As we approach Brexit day, whenever it finally occurs, it is important to remember the struggles and victories that have defined the political liberalism that is at the core of the modern movement in Britain. One such famous example is the landslide victory for the Liberal party in 1906.
If 1951 was the nadir of our history, then 1906 was surely one of the many high points. The creed which we might call ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ was at its intellectual apogee, but the new ideas of social liberalism and equality were also beginning to flourish and resonate with the populace, with the rise of the new trade unions and the Labour Party forwarding the cause of worker’s rights and the voice for the less well-off in society. These new ideals were often supported by the Liberal Party, with Henry Campbell-Bannerman saying in 1903 that ‘we are kindly in sympathy with the representatives of Labour.’
This new political environment was changing Britain from the Victorian era into the 20th Century, although later moves on the continent would of course lead to disaster. In 1906, Campbell-Bannerman had already been Prime Minister for a year, having replaced Arthur Balfour, and consolidated his position as a reformer, with his controversial stand on the Boer War at the turn of the century.
Balfour had resigned in the hope of seeing the Liberals split as his party had done so, but no such divisions were seen, and the widespread unpopularity of the Conservatives was echoed in the election result. Campbell Bannerman started the campaign with the following speech at The Royal Albert Hall:
Depend upon it that in fighting for our open ports and for the cheap food and material upon which the welfare of the people and the prosperity of our commerce depend we are fighting against those powers, privileges, injustices, and monopolies which are unalterably opposed to the triumph of democratic principles.
The mantra of Peace, Retrenchment and Reform’, that had been used by Gladstone to great effect in 1880 was widely popular with the general public once again. The study by Benjamin Rowntree in 1902 had found that huge swathes of the population were living below the poverty line. The calls for social reform were rejected by the previous government, something that Campbell-Bannerman seeked to reverse.
The results themselves have become known as the ‘Liberal landslide’, with Campbell-Bannerman winning 397 to the Tories 156. It was a huge victory, that had huge ramifications for the social and political future of the country in the new century. With Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill in the ranks, the era of social welfare reform and the long march towards to voting equality were starting to become in the realms of reality. Under the new government, the first of those reforms was introduced straight after the victory at the polls, such as the introduction, but not the compulsory issuing of, free school meals and the introduction of the Old-Age Pension Act for those over 70. This formed the bedrock of the social infrastructure we see in Britain today, and the positive influence that moderate state-influence can do. It was not a sudden revolution, but a radical project that changed the face of British society.
Though the actions of Campbell-Bannerman were over a century ago, they debunk the myth that radical, centrist liberalism was, and never will be, popular in Britain. It is alive and well, and the next leader of the Liberal Democrats must harness its spirit to fuel the flair of reform.
* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.