Principal Liberals: A History of the Liberal Party, 1850-2004

Liberals: A History of the Liberal Party, 1850-2004

The Liberal Party, the party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, was a dominant force in Britain, and the world, at the height of the power of the British Empire. It emerged in mid-Victorian Britain from a combination of Whigs and Peelite Tories. Split by Gladstone's Home Rule Bills, it nevertheless returned to power in Edwardian England and held it until after the outbreak the First World War. Riddled by internal divisions and with its traditional ground increasingly occupied by Labour, the party lost ground in Parliament, becoming little more than a token for many years. With the foundation of the Social Democrats in 1981, and their subsequent merger with the Liberals as Liberal Democrats in 1988, a modern version of the party emerged, under Paddy Ashdown and now Charles Kennedy as a significant third force in British politics.
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2005
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Hambledon & London
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english
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426
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1852853530
ISBN 13:
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LIBERALS

THE

PARTY
THAT

GETS

MY

VOTE
CONQUER UNEMPLOYMENT
REDUCE ARMAMENTS
RESTORE FREE TRADE
That means I shall vote-

LIBERAL
General election poster, 1929

Liberals
A History of the Liberal
and Liberal Democrat Parties

Roy Douglas

Hambledon and London
London and New York

Hambledon and London
102 Gloucester Avenue, London NWi 8HX
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
USA
First Published 2005
ISBN i 85285 353 o
Copyright @ Roy Douglas 2005
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
All rights reserved.
Without limiting the rights under copyrights
reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior
written permission of both the copyright owner and
the above publisher of the book.
A description of this book is available from the
British Library and from the Library of Congress.
Typeset by Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster,
and printed in Great Britain by Cambridge University Press.
Distributed in the United States and Canada
exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan,
A division of St Martin's Press.

Contents
Illustrations

vii

Introduction

ix

Acknowledgements

xiii

1

Origins

2

Exhausting the Volcanoes

21

3

In the Wilderness

33

4

Events Take Charge

47

5

Schism

61

6

Reconstruction

73

7

End of an Era

85

8

Collapse and Recovery

99

9

Triumph and After

115

Climax

129

10

i

11 When Troubles Come

145

12

Catastrophe

161

13

The Era of Lloyd George

175

14

Politics in Chaos

197

15

Recovery and Collapse

211

16

Salvage

231

17

Nadir

249

18

Uncertain Future

263

19

Alliance and Fusion

285

20

Into the New Millennium

303

21

Reflections

319

VI

LIBERALS

Appendix

333

Notes

345

Bibliography

369

Index

379

Illustrations
Between Pages 82 and 83
1 W. E. Gladstone
2 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
3 Herbert Asquith
4

David Lloyd George

5

Sir Herbert Samuel

6
7

Sir Arch; ibald Sinclair
Clement Davies

8

Jo Grimond

Between Pages 274 and 275
9

Jeremy Thorpe

10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17

Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith
Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Dick Newby and David Owen
David Owen and David Steel
David Steel
Simon Hughes
Paddy Ashdown
Charles Kennedy

18
19

Charles Kennedy signing The Future of Politics
Charles Kennedy with Paddy Ashdown

VIII

LIBERALS

Text Illustrations
General Election poster, 1929

ii

The Injudicious Bottle-Holder

32

The New Suit

46

The Bucking Mule

84

'Wanted - an Opening', 1905

114

The Nest Egg, 1908

128

'Hand's Off]', 1910

144

Taxation of Land Values, 1923

196

Illustration Acknowledgements
The author and publishers are most grateful to Lib Dem News for
permission to reproduce plates 5-19.

Introduction
Just when the Liberal Party came into existence is a matter for debate, but
it was well established by the late i86os. It remained one of the two great
parties of the state, either as the government or as the acknowledged opposition, down to the 1914 war. Thereafter it underwent a rapid decline, and
ten years later it was reduced to just over forty MPs, of whom the majority
owed their seats to the absence of opposition from either the Conservatives
or Labour. The Labour Party established itself as the principal challenger to
the Conservatives during the same period, raising the question of whether
the primary reason for the change was the inherent attraction of Labour or
the shortcomings of the Liberals. With a few short-term rallies, the decline
continued, so that by the middle 19508 there were only six Liberal MPs, and
briefly only five. An objective observer might easily have concluded that the
parliamentary extinction of the Liberal Party was just round the corner.
Much has been written about the causes of the Liberal decline, but what
happened to the Liberals and their successors in the succeeding half century
has been every bit as remarkable as their earlier decline, perhaps more so.
By the late 19505, it was clear that the funeral had been indefinitely postponed, even if Liberal fortunes fluctuated wildly over the next two decades.
There were good moments - as when the Liberals won more than six million votes in February 1974 - but also ones when the party seemed to be
getting nowhere.
Most of the 19805 was occupied by the stormy and astonishing love affair
between Liberals and the new Social Democratic Party, which had started
life as a breakaway from Labour. At one moment the 'Alliance', which the
two parties formed, seemed to be carrying everything before it, and for
months opinion poll ratings set it ahead of Conservative and Labour alike.
At others, the whole venture seemed likely to collapse in farce. After a long
period of uncertainty the two parties united in 1988 to form what would
become the Liberal Democrats.
In the 19905 the Lib Dems began to establish themselves as a real force in
politics, and by 2001 they had captured fifty-two seats. No less remarkably,
Lib Dems performed spectacularly well in parliamentary by-elections. In
the 1987 Parliament they captured three seats from the Conservatives, in

X

LIBERALS

the 1992 Parliament four, and in the 1997 Parliament one. Up to the end of
2004, there had only been four by-elections in the 2001 Parliament. All took
place in what looked like impregnable Labour seats. Two were won by Lib
Dems, who came close to victory in both the others. Nobody, not even the
most optimistic Liberal, would have considered that sort of result remotely
possible a quarter of a century earlier.
In the hundred and fifty years since the party's foundation, Liberal attitudes
to public questions, not surprisingly, have evolved, and in each generation
commentators, and Liberals themselves, have asked whether the 'new' Liberals of their own time would have been recognised as true successors by
those who had preceded them. In the 18705 people wondered whether
Palmerston would have acknowledged Gladstone as his true successor, and
similar questions have been asked ever since. Despite all the changes, a continuous skein of Liberal thought, going back at least as far as Gladstone, can
be identified. Although the Liberal Party was by no means the historic Whig
Party under another name, the Liberal Party did inherit two important legacies from the Whigs. The first of was the idea of liberty. The Liberal starts
from a presumption of liberty. People should be allowed to do as they wish,
unless some good reason can be shown to the contrary. The burden of proof
lies on the objector to liberty, not on the person who seeks to uphold it.
The second recurring idea which the Liberals inherited from the Whigs
was the idea that a government should act within a fixed framework of rules,
not according to the arbitrary decision of particular individuals. The sovereign, or ministers acting with the sovereign's authority, may have special
legal powers - the prerogative - but these powers should be kept to a minimum. Judges are appointed to apply an ascertainable corpus of law, not to
enforce the wishes of any particular person, however exalted.
Just as law should be universal, so governments must follow universal
principles. The eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century House of Commons, with its enormous variations in constituency size and entitlement to
vote, did not represent the nation in a logical or equitable manner. The
Whigs began to rectify that state of affairs through the 1832 Reform Act. The
Liberals went much further. They saw that it was individuals who ought to
be represented, not property, and embarked on a course of action which
eventually led to universal franchise and the ballot. This demand for fair
voting procedures was continued in the twentieth century by the Liberal
campaign for proportional representation.
Liberals have a rooted dislike for all kinds of privilege attached to particular groups of people, and this attitude goes a long way towards explaining
their attitude to religious questions, particularly in the nineteenth century.

INTRODUCTION

XI

Members of the nonconformist sects in England and Wales, and opponents
of the religious establishments in Scotland and Ireland, were attracted to the
Liberal Party because it opposed the privileges attached to the Church of
England,. The same dislike of privilege, joined to the recognition that
'knowledge is power', led Liberals to press for wider educational opportunities. It is no accident that the Education Act of 1870, which laid the
foundations of universal elementary education, was carried by a Liberal government and that Liberals remained particularly interested in educational
reform thereafter.
From the moment the Liberal Party came into existence, its supporters
saw the cause of Free Trade as a major element in its policy. There were
many good reasons for Liberals to take that view, but not least which was
their belief in liberty. To Liberals, Free Trade meant that governments
should allow people to trade as they wished, without either impediment or
favour, unless there was some overwhelming reason - such as the safety of
the purchaser or others - which dictated to the contrary.
In a narrow sense, the term 'Free Trade' was used to mean the abolition
of customs duties and embargoes, designed to restrict the quantity of
imports, for the benefit of home producers. Many Liberal Free Traders,
however, regarded the repeal of protectionist duties as only the first instalment of a wider policy. Indirect taxes on goods produced within Britain
were also impediments to trade. Gladstone in particular greatly reduced the
incidence of indirect taxes. On innumerable occasions in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, Liberals defended Free Trade against encroachments by
Protectionists. For much of the twentieth century, the one policy which the
ordinary voter recognised as a clear badge of Liberal identity was Free Trade.
In the mid nineteenth century, many Liberals appear to have believed that
Free Trade would suffice to remedy all economic anomalies, insofar as they
were capable of being remedied at all. As the century advanced, however, it
became increasingly clear that poverty and social injustice remained largely
untackled. Without some radically new approach, there was no good reason
for thinking that they would solve themselves. In the 18705 and i88os, many
Liberals came to the conclusion that more positive action was required.
Governments began to legislate in the direction of what came to be called
'social reform'. Many Liberals also became committed to land reform, particularly the 'Land Value Taxation' ideas associated with the American
economist and philosopher Henry George. A strong interest in welfare
issues has remained an abiding Liberal concern.
At the very moment when Liberals were preparing to confront social problems on a scale which nobody had attempted before, a great new issue cut

