1906 General Election: The zenith of liberalism

As we approach Brexit day, whenever it finally occurs, it is important to remember the struggles and victories that have defined the political liberalism that is at the core of the modern movement in Britain. One such famous example is the landslide victory for the Liberal party in 1906. 

If 1951 was the nadir of our history, then 1906 was surely one of the many high points. The creed which we might call ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ was at its intellectual apogee, but the new ideas of social liberalism and equality were also beginning to flourish and resonate with the populace, with the rise of the new trade unions and the Labour Party forwarding the cause of worker’s rights and the voice for the less well-off in society. These new ideals were often supported by the Liberal Party, with Henry Campbell-Bannerman saying in 1903 that ‘we are kindly in sympathy with the representatives of Labour.’ 

This new political environment was changing Britain from the Victorian era into the 20th Century, although later moves on the continent would of course lead to disaster. In 1906, Campbell-Bannerman had only been Prime Minister for a month and a half having replaced Arthur Balfour, and consolidated his position as a reformer, with his controversial stand on the Boer War at the turn of the century. 

Balfour had resigned in the hope of seeing the Liberals split as his party had done so, but no such divisions were seen, and the widespread unpopularity of the Conservatives was echoed in the election result. Campbell Bannerman started the campaign with the following speech at The Royal Albert Hall:

Depend upon it that in fighting for our open ports and for the cheap food and material upon which the welfare of the people and the prosperity of our commerce depend we are fighting against those powers, privileges, injustices, and monopolies which are unalterably opposed to the triumph of democratic principles.

The mantra of Peace, Retrenchment and Reform’, that had been used by Gladstone to great effect in 1880 was widely popular with the general public once again. The study by Benjamin Rowntree in 1902 had found that huge swathes of the population were living below the poverty line. The calls for social reform were rejected by the previous government, something that Campbell-Bannerman seeked to reverse. 

The results themselves have become known as the ‘Liberal landslide’, with Campbell-Bannerman winning 397 to the Tories 156. It was a huge victory, that had huge ramifications for the social and political future of the country in the new century. With Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill in the ranks, the era of social welfare reform and the long march towards to voting equality were starting to become in the realms of reality. Under the new government, the first of those reforms was introduced straight after the victory at the polls, such as the introduction, but not the compulsory issuing of, free school meals and the introduction of the Old-Age Pension Act for those over 70. This formed the bedrock of the social infrastructure we see in Britain today, and the positive influence that moderate state-influence can do. It was not a sudden revolution, but a radical project that changed the face of British society.

Though the actions of Campbell-Bannerman were over a century ago, they debunk the myth that radical, centrist liberalism was, and never will be, popular in Britain. It is alive and well, and the next leader of the Liberal Democrats must harness its spirit to fuel the flair of reform. 

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.

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17 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Mar '19 - 2:09pm

    As I hare a birthday with Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, and think an feel he was and is one of the greats of this tradition, I like this piece!!!

    He was not very left wing as he was from a different era, but his openness and stances as alluded to, were in keeping with social Liberalism in the way it is understood since.

    Too often the great classical and social Liberals , the same then as now, are pitted as if opposites, in no way necessary.

    One builds on the other.

    So too does the later achievement of that government, build on the remarkably forgotten victory , much of it the responsibility of that first pm in that government, the most popular party leader any had up until then, had, it could be said.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Mar '19 - 2:11pm

    Share not hare!!!

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Mar '19 - 3:44pm

    A Labour member spoke at the NLC, several years ago, saying that there was an electoral pact which brought in 57 Labour MPs. I did not ask how many varieties?
    PM Asquith brought in salaries for MPs to help these Labour MPs and low income Liberal MPs, such as David Lloyd George.

  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '19 - 6:25pm

    Leicester was an example where a pact between the Liberal Party and Labour kept the Tories out of the two parliamentary seats the town (it was not yet a city) had at the time. One of Leicester’s MPs was none other than future Labour Party Leader and Prime Minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, and I have a letter he wrote to my grandfather thanking him for inviting him to his local chapel. Needless to say, Leicester’s other MP was a Liberal. Happy days.

    It is clear that it was largely thanks to the Liberals that Labour gained a foothold in British politics and eventually displaced them as a major force, when splits occurred in the former. I wonder whether the same fate may befall Labour as Brexit continues to take its toll.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Mar '19 - 10:40pm

    This was a seven year parliament with a large government majority and allies.
    It was nevertheless forced into a general election in 1910, and then another.

