Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Liberal government 1906-14

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)
radical chancellor

The Unionists in turmoil

By 1905 the Conservative (Unionist) party was in a state of civil war over the question of free tradeIn December their leader, A. J. Balfour resigned and the King sent for Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, who formed a minority Liberal government. Balfour was the last Prime Minister to resign to an opposition leader without first being defeated in a general election.

The election of 1906: Liberal landslide

The general election of 1906 gave the Liberals an absolute majority of 130 seats (and nearly 50% of the vote). With their allies they had a majority of over 350.

The sensation of the election was the return of 53 Labour MPs. 24 were closely allied to the Liberals and the other 29 were elected under the independent auspices of the LRC (now renamed the Labour Party). 

The government was to be plagued with three great constitutional issues:

  1. The relationship between the Lords and Commons
  2. Whether women should be given the vote
  3. Whether Ireland should be granted Home Rule.

The Liberals and the Lords

During the election campaign (in a speech delivered at Nottingham on 15 January 1906) Balfour had said that 
‘the great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or whether in Opposition, the destinies of this great Empire’. 
This was no empty threat as the Unionists had a big majority in the House of Lords. 

At the beginning of the new Parliament there were 602 peers, including 25 bishops. Of these only 88 were Liberals, 124 were Liberal Unionists and 355 were Conservatives. The Lords had already flexed their muscles; in 1893 a Conservative-dominated Lords had rejected the second Home Rule Bill. The Commons had no weapon against a Lords rejection.

For several decades the Lords had been developing a theory of ‘plebiscitary democracy’, asserting their right to hold up controversial bills until they had received the explicit endorsement of the electorate. Between 1906 and 1909 the Upper Chamber rejected or wrecked ten Liberal bills.

Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928)

With the death of Campbell-Bannerman in April 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith became prime minister in April 1908. The Welsh radical, David Lloyd George became chancellor of the exchequer. His successor as president at the Board of Trade was Winston Churchill.

By this time the government was becoming unpopular. The obstruction from the Lords meant that it had little legislation to its credit. It was also spending a great deal of money on the naval race with Germany that entailed the building of dreadnoughts, and on social welfare with the introduction of old age pensions in 1909.

The People's Budget

This was the title Lloyd George gave his budget of 1909It was inspired by his Nonconformist background, by the need to raise money, and by a wish to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It was also designed as a challenge to the Lords. It had been the convention from the fourteenth century that money bills were a Commons matter. Would this convention hold?

From the point of view of the propertied classes, this was a very draconian budget:

  1. Income tax was increased from a shilling to 1s. 2d on every £ over £3000. Supertax was introduced.  
  2. Death duties on estates over £5,000 were increased
  3. There were heavier duties on tobacco and spirits
  4. Special taxes on petrol and motor-car licences
  5. Stamp duties were increased
  6. There was a 20 % tax on the unearned increment of land values.

The marquess of Lansdowne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, led a furious attack on the budget. In November 1909 the budget passed the Commons. The Lords then rejected it, the first time in 250 years that the Upper House had rejected a finance bill.
With the budget rejected, the government could not carry on, and it was forced to call a general election.

1910: the year of two elections

In January 1910 the government went to the country. The election result left the Liberals and Conservatives nearly level: Liberals 275, Conservatives 273. There were also 40 Labour members and 82 Irish Nationalists.

The death of Edward VII in May 1910 meant that a second election had to be called. The result showed little change, with the two parties still almost exactly balanced.  

Faced with the prospect of the new king, George V, creating Liberal peers, the Parliament Bill passed the Lords in August 1911. 

  1. The Lords would not be able to amend or reject a money bill.
  2. An ordinary bill, if passed three times in successive sessions by the Commons could be presented for the royal assent without the agreement of the Lords, provided at least two years had elapsed between the bill’s introduction and final approval in the Commons.
  3. The maximum duration of a Parliament was to be reduced from seven to five years.
  4. MPs were to receive a salary of £400.
However, the structure of the House of Lords was put off for another day. It remained a chamber of hereditary peers and bishops.

Votes for Women!

