Classic Podium: Liberalism will not become extinct

From a speech given at Greenock, Scotland, by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith on his resignation as leader of the Liberal Party (15 October 1926)

NO RATIONAL observer believes that liberalism is, or is likely to become, an extinct or a negligible factor in our national life. The fortunes of the Liberal Party may fluctuate. It may at one moment (as was the case in 1906) seem to be so strong as to be able to defy any conceivable hostile combination. At another moment, as after the "Coupon" election of 1918, it may seem to be so battered and mutilated as to be on the verge of annihilation. However, there is only one way in which liberalism can ever be killed, and that is by suicide.

Apart from traditional party ties, why did an intelligent man become a Liberal? Because, both in its constructive and its defensive side, liberalism means two things - the preservation and extension of liberty in every sphere of our national life and the subordination of class interests to the interests of the community. Those two ideals were and are the life- breath of the liberal faith.

A man is not free unless he has had the means and opportunities for education. A man is not free unless he is at liberty to combine with his fellows for any lawful purpose in which they have a common interest. Nor is there real freedom in industry if it is carried out under conditions which are injurious to those whom a man employs or with whom he works, or to the health and well-being of his neighbours. The liberty of each is circumscribed by the liberty of all.

The appearance of the Labour Party on the scene has done nothing to invalidate, or to render obsolete, the mission of liberalism. There are, no doubt, some political and social changes for which we could work side by side with, at any rate, a section of Labour, just as there are some for which we could work side by side with the more progressive and broadminded among the Conservatives.

Labour means very different things to the different wings and platoons of the heterogeneous army which for the moment marches with uneven steps under the Labour flag. However, the socialisation or nationalisation of production and distribution and the extinction of what is called capitalism - by whatever name the ideal, and the process for its attainment, is called - would starve the resources, and, in time, drain away the life- blood of the great productive industries. And Labour is becoming more and more a class organisation and an expression and embodiment of what is called "class-consciousness".

We hear a great deal these days about the virtues and the necessity of unity. Unity, I agree, is important, but no less - in some ways even more - important is independence.

A great political party which is not for the time being in a majority should never allow itself to succumb to the temptation to degenerate into a bargaining counter. Independence is essential to self-respect, and, whatever it may cost you for the moment, it is the only way in the long run of securing the respect of the country.

Those are the conceptions of the principles of liberalism and the functions of the Liberal Party in which I was brought up, and which, before and during my leadership, I have sought to put into practice.

I am not going to keep you any longer. Men come and go. As one of our poets has said: "Wave following wave departs for ever/And still flows on the eternal river."

Men come and go. The fortunes of parties, as I reminded you a few minutes ago, fluctuate and oscillate in what often seems a most capricious and haphazard fashion. The Liberal Party has this advantage, an advantage which I claim for it as against all competitive parties in the state, that it can point to the richest record of actual achievement in the removal of abuses and the extension of freedom, in securing, step by step, that predominance of the general over the particular interest, which I have described as one of its great principles.

Let none of you, and especially let none of the younger among you, be content to think that the mission of liberalism is exhausted. The new problems which confront us are not outside the ambit of the old faith. Keep that faith; carry on the torch which we, who have done our best to keep it alight, hand over to your custody. Resist all the allurements of short cuts and compromises. Look neither to the right nor to the left, but keep straight on.

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