TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE AND UNIONIST FREE-TRADERS. THE Duke of Devonshire's letter on the duty of Unionist Free-traders at the coming elections is in every way worthy of the great statesman who penned it. In the welter of sophistries, ambiguities, and evasions that fills the political world, his brain remains unclouded and his judgment clear. To begin with, he realises how empty and fallacious is the talk of "the Union in danger," and how purely a thing of paint and sawdust is the Home- rule bogey. But the Duke is not content merely to insist that the cause of the Union will not be endangered by a Free-trade victory. In a passage which is as wise as it is original he points out that the real danger consists in the risk of the cause of the Union becoming identified with an "unsound and unpopular policy on some other great national question." That is a conviction which we have held from the very beginning of the Fiscal controversy. If once the British people are made to believe that the maintenance of the Union is bound up with the taxation of food and the abandonment of our policy of Free-trade, and that the triumph of one cause involves the triumph of the other, the cause of the Union must be greatly imperilled. It is the duty of Unionist Free-traders to use every effort and make every sacrifice to prove that Protection and the Union have nothing to do with each other, and that it is perfectly possible to defend one and resist the other.
The Duke's exposure of the fatuity of the Balfour policy is as sound and as crushing as his destruction of the Home-rule bogey. Mr. Balfour has poured infinite scorn upon those who are unable, or who profess to be unable, to understand his policy. Yet this is what the Duke of Devonshire, than whom there is no more clear-headed and honest-thinking man in the country, says about it :— " What that scheme is I know no more to-day than when I left the late Government more than two years ago, but I conceive that it involves some more or less absolute rejec- tion of the principle that duties should only be levied on foreign imports for purposes of revenue." Remember that in the Duke of Devonshire's case there is no possibility of urging the plea that he expresses his inability to under- stand the Balfour policy in a merely rhetorical sense. Such rhetoric is absolutely foreign to his nature. He says he does not understand it simply and solely because it is in fact unintelligible to him. But this means that it is not understandable by a man of first-class intellect who has had plenty of time for considering it, and who in the discussions in the Cabinet had frequent opportunities for bringing his mind en rapport with the mind of the late Prime Minister. In view of the Duke's words, no ordinary voter who has only been able to read Mr. Bal- four's public utterances need be ashamed of feeling and saying that he cannot understand the Balfour policy, save in so far that it is a hedging and somewhat equivocal and half-hearted endorsement of the paradoxical policy for which Mr. Chamberlain is responsible.
The Duke of Devonshire in another part of his letter insists that if the Unionist party becomes predominantly Protectionist, there "will either be a real danger to Free- trade in the future, or there will be a prospect of its exclusion for an indefinite period from power or influence. Either contingency would be equally repugnant to Unionist Free-traders, and it is towards saving their country or their party from either of these disasters that their efforts should be directed." In this context he notes also that though attempts will be made to place the Fiscal issue in the background, the issue of Free-trade or Protection must be the paramount factor in the coming Election. Finally, the Duke deals with the duty of Unionist Free-traders in the circumstances he has described. "Independence of judgment rather than a willingness to sacrifice honest convictions appears to me to be the duty imposed on Free- trade Unionists in the present crisis.' The securing of the return of Unionist Free-traders is naturally and rightly pointed out by the Duke as a paramount duty. "But where Unionist Free-traders may be unable to secure direct representation of their opinions it will not the less be their duty to make their influence felt, and, as I have already urged on more than one occasion, to take such action as may prove that the Unionist party as a whole, whether in power or in opposition, is still uncommitted to a retrograde Fiscal policy by whomsoever it may be proposed.' That Unionist Free-traders who share the view of the Spectator, and intend to make their Free-trade views effective, will feel in complete sympathy with the Duke of Devonshire's pronouncement we do not doubt for a moment. The Duke of Devonshire, however, is a Peer, and therefore is not immediately obliged to consider how he can trans- late his principles into electoral action. Those who have votes must take the further step of deciding how they will use them and their influence at the polls, and naturally they will wish to do so in the spirit of the general advice tendered them by a leader in whom they have so much confidence. Perhaps the best method of realising in terms of action the general principles laid down by the Duke is to note his reference to the advice which, as he points out, he has already urged on more than one occasion. Our readers may remember that on November 19th, 1904, we published a correspondence between the Duke of Devonshire and Mr. St. Lee Strachey dealing with this very point. A week previously the Duke, in a speech at Ra.wtenstall, had declared that "nothing should induce him, if he were a voter at the next General Election, to give his vote and support to any candidate who refused to pledge himself to a repudiation of the policy which had been explained by Mr. Chamberlain, and which had been adopted as the programme of the Tariff Reform League." Mr. Strachey, referring to these words, pointed out that they had been regarded in some quarters as an injunction that the. most Unionist Free-traders ought to do at elections was to abstain from voting, and that they had no right, if they were loyal follower k of the Duke of Devonshire, to make their Free-trade views effective by supporting Liberal Free-traders. Mr. Strachey then proceeded to recall the action taken by him and other Unionist Free-traders at the Chertsey election. In that election Lord Bingham, the Unionist candidate, refused to give an assurance that he was opposed to the policy of Mr. Chamberlain, and he received the support of many Tariff Reformers. Accordingly the Surrey Unionist Free-Trade Committee issued an appeal to the electors declaring that Unionist Free-traders should vote "for the Free-trade candidate, and against the candidate who will not oppose Mr. Chamberlain's policy of Preference and Protection." —It may be mentioned incidentally that the Free-trade candidate had given satisfactory assurances in regard to Home-rule.—Mr. Strachey finally asked the Duke of Devonshire to state whether the action which the Surrey Unionist Free-traders took at Chertsey was disapproved by him, or could be considered as disloyal to his leadership. To this the Duke replied as follows :— " The words in my speech which you quote were certainly not intended to limit the action which Unionist Free-traders may think it right to take in any election, and still less to imply any disapproval of the appeal to the Unionist voters in the case of the Chertsey election, to which you refer. That appeal was made with my knowledge and assent, and I see no reason to change my opinion respecting it."