XII

LIBERALS

across politics, deflecting attention in a different direction. By the end of
1885 Gladstone as Prime Minister had reached the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland demanded, and would
eventually attain, legislative independence. The sooner that demand was
granted the better it would be for Britain and Ireland alike. In the following
year he made his first attempt to enact Home Rule. It failed and split the
Liberal Party split asunder. As Gladstone had foreseen, the Home Rule question did not go away. The tragic long-term consequences of the failure to
grant Home Rule are well known, and the ghost of the controversy continues to walk in Northern Ireland to this day.
The Liberal government formed in December 1905, and which remained
in office until the First World War, was in many ways the epitome of developed Liberal thought. It had a clear electoral mandate to maintain Free
Trade against the challenge of what was called Tariff Reform. A large proportion of its active members were enthusiastic supporters of Land Value
Taxation, but, as land reform would take time, the initial focus was on radical social reform. The government introduced old age pensions, national
insurance and unemployment insurance. In the teeth of opposition from the
Lords, it carried the radical budget of 1909, and then proceeded to curtail
the power of the Lords for the future.
The 1914 war changed everything. Despite victory in 1918 and the vigorous leadership of Lloyd George, by 1922 the Liberal Party was reduced to the
third party of the state, and there were echoes of the internecine Liberal disputes which had arisen in wartime and its immediate aftermath for several
decades to come. Labour was the principal beneficiary of the Liberals' misfortune. By the end of the 19205 most people had abandoned the idea that
a Liberal government was possible in the foreseeable future. The choice now
seemed to lie between Conservatives and Labour. A number of leading Liberals, including some of the most important names in the party, defected.
The Liberal Party nevertheless continued to proclaim a comprehensive
range of policies, as if a Liberal government was on the cards. It was kept
alive because there were still many people who believed that those policies
were appropriate and necessary, and that there was no prospect of attaining
their aims through either of the other parties.
What lies ahead is anybody's guess; the one forecast which one can make
with confidence is that it will be a fascinating story. Every political party
experiences fluctuations in its fortunes, but those of the Liberals and their
successors the Liberal Democrats have been a good deal more spectacular
than most.

Acknowledgements
More than thirty years ago, I wrote a History of the Liberal Party, 1895-1970,
for which the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Thorpe kindly wrote a preface. The present
book is a completely different one, covering a period from the nineteenthcentury beginnings of the Liberal Party, through the fusion with the Social
Democratic Party in 1988, down to the activities of the Liberal Democrats in
the early twenty-first century.
Necessarily the present book draws on some of the written material and
conversations which I used when writing the earlier work. I must therefore
renew the acknowledgments I made there to the very helpful people who
assisted at the time, many of whom are now, alas, dead. These people
include R. Humphrey Davies, who started to work at Liberal headquarters
in 1895, and was able, in his late nineties, to give lucid accounts of experiences and personalities more than a century ago. W. R. Davies and
T. D. (Tommy) Nudds both occupied leading positions among professional
workers before the 1939 war, and remained in place for many years afterwards. Others who helped with recollections included Lady Asquith of
Yarnbury (Lady Violet Bonham-Carter), George Awdry, Desmond Banks,
Ronald Banks, Barbara Bliss, Geoffrey Block, Lord Boothby, William
Glanville Brown, Pat Cavanaugh, Chris Cook, Mrs K. Cossar, Lord Drumalbyn, C. R. Dudgeon, H. J. Glanville, David Goldblatt, Edgar Hardy,
Derek Hudson, Lady Megan Lloyd-George, Barry McGill, Andrew McLaren,
Mrs Lucy Masterman, Richard Moore, Mrs Doris Norris, Frank Owen, Lord
Rea, Sir Steven Runciman, Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, Lady Simon of
Wythenshawe, Reginald Smith, Lancelot Spicer, A. J. Sylvester, A. J. P. Taylor, Viscount Tenby (Gwilym Lloyd George), F. C. Thornborough and Sir
Ronald Walker.
I also express gratitude for help which has been received from three
people who have read and criticised the whole, or part, of the manuscript:
my wife Jean, Lord Rennard, Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats,
and Jeremy Thorpe. Deirdre Razzall, of Lib Dem News, has been extremely
helpful in providing illustrations for the plate section. I need hardly say that
the responsibility for any errors of fact or dubious opinions is exclusively
mine.

This page intentionally left blank

1

Origins
But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he
stand.
Isaiah 32:8

There has been much debate as to when the Liberal Party as such came into
existence.1 Almost any date between 1830 and 1868 might be chosen.
The once widespread view that the Liberal Party was essentially the historic Whig Party under another name is untenable. William Gladstone,
whose influence on the Liberal Party was greater than that of any other man,
had entered politics as a Tory and at no stage in his career could he be
labelled a Whig. On the other side of the political fence, the 14th Earl of
Derby served for a time in a Whig Cabinet, yet he was later to preside over
three governments in the 18505 and i86os which are usually called 'Conservative'. Many Liberal Party activists in the middle and late nineteenth century
would have repudiated the labels 'Whig' and 'Tory' with equal indignation.
Like both 'Whig' and 'Tory', the word 'Liberal' in its political sense was
first used in a highly pejorative manner, with overtones suggesting that the
people to whom it was applied were not only deplorable characters, but 'unEnglish' as well.2 As with both earlier names, 'Liberal' was soon proudly
adopted by the people for whom it was meant as an insult. When Richard
Cobden in 1842 declared that Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative Prime Minister of the day, was 'as Liberal as' the Whig leader Lord John Russell, he
meant this as a compliment, not an insult. Perhaps the safest way to think
about party origins is to consider that, around 1830, the Whig and Tory
Parties both began to disintegrate; and it was not until the late i86os that
the Liberal and Conservative Parties had come into existence in a fully
recognisable form.
To appreciate the atmosphere when the Liberal Party was coming into
existence, it is vital to remember that politics in the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries was very different from later times. The labels 'Whig'
and 'Tory' often said more about a politician's family, friends and clubs than
about his ideas on public questions, and it is sometimes difficult to decide
which label is more appropriate for a particular individual. Writing about a

2

LIBERALS

later period, one influential author has declared that 'only 28 [MPs] could
honestly be described as Whigs by birth and connection'3 The figure was
probably considerably greater around 1830, but genuine Whigs cannot have
been more than a small minority of the MPs, although they formed a much
greater proportion of the House of Lords. The term Whig, though very
loose, is nevertheless convenient to describe parliamentarians who found
themselves in general agreement with the consensus of opinion among
members of the Whig aristocracy.
In any event, the return of a candidate to Parliament seldom depended
on his party affiliation. In the great majority of cases, a constituency
returned two MPs, and unopposed returns were very common. A candidate
would normally be expected to provide much, or all, of the expenses from
his own resources or those of his patron, and would be unlikely to do that
unless he thought he had a fair chance of success. Thus, at the General Election of 1761, there were only 53 contests in all. There was nevertheless a
tendency for contests to become more common as time went on. At the
General Election of 1818 the number of British contests had risen to 105.
Voting qualifications varied considerably from place to place, but nowhere was the electorate more than a small minority of the male population.
Until 1872, voting was public, and many, though by no means all, constituencies were dominated by a single individual, or a small group of individuals, who could control the representation by bribery, intimidation, or a
mixture of the two.4 But to suggest that such 'influences' were the only factors producing a compliant electorate would be wrong. Respect for the candidates or their patrons was often genuine. Yet the voters in Gatton or Old
Sarum, each constituency with fewer than ten electors, and each returning
two members to the House of Commons down to 1832, were hardly able to
make a free choice. These were extreme cases; but there were a great many
other 'rotten boroughs'. In some of the larger constituencies, pressures of a
different kind discouraged contests. Like Old Sarum, Yorkshire was a single
constituency, but it had over 20,000 voters, and no interest could dominate
such a vast area. Yet it was seldom contested. In 1807, when three candidates
contended for the two seats, two of those candidates spent not much less than
£100,000 each, while the third (who, incidentally, finished top of the poll)
spent a mere £28,000.5 These figures must be multiplied by perhaps forty or
fifty to provide modern equivalents. Yet the two constituencies ranking next
after Yorkshire in the size of their electorates - London, and Westminster, with
around 10,000 or 12,000 voters each - were regularly the scenes of contests.
For most of the early nineteenth century, a succession of Tory governments
held office. Then, quite suddenly, a chain of unpredictable events took place

ORIGINS

3

which changed everything dramatically. In 1829, the formidable Duke of
Wellington was Prime Minister, and the government's chief representative
in the House of Commons was Sir Robert Peel. The government decided,
for reasons which are outside the present story, that it was necessary to grant
'Catholic Emancipation' - that is, to remove most of the existing public disabilities attending Roman Catholics. This infuriated many of the
Government's Tory followers, but was carried with support of the Whig
Opposition, which tended to take a more laid-back attitude to such matters.
The Whigs hoped, and probably expected, to secure a share of office in some
kind of coalition under Wellington, which would restore stability to a
shaken government. But there was no sign that this concession would be
granted. Thus the government was confronted simultaneously by disaffected
Tories and disappointed Whigs. Then, in June 1830, George IV, never the
most loved of British sovereigns, died, and was succeeded by his brother
William IV. As the law stood, demise of the sovereign required a General
Election. Parliament was dissolved four weeks later. At that election, the
number of reliable government supporters was reduced by about fifty; but
there seemed no immediate reason for the government to resign.
If there was one political idea which more or less united the Whigs, it was
'reform': a term which was understood to include some reduction in the
number of 'rotten boroughs', enfranchisement of the growing industrial
cities, and perhaps an increase in the electorate as well. In the aftermath of
the 1830 General Election, the Whig opposition raised the question of
reform in a very moderate way. Wellington could almost certainly have
brushed the criticism aside with little damage to the government; but
instead he chose to defend the existing system in uncompromising terms.
The Whigs were provoked, while those Tories who had deplored Catholic
Emancipation were prepared to do anything necessary to bring down a government which they hated. A fortnight later, the government was defeated
in the House of Commons on a completely different issue, and resigned.
The King called on the Whig leader, Earl Grey, to form a government. The
Whigs decided to make reform a Cabinet measure. The man set in charge
of the government's proposals was Lord John Russell, third son of the 6th
Duke of Bedford, who had been a staunch supporter of reform for a long
time.
The Bill which Russell submitted in March 1831 went much further than
many had anticipated. He sought to disenfranchise sixty boroughs, and to
reduce another forty-seven from two MPs to one. The seats would be allocated to more populous places, notably county constituencies and industrial
towns. After many difficulties with the Bill in the House of Commons, the
government offered to resign. The King refused to accept the resignation,

