24 February, 1920, House of Commons, Westminster, United Kingdom
Viscountess Astor was the first woman MP in the House of Commons. Her maiden speech on harmful effects of alcohol caused a stir because of its strength of purpose, and controversial nature of subject matter. Winston Churchill later complained: “I felt as if a woman had entered my bathroom and I had nothing to protect myself with except a sponge.”
I shall not begin by craving the indulgence of the House. I am only too conscious of the indulgence and the courtesy of the House. I know that it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not at all!"] It was almost as difficult for 1624 some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in. Hon. Members, however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world. After all, I suppose when Drake and Raleigh wanted to set out on their venturesome careers, some cautious person said, "Do not do it; it has never been tried before. You stay at home, my sons, cruising around in home waters." I have no doubt that the same thing occurred when the Pilgrim Fathers set out. I have no doubt that there were cautious Christian brethren who did not understand their going into the wide seas to worship God in their own way. But, on the whole, the world is all the better for those venturesome and courageous west country people, and I would like to say that I am quite certain that the women of the whole world will not forget that it was the fighting men of Devon who dared to send the first woman to represent women in the Mother of Parliaments. Now, as the west country people are a courageous lot, it is only right that one of their representatives should show some courage, and I am perfectly aware that it does take a bit of courage to address the House on that vexed question, Drink. However, I dare do it. The hon. Member (Sir J. D. Rees) is more than polite. In fact, I should say that he goes almost a bit too far. However. I will consider his proposal if I can convert him.
The issue raised by the hon. Member is really quite clear, although I admit that he did not make it as clear as I would have liked. Do we want the welfare of the community, or do we want the prosperity of the Trade? Do we want national efficiency, or do we want national inefficiency? That is what it comes to. So I hope to be able to persuade the House. Are we really trying for a better world, or are we going to slip back to the same old world before 1914? I think that the hon. Member is not moving with the times. He speaks of vexatious laws and restrictions. I quite agree with him that most laws are vexatious. When we want to go 50 or 60 miles an hour down the Bath Road it is very tiresome, when we come to a village, to have to go 10 miles an hour. Why do we have to do it? It is for the good of the community. We might kill children. He talks about the restrictions. I maintain that they brought a great deal of good to the community. 1625 There were two gains. First, there were the moral gains. I should like to tell you about them. The convictions of drunkenness among women during the War were reduced to one-fifth after these vexatious restrictions were brought in. I take women, because, as the hon. Member has said, most of the men were away fighting. Does the House realise what that means? The convictions of drunkenness among women were reduced to one-fifth at a time when many women, thousands of them, were earning more than they had ever dreamed of earning in their lives, which generally means, so they say in industrial communities, that there is more spent on drink. Also women were going through not only a physical strain but the most awful mental tortures. Then the deaths from delirium tremens were greatly reduced. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen the tortures of delirium tremens, but it is a national gain if you can reduce them. The deaths of children from over-laying were halved. That was after these vexatious restrictions were brought in.
These are some of the gains that you can set out on paper. I could talk for five hours on the moral gains. I will not do it, but I could talk for hours on the moral gains which you cannot put on paper, they are so enormous. I am perfectly certain, if hon. Members would really stop to think, that they would not cavil at these vexatious restrictions. Already, we have lost some of these gains. The convictions among women have doubled in the last year since the restrictions have been slightly modified, and they are four times as many among men. That is something that I should like the House to think of. Think what these increased convictions mean. Just think, twice as many convictions among women! Does the House realise what that means? How I wish that I was really an orator. I would like to tell you about drink. I have as good a sense of humour as any other hon. Member, but when I think of the ruin and the desolation and the misery which drink brings into the houses of the working men and women as well as of the well-to-do, I find it a little difficult to be humorous. It was only the other day—I had been down to my constituency—that I was coming back from what they call the poorer parts of the town, and I stopped outside a public 1626 house where I saw a child about five years old waiting for its mother. It did not have to wait long. Presently she reeled out. The child went forward to her, but it soon retreated. Oh the oaths and curses of that poor woman and the shrieks of that child as it fled from her. That is not an easy thing to forget. That is what goes on when you have increased drunkenness among women. I am thinking of the women and children. I am not so tremendously excited about what you call the freedom of the men. The men will get their freedom. I do not want to rob them of anything that is good. I only want to ask them to consider others. There is a story—no, I had better not give it. I do not really want to harrow the feelings of the House! But I do want hon. Members to think about these things. What really happens? It is a most terrible thing to talk about it. The freedom of the subject! We, the women, know, and the men know, thousands of us in the country who work amongst the slums, and in prisons and hospitals, we know where John Barleycorn, as you are pleased to call him, leads to. It is not to Paradise. It promises Heaven, and too often it leads to Hell. I will not go on, because it would not be quite fair; but I do beg hon. Members to think of these things, and when they are talking about freedom, to think of the children.
