Tuesday, 4 March 2008
The Liberals in power: II Asquith becomes Prime Minister
Early in 1908 Campbell-Bannerman’s health began to fail. He resigned on 3 April), and died two weeks later). On 4 April the King summoned the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Henry Asquith (left) to Biarritz.
Asquith was succeeded at the Treasury by David Lloyd George, (right) a man born outside the British elite. He had been an effective and high profile President of the Board of Trade: he had settled a threatened rail strike, had prepared legislation for the establishment of the Port of London Authority to take over the management of a vast area of London’s dockyards. The new President of the Board of Trade was Winston Churchill. The elevation of these two men gave the government a new aggressiveness which goaded the Conservatives into a succession of political errors. But all was not well for the government. Churchill, standing for re-election on his appointment as President of the Board of Trade was defeated in North-West Manchester and forced to find another seat in Dundee.
If you want to lower the tone and learn more about Lloyd George's colourful private life, then you might be interested in Ffion Hague's The Pain and the Privilege (2008).
The Licensing Bill
The session of 1908 was intended to give the temperance movement its due with a Licensing Bill. The main provision was the establishment of a fixed ratio of the number of public houses to the population in each licensing area. The Liberals had as clear a mandate for this as they had for their Education Bill (both bills appealed to the same constituency) but this was not a popular cause and the brewers were a powerful lobby. It was fought hard in the Commons and the Lords declined to give it a second reading.
The government was now in a dilemma. It had little to show for its impressive electoral victory. An economic slump meant that unemployment was rising and the Unionist cause of tariff reform (now official policy) was becoming more popular. As in 1907 the government was beginning to lose by-elections.
Economically the government was pulled in two directions. Since going to the Exchequer in 1905 Asquith had laid the groundwork for a taxation policy designed to finance social reform, notably old age pensions. But it was faced with the possible further increase in arms expenditure. The Liberals had cut defence spending when they came to power but in 1908 they were faced with fierce pressure from the Dreadnought building programme (see later post). The potential conflict between social reform and defence spending was painful and divisive for Liberals.