4

LIBERALS

but agreed to call another General Election. In most of the constituencies
where there was a contest, the main issue was reform. There was widespread excitement. Where the voters had any real choice, the upshot was
usually an impressive victory for the reformers, though there were a few
rather surprising triumphs for the other side.
When the new Parliament met, Russell brought forward another Reform
Bill, essentially similar to the one he had proposed earlier. This time the
majority in the Commons was overwhelming, but the House of Lords threw
it out. The government obtained the King's assent to create enough peers to
swamp that majority, should need arise. Whether the King liked this or not,
supporters of reform pretended that he genuinely approved, and he
acquired the awful punning nickname of 'Reform Bill'. The threat of mass
creation of peers was enough; and in April 1832 the Lords passed the government's measure with a small majority. The worst of the 'rotten boroughs'
were abolished. Qualifications for the vote were made more uniform. The
electorate was also increased substantially, though it still fell far short of
'democracy'. No women received the vote, and only about one in eight adult
men did so. The Reform Act referred only to England and Wales; but similar measures for Scotland and Ireland were passed almost immediately. The
Scottish measure had a much greater effect than the English one, for only
around 4500 people in the whole country had previously possessed the vote.
For many years to come, the country's political representation would be
overwhelmingly Whig or Liberal.
At the end of 1832, a General Election was held under the new system.
There were 401 constituencies in the United Kingdom - many returning two
MPs, and a few returning three. Only 124 were uncontested. The result was
a massive victory for the government. Three political groups, none of them
clearly defined, could be recognised. The Whigs broadly supported the Ministry. Other MPs, often called 'Radicals', were avid for further reforms. On
the other side of the House, the Tories, whose differences over Catholic
Emancipation had been largely thrust aside by events, were now beginning
to be known as Conservatives: a term which Peel had used in the General
Election of 1831. This was much more than a mere change of name. Peel
envisaged a great change in the nature of political parties, in which a party
which was conservative in ideology as well as name would confront a party
aiming at political change.
The direct consequences of reform were perhaps less dramatic than
enthusiasts on either side had anticipated; but they were nevertheless considerable. The power of the great 'borough-mongers' had been curtailed,
thiough there were still many constituencies where the influence of a particular individual, or small group of individuals, was overwhelming. The

ORIGINS

5

idea that electoral contests would be fought everywhere on some great public issue had become firmly established. The events of 1830-32 ushered in
'the golden age of the private MP': a period in which neither great patrons
nor party machines, with their tempting offers of favours, were able to exercise as much influence as in the past. Politicians were disposed to exercise
their personal judgement on public issues, conscious that local electorates
would eventually decide whether that judgement was acceptable or not.
As late as 1893, a wholly credible authority 'remarked on thirty members at
least who came down to the House to listen to debate, and voted as reason
and conscience inclined'.6 A seat in Parliament was an honour to be coveted, not the key to a remunerative career. Although Ministers received
salaries, MPs were unpaid, and would remain so until 1911. The expense of
nursing and contesting a constituency was likely far to exceed any financial
return. Necessarily, most MPs were men of considerable fortune.
Whatever else the reform agitation had done, it certainly brought forward
issues which had been discussed for many years, usually without much sense
of urgency. Parliamentarians inside and outside the government were anxious to press for these matters to be resolved. In 1833, slavery was abolished
throughout the British Empire, and substantial contributions were made
from public funds to compensate slave-owners. The same year saw an
important Factory Act regulating conditions of employment, while major
changes in the Poor Law followed in 1834. The Municipal Corporations Act
of 1835 laid the foundations of responsible local government.
Reform had other political implications, as well as the obvious ones. In
1834, Grey retired from the Premiership, and was succeeded by Viscount
Melbourne, who was less than enthusiastic for the job. Later in the year,
the new Prime Minister had an interview with the King which resulted in
Melbourne's dismissal. Some historians have suggested that the dismissal
was 'collusive', with Melbourne as pleased to go as the King was to be rid
of him. Just how far that was the case is a matter of dispute. The Conservatives took office - at first under Wellington, but almost immediately
under Peel - and called for a new General Election. They failed to secure
a majority, but remained in office for several months. In April 1835 they
were compelled to resign, and Melbourne returned. This chain of events
had long-term consequences. The royal power to dismiss a Minister, which
had once been a reality, had not produced the intended result and was
never used again. Peel's own campaign for election as MP for Tamworth
was accompanied by issue of a 'manifesto', ostensibly addressed to the
voters of that particular constituency but in practice widely used as a statement of his party's policy. Very gradually, and over many years, voters
came more and more to assess the suitability of a parliamentary candidate

6

LIBERALS

in the light of his attitude to questions which had been promulgated by
party leaders.
The authority of the Whigs was slowly eroded. In 1834, an important
question arose concerning the Church of Ireland. This was a Protestant
establishment, similar to the Church of England in doctrine and organisation, and - like the Church of England - entitled by law to various
privileges. Yet the large majority of the people of the country adhered to the
Roman Catholic Church, and a considerable proportion of the Protestants
adhered to 'dissenting' or 'nonconformist' denominations. Russell, whose
influence among the Whigs was immense, declared that the revenues of the
Church of Ireland were unnecessarily great. This precipitated the resignation of four members of the Cabinet, who had been visibly unhappy with
developments in the government for some time. The fact that they eventually departed on an ecclesiastical question casts significant light on the
importance of church matters in nineteenth century politics. All four were
soon received into the Conservative Party, and one of them - Lord Stanley,
the future 14th Earl of Derby - would eventually become Prime Minister.
Peel's own strategy certainly assisted such moves; for he made it clear that
the Reform Act, whether wise or not, was irreversible.
The death of William IV and the accession of Victoria in 1837 occasioned
another General Election, and the Whig position was again eroded. A further election in 1841 gave the Conservatives a substantial majority. The
practice of the time did not require the government to resign immediately,
as would be the case today, but soon the Whigs were defeated in the new
House and Peel became Prime Minister for a second time. The ministry
which he formed was a very impressive one, including no fewer than six
men who had been or would later become Prime Minister.
Peel doubled up as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His 1842 Budget swept
away literally hundreds of indirect taxes, and reintroduced Income Tax as
an alternative source of revenue. Income Tax in the nineteenth century and
well into the twentieth, was paid exclusively by people in comparatively
comfortable circumstances. The Budget fitted well with Peel's vision of Conservatism. Not only was he unwilling to resist change when it was palpably
inevitable, he was willing to bring change about when there were evident
merits in so doing. By the early 1840$, it looked very much as if Peel's general vision of the political future had been achieved. Yet events would soon
prove otherwise.
In the wake of reform, many ordinary people decided that what happened
in Parliament was likely to exert a real effect on their lives. At the same time
a great many non-parliamentarians, whether enfranchised or not, decided
to act collectively to influence the behaviour of MPs. In this period, agitation

ORIGINS

7

for political change took place largely outside the recognised political
parties. Two great movements could be discerned. Their objectives were
very different, but not incompatible, yet they often perceived each other as
a rival, for each was appealing to the people as a whole to exert pressure on
the parliamentarians. 'Chartism' may be regarded as a response to the
failure of reform to enfranchise the majority of working-class people. The
'People's Charter', from which it took its name, sought various constitutional changes, which included manhood suffrage and the secret ballot.
The movement attracted great public attention, winning eager support in
some quarters and bitter opposition in others. After a massive meeting
in 1848, where a perceived risk of violence was countered by the enrolment
of a quarter of a million special constables, Chartism gradually declined as
a political force; but the underlying ideas remained, and an important
precedent was established for action in the future.
The second great popular movement, the Anti-Corn Law League, sought
immediate economic changes. The Corn Laws had been introduced in 1815,
at the end of the French wars. They set an embargo on wheat importation
when the price was below £4 a quarter. The Corn Laws were varied from
time to time; but a body called the Anti-Corn Law League was set up to
achieve their complete abolition. At a time when bread was a major item in
most working-class budgets, high corn prices could result in something near
starvation, and the idea that the laws which tended to keep up prices should
be immediately repealed became increasingly popular both among workers
themselves and among industrial employers, who perceived that high food
prices would produce an effective demand for high wages.
The Anti-Corn Law League was largely inspired by the genius of its principal speaker, publicist and organiser, Richard Cobden. Without any
obvious social advantages, Cobden became a successful calico printer; but
the Anti-Corn Law cause drew him into public life, and at one point he
nearly bankrupted himself through his zeal. At the same time, sums of
money which seemed vast by the standards of the time were raised for the
League. Innumerable leaflets were produced, innumerable public meetings
held. The force of the League was largely moral: an appeal at least as much
to men's consciences as to their pecuniary interests. Like many of his supporters, Cobden made no secret that repeal of the Corn Laws was but part
of his agenda, which aimed at a general system of Free Trade.
In the mid-i84os, famine developed in Ireland on a most appalling scale,
killing something like one in eight of the population and driving enormous
numbers of people to leave the country, many of them in conditions of
extreme destitution. The Irish famine exerted relatively little direct effect
on politics; but many people feared similar developments on the British