After all, the thought of every man for himself is a thoroughly materialistic doctrine. There is a doctrine of going out to look for the lost sheep; I feel somehow that that is a better spirit to go on with than to be always clamouring about the freedom of the subject. We talk about our war gains and efficiency. You talk about liquor control. What was it set up for? It was set up for national efficiency. It was not set up for temperance. It did pretty well. The War Office and the Admiralty both commended the Liquor Control Board for having greatly gained that for which it was set up. No one would call the War Office or the Admiralty Pussyfoots. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] There are several among them, but you can hardly look upon them as prejudiced Pussyfoots. In 1916 the Liquor Control Board unanimously reported that they had enormously increased efficiency by the Regulations which the hon. Gentleman opposite wants 1627 swept away. The Liquor Board said more, and I would like hon. Members who are always talking about national efficiency and economy to think of this. I want to see whether you are in earnest about this matter or whether it is camouflage. The Liquor Control Board said that the State could not get the maximum of efficiency so long as the drink trade was in private hands. That is what they said. Why did they say so? It is simple. You cannot reconcile the interests of the State with the interests of the trade. If you could there never would have been any licensing laws; there would never have been any drink question. Why cannot you reconcile the two? I will tell you. Because, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the interests of the trade is to sell as much of its goods as possible. No one can say that is to the interest of the State. I do not blame the trade, but one must say that its interest is absolutely opposed to the interest of the State. The real lesson for the country, so far as drink is concerned, is that State Purchase gets the largest amount of progress with the least amount of unrest. That is really what is meant by our War lessons.
The hon. Member spoke of Carlisle. What was the result at Carlisle? The areas all around Carlisle, nearly every one of them, who were originally against the Liquor Control Board's acquisition of the Carlisle area subsequently asked to be taken in. That is really the result of Carlisle. I am glad the hon. Member mentioned Carlisle. I hope someone who follows will deal with all the facts and figures of Carlisle, because they are something of which to be very proud. There are certain things at Carlisle which we are not able to get anywhere else in England. That is wonderful. I could go on for hours but, as I say, having got the indulgence of the House I will not try it too far.
The hon. Baronet talks about pacifists and temperance men not being fighting men. I notice that he is a little frightened of revolutions. What makes revolutions? Reactionaries make revolutions. Then the hon. Gentleman talks about the working man. I suppose when he refers to working men he takes the broad interpretation taken by my Labour friends which interpretation includes anything from a countess to a docker. I know a good deal about the working man. I 1628 would not insult him by telling him, so long as you can prove to him that the conditions of women and children have improved under these restrictions, that he was not willing to have them. I have never found him so. I have spent five years amongst working men in hospitals.
I admit that the country is not ripe for, and does not now want, Prohibition. The hon. Member is perfectly right there. I am not pressing for Prohibition. I am far too intelligent for that. Frankly, I say that I believe that men will get nearer the Paradise they seek if they try to get it through a greater inspiration than drink. I hope very much from the bottom of my heart that at some time the people of England will come to Prohibition. I myself believe it will come. I say so frankly. I am not frightened of saying it. I am not afraid at all of working men. I have told it to them for five years, and they know perfectly well what I think. I hope the time will come when the working man will go dry. But we are not yet ready. Do not let hon. Members deceive themselves for one minute. The working man is as good a father as any other man. Show him the figures. Show him what the Liquor Control Board has done for women and children. Tell him the truth. Do not always tell him that his liberty is being taken away, and that the rich man wants to get more work out of him. It is not true, and you know it. I am all for telling the truth, no matter how disagreeable it is. What I find is that if you care enough about people they will listen to the truth. I think the whole world is sick of lies. I believe that you have got to like men or you cannot say "Boo!" without insulting them. The hon. Member has said that he and his friends were willing during the War to put up with drink control for the purpose of winning the War. It is not true. Ever since the Liquor Control Board started the hon. Member and his friends have been kicking against it.
