Authors: Roy Jenkins
Tags: #Mr Balfour’s Poodle
âThe House of Lords is not the watchdog of the constitution; it is Mr Balfour's poodle.'
David Lloyd George, 1908
Arthur Balfour resigned on December 4, 1905. He was the last Prime Minister to surrender office to his opponents without a previous defeat at the polls. But there was nothing quixotic about his action. No election was necessary to confirm the belief, held alike by himself, his supporters and the Liberal Party, that his Government had lost the confidence of the electorate; and the growing insubordination of a large section of his own party provided an added incentive to lay down the cares of office.
So persistent, however, was Balfour's reputation for political subtlety that his resignation before an election was widely regarded as a move of surpassing dexterity. âThe Liberal Press,' in the words of Campbell-Bannerman's biographer,
âwas almost unanimous that Mr. Balfour's resignation was the last of the tricks in the long game of skill, and earnestly exhorted the leader to beware.' And there can be no doubt that Balfour, apart from his other pressing reasons for resignation, was influenced by the hope that office before the election might prove an embarrassment to the Liberal Party. With a conceit not unusual in those whose party had been long in office, he believed that the country might recoil from the reality of a Liberal Government, headed by Campbell-Bannerman, who was reputed to be unpopular, and made up of the inexperienced men who surrounded him. At the same time Balfour hoped that the rifts in the Liberal Party, particularly that between the âLiberal Imperialists' and the
radical wing, might prove to be as deep as, or deeper than, those which reft his own party. Might not Asquith and Grey and Haldane make great difficulties about serving under the Campbell-Bannerman who had talked of âmethods of barbarism'?
The first point proved to be quite invalid, or at any rate to be submerged beyond recognition in the great wave of revulsion against the Unionist Party which swept the country. The second was more substantial, but not quite sufficiently so for any of Balfour's hopes to be fulfilled. There were unusual difficulties in Cabinet-making, which arose, nominally at least, from questions of persons rather than of policy. Campbell-Bannerman arrived from Scotland on the morning of Balfour's resignation, and immediately saw Asquith and Grey. He found them âvery amiable and reasonable on the subject of Ireland and â¦ there was no difference worth thinking of between him and them'.
But later that day Sir Edward Grey again called to see Campbell-Bannerman and informed him that, unless he took a peerage and left the leadership in the Commons to Asquith, he (Grey) would not feel able to serve. Grey's attitude was that he felt in any event unhappy about joining a Government of which Lord Rosebery was not a member, and that his doubts could only be allayed if one of his own close associates were to be the principal spokesman in the House of Commons; and he had a quite genuine reluctance for office at any time.
This was a heavy problem for Campbell-Bannerman. He wished Grey to have the Foreign Office, and the latter's defection would leave the Government weak in that field in which it was thought most likely to be distrusted. On the following day, that on which he kissed hands as Prime Minister (in the event he left the King's presence having forgotten
to perform the actual ceremony), his difficulties were eased by Asquith's unconditional acceptance of the Exchequer; the new Chancellor was clearly not a full party to the ultimatum. But the crisis was not over. On Wednesday, December 6, Asquith came up from Hatfield where, most surprisingly as it now seems, he was the guest of Lord Salisbury, and made a personal appeal to the Prime Minister to solve the difficulty by going to the Lords. Later on the same day Lady Campbell-Bannerman also arrived in London, and more decisively advised âno surrender'. After that the Prime Minister was in no doubt that he would not give way.
Grey remained adamant for another twenty-four hours, but Haldane was already wavering, and by midnight on the Thursday they had both decided to come in. After this the filling of offices proceeded normally. The lists were ready for the King on the Sunday, and Ministers received their seals on Monday, December II. It was a day of very thick fog, and the members of the new Government began their periods of office, inauspiciously if not symbolically, by losing their way and groping for up to an hour around the Mall and the incomplete Victoria statue in front of the Palace.
It is now a platitude to say that it was a strong and unusually able Government. On the one hand were men of the outstanding intellectual ability of Asquith, Haldane, Morley, Bryce,
and Samuel. On the other, at least equally
outstanding, but possessed of gifts differing very widely, not only from those of the âintellectuals', but from those of each other, were Grey, Lloyd George, Mr. Churchill, and the Prime Minister himself. In many quarters the new Ministry was greeted with enthusiasm, and nowhere with derision. On the day after the publication of the lists
succeeded in confining its general remarks on the subject to a sullenly non-committal: âSir Henry Campbell-Bannerman has succeeded in forming his Ministry';
but in its immediately previous issue it had remarked: âIn some respects the Cabinet as it now seems likely to be composed is the best that could be made with the available material, but the Irish appointments
â¦ inspire the profoundest distrust, and the position in the House of Lords is excessively weak.'
clearly regarded a record of never having made a partisan speech (in which respect, apparently, only Lord Elgin,
the Colonial Secretary, was without blemish) and a promise never to implement Liberal legislation as the best qualifications for Liberal Ministers, its strictures need not be taken too seriously.
