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To what extent is it fair to conclude that it was Conservative/Unionist failings that led to the 1906 landslide victory?
Within the last 20 years being dominated by the conservative party, perhaps it is possible to assume that soon there would be a reverse in conservative fortunes. This could come from a liberal comeback or another party finding their feet in parliament. As we know it was the Liberals aiming their ascendancy again to win a landslide victory in 1906. However, external factors cannot entirely be attributed to the conservative downfall as it came in a “landslide” defeat. In answering this question I will look at the inefficiencies and limitations of the conservative party, whilst also considering the actions and decisions of the other parties.
It is fair to say that the conservatives would have found it difficult to gain any more votes than they already had received form previous elections, and that their goals were mainly consolidation of their position. This landslide in 1906 shows that the conservative objections were failed to be adhered to. Therefore in answering this question the first aspect to look at is the conservative parties own limitations. Many of the problems that the conservatives had to face were them always seeming to have an ineffectual leader, Arthur Balfour. At first it would to be believed that he might become a good leader as he had brains, courage, vision and that he was also a well respected man in the commons. Balfour disliked democracies like his uncle Salisbury, yet in that he never took it seriously.
Balfour became too cerebral and too uninvolved, and in his eyes, the Tories were an instrument for solving the nations problems. He saw that Britain was in a state of decline on the international front, with the economic growth saturating alongside productivity. Thus, defense of the empire was required in order to make Britain more competitive and Chamberlain was particularly devoted tot this. It has to be said that it was the combination of Chamberlain’s response and Balfour letting him enact his response that became a major reason behind the conservative defeat in the 1906 elections. The conservatives foreign policy was also very poor, as it was the Liberals in 1886 with the problems involving Irish home rule. Between the two men, the party collapsed from Salisbury’s secure and dominant party, to eventually ruins.
Balfour was also costly about reform, and it was the poorly orchestrated social reform that seemed to lead to the dissatisfaction of certain social groups that had been formally enlightened by the conservatives. An example of this is the 1902 Education Act, which eventually ended up in a political disaster. In order to achieve national greatness and efficiency it was believed at the time that it was education that held the key, and that if education didn’t become a prominent feature of party policies Britain would fall behind other major countries. Therefore no wonder that Balfour and Devonshire both co-operated to forward the education act of 1902. Embitterment reached its peaks in the summer of 1906 with Dr. Clifford, who started upon orchestrating a campaign against education reform.
This became the beginning of the non-conformist revolt. Other reforms agitated the non-conformists groups, two years later with the enactment of the 1904 Licensing Act, which made provision for closure of republic houses but also compensated those who had lost trade by a levy on those remaining. With Balfour’s inability to reform he had two major instances in the public spotlight, which completely tarnished the party’s reputation with hem showing complete insensitivity towards the public opinion. Balfour mistake on the domestic front with him totally comprehending the trade union’s agitation that arose form a series of judgments in the late 1890’s (Taff Vale).
In contrast with Disraeli in the 1870’s he made no effort to halt the pressure groups. Balfour’s main concerns were with the foreign policy and maintaining of the empire, which in effect would enhance Britain’s position. Another major mistake that Balfour made was the damage from the Boer War in South Africa. Alfred Miller concerned about the war asked for the importation of Chinese workers, these workers would work in the gold mines of the Rand. Initially Chamberlain who obviously recognized the importance of public opinion vetoed the request, however the board sanctioned the request later in 1903. This proved to be a mistake with a wave of protest all over Britain, mainly die to the people becoming more aware of human rights. The outcry came form the conscience as the Chinese workers had to work in poor conditions in the most small and dangerous areas. Balfour could have rejected the idea, however to him the plan was effective and practical.
On the 15th May 1903, Birmingham, Chamberlain declared his faith in “imperial preference” as he proposed to abandon free trade which had become a way of British life for fifty years. He believed that a system of duties would tie the overall empire together, raise revenue for social reform and protect British industry.