Oh, yes! Oh, yes! It is you, Sir, who are deceiving, it is not I, and if is not the Liquor Control Board. All during the War when the Government and the Admiralty, and the War Office, said that the Liquor Control Board was helping efficiency and helping to win the War, what did you do in the Great War, you and your friends? No, Sir, the hon. Member and his friends 1629 were always kicking against the Liquor Control Board. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Oh, yes: look in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and you will see that you were always complaining, and at the time of the nation's dire peril you were always trying to hamper the Liquor Control Board. No, yon have not got a pretty record, you and your friends. I am not saying that there were not some perfectly patriotic brewers. There were, hut I do say that there were some brewers who really were all during the War kicking against restrictions of any kind. That is perfectly true, and the hon. Member knows it himself. It is really not a pretty story. I thought the hon. Member was going to complain about the hardships of the trade, but he did not do so. I have, however, heard others do it, and I can tell you that the drink trade, in spite of its hardships, managed to profiteer to the tune of many millions out of the working men. That is what they did in the Great War. Brewery companies which were nearly ruined before the War have now got millions. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Yes, that is so, and any hon. Members can look into it and they will see it for themselves. I am not blaming them, but I think if the hon. Member and his friends are the real friends of the working men they will urge the brewers to disgorge some of their War profits.
What are they doing with their war profits? They are advertising. There are some very offensive posters put up by the brewers, but I will not deal with them, except to dwell on those which are most likely to mislead the country. There is the poster of a fine English working man pointing to a reformed public house with a beautiful cheerful fire, where it is said that he can get tea, coffee and buns. Do you think the brewing trade are going to press the sale of tea, coffee, and buns? The brewers are spending thousands of pounds to induce Parliament to let them make their public-houses more attractive and more profitable, and this in spite of the record of convictions amongst women being double and amongst men four times what they were. I do not believe that the Government or the House is going to play their game. I do not think the country is really ripe for prohibition, but I am certain it is ripe for drasticdrink reforms. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I know what I am talking about, and you must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely, not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole. I want to see what the Government is going to do. As the House knows, I am a great admirer of the Prime Minister, and one of the reasons I have always admired him was the way he faced this vexed question of drink during the War. I know that politicians are a little frightened of the trade, and of this sort of thing, but the Prime Minister was not. He came out and said during the War that the State could not afford to let go its hold on the trade, which had beaten them in the past. I want the Prime Minister to remember those words when he introduces his drink Bill. He also said: that drink was a greater enemy than the German submarine. I want to see that the drink submarine does not torpedo the Prime Minister. I want to see whether the Prime Minister is master in his own house. I do not believe that the Prime Minister is in the strangle hold of the trade and the profiteers. It is not the trade and the profiteers who put the Prime Minister where he is. There are thousands of people who really believe in him over this drink question and they trust him. I do not know whether there are many hon. Members who feel that way, but I do, and I can tell the House that my name is legion in the country. There is a real awakening throughout the country. [Laughter.] You can laugh, but there really are people in England, and thousands of them, who want to see the country better and they are willing to give up their appetites.
[An HON. MEMBER: "We all do that!"] If you all do it then you have to face this question of drink. If you want national efficiency you will have to oppose excessive drink for that alone. You know that. When labourers are intoxicated do you really get the maximum out of them?
I do ask hon. Members not to misread the spirit of the times. Do not go round saying that you want England a country fit for heroes to live in, do not talk about it unless you mean to do it. I do not want to rob the hon. Member opposite of anything that has given him pleasure. I do not really want to take the joy out of the world, or happiness, or anything that really makes for the betterment of the world; but you know, and I know, that drink really promises everything and gives you nothing. You know it, and the House knows it, and the world is beginning to recognise it. We have no right to think of this question in terms of our appetite, and we have to think of it in something bigger than that. I want you to think of the effect of these restrictions in terms of women and babies. Think of the thousands of children whose fathers even had to put up with more than these vexatious restrictions, who laid down their lives. Think of their fatherless children. Supposing they were your children or my children, would you want them to grow up with the trade flourishing? I do not believe the House would. I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or a lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves. I want to tell you that I do know the working man, and I know that, if you do not try to fool him, if you tell him the truth about drink, he would be as willing as anybody else to put up with so-called vexatious restrictions.