LORD SALISBURY, who had died in 1903, was not on hand to see the workings of democracy in the first major election of the new century, but he would not have been surprised. A new segment of society was rising, not yet to take the patricians’ place, but by its pressure and through its surrogates to push them aside. The age of the people was under way.
It revealed itself in the cry “Pigtail!” which echoed through the constituencies in the General Election of 1906 with virulence equal to its irrelevance. No issue proved more exploitable than “Chinese Slavery” and the Liberals played it up as designedly as the Tories had used patriotic slogans in the Khaki Election of 1900. The slaves in question were indentured Chinese labour imported with the consent of the Unionist government to mine gold in South Africa. Billboards flamed with pictures of Chinese in chains, Chinese being kicked, Chinese being flogged. Sandwich men dressed as Chinese slaves paraded the streets. Cartoons showed the ghosts of British soldiers killed in the Boer War pointing to the fenced compounds where the Chinese were lodged and asking, “Did we die for this?” Working-class audiences were told the Tories would introduce Chinese labour into England if they won and pictures of a pigtailed coolie in a straw hat were labeled “Tory British Workingman.” Thrown on a lantern screen at political meetings, the pictures, reported Graham Wallas, a Liberal sympathizer, aroused “an instantaneous howl of indignation against Mr. Balfour.” The audience could not have told whether it howled from humanitarian indignation or fear of the competition of cheap labour. Underlying both these sentiments Wallas thought he detected a fear of the alien symbolized by the alien pigtail. The hideous yellow faces aroused “an immediate hatred of the Mongoloid racial type and this hatred was transferred to the Conservative party.” In the howl of the audience he heard the force of the irrational in public affairs.
New men were appealing to a new electorate; were called forth, as was the yellow press, by the existence of a new electorate. People were more literate and to that extent more reachable and more gullible. The ha’penny Daily Mail had a circulation of over half a million, more than ten times that of The Times. Motorcars enabled candidates to reach a wider audience and the growth of cities made audiences larger. The force of the irrational was not necessarily wrong; it could just as well be right for the wrong reasons. It was not necessarily confined to what Matthew Arnold called the Populace, but the effect was greater because there were more of them.
When Arthur Balfour smoothly succeeded Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister after the end of the Boer War in 1902, the waves of change were already lapping at his feet. Business was good but competition from abroad was cutting into British supremacy in foreign commerce, moving into her markets, taking the lead in new industries. At home upper-class life was still delightful, but unemployment, hunger and want, all the ills, injustices and inequities collectively known as the Social Problem, were pressing against the ramparts of privilege in a tide of discontent impossible to ignore or repress. The demands of a new age were requiring from government more action, more imagination, more positive intention and measures than formerly. The Liberals, who now looked forward to their chance after ten years out of office, believed they could supply the need.
They were not a coherent group and never had been. Their dominant philosophy, as of liberalism anywhere, favored change and reform, but it was cut into by a thousand fissures of ideas and social background. In person the Liberals ranged from Whig aristocrats like Lord Rosebery to country gentlemen like Sir Edward Grey to men of business wealth like Campbell-Bannerman to landless intellectuals like Asquith and Morley to a unique and alien upstart from the Celtic fringe like Lloyd George. Some were Little Englanders who regarded Empire, in the words of John Bright, as “a gigantic system for providing outdoor relief for the aristocracy”; some were as fervent imperialists as the Tories. Some were Church of England, some Nonconformist, some Home Rulers, some unalterably opposed to Home Rule. Some were ardent Radicals dedicated to redistribution of wealth and political power, some were magnates of industry absorbed in making fortunes. Those who were Liberals from conviction rather than from family tradition or political expedient felt that between themselves and the Tories existed “a gulf as wide as any in previous time”; the gulf, as Herbert Samuel put it, between “the quietist and the reformer.” Filled with the zeal of the reformer, Samuel believed that the principles of Liberalism “are nothing else than the application to public affairs of the religious spirit itself.” Some Liberals were sincere, some were opportunists, some were demagogues, some like Lloyd George all three at once. They were the outs, eager for office, ready to answer the demands of a new time.
Their opponents were split among themselves, harassed by a series of domestic quarrels which had reopened since the Boer War with a peculiar vehemence. All the hatred and jealousy of Nonconformity for the Establishment blew up into a national tempest over the Education Act of 1902. Sponsored and largely drafted by Balfour himself, the Act added secondary to primary education as an obligation of the state with the object of making it available to all and of bringing all schools up to a uniform standard. Like the Compulsory Education Act of 1870 it had an economic motive: the recognition that unless the nation undertook to raise the level of schooling, it would continue to fall behind in the competition for markets. In effecting progress, the Act was perhaps the most important of the decade but its method was partisan. By favoring and, in fact, giving financial support to the schools of the Established Church—that is, the Church of England—while the Board Schools under local control were abolished, the Act infuriated the Nonconformists, who were traditionally Liberals. It supplied a cause to reunite the Imperialist and Radical wings of the Liberal party which had divided over the Boer War and Home Rule. Debate in the Commons took on the animus peculiar to the war of High Church against Low Church, Methodist clergymen wrote outraged letters to the papers, the Act was called “the greatest betrayal since the Crucifixion,” protest meetings assembled in villages and leagues were formed pledged to non-payment of school taxes with all the fervor of Roundheads refusing ship money to King Charles. Lloyd George, already the champion of Welsh Disestablishment, encouraged the leagues with histrionic oratory. In throwing themselves into a revival of religious battle, people seemed to be on the hunt for excitement, as if the Boer War had created a taste for it while supplying its physical experience to less than two per cent of the population.
The cry “Votes for Women!” promised further trouble and those who raised it frankly called themselves “militants.” They organized under the leadership of Mrs. Pankhurst in 1903 in opposition to the Suffrage group led by Mrs. Fawcett which believed in obtaining the vote by persuasion. Their first experiments in militancy, confined to heckling and unfurling banners at political meetings, while not yet serious, were one more evidence, as Lady Frances Balfour wrote, of “new winds blowing hard through society.”
At the same time, mine-owners of the Rand were demanding license to import Chinese labour when African labour, finding enough work after the war to satisfy a low appetite, could not be obtained for the mines. Contract labour had horrid connotations from which the Government shrank, but the mine-owners were insistent, else they could not reopen, investments were tied up, Rand shares tumbled, and as the Economist frankly stated, it was a matter of £.s.d. “If the people of England and elsewhere who own Transvaal mining shares to the value of £200,000,000 want to get their money back with interest, then they will have to tackle this labour question in the right spirit.”
The Government reluctantly consented, the Chinese were brought in and lodged in compounds; the Liberals, who had themselves introduced contract labour in British Guiana, now thundered in awful wrath. The Chinese compounds were no worse than England’s dark satanic slums, where one water faucet and one privy often served twenty-five families, where beds were rented for three and the space under them for two. But humanitarian instincts grow fiercer in proportion to the distance by which their causes are removed and it is always easier to build Jerusalem in Africa than at home. Moreover the Chinese labour issue carried the smell of money which had hung about the Boer War from the start. It devalued the moral content which the imperialists liked to attach to the cause of Empire.
On top of these issues Joseph Chamberlain wrought havoc with Tariff Reform. When he launched his campaign for Protection he aroused against his party the fundamental British sentiment of laissez-faire, raised among the people old memories of hated Corn Laws and fears of a rise in food prices, handed the Liberals another issue in the cry “Free food!” and split his party between the old and the new Conservatives, between land and money. Manufacturers and businessmen, exponents of what H. G. Wells called “commercialized imperialism with all its push and energy,” favored Protection. As an imperialist and businessman himself, Chamberlain saw it as a means of drawing together the mother country and all its dependencies in a vast Imperial tariff system which would stimulate trade within the Empire and prosperity at home, strengthen Imperial bonds, increase revenues for social legislation, and, not least, provide an issue of which he would be the hero. In the British Cabinet he was what Germany was among the nations: dynamic, ambitious, conscious of power and ability, fitted in his own mind for the top place and galled that it was held by another. Tariff Reform was his usurpation of the office he had missed. It wrecked the Cabinet. Chamberlain himself resigned, the better to carry his campaign to the country. Five Free Traders, including the Duke of Devonshire and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, also resigned. In the ranks a vigorous new M.P., Winston Churchill, waving the banner of Free Trade, crossed over to join the Liberals amid cries of “Rat!” from the Tories. Interminable debates raged over preferential duties, bounties, dumping, and other fiscal mysteries. The public, barely comprehending, took sides, Free Food leagues sprang up alongside the anti-school-tax leagues; the British people were rapidly becoming as contentious as the French.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Balfour, still suave, effortless, unaddicted to political dogma, refused to take a firm position, partly because he saw no firm ground on which to take one and partly because he believed a strategy of steering between extremes was the best way to hold his party together and his Government in office. He saw no virtue in a doctrinaire persistence in Free Trade and he could see advantages to British industry in some form of selective tariff, although he had no wish to swallow Chamberlain’s program whole. The one thing he firmly believed was that continued direction of England’s affairs by the Conservative party was more important than either Free Trade or Protection and this he was determined to maintain. Amid quarreling colleagues, resigning ministers, party apostasies, he eluded all pressures and coolly told the House that he would be ill performing his duty “if I were to profess a settled conviction where no settled conviction exists.” He infused the issues with such philosophic doubt and infused his doubt with such authority as almost to mesmerize members on both sides. When called upon to explain his relations with Free Traders and Protectionists within his own party he “indulged the House with a brilliant display of disdainful banter.” Exploiting all his parliamentary dexterity, he maneuvered the Government through session after session for more than two years, seeming almost to find amusement in the difficulty of his task. But the performance left his followers uneasy. They wanted the leader of their party to lead and instead, as Harry Cust said, “he nailed his colors to the fence.”
Balfour’s purpose, however, was serious. He wanted to retain office as long as he could in order to consolidate the Entente and the work of the Committee of Imperial Defence especially after the Tangier Crisis of 1905. He had given the order for rearming the artillery with a new quick-firing gun, the 18-pounder, and he was determined, as he explained later, “not to go out of office until we were so far committed to the expenditure that no Liberal Government could have withdrawn from that position.” Relentless, Chamberlain persisted in his campaign. Balfour’s dancing on eggs grew increasing difficult as the exasperation of his own party and the impatience for office of the Opposition mounted.
Overshadowing all was the Social Problem. Investigations and reports appearing all at once after 1900 made harshly visible the fact and the consequences of extreme inequality in possession of material goods. In B. S. Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life, 1901, in the last volume of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London, 1903, in L. Chiozza Money’s Riches and Poverty, 1905, in reports of the Royal Commission on Labour and in the Fabian Society’s studies of the destitute, diseased and insane, evidence accumulated that the richest country in the world rested on a foundation of one-third of its population living “in chronic poverty, unable to satisfy the primal needs of animal life.” Chiozza Money showed that economic inequality was particularly wide in England. In France, whose population was about the same, there were twice as many small estates between £.500 and £ 10,000 as in England, but in the United Kingdom three times as many large estates over £50,000 and four times as many over £250,000 as in France.
The investigators produced the facts: sleep, diet, sanitation, privacy, even respiratory air, were inadequate for basic human needs. Professor Huxley had calculated that 800 cubic feet of air space per person was the ideal. Even the Poor House provided 300. In the slums people lived three to a bedroom of 700 cubic feet or, with children, eight and nine in a space of 1,200 cubic feet. Vermin lived with them, a piece of paper on the floor served as a toilet, fish on Sundays was the weekly protein for a family of eight, at two and a half ounces per portion. Children were stunted and pale, with rotting teeth, and if they went to school, sat dully at their desks or fell asleep. Ignorance and apathy as much as ill health were poverty’s product; the slums were sloughs of wasted lives. Overcrowding in country villages was often as bad. In an Oxfordshire cottage a family of eight slept in two beds with a pair of thin blankets among them, in a Yorkshire cottage husband and wife and five daughters shared two beds and an attic floor, in Somerset a mother and three children slept in one room, five children of both sexes up to the age of nineteen in another.
For unskilled and unorganized labour, working conditions matched the slums. At the Shawfield Chemical Works in Glasgow in 1897, year of the Diamond Jubilee, workmen received 3d. or 4d. an hour for a twelve-hour day, seven days a week, spent amid poisonous vapors without a lunch-hour rest. They ate lunch standing at the furnaces and if they took Sunday off were fined the next day’s wages. Lord Overtoun, owner of the Works, a philanthropist who gave £10,000 a year to charity, was a leading member of the Sunday Observance and Sunday Rest Societies. In other industries workers could be arrested for taking a day off without permission. If they applied for it, the request could be refused; if they took it anyway they could be, and often were, hauled off to a day in gaol. Skilled workers organized in England’s craft unions, the oldest in Europe, were better off. Numbering about one-fifth of all adult male workers, a larger proportion than in any other country, they had their own insurance and pension systems backed by large funds and they benefited from lower prices in their own cooperatives. Nevertheless, vis-à-vis capital, they were still on the defensive and the dark persistent presence of unemployment at their backs made them vulnerable.
England’s economy since 1900 had recovered from the depression of the nineties and was on the whole prosperous, active and expanding. Shippers and shipbuilders, bankers and millowners were busy, coal mines were operating to capacity, and although in chemical, electrical and other new industries the British were not as enterprising as some foreign competitors, most businesses, despite ups and downs, were doing well. Yet the gap in distribution of profits was growing not less but greater. While the rich lived at an acme of luxury and leisure, the purchasing power of wages was falling and human material deteriorating. The minimum height for recruits for the British Army was lowered from five feet three inches in 1883 to five feet in 1900.
Something was wrong with the system. Somehow the great mechanical and material achievements of the recent past had twisted society out of shape. In the United States, where the process was accelerated, Thorstein Veblen was moved to make his inquiries into business enterprise and the Muckrakers to their searches in the slums and stockyards and the files of Standard Oil. In England, reformers, writers, crusading journalists, Fabians, Socialists, Radical Liberals were impatient for the remedy. The shrill cries of H. G. Wells warned that material progress without planning would lead to a future, as he depicted it in When the Sleeper Wakes in 1899, of higher buildings, bigger towns, wickeder capitalists, more downtrodden and desperate labour, a future where “everything was bigger, quicker, more crowded” … in short an “exaggeration of contemporary tendencies.” Like a blue jay incessantly pecking and cawing at the ills of civilization, he demanded in Anticipations in 1900 and A Modern Utopia in 1905 the New Republic of a planned society and fervently expounded the possibilities for improvement which science had put in the hands of man.
