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date: 30 June 2022

The general election of 1906free

The general election of 1906free

  • Lawrence Goldman

2006 marks the centenary of the general election of 1906, considered one of the most significant elections in British history. It was recognized at the time as the most remarkable reversal of electoral fortune on record. Since then it has been joined by other notable twentieth-century elections, such as those of 1945 and 1979, as turning points in the direction of national politics. When the Labour Party won more than 400 seats in the 1997 election commentators looked back to 1906 as the nearest equivalent result, not just in terms of the relative positions of the parties in parliament, but as an example of another victory for a party of the left associated with social and constitutional change. Yet the Liberal victory of 1906 is rather different from the later elections which brought to power parties and leaders openly committed to reform. If it eventually led to a succession of landmark measures that may, collectively, mark the origins of the welfare state, little of this outcome was clear to the 83 per cent of the total British electorate who cast a vote in January 1906. The 1906 election illustrates very well the dictum that governments lose elections more often than oppositions win them.

The Liberal background

Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914)

by Eveleen Myers, early 1890s

Late Victorian politics had been dominated by the Conservatives. After the Liberal Party divided over home rule for Ireland in 1886, governments were formed by the retitled Conservative and Unionist Party for seventeen of the next twenty years. Despite an obvious target in the so-called Hotel Cecil, the remarkable collection of aristocrats, peers, and his own relatives that the prime minister, Lord Salisbury [see Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-], appointed to the cabinet, Liberalism was at a low ebb. William Ewart Gladstone's continued leadership of the party until his resignation in 1894 committed it to home rule, though twice, in 1886 and 1894, the House of Lords defeated home rule bills passed up to it from the House of Commons, and the issue, though crucial to Ireland, had only limited relevance to the much larger English electorate. Meanwhile the defection to the Conservatives of Joseph Chamberlain, the charismatic leader of radical liberalism in the 1870s and 1880s, had deprived the party of the most effective and forceful social reformer of the day.

The party attracted devotees of every fashionable—and many unfashionable—nostrums of the era, from teetotalism to opposition to compulsory vaccination, who were known as ‘faddists’. But these separate causes, many of them deeply unpopular and some of them decidedly eccentric, could not be combined in an effective and attractive political programme. And in 1901 a brief civil war erupted in the party between the so-called pro-Boers, led by the party's new leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, some of whom opposed the South African War root and branch, and all of whom criticized the methods used by British forces to win it, and the Liberal Imperialists, led by the former home secretary, Herbert Asquith, who supported the South African ambitions of Salisbury's administration. In consequence of this disunion, the different groups who composed Liberalism, including religious nonconformists and the emergent labour movement, lost enthusiasm for the cause: one of the key reasons for the Liberals' relatively poor electoral fortunes from the general election of 1874 onwards was the abstention from successive polls of many of their supposed core supporters. In 1906, however, the Liberal vote came out and the party was united, as it had not been for a generation, against a sequence of Conservative measures so clumsy and ill-conceived that they might almost have been designed to assist the opposition.

Conservative policies

Sir Henry Campbell- Bannerman (1836–1908)

by George Charles Beresford, 1902

Long periods in office lead to divisions in government and the loss of direction. The Conservative administration of A. J. Balfour, Salisbury's nephew and a noted intellectual, who followed his uncle as prime minister from July 1902, proves the point [see Prime ministers of the United Kingdom]. The 1902 Education Act, remembered for its creation of local education authority grammar schools, managed to reignite the passions of religious nonconformity over the channelling of local funds, raised by an education rate, to Anglican and Roman Catholic schools, and the abolition of local school boards, which had tended to magnify nonconformist influence. An issue of the mid-Victorian period was thus given renewed life. The trade unions and the Liberal humanitarian conscience were brought into alliance over the government's use of indentured Chinese labour in the Transvaal gold mines of the Randlords, so-called, in South Africa. In the wake of the South African War the government wanted swiftly to re-establish gold production using the labour of thousands of imported Chinese male workers who, when not working, were domiciled in vast compounds and deprived of any natural pleasures and leisure. To Liberals, many of whom had opposed the so-called ‘methods of barbarism’ deployed against the Boer civilians in the recent war, this was an affront to civilized behaviour. To the labour movement it appeared that an attractive destination for thousands of British and imperial workers seeking a better livelihood overseas was now cut off from them in favour of ‘Chinese slavery’. What had been the point of the South African War if such opportunities were not to be opened up to the British workman?

