The 1906 election was a major turning point in the political climate of Edwardian Britain. The loss of this election heralded a period of Conservative decline and Liberal ascendancy. Many historians blame Arthur Balfour, nephew to Lord Salisbury, for the landslide loss for the Conservatives in the 1906 general election. Whether it was the policies he implemented, the political machinations of the Liberals and the newly formed Labour Party or simply a demand for a change in political policy, the 1906 election was a crucial point in the political history of Britain.
Balfour was the essence of a true Edwardian politician.
He was a good administrator and an excellent debater, a skill he used frequently in the House of Commons. Balfour was brought up close to politics and government as a result of his being nephew to Lord Salisbury – esteemed conservative party leader; said by Atlee to be the best Prime Minister of his lifetime. This upbringing was to greatly help him in later life.
Balfour aimed to maintain Conservative unity at a time when policy choices greatly divided the party. His clear mind and awareness of Britain’s new diplomatic and political position in the world was to later help him as Prime Minister.
This allowed the Liberals to make use of the resentment against the Conservatives, and gather support for the next election. His non-intervention also alienated him from the trade unions and the lower classes, thus decreasing Conservative support. The Education Act 1902 was one of Balfour’s major blunders. Although his intentions were good, as he wanted to provide everyone with a better education, he managed to infuriate the Non-conformists and thus increased Liberal support and unity.
However although the Act did do this it provided a better more efficient secondary schooling system. In this way, the act was a success. Yet, the success of Balfour’s education system was shadowed by the infuriated Non-conformists who were outraged at having to pay for Anglican and Catholic schools. This act was a major political turning point for the Tories and should have shown Balfour that he must be more aware of the concerns of the lower classes: after this act, they lost two constituencies in quick succession, whereas previously they won 9 out of 10 by-elections.
The Licensing Act 1904 was another act, which offended the Non-Conformists and increased their unity under the Liberals. The ending of the diplomatic isolation of Britain was to be one of Balfour’s most important legacies, as it enabled Britain to begin to focus on Europe the new diplomatic theatre for power – the days of the colonies were over. The alliances with Japan (1902) and France (1904) helped Britain become more prepared for the ravages of World War 1. Balfour’s reorganisation of both the army and navy also helped to prepare Britain for WWI.
However, these achievements would only be fully appreciated after WWI, as the voters were not particularly bothered about military reforms whilst the empire was at peace. These actions did not speed up Conservative Decline, but nor did they reduce it, and so were not greatly advantageous to the Conservatives. Balfour’s approval of Milner’s request for Chinese labour in South Africa was a disastrous decision, which cost the Conservatives a large number of votes. There were three main reactions to this approval that cost the Conservatives votes: first were humanitarian concerns.
Many members of the public were unhappy about the conditions the Chinese workers were being forced to work and live in. The second reaction was one of discontent at the emigration route to South Africa being closed. This meant that many unemployed workers were now unable to emigrate to South Africa for work because the demand for labour had been filled by Chinese immigrants. The third reaction was from the trade unions. They believed that if the government could import cheap labour in one of its colonies, then they could do it here in Britain.
This outraged them and made them firmly oppose the Conservatives, thus increasing support for the Liberals – the only real alternative to the Tories. Tariff reform also united the lower classes against the Conservatives as the Liberals raised the old cry of ‘tax on food! ‘ this was one of the few things that could make the lower classes staunch opponents of the Conservatives. However, Balfour was opposed to this reform, and made it clear to Joseph Chamberlain that it would be a grave mistake to introduce it.
Yet, as party leader, he did nothing by way of overruling him. This was a grave mistake and increased Liberal support. The Lib-Lab Pact 1903 unified the anti-conservative vote and ensured that more constituencies voted into power either Liberal MPs or Labour MPs. This secret pact ensured that less Conservatives were voted into power thus reducing their chances of winning the election of 1906. To conclude, I believe that Arthur Balfour was one of the reasons for Conservative decline and the loss of the 1906 election.
However, I do not believe that it was solely his fault, as rebellious members of his cabinet put forward reforms that he disapproved of and thus alienated their party from the mass voters. This will have increased the speed at which the conservatives were falling into decline. Although this is true, I think that the political machinations of the Liberals also played a hand in the downfall of the Conservatives. In addition, I believe that the tides of change were already acting upon the fortunes of the Conservative party, and that it was merely a question of when they would be voted out of power.