Peace, Retrenchment and Reform which had satisfied as the Liberal creed for so long were no longer adequate. The optimistic Liberalism of the Nineteenth Century was past. An “indignant pessimism” inspired Charles Masterman’s From the Abyss in 1902 andIn Peril of Change in 1905. A young Liberal journalist, literary editor of the Daily News, devoutly High Church in religion, married to a Lyttelton whose uncle was a member of Balfour’s cabinet, he was one of the new kind of Liberal, puzzled and disturbed by trends which betrayed the promise of the Nineteenth Century. Another was the lonely economist J. A. Hobson, author of The Social Problem, 1901. He saw the brilliant hopes of early Liberalism overcast by the doctrine of survival of the fittest and the energy for progress absorbed in material growth. Political Economy having failed to solve the Social Problem, he believed a new social science was needed to “furnish a satisfactory basis for the art of social progress.” Hobson fixed on unemployment as the crux of the matter. He saw it as a waste of human resources and included in that waste the idle rich, of whom 250,000 males between the ages of twenty and sixty-five, according to a census of 1891, were without trade or profession. Under-consumption, the corollary of unemployment, was the chief source of trouble and he saw imperialism, not as the white man’s burden nobly shouldered, but as the economy’s drive to compensate for markets missing at home. Hobson’s views, expressed in The Psychology of Jingoism in 1901 andImperialism in 1902, were influential but offensive both to the imperialists and to the Fabians, who believed in imperialism. He was never offered a chair either by the major universities or by the London School of Economics, founded by the Fabians in 1894, to establish that new social science which was his goal.
What the Fabian Society wanted was Socialism without Marx or revolution, something like Macbeth without murder—an intellectual, respectable, gradual, factual, practical, “gas and water” English Socialism powered by the brains, hard work and infinite attention to detail of the Webbs and the brilliant common sense of Shaw. Founded in the eighties, expounding plans and arguments through the Fabian Tracts, it was an intellectual lobby bent on guiding existing political institutions toward the ultimate goals of Socialism. Fabians were the B’s in Beatrice Webb’s division of people into A’s (aristocrats, artists and anarchists) and B’s (benevolents, bourgeois and bureaucrats). They sought no working-class base but preferred to operate, as William Morris said, by “gradually permeating cultivated people with our own aspirations” and gradually influencing government toward their goals. They made splendid progress among those of their own kind but remained a scholastic regiment of seven or eight hundred, aloof from the people for whom they toiled. In England persons of the educated classes did not and could not penetrate the unions. Discrediting the Marxian dogma of mandatory class war, the Fabians believed that labourers and employees must gain their ends within the capitalist system because it was the employers’ surplus capital which gave them work. In his lectures “disproving” Marx, Shaw, a tall, reedy, red-haired figure, emphatic, provocative and bold, held listeners spellbound as he poured out ideas in crisp, sharp sentences, unfaltering for an hour and a half. In Major Barbara, which opened in December, 1905, with Mr. Balfour in the audience, Shaw spoke through the mouth of the munitions magnate, Undershaft, on “the crime of poverty.” “What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there. What do they matter? They are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill-fed, ill-clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty.”
The Webbs attacked the crime with mountainous reports and the English lubricant of social intercourse and conversation. Coldly bent on improving society, they were essentially authoritarians, impatient with the democratic process. They favored Protection, Joseph Chamberlain (with whom Beatrice had once contemplated marriage) and anything which strengthened the State and brought in revenue for more sewers, soup kitchens and unemployment insurance. They had no use for the Liberals, who understood neither the imperial nor Socialist demands of the new age, and had little faith in a Labour party of the untutored which would be incapable of imposing its will. What was needed was a strong party with no nonsense and a business-like understanding of national needs which would take hold of the future like a governess, slap it into clean clothes, wash its face, blow its nose, make it sit up straight at table and eat a proper diet. This could only be the Conservative party, regenerated by Chamberlain, advised by Mr. and Mrs. Webb, bestowing upon England the iron blessings of Tory Socialism.
Orthodox Socialism was represented by the Socialist Democratic Federation led by H. M. Hyndman, a wealthy product of Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, which he had attended in the same year as the Prince of Wales. As devout in Marxism as it was detached from the working class, the SDF expressed all the fiercest revolutionary doctrines of continental Socialism, but, lacking followers, remained a voice without a body. “I could not carry on,” said Hyndman, “unless I expected the revolution at ten o’clock next Monday morning.” Presumably it was to drop from the sky, because in Hyndman’s scheme the workers did not figure as initiators. “A slave class cannot be freed by the slaves themselves,” he pronounced. “The leadership, the initiative, the teaching, the organization, must come from those who are born into a different position and are trained to use their faculties in early life.” He complained of the peculiarly British technique by which the ruling class absorbed rising labour leaders who proved only too willing to sell out to the dominant minority (that is, the Liberals) after they had “obtained their education from well-to-do Socialists who have been sacrificing themselves for their sake.” The tone suggests some justification for the friends who said that Hyndman, a cricketer, had adopted Socialism out of spite against the world because he was not included in the Cambridge eleven. Along with Robert Blatchford, editor of the Clarion, and other earnest spirits, Hyndman in meetings, articles, journalism and oratory, relentlessly pursued that Monday morning which he could not have survived and the British working class did not want.
In 1901 occurred a decisive moment in the shifting balance of political power. The Taff Vale judgment by the House of Lords, acting in its capacity as a court of appeal, held trade unions liable for the damage caused by strikes, thus putting in jeopardy their pension and benefit funds. It proved to be that act of the ruling class which convinced the English working class of the need for political representation. Until then English labour believed in fighting its battles against employers by direct action through trade unions rather than by political action through Parliament. Giving its political allegiance to the Liberals, English labour could not be drawn into support of a Socialist party and disapproved of class war. “The English working class,” said Clemenceau, “is a bourgeois class.” Continental comrades found the English Trade Union Congresses dull and uninspired because the members were not interested in debating ideas but only in immediate gains. To the French, said one visitor, such gains were the gathering of strength for the social revolution; to the British worker they were ends in themselves while “fundamental principles and eternal verities irritate him.” He was not interested in a new social system, as Morley said, “but of having a fairer treatment in this one.”
In 1892 the eternal verities found a voice in a Scottish miners’ organizer with the zeal of a prophet. Keir Hardie, then thirty-six, was a short handsome man with smoldering brown eyes and hair brushed back from a domed forehead. Born in a one-room cottage on a Lanarkshire coal field and brought up with two adults and nine children in that room, where somehow his mother taught him to read, he went to work as a baker’s errand boy at the age of seven. On one weekly payday, with his father out of work, his mother in bed with a newborn child and no food in the house, the family’s small and only breadwinner walked the two miles to his place of employment in the rain, to arrive for the second day in a row fifteen minutes late. “You are wanted upstairs by the Master,” said the girl behind the counter. Entering the room where the employer and his family sat around a mahogany breakfast table set with steaming coffee and hot rolls, he was told he was dismissed and, as a reminder against lateness, his week’s wages were forfeit. On his empty way out the maid in silent pity gave him a roll.
Hardie believed in class war to the end. Liberals to him were no different from Tories but just another face of the employing class. When he stood for the first time as an independent labour candidate from mid-Lanark in 1888, the Liberal candidate—Sir George Trevelyan—explained to him how unfortunate it was that they should fight each other to the benefit of the Tories and proposed that if Hardie withdrew, the Liberals would assure him a safe seat and election expenses at the next general election and pay him as M.P. a yearly salary of £300. Hardie, who had never earned anything approaching that sum, refused. Although he lost on this occasion, receiving only 617 votes out of a total of 7,000, four years later he was elected as an independent from South West Ham. When he took his seat in the House wearing tweeds and a cloth cap, unlike others of his class who put on respectable black broadcloth when they mixed in the world, it was as if the red flag had been raised at Westminster. He never succumbed to the capitalist embrace. During a debate on the unemployed he sat listening in growing rage while no word of sympathy for the starving was uttered and finally burst out, “You well-fed beasts!” On another occasion when a member was denouncing the unemployed as lazy vagabonds who did not want to work, Hardie suggested that an equal number of vagabonds could be seen “every day on Rotten Row in top hats and spats.” When he addressed meetings, standing like a statue in hewn granite of the emancipated worker, with head thrown back and body erect, he seemed to express the “equality, freedom and triumphant self-reliance” which he wanted to infuse in the working class. With no salary or political funds to draw on, he supported himself, his wife and three children on what he could earn from journalism, the maximum he ever made being £210 a year.
In 1889 the desperate dockers’ strike for 6d. an hour started the movement to organize the unskilled in industry-wide unions. It continued through the nineties with organizers moved by a sense of “religious necessity” and workers whom it was difficult to persuade that arbitration paid them better than “the fierce strikes in which their repressed emotions sought outlet.”
The dockers’ strike waged in the heart of London had thrust the realities of labour’s battles under the eyes of capital and swept young men like Herbert Samuel into politics. Appalled by conditions among the strikers and by the sweatshops and squalid homes he saw in Whitechapel when canvassing there for his brother’s candidacy for the LCC (London County Council), he decided “from that moment” that the House of Commons was “my objective and to take part in social legislation my aim.” The strike also brought to prominence a rampant trade unionist, John Burns of the Amalgamated Engineers, union of the locomotive drivers, who was known as the “Man with the Red Flag” from his habit of carrying that item with him whenever he addressed meetings. Although the dockers were not his union, he took over management of the strike to help its leaders, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett. He kept on excellent terms with the police, organized food lines and procured the settlement which won the “dockers’ tanner”—to the distress of Kropotkin, who thought a critical moment had been missed. “If Burns with 80,000 men behind him does not make a revolution,” he wrote, “it is because he is afraid of having his head cut off.” Burns, however, despite a period of vociferous Socialism, was too English to be revolutionary and never shared Hardie’s refusal to compromise with capitalism. He preferred to fight labour’s cause through whatever alliances suited the situation, and when elected to the LCC, collaborated with the Liberals. His hatred of Keir Hardie, according to Beatrice Webb, “reaches the dimensions of mania.”
At the Trades Union Congress of 1893 Hardie generated enough support, against the opposition of Burns, to form an Independent Labour Party of which he was named chairman. Its declared Marxian purpose was to secure public ownership of “all means of production, distribution and exchange” and, lest there be any mistake, “to take charge of the revolution to which economic conditions are leading us.” Not unnaturally financial support from the craft unions was shy. Two years later in the general election of 1895, which brought in Lord Salisbury’s Government, the ILP failed to elect a single one of its twenty-eight candidates. It was “the most costly funeral since Napoleon’s,” commented Burns, not without satisfaction in which he was joined by Mrs. Webb. For Labour to actindependently and insist on three-cornered contests, she declared, was “suicide.” Yet the Conservative editor J. L. Garvin suspected that despite the fiasco the ILP might well prove to be “an increasingly powerful and disturbing factor in English politics.”
At the same time, employers’ associations—formed to resist the demands of labour—increased in number and joined in agreements to employ non-union labour. To create a “reserve” in case of strikes they organized Free Labour Registries, which were simply lists of strikebreakers under another name. In 1897 they were able to defeat the old and powerful Amalgamated Engineers in its strike for the eight-hour day which lasted thirty weeks. Taking the offensive by lockouts, they succeeded against other unions in re-establishing piecework and repudiating overtime pay. On occasion the Government lent troops in their support. Leaving nothing to chance, the associations in 1898 formed the Employers’ Parliamentary Council to smother any nascent legislation unfavorable to their interests.
In 1900, reluctantly edging toward the political arena, a number of trade unions, representing about one quarter of the total membership, joined with the ILP and Hyndman’s group to form a Labour Representation Committee for the election of political candidates. The Fabian Society lukewarmly and temporarily joined also. As Secretary, the Committee chose Ramsay MacDonald, a thirty-four-year-old Scot who emerged from obscure beginnings to be a founder of the ILP and was recognized for an astute political sense. On discovering that the intellectuals were not, after all, to control policy, Hyndman’s group pulled out and the Fabians, finding the endeavor “not in our line,” never played a role. Coal and Cotton and the older craft unions remained hostile. Of the committee’s fourteen candidates put up for the general election of 1900, only two, Hardie and John Burns, were elected.
Then came the “staggering blow” of Taff Vale. On the strength of the decision other employers began to sue for damages, the unions lost case after case; with their funds held liable, the long-acknowledged right of strike was nullified and all the hard-won gains of collective bargaining suddenly vulnerable. Discouraged and disillusioned in the old principle of direct action, the unions faced into politics, determined to reverse Taff Vale in the only way possible: through Parliament. Union membership in the Labour Representation Committee more than doubled in two years and with union treasuries opening up, the Committee won three by-elections in 1902 and 1903, including one three-cornered contest at Durham. Will Crooks, a former cooper and borough councilman, born in a workhouse, Arthur Henderson of the Ironfounders, and David Shackleton, a weaver, took their places in the House called “the best club in London.”
Here indeed were new winds blowing through society. Yet they did not as yet seriously ruffle the class represented by the Tories. Its prevailing mood remained on the whole complacent. Tory philosophy accepted a surplus labour force as the fulcrum of the profit system, an economic law of nature not to be disturbed by legislation. Upper-class life continued so comfortable and pleasant that it was difficult to feel any urgency about reforming what The Times imperturbably called “imperfections of the Social Order.” When Keir Hardie in 1901 moved the first Socialist resolution ever presented to the House of Commons and spoke for twenty minutes on how the menace of the profit system, responsible for the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion and the London slums, could be remedied by common ownership of land and capital, “Mr. Balfour, coming back from dinner, smiled pleasantly on the Speaker, doubtless calculating that things as they were would last his time.”
