A Liberal Party Landslide

The first result of the Liberal Party landslide was reported on January 12th, 1906, with a Liberal victory in Ipswich.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister from 1905-08The election result astounded winners and losers alike.  In 1900, the Conservatives and Unionists had won 402 seats on the strength of success in the Boer War. The Liberals had 184 seats, with 82 Irish Nationalists and two Labour Party members. The Conservatives under Arthur Balfour fell out over tariff reform and resigned in December 1905. Balfour resigned rather than dissolve Parliament and force an election, in the hope that the Liberals, who also had their disagreements, might split when they tried to put together a cabinet.

Political wiseacres, including many Liberals, thought it a smart move. Leading Liberals had been at odds over the war, imperialism, Ireland and women’s suffrage. Prominent figures in the party, including Sir Edward Grey, H.H. Asquith and R.B. Haldane, had been plotting to get rid of their leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, an amiable, indolent, well-to-do Scot from Glasgow who sat for the same Scottish seat for forty years. With assistance on the quiet from Edward VII’s court, they hoped to force him into the House of Lords. Campbell-Bannerman declined and persuaded the party bigwigs that forming a government was far more important than arguing about what it should or should not do. He assembled a cabinet with  Grey as foreign secretary, Asquith at the Exchequer and Haldane at the war office. David Lloyd George was at the Board of Trade.

Scoring off the Conservatives for having done a moonlight flit after a period which he called ‘a well-nigh unbroken expanse of mismanagement’, Campbell-Bannerman called an election for early in the New Year. He himself remained almost entirely in Scotland during the campaign, in which the Liberals and Labour tried not to contest the same seats. The Liberals trumpeted their belief in free trade and cheap food, to which observers attributed their landslide victory. They also profited from Nonconformist resentment over the Education Act of 1902 for favouring Church of England schools, and drummed up indignation about the ‘slavery’ of thousands of Chinese coolies working in the South African gold mines, with hoardings all over the country showing them in chains and being flogged and kicked.

The first result was reported on January 12th, with a Liberal success in Ipswich. The next day came word of Liberal and Labour gains in twenty out of thirty-five constituencies. By the end of the month the final tally brought the Liberals home with 400 seats, Conservatives and Unionists reduced to 157, Irish Nationalists 83 and Labour 30. The Liberals had 49 per cent of the total vote and the Conservatives 44 per cent. Balfour himself lost his seat in Manchester.

The new government’s principal achievements were to reduce the powers of the House of Lords and strengthen the legal position of the trade unions. Nothing was done about Chinese slavery or women’s suffrage. Campbell-Bannerman kept his cabinet together successfully for the remaining two years of his life, until his death at seventy-one in1908. He was succeeded by Asquith.

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