Before 1906, the Liberal Party was made up of an uneasy coalition of Whigs and Radicals. It was never a Party in the greater sense of the word. Its underlying basis was a commitment to free trade and economic capitalisation. The Party lacked unity due to differing reform and religious interests.
The split in the Liberal Party over Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill in 1886 resulted in the lost some of its wealthier members. This weakened the Party who relied on their money and influence.
The beginning of the 1890s’ brought a wave of new liberalism from a Party who believed that the free market system could work fairly. It aimed to rationalise, not replace capitalism.
It attempted to solve the issues that were plaguing the country: poverty and unemployment. The voicing of the Liberals plans to come to terms with these issues, a coldness of Tariff Reform, dislike of the 1902 Education Act, and the handling of imperial affairs by the Unionists, undoubtedly led to the victory of the Liberal Party in 1906. They reached their peak with unity and defiance and put the old Liberalism stigma behind them. There is no doubt that the Liberals (particularly under Asquith) made an attempt to change the country’s history.
The Campbell-Bannerman Administration
The Liberal Party that took office under Campbell-Bannerman in 1906 was one of considerable strength. Not only was it one of the largest anti-conservative majority’s for over 80 years, it also consisted of a cabinet of extremely talented men, some of whom were given ministerial experience that would secure great leadership in the future.
However, this was not the legislative programme that was to dub the Liberal Party “a great problem solving force”.
On the whole, the Campbell-Bannerman administration was not a great success. They were deterred from passing seven of their nine major bills by The Lords; bills that might have led to even greater social reform.
Campbell-Bannerman’s administration dealt with the past but could contribute little to the future and its growing problems of poverty and undernourishment. Campbell-Bannerman’s death in 1908 came at the height of legislation that specifically addressed the problems of the poor and out of work.
Asquith was able to bring further unity to the party at the beginning of his term in office. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, played a major hand in changing the country by acting as the voice of the underprivileged.
By 1910, the Asquith administration had, in Hobson’s words, made “an organic plan of social progress which implies a new consciousness of liberal statecraft ”. The 1908 old-aged pension was the starting point of numerous legislation. The Asquith administration established wage boards and labour exchanges, made developments on small holdings, and took over the control of town planning.
The Dissolution of Parliament
However, the Liberals also had to contend with another problem that was getting in the way of their legislation: the House of Lords. A Bill could become law if it was passed through the House of Lords three times without their approval.
The House of Lords rejection of Lloyd George’s popular “Peoples Budget” in 1909 caused conflicting controversy, and their denunciation of the Finance Bill was condemned as a “breach of the constitution and usurpation of the rights of The Commons”.
This incident led to the dissolution of parliament and a General Election was fought on the issue. The Liberals lost over one hundred seats and Asquith became the head of a minority government.
The death of Edward VII delayed the dissolution of the Parliamentary Bill, which proposed that The Lords could no longer reject or amend legislation and that the parliament’s length be reduced from seven years to five.
The Bill eventually passed through the lower and upper Houses in 1911, after being given the royal consent.
The Party was able to further legislate on a National Insurance Act (1911), which provided state insurance in unemployment and sickness. This seemed to bring a close to the Liberal Party’s problem-solving.
The rejected Franchise Bill of 1912 that would have enfranchised many women (although not all equally), showed the growing lack of unity within the Party. Lloyd George and Walter Runicman supported it while Asquith and Churchill did not.
By 1912, the Suffragette Movement that had started campaigning in 1905 had reached a point of agitation and violence. Apart from imprisonment of ‘offending’ suffragette campaigners, Asquith decided to be patient and watch events play out rather than to take immediate action.
Industrial militancy and Ireland were other problems that had loomed up on the Liberal government. Industrial disputes raged between 1910 and 1912 with the “Triple Alliance” of miners, dockers and railwayman demanding better pay and conditions.
There were numerous strikes and the incidents caused by the Labour unrest were noted for their “violent, unofficial, and insurgent character”. This led to Labour Party strength as trade union-ship was a qualification to Labour Party membership.