By 1905 with a general election looming, concessions were necessary. Wooing the labour vote the Conservatives appointed a Royal Commission on Trades Disputes to report on the question of re-establishing the principle of non-liability. It even allowed a Trades Disputes Bill, which would have reversed Taff Vale, to go through committee and pass two readings in the House, though it did not go so far as to enact it. It faced unemployment sufficiently, if not very boldly, to enact an Unemployed Workmen’s Act which established Labour Bureaus to register the unemployed and to help them find work and to pay compensation in certain cases. The Act applied, however, only to London and its spirit was one of limited patching. The Tories had no really remedial program to offer because they did not want one.
As a minority party the Liberals needed the support of labour to win, especially to win by a large enough margin to free them of the Irish incubus. For them the appearance of independent labour candidates in the field could mean disaster. Faced with the danger of three-cornered contests which could only take away their votes, the Liberals now needed not merely support but alliance. Labour in the person of Ramsay MacDonald was ready to listen. In 1903 he and Herbert Gladstone, Chief Liberal Whip, worked out a secret pact by which the Liberals agreed not to contest thirty-five seats in return for the voting alliance of those labour M.P.’s elected. Keir Hardie, who was not consulted, would have regarded the arrangement as not only betrayal but superfluous. The Liberals would eventually discover, in his opinion, that without the working-class vote they were helpless; at that point they would either come to Labour or “go the Tory way.”
In mid-January, 1906, spread over a period of two weeks, as was then the custom, the General Election took place. Chinese slavery, Protection vs. Free Trade, the school tax, Taff Vale, all the issues aired over three years, resounded again. Chinese labour on the hills of Wales? roared Lloyd George rhetorically, “Heaven forbid!” The voice of the demagogue and the force of the irrational merely reinforced a general sense that the Tories had been in power too long and this time the demagogue and the irrational were right. People wanted a change and they got one.
The Liberals won in a gigantic landslide. They returned to Parliament with the unprecedented margin of 513–157. Not all of this was their own. Labour won a total of 53 seats, of whom 29 were elected by the Labour Representation Committee, and organized themselves in the House for the first time as a recognized party with their own Whips. The remaining 24 were trade-union representatives called Lib-Labs who accepted the Liberal Whip and did not affiliate with the Labour Party until 1909. All 53 voted with the 377 Liberals, as did 83 Irish, giving the victorious party an absolute, almost unwieldy majority of 356. Even without the Irish and Labour, their own majority of 220 made them free of ties to any group. For the first time they had what Gladstone always wanted, that “hideous abnormality,” as one Tory called it, a Liberal majority independent of the Irish vote.
The Labour accomplishment was even more startling and its implication was not missed. A friend of Sir Almeric Fitzroy who lost his seat in Lancashire attributed his defeat to the uprising of Labour and did not believe that the tariff and other issues played much part in the outcome but rather “the conviction, for the first time born in the working classes, that their social salvation is in their own hands.”
In recognition of the new arrival on the political scene, John Burns was named President of the Local Government Board, becoming the first workingman ever to hold Cabinet rank. “I congratulate you, Sir Henry,” he replied when Campbell-Bannerman, the new Prime Minister, offered him the post, “it will be the most popular appointment that you have made,” as in fact it proved. After a week’s enjoyment of the ruling-class embrace, Burns told Beatrice Webb, “I am a different man from what I was a week ago.” His enjoyment of Cabinet office was so patent that he reminded Sir Edward Grey of a sentence from the naturalist Gilbert White, “In June the tortoise grows elate and walks on the tips of his toes.”
For the Tories the result was the most overwhelming electoral defeat of a party in living memory. In the debacle even Balfour lost his seat, as did his brother Gerald, two members of his Cabinet, Alfred Lyttelton and St. John Brodrick, his cousin Lord Hugh Cecil, and, “saddest fate of all,” as Punch lamented, Henry Chaplin, Squire of England, after thirty-nine years as M.P. All subsequently found seats in by-elections but in the meantime the “new Demos” reigned in fat triumphant majority.
During the hectic days of canvassing in Manchester before the election, Balfour, with his extraordinary capacity for detachment, took time out to seek an answer to an older if less immediate question than whether or not he would return as Prime Minister. In 1903 Joseph Chamberlain had been asked by Theodor Herzl on behalf of the Zionists for support in obtaining a colonization charter for the Sinai peninsula. Unable to persuade the British authorities in Egypt, Chamberlain, who saw the Jews as enterprising agents of colonization, offered them Uganda in East Africa as a substitute for Palestine. In the time of agony of the Russian pogroms, when East European Jews were desperately seeking an escape from Europe, the Zionist Congress nevertheless refused the offer, and Balfour wanted to know why. Long concerned with the idea “that Christian religion and civilization owes to Judaism an immeasurable debt,” he held the Uganda question in the back of his mind and in the heat of the election campaign questioned his political agent, a Mr. Dreyfus, about it. Dreyfus offered to bring along a friend and ardent Zionist, born in the Russian pale, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then a thirty-two-year-old instructor of chemistry at Victoria University in Manchester. Balfour at his election headquarters in a Manchester hotel set aside fifteen minutes for his visitor and stayed to listen for over an hour. Weizmann was nervous at the prospect of explaining to the renowned statesman in his shaky English all the history and hopes, the divisions and crosscurrents of his people in fifteen minutes. “I plunged into a long harangue on the meaning of the Zionist movement … that nothing but a deep religious conviction expressed in modern political terms could keep the movement alive and that this conviction had to be based on Palestine and Palestine alone. Any deflection from Palestine was—well, a form of idolatry.… I was sweating blood and trying to find some less ponderous way of expressing myself.… Suddenly I said: ‘Mr. Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?’
“He sat up, looked at me and answered: ‘But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.’
“ ‘That is true,’ I said, ‘But we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.’ He leaned back and continued to stare at me.… I did not see him again until 1914.” Of the future Declaration that was to bear his name, Balfour said at the end of his life that “on the whole [it] had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth his doing.”
On the morning after his electoral defeat, Balfour visited a friend who for the first time in his life saw him “seriously upset.” However, he went to bed with a book, came down to lunch next day “quite rested and cheerful,” played golf in the afternoon and again on the day following, appeared thoroughly to enjoy himself and showed no curiosity about the continuing election results, “not even looking at a newspaper.” He ascribed the defeat to the rise of Labour and to the public’s desire for a change. Real issues had played little part, he noticed, audiences having refused to listen to argument.
Behind his carefree golf Balfour had been thinking. “The election of 1906 inaugurates a new era,” he wrote the next day to the King’s secretary, Francis Knollys, and the sudden emergence of a Labour party was its salient fact. It was the bid for power of a new claimant. In letters to several friends on this and the following day, Balfour opened his mind: something more was going on than the “ordinary party change.… What has occurred here has nothing to do with any of the things we have been squabbling over for the last three years.” Campbell-Bannerman “is a mere cork dancing on a torrent which he cannot control” and the full significance of the drama could not be understood unless it was seen in terms “of the same movement which has produced massacres in St. Petersburg, riots in Vienna and Socialist processions in Berlin.” His mind traveling ahead to the implications of this new development, Balfour wrote, at that moment of swollen Liberal victory, “It will end, I think, in the break-up of the Liberal Party.” More enlivened than depressed by the new terms of battle, he assured Knollys that he had no intention of withdrawing from politics, because “I am so profoundly interested in what is now going on.”
More clearly than most he sensed the beginnings of a transfer of power, not a mere political transfer from the in-party to the outs but one more profound, to a new class which, though as yet far from the possession of power, by its pressure on the possessors was causing upheaval in the components of society.
Meanwhile he had no seat. “I am certainly not going to go about the country explaining that I am honest and industrious like a second footman out of a place,” he remarked. A seat in the City of London being found for him, he returned to the House as Leader of the Opposition.
Others besides Balfour glimpsed in Liberalism’s victory the portents of its dissolution. To the Socialists this was the Marxian imperative. Robert Blatchford predicted that the Liberal party would try to carry out “a halfhearted policy in the hope of not estranging any of its moderate followers.” If they attempted really remedial social legislation they would lose the support of their capitalist backers, who would defect to the Tories. If they did nothing in social reform they would lose the support of the Radicals who elected them. In either case this would be their last Government. “The most certain of all aids to our cause is the inevitable disintegration of the Liberal Party.”
The Parliament of 1906 convinced the Tories of the rise of Socialism with its explicit threat to the existence of Privilege. Until now the landed aristocracy and squirearchy had believed that they could speak for the people, that their national interest was the same, that in that sense they were one. They believed in the benevolent working of Tory Democracy as long as it did not interfere with the existing order. They thought of the populace in terms of the rural and servant class whom they knew. George Wyndham, Chief Secretary for Ireland in Balfour’s Cabinet, a dithyrambic true-blue Tory who retained his seat in 1906, believed he had won, as he wrote his mother, “because the working men love me. I won by their hearts.… All my song has been the brotherhood of the Empire for us all, fair terms for the Foreigner, and the glory of Empire for our children with a little straight talk for Christianity in our schools.… I have opened my heart to all their hearts and we just love each other. I won on Toryism, Empire and Fiscal Reform. The Irish voted for me, the Fishermen voted for me, the Soldiers voted for me, the Artisans voted for me! Simply because we liked each other and love the traditions of the past and the Glory of the future.”
Wyndham’s charming Eighteenth Century picture, whatever the case in his own constituency, was for England, as for the rest of the world in 1906, as dead as the Prince Regent. The agricultural class was disappearing, seeping into the cities, and between the industrial proletariat which was replacing it and the patricians, there was no love or common interest. Wyndham and his kind knew nothing of miners and millhands and people who lived in long monotonous rows of urban houses. “Fancy,” said Winston Churchill, born in Blenheim Palace, when canvassing with a friend in Manchester they entered a particularly drab street, “living in one of those streets, never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savoury—never saying anything clever!” The partakers of that fate were the new voters.
Among the 377 Liberal M.P.’s, 154, or 40 per cent, were businessmen, 85 were barristers and solicitors, 69 were “Gentlemen,” 25 were writers and journalists, 22 were officers and the remaining 22 included university professors, teachers, doctors and champions of causes. Among the defeated Tories the largest category was still Gentlemen, representing 30 per cent, followed by businessmen at 25 per cent and officers 20 per cent. Almost half the House, to the number of 310, were new men who had never sat in Parliament before. A noble lord on visiting the newly assembled body was relieved to find that few were in “unconventional dress,” but Punch’s veteran correspondent Sir Henry Lucy found the tone, character and social behavior of the House “revolutionized.” The Irish were a rough group notable for bad manners which they exercised deliberately, uncowed by the traditions of the House. Since it was English they hated it, and since the Liberal majority had no need of them, they had no bargaining value and could do little but take out their frustration in noise and nuisance value to impede any legislation that was not Home Rule. Their old, hard-fought, ever-foiled battle to unseat English rule and govern themselves was not helped but swamped by the size of the Liberal victory.
When Balfour returned, the hostile majority openly showed their dislike of him as leader and symbol of the defeated party. New members, according to Austen Chamberlain, were “intolerant and rude to him … jeered at him and constantly interrupted him.” Unmoved, debonair as ever, he remained master of debate and was able within a year to re-establish his ascendancy and win the respect of his opponents who “felt he gave distinction to the House.” Although many of the new Government were his personal friends, the man who sat in his old place, facing him across the Speaker’s table, was not. Campbell-Bannerman was impervious, as a colleague said, to the “historic charm” of Balfour; “he simply could not see it.” Early in the session he tried to puncture its spell. Required to state his party’s position on a resolution against Tariff Reform, Balfour managed an evasion as ambiguous as of old, exasperating the Prime Minister. “Enough of this foolery!” C.-B. burst out. His predecessor was “like the old Bourbons—he has learnt nothing. He comes back with the same airy graces, the same subtle dialectics, the same light and frivolous way of dealing with a great question but he little knows the temper of the new House of Commons if he thinks these methods will prevail here. I say enough of this foolery!” It was a doughty effort, widely quoted, but it did not dispel the Balfour aura.
The real temper of the new House was represented by a different kind of man than either Balfour the patrician or C.-B. the old-fashioned Liberal. The two dominant figures of the new Government, each of whom was to serve in succession as Prime Minister, were both men for whom government was not an inherited function but a professional career. They were H. H. Asquith, son of a Nonconformist Yorkshire wool merchant, and David Lloyd George, son of a Welsh schoolteacher. In background and temperament totally dissimilar, they had both made their way to Parliament through the practice of law.
The most dynamic of the new ministers, Lloyd George had been named President of the Board of Trade, not one of the chief Cabinet posts but one that gave him Front Bench rank. In him A. G. Gardiner, editor of the Daily News and a particularly perceptive student of political character, saw “the portent of a new age—the man of the people in the seat of power.” If not yet in ultimate power, Lloyd George was obviously on his way to it and his purpose was as clear as that of a fox in a hen coop. He was forty-two, eleven years younger than Asquith and eleven years older than Churchill. Sent to Parliament in 1890 by a borough in Wales in the cause of Welsh nationalism, he was a Nonconformist dedicated to Disestablishment and a Radical dedicated to social reform. His political bible as a young man was Les Misérables, which he carried with him in a shilling paper edition whenever he traveled. His stand against the Boer War at the risk of professional boycott and actual assault took moral as well as physical courage. He had strong political principles but no scruples. Small and handsome, fearless, ruthless, and honey-tongued, with bright blue eyes, brown moustache and intense vitality, he constantly pursued and attracted women and adroitly avoided the occasional legal consequences. As a public speaker he was the Bernhardt of the political platform who ravished audiences with Celtic lilt and strong emotion. In public no rhetoric for him was too theatrical, no rabble-rousing too extreme; in office, however, he was circumspect and shrewd, conscious, as he used to say, that “England is based on commerce,” and that no party could live by appeal to Labour alone. His greatest gift was an acute, intuitive, unerring sense of what the moment demanded, coupled with the conviction that he was the man to supply it. He “swooped down on opportunity like a hawk,” and with it in his grasp, was a man whom the party leaders could not choose but use, even if like Chamberlain among the Tories, he was a cuckoo who would use them.