8

LIBERALS

mainland. The result was victory for the League. First most of the Whig
Opposition were converted, then Conservative Prime Minister Peel. Most
ministers favoured repeal; most back-bench Conservatives opposed it
because they feared adverse effects on agriculture; but in 1846 it was carried
by the 'Peelite' Ministers and the Whigs together. Almost immediately, the
government was defeated on a different issue and resigned. The Whigs, now
led by Russell, took office.
Peel, who - more than any other man - had created the original Conservative Party, had effectively destroyed it. The anger felt by his 'Protectionist'
opponents within the party was even more protracted and bitter than the
anger which had been felt over Catholic Emancipation. Although Peel
himself died four years later, most people who had followed him over the
Corn Law question were never again able to work with a Conservative ministry. Thus a relatively small, but exceedingly able and influential, group of
'Peelites' came into existence, who would eventually play a very important
part in the genesis of the Liberal Party.
The government gradually lost support, and in 1851 Russell resigned.
Attempts to form an alternative government collapsed, and he soon
returned to office. The Whig discomfiture continued nevertheless, and in
February of the following year a new Conservative ministry was formed,
headed by Stanley (who had recently become the 14th Earl of Derby), with
Benjamin Disraeli, a man with no aristocratic connections and very much a
political maverick, as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Derby-Disraeli
ministry had a weak base, for it represented only a section of the original
Conservative Party. It may perhaps have wished to restore Protection, but
lacked either the power or the determination, or both, to do so. Indeed, it
soon became clear not only that no serious politician would attempt to
restore the Corn Laws, but also that a rapid extension of Free Trade in all
directions was taking place.
A General Election in the summer of 1852 resulted in the Conservatives
falling some way behind the Whigs, and a substantial contingent of 'Peelites' holding the balance between them. By this time, there were signs that
a new grouping was beginning to form. 'Peelites', Whigs and Radicals were
drifting together, for all of them agreed that Free Trade must be defended
and extended. This grouping would eventually constitute the basis of the
Liberal Party, though at the time there was little reason for considering it
much more than a temporary expedient. In December 1852, the first government of the new grouping took office, headed by a 'Peelite', the 4th Earl
of Aberdeen, who had served as Foreign Secretary in Peel's second administration, and was regarded as the leader of the Peelites. The choice of
Aberdeen appears at first sight remarkable,7 for several men seemed to have

ORIGINS

9

more impressive qualifications, and there were anxious meetings before
Aberdeen 'emerged' as Prime Minister, with general support of Whigs and
Peelites, and some of the Radicals. Perhaps the vital factor in the selection
was that his background was Peelite rather than Whig. Whigs and Radicals
could be expected to support a Peelite Free Trader against Conservatives
who in their hearts hankered for a return to Protection; while if a Whig
were made Prime Minister, there was always a chance that Peelites might
eventually drift back to rejoin the remainder of their former party.
The composition of the new government was no less remarkable. In a
cabinet of thirteen, no fewer than five were 'Peelites', including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, W. E. Gladstone, who was approaching the zenith
of his powers. Whigs formed the largest single grouping, and Russell became
Foreign Secretary. The Home Secretary was Viscount Palmerston - one of
the great 'characters' of the period, whose ideas did not fit comfortably with
any political party, though at this time he was generally accounted as a
Whig. Only one 'Radical' was included, Sir William Molesworth, whose very
promising career was to be cut short by death a few years later. Neither Cobden nor his second-in-command John Bright joined the ministry, and
Cobden was disposed to think that Molesworth had almost apostatised by
accepting office; but in other respects it really did look like a new 'Ministry
of All the Talents'. Gladstone's first Budget, in 1853, carried on the tradition
of Peel's measure eleven years earlier, and is widely regarded as one of the
most impressive in Britain's fiscal history. More than a hundred items were
freed from tax. These included soap, and this relief proved particularly
beneficial to working-class people. Another important change was the
extension of legacy duty to real estate as well a personal property: a measure which would gradually reduce the economic and social grip of the
landowning class.
Very soon, however, this apparently strong and stable ministry was blown
off course by Britain's involvement in the war with Russia which began in
March 1854. Cobden, who had strong pacifist proclivities, incurred much
unpopularity through his dislike for the whole episode; but the element of
sheer blundering incompetence in the conduct of the war was significantly
greater than in most conflicts. The most impressive performance in the government was that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gladstone contrived
to raise the money required for the war, not by the common expedient of
borrowing (which transfers the burden to future generations of taxpayers),
but by a temporary increase in income tax. Aberdeen received much of the
blame for wartime blunders, perhaps unjustly. In February 1855, the Prime
Minister was dropped and a new ministry formed by Palmerston, whose
prestige rose rapidly. A General Election in 1857, which has been described

10

LIBERALS

as 'unique in our history, the only election conducted as a simple plebiscite
in favour of an individual',8 confirmed the government in office. Early in
1858, Palmerston's enthusiasm for Emperor Napoleon III of France led to a
government defeat, and a second Derby-Disraeli Ministry was formed;
though, lacking a majority in the House of Commons, it could not be
expected to last for long. Palmerston's authority suffered only a temporary
setback, and was soon as high as ever. His 'insouciance, easy approachability
and common touch' were immensely popular.9 Many of Palmerston's ideas
could hardly be called liberal and certainly not radical, yet he retained to the
end of his life an enormous prestige among people whose aspirations were
very different from his own.
By this time, the idea of further parliamentary and electoral reform was
beginning to gain favour in many quarters, although neither Derby nor
Palmerston evinced much enthusiasm for it. But how much reform, and
when? At what point should the line be drawn between the 1832 franchise,
which was widely seen as inadequate, and a modern democracy which few
politicians wanted - at least for the time being? Neither party was agreed as
to what particular changes might be appropriate.
In March 1859, the Conservative government proposed some significant
extensions to the franchise. Two ministers resigned in protest, and the Bill
was attacked from many different angles. In the end it was defeated, and a
new General Election was called. This resulted in the miscellaneous Opposition politicians who were by now becoming generally known as 'Liberals'
losing a certain amount of ground but retaining their majority in the House
of Commons. By common consent, the anomaly of a Conservative Government with a predominantly Liberal House of Commons could not be
maintained for much longer, and when the new Parliament met at the end
of May it was plain that a new government would soon take office.
On 6 June 1859, a meeting of Liberal MPs was held at Willis's Rooms in
London. This meeting is sometimes considered to represent the formal
establishment of the Liberal Party, although there is little evidence to suggest that contemporaries saw it in so dramatic a light. Rather should it be
seen as a move to ensure that the disparate 'Liberals', whose majority in
the new House was not very great, could achieve a measure of cooperation
and form a viable Ministry. The attendance was impressive. Of around 356
MPs who ranked as 'Liberals', 274 turned up, although absentees included
both Gladstone and Cobden. A major part in the discussions was taken by
the Marquis of Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, who would
play an important role in politics for many years to come. His 'courtesy'
marquisate did not give him a seat in the House of Lords, nor disable him
from being elected to the House of Commons. The 'Liberals' had no

ORIGINS

11

acknowledged overall leader, but Palmerston and Russell, who had been on
bad terms for some time, indicated that each would be willing to serve
under the other. The remaining 'Peelites' were also willing to cooperate. As
for the 'Radicals', John Bright expressed his readiness to support a Liberal
government, though he made no secret of his doubts about Palmertson's
attitude on foreign policy, which he considered far too bellicose. But, whatever reservations may have existed in a few places, the overall result of the
meeting was that nearly all present resolved to bring down the Derby
government, and there seemed a fair chance that they would give support
to any Liberal administration which was likely to be established in its place.
The Conservative Ministers were soon defeated on a vote of confidence
and resigned; but this left open the question who should be the new Prime
Minister. There would be difficulties with either Palmerston or Russell, and
the Queen - who did not like either of them - contemplated calling another
Liberal, Earl Granville, to resolve competing claims. In the end, however, it
appeared that Palmerston had widespread public support, and he emerged
as Prime Minister. Russell became Foreign Secretary, and Gladstone Chancellor of the Exchequer. Palmerston and Russell both tried to persuade
Cobden to join the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, but he eventually refused. Later another of the early anti-Corn Law campaigners,
C. P. Villiers, did join the Cabinet, though in a different capacity. Many
years later, Villiers would attain some distinction as the oldest man ever to
sit in the House of Commons - still an MP when he died at the age of 96.
Soon the government made further important advances in the direction
of Free Trade. Cobden, though not a Minister, engaged in negotiations with
France on the matter of a commercial treaty, with more or less support from
the government. The treaty which emerged in 1860 required mutual tariff
reductions by the two countries. In the same year Gladstone produced
another of his great Budgets. In part, this was just an implementation of
Cobden's treaty, but it went a good deal further than that. Hundreds more
items were freed from liability for customs duties, and income tax was
increased to compensate. Only forty-eight items were still subject to customs
duties, and (as the Chancellor put it) 'nothing whatever [remained] in the
nature of protective or differential duties, unless you apply that name to the
small charges which will be levied upon timber and corn which amount in
general, perhaps, to about 3 per cent.'
One defeat which Gladstone sustained over the 1860 Budget is almost as
famous as these victories. The overwhelmingly Conservative House of
Lords, at the instigation of Derby, decided to throw out Gladstone's proposal to repeal the duties on paper, which affected the price of books
and other publications, and were seen as a 'tax on knowledge'. The repeal

12

LIBERALS

proposal was contained in a Bill separate from other fiscal proposals, and
constitutional practice of the time still permitted the Lords to reject, though
not to amend, financial Bills from the Commons. In the following year
Gladstone annexed similar proposals to his other financial recommendations in a single Bill. The Lords, who dared not reject all the financial
provisions for the year, had to accept defeat. By the early i86os, one might
say that Free Trade, at least in the narrow sense of the term, had been
achieved. Not many people wished to see that state of affairs reversed, and
fewer still thought that it was possible to do so.
If the Liberals' financial policy was a great success, in other respects they
ran into serious difficulties. The American Civil War began in 1862, and one
of the first consequences in Britain was a dramatic decline in cotton supplies, resulting in much hardship for the Lancashire cotton industry. But
although the 'cotton famine' ended within a year or two, and English prosperity was restored, the chronic distress of Ireland remained, and seeds were
being sown for many serious troubles in the future. Neither the cotton
famine nor the troubles of Ireland generated much effective pressure, inside
or outside Parliament, for drastic economic measures. Most people seem to
have believed that Free Trade, accompanied by some financial assistance
from local authorities, would do more or less all that could be done to mitigate distress. An early suggestion that much more economic reform was
possible came from Cobden. In his last public speech, at Rochdale in
November 1864, he declared that, if he were younger, 'I would take Adam
Smith in hand, and I would have a League for free trade in land just as we
had a League for free trade in corn.' Just what Cobden meant by 'free trade
in land' is not clear; but he certainly regarded radical land reform as essential for future development. At a later date, many Liberals would take up
Cobden's words, and would come to the view that land reform was vital to
deal with many remaining social problems.
Except for fiscal matters, and some significant law reforms, Palmerston's
second government did not leave behind many great achievements. Then,
in 1865, important events took places, which between them changed the
political scene in several directions. Cobden died in April: a man still at the
height of his powers, who surely had much yet to give to the life of his
country and party. In July, a new General Election was called, which resulted
in a small improvement in the Liberals' position. Perhaps the most sensational feature of that election was Gladstone's defeat, by a mere twenty
votes, in the representation of Oxford University. He promptly decamped
for South Lancashire, where he was returned triumphantly. In October,
the octogenarian Prime Minister died. Palmerston, in the judgement of the
formidable Duke of Argyll, 'had no ideals for the future of the world, and