The Cabinet certainly had no excessive radical bias. Campbell-Bannerman, like Gladstone, had moved to the left as he had grown older but, the more so perhaps because he had a possibly difficult election to face, he had not allowed his personal predilections unduly to influence his choice of a Government.
Sir Robert Reid,
who, as Lord Loreburn, went to the Woolsack, and Sinclair,
the new Secretary of State for Scotland, closely represented his own point of view. Ripon,
Morley, Herbert Gladstone,
and Bryce all represented the Gladstonian tradition, which, in so far as it associated them with Home Rule, was thought to make them left-wingers. And there was Lloyd George, together with, as it transpired, that pillar of conservatism, John Burns.
On the other hand there was the triumvirate of Asquith, Haldane and Grey, two of whom were placed in dominating positions, old Sir Henry Fowler,
and a number of essentially âmoderate' men like
Elgin (whose moderation, as we have seen, was beyond reproach), and Carrington.
Compared with its Conservative predecessor, the new Cabinet was of course inexperienced, but a party cannot reasonably hold power for seventeen out of twenty years and then attack its rival for the gross fault of appointing men unversed in the ways of office.
The election campaign itself did not begin until after Christmas, but the overture was given at the Albert Hall on December 21, when Campbell-Bannerman deployed his party's line of argument. The main stress was on free trade, but there was a. careful reference to Irelandââthose domestic questions which concern the Irish people only and not ourselves should, as and when opportunity offers, be left in their hands'âsome strong but vague phrases about the land, which was to be âless of a pleasure-ground for the rich and more of a treasure-house for the nation', an announcement that instructions had already been given to stop the importation of Chinese coolies into South Africa, a promise to deal with
trade union law, and suggestions of reform of the poor law and of the rating system, and of measures to deal with unemployment. There were varied reactions to the speech, from Liberal enthusiasm to the distaste of the City, which summed up the programme, âin its practical way', as
said, âas robbery of everyone who has anything to be robbed of'.
Early in the New Year the election addresses were appearing. Balfour told the electors of East Manchester that âthere are many things still obscure in the long catalogue of revolutionary changes advocated by new Ministers, but some things are plain enoughâHome Rule, disestablishment, the destruction of voluntary schools, and the spoliation of the licence-holder have lost none of their ancient charm in the eyes of Radical law-makers'. He then spoke oracularly of tariff reform, dealt patronisingly with the Government's foreign policy, regarding it as a weak imitation of his own, and ended with a few gibes on the subject of Cabinet splits. Joseph Chamberlain, in his appeal to the electors of West Birmingham, described the new Administration as âessentially a Home Rule and Little Englander Government'. He then turned to a forthright statement of the case for tariff reform, and devoted the remainder of his address to this.
Asquith, in East Fife, wrote an address almost exactly complementary to that of Chamberlain. He berated the late Government for incompetence and then passed to a close-knit argument of the case against tariff reform. He concluded with a reference to âthe measures of social and domestic reform' which ought to occupy the new Parliament, and his attitude to which he promised to develop elsewhere during the campaign. Sir Edward Grey, in Berwick-on-Tweed, was more specific. He opened with a statement of his belief in the virtues of free trade, but devoted much less space to the issue
than did Asquith. Next came a reference to Chinese labour in South Africaârather surprisingly from the least partisan of the new Government's principal Ministersâand then a promise of Irish reform accompanied by a specific statement that no measure such as those attempted in 1886 or 1893 would be introduced without another appeal to the electorate.
The Prime Minister, at Stirling, after a passing reference to the Chinese labour issue, attacked the late Government for its partisan legislation, designed to propitiate those interests which supported it rather than to benefit the country, for its refusal to deal seriously with the social problem, and for its gross extravagance. This last point, on which he laid great stress, is a strong reminder of how different, on budgetary matters, was the old Gladstonian radical tradition, which Campbell-Bannerman represented, from the new one which Lloyd George was soon to develop. He then turned to what he called the positive side of his case, by far the greater part of which was occupied by a long restatement of the argument for free trade. His conclusion was more general, and suggested, although it did not specify, a heavy programme of legislative measures: âShould we be confirmed in office it will be our duty, whilst holding fast to the time-honoured principles of Liberalismâthe principles of peace, economy, self-government, and civil and religious libertyâand whilst resisting with all our strength the attack upon free trade, to repair so far as lies in our power the mischief wrought in recent years, and, by a course of strenuous legislation and administration, to secure those social and economic reforms which have been too long delayed.'