Ahead of him as Chancellor of the Exchequer was Asquith and coming up fast from behind, Winston Churchill, who had been given a sub-Cabinet post as Under-Secretary for the Colonies in reward for coming over from the Tories. Asquith was a professional intellectual machine who worked by training and judgment of what was expedient rather than by any fundamental primal belief. He was implacable in logic, irrefutable in debate. “Go and bring the sledgehammer,” ordered C.-B. on one occasion when Balfour was delicately slitting the Liberals to ribbons, and Asquith was duly sent for. A brilliant First at Oxford, to which he had won a scholarship, he was the finest product, wrote Gardiner, of the Balliol system, which avoids excessive zeal and “distrusts great thoughts even if it thinks them.” He understood everything and originated nothing. Firm but passionless he might have been a judge and was a perfect chairman of the board. After a successful early career as a barrister, he no sooner became a Cabinet minister under Gladstone in 1892 than he was marked as the coming man even though he was so unaccustomed to Society that he used to give his arm to his own wife to take her in to dinner. That difficulty was rectified when she died and Margot Tennant, with an eye for coming men, decided to marry him. He fitted smoothly into the elite; he “has no egotism, no jealousy, no vanity,” said a woman friend. He dominated by intellect but he did not excite or stir reaction. The public could never form a picture of or pin a label on him and he remains for history a man without a face.
The Government included a number of peers, none of them great landowners, among whom were the aged Marquess of Ripon, who later resigned, Lord Tweedmouth, who became mentally “unhinged” and also eventually resigned, and Lord Crewe, Rosebery’s son-in-law, who “horrified” the current Prince of Wales (later King George V) by his habit of wearing a jacket instead of a morning coat in the House of Lords. The only representative of the great aristocracy was the renegade Tory, Winston Churchill. Not Free Trade alone had brought him over to the Liberals. By 1904 when he changed parties he knew the Tories were on their way out. Craving office, he did not want to wait and besides he could not afford to. Although the grandson of a duke, he had to make a living. Journalism and authorship would pay but not with the kind of opportunity he wanted. In America a man of his energy would have chosen business, but for an Englishman of his inheritance Government was the one career for the exercise of greatness.
Recognizing the challenge of the social problem, he believed the Liberals could meet it and he wanted to play a major share. Apart from ambition he was moved by his deep devotion and love for his old childhood nurse, Mrs. Everest. Through her he felt personally the fate of the old unemployed person, “so many of whom have no one to look after them and nothing to live on at the end of their lives.” In 1904 he saw opportunity, seized it, made the right choice for the time and won his chance. From then on in all his speeches he preached Liberalism as the “cause of the left-out millions” to which the working class should attach themselves rather than to a destructive Socialism. Once in office he knew that unless the Liberals could win the trade-union vote away from the rising Labour party, they must eventually collapse. He set out to earn it, forming a team with Lloyd George to draft and enact legislation on wages and hours, pensions and social insurance. In a speech at Glasgow in October, 1906, he outlined a program virtually adopting the Fabian idea of a welfare state and far ahead of anything intended by the Government of which he was a minor member. “We want to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labour,” he announced boldly and went on to propose the state as a “reserve employer” of labour, the establishment of minimum standards and state ownership of railways. Beatrice Webb was very gratified: “Winston has mastered the Webb scheme,” she noted in her diary, and having done that he could be classified as “brilliantly able.”
The most outright opportunist called forth to match the new times appeared in Tory ranks. He was F. E. Smith, a new M.P. aged thirty-three, who was one day to become Lord Chancellor under the name Lord Birkenhead. His maiden speech in 1906 was the most sensational parliamentary debut of his time. Like Asquith a barrister and self-made, he too had won a scholarship to Oxford, where, as a star of the Union, he learned every trick, gambit and lunge of debate. An adventurer without connections among the great territorial interests, he was prepared to fight his way up by intelligence, audacity, driving ambition and sheer gall. When he stood up to speak for the first time in the House of Commons amid the dispirited remnants of the Tory debacle, members saw “a young man, elaborately dressed, slim and clean-shaven with a long hatchet face, scornful eye and hair oiled and smooth.” Standing with his hands in his pockets and a look of contempt on his face, he began in a suave, self-assured voice a speech of “brilliant insolence and invective.” It was so biting in tone and practiced in delivery that listeners hardly noticed the lack of subject matter. The speech was a series of sneers, sarcasm and personal allusion tossed into Liberal laps like firecrackers. The Tories sat up, startled and delighted. When the speaker quoted a slightly twisted version of Lloyd George’s electioneering reference to Chinese slavery on the hills of Wales and Lloyd George interrupted from the Front Bench “I did not say that,” Smith was undaunted. “Anticipating a temporary lapse of memory,” he said smoothly, “I have in my hand the Manchester Guardian of January 16,” and after reading the quoted remark, added with thrilling insolence, “I would rather accept the word of its reporter than that of the right honorable gentleman.”
The whole performance was a triumph of calculated purpose. Smith saw that what was needed at that moment was attack to give heart to the defeated side. From then on he was a growing power. Lacking the keel of a considered philosophy of government, he traveled fast but without direction. His brains were as notable as Lansdowne’s manners; they went to his head, said Margot Asquith. Ideas and principles did not interest him but only the play of material forces, and he was supremely confident of his ability to manipulate them. A legend later went the rounds that when he was at Oxford he and Sir John Simon had tossed to decide which party each should join since no party could contain them both. While probably untrue, the fact that it was told and considered apt was indicative. After one of Churchill’s speeches addressed to the labour vote, Smith said publicly, “The Socialists had better not cheer the name of Mr. Churchill for he will most likely steal their clothes when they go bathing—if they do bathe, which I doubt.” It was a sneer of an unforgivable kind and one which meant a new kind of man was on his way up. Churchill’s retort, “Mr. Smith is invariably vulgar,” did not prevent them from becoming the best of friends.
Change of government re-established the terms of an old conflict. When the Liberals held the Commons, the Conservatives, if they felt really threatened, could fall back on the veto power of the House of Lords, as they had done in 1893 to block Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. Between the proponents of Change and the proponents of Things-as-they-are, between the policy of Reform and the policy of Hold-fast, another clash was bound to come, as Lord Salisbury had foreseen. Stating its essence he had said, “We have so to conduct our legislation that we shall give some satisfaction to both Classes and Masses. This is especially difficult with the Classes because all legislation is rather unwelcome to them as tending to disturb a state of things with which they are satisfied.” When the disturbance became too threatening the House of Lords would balk, not because they were lords but as the reserve defenders of Things-as-they-are. Repeated use of the veto to block the will of the Commons would precipitate a constitutional crisis. “As long as I am there,” Lord Salisbury had said, “nothing will happen; I understand my lords thoroughly. But when I go, mistakes will be made: the House of Lords will come in conflict with the Commons.”
Balfour made the first move even before Parliament met. In a speech at Nottingham on the night of his electoral defeat he said it was the duty of all Conservatives to ensure that their party “should still control, whether in power or in Opposition, the destinies of this great Empire.” Asquith afterward saw in this a claim to reassert the power of the Conservatives through the House of Lords. Whether it was or not, the event soon followed. In April, 1906, the Liberal Government introduced a new Education Bill of their own to cancel the objectionable features of the Act of 1902. It abolished state support of denominational schools. At this the High Church party reacted as furiously as the Nonconformists had done in 1902. The issue was at once recognized as the opening of battle between the two Houses of Parliament. “Possibly the ministers feel,” wrote Lord Esher, “that all their legislation will be nullified by the House of Lords and the sooner they have to stand up and fight the better.”
Balfour, following his uncle’s line of thought, feared that the Lords would let themselves be provoked into making mistakes. He at once suggested to Lord Lansdowne, Conservative leader of the upper House, that the Government’s strategy would be to send up bills with more extreme provisions than needed, trusting to the Lords to amend or reject them until they had built up a case against themselves. Then the Liberals would appeal to the country for a mandate to limit the Veto. Never before, he warned, had the Lords been called on to play a role “at once so important, so delicate or so difficult.”
The tone of debate in the Lords on the Education Bill showed no sign of caution and their temper was not improved when they received from the Commons a Plural Voting Bill designed to end the ancient usage whereby owners of land in more than one constituency had more than one vote. “Something will happen,” said Lloyd George almost visibly rubbing his hands. “There will be a great game of football on that field before long, I can assure you.” In December, fulfilling his anticipation and Lord Salisbury’s foreboding, the Lords threw out both the Education and the Plural Voting Bills. Significantly, however, they did not interfere with the equally, if not more, unpalatable Trades Disputes Bill, although the Liberals would have been only too pleased if they had. This bill, reversing the Taff Vale judgment, had been introduced in the Commons and passed against the real wish of the Government and over the objections of several ministers because of the pressure of Labour joined by the Radical members. “We could not resist the numbers pledged to it,” Haldane, the Liberal Minister of War, admitted. Cautiously steered by Lansdowne, the Lords let the bill pass because they did not wish to antagonize the working class and cement its alliance with the Liberals.
Making the most of the rejection of the other two bills, Asquith denounced the situation as “intolerable” and warned that a way must be found “by which the will of the people expressed through their elected representatives will be made to prevail.”
His challenge was explicit and the House of Lords was waking up. The home of England’s 544 hereditary peers, including twenty-two dukes, and of the bishops and law lords who sat with them was a high, dark oak-paneled chamber ninety feet long filled by two banks of red leather benches. Stained-glass windows held portraits of royalty since the Conquest. Walls and ceiling were thick with elaborately carved gothic molding and heraldic emblems. Between the windows, statues of the barons of Magna Carta, inadvertent founders of the parliamentary system, looked down a little grimly on what they had wrought. At one end of the chamber under a golden canopy were twin thrones for the King and Queen flanked by tall candelabra standing like guardsmen at attention. Below the throne the Lord Chancellor presided on the Woolsack, a square cushioned bench. Crossbenches in the aisle accommodated princes of the royal family and peers not affiliated with party. Sovereigns and judges in scenes from English history lent their shadowy presence in murals on the upper walls. The light was subdued, the general tone one of dignified somnolence.
Now the prospect of assault began to fill the benches usually sparsely dotted with forty or fifty peers. Lansdowne encouraged his followers to speak, paid attention when they did and supported their efforts with the gracious manner of the grand seigneur which characterized him. Lord Curzon adorned debate with speech “so infinitely superior to that of the ordinary peer that it is quite difficult to believe that he is ever in the wrong.” The Liberals’ new Lord Chancellor, Lord Loreburn, lent an invigorating presence and paid the House the compliment of always being wide awake when he was on the Woolsack. He was the former Sir Robert Reid, known as “Fighting Bob,” a Scot, a famous cricketer who had bowled for Oxford, a Radical strongly opposed to the Liberal Imperialists and a “fiery orator” in the Commons who now lectured the Opposition “in tones that almost made the sinner weep,” and advanced “the most contentious proposition with the most entrancing plausibility.” In the rhythm of Gibbon and the gallantry of Lord Tolloller bowing to Lord Mountararat in Iolanthe, Lord Curzon acknowledged Lord Loreburn as “courtesy personified, persuasiveness incarnate and dignity enthroned.”
On the crossbenches sulked the Liberals’ last Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, who had resigned the leadership and as an Imperialist and opponent of Home Rule had announced, when C.-B. became party leader, that “emphatically and explicitly and once and for all I cannot serve under that banner.” Acknowledged since Eton days for his brilliance, wit and charm, Rosebery, having won the Derby and married a Rothschild fortune, was too used to success to be an accommodator, and remained—in Morley’s phrase—“a dark horse in a loose box.” When he sulked he could turn “an eye like a fish” on his friends and wither them with biting sarcasm; when he charmed he encircled himself in adoration. His variability caused the public to lose trust in him and recalled to A. G. Gardiner the story of a rustic who, being asked if Wordsworth was not very fond of children, replied, “Happen he was but they wasna verra fond o’ him.”
During the years of crisis over Home Rule, Rosebery had been leader of the movement for reform of the House of Lords by some modification of the hereditary principle and had three times brought forward proposals toward that goal in the hope that self-reform would ward off attacks on the veto power. The reform movement was now revived with Lord Curzon as the leading spirit. Even Mr. Churchill, who liked to have a hand in everything, contributed his suggestion in an article for the Nation entitled “A Smooth Way With the Peers.” He proposed a system by which peers should be appointed for each session to reflect the same majority as in the House of Commons at the time, not however to exceed 250. This would exclude the “frivolous, lethargic, uninstructed or disreputable elements.” Most of the proposed reforms contemplated some system by which the peers would elect from among themselves those specially qualified by ability or services. But many preferred the simple principle which once had moved Lord Melbourne to say he liked the Garter “because there was no damn merit about it.” Balfour sympathized. He advised Lansdowne to “avoid the fatal admission that the ancient ground of hereditary qualification is insufficient to qualify for the upper House. If it is not sufficient qualification it is no qualification at all.… I think it a fact that the accident of birth is more easily defended on what some people call its naked absurdity than birth plus services.” The Government did nothing to encourage reform of the Lords because it did not want them reformed; it wanted an issue and an excuse to limit the Veto.
Faced with these exciting possibilities Lloyd George became quite impatient with his constituents’ single-minded attention to Welsh nationalism and tactlessly told them, “I will say this to my fellow countrymen. If they find the Government moving its artillery into position for making an attack on the Lords, Welshmen who worry the Government into attending to anything else until the citadel has been stormed ought to be pushed into the guardroom.” The military language was curious and the speech so much resented that its careless author had to hurry to Wales to declare with hand on heart, “Am I going to sell the land that I love? God knows how dear to me is my Wales!”
In June, 1907, Campbell-Bannerman told the Commons that the time had come to challenge the pretensions of the peers, supported as they were by Mr. Balfour, “at the winding of whose horn the portcullis of the House of Lords comes rapidly down.” Lloyd George’s choice of metaphor was equally picturesque. The House of Lords, he said, was not the watchdog of the Constitution but “Mr. Balfour’s poodle.” C.-B. moved a resolution stating that in order to give effect to the “will of the people, the power of the other House to alter or reject Bills passed by this House must be restricted by law” so that, within the lifetime of any one Parliament, the final decision of the Commons should prevail. The Labour party immediately offered an amendment proposing to abolish the House of Lords altogether. In introducing a resolution rather than a bill, the Government’s purpose was clearly propaganda rather than action and after the resolution was adopted—without the Labour amendment—nothing further was done.
