Friday, 26 February 2016

Conservative disaster: Liberal victory

From Salisbury to Balfour

In January 1901 Victoria died and was succeeded by Edward VII.  In May 1902 Lord Salisbury's Conservative government signed a  treaty with the Boers, ending the Anglo-Boer War.  On 11 July 1902 he retired, having served the fourth-longest premiership after Walpole, Pitt the Younger and Liverpool. He was also the last Prime Minister to sit in the Lords. He died at Hatfield, the Cecil family home, in August 1903. The end of his premiership can be seen as a symbolic marker of the end of the Victorian period.
A, J. Balfour

There was never any doubt that Salisbury would be succeeded by his nephew, A. J. Balfour hence [possibly] the phrase, ‘Bob’s your uncle’ - though it might have an earlier origin).  Joseph Chamberlain, the only possible rival, was unacceptable to large sections of Conservative opinion (and was recovering from a fall through a plate glass window at the time).

The greatest achievement of the Balfour government was the 1902 Education Act, though the government got little credit for it. The Act provided some much needed rationalization, and set up a statutory system of secondary education, but Nonconformists were furious at what they saw as the privileged position given to Anglican schools. Many, who had supported the Unionists (Conservatives) since the Home Rule crisis of 1886, now returned to the Liberals. The divided Liberal party gained a new lease of life as those who had deserted the party over Ireland began to return to the fold. Retrospectively the Act can be seen as a major advance in the provision of secondary education, but politically it was an unqualified disaster.

Tariff reform

Chamberlain had been absent from the debates on the act as a result of his accident. He felt betrayed by its final provisions (which denied church schools the right to opt out of LEAs) and as a consequence the former Liberal felt released from any reciprocal obligation to the Conservatives. It enabled him to embark on a campaign of ‘imperial preference’ which split the Conservatives in a manner reminiscent of Peel’s abandonment of agricultural protection.

There were two main factors behind the campaign.
1. Chamberlain’s passionate imperialism. Worried about British isolationism and unpopularity (as shown by the international reaction to the Boer War), he at first attempted to force an alliance with Germany. When this fell through he envisaged instead a grand union of the British Empire - seeing this as essentially a project for the Anglo-Saxon races.
2. Some disturbing economic facts. Between 1870 and 1900 Britain’s share of world manufacturing production had slipped from over 30% to less than 20%. The United States had overtaken her in 1880 and Germany in c. 1900. These two rivals had large domestic resources and markets, acquired through processes of unification. In 1896 Ernest Williams published Made in Germany. By 1902 the focus of hostility had shifted to America, but the principle remained the same - Britain was suffering from foreign competition.
In a speech in Birmingham in May 1902 Chamberlain declared:
‘The days are for great Empires, not for little states.’
 In another speech in Birmingham on 15 May 1903 he opened his campaign, challenging the premises of free trade and calling for closer economic unity of the Empire. The Times likened this to Luther’s challenge to the Church of Rome at Wittenberg. The Liberals could hardly believe their luck. Herbert Henry Asquith:
‘Wonderful news today and it is only a question of time when we shall sweep the country.’
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the economic arguments, imperial preference had huge political problems that were in some ways a rerun of the debates of the early 1840s. Chamberlain was advocating a fundamental change in the country’s commercial policy. Free trade had been the mid-Victorian gospel, and a group of Conservatives immediately went into action to defend it. Lord Hugh Cecil and Winston Churchill declared that if the Tory party became protectionist it would lose its soul.

Throughout the summer of 1903 Balfour tried to hold the party together and work out a compromise position. But he was unable to prevent the formation of rival groups. In the autumn Chamberlain travelled the country arguing for imperial protection (duties levied on foreign but not colonial imports).  But this reminded many Conservatives of the way the party had split on the corn laws in 1846. On 24 October Winston Churchill wrote:
Winston Churchill 
'I hate the Tory party. … I feel no sort of sympathy with them. … It is therefore my intention that before Parliament meets [late January or February] my separation from the Tory party and the government shall be complete & irrevocable & during the next session I propose to act consistently with the Liberal party.’
Meanwhile Asquith went on a similar speaking round arguing against imperial preference. The Liberal argument was the simple Anti-Corn Law League one: protection (in this case imperial preference) would mean dearer bread.

The fall of the Unionists

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
By 1905 Chamberlain accepted that the Unionists were going to lose the next election (though the Liberals were unable to believe that they would win it) but he hoped that after the election he could reconstruct the party round tariff reform. By this time the party was in a state of almost open civil war. In  December 1905 Balfour resigned and the King sent for the elderly  Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.  Balfour was the last Prime Minister to resign to an opposition leader without first being defeated in a general election.

On assuming office in December 1905 Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a cabinet:
Herbert Henry Asquith: Chancellor of the Exchequer;
Sir Edward Grey: Foreign Secretary;
R.B. Haldane: Minister for War;
Herbert Gladstone: Home Secretary
Two younger men came into the government. David Lloyd George, aged 42, became President of the Board of Trade. Winston Churchill, recently defected from the Tories, became Under-Secretary for the Colonies. The Lib-Lab John Burns became President of the Local Government Board, the first working man to reach the cabinet.

The general election of 1906 was a landslide, giving the Liberals an absolute majority of 130 seats (nearly 50% of the vote). With their allies they had a majority of over 350.
Conservatives 157 (they had over 400 in the Khaki Election)
Liberals (and their allies) 400 (184 in 1900)
Labour 53. This was a sensation. 24 were closely allied to the Liberals and the other 29 were elected under the independent auspices of the LRC (now renamed the Labour Party) and of these only four had been involved in a fight with a serious Liberal opponent. The Labour MPs sat on the Opposition benches but their dependence on the Liberals made it hard for them to operate as a genuine opposition party.
Irish Nationalists 83.
Otherwise impregnable Conservative seats – Cheltenham, Eastbourne, Chelsea – fell to the Liberals. Balfour suffered the humiliation of losing his own East Manchester seat (he was later returned in a by-election for the City of London). He saw the result in wildly apocalyptic terms:
‘the faint echo of the same movement which has produced massacres in St Petersburg, riots in Vienna and Socialist processions in Berlin’.
The British electoral system - as so often - exaggerated the result in giving the Liberals such a huge majority with less than 50% of the vote, but even so it was a remarkable result for them. Twenty-seven Liberal candidates were elected unopposed. The Unionists were in disarray, constituency parties were depleted, Lancashire swung firmly behind the Liberals on the question of free trade (Churchill had captured North-West Manchester), Home Rule played well in the Irish areas.

Balfour was returned in a by-election in March (City of London) and his control over his party was assured when Chamberlain suffered a massive stroke in July 1906 and retired from active politics. He was determined to give the Liberals a very hard time indeed.