Though the Duke no doubt added words to express his unwillingness to prescribe a general line of action, "which may not be equally applicable in all cases," the passage dealing with the Chertsey election which we have set out at length was the " operative " part of his letter. From the attitude there taken up the Duke has never receded, and there is certainly nothing in his latest counsel which is in the least inconsistent with it. In these circum- stances, we do not hesitate to give the following concrete advice to Unionist Free-traders, who will have in the course of the next week to decide what electoral action they shall take.
In the first place, we advise them to make up their minds to remain both Unionists and Free-traders, and not to allow themselves to be bullied out of their Unionism by Mr. Chamberlain, or manceuvred out of it by Mr. Balfour. Because Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Balfour changed their minds about Free-trade two and a half years ago, that is no reason why Unionist Free-traders should alter their views, or join another political party. But though they must • never admit that they are under an obligation to join the Liberals and to cease being Unionists because they are Free-traders, they must also not hesitate to make their Free-trade views effective. In our opinion, they should make their Free-trade views effective in the following 'way: In a constituency where the Unionist candidate does not in plain and unambiguous terms repudiate the Fiscal policy laid down by Mr. Chamberlain in his speeches, and, further, does not pledge himself unconditionally to oppose that policy to the best of his ability, and where the Liberal -.ad Free-trade candidate is willing to give assurances in • egard to Home-rule similar to those given by Sir Edward Grey and Mr. Asquith, Unionist Free-traders should, while remaining Unionists, use their votes and influence at the coming Election to secure the return of the Liberal and Free-trade candidate.
We are sometimes accused of advocating extreme courses. But we ask those whose judgments are not clouded by prejudice whether the plan of action we recommend is not essentially moderate and reasonable. Note that though we are personally opposed to the Balfour policy as far as we can understand it, we do not ask other Unionist Free- traders to oppose Balfourites, or even to refrain from voting for Balfourites, so long as such Balfourites are not also Chamberlainites. But the only way to ascertain whether a.Balfourite is or is not also a Cha.mberlainite is to ask him whether he is opposed to the Chamberlain policy, and whether he is willing to pledge himself to make that opposition genuine and not merely verbal. If a candidate will declare himself fairly and honourably against Chamberlainism, we do not ask him to make any con- fession of faith in regard to Mr. Balfour's policy, but leave that entirely aside. Surely this is going very far in the direction of compromise. If Unionist Free-traders are not to be allowed to ask Unionist candidates whether they are or are not prepared to repudiate and oppose Chamberlainism, and are not to be allowed to vote against them if they are unwilling to make such a repudiation, Unionist Free-trade principles have no meaning and Unionist Free-traders must be the most transient and embarrassed of phantoms. Perhaps we shall be told that in the circumstances we have described abstention is the proper course. In our view, however, abstention would be a policy of cowardice and despair, unless, of course, the Liberal candidate is open to some grave personal objection, or insists that Home-rule must be carried in the next Par- liament. In all other cases where the choice is between a Liberal Free-trader and an anti-Free-trader the Unionist Free-trader must remember the tremendous nature of the responsibility that rests upon him. He is not at this Election merely engaged in choosing a Member of Parlia- ment. He has also had referred to him the momentous question, "Will you abandon the policy of Free-trade ? " As a Free-trader, can he possibly answer it, "Yes, I will," and bring back to power Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Balfour, both pledged to begin at once the work of destroying our present fiscal system,—a system under which both the nation and the Empire have grown great and strong ?