Tariff reform

An even greater political and propaganda gift to the Liberal Party was handed to them in May 1903 when Chamberlain, hitherto colonial secretary, began his campaign for tariff reform. He advocated the protection of British industry from foreign competition and preference for imperial goods, to ensure, as he contended, that business would enjoy assured markets, workers would have secure jobs, and that the empire would be brought into closer union. But the economic and moral advantages of free trade were an article of faith among Liberals, and were very widely accepted among the working class. That Chamberlain's plans would have entailed tariffs on imported foodstuffs as well as manufactures, with a preferential rate for those colonies that offered a preference in favour of British exports, raised the old cry of 'taxes on food' not heard since they had been abolished in the 1840s, and encouraged the belief that under any future Conservative administration the cost of living must increase. The Liberal ‘big loaf’ set beside the Tory ‘little loaf’ was a potent electoral symbol. Chamberlain created the Tariff Reform League in July 1903 and resigned from the cabinet on 14 September. He stumped the country thereafter, seeking to convert the British people from free trade. He was opposed by many in his own party including such leading Unionist free-traders in the cabinet as the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Ritchie; the duke of Devonshire, the Liberal Unionist leader [see Cavendish, Spencer Compton]; Lord Balfour of Burleigh [see Bruce, Alexander Hugh]; and Lord George Hamilton; and also leading figures outside it, among them the veterans G. J. Goschen, first Viscount Goschen, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, and Lord James of Hereford. Among the leading Liberal opponents of protectionism Herbert Asquith enhanced his reputation as the coming man in politics with some highly effective public speeches in opposition to ‘Radical Joe’.

By 1905 the Liberal Party had thus been gifted three issues that it could not fail to exploit effectively. In addition it could rely on the natural desire of Irish electors living in Britain for a Liberal rather than an anti-home rule Unionist government, and the opposition of Jewish voters, concentrated in the East End of London, to the 1905 Aliens Act which restricted further immigration [see Political refugees in Britain, 1826–1905]. The disaffection of the trade unions with a government which had not tried to redress by legislation the Taff Vale judgment of 1902 that had stripped unions of their legal immunities, thus opening them to suits for damages in the civil courts as a consequence of industrial action, also reinvigorated the Liberal alliance with working men. A powerful anti-Conservative coalition had been established.

The general election of 1906

Faced with dissension in his party and cabinet, and growing unpopularity, Balfour chose to resign on 4 November 1905 rather than ask the king, Edward VII, for a dissolution of parliament. Balfour believed he sensed emerging Liberal disunity once again, and hoped it would resurface quickly if the Liberals under Campbell-Bannerman formed an administration, as they did on 5 December. The tactic did not work. In the subsequent election in January 1906 the Liberals, who held only 184 Commons seats in the 1900 parliament, took 400 seats and could count on the support of a further 83 Irish Nationalist MPs, and 29 members elected under the aegis of the new Labour Representation Committee (LRC). Of the Liberal MPs 220 were new to the House of Commons and 176 were nonconformists. In contrast the Conservatives, both those who favoured free trade and those who favoured tariff reform, numbered only 133, though they were joined by 24 Liberal Unionists, the remnant of a larger group under Chamberlain who had left the Liberal Party in 1886. In some constituencies two Unionist candidates, a tariff reformer and a ‘free fooder’, had fought each other to the Liberal candidate's advantage.

Only three of the Conservative cabinet held onto their seats in 1906: Austen Chamberlain, Joseph Chamberlain's son and the former chancellor of the exchequer; Aretas Akers-Douglas, the former home secretary; and Hugh Arnold-Forster, who had been at the War Office. Balfour himself had to be found a safe seat for the City of London, having lost his Manchester constituency, while Winston Churchill, previously MP for Oldham, who had crossed the floor of the house from Conservative to Liberal in 1904 because of his support for free trade, was elected for the north-west division of Manchester. Across the whole of Britain there was a swing to the Liberals of over 10 per cent.