ORIGINS

13

had a profound distrust of those who professed to be guided by such ideals'.
A recent assessment is similar: 'For Palmerston, politics was about holding
things together.'10 'Holding things together' certainly does not summarise
the aims of any of the very disparate men who would lead the Liberals after
Palmerston.
Palmerston was succeeded by the seventy-three year old Russell, who by
this time had become an earl. 'Reform' had been Russell's great political
interest for many years, and he evidently hoped to crown his career with
another constitutional measure comparable with that which he had carried
a third of a century earlier. In the end, a Reform Bill - necessarily a compromise - was brought before Parliament. As Russell was a peer, Chancellor
of the Exchequer Gladstone was put in change of the measure in the House
of Commons. Immediately, the Bill ran into trouble, not least with government supporters. The leading personality among the Liberal rebels was
Robert Lowe, an albino who had acquired a deep dislike for anything resembling democracy from his earlier experiences in Australia. His associates
soon acquired the nickname 'Adullamites', from the cave to which David
and 'every one that was discontented' repaired in the time of King Saul.11
The Second Reading of the Reform Bill passed the Commons with a desperately small majority; but it ran into further trouble in its later stages, and
the government resigned. The poisoned chalice passed, and Derby was
called to form another Conservative government.
The new ministry could not escape the problems which had confronted
its predecessor. In July 1866, serious riots in Hyde Park, London, appear to
have convinced some waverers that resistance to Reform was even more
dangerous than acceptance, and in March 1867 a new Reform Bill was
brought forward, not very different from its predecessor. Like the Liberals
before them, the Conservative government had great difficulty with some
of its putative supporters. An intense period of political manoeuvring followed, with Disraeli and Gladstone playing the leading roles on the two
sides. By this time, there was little doubt that some kind of Reform Act
would soon be passed. The two sides in Parliament appeared more eager
to ensure that people likely to vote for their own party came on to the
register than to exclude others who seemed likely to vote for the other side.
Thus the Bill became increasingly radical as it passed through Parliament.
When it was eventually passed, as the so-called 'Second Reform Act' of
1867, it provided for a substantial measure of redistribution of seats in
favour of the more populous places; but the most sensational feature was
application of the 'Household Franchise' in the boroughs, though not in
the county constituencies. Under this arrangement, most urban householders, whether owners or tenants, received the vote. This meant that in

14

LIBERALS

many constituencies working men came to constitute a large majority of
the electorate. The total number of voters was multiplied more than threefold. Here was one of the great ironies of nineteenth century politics; for
Derby, whose dislike of anything resembling democracy was particularly
intense, presided over a measure much more radical in some ways than the
Act of 1832 - or, indeed, the 'Third Reform Act' of 1885. The 'Second Reform
Act' of 1867 affected only England and Wales, but legislation for Scotland
and Ireland followed in the first half of 1868.
The wrath of the Adullamites was nothing compared with the anger of
many Conservatives, who considered themselves utterly betrayed. Viscount
Cranborne, who, as Marquis of Salisbury, would eventually become a
Conservative Prime Minister, spoke of'perfidy'. The best-remembered lines
of the poet Coventry Patmore described 1867 as
... the year of the great crime
When the false English nobles and their Jew
By God demented, slew
The Trust they stood twice pledged to keep from wrong.
The effect of the smouldering resentment of disaffected Conservatives has
some parallels with what had happened twenty, and forty, years earlier.
Derby had long suffered from gout, but a serious new attack caused him
to resign the premiership in February 1868. Disraeli was the inevitable successor. It is perhaps a telling contrast between the two men that the classicist
Derby was author of a good translation of Homer's Iliad, while the romantic Disraeli had achieved early fame as a novelist whose works had strong
social overtones.
Throughout the brief period of Disraeli's first Ministry, a Conservative
government coexisted with a Liberal majority in the House of Commons,
while it was certain that a new General Election must take place, with an
enormously extended electorate, once the new registrations were complete.
Parliament was eventually dissolved in November 1868, and a General Election followed swiftly. The result was a large majority for the Liberals, who
received well over a hundred more seats than their rivals. They were overwhelmingly strong in Scotland, and predominated considerably in Ireland
and Wales. In England, the Liberal majority was smaller, but sufficient. It
was noted that the Liberals did particularly well in the towns, evidently
benefiting from the new enfranchisement. A remarkable exception to this
rule was the fate of the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, who
was defeated at Westminster. Mill's liberalism was evidently too much for
his supporters. He had advocated extensive land reform in Ireland; and had
even supported votes for women. In a number of English County seats, too,

ORIGINS

15

the Liberals fell back. Gladstone and Hartington were both casualties in Lancashire, though they were able to secure election elsewhere. The county had
witnessed massive Irish immigration, and this had strong religious overtones. The Chief Whip concluded that 'Lancashire has gone mad, and the
contest there has been one of race, Saxon against Celt.'12
General Elections in those days were spread over several weeks, but as
soon as the overall picture was clear Disraeli resigned, without waiting to be
defeated in the new Parliament: a precedent which has been followed ever
since when defeat of an existing government was not in doubt. Russell may
have had some claim on the premiership, but he manifestly wished to retire,
and there was not the slightest doubt that the Queen's commission would
go to Gladstone, who accepted office on 3 December 1868.
The political scene in 1868 was profoundly different from what it had been
a third of a century earlier. The difference was not just that new parties with
new ideas had replaced old ones, but that the whole structure and organisation of parties had changed radically, in response to the need to appeal to
a very different kind of electorate in very different constituencies. Important
changes in one party usually sparked off similar changes in the other.
Although Britain was still far short of being a democracy in the modern
sense of the word, it was already apparent that any party which sought to
govern the country must win the support of large numbers of people of very
modest means in order to do so; and that the 'influence' of important men
alone would not suffice to rally that support.
Before 1832, candidates would normally appoint an election agent - usually a local solicitor - whose job was to ensure that potential supporters went
to the poll (with suitable inducements where appropriate).13 Once the contest was over, the electoral machinery usually disintegrated quickly. The 1832
Act introduced the principle of an electoral register which was compiled
annually. Only those whose names appeared on the register were entitled to
vote. At first a registration fee of one shilling was demanded, but this
requirement was later abolished. The need for registration made it important for political activists to ensure that their own supporters were put on
the register, and opponents with dubious qualifications were excluded. This
led to the establishment of 'registration societies', most particularly in constituencies whose political allegiance was in doubt. As a General Election
might be called at short notice, and no party could afford to be caught
unprepared, the work of registration societies was continuous, and they provide early examples of local political organisations of a more or less
permanent character. For many years to come, however, arrangements varied widely from constituency to constituency. A wealthy candidate would
often prefer to defray registration and other expenses himself, rather than

16

LIBERALS

set up a more broadly-based organisation which might have ideas of its own.
During the most intense period of the Corn Law agitation, the Anti-Corn
Law League also established registration societies, designed to ensure that all
Free Traders were included on the register. As time went on, such local
organisations developed complex canvassing arrangements, designed not
only to persuade waverers but also to ensure that supporters were identified
and, where necessary, taken to the poll.
While this process was taking place at the 'grass roots' level, other
developments were taking place at the centre. The old pattern of more or
less self-contained constituencies whose elected Members would then decide
to support or break a government was changing. It was becoming a matter of importance to many ordinary people which party dominated
Parliament and controlled the government. Active politicians, whether on
the government side or in opposition, became increasingly interested not
just in what was happening in their own constituency but in what was happening throughout the country. 'Reformers', Chartists and Anti-Corn Law
campaigners sought to take their message everywhere. But these organisations of the 18305 and 18405 were designed essentially to produce some
specific changes in the fairly near future. Once those changes had taken
place, or public interest had receded, the organisation behind them must
either disintegrate or change its character.
By the 18505 and i86os, however, continuing parties rather than ad hoc
campaigns were becoming the centre of political activity. This applied both
in parliament and in the country. A politician as experienced as Viscount
Althorp, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Grey and Melbourne, had a
strong dislike for the organisation of MPs through a whipping system.14 Two
or three decades later, not only the whipping of MPs but also close organisation of ordinary voters were taken for granted in all parties. People were
not just concerned with current issues; they were coming to support the
incipient Liberal or Conservative Parties because they thought that those
parties expressed a general point of view which was likely to be relevant to
problems which would arise in the future.
Establishment of permanent central organisations for political parties followed as a natural consequence of these developments. In 1831, opponents
of reform set up the Carlton Club in London, partly as a social centre, but
also as a means of building up political organisation in the constituencies
and - a little later - assisting the work of registration. Five years later, the
Whigs and their associates established a similar but rival body, the Reform
Club. Provincial supporters of the two parties would repair to the appropriate London club, and discuss problems like registration techniques and
choice of candidates with the Party Whips, or with a salaried Chief Agent.

