The main characteristic of the period 1886-1902 is the hegemony of the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd marquess, 1830-1903), three-time prime minister (1885-86, 1886-92, 1895-1902). However, this apparent dominance covered grave cracks in the party. The coalition with the Liberal Unionists created many problems. How was ‘Radical Joe’ to fit into a conservative agenda? Even without Chamberlain the Conservative party would have had problems. It was led by aristocratic, landed and Anglican elements but the bulk of its supporters were middle class and many were Nonconformist (having switched from the Liberals over Ireland).
Salisbury’s answer to this problem was to steer a middle path and sponsor modest reforms. He told his Chancellor, Lord Randolph Churchill (using Gladstone's vocabulary):
We have so to conduct our legislation that we shall give some satisfaction to both classes and masses.Outside Ireland his government enacted two major pieces of social legislation.
(a) In 1888 local government in the counties was transferred from magistrates to elected county councils; this also involved the creation of the LCC – which to the annoyance of the conservatives soon fell under the control of metropolitan radicals.Neither of these reforms was as radical as disaffected backbench Conservatives believed. The principal purpose of free education was to save the church schools from collapse. And in practice the local government reforms shored up the authority of the local elites.
(b) In 1891 elementary education was effectively made free – an expensive innovation.
The Liberal Government, 1892-95
The Liberals too had fundamental problems. The events of 1886 left them committed to Home Rule as the one issue that would relate them. According to Roy Jenkins, it was the only cause Gladstone was really interested in. But circumstances were driving them towards radicalism. In October 1891 a meeting of the National Liberal Federation at Newcastle adopted an uncompromisingly radical manifesto, the ‘Newcastle Programme’. It advocated church disestablishment in Wales and Scotland, triennial parliaments, payment of MPs and employers’ liability – with heavy implied warnings to the House of Lords if they resisted these reforms. Gladstone accepted these proposals reluctantly in order to preserve party unity.
The 1892 election was fought from mid-June to early July. The result gave the Liberals 273 seats, the Conservatives 268, the Liberal Unionists 47 and the Irish Nationalists 81. In the election two ‘independent labour’ MPs were returned; Keir Hardie for West Ham, and John Burns for Battersea. Gladstone had a majority of 40 because of Irish Nationalist support. The result was a disappointment to Gladstone who had expected a decisive victory:
a small Liberal majority being the heaviest weight I can well be called to bear.It was an inadequate majority for intimidating the Lords. IOn 11 August the Salisbury government was defeated on an amendment to the address and on 15 August Gladstone, now semi-blind and semi-deaf became Prime Minister for the fourth time.
The Liberal cabinet contained Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), a reluctant Foreign Secretary and Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904), Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two members of the younger generation gained high office: Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) became Home Secretary and Edward Grey (1862-1933) Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) became War Secretary. One of the most impressive of the new intake of Liberal MPs was David Lloyd George (1863-1945) who in 1890 had been returned for the previously Conservative Caernarfon Boroughs in a by-election.
The Second Home Rule Bill
In February 1893 Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill with a 2 ½ hour oration. It differed from the bill of 1886 in that there were to be 81 (not 103 as in the 1886 bill) Irish members, who were to be left at Westminster but allowed to vote only on Irish affairs (the ‘West Lothian question’ again). But the committee stage amended this on the grounds of its impracticality and gave the Irish MPs the full right to vote on all UK affairs. Like the 1886 bill, the bill of 1893 ignored the potential problem of Ulster. In July Chamberlain delivered a vicious attack on Gladstone, whom he accused of behaving like an imperious and cruel god; this led to an outbreak of fighting on the floor of the House. On 1 September the bill passed its third reading by the narrow majority of 34 votes, after 85 Commons sittings. On 8 September it was rejected by the Lords by 419/41. An excited mob cheered Salisbury through the streets as he made his way home.
The defeat was predictable but it left the government in a quandary. The bill had much more legitimacy than the 1886 bill. It had gone through all stages in the elected house, had emerged as a complete measure, and would have become law but for the Lords veto. Yet there was no immediate outrage.
On 23 February 1894 Gladstone resigned: a combination of failing health and a dispute with the Admiralty, who wanted to increase naval estimates. His stand against ‘militarism’ set him at odds with many of his younger colleagues and made him feel out of tune with his times. He had ended his career in a downbeat fashion. He died at Hawarden on 19 May 1898 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Gladstone had failed to groom a successor and his resignation led to a crisis in the party. Most Liberal MPs preferred Harcourt, but on 3 March the Queen sent for Rosebery; he had the backing of the London press, the Scottish wing of the party and most members of the cabinet. He was replaced at the Foreign Office by Lord Kimberley.