  • In fact Parliaments elected under the Septennial Act almost never reached their maximum seven-year span. In the nineteenth century, the average was about four, two went for six (the parliaments elected in 1812 and 1859), none for seven. So having an election in 1910 for a parliament elected in 1906 was in no way unusual.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Mar '19 - 8:55am

    David Raw 22nd Mar ’19 – 7:18pm
    @ Richard Underhill “low income Liberal MPs, such as David Lloyd George.”
    At this time DLG was a backbencher, before MPs were salaried, not yet attracting a Ministerial salary and dependent on his extended family.
    His career as a solicitor had been in Wales, not in London .
    Thanks to his agent for spotting what the Tories were doing at the count, and asking for a recount, he only had a tiny majority at that time.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Mar '19 - 9:40am

    David-1 22nd Mar ’19 – 11:41pm
    The two elections of 1910 were unusual, at least by today’s standards, because of the involvement of the King and historically important House of Lords reform. Edward VII died. George V accepted. There was a list of Liberals needed to override the opposition of the ‘hedgers’ and ‘ditchers’ in the upper house.

  • David Evershed 23rd Mar '19 - 2:45pm

    Patrick Maxwell looks back to a time when economic liberalism and social liberalism lived side by side in the Liberal Party.

    If the Liberal Democrats are to return to those heady times of Gladstone and Lloyd George then we need to embrace both economic and social freedoms in our policies.

  • David Raw – still a better, more dynamic and energetic PM and leader than Asquith, a heavy drinking, fair weather leader who easily crumbled in hard times. I would have picked DLG over Asquith in times of trouble without thinking twice.

    And it was who Lloyd George embraced and single-handedly introduced Keynes’ economic ideas into British politics, which was dominated by classical economics at that time.

    David Evershed – Gladstone embraced one form of liberalism and Lloyd George embraced another. None of them embraced both. Classical liberalism simply is not suitable for modern government and policy making, and hence social liberalism emerged.

  • @ Thomas Don’t underestimate Asquith. He was a brilliant peace time Prime Minister before the war. As for the war I suggest you read Cassar’s works on both men for a balanced view…. And Roland Quinneault on Asquith as a war leader.

    Lloyd George’s war memoirs are now dismissed as completely unreliable and self promoting by modern historians. Asquith’s decision to mount a blockade on Germany was far more decisive than Lloyd George’s infatuation with Nivelle in 1917.

  • David Raw – maybe, but Asquith became a liability during the decade after the war, he lacked energy. It was Lloyd George who drove the party forward with new ideas. It was him who introduced Keynes (who was just a fringe during the 1920s) into party mainstream, and sponsored the development of the Yellow Book.

    In the end, Lloyd George was a very controversial figure, but unlike Asquith he was a firebrand and more importantly a natural radical. You cannot call Asquith a natural radical, he belonged to the right of the party (Grey, Simon, Runciman…), and DLG to the left.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Mar '19 - 10:55am

    Ian Sanderson (RM3) 22nd Mar ’19 – 5:28pm
    Yes, there can be, and have been, changes of government without a general election. There was a change of Prime Minister in 1940, leading to a three party coalition to fight the war.
    The Labour government of 1945 was re-elected with a small majority in 1950, but suffered as elderly Ministers attended numerous late night votes.
    The Suez crisis in 1956 brought a change of Prime Minister who achieved a majority for the same party in 1959.
    A Labour government fell in 1979, initially because they had not done enough, nor promised enough, to implement devolution. SNP Turkeys voted for Christmas. Subsequent Labour leaders John Smith and Tony Blair acted differently.
    The current Labour leader has often suggested in the Commons that the current government, (strong-mindedness causing division and weakness) should step aside, or that there should be a general election (which the PM has promised not to call when her own party held a motion of no confidence in her).
    In that context we should remember the late Julian Critchley MP (Aldershot). He said that MPs hate elections, whatever they say at the time. Elections carry risks for their interests.
    He described himself as a second class wine “deuxieme cru” who had nevertheless received training about the EEC which later MPs had not, leading to ignorance and misunderstanding. His wit led to a cross-party friendship with Charles Kennedy MP.

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