ORIGINS

17

As time went on, the Reform Club became less important as a centre for
what was to become the Liberal Party, but the importance of central party
machinery did not diminish.
An important factor in encouraging the growth of central machinery of
political parties was the special problem of 'outvoters' - that is, of people
who had votes in places where they did not reside. They constituted something like 15 per cent of the whole electorate, and in close contests it was very
important for the party they were likely to support to ensure that they voted.
Before 1832 it had been considered necessary in some exceptional cases to
bring in outvoters from foreign countries; but the outvoter problem later
became much more general. At one time, very generous 'travelling expenses'
were sometimes offered to induce outvoters to do their public duty; but in
1858 the law was changed, and the candidate or agent was only permitted to
provide means of conveyance - which usually meant a railway ticket - to
enable them to vote. As no constituency organisation had a strong interest
in polling other people's outvoters, the central machinery of the party was
the obvious body for handling the problem.
In February 1860 a body initially known as the Liberal Registration Association, later called the Liberal Central Association, was set up under the
aegis of the Chief Liberal Whip, Sir Henry Brand (who was later to play an
important role as Speaker of the House of Commons).15 The LCA soon
came to deal with a variety of problems, including registration, polling of
outvoters, provision of candidates, and financial assistance for candidates
unable or unwilling to defray expenses from their own resources. It also
began to establish constituency Liberal Associations in places where none
existed. This central machinery necessarily required substantial financing
from wealthy members of the party.
Other changes were exerting a great influence on developing parties during the middle years of the nineteenth century. By the late i86os,
transportation had been revolutionised, and something like 12,000 miles of
railway track were in use. Politicians and political organisers could reach any
substantial town in the country with much greater ease and speed than they
could have travelled a few dozen miles in the early years of the century.
Ordinary people could, and did, travel considerable distances to hear
famous orators. There was also a great 'information revolution'. Although
the first Act making elementary education compulsory and universal was
not passed until 1870, a great many adults could read long before that. Even
in the 18308, journalism was adapting rapidly to a widening market. The
stamp duty on newspapers was reduced from 4^. (rather less than 2p) to id.
in 1836; in 1855 it was repealed altogether. This made newspapers much more
affordable to people of limited means. Many of the newspapers appearing in

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LIBERALS

the mid-century were promoted by individuals or syndicates with strong
political interests. Satirical periodicals like Figaro in London became important in the 18305, and often carried political cartoons not wildly different in
character from those of the present. Punch first appeared in 1841; by the later
i86os there were several competing publications, including the Conservative
Judy. All this was stimulating political interest at many social levels.
The importance of religion in nineteenth century politics would be difficult to overstate. Churches were not just places where people met on
Sundays and holy days to worship; they were also places where all kinds of
gatherings would be held on week days, and so they formed a major
medium of social contact. The national Churches of England, Ireland and
Scotland enjoyed various legal and economic privileges which were
inevitably resented by members of other denominations,
In Ireland, religious differences corresponded to a large extent with class
differences. Through most of the country, the peasantry was overwhelmingly Catholic, the higher social classes overwhelmingly Protestant, although
in some places, particularly in Ulster, Protestants preponderated in all social
classes. Protestants, however, were not all of one kind. In the south, and in
some parts of Ulster, they were overwhelmingly members of the Church of
Ireland, which closely resembled the Church of England. In the extreme
north east, they were mainly Presbyterians. As the nineteenth century
advanced, ideas of national independence became particularly strong among
Catholics, while members of the Church of Ireland were deeply conscious
of affinities with co-religionists in England. Attitudes among Presbyterians
changed over time.
In England, Catholics were relatively few in number except in areas of
heavy Irish immigration, and the great division lay between members of the
Church of England and 'nonconformists' of various denominations. Anglicans and nonconformists were present in comparable numbers, and there
was sometimes intense rivalry between them. There were theological disputes involved; but social aspects of the division were of particular
importance in politics. Nonconformistry tended to be particularly strong in
the industrial towns, and among the working classes. Some denominations
had elaborate systems of lay preachers, which meant that working men
acquired experience in organisation: experience which many of them later
applied to activities like Trade Unionism, temperance agitation - and
politics. Enfranchisement of urban working-class householders in 1867
meant that issues which interested nonconformists came increasingly to the
fore. The Church of England, by contrast, was widely seen as the church of
the squire and the parson, and was particularly strong in some (though not
all) rural areas, and in the wealthier districts of towns. As the nineteenth

ORIGINS

19

century advanced, the link between Anglicanism and Conservatism, and the
link between nonconformistry and Liberalism, became increasingly strong.
There were many exceptions both ways - the staunch Anglican Gladstone
was the most famous - but the general correlation could not be denied.
In the 18508 and i86os, there had been deep discussions about matters like
payment of church rates, and religious tests for the older English universities, in which attitudes followed closely the Anglican-nonconformist line of
division. More disputes would soon follow.
In Wales the Church of England also enjoyed establishment, but the proportion of nonconformists was much higher than in England. The various
nonconformist denominations had spread like wildfire from the 18305
onwards, most particularly in the Welsh-speaking areas where the Anglican
liturgy must have been as incomprehensible as the Latin Mass. The little
Bethels and Zions of the villages had mostly been built through local effort
within living memory, and there was an immense feeling of pride in their
popularity and efficacy.
In Scotland, Presbyterians of one kind or another predominated heavily
over other denominations, although there were some parts of the country
where Catholics were numerous, and others where there were many Episcopalians, whose practices resembled those of the Church of England. The
Church of Scotland was Presbyterian and was also established. In 1843 it
underwent the 'disruption', which resulted in the formation of the Free
Church of Scotland, whose members showed attitudes which in many ways
paralleled the English and Welsh nonconformists. The close correspondence
between religious and political affiliations are very clearly brought out in the
voting figures for the Scottish universities in the 1868 General Election.
Among ministers of the established church, Conservatives led Liberals by
1221 to 67, and among Episcopalians by 78 to four; while among Free Church
and United Presbyterian Ministers the Liberals led by 1081 to 34.16
The Liberal Party derived much of its later character from the rising personality of Gladstone, just as the character of the Conservative Party was
being influenced by Disraeli. The great period of the Gladstone-Disraeli duel
lasted barely a dozen years; but in that time the two men exerted an influence on their respective parties vastly greater than that of any other
nineteenth century statesmen: an influence which is not extinct to this day.
Morally, intellectually, and by sheer force of character, Gladstone towered
above his contemporaries. As a young man, he had inclined towards a career
in the church, but was over-persuaded by his father. His sense of an all-seeing God imposing heavy responsibilities on the statesman never left him.
Politics, for Gladstone, had no meaning except as the vindication of underlying moral and religious principles; though the way in which he applied

2O

LIBERALS

those principles developed greatly during his long life. His first book had
argued the interdependence of church and state, and had stirred Macaulay
to the famous description of its author as 'the rising hope of [the] stern
unbending Tories'. Yet there is a real consistency. As a Tory, Gladstone
believed fervently in reciprocal rights and duties of people belonging to
different classes. What shook his Toryism was the growing conviction that
the privileged classes were failing to adhere to their side of the social bargain. The young ultra-Tory was still essentially the same man as the Prime
Minister who would later defend the right of the atheist Bradlaugh to sit in
the House of Commons; and the man who would emerge from retirement
at the age of nearly eighty-seven to campaign on behalf of the persecuted
Armenians.
Gladstone was a classicist of considerable standing, who - like Derby, and
like both of the Pitts - was particularly devoted to Homer. He is, perhaps,
the only politician of whom one might say that, if he had not become Prime
Minister, he could easily have become a great archbishop, or a distinguished
professor of Greek. His knowledge of more recent literature in several
tongues was considerable. Far into old age, his physical and intellectual
energy was enormous. He was still famous for taking long walks, and for his
propensity to cut down large trees.
As for the political body over which Gladstone was to preside for so long,
and with such overwhelming authority, there was no doubt that the Liberal
Party was very much a political reality by the late i86os, and was set to
endure for a long time to come. It had an immensely able leader, and a
strong and growing organisation. Enormous numbers of people in all social
classes had no hesitation in describing themselves as Liberals. We may still
debate which - if any - of the governments of the 18308, 18405, 18505 and
earlier i86os should properly be called 'Liberal'. There is no doubt at all
that the government over which Gladstone presided at the end of 1868 fully
merited that name.

2

Exhausting the Volcanoes
Gladstone ... spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the
Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish
secretly changed the Question.
W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman: 7066 and All That

In the late i86os, a revolutionary Irish body known as the Fenians commenced a campaign of violence, first in Ireland and then in Britain. No
doubt Fenian terrorism could be contained, though at high cost; but the real
need was to remove its causes. When Gladstone's realised that he would
soon be Prime Minister, his first noteworthy comment had been, 'My mission is to pacify Ireland'. In one form or another, the 'Irish Question' would
recur for the remainder of Gladstone's long life, and would prove of major
importance to his party for decades after his death.
Gladstone took personal charge of Irish parliamentary business. The first
major action of the new government was to deal with an Irish complaint which
was not primarily concerned with the economic condition of the country,
but was real and widespread nevertheless, and had some economic overtones. During the period of Disraeli's brief first Ministry, and particularly at
the General Election of 1868, the future of the Protestant establishment in
Ireland had been widely debated. The Liberals, and Gladstone in particular,
urged the need to disestablish the Church of Ireland - that is, to remove its
special legal privileges. In general, the British electorate appeared to support
the Liberal view on the subject. In some areas, particularly where there had
recently been a good deal of recent Irish immigration, there was a Protestant
backlash, and matters went the other way. It is likely that the surprising
defeats of Gladstone and Hartington in Lancashire constituencies may be
explained at least partially by that factor. In Ireland itself there was no doubt
about popular support for disestablishment, and nearly two-thirds of the
MPs returned were Liberals. Irish Catholics would necessarily support it.
Presbyterians, who formed the third strongest denomination in the country,
were split, but seemed mainly to favour disestablishment. This may explain
several Liberal successes in Ulster.1
In 1869, Gladstone introduced a Bill to disestablish the Irish Church. The

