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Sir John Simon's speech

Its effect on the Labour party
From our political correspondent
Thursday January 6, 1916

It was expected that the event of to-day would be Sir John Simon's speech. The surprising thing is that expectation, for once, was fulfilled. Sir John Simon's speech was indeed the event of the day. A speech so eagerly awaited, on which so many hopes were founded, ought, according to the common lot of mortals, to be a failure or, at best, a middling success. The reception of the speech in the House, and the comment of members in the lobby afterwards, showed that it was a really big success - a victory at least for the day.

The Prime Minister had prepared the way by failure for Sir John Simon's success. The doubters who had been finally convinced against conscription by Sir John Simon's speech had already been half-convinced in the same direction by Mr. Asquith's speech. Unfortunately, though Liberal members may be right in saying, as they did, that the speech had killed the bill, it could only kill it morally and intellectually.

The real situation is neither a moral nor intellectual one. It is simply that the conscriptionists in the Cabinet insist that they will have the bill, reasonable or unreasonable, and if they do not get it that they will force a general election by the agency of the House of Lords.

I am compelled to say that the majority of Liberal members firmly believe that that threat would be carried out. I have already stated my own belief that it is a bluff, but I am compelled to state that the opinion of the most experienced Liberal politicians in the House of Commons is to the contrary.

I am afraid that at present we must expect that the anti-conscriptionists in the House will not force the conscriptionists to make good their threat of a general election. If in the next few days the country shows signs of waking up to the fact that it is being decoyed into a clever trap, then I have no doubt that the anti-conscriptionists will take courage and, adopting the words of a bluff statesman of older days, will tell Mr. Lloyd George and the House of Lords to ‘dissolve and be damned.’

In the meantime the chief practical result of Mr. Asquith's failure and Sir John Simon's success is the great effect on the Labour party. After the two speeches all the Labour members I could speak to agreed that the effect of the debate would be to turn Labour surely against conscription. One of the ablest members of the trade union section of the party assured me that it meant that the Labour Conference to-morrow would be nearly unanimous against the bill.

Even Mr. Hodge, who had begun to be reckoned one of the most faithful followers of Mr. Asquith, was judged by some of his colleagues to have come back to the anti-conscriptionist side.

There was little talk to-day about the conditional resignations of Mr. McKenna and Mr. Runciman. Members were too much interested in the debate on the bill to speculate about the position of particular Ministers. I believe, as a matter of fact, that Mr. McKenna and Mr. Runciman will get their terms as to the limitation of our military effort if certain difficulties as to past commitments can be overcome.