The war on the Tariffs had started with Chamberlain seeing this move a way of solving the nation’s problems whilst giving him individual gains, such as him being in the spotlight after fading with the climax of the Boer War. In July 1903 an outraged group of unionists began to set a Free Food League, and thus Balfour faced an extremely dangerous position. Bitter quarrels were beginning to form between those who endorsed free trade and those who were tariff reformers. Another massive blow to the conservative party under the controversies of tariff reform was the loss of Winston Churchill, who publicly showed the necks of the liberals, tariff reform became a rallying cry for conservatives and an electoral liability.
The protection of men and women meant less food for the people, whilst the fre trade stood for prosperity and cheap food. Chamberlain’s reform, was admittedly unfortunate to coincide with economic revival, yet this fear of expensive food created a retaliation in the country and I believe this was the major mistake made by the party, which ultimately produced a swing against them of devastating proportion in what is know seen as the landslide victory of 1906. Chamberlain and Balfour both seemed to have the inabilities to appease all social groups and this was made worse with their ineffective social reform, inability to understand public opinion and their constant focus upon solving the nation’s problem. This all contributed to the declining conservative support.
The views that I have just made are the conservative’s mistakes that led to the landslide victory, yet the Liberal party after Gladstone was undertaking changes. These changes were apparent in their organization and ideology and thus by the early 1900’s it was ready again to challenge the conservatives through the electoral system.
The year 1902 was a decisive year for the liberal’s fortunes. Initially, the liberals looked set to divide further into factions as Rosebery’s ascendancy had culminated in him leading a pressure group within the party as a president of the new liberal league. The group name was “Schism” which included the prominent figures such as Grey, Fowler and Asquith. The group however began to fade away. The education Act set up by the conservatives gave the Liberals a chance to reform and unite and rally to the non-conformist cause. The Liberal politicians now had something to pick up on, and hostility to rate support fir church schools and the abolition of the non-conformist dominated school boards was a perfect issue. By-elections immediately swung against the Tories, as the Liberals won in Bury and Leeds by July.
In 1903 Chamberlain had begun his infamous tariff reform campaign and presented the Liberals with an absolutely perfect issue in which they could protest against. The Liberal propaganda, machine had got in motion with the main liberal highlight “big Liberal Loaf” against the “small Tory loaf”. Asquith began to emerge as a leading protagonist in the issue, and was a thorn in Chamberlain’s side. Through the campaign the liberals were winning back votes form the working class as the liberals played upon the fact that the tariffs were being enacted at the expense of the masses who have to pay for them. This then led to more places falling under the Liberal grasp like Lancashire.
Even new support groups were being encouraged, as the National League of Young Liberals was set up in 1903 and had 300 branches by 1906. Gladstone’s achievements as an organizer meant a fall in the number of unionist candidates. The splitting of the progressive vote had clearly rebounded to the unionist advantage, highlighted in the unionist dominance at Barnard castle in 1903.
The eventual agreement was signed in September 1903 with the main gist being that Labour would get a free run in some forty to fifty unionist seats in return for backing the Liberals elsewhere. The results of the 1906 elections were paramount to the pact made by the two parties, as the benefits affected both. Indeed the LRC and the Liberals were able to concentrate upon capitalizing on the new upshot of working class consciousness, which was shown in essence at the retaliation against the war fought for the rich capitalists of the Rand, the money making schemes of Chamberlain, the contemptuous nature against Labour with the enslavement of Chinese workers and the refusal to reverse the Taff Vale judgment. The reform issue was the final fault of the conservatives for the Liberals to pose the question. The 1906 elections was a disaster for Unionists whereas the liberals consolidate their strongholds whilst gaining in Lancashire, London and the southeast.
In conclusion I believe that it was mainly due to the conservative failings that led to the 1906 landslide elections. The Tory party was headed by two main figures, Balfour and Chamberlain who brought the party to ruins preceding the rise in liberal fortunes headed by Salisbury. The liberal propaganda machine helped to put the conservatives to rest whilst they continued their uprising. The Liberal united around the conservative failings and this proved to be a force for both non-conformity and the working class.