22

LIBERALS

contest was sharp, but even the House of Lords thought it best to submit to
the popular will on the most vital aspects of the dispute, and the measure
passed into law. The Church of Ireland became a voluntary body without
special privileges, although people who might have suffered personally from
disestablishment received compensation. Many Church of Ireland landholdings passed into the hands of tenants, though they were required to
repay the value through what were in effect long-term mortgages.2 This set
an important precedent for Irish land purchase, which became a great issue
later in the century.
In 1870, Gladstone turned to his next piece of Irish legislation, which
eventually became his first Irish Land Act. One of the great paradoxes of the
Anglo-Irish Union, which had been brought out with fearful poignancy in
the Famine, was the great disparity between land relationships in the two
kingdoms. Substantive land law was almost identical in England and Ireland. This misled many English people into thinking that social realities
ought to be the same in the two countries, and - if they were not - this was
due to some national eccentricity of the Irish. In fact, social relations were
wildly different. In most cases, English landlords lived on their estates, spoke
the same language and worshipped at the same church as their tenants. In
Ireland, landlords and tenants were usually of different religions and often
spoke different languages, for the Gaeltacht was much more extensive than
it is today. To a growing extent Irish landlords were absentees, living in
Dublin, London or elsewhere. The Irish landlord was likely to leave management of his estate to an agent whose main remit was to draw as much
rent as possible, on an essentially short-term view. The resident English
landlord was far more likely to be an active 'improver', willing to provide
capital and anxious to cooperate with his tenants to develop the estate
according to the best practice of the time, and to play an active part in many
local activities. In law, any improvements made on the land reverted to the
landlord on expiry of a tenancy. In England, where the landlord had usually
created those improvements, this may seem reasonable enough; but in Ireland, where they had often been made by the tenant, matters were very
different. Not surprisingly, tenants were therefore disinclined to introduce
improvements, and this was a significant factor in the general poverty of
Irish farms which had been so important at the time of the Famine. In some
parts of Ireland, holdings were so tiny that the potato was the only crop
which was likely to yield enough harvest - in a good year - to feed the
farmer and his family. The overriding reason why Ireland suffered an
appalling famine in the 18408 and England did not was the Irish dependency
on that single crop. When the potato failed, everything failed.
Agricultural conditions varied widely in different parts of Ireland. At the

E X H A U S T I N G THE V O L C A N O E S

23

time of the Famine, Ulster suffered noticeably less than the other three
provinces of Ireland. This was widely regarded as the result of a practice
known as 'Ulster Custom', under which a tenant vacating his tenancy was
entitled to the value of improvements he had introduced. Gladstone's particular concern in the Irish Land Bill of 1870 was to secure the application
of 'Ulster Custom' throughout Ireland. Another important feature of the
Irish Land Act was the so-called 'Bright Clauses', which owed their existence
to the President of the Board of Trade. They provided for a measure of land
purchase - the principle which Bright had also inspired in the Irish Church
Act of the previous year. When a landlord and his tenant agreed in principle on the sale of a holding, the Board of Works was authorised to advance
up to two-thirds of the price, which would be repaid, with interest, over 35
years. In one sense this proved something of a damp squib, for fewer than
500 loans were ever made under these terms; but in another sense it was significant, for a very important principle which had appeared in the Irish
Church Act of the previous year was reaffirmed, and would be copied in
later legislation which had much greater effect.
Yet the Land Act profoundly disappointed many people by what it failed
to do. While Irish tenants were doubtless pleased to obtain compensation
for improvements, they had been even more anxious to obtain security of
tenure. They considered that a tenancy should normally be renewed when
it came for annual review, provided that the agreed rent had been paid and
other covenants had been followed. The government refused to accede to
that demand; and from this refusal much trouble would later arise.
The year 1870 witnessed another famous measure, the Education Act
which is linked with the name of W. E. Forster. Unlike most leading politicians on both sides of the House, Forster started life in modest
circumstances, though he later became a successful millowner. Before the
Education Act, children of the wealthy, and of the moderately prosperous,
received private education; but provision for the bulk of the population was
erratic. Two great systems of charitable schools existed, the National Society schools which were presided over by Anglican authorities, and schools
operated by the British and Foreign School Society, which were controlled
by nonconformists. Both societies had received small grants from public
funds since the 18305, and their schools were subject to public inspection.
Outside those societies were elementary schools which were not inspected,
where the standard of teaching was in many cases very low. Even when all
these disparate schools were added together, the number of places available
was far less than the number of children. There was widespread and general
concern to improve and rationalise the educational system, but for many
years the problem had been unresolved.

24

LIBERALS

The Bill which Forster introduced in February 1870 applied only to England and Wales. It sought to establish a general system of elementary
education for children aged between five and twelve, making use of the
existing charitable schools. The country would be divided into educational
districts. Where there were not enough school places for the children in a
particular district, an elected School Board would be charged to remedy the
situation. Women as well as men were authorised both to vote and to stand
for election. In some places, though not in all, the elections were conducted
by secret ballot. Parents who could afford to do so would be required to provide part of the cost of their children's education, but the poorest children
would be taught free. School Boards would raise funds for the scheme
through education rates. It was intended that the School Boards should be
authorised to make by-laws imposing penalties on parents failing to send
their children to school, once adequate places had been provided.
At first Forster's Bill was greeted with general enthusiasm, but soon serious difficulties arose. Some of these difficulties were financial; but the most
serious ones related to religious teaching. Many nonconformists bitterly
resented the idea of giving financial support to church schools where Anglican doctrine, and the Anglican catechism, would be taught. After much
argument, a compromise emerged. The schools operated through the societies would continue to teach religion according to their own principles,
while the 'Board Schools' would teach a sort of non-denominational 'Bible
Christianity'. The measure introduced a 'Conscience Clause', under which
parents objecting to the religious teaching given would be authorised to
withdraw their children from that aspect of their studies. In the end the Bill
passed into law more or less as originally intended. Many nonconformists
continued to feel deeply aggrieved at the compromise, and Forster - though
himself of nonconformist origin - encountered considerable difficulties
thereafter with other Liberals in his own Bradford constituency.
The following year, 1871, saw new army legislation, sponsored by Edward
Cardwell. Cardwell's Bill introduced many important reforms, designed
essentially to increase the army's efficiency, and he is sometimes regarded as
the most effective Secretary for War of his century. But its most controversial feature was the proposal to abolish purchase of army commissions.
There were many instances of rich young men almost completely lacking in
experience or capacity securing high rank in that manner. The proposal
encountered considerable resistance in the Commons, and was halted at the
Second Reading in the Lords. The government's response was remarkable,
and provides a striking example of the Prime Minister's well-known
propensity to be 'terrible on the rebound'. Gladstone, who was still on good
terms with the Queen at this date, advised her to issue a royal warrant to

E X H A U S T I N G THE V O L C A N O E S

25

abolish purchase. This annoyed some Liberals, while the House of Lords was
enraged. The real irony of the aftermath, however, was that their Lordships
now became willing to pass the Bill, because it provided for compensation
for officers who would suffer pecuniary loss through abolition of purchase.
Forster, fresh from his Education Act of the previous year, was set in
charge of a new Ballot Bill in 1871. At the 1868 General Election there had
been some notorious cases of tenants evicted by aggrieved landlords for supporting Liberal candidates, and the whole question of secret voting had
acquired considerable importance. In spite of some filibustering by the Conservative opposition, the measure passed the Commons, but it was rejected
by the Lords. This meant that it was lost for the 1870-71 session, and had to
be reintroduced in 1872. Again the Ballot Bill passed the Commons, more
or less in its original form, and again it went up to the Lords. This time the
peers decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and allowed
the measure to pass.
The same year 1872 also saw the concluding stages of a long controversy
with the United States. During the American Civil War, the rebel Confederate States obtained a number of naval vessels, including the cruiser
Alabama, from British sources. After the war, the American government
sought compensation from Britain for damage done and expenses incurred
as a result. The matter was referred to arbitration, and $15 million - a very
large sum by the standards of the time - was awarded against Britain.
This the government duly paid. The decision to go to arbitration set a
very important precedent in international dealings which would be generally approved today, but which at the time was widely criticised by the
government's opponents.
Another important measure of 1872 which would eventually have widespread repercussions was the new licensing legislation which the Home
Secretary H. A. Bruce first proposed in 1871, and which - with modifications
- took legislative shape as the Licensing Act of the following year. The context is important. 'Temperance' was a deeply controversial issue, and
remained so far into the twentieth century. The idea that the sale and consumption of alcoholic drink should be severely controlled had roots in the
eighteenth century, but it was not until the quality of public water supplies
improved in the mid-nineteenth century that the temperance movement
grew substantially. It was particularly strong among nonconformists, but
had supporters among people of all religions and none. Not only did advocates of temperance deplore drunkenness, but, at a time when working class
wages were close to the margin of subsistence, they could readily show that
a man who drank substantial quantities of alcohol almost necessarily pushed
his family below the poverty line.

26

LIBERALS

The Act controlled the issue of new licences for public houses, which had
to be confirmed by the Home Office. Fines for drunkenness were increased,
and hours within which drink could be sold were restricted. In Parliament,
it was not a matter of deep controversy, and licensed victuallers on the
whole accepted it. One may guess that many publicans were relieved both
by the restrictions on new entrants to their business and by the greater
leisure they now received. The measure fell very far short of the aims of the
temperance extremists, and one of its most powerful critics in the House of
Commons was the Liberal Sir Wilfrid Lawson, who considered it too moderate. Once the Act took effect, however, there was agitation on the opposite
side. Deputations of protest were launched, and several riots took place. It
is likely that this measure was a major factor in the government's growing
unpopularity.
Even before the Licensing Act took effect, the Conservative Opposition
began to redouble its efforts to undermine the government. In perhaps the
most famous speech of his life, at Manchester on 3 April i8/2,3 Disraeli compared the Ministers with 'exhausted volcanoes'. This was less than fair. The
Liberals were by no means 'exhausted'; even the Ballot Act had not yet
become law. But there was much to be said for the view that Gladstone's
government had nearly worked itself out of a job. In 1872, there were twenty
by-elections in Britain, five of which recorded Conservative gains from Liberals. In Ireland the position was even worse. There were six by-elections, all
of them in Liberal seats. Five resulted in government defeats: just one to a
Conservative and four to advocates of what was becoming known as Home
Rule.4
The Home Rule movement represented a new factor in politics - or
rather an old factor in a new form. In 1870, Isaac Butt (who had once sat
briefly as a Conservative MP for an English constituency) set up the Irish
Home Government Association, which aimed at restoration of a separate
Irish parliament. This harked back to O'Connell's campaign for 'Repeal' a
quarter of a century earlier. Butt (like Parnell in later times) was a Protestant, and the link between renascent Irish nationalism and Catholicism was
not as close at first as later became the case.
Two factors had been particularly important in the appearance of a strong
Home Rule movement.5 Agricultural tenants were disappointed with the
limited effects of the 1870 Land Act; while the fate of Fenians who had participated in violent disturbances in the i86os caused much concern. The
initial violence received scant support in Ireland; but the severe punishment
meted out to the perpetrators led to a wave of sympathy. Butt acquired a
great reputation as the lawyer who defended Fenians at their trials, and who
later campaigned actively but unsuccessfully for an amnesty for them. In the

