January 1910 - Herbert Asquith's election address
I ask for a renewal of the confidence with which on six previous occasions you have honoured me. Never during the long connection between us, as constituency and member, have issues so grave been submitted to you for your decision.
Four years ago the country gave an emphatic verdict in favour of the maintenance of Free Trade. Since then we have passed through times both of enlarging and of slackening industry, and our fiscal system has stood the test of both. During the last 12 months a further strain has been cast upon it. A large addition has to be found to the provision for National Defence - an addition due to the paramount necessity of keeping our Navy equal to all the demands that may be made upon it, and superior to all the dangers to which, from any quarter, our Empire may be exposed. At the same time, the grant of old age pensions, and the prospect of further and fuller developments of a policy of social reform, involved the State in liabilities, actual and contingent, which could only be satisfied by a substantial increase of taxation. The Budget was freely and exhaustively discussed in the House of Commons, and in the end it received the approval of an overwhelming majority of the representatives of the people.
The supporters of what is called Tariff Reform saw in the passing of such a Budget into law the 'death warrant' of their schemes. They accordingly mustered and set in motion the formidable interests and influences which they can command, either as followers or as allies; with the result that the House of Lords, in defiance of the counsels of the wisest and coolest heads in the Tory party, rejected the whole provision which the Commons had made for the finance of the year.
This is a proceeding without precedent in our history, a wanton breach of the settled practice of the Constitution, and an assumption on the part of the non-representative House of a power to control taxation, which has been repudiated in the past by Tory as emphatically as by Liberal statesmen.
In a sentence, the House of Lords, has violated the Constitution in order to save from a mortal blow the cause of Tariff Reform.
If you care either for Free Trade, which has made our country prosperous, or for Popular Government, which has made it free, now is the time to assert your devotion; for in this contest the fortunes of both are at stake.
There is before you a larger issue still. The claim of the House of Lords to control finance is novel, and a mere usurpation. But the experience of the Parliament which has today been dissolved shows that the possession of an unlimited veto by a partisan people, however clearly expressed, is always liable to be rendered inoperative. Given a Tory majority in the House of Commons, the House of Lords interposes no check upon legislative innovations of the most violent and unexpected kind, as we saw in the case of the Education Act of 1902 and the Licensing Act of 1904. On the other hand, a Liberal majority in the House of Commons, as has been demonstrated during the last four years, is, under existing conditions, impotent to place on the Statute-book the very measures which it was sent to Westminster to carry in to law.
It is absurd to speak of this system as though it secured to us any of the advantages of a Second Chamber, in the sense in which that term is understood and practically interpreted in every other democratic country.
The limitation of the veto is the first and most urgent step to be taken; for it is the condition precedent to the attainment of the great legislative reforms which our party has at heart, and which I laid before my fellow Liberals in a recent speech at the Albert Hall.
I appeal to you, in this momentous crisis, with confidence, for the support which during twenty-four years you have never withdrawn from me.