Rosebery, a horse-racing aristocrat, inherited a weak and divided government which lasted only 15 months. He was in a weak position leading a Liberal government from the Lords, which, he said was like addressing a crowd through a megaphone with a pudding in its orifice. The most important measure of his premiership was Harcourt’s famous (1894) budget, one of the most important in British history. It raised the basic rate of income tax to 1s. 8d, in the £, and introduced graduated death duties on the novel principle ‘that the state could tax capital and spend it as income’. Rosebery hated it, and in April 1894 he wrote his Chancellor a memorandum protesting that the Budget would forfeit the support of the propertied classes; Harcourt taunted him with wishing to protect his own pocket. Gladstone thought it
too violent ... by far the most Radical measure of my life time.The ‘poor man’s budget’ was a sign of the ‘New Liberalism’, more committed to redistribution than to economic orthodoxy. However most of the new taxation came from increased duties of 6d on beer and spirits. The significance of death duties lay in the future.
Harcourt would have liked to have been bolder. He wanted to cut some taxes and to introduce old age pensions – a policy which was rapidly gaining support on the Liberal back benches. But his plans were put on hold by increased army and navy expenditure.
The government’s slowness to act on the issue of Welsh disestablishment led to a Commons defeat. The Queen asked Salisbury to form a government. The general election was fought in July 1895. It was a bad time for a governing party to fight an election. Unemployment was high and there were a myriad of grievances among traditional Liberal supporters – especially the brewers. The appearance of 28 socialist candidates may have helped to split the vote and was a warning that the Liberals had no monopoly on radicalism.
The Conservatives went into the election in a confident mood. The election of 1892 and three years of Liberal government had increasingly convinced Conservatives and Liberal Unionists that they would need to form an official coalition. This meant papering over the differences in temperament and political philosophy between the profoundly anti-democratic Salisbury and the populist Chamberlain. But in spite of their differences Chamberlain’s growing enthusiasm for empire brought them together. He was impressed by the economic arguments for imperial development as an antidote to economic depression and attracted by the notion of an imperial federation uniting the Anglo-Saxon race.
The Unionist victory was stunning; 340 Conservatives; 71 Liberal Unionists; 177 Liberals, 82 Irish Nationalists. [Keir Hardie lost his seat.]
The Third Salisbury Government, 1895-1902
Salisbury’s third administration was dominated by foreign policy. He was his own Foreign Secretary and Chamberlain was Colonial Secretary. One of Salisbury’s main concerns was to bring Britain out of the isolation into which Gladstone’s policies had led her. His nightmare was that there would be a European war in which Britain’s imperial possessions would become the spoils. Yet he did not want a full continental alliance. He maintained contacts with the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, Italy) but in spite of difficulties with France in the Mediterranean and Egypt, he wanted to keep friends with France.
In 1898 a serious crisis occurred in Anglo-French relations. Sir Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) had long wanted to recapture the Sudan, in spite of cabinet hostility. His strategy was to advance by short stages up the Nile. On 2 September an Anglo-Egyptian force of 26,000 defeated an army of 40,000 mahdists at Omdurman and went on to occupy Khartoum. The results of the battle were the destruction of mahdism in the Sudan, and British dominance of the area.
But this did not go unchallenged as France too had expansionist ambitions. In July Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand and his French troops had occupied Fashoda on the White Nile, having advanced from Senegal. On 18 September Kitchener’s force reached Fashoda, where he handed Marchand a written protest and hoisted the British and Egyptian flags. For some months Britain and France stood on the brink of war. In November Marchand quit Fashoda, though he left behind him a string of posts. Early in 1899 the French gave way. An Anglo-French convention in March fixed an Anglo-French dividing line (roughly the watershed between the Nile and the Congo). This was seen as something of a diplomatic triumph for Salisbury.
With the occupation of Egypt, Britain had less need of Turkey. As early as 1892 Salisbury was saying that it was no longer possible to protect British influence in the Ottoman Empire. Turkish massacres of the Armenians in 1894/5/6 inflamed British opinion in a way their earlier massacres of the Bulgarians had not done. It was clear to Salisbury that the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating and even in Tory circles there was now very little sympathy for Turkey. However there was no immediate move towards Russia. Instead, in 1902 Britain formally ended her policy of ‘splendid isolation’ when she signed an alliance with Japan, as a counter to Russian ambitions in China.