E X H A U S T I N G THE VOLCANOES

2/

early 18708, Home Rulers made inroads into both Liberal and Conservative
support in Ireland, though the Liberals suffered the more. Butt himself was
returned in a by-election of 1871, capturing the Liberal seat of Limerick city
without a contest.
For reasons both of ideology and of interest, the Liberal Government
remained anxious to 'pacify Ireland', and in 1873 this concern led to further
serious difficulties. The structure of the Irish universities might seem a
somewhat arcane issue, of little concern outside Ireland and a matter of less
than universal interest even there, for only a tiny minority of the Irish people could aspire to tertiary education at all. The question, however, was
long-standing, and involved the extremely sensitive issues of nationalism
and religion. Legislation introduced by the Liberal government in 1871 had
permitted non-Anglicans to be appointed to lay posts in the Oxford and
Cambridge colleges, and in the following year Henry Fawcett, a blind and
very independent-minded Liberal MP, proposed a similar measure for Trinity College, Dublin. This would have cut across the wider ideas which the
government had for a general reform of Irish academic institutions, but it
received widespread support among Liberal MPs, and was only defeated
through extraordinary pressure by the government whips. Early in 1873 the
government's own Bill was published, and Gladstone himself took charge of
the measure, overriding his Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Hartington,
who had quite different ideas from his chief on the matter. All Irish institutions of the appropriate academic standard were to be brought together in
a single university. Trinity would lose its special status, and the religious
tests would be abolished; but in most respects the autonomy of the component units would be unimpaired. At first there was widespread support for
the Bill, not least among Catholics; but it soon fell between two stools.6 Most
of the Irish hierarchy decided to oppose it as 'being framed on the principle of mixed and purely secular education'. Many Protestants, including
some Liberal critics, saw it as an unwarranted concession to Catholicism.
The Conservative opposition was eager to bring about a government defeat,
and no doubt this issue was as good as any. On 11 March, the government
failed on the second reading of the Bill by 287 votes to 284 - a number of
Liberals, British and Irish, voting with the Opposition.
A curious political crisis followed. Gladstone may have contemplated dissolution of Parliament and an appeal to the electorate; but, if so, he was
dissuaded, and instead tendered the government's resignation. Disraeli
refused to take office. He produced subtle and diffuse arguments for the
refusal; but the main reason was almost certainly party-political. The longer
the government remained in office, the worse its fate was likely to be when
the eventual reckoning came. Gladstone perforce resumed office.

28

LIBERALS

From now on, almost everything went wrong for the government. In the
early summer of 1873, a Liberal MP, G. O. Trevelyan, proposed extension of
the franchise to rural residents on similar terms to those which the 1867 Act
afforded to residents in the towns. This was not a government Bill, but Gladstone indicated his personal support. That precipitated the resignation of a
member of the Cabinet, Lord Ripon.7 Next, serious charges of overspending
were levelled at the Post Office and the Department of Works. Lowe, the
Chancellor of the Exchequer was implicated in a technical sense through his
ministerial responsibility, and with considerable difficulty was persuaded to
move from the Exchequer to the Home Office. Gladstone eventually decided
to double up the Chancellorship with the office of Prime Minister.
That presented an awkward technical problem. As the law then stood
(and would stand for many years to come), an MP accepting a ministerial
post was required to vacate his seat and submit to a by-election. What was
by no means clear law was whether a man who was already a Minister, but
accepted a further ministerial post, was required to do the same. The two
Law Officers assured Gladstone that there was no such requirement; Brand,
the former Liberal Chief Whip who had by this time become Speaker, was
less certain. The nub of the problem was that Gladstone's seat, Greenwich,
was by no means a safe one, and defeat of the Prime Minister would be a
calamity for his government. Perhaps fortunately the ministerial move took
place in August, and several months passed before Parliament met again.
When it did, the legality of the business was not seriously impugned, but
there was always the risk that a full challenge might be made, probably at a
highly inopportune moment. All this, of course, destabilised a tottering
government even further.
On 18 January 1874, Gladstone began to discuss the possibility of an early
dissolution with some colleagues.8 A couple of days later, he listed reasons
for dissolution with considerable bluntness, commencing with 'We gain
time and avoid for the moment a ministerial crisis'. The Greenwich difficulty
was not among the points listed. On 23 January, the Cabinet agreed to a dissolution. There has been much discussion as to why Gladstone chose that
particular moment for an election. If the Greenwich problem may be discounted, as it probably can, one likely explanation may be the threat of a
'ministerial crisis' at which he hinted. Both George Goschen at the Admiralty
and Cardwell at the War Office were pressing for high spending estimates,
which Gladstone could be expected to resist, both as a stern upholder of
public economy and as a man to whom war was particularly abhorrent. If
the Liberals won the election, his own prestige would be overwhelming, and
would enable him to beat down opposition from the Service departments. If
the Liberals lost, they would be able to regroup themselves in opposition.

E X H A U S T I N G THE V O L C A N O E S

29

The 1874 General Election campaign was brief. The most important
new issue raised on the Liberals side was Gladstone's proposal to abolish
Income Tax. This was quite realistic, and Disraeli's observations during
the election did not suggest otherwise. Income Tax stood at 3d. in the
pound, or 1.25 per cent on taxable income. The anticipated yield in the
current year was between £5 and £6 millions. A budget surplus of £4
millions was expected; thus revenues would go most of the way towards
meeting the sum. Additions to indirect taxes would be anathema to a free
trader like Gladstone, but various other measures, such as increases in
death duties, were open for consideration, and economies might be made
in expenditure, particularly on the Service departments. It may well be
that Gladstone raised his proposal to abolish income tax in order to thwart
pressure for higher spending rather than as an inducement to the
electorate.
Most of the election results were in by the end of the first week in February 1874, the remainder by the middle of the month. The government
suffered a heavy defeat. The new House contained approximately 350 Conservatives to 242 Liberals and 60 Home Rulers. Apparently reliable
authorities give substantially different figures of numbers of MPs returned
in various interests. It is clear, however, that the result was of exceptional
importance. For the first time in a quarter of a century, the Conservatives
had won a clear majority. Gladstone was disposed to blame the result on
reactions to the Licensing Act. 'We have been swept away', he wrote, 'by a
torrent of beer and gin'.9 Defending his own seat in the closely-fought twomember constituency of Greenwich, the Prime Minister at least retained his
place, but sustained the minor indignity of running second of the four candidates, trailing behind a Conservative distiller. A careful analysis of the
Liberal MPs returned in 1874 suggests that the social composition of the
party which Gladstone led had not changed greatly over recent years. The
largest single group, though not an overall majority, were landowners, with
men engaged in industry and commerce running them fairly close, while
considerable numbers of lawyers were also present.10
Two of the British Liberal successes of 1874 were specially significant for
the future, for they carried into Parliament candidates with working-class
origins, promoted by a body known as the Labour Representation League.
Stafford was a two-member borough, both seats being held by Conservatives
at the time of the dissolution. Much against the national trend, one of those
seats was captured by a Liberal backed by the LRL. The victor was Alexander Macdonald, President of the Miners' National Association, who began
his working life in the pits, although he later became a successful businessman. The other LRL success was no less remarkable. Thomas Burt of

30

LIBERALS

Morpeth commenced work in the coal mines at the age of ten. As his biographer noted, Burt 'was returned almost solely by workmen as a workmen's
member, at a time when he had not long left the pit, and was the ill-paid
and hard-worked secretary of a miners' organisation'.11 Burt was to remain
Liberal MP for Morpeth until his retirement in 1918, at the age of 81. Later
in the nineteenth century, a number of other working-class men were
returned to the House of Commons. They were often described by contemporaries as 'Labour', 'Liberal Labour' or 'Lib-Lab', but in the large majority
of cases they sat as Liberals.
From a long-term point of view, the results in Ireland would prove particularly important for British, as well as Irish, politics. With the usual
reservations about exact numbers, one may say that, in addition to the sixty
seats which went to Home Rulers, thirty-three went to Conservatives and
only ten to Liberals. Chichester Fortescue, the only Irish MP who sat in
Gladstone's Cabinet, was one of the Liberal casualties. The Conservatives,
who had greatly increased their representation in Britain, actually lost
some ground in Ireland. Five of their seats in Ulster were captured by the
Liberals.12 Most of the remaining Irish Conservative seats were in Ulster,
with a few in Leinster.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was not easy to say to what
extent the Home Rulers should be regarded as a new and separate force in
politics and to what extent they should be regarded as a section of the
Liberals. As recently as the previous November, they had held a conference
at which they sought to reorganise themselves as something like a distinct
political party, but the reorganisation was far from complete when the
General Election overtook them. An Irish historian has commented that
In all, eighteen of the sixty Home Rulers had sat as Liberals in the previous
Parliament and a further twelve or so were of typical Liberal stamp. It can
safely be said that a clear majority of the Home Rule MPs would have stood as
Gladstonians if that was what the political need of the time had dictated.13

This suggests that the great impetus which the 1874 General Election
afforded to the Home Rule cause may have owed at least as much to the
government's temporary unpopularity as to any burning enthusiasm for
Home Rule. Thus the state of the parties in Ireland was by no means clear
in the immediate aftermath of the 1874 election. In the light of subsequent
events, however, it appears that Liberalism had suffered a blow in Ireland
from which it would never recover. In 1868, the great majority of Irish voters had supported a party which sought to satisfy Irish grievances within the
existing union with Britain; by 1874 most Catholic, and some Protestant,
Irish voters had come to the conclusion that further rectification of Irish

EXHAUSTING

THE V O L C A N O E S

31

grievances would require at least a substantial measure of self-government.
The country had already adopted a pattern which would persist for many
years to come, with Conservatives dominant in most Protestant areas and
Home Rulers dominant in most Catholic areas.
Like Disraeli in 1868, Gladstone accepted the voters' verdict as final, and
did not await defeat in the new House. On 17 February 1874, he ten