In 1912, the Liberals introduced a Home Rule Bill which hoped to include all of Ireland. However, Catholic and Protestants had grown further apart, and the Liberals found that the Ulster Unionists (who had Conservative support) were opposed to them.
Under the leadership of Andrew Bonar Law, they had guns shipped to Northern Ireland while the Conservatives aspired to destroy the Liberals by supporting Ulster Unionists: “I can imagine no length of resistance, to which Ulster will go, which I shall not be ready to support” were the words of one Conservative leader in July 1912.
Unable to reach an appropriate solution that would suit unionists and his Irish Nationalist allies, Asquith decided to adopt his usual “wait and see” stance, which only made things worse. The situation became so bad that by 1914 the country was on the brink of a civil war. This forced Asquith to amend the Bill to postpone Home Rule for Ulster for six years. Nevertheless, this solution was dismissed and in the wake of Britain’s entry into the First World War, the Irish Problem, came to a temporary halt.
By 1914, the strain of the Lib/Lab Alliance was evident with electoral defeats in municipal and by-elections. The Labour Party brought in third-party candidates in 11 constituencies.
It was in fact concluded that “by the end of 1913, Liberal England was reduced to ashes”. The party strength ended after The First World War and never recovered.
The Liberal Party was at its lowest ebb from 1911 to 1914.
Liberal Party England writers, G. Cole and R. Postgate, alleged that “the great Liberal experiment, that began so glamorously with the electoral victory of 1906, was ending in ignominious rout”. They went on to say that between 1910 and 1914, “more and more evidently, the government was ceasing to govern and parliamentary institutions were falling into disrepute. The spirit of revolt was spreading from one section of its people to another, and manifesting itself in a demand for new leadership and a new philosophy of life”.
This was evident in the Unionists support of Lister, following the defeat of the Lords in 1911, which reared its head in a series of violent and aggressive revolts. The Liberals lack of governing lay in their failure to make concessions on the suffragette campaign and particularly on Ireland. They also played a provisional role in the state of industrial unrest, which Lloyd George just about managed to crush by halting the railway men strike and settling the miners strike with a temporary miners Minimum Wages Act.
K.W. Aikin maintained that “the Liberal Party were so far advanced in the throes of death by 1914 that their replacement by socialism and the Labour Party was inevitable”.
So were the Liberal Party a great problem solving force?
Undoubtedly, the Liberal Party solved great problems, the House of Lords was brought under decision-making discipline. The party can also be commemorated for the defeat of the Unionists and their far-reaching army and navy reforms, which included the establishment of the Territorial Army and naval expansion. Lastly, the 1906 Liberal Government made the first reforming steps of solving the “condition of the England problem” and pathing the way for the Welfare State.
The Liberal Party recognised changing attitudes towards the poor. Studies such as Seebohm Rowntree’s, Poverty: a Study of Town Life, published in 1901, provided evidence that a quarter of the population was living in poverty.
State intervention was clearly absent from the Liberal government’s proposals. They were cautious in their legislation but can still be considered the “Founding Fathers” of the Welfare State. As Professor B. Gilbert, an authority in British Social Services, stated, “the passage of the Education (Provisions of Meals) Act of 1906 and the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act of 1907, establishing medical inspection in state schools, marked the beginning of the construction of the Welfare State.
From 1906 to 1911 the Liberal Party was at its peak. It did solve and address a few great problems, but if it had been more imaginative and less bound to its old traditions, it may have solved many more. And as for its later failures, they were no more than the problems faced by other governments. The vote for women was achieved in its own time as were industrial disputes. Trade Union activism faded while the Irish Problem was finally settled in 1921 with an Anglo-Irish Treaty.
- The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain (edited by Kenneth O’Morgan)
- The Decline of the Liberal Party, 1910–1931 by Paul Adelman
- A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900–1983 by Chris Cook
- The Last Years of Liberal England, 1900–1914 by K W W Aiken
- Democracy and Empire, 1865–1914 by E.J. Feuchtwanger
- The New Liberalism by M. Freeden
Copyright S.K. Holder