Thursday, 14 February 2008

The 1906 general election

On assuming office in December 1905 the elderly Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a cabinet:
Herbert Henry Asquith: Chancellor of the Exchequer;
Sir Edward Grey: Foreign Secretary;
R.B. Haldane: Minister for War;
Herbert Gladstone: Home Secretary
Two younger men came into the government. David Lloyd George, aged 42, became President of the Board of Trade. Winston Churchill, recently defected from the Tories, became Under-Secretary for the Colonies. The Lib-Lab John Burns became President of the Local Government Board, the first working man to reach the cabinet.

The general election of 1906 was a landslide, giving the Liberals an absolute majority of 130 seats (nearly 50% of the vote). With their allies they had a majority of over 350.
Conservatives 157 (they had over 400 in the Khaki Election)
Liberals (and their allies) 400 (184 in 1900)
Labour 53. This was a sensation. 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) and of these only four had been involved in a fight with a serious Liberal opponent. The Labour MPs sat on the Opposition benches but their dependence on the Liberals made it hard for them to operate as a genuine opposition party.
Irish Nationalists 83.
Otherwise impregnable Conservative seats – Cheltenham, Eastbourne, Chelsea – fell to the Liberals. Balfour suffered the humiliation of losing his own East Manchester seat (he was later returned in a by-election for the City of London). He saw the result in wildly apocalyptic terms:
‘the faint echo of the same movement which has produced massacres in St Petersburg, riots in Vienna and Socialist processions in Berlin’.
The British electoral system - as so often - exaggerated the result in giving the Liberals such a huge majority with less than 50% of the vote, but even so it was a remarkable result for them. Twenty-seven Liberal candidates were elected unopposed. The Unionists were in disarray, constituency parties were depleted, Lancashire swung firmly behind the Liberals on the question of free trade (Churchill had captured North-West Manchester), Home Rule played well in the Irish areas.

Balfour was returned in a by-election in March (City of London) and his control over his party was assured when Chamberlain suffered a massive stroke in July 1906 and retired from active politics. He was determined to give the Liberals a very hard time indeed.