That summer the Second Hague Conference assembled. In April of the following year, 1908, C.-B., expecting death, resigned and died within a month. Succeeding to the premiership Asquith remodeled the Cabinet more nearly in his own image. Four of a very able group of under-secretaries were promoted to Cabinet rank, among them Walter Runciman, son of a wealthy shipowner, Herbert Samuel, son of a Jewish banking family and like Asquith a First at Balliol, and Reginald McKenna, son of a London civil servant who had taken a superior degree in mathematics at Cambridge. His appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty in place of Lord Tweedmouth prompted Morley to recall that when he had proposed a certain name to Gladstone for that post in 1892, Gladstone with great solemnity and a wave of his hand said, “Well, for the Admiralty I think we require what is called a gentleman!” And “Here we are,” sighed Lord Esher, looking over the new Cabinet, “overwhelmed by the middle classes.”
The most important change in the Cabinet was Lloyd George’s promotion to fill Asquith’s place as Chancellor of the Exchequer while his own vacated place as President of the Board of Trade was filled by Winston Churchill, fourth of the under-secretaries to be promoted. Churchill’s career almost ended at this point when he had to fight a by-election at Manchester owing to a custom then in force which obliged an M.P. raised to Cabinet rank to have his seat confirmed by the electorate. In a hard contest, harassed by Suffragettes, Churchill lost, to the screaming delight of the Tory press. His defeat proved that the balance was already swinging back from the abnormal Liberal victory of 1906 and it made more urgent the Liberals’ need of the labour vote. At Dundee, where Churchill was immediately offered another seat, he insisted that only with the workers’ support could the Liberals have the strength to put their legislation through the House of Lords against the growing forces of Tory reaction. “With your support we shall overwhelm them.… Ah, but we must have that support.”
As it proved, none of the social legislation carried through by the energetic team of Lloyd George and Churchill was blocked by the House of Lords. A Coal Mines Act establishing the eight-hour day for miners, a Trade Boards Act establishing minimum wages for piecework in the sweated trades, a Workman’s Compensation Act establishing employers’ liability for industrial accidents and the Old Age Pensions Act were passed and the team began work on the National Insurance Bill for unemployment and health insurance which was to be the crown of the Liberals’ welfare legislation. None was obstructed by the House of Lords for the same reason that the Trade Disputes Act had not been. The oncoming conflict with the Commons, however, was not diverted.
All the challenges, resistances and emotions of the conflict were stuffed like gun-cotton into a new piece of legislation, the Licensing Bill. The darling object for twenty-five years of Liberal temperance reformers, mostly Nonconformists, who wished to reduce the drinking of the lower classes, the Bill was the Government’s election debt to the Nonconformist voters. It was designed to reduce the number of public houses by thirty thousand over fourteen years by canceling their licenses according to a fixed ratio of the population. Since the public houses were owned by the brewing and distilling companies, the Bill was strenuously opposed by the vested interests, not to mention the drinking public. Every property owner allied himself with the distillers; the Bill took on an aspect as sinister as Home Rule, as threatening as Socialism. Balfour declared it to be a direct attack on the rights of property and Conservatives responded to it much as the working class had responded to Chinese slavery. A special meeting of Conservative peers was called at Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square. The country peers, or “Backwoodsmen,” as they were known, who were never consulted on anything outside the affairs of their own counties, were summoned. Some had never spoken in the House, some had never even been inside it, and, mistaking Lansdowne House for the House of Lords itself, thought the Bill was being decided then and there. “Some of us … met each other fresh from the hunting field and were able to compare notes about the past season and discuss possible winners of the spring handicaps.” All agreed the Bill must be rejected, and “adjourned for a good lunch at the Carlton Club.”
In this case they had the country with them, as was shown in a by-election at Peckham fought on the Licensing issue. It turned what had been a Liberal majority of two thousand into a Conservative majority of the same amount. For the moment it was not popularity but the principle of the thing that concerned the Liberals. The high-handed disposal of the bill by caucus in Lansdowne House enraged them. In November, 1908, when the bill was formally rejected by the House of Lords, Churchill, “perfectly furious,” revealed in a private conversation that the Liberals’ answer had already been decided. “We shall send them up such a Budget in June,” he said, “as shall terrify them; they have started the class war and they had better be careful.” In fact the Licensing Bill had nothing to do with the class war, nor was it the class war alone, but the accumulating pressures of a new age which were the cause of Liberal discomfiture.
By 1909, the year of the great Budget battle, Liberalism had run into the realities of a world grown too difficult for the building of Jerusalem. The Liberal program was not winning the working class. On the contrary Labour and Liberals were drawing apart. Labour, impressed by the extent of its own power as revealed in the election of 1906, was becoming more aggressive; strikes had begun again as soon as the unions recovered their freedom of action by the Trades Disputes Act. Liberals of the employing class responded like employers. No pact operated now, and in two three-cornered by-elections in 1907 Labour won. The victory of Victor Grayson, a raving Socialist, in the West Riding of Yorkshire raised frightening prospects. A former theological student with a gift for oratory and a fondness for drink, he preached Socialism as the deliverance of the poor with a fervor that swept through the mill towns like fire. His wild antics in the House twice caused his suspension and attracted attention all over Europe. The Kaiser was reported to have proposed invading England with an Army corps or two, proclaiming that he had come not as an enemy but as Victoria’s grandson to deliver England “from the Socialist gang which is ruling the country.” In cooperation with King Edward he would dissolve Parliament and re-establish autocratic monarchy as a feudatory of Germany.
Englishmen were increasingly conscious of the threat of Germany. “The danger now is,” wrote Lord Esher to a friend in 1908, “that in Europe we have a competitor the most formidable in numbers, intellect and education with which we have ever been confronted.” The necessity of facing that danger was one more blow to the Liberal creed. Traditional pacifist Liberalism was violated when Asquith and his fellow Imperialists in the Cabinet, who controlled foreign policy, agreed to give Sir John Fisher four new Dreadnoughts. Conservatives, dissatisfied, shouted the slogan, “We want eight and we won’t wait.” Haldane’s Territorial Army was equally resented by the pacifists of his party, who claimed that it would cost too much and drain money from social reform. With the King’s strong support it was enacted over their objections. “We are certainly living in hard times,” mourned King Edward, “but yet I hope that peace may be maintained—but only because Europe is afraid to go to war.”
The topic of invasion occupied both the official and the public mind. The Committee of Imperial Defence appointed an Invasion Inquiry in 1908 and summoned the ex-Prime Minister to give his views on the evidence it had collected. Balfour spoke for an hour in a closely reasoned and “luminous” exposition, “quite perfect in form and language,” which according to Esher, a member of the committee, so “dumbfounded” Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Lloyd George that none of them could think of a single question to ask him. “The general opinion was that no finer exposition of this question has ever been made.”
The Committee’s conclusion that a successful invasion could not be mounted was not known to the public, which felt an awful fascination in the topic. Erskine Childers had raised it in an absorbing novel The Riddle of the Sands, in 1903 and William Le Queux more emphatically if less artistically in a novel called The Invasion of 1910 which ran as a serial in the Daily Mail in 1906 and was advertised through London by sandwich-men dressed in Prussian blue uniforms and spiked helmets. In 1909 Guy du Maurier’s playAn Englishman’s Home, which dramatized an invasion by the forces of “the Emperor of the North,” opened at Wyndham’s Theatre and played to packed houses for eighteen months. The idea of invasion became almost a psychosis. Living at Rye on England’s south coast Henry James felt “exposed,” as he nervously wrote a friend in 1909. He worried that “when [he did not say ’if] the German Emperor carries the next war into this country, my chimney pots, visible to a certain distance out at sea, may be his very first objective.”
The prospect of war negated everything that orthodox Liberalism stood for, yet the Government had to adapt to it. Meanwhile the sex war raged at home. The Suffragette movement, which Charles Masterman believed to be an “outlet for suppressed energy,” released a curious surge of sex hatred, a mutual “blaze of antagonism,” as H. G. Wells called it, which fitted the other strangely violent quarrels afflicting England in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Wells thought the main impulse of the Suffragettes—that swarm of “wildly exasperated human beings”—was “vindictive,” an outburst against man’s long arrogant assumption of superiority. Their open warfare followed almost immediately upon the advent of the Liberals, prompted by repeated postponements and refusal of the Government to introduce a bill of enfranchisement. Unable to obtain any satisfaction by legal means, the women resorted to tactics which were essentially “propaganda of the deed” and, like their prototype, anarchic in spirit. They turned up at every political meeting despite all doorkeepers’ precautions and drowned out the speakers by ringing bells and shrieking for the vote. They besieged the Houses of Parliament and offices of Whitehall, attacked ministers on their doorsteps, in one case knocking down Mr. Birrell, the Minister of Education, and kicking him in the shins, broke department-store windows with hammers, set fires in mail boxes, penetrated the House and stopped proceedings by chaining themselves to the grill of the Ladies Gallery and keeping up the incessant shout, “Votes for Women!”
In 1909 under the Liberal Government occurred the first forcible feeding of imprisoned Suffragettes, a peculiarly revolting process in which both the victims, who invited it by hunger strikes, and the officials who performed it, writhed like animals. It was accomplished by means of rubber tubes passed through the mouth, or sometimes the nostrils, to the stomach. While the prisoner was strapped in a chair and held down by guards or matrons, liquid food was forced down the tubes by stomach pumps. Outside in the streets Suffragettes marched with placards proclaiming, “Stop Forcible Feeding!” and one threw herself at the King’s feet in the midst of a court reception crying, “Your Majesty, won’t you please stop torturing women!” Inside the prisons the Suffragettes persisted in the hunger strikes which provoked the treatment. The irrational was gaining ground.
Put off again and again by Asquith’s promises to carry through Enfranchisement, which he made to secure quiet and never kept, the feminists in the years after 1909 slashed pictures in the National Gallery and set fires in cricket pavilions, race-course grandstands, resort hotels and even churches. They interrupted services in St. Paul’s and Westminster, forced petitions on the King at court, engaged in “painful and distressing” struggles with police, forcing their own arrest and imprisonment. They endured starvation and pain with mad fortitude, invited humiliation, brutality and finally, when Emily Davidson threw herself under the hoofs of the horses in the Derby of 1913, even death. Although these extremes were not reached until the period 1910–14, the practice and the spirit were already strong by 1909.
Men, otherwise decent citizens, reacted in the ugly spirit of a Saturday night drunkard beating his wife. When a meeting addressed by Lloyd George in the Albert Hall in December, 1908, was broken up by militants who, shouting “Deeds not words!” tore off their coats to reveal themselves dressed in prisoner’s gowns, the stewards, according to the Manchester Guardian, “went mad with fury and rushed upon the women, ejecting them with nauseating brutality, knocking them against seats, throwing them down steps, dragging them out by the hair.” In other instances of the kind they were deliberately struck in the breast. Possibly the fury was provoked by woman’s abandonment of feminine lures and her substitution of attack as a means of gaining her desires, which seemed to unsex her. It touched fundamentals. “These termagants, these unsexed viragoes, these bipeds!” thundered a Nonconformist minister, expressing more than all the editorials. The strange physical fury generated by the women’s struggle for the vote was the most unsettling phenomenon of the Liberal era.
By 1909 a gathering pessimism converged upon the Liberals and those allied with them. “A thousand sad and baffling riddles” had somehow replaced the simple verities of politics, wrote Masterman, now a member of the Government as Under-Secretary of the Home Office. In 1909 he published The Condition of England, a book of profound discouragement. He saw the world divided vertically “between nation and nation armed to the teeth” and horizontally between rich and poor. “The future of progress is still doubtful and precarious. Humanity at best appears as a shipwrecked crew which has taken refuge on a narrow ledge of rock beaten by wind and wave; we cannot tell how many, if any at all, will survive when the long night gives place to morning.”
Around him Masterman saw a complacent society reposing in an illusion of security but “of all the illusions of the opening of the Twentieth Century perhaps the most remarkable is that of security.” Instead of security he saw “gigantic and novel forces of mechanical invention, upheavals of people, social discontents … vast implements of destruction placed in the hands of a civilization imperfectly self-controlled” in which “material advance has transcended moral progress.”
James Bryce, another member of the Liberal Government as Chief Secretary for Ireland and since 1907 as Ambassador to Washington, found discouragement in the central theme of his life, the democratic process. In a series of lectures he delivered at Yale in 1909 on “Hindrances to Good Citizenship,” he admitted that the practice of democracy had not lived up to the theory. The numbers who could read and vote had increased twenty times in the last seventy years but “the percentage of those who reflect before they vote has not kept pace either with popular education or with the extension of the suffrage.” The “natural average man” was not exhibiting in public affairs the innate wisdom which democracy had presumed he possessed. He was more interested in betting at the races than in casting his vote. Old evils of class hatred, corruption, militarism, had recurred and new evils emerged. Although the world was undeniably better off than it had been, the faith of the Nineteenth Century in the ultimate wisdom of government of the people, by the people, had met “disappointment.” For the man who once described himself as “almost a professional optimist,” the Yale lectures were a painful confession.
The philosophers of Liberalism, looking around them, were making the equally painful discovery that laissez-faire, essence of the Liberal creed, had not worked. It had produced the evils of sweated labour, unemployment and destitution which Liberalism, unready for the wholehearted state intervention of the Fabian dream, could not cope with. In three years of office the Liberal Government, after coming to power in a new century with the greatest mandate in party history, had not been able to give shape to the great promise of 1906. By 1910 the number of men involved in strikes was the highest for any year since 1893. “We began slowly to lose what we had of the confidence” of working people, admitted Haldane, and “this gradually became apparent.” J. A. Hobson and L. T. Hobhouse, the economic and moral philosophers of social planning, had come to the conclusion that neither man nor society was operating properly. In The Crisis of Liberalism, published in 1909, Hobson wrote that if Liberalism could not transform its role into a more positive one, then “it is doomed to the same sort of impotence as has already befallen Liberalism in most continental countries.”
