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Asquith's Pronouncement*

By Bertrand Russell

Related Articles and Pamphlets:

1. To the Electors of the Wimbledon Division of Surrey
2. After the Second Reading
3. Mr. Asquith’s Pronouncement
4. Liberalism and Women’s Suffrage
5. Should Suffragists Welcome the People’s Suffrage Federation?
6. Anti-Suffragist Anxieties

[In this note, Russell responds to Asquith’s May 1908 support for a women's suffrage bill less limited than one passed by Parliament in February of that year.]

MR. ASQUITH’S PROMISE to the deputation of Suffragist members is the most important event which has yet occurred in the history of the movement. The effect of his promise is that, provided we can retain our majority in the House of Commons, Women’s Suffrage will – barring unforeseen accidents – become incorporated in a Government Bill. It is therefore to all intents and purposes as good as if the Government had directly taken up the enfranchisement of women. Unless the House of Lords rejects the suggested Reform Bill, there is therefore every likelihood that women will acquire votes before the next General Election.

The two points which seem of most importance for those who wish to further the cause of Suffrage are, first, that such a measure as Mr. Asquith foreshadows will be rejected by the Lords unless they feel there is a really strong movement behind it, and secondly, that a Women’s Suffrage Amendment, if it is to fulfill Mr. Asquith’s conditions, must not merely propose to extend the present franchise to women, but must be so drafted as to enfranchise the majority of working women.

As regards the first point, it is evident that the likelihood of the Lords accepting the Bill depends upon the force behind it, and that this will be the united force of the Suffrage Movement and the Government. Whatever, therefore, strengthens either increases our chance of success during the present Parliament, and whatever weakens either diminishes pro tanto our chance of success during the present Parliament. This consideration points to the necessity for the utmost activity in Suffrage propaganda, and to the unwisdom of making such propaganda, in future, actively hostile to the Government.

As regards the second point, it will not, of course, be the business of the Suffrage Societies to draft the Amendment to be proposed, since the nature of this Amendment must be decided, when the time comes, by our friends in Parliament. But it will be the business of the Suffrage Societies to support whatever Amendment our friends in Parliament may introduce, rather than to stickle for the precise formula which would express our avowed objects. To many of us a wider extension than would be afforded by the present qualification would be very welcome; to all, presumably, it would be better than nothing. For the present, therefore, if we wish to further women’s enfranchisement, it would seem desirable to keep an open mind as to the exact shape in which it is to come.

Success is now at last in sight. All that remains is that we should do our part in retaining the friendship of the House of Commons, and in extorting the respect of the House of Lords. The Government no longer needs to be intimidated, but the Lords may; and therefore now, as before, the road to victory lies through the creation of an overwhelming public opinion in our favour.


*  Bertrand Russell, “Mr. Asquith’s Pronouncement,” Women’s Franchise 1 (May 28 1908), 565