The end of the 19th century saw a new emphasis on the distinctive contribution women could make to politics, while at the same time improving themselves through their participation in public life. In 1897 Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of blind Liberal MP, Henry Fawcett, founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which was always careful to work within the law.
Millicent Fawcett (1847-1912)
a moderate suffragist rather than
a militant suffragette

In October 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter and Christabel (1880-1958) founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester. 
Emmeline Pankhurst

On 14 February 1904 Winston Churchill, the current Tory member for Oldham but in the process of deserting his party for the Liberals, was addressing a meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst interrupted to ask about women’s suffrage:
‘the first militant step … the most difficult thing I [had] ever done’.
On the eve of the election of 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney interrupted a Liberal Party meeting addressed by Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall on 13 October by asking the question
‘Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?’
(This was the first time the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ was used.) When the question was not answered and repeated, the two women were roughly ejected from the hall. Christabel deliberately committed the technical offence of spitting at a policeman in order to court arrest. Both were charged with obstruction and imprisoned for a few days. This immediately put the WSPU in the public eye and the movement began to grow rapidly.

After the election, in the summer of 1906, the Pankhursts moved to London. Increasingly, support came from middle and upper-class women. In early 1906 the Daily Mail had coined the term ‘suffragettes’. On 23 October, following a demonstration for the opening of Parliament ten WSPU members were arrested after a scuffle and imprisoned in Holloway. This raised the whole profile of women’s suffrage, drawing the support of celebrities like George Bernard Shaw. 

Mrs Pankhurst's first imprisonment occurred on 13 February 1908 when ,she led a deputation to the House of Commons and was arrested, along with her companions, for obstruction. 

Asquith who became Prime Minister in 1908 had no sympathy with women's suffrage. On 21 June 1908 there was a great demonstration in Hyde Park at which it was estimated there were between a quarter and a half million present. Their methods were a continuation of the protests of Chartists and other radicals, but they did not fit with conventional ideas of female decorum.

The hunger strikes: On 29 June 1909 a group of suffragettes appeared outside the Home Office, the 
Treasury, and the Privy Council and threw stones at the windows. On 5 July when on her own initiative, Marion Wallace Dunlop began the first hunger strike, in a bid to be granted political offender status and therefore be placed in the privileged ‘first division’ of prisoners. After fasting for 91 hours she was released. The hunger strike was soon adopted by 36 suffragettes, who were all released. But on 24 September two suffragettes were force-fed at Winson Green prison. This was condemned with burning indignation by Christabel (‘This is war’) and the other WSPU leaders.

The 1910 elections: With women's suffrage playing only a small part in the first election of 1910, suffragette protest hardened into a ritual - arrests, imprisonments, followed by release.  On Friday 18th November 1910 (‘Black Friday’) a huge demonstration was held on the reassembly of Parliament when women who attempted to rush the Palace of Westminster received rough treatment at the hands of an over-zealous constabulary. On 22-23 November in the ‘Battle of Downing Street’ Asquith’s car was damaged and he had to be spirited away in a taxi. Liberal ministers were constant targets during the election campaign in December 1910 (Churchill was horsewhipped as he got out of a railway carriage in Bristol). After the December election the vote seemed as far away as ever. 

The growth of militancy: On 15 December Emily Wilding Davison set three pillar boxes alight (a tactic that had not been authorized by the WSPU). On 1 March 1912 the suffragettes for the first time attacked private property in the West End. 

From now on the widespread destruction of letters in mailboxes became common as well as arson, window breaking, and other acts of vandalism.  The final phase of the WSPU’s pre-war campaign took the form of a prolonged campaign of arson. But as more women were imprisoned, the forcible feeding became a national scandal.  In April 1913 the home secretary, Reginald McKenna, rushed through the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. This was a very notorious measure, but arguably it worked.

The death of Emily Wilding Davison
suicide or misjudgement?
On 4 June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and died five days later.  

Although the suffragette tactics were arguably  counter-productive, the medium-term prospects for women’s suffrage were promising. The Liberal government had compelling reasons for ending a dispute that was tearing the party apart. Churchill:
‘It would be appalling if this strong Government and Party … was to go down on Petticoat Politics.’
Under the terms of the Parliament Act, a general election was due in 1915 and Asquith’s resistance to women’s suffrage was increasingly seen as a hindrance. There were fears that women Liberals were drifting to Labour and that Labour would form an alliance with the non militant suffragists. If war had not broken out, it is possible that the government would have committed itself to some form of women’s suffrage.

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