Hobhouse and a number of other investigators were concerned with man’s curious refusal to behave rationally in what seemed his own best interest. The low level on which the populace reacted politically, the appeal of the sensationalist press and the new phenomenon of mass interest in spectator sports were disturbing. Henri Bergson’s idea of man as moved by a force which he called élan vital had stimulated a new science of social psychology to probe the role of emotions and instinct as the basis of human conduct. One of the most influential of English studies of the mental processes at work in public affairs was Hobhouse’s Democracy and Reaction, published in 1904. An Oxford don whose deep interest in the labour movement led him to leave the University for the staff of the Manchester Guardian, Hobhouse found that the average man “has not the time to think and will not take the trouble to do so if he has the time.” His opinions faithfully reflect “the popular sheet and shouting newsboy.… To this new public of the streets and tramcars it is useless to appeal in terms of reason.”
This was the public which had shouted “Pigtail!” and the phenomenon of herd behavior suddenly was recognized as an entity. The Columbus of this discovery was a surgeon, Wilfred Trotter, who named the phenomenon, gave it status as a subject for scientific study and quietly concluded his first voyage in sociology with a sentence as pessimistic as any ever written. “A quiet man,” as a friend described him, with a wide variety of interests in philosophy, literature and science, Trotter, who was 36 in 1908, was to be judged thirty years later “the greatest surgeon of the present century in this country.” He had “the head and face of a scholar redeemed from austerity by a smile of great charm and sincerity.” In his two essays on “The Herd Instinct” in the Sociological Review in 1908 and 1909 he found man’s social behavior springing from that same dark and sinister well of the subconscious whose uncovering marked the end of the Victorian age. He saw the subconscious as a force lacking “all individuality, will and self-control.” It was “irrational, imitative, cowardly, cruel … and suggestible.” Because of man’s innate desire for group approval, he is at the mercy of this irrational force and vulnerable to the herd reaction. Unlike Kropotkin who in Mutual Aid assumed the herd instinct to be benevolent, Trotter considered it a factor for danger because its operation was unconscious and irrational. “It needs but little imagination to see,” he concluded, “how great are the probabilities that after all man will prove but one more of nature’s failures.”
The herd instinct occupied two other investigators in 1908, William McDougall in Social Psychology and Graham Wallas in Human Nature in Politics. Wallas’ life and thought were directed toward The Great Society, the title of a book he published in 1914. With Shaw and the Webbs he was the fourth of the Fabian junta until he resigned in 1904 in protest against its support of Tariff Reform. A member of the LCC, chairman of the London School Board, a founder of, and professor of political science at, the London School of Economics, Wallas in his own words was “a working thinker.” He was described by Wells as a “rather slovenly, slightly pedantic, noble-spirited man” in moustache and pince-nez whose lectures, though slow and fussy, were “penetrating and inspiring.” To another student, G. D. H. Cole, he was “the most inspiring lecturer I have ever heard.” In Human Nature in Politics he examined the evidence showing that man did not act according to rational assumptions. His hope was that the new methods of psychology and sociology would light the way toward more enlightened behavior in humanity’s self-interest.
Wallas did not want to accept the implications of Darwinism which seemed to condone and accept as inevitable the native aggressiveness of human nature and to condemn mankind to ruthless struggle as a condition of progress. Yet he foresaw that, unless the irrational was controlled, nations would engage in a series of inter-empire wars until only England and Germany or America and China remained, and then finally, after a “naval Armageddon in the Pacific, only one Empire will exist” and the inhabitants of the globe, reduced by half, would have to begin all over again. Already the process seemed to be on the way with “Germany and ourselves marching towards the horrors of world war” merely because, having made entities of Nation and Empire, “our sympathies are shut up within them.”
Lloyd George’s Budget of 1909 was the fuse, deliberately lit, of one of the great quarrels which made the Liberal era, in the words of a participant, “so unprecedentedly cantankerous and uncomfortable.” With Liberal prestige sinking, party leaders were aware that without a popular issue they might not win the next election. People were already beginning to calculate, Gardiner wrote, “when the election would come and by how much the Liberals would lose.”
As Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George had to provide £16,000,000 of additional revenue for 1909, one-third toward the eight Dreadnoughts to which the Government had agreed, and two-thirds for implementing the Old Age Pensions Act. He chose to obtain it by a tax-the-rich program which, while neither unsound nor confiscatory, was framed as provocatively as possible with intent to goad the Lords to reject it so as to create an issue of Peers vs. People. The Budget raised the income tax on a graduated scale from 9d. to 1s. 2d. in the pound with an extra supertax of 6d. on incomes over £5,000. (Already when the Liberals’ first budget had raised the income tax to 11d. in the pound, a daughter of the Duke of Rutland recalled, “We all thought Papa would die. He looked too ashen to recover.”) The new Budget raised death duties to a maximum of 10 per cent on estates of £200,000 or over, it added a tax on motors and petrol which at this date affected only the rich, and also on tobacco and alcohol of which the last was to prove a political mistake.
It was none of these measures but a tax of one-fifth the value on “unearned increment” of land when it was sold or passed by death, plus an annual tax of a halfpenny in the pound on undeveloped land and mineral rights, which aroused the whole of the landowning class in furious resentment, as it was intended to. The land clauses required registration and valuation of property, which to the landowner was no less than the bailiff’s foot in the door, the State’s trespass on a man’s private property. Lloyd George pressed it home in public mockery and appeals to the populace as blatant as when Mark Antony wept over Caesar’s wounds. Personifying the enemy as “the Dukes,” he told a working-class audience of four thousand at Limehouse in London’s East End, “A fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts … is just as great a terror and lasts longer.” When the Government wanted money to pay for the Dreadnoughts, he went on, “we sent the hat around among the workmen. They all brought in their coppers.” Yet when “the P.M. and I knock at the doors of Belgravia” and “ask the great landlords to give something to keep the aging miners out of the workhouse, they say, ‘Only a ha’penny, just a copper’ and they turn their dogs on us and every day you can hear them bark.… It is rather hard that an old workman should have to find his way to the gates of the tomb bleeding and footsore through the brambles and thorns of poverty. We cut a new path for him, an easier one, a pleasanter one, through fields of waving corn.”
For a minister of the Crown it was a performance that no one but Lloyd George could have given without blushing. If the Prime Minister was embarrassed by it he gave no sign, a point which disturbed King Edward, who let it be known that he “cannot understand how Asquith can tacitly allow” speeches that would “not have been tolerated by any Prime Minister until the last few years.”
Furor exploded over the Budget exactly as its authors wished. Conservative leaders roared in protest. Lord Lansdowne called Lloyd George a “robber gull.” Mr. Chaplin denounced the Budget as the first step in a Socialist war against property, the Law Society declared a land tax unjust and unworkable, a meeting of City men headed by Lord Rothschild protested the valuation of property by “irresponsible tribunals” such as those which had “cost one Stuart his head and another his throne.” The Duke of Norfolk announced he would have to sell a Holbein which he had lent to the National Gallery, the Earl of Onslow put up for sale parts of his Surrey estate, and Kipling in a hysterical poem, “The City of Brass,” portrayed England riddled by hatemongers and crushed by tributes levied “on all who have toiled or striven or gathered possession,” until without a defender “it passed from the roll of the Nations in headlong surrender!” No less a Cassandra, Lord Rosebery said the measure was “not a Budget but a revolution.” Underlying it was the “deep, subtle, insidious danger of Socialism” and Socialism was the “end of everything … of faith, of family, of property, of monarchy, of Empire.” His speech, addressed to a meeting of businessmen in Glasgow, was read next morning “with the greatest joy at every country house party in England, Scotland and Wales.”
A new Labour M.P., Philip Snowden, himself one day to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, said it was necessary to make the rich poorer in order to make the poor richer and the Budget was the beginning of democratic government. Balfour retorted that “you cannot abolish poverty by abolishing riches” and “let them not associate democracy with robbery.” The Duke of Rutland, close to apoplexy, proposed that all Labour M.P.’s should be gagged. As rage mounted, the King was forced to confess that the “foolish andmean speeches and sayings” of landowners and capitalists were causing immense harm.
Everyone including the common people was aware that the Veto, not the Budget, was the stake. When Minoru won the Derby that summer one man among the cheering crowd shouted, “Now King, you have won the Derby—go home and dissolve the bloody Parliament!” Churchill speaking at Leicester in September welcomed the struggle as likely to “smash” the Veto if the Lords rejected a Finance Bill. Balfour stripped the issue down to the land valuation clauses, which as “compulsory registration” were, he claimed, illegal in a finance bill; “How dare you describe it as a Finance Bill?” In fact, as Lord Salisbury had once pointed out over an earlier budget, there was no constitutional bar to the Lords throwing out a Finance Bill—only a practical one: they could not throw out the Government of the day along with it. To reject a budget and leave the Government in power would amount to deadlock. The Government’s recourse, if driven, would be to advise the King to create enough peers to provide a Liberal majority in the House of Lords, as many as five hundred if necessary, a deluge that would drown the hereditary peerage. Nevertheless the mood of the Conservatives was against compromise. Act boldly, said Lord Milner, and “Damn the consequences.” This, with Balfour’s concurrence and under his guidance, was the decision.
“The whole political world is convulsed with excitement,” wrote Beatrice Webb in her diary, as to whether or not the Lords would throw out the Budget. Debate opened in the House of Lords on November 22 and lasted for ten days. Peeresses and visitors, including the King of Portugal, packed the galleries, aged peers came down from the country who “could not even find their way to the Houses of Parliament”; altogether four hundred members took their seats, the largest number to assemble since the rejection of Home Rule. Noble members, from the ancient ex-Lord Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, to young Lord Willoughby de Broke, spokesman of the country group, proclaimed their duty to the country to reject the Bill. As a Liberal, Lord Ribblesdale admitted his distaste for Lloyd George as “half pantaloon, half highwayman,” but he did not see anything really socialistic about the Budget, nor did he think the country would be seriously affected by “the sobs of the well-to-do.” If it came to a division he would vote with the Government.
Lord Rosebery, after all his horrors, advised passing the Budget rather than risk “the very existence of a Second Chamber.” The climax was Lord Curzon’s speech, which one deeply moved peer said was the finest ever heard in the House in forty years. The Government, Curzon said, proposed to introduce any measure it liked and, provided it could be covered with the label of a Finance Bill, force the Lords to pass it—“a revolutionary and intolerable claim” amounting to Single Chamber government. Despite the consequences, he advised rejection in the hope of bringing about a reformed House of Lords acting as an “essential feature” of the Constitution and not “a mere phantom rendered equally impotent and ridiculous.”
The division was called on December 1, 1909, the Lords filed solemnly into the lobbies, the vote to reject was 350–75. Next day amid loud enthusiasm in the Commons, the Prime Minister, declaring a breach of the Constitution had taken place, announced the Government would appeal to the country and called for a dissolution. Customarily recumbent on the Opposition Front Bench, Mr. Balfour, who had a cold, coughed, tapped his chest, took a pill and sniffed a restorative.
While preparing for the new election, Asquith’s Government drew up a Parliament Bill for abolition of the Lords’ Veto which they expected to introduce upon being returned to office. It provided that on bills certified by the Speaker as Finance Bills the Veto should be abolished and that other bills, if passed by three successive sessions of the Commons, should become law with or without the consent of the Lords. Talk flew around London about creation of peers; everyone from poets to tea merchants, “even Hilaire Belloc,” as Wilfrid Blunt noted maliciously, saw visions of the coronet descending upon his own head. Asquith meanwhile dropped hints of guarantees already secured from the King which were without foundation.
In the period of campaigning before the election in January, 1910, it became clear that Lloyd George, for all his oratorical forays against the Dukes, had failed. The public could not get excited about the peers; Haldane confessed that 40 per cent of the electorate were doubtful and 20 per cent “highly detached,” in short, returning to normal. To Alfred Austin, vacationing in the south of France, the election was deadly serious. Since his district was safely Conservative, he felt exonerated from the need to go home to cast his vote, “but I had the results telegraphed to me, every day, from the Carlton Club.” At home, wrote Beatrice Webb, “we are all awaiting breathlessly the issue of the great battle.” The issue proved unfortunate for all. The Liberals were returned but with a majority so reduced as to put them back in the grip of the Irish. Labour, crippled by the Osborne judgment of 1908 which declared the use of union funds for political purposes illegal, lost ten seats. The Conservatives gained 105 seats, enough to have been a victory but for the low point from which they started. Both sides were caught in a trap. To put the Budget through now, the Liberals needed the Irish votes and the Irish disliked the Budget because of the tax on whiskey. The price of their support was Asquith’s promise to carry through abolition of the Lords’ Veto in order to clear the way for Home Rule. During four years in office the Liberals had not once introduced a Home Rule Bill, but this now became, as Speaker Lowther said, “the crux which dominated the whole situation.” No longer hopeless suppliants, the Irish appeared “sinister and powerful” and the connection between the two issues was made “direct, obvious and unmistakable.” Whether they liked it or not the Government was now committed to carry the battle to its ultimate conclusion—a creation of peers or at least the King’s promise to create them. Events from this point on rose to a pitch of bitterness unsurpassed since the Reform Bill.
Asquith formally introduced the Parliament Bill in February, 1910, with the announcement that if the Lords failed to pass it he would advise the Crown to take the necessary steps. Then ensued a turmoil of negotiations and intrigue, of pressures on and advices to the King, of inter- and intra-party bargaining behind the scenes, of visits and consultations in country houses, of conferences with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Almost unnoticed, the Budget, cause of it all, was passed, as Lansdowne had promised if the Liberals won the election. But the Budget by now was forgotten, replaced as an issue by the Parliament Bill dragging along behind it its ridiculous shadow of five hundred artificial peers. Though it absorbed for months the efforts, passions and utmost political skills of Crown, Ministers and Opposition, it was a spurious issue. No basic question of human rights and justice was involved as in the Dreyfus Affair. The Liberals insisted that the issue was the power of the Lords to frustrate the will of the Commons, yet, in fact, as Herbert Samuel admitted, “It is true they let through almost all our social legislation” except for the Education and Licensing Bills, one of which had been a composite of compromises satisfactory to no one and the other hardly a question on which to shatter the British constitution. What drove the Liberals forward in the full rage of attack was the need to vindicate themselves for their failing program and for selling their honor to the Irish. They felt justified because their view of the House of Lords, as expressed by Masterman, was that of an institution which would only “allow changes it profoundly dislikes when compelled by fear.… It can do little but modify, check or destroy other men’s handiwork. It has no single constructive suggestion of its own to offer to a people confronting difficult problems.”
