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1906 British General Election Essay

The Liberals lapped on the conservatives weaknesses, and used that to their strengths. The leadership of Campbell-Bannerman proved as a success by throwing out accusations towards the Tories, like their methods of barbarism and ‘Chinese slavery.’ They also had young, dynamic MP’s and the gaining of Winston Churchill. The liberals opposed the tariff reform and supported free trade like many working class voters. The Tories had won 334 seats in the 1900 election but that went down to 157 seats in the 1906 election, which is a loss of 177 seats. But on the other hand in the 1900 election the Liberals had 187 seats but by 1906 election they had gone up to 401 seats, which is a gain of 214 seats! The Conservative party introduced two new acts just before this General Election which decreased their popularity. The Education Act of 1902 was an attempt by the ‘Tories’ to improve national efficiency: Britain must improve the health and well-being of the nation if it was to remain a leading world power. The act abolished school boards, which meant that taxpayers funded primary school education.

Although this was a successful policy, (attendance increased from 94,000 in 1905 to 200,000 by 1914) it angered non-conformists who were outraged that their taxes were being used to fund church schools. In fact, the Act was branded ‘Rome on Rates’, as the Catholic Church was benefiting from taxes being paid by anti-Catholic citizens: Balfour soon had to control a revolt as 7000 people refused to pay their taxes. This rebellion shows just how unpopular this act was and reduced the amount of support for the Conservatives. The Conservative party also had a ‘Laissez Faire’ attitude, which means ‘you are on your own’ with your health and wealth. Booth and Roundtrees studies showed that 1/3 of the population were in Poverty and in the Boer War soldiers were declared to unhealthy to fight. The Non-Conformists were also outraged by the Licensing Act of 1904, which aimed to reduce the number of pubs in areas where they were not needed.

However, the government paid compensation to the brewers whose pubs were closed down which angered voters as the brewers were receiving unnecessary government funds. This act, ‘The Brewers Bill’ was another attempt by the Conservatives to introduce reform, which ended in their popularity decreasing in the 1906 election. These acts were important, not only because they weakened Conservative support but also because they gave the Liberal party new policies to increase popularity: they promised to reverse the Education and Licensing Acts, which made them more attractive to Non-Conformists. The reforms gave the Liberal party strength: whereas in 1900, they had been split over the issue of home rule and had suffered from ‘faddism’. The first major event that had an impact on the general election of 1906 was the Boer War.

There are a number of reasons why the Boer War occurred, the first being Joseph Chamberlains appointment as colonial secretary whose job it was to strengthen the empire. South Africa was important in these plans as it had the most valuable land on the continent not only because of its trading location but also because of the recently discovered Witwatersrand goldfield’s growing wealth. Agreements in 1881 and 1884 gave the Boer states independence but they faced interference from imperialist Britain which escalated hostilities. These and other factors eventually led to war with the Boer states. Views were split on the subject but as the war went on the Conservatives were being increasingly blamed for their military inexperience.

The war also allowed the Liberals to start a revival as it took views off the internal cracks in the party and gave it a united front as most Liberals disagreed with the war. The Boer war also created other issues for the Conservatives. There were 50,00 Chinese workers in South Africa (or also as it is known as ‘Chinese Slavery’) and despite the Conservative government having little to do with it the Liberals could portray them as exploiters of workers due to the long hours, poor pay and lack of rights they had. This harmed the Conservatives reputation with middle class voters because of the humanitarian issues (methods of barbarism) but more importantly badly damaged their reputation with working class voters because not only did it close off potential job opportunities in South Africa but also made many worried that they may implement the practice in Britain. Another major event that had an impact on the election was the retirement of Lord Salisbury who had been influential in the revival of the Conservatives and the alliance with the Unionists.

Salisbury’s successor, Balfour can be seen as another reason for the revival of the Liberal Party. As soon as Balfour was appointed the Unionist alliance began to break. Balfour is partly to blame for Chamberlains attempt to implement the tariff reform in 1903. Although Balfour had little to do with it he failed to stop Chamberlain putting the reform forward which led to many people questioning his authority. This controversial policy split the unionist alliance so much so that many voters turned to the Liberals. The split was in three ways. ‘Whole Hoggers’ who supported the tariff reform fully. There were ‘Free fooders’ whom were mostly Liberal Unionists where they supported free trade and absolutely hated the idea. Then finally there were the ‘Balfourites’ who tried to create peace throughout the party.

The reform stated that all non-British (and British Empire as well just pay lower taxes) colonies should have to pay tariffs on imports into Britain. But free trade was indented into British society and nearly all voters were against the idea as no one wanted to pay more for the same products. Another damaging misestimate by Balfour was the decision not to take any action on the Taff Vale incident. The railway workers on the Taff Vale railway went on strike in 1900. The management replaced them with National free labour association workers and then took the union to court for damages. The judge ruled in favour of the company which angered thousands of trade union members who wanted change but by 1905 the Conservatives had not taken any action whereas the Liberals and Labour were supporting change.

Balfour’s successive miscalculations with this series of events led many to change their allegiances and angered many, none more than the working class who were becoming increasingly important. However it was not just Conservative weaknesses that caused the Liberals to win a victory in the 1906 general election, but also Liberals renewed strength. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Asquith and William Gladstone are all acknowledged as great leaders and also with more dynamic MP’s, ( David Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel, Winston Churchill) while the Conservatives kept making mistakes the Liberals were gaining support, creating policies the public supported and forming alliances such as the Lib-Lab Pact. (The Liberal Party agreed to withdraw parliamentary candidates in some constituencies where the Labour was also standing in order to make sure the anti-Tory vote was not split.)

And with the mess of the conservatives the Liberals promised to introduce social reforms. Overall, I think the statement is valid, as the Tories had their chance to show the public what they had to offer, but they failed and they wanted to have something new and fresh. The Liberals took the Conservatives weaknesses to their advantage and won! With their fresh new MP’s it looked like the government, the future looked bright for the people in poverty.


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