bill for regulating the relations of the two Houses will contain, for he did not give us a hint on that subject. But if the will of one House is infallibly and absolutely to prevail over the will of the other in the course of a single Parlia- ment—a period of four or five years under the imagined Asquithian regime---it is perfectly clear that the Upper Chamber as such will cease to exist. It is either dis- ingenuous or foolish to pretend otherwise. No self- respecting politician could put any heart into his work while sitting in such a Second Chamber. Mr. Asquith is, in effect, asking us to believe that a man who is knocked senseless with a knuckleduster is not really knocked down at all because he received some polite preliminary intimations of his approaching fate. If a Home-rule Bill is introduced, it will engulf all other business. But so far as a Liberal Government would have any opportunity to press on such legislation as has arrogated to itself the question-begging title of "social reform," it would almost certainly be legislation dear to the extremist. We could not help noticing that the only members of the Cabinet who spoke besides Mr. Asquith at the Albert Hall meeting were Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Churchill. We do not know whether they spoke by preliminary arrange- ment, but at all events they were evidently the Ministers with whom the audience was most in sympathy. Sir Charles Watson, in a letter which we publish this week, argues that whatever harm the Liberal Government may have done is not comparable with what would be done by a Tariff Reform M. *stry. But we must point out that the probable effect of returning Mr. Asquith's Government to power is not to be measured by their past record. If they came into power again, they would certainly not have at their backs a pure Liberal majority of enormous size. They would, have given many hostages both to the Socialistic-Labour Party and. to the Irish Nationalists. We know what they have done when there was no tactical necessity for them to surrender principles to these groups. And if they have done these things in the green tree, what would they do in the dry?
We must now come once more to the very serious question of what Unionist Free-traders should do in the new situation. As our readers know, we have argued that as the imposition of a tariff by a Unionist Government is a, rather remoter danger than the abolition of the Second Chamber and the coincident development of Socialistic legislation, it should be the duty of Unionist Free-traders to put up with that evil in the circumstances and vote for a Tariff Reformer rather than for a Liberal at the General Election. We have been assailed for expressing this opinion by a few Unionist Free-traders of great ability and sincerity who have made many sacrifices for their prin- ciples and whose word is entitled to all respect. We refer in particular to Mr. Henry Hobhouse and Sir Frederick Pollock, whose letters we published ha previous issues, and to Mr. Arthur Elliot, whose letter we publish to-day. The letters of Mr. Henry Hobhouse and Sir Frederick Pollock were written before Mr. Asquith declared in favour of Gladstonian Home-rule. We venture to hope that they would express themselves rather differently now. But however that may be, our own strong feeling that to vote for a Tariff Reformer would be the lesser of two evils has been raised to an emphatic and absolute conviction by the knowledge that by so voting we should be helping to save the Union. We are puzzled to explain the omission from Mr. Arthur Elliot's letter of all reference to Home-rule. We notice the omission with extreme regret ; for all Unionist Free-traders who remember that they must be above all things Unionists when the menace to the Union is the immediate danger will be sorry indeed not to have the support of one who has served this cause so manfully in the past. Mr. Elliot says that the Lords claim more than equality in power with the House of Commons,—" they claim to govern." "Who," he asks, "is to govern the taxpayer? Who is to tax him 2" But, we ask, do the Lords look like governors and taxers ? Mr. Elliot's fears would. be justified only if the Lords showed any sign of wishing habitually to throw out Finance Bills, so that in the end, by dint of accepting only that kind of taxation which was agreeable to them, they would become actually the initiators of taxation. All they have done on this occasion is to refer the Budget to the people, while making it perfectly plain that if the people vote in favour of it after thinking the matter over, the Budget shall there and then become law. This proceeding does not appear to us to justify Mr. Elliot's fears in any shape or form. The Lords have taken an exceptional course (as we fully admit it to be) in the face of exceptional proposals,—proposals which were tacked on to a Money Bill, but which were not financial proposals pure and simple, and which had been rejected by the Lords in their true and natural form when they were sent to the Upper House as legislative Bills. Our own complaint against the Lords has rather been that from sheer timidity of the people they were sometimes unwilling to do their duty, as when they refused to vote in accordance with what was known to be their true opinion about the Trade Disputes Bill. Counsel is being darkened by words without know- ledge so much that a great many people are in danger of forgetting that the right of the Lords to reject a Finance Bill is an explicit part of the Constitution, and is invariably reproduced in principle whenever a new Constitution is granted to a British Colony. All that can be said with strict accuracy against the Lords is that they have employed a function which they have long consented to disregard. But as Lord Lindley says, a right which is never exercised is no right at all.
We can assure those of our readers who have been good enough to express their appreciation of our staunchness as Free-traders that we have no intention whatever of being a whit less faithful to Free-trade than we have always tried to be. Mr. .A.squith's Government has been destroying Free-trade with both hands. We do not say that a Tariff Reform Government if it came into power would not destroy it even quicker, but a tariff cannot be introduced in a moment. The supporters of Tariff Reform are by no means a party at one among themselves, as we saw during the wide discussion of a tentative Tariff Reform Budget last week, and in any case, as severely practical men living in an imperfect world, we hold it to be our duty to combat the worst and nearest of our enemies. Utterly as we dislike and mistrust Tariff Reform, we are still more fearful at the moment of the disruptive processes of Gladstonian Home-rule and of Government by a single Chamber, which would. really mean government by some party caucus or oligarchy, whether Progressive or Chauvinistic. With all the force at our command, therefore, we beg every voter -who is reclaimable by reason and moderation to save the Union and. democracy at one and the same time by voting against the return of the Liberal Party to power.