What impelled the Conservatives in their equal rage of resistance was a determination to preserve the last rampart of privilege. To lose the Veto or to lose the Conservative majority in the House of Lords meant to lose their last check upon the advance of the besieging classes. They looked on the attainment of power by the Populace, wrote Masterman, who saw their point of view too, as the Deluge. “They see our civilization as a little patch of redeemed land in the wilderness; preserved as by a miracle from one decade to another” and the rise of the Populace as the rush of a crowd upon a tranquil garden, “tearing up the flowers by the roots … strewing the pleasant landscape with torn paper and broken bottles.” Their resistance, however, was weakened by a split in their ranks. As leader of the party, Balfour held to a policy of warding off at all costs a creation of peers large enough to saddle the House of Lords with a permanent Liberal majority. This in his mind was “revolution.” Loss of the Veto, that is, acceptance of the Parliament Bill, he considered a lesser evil. Opposed to this view a group of “Diehard” peers was beginning to form, taking its name from a famous regiment. Its symbol and champion was that “antique bantam of a fighting breed,” Lord Halsbury, and its active organizer was Lord Willoughby de Broke, nineteenth baron of his line, one of the eighteen members of the House of Lords whose title was created before 1500. Before succeeding to it he had served in the House of Commons, and besides political flair, possessed “unbounded energy and a marked talent for forcible and humorous oratory.” At forty-two he was a personality of ingenuous charm whose father’s dying wish was that his son should do everything he could “to prevent motor cars being used for any purpose connected with hunting,” and whose great-grandfather “had never tired of voting against the Reform Bill and died many a silent death in the last ditch, or in the last lobby, in defense of the existing order.” Willoughby de Broke looked on industrialism and democracy as forces which had “reacted hideously on the nation at large,” talked in hunting and racing metaphor and dashed about like a foxhound to rally the Backwoodsmen. In a circular letter addressed to them, Lord Halsbury urged each peer “to take your stand on your Constitutional hereditary right and stoutly resist any tampering with it.”
In the midst of tense maneuvering around the throne, King Edward suddenly and unexpectedly died. Extreme Tories claimed the wickedness of the Government had caused his death and regarded the Liberals as regicides. There was a general sense as of an anchor slipping away and of a recognized order of things gone. People somehow felt that the familiar royal bulk had stood between England and change, between England and outside menaces. A song sung by the charwoman in Pelissier’s Follies of 1909 was widely popular:
There’ll be no wo’ar
As long as there’s a King like good King Edward
There’ll be no wo’ar
For ’e ’ates that sort of thing!
Mothers needn’t worry
As long as we’ve a King like good King Edward.
Peace with ’Onner
Is his Motter
So God Sive the King!
When he died people expected times would now get worse. “I always felt,” said one Edwardian, “that he kept things together somehow.”
In verse for the occasion the Poet Laureate urged Englishmen to cease their “fateful feuds” and “fractious clamors” and declare “a truce of God.” In an effort to spare the new King a crisis at the moment of his ascending the throne, the parties agreed to try to reach a settlement in a Constitutional Conference attended by four leaders from each side including Asquith and Lloyd George, Balfour and Lansdowne. Through twenty-one meetings during the summer and fall of 1910 they discussed and bargained, tried out the idea of a popular referendum and came close to an agreement only to founder finally over Home Rule. The Conference at least demonstrated that the Parliament Bill itself was something less than a fundamental issue, but statesmen would not or could not disengage themselves from the combat. Lloyd George, who was nothing if not a realist, tried. Principles being now thoroughly muddied, he approached Balfour with a proposal for a Coalition which, being free of the pressures of party extremists on both sides, might solve both the Veto and the Irish questions. He did not really want creation of peers any more than Balfour, he admitted amiably, because “looking into the future, I know that our glorified grocers will be more hostile to social reform than your Backwoodsmen.” Since it is believed that Lloyd George made his first overture to Balfour without informing Asquith, it is possible he also had in mind ditching the Prime Minister as he was ultimately to do six years later. When Asquith was informed of the proposal he neither joined nor enjoined it but remained in the background, faithful to his motto, “Wait and see.”
Believing that the British system of government depended on the check and balance of two parties and that a Coalition was warranted only in case of national emergency, such as war, Balfour refused. He did not really believe the Liberals could force the King to give them the necessary promise and in any case he considered there was less “real public mischief” in the Parliament Bill than in the creation of peers. Further he believed that if sufficient Conservative peers abstained from voting, the number of new peers created could be kept to a minimum short of the “revolution” of a permanent Liberal majority.
When Conference and Coalition both had failed, a General Election once more was called, in December, 1910, the second within a year. With public apathy unshaken, the results, except for a Liberal loss of two seats, were identical with those of the previous election. The country, as Wilfrid Blunt wrote, “cares too little about abolishing the House of Lords to make a revolution for it.”
By judicious bullying before the election, Asquith had succeeded in obtaining the fateful promise of creation of peers from King George, who was confused by the conflicting advice and devious maneuvers of his advisers. The horrid prospect of England’s hereditary peerage submerged by a “battalion of emergency noblemen,” all Liberals, pleased no one and the prospect of the world’s laughter and ridicule even less. Nevertheless the Government went ahead partly because it was impossible to stop and partly because they believed that when it came to a test the Lords would prefer to lose their Veto than to be doubled by the middle class. At some undated stage in the proceedings Asquith drew up, or caused to be drawn up, a list of some 250 names for wholesale ennobling which, though it included Sir Thomas Lipton, did not altogether deserve Lloyd George’s sneer about glorified grocers. On the list along with Lipton were Asquith’s brother-in-law, H. J. Tennant, as well as his devoted admirer and future biographer, J. A. Spender; also Sir Edgar Speyer, Bertrand Russell, General Baden-Powell, General Sir Ian Hamilton, the jurist Sir Frederick Pollock, the historians Sir George Trevelyan and G. P. Gooch, the South African millionaire Sir Abe Bailey, Gilbert Murray, J. M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, and Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda.
In February, 1911, the Parliament Bill was reintroduced in the Commons to the accompaniment of “a great roar of cheering which had in it not only a note of triumph but of resolution, determination.” “We are in grim earnest,” wrote Herbert Samuel, “and if the Lords reject the Bill, “nothing could suit us better.” Passed by the Commons in May, the Bill was duly sent for consideration to “another place.”
In June began the great transport strike which opened a new period of deep industrial warfare. It marked the change from individual “trades disputes” to action according to the Syndicalist pattern in which workers struck not against a particular employer but against a whole industry. Unskilled labour had become disgusted with the political methods which won them no wage increases and revolted against the leadership of the Labour party, which once inside Westminster had become absorbed in the parliamentary game, with MacDonald gradually displacing Keir Hardie. Mass labor wanted hard gains in more pay and recognition of its unions by employers. It was clamoring for direct action and growing increasingly aggressive. Assaults on mine-owners’ property had marked the strike of thirty thousand coal-miners in the Rhondda Valley of Wales a few months previously. Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, leaders of the first great dockers’ strike, in 1889, were now preaching the doctrine of Syndicalism derived from Sorel and the French CGT, which combined belief in revolution with trade unionism and rejected political action in favor of the final weapon of the general strike. Mann and Tillett succeeded in organizing thirty-six unions of seamen, firemen, cooks and stewards, dockers and teamsters into a National Transport Workers’ Federation. When shipowners refused to negotiate with it, the strike was called in June. It was to last seventy-two days and involve 77,000 men. As it spread from London to Liverpool, Hull, Cardiff, Bristol and Southampton, all traffic stopped in nearly every port and riots, looting and arson followed in its wake. “It is revolution!” exclaimed an excited employer to a Board of Trade official. “The men have new leaders, unknown before; and we don’t know how to deal with them.”
At this juncture, on July 1, the German gunboat Panther arrived at Agadir in Morocco, precipitating an international crisis which teetered for several weeks on the imminent brink of war. In August, in the midst of the crisis, four railway unions joined the seamen’s and dockers’ strike, threatening a total stoppage of all transport. The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, supplied military convoys to keep essential trains running and sent troops to strike centers. There were inevitable clashes; soldiers in Liverpool opened fire, killing two strikers and wounding two hundred. For appealing to the soldiers not to shoot at British workers even if ordered, Tom Mann was imprisoned on a charge of inciting the troops to mutiny. Although the strike was settled on emergency terms, owing to the foreign crisis, others of equal intensity followed during the next three years. After the gunfire at Liverpool, trade-union votes turned increasingly toward their own representatives, ending the alliance with Liberalism. In the clang of the realities of class war, Churchill’s earnest plea to labour in 1908, “Ah, but we must have that support!” echoed now with the faint ironic note of a faraway horn. Dividing from labour, Liberalism’s road to the political wilderness was open.
Against this background, Coronation Summer, the hottest in a generation, bloomed in the golden fullness of an open rose. There were dinner parties and extravagant receptions every night, garden parties every afternoon, country house parties every weekend, glitter and picnics and fancy dress balls. Even the heat was “splendid—such a summer as comes seldom in England.” The Henley Regatta was held in ideal weather and clear days were on hand for every rite of the season, polo at Ranelagh, the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lords, the Gold Cup at Ascot. Neither the prospect of war, a general transport strike nor even creation of peers could subdue the high spirits of the festivities. Newspapers used the language of crisis and indignant noblemen growled at “nothing short of revolution” but a guest came to a masquerade ball at Claridge’s flippantly wearing a peer’s mantle and coronet with “No. 499” pasted on it. Lady Curzon was crowned Queen of Beauty at a Tournament of Knights organized by Mrs. Cornwallis-West, Churchill’s mother, with tickets at £20 apiece. The Russian Ballet made its London debut at Covent Garden, Pavlova and Nijinsky danced at private parties, including one in a garden under a blue sky at Strawberry Hill, once the home and gothic extravaganza of Horace Walpole. Its new owner, Lady Michelham, owned nineteen yards of pearls and gave a dinner for sixty guests after the dance in the garden, at which the entrées were served in the form of lighthouses, lit up inside and surrounded by ortolans representing sea gulls with a surf of white sauce breaking over them. At a house party at Blenheim, the Duke, his cousin Winston, Neil Primrose, son of Lord Rosebery, and F. E. Smith played cards till dawn in a tent by candlelight on upturned barrels. “What shall we play for, F. E.?” asked Marlborough. “Your bloody palace, if you like,” Smith answered, although what he staked himself is not recorded.
Yet it was not the same, not the England of Jubilee year. The strikes were a reminder of the rising pressure of the working class, as Agadir was a reminder of the pressure of Germany. The assurance of a time characterized in English memory long afterward in terms of “the golden sovereigns, the sense of honor, the huge red blocks on the map,” was gone. The gaiety was “feverish,” the fancy dress ball of the season was given by F. E. Smith, not by the Duchess of Devonshire (the Duke had died in 1908), and in London the last horse-drawn bus had disappeared from the streets; motor-taxis, of which there had been none at the turn of the century, now outnumbered horsecabs 6,300 to 5,000.
The upper class still found life and each other immensely agreeable. At a party given by Mrs. Hwfa Williams and entertained by the wit of the Marquis de Soveral, the conversation was so generally enjoyed that the guests who had come to lunch stayed until one o’clock in the morning. It may have been enjoyment or they may have stayed from boredom, the boredom of having nothing else to do. The laughter, the fun, the practical jokes, the undeniable high spirits of privileged life of the time were the other face of ennui. The endless talk “at luncheon, tea and dinner, at dances and gatherings far into the night,” Masterman believed, was the talk “of a society desirous of being interested, more often finding itself bored, filled with a resolute conviction that it must ‘play the game,’ and that this is the game to be played.” They were “an aggregation of clever, agreeable, often lovable people … trying with desperate seriousness to make something of a life spared the effort of wage-earning.” Writing in 1909 he did not call it the boredom of peace, yet when he wrote of “the present Roman peace which has come upon the western races of Europe,” it was almost with a reluctant sigh.
During the first week of July the House of Lords amended the Parliament Bill so as to cancel abolition of the Veto and to except Home Rule from legislation which could become law without their consent. On July 18 Asquith officially informed Balfour by letter that he was in possession of the King’s promise to create peers, that the amendments were unacceptable and that he proposed to make a statement to the Commons that unless the Lords passed the bill in its original form he would ask the Crown to take appropriate measures. The Diehards flung themselves furiously into organizing resistance like settlers preparing a stockade against the Indians. “Let them make their peers,” declared Lord Curzon at a Diehard meeting, “we will die in the last ditch before we will give in!” To those who did not sympathize they were known as “Ditchers” thereafter. Among them were the new Marquess of Salisbury, his brother-in-law the Earl of Selborne, and, in the Commons, his younger brother Lord Hugh Cecil, Austen Chamberlain, George Wyndham and the two adventurers, Sir Edward Carson and F. E. Smith. During that hot July, Lord Willoughby de Broke worked feverishly canvassing all the peers, arranging meetings and obtaining speakers. On July 12, fifty-three peers including five dukes signed a letter to Lord Lansdowne stating that unless the amendments were retained they would vote to reject the Parliament Bill at its final reading “even though the consequence be the creation of peers.”
Balfour and Lansdowne, whom the King begged not to force him to the loathsome expedient, summoned a Shadow Cabinet of the Opposition of which a majority, though not all, were willing to follow their recommendation to surrender, that is, to let the Parliament Bill pass without a division, since to die in the last ditch, while upholding principle, would not prevent abolition of the Veto. Unless the Government were bluffing, the result would only be creation of peers and loss of the Veto. But the Ditchers were adamant. To call for a division, said Lord Halsbury, was his “solemn duty to God and country.” Assuming that the “Hedgers,” as the followers of Balfour and Lansdowne were now called, abstained, the Ditchers needed enough votes to outnumber the seventy-five Liberal peers. Willoughby de Broke believed he had sixty and hoped for eighty.
Once more a meeting was called at Lansdowne House in an effort to arrive at a concerted policy between Hedgers and Ditchers. Curzon had now come around to Balfour’s view but old Lord Halsbury grimly maintained he “would divide, even if alone, rather than surrender.” Balfour was urged to call another meeting of the Shadow Cabinet but he was becoming irritated and impatient with the “theatrical” attitude of the Die-hards, especially of the commoners such as Smith and Chamberlain. The most he would do was to write a public letter to The Times addressed to a “perplexed peer” advising the necessity of passing the Bill. The Ditchers replied that the Bill would establish Single Chamber government and they could not absolve themselves from responsibility “for a contemplated revolution merely by abstention.” As the climax of their campaign they organized a great banquet in honor of Lord Halsbury for which the demand for tickets exceeded the capacity of the hall. Amid gladiatorial speeches and toasts Lord Halsbury, appearing “very unwell, anxious and tired,” expressed the determination of his group to fight to the end and received a tremendous ovation. Lord Milner, whose “Damn the consequences” might be said to have started the train of events, was a logical addition to the company. Among other speakers Austen Chamberlain denounced Asquith as having “tricked the Opposition, entrapped the Crown and deceived the people.”
On July 24, the day when the Prime Minister was scheduled to make his announcement to the Commons, the Ditchers’ supporters in that House, led by Lord Hugh Cecil and F. E. Smith, organized a protest which culminated in the “most violent scene in the Commons within living memory.” All the anger and frustration of a class on the defensive exploded in a demonstration of hatred and hysteria. Smith entered it from love of attack, Lord Hugh from passionate sincerity. In him all the Cecils’ hatred of change was concentrated without the cooling Cecil skepticism so notable in his cousin Arthur. All his convictions were white hot. He saw doom in modern materialist society, in the turning away from Church and land and in democracy’s turning away from “natural” leaders. Tall and stooped like his father as a young man, with a somber, narrow face, he had his father’s habit of twisting and turning his long hands and looked and behaved like Savonarola. Churchill, at whose wedding in 1908 he had been best man, wrote that in Cecil “I met for the first time a real Tory, a being out of the Seventeenth Century.” In private conversation he was “so quick, witty and unexpected that it was a delight to hear him,” and in the House he held members “riveted in pin-drop silence for more than an hour” with a discourse on the difference between Erastians and High Churchmen. Considered by Asquith “the best speaker in the House of Commons and indeed anywhere,” he was in gift of speech as in opinions an English Albert de Mun.
Once when Gladstone visited Hatfield, Hugh, then a small boy, burst into his bedroom and hit him with his fists, crying, “You’re a bad man!”
“How can I be a bad man when I am your father’s friend?” asked Gladstone, who had not dominated a thousand debates for nothing. But this opponent was not to be sidetracked into debate; he dealt in finalities. “My father is going to cut off your head with a great big sword” was his answer.
The sword was now drawn against Mr. Asquith. At three in the afternoon, in a House already buzzing with excitement, with every seat taken and members standing in the gangway, clustered in dense groups like bees, and galleries packed with onlookers, the Prime Minister entered, looking flushed and a little nervous. Liberals rose to their feet waving their order papers and cheered for three minutes, drawing “fierce ejaculations” from the Opposition, who cheered in their turn when Balfour came in. As Asquith rose to speak he was interrupted before he could pronounce an audible sentence by shouts of “Traitor!” and “Redmond!” in reference to the Irish sword hanging over his head, followed by a low steady murmur of “Divide!… ’vide!… ’vide!” * which began, grew, died away, and each time Asquith opened his mouth, began again. Standing on the Opposition front bench below the gangway, his eyes blazing, his bony ungainly body swaying to the rhythm of his cries, his face ashen and contorted by “tremendous passion,” Hugh Cecil faced him, possessed by a fanaticism which allowed him to believe that any tactic, however discreditable, was justified for the sake of the cause. Asquith looked at his screaming foes with scorn and wonder, his eyes coming to rest on Cecil with the fascinated gaze of someone held by the pacing of a caged tiger. In the galleries excited ladies stood on their chairs. Sir Edward Grey, with a grim face, moved over next to Asquith as if to protect him. Balfour, lounging opposite, watched his own followers with a look of amazed disgust. Several times Asquith tried to read his statement but nothing he said could be heard over the shouts of “ ’vide! ’vide!” “Who killed the King?” and “Dictator!” What few words he managed to make heard only enraged his opponents and evoked more howls. Despite every effort of the Speaker the demonstrators refused to subside. For three-quarters of an hour Asquith stood his ground until finally “white with anger” he folded up his speech and sat down.
When Balfour rose to speak the Liberals did not retaliate, but when F. E. Smith, who was believed to be the instigator, stood up he was met by pandemonium. To have exaggerated the intensity of passion in the House that afternoon, wrote The Timescorrespondent, would have been impossible. Again the Speaker was helpless, and finally after the session had lasted two hours and amid continued shouts and an isolated cry from the Labour benches, “Three cheers for the Social Revolution!” he adjourned the House as a “disorderly assembly,” for the first time in its history.
The brawling and abuse of the “Cecil scene,” as it came to be known, astonished everyone. No Prime Minister had ever before been so disrespectfully treated. The press overflowed with indignant comment and letters pro and con. Many felt that the scene had been directed as much against Balfour’s leadership as against Asquith. Blunt recorded that F. E. Smith, George Wyndham and Bendor (the Duke of Westminster) were “in the highest possible spirits at the commotion they have caused and consider they have forced Balfour’s hand.”
Publication next day of Asquith’s unheard statement marked the point of no recall and the Conservative leaders had to face the possibility that the insurgents would actually bring about the “revolution” that Balfour most wished to avoid—creation of a permanent Liberal majority in the Lords. If the Diehards could muster more than seventy-five, creation of peers must follow—unless the Government was bluffing. Was it bluffing? Many still believed so; no one could be sure. Nor did anyone know how many peers would actually vote with the Diehards. In this crucial situation Lansdowne and the Hedgers had to undertake the terrible necessity of finding a number of Conservative peers who would sacrific principle if not honor to vote with the Government for the bill they detested. It was the only way to prevent a possible Diehard majority. How many would be needed for the sacrifice and how many would have the courage at the last moment to perform it was another of the painful uncertainties of the situation.
On August 10, the day for drinking the hemlock, the temperature reached a record of a hundred degrees and tension at Westminster was even higher, for, unlike previous political crises, the outcome was in suspense. By 4:00 P.M. the House of Lords had filled to the last seat with the greatest attendance ever known, with visitors’ galleries jammed and peers standing in passages and doorways. They wore morning coats with wing collars, ascots, spats and light waistcoats and after the dinner recess many appeared in white tie and tails. The Diehards wore white sprigs of heather sent by the Duchess of Somerset, while many of the Hedgers wore red roses. As Halsbury marched to his seat with the air of a knight entering the lists he seemed to an observer to be accompanied by an almost audible sound of jingling spurs. In a shrill appeal to conscience he demanded defeat of the Bill. Lord Curzon spoke for the majority and afterward sat “pale and angry” while Lord Selborne sprang to the table and “in strident tones with dramatic gestures” fiercely renewed the intention to die in the last ditch. New suspense was injected by the speech of the Liberal leader, Lord Crewe, whose reference to the King’s “natural reluctance” and whose own unhappy conclusion, “The whole business, I frankly admit, is odious to me,” reinvigorated a belief that the Government was bluffing. Anxious counts and recounts took place. Of six peers who sat at the same table during the dinner recess, two of whom, Lord Cadogan and Lord Middleton, were former Conservative Cabinet members, not one had made up his mind how to vote. When, on reassembling, one of the “sacrificial” peers, Lord Camperdown, announced his intention to vote with the Government, the Duke of Norfolk, enraged, replied that if any Conservative peer voted for the Bill, he and his group would vote with the Diehards. Lord Morley, whose peerage was barely three years old, nevertheless felt “deeply moved” when obliged to make explicit the Government’s intention to follow defeat of the Bill by “a large and prompt creation of peers.” Upon request he repeated the statement. A pall settled on the chamber. The Archbishop of Canterbury urged members not to provoke an act that would make their House and indeed the country a “laughing stock.” Lord Rosebery, whose vacillations had confused everyone but who had been expected to abstain, suddenly jumped up from the crossbenches and announced, in “this last, shortest and perhaps most painful speech of my life,” that he would vote with the Government. Since, whatever the outcome, “the House of Lords, as we have known it, disappears,” he said he intended never to enter its doors again, and he never did.
At 10:40 P.M. amid “intense excitement” the division was called. Abstaining peers who could find room squeezed onto the steps of the throne where they could remain without voting while the rest of the abstainers led by Lord Lansdowne left the chamber. The two groups, as they gathered to file out in two streams into the lobbies on either side of the chamber, appeared to the tense watchers in the galleries about equal in number. Counting was done by tellers with white wands who tapped the shoulder of each peer as he returned from the division lobby. Slowly the streams reappeared while from the open doors the tellers could be heard counting aloud, “one, two, three, four.…” For a quarter of an hour which seemed like a full hour the process continued. During an accidental pause in the Government stream, the undaunted Lord Halsbury was heard to whisper, “There! I knew we should beat them!” Lord Morley waited anxiously for the sight of the bishops’ lawn sleeves, feeling certain that they would vote with the Government. The procession came to an end. The tellers brought their count to the Chief Whip, Lord Herschell, who handed the results on a piece of paper to the Lord Chancellor. Amid profound silence Lord Loreburn rose from the Woolsack, shook back the panels of his wig and in clear tones announced the result: for the Bill, 131; against, 114; majority, 17. Unable to contain her emotion Lady Halsbury hissed loudly from the Peeresses’ Gallery. No cheers or enthusiasm came from the victors except for M.P.’s who dashed off with the news to their own House, where it was greeted with roars of triumph. The Lords left at once and in five minutes their hall was empty. Thirty-seven Conservative peers plus the two archbishops and eleven bishops had voted with the Government and those of them who appeared that night among a tumultuous gathering at the Carlton Club were greeted with cries of “Shame!” and “Judas!”
“The floodgates of revolution are opened,” bawled Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail next morning, but no waters poured through. With the Veto abolished the way was open for a Home Rule Bill which the Government introduced in the following session. In the event, the victory over the Lords proved irrelevant. Opposition to Home Rule merely shifted its ground and, in the fresh form of the Ulster rebellion, provoked a new and sterner crisis in which the existence of the Parliament Bill was immaterial. Ultimately it took a greater upheaval than abolition of the Veto to lift the Irish incubus off English politics.
Some weeks later Sir Edward Grey remarked to Winston Churchill, “What a remarkable year this has been: the heat, the strikes, and now the foreign situation.”
“Why,” said Winston, “you’ve forgotten the Parliament Bill,” and a friend who recorded the conversation added, “and so he had and so had everybody.”
On the morning after the vote in the House of Lords, the heat wave and the transport strike, which seemed about to become a general strike and to threaten a “real danger of social revolution,” absorbed the country’s attention. A chagrined peer could find “no evidence anywhere that the Constitutional crisis had agitated the country.” On the same day a measure of perhaps greater significance passed the House of Commons: a Payment of Members Bill by which M.P.’s would henceforth receive an annual salary of £400. It had long been bitterly fought by the Conservatives and determinedly sought by Labour. Non-payment was regarded by the Labour party as depriving the working class of the right to be represented in Parliament by men from their own ranks. Especially was payment needed after the Osborne judgment cut off the use of union funds for members’ salaries. To its opponents, Payment of Members marked the passing of politics as a gentleman’s profession and as such was “more disastrous” even than the Parliament Bill. It would introduce a new and “intolerable type of professional politician,” complained Austen Chamberlain. It would remove the “last check upon the inrush of mere adventurers,” said The Times, then owned by that supreme adventurer Lord Northcliffe, and it would encourage the “invasion” of unpaid forms of public service “now efficiently carried on by men who can afford to be disinterested.” For the patrician, free of pecuniary greed and partaking in government from a sense of civic duty, the point was valid but obsolete; society’s needs had grown beyond him, nor had he ever been disinterested in defending the ramparts of his caste. Payment of Members measured another advance in the transfer of power.
The next act followed logically: Balfour resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party, which he had held in the House of Commons for twenty years. His announcement, made on November 8, 1911, after returning from a vacation in Bad Gastein, caused a political “sensation.” Although a movement for his ouster under the slogan B.M.G. (Balfour Must Go) had taken shape, inspired by the insurgent wing under the influence of F. E. Smith and Austen Chamberlain, it had been expected that he would fight for control. But the final stages of the Veto crisis, the wildness of a meaningless battle, the preference of the Ditchers for gesture over thought, the rising influence of adventurers such as Smith, whom he detested, and the challenge to his own leadership displayed by the uncouth tactics of the Cecil scene, had accumulated in Balfour to the point of irritated indifference. Almost as a gesture of contempt he had not waited for the issue of the final vote in the House of Lords but left for Bad Gastein the day before. During his stay among “the cataracts, the pines and the precipices” he thought things over and reached a decision. He was sixty-three, his interest in philosophy was still strong and to face the necessity of returning to a fight for control, first of the party, then of the country, against the trends of a new age did not appeal to him. He belonged to a tradition in which government was the function of the patrician, whereas already, as he said in his speech of resignation, the demand upon administrators and legislators had become so heavy that the affairs of state must devolve upon those who were prepared “to be politicians and nothing but politicians, to work the political machine as professional politicians.” The rush of the crowd upon the tranquil garden, as Masterman had depicted the rise of the Populace, was under way and Balfour was too much the philosopher to fight it.
His succession went to neither of the two chief contenders, Walter Long, representing the landed gentry, nor Austen Chamberlain, who canceled each other out, but to Bonar Law, a Glasgow steel manufacturer, born a Canadian, who read the newspapers regularly, ate meals of vegetables, milk and rice pudding and had the backing of another of the adventurers, his fellow Canadian Max Aitken, soon to be Lord Beaverbrook.
Balfour’s departure inspired floods of press comment and political gossip and an impeccable tribute from Asquith to “the most distinguished member of the greatest deliberative body in the world.” George Wyndham, rather more sour if more genuine, thought Balfour’s refusal to fight was in character, arising from indifference which came from taking “too scientific a view of politics.” “He knows,” said Wyndham, “that there was once an ice age and that there will be an ice age again.”
* The call for a vote, which is taken by division, that is, a physical separation of members into their respective lobbies.