David Lloyd George, first Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (1863–1945)

by George Charles Beresford, 1908

The steady drift towards the Conservatives in Lancashire, the heart of Britain's manufacturing district, which had been evident since 1868, was thrown into reverse. The Liberals also made notable gains in London and the south-east. Birmingham alone was immune, the consequence of Chamberlain's personal following and his formidable local political ‘machine’. Yet Britain's ‘first past the post’ electoral system had magnified the scale of the victory, as it often does. In votes cast the Conservative total of approximately 2.5 million was much closer to the Liberal total (2.75 million) than is commonly imagined.

The new government

What sort of government had the British people elected in 1906? In comparison with the landowning Hotel Cecil, this was an administration led by professional men, many of them highly talented and some of them from humble backgrounds. Asquith, the new chancellor of the exchequer, Richard Burdon Haldane, the secretary for war, and David Lloyd George, the president of the Board of Trade (the son of an elementary school teacher, brought up by his uncle, a shoemaker) were lawyers. John Morley, the Indian secretary, James Bryce, briefly secretary for Ireland before being sent as ambassador to Washington, Augustine Birrell at the Board of Education, and Winston Churchill, who succeeded Lloyd George at the Board of Trade in 1908, were variously men of letters and journalists. The relatively young foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the president of the council, the earl (later marquess) of Crewe [see Milnes, Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-], were carriers of the whig tradition in Liberal politics. There were also relics of the Gladstonian era in the shape of Lord Elgin [see Bruce, Victor Alexander], the colonial secretary, and Lord Ripon [see Robinson, George Frederick Samuel], the lord privy seal, who had been a member of Palmerston's administration as long ago as 1859. Herbert Gladstone, William Ewart Gladstone's son, whose labours on party organization as the Liberal chief whip before 1906 had helped to make the election victory possible, was home secretary. John Burns, by origins a working man and trade union leader of the late Victorian era, was sent to the Local Government Board; his personal limitations doomed that department to relative stasis in the coming years.

Herbert Henry Asquith, first earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928)

by George Charles Beresford, 1908

The new policies

Campbell-Bannerman, prime minister until April 1908, was not a man for rapid change either, and this constellation of talents, young and old, radical and traditional, gave little indication of its later attachment to innovative social policies while he remained at the head of the new administration. A party brought together in opposition to Unionist policies, which had not asked for public support for any single great cause, stuck close to the traditional Liberal issues of retrenchment and Ireland, while bringing ‘Chinese slavery’ in South Africa to a gradual end, and reaffirming trade union legal immunities in the Trades Disputes Act in 1906. An education bill to redress the nonconformist grievances was killed by the House of Lords at the end of that year. While there were advances in the system of workmen's compensation for injury and disease, and reforms of the penal system and of the rights of children under the 1908 Children's Act, the government did not seem to be diverging very notably from traditional Liberalism and previous policy. Had he been brought back to life in 1906 or 1907, Gladstone might not have noticed much of a difference between the party he had led until 1894 and the party under ‘CB’, as he was known.

That the election of 1906 led eventually to old-age pensions, the Trade Boards Act of 1909 which applied minimum wages to the ‘sweated trades’, the redistributive 1909 ‘people's budget’, the introduction of labour exchanges, the National Insurance Act of 1911, and the Parliament Act of that year which removed the House of Lords' veto on legislation from the Commons, was the result of several different factors. CB retired as prime minister and was replaced by Asquith; in the ensuing cabinet reshuffle the elevation of Lloyd George to the Treasury [see Chancellors of the exchequer] and Churchill to the Board of Trade [see Presidents of the Board of Trade] put energetic reformers into positions of influence. A budget surplus in 1908 made possible the first non-contributory old-age pensions, though only at the low rate of 5s. a week for individuals over seventy of good character whose incomes were less than £21 a year, and some 7s. 6d. for couples. (There was a sliding scale of remuneration according to annual income above £21; anyone in receipt of more than £31 10s. did not qualify.) In social reform paid for by new taxes levied on the rich, Lloyd George's 1909 budget found a means of attacking two targets which had exercised him for the whole of his political career, the poverty and want of so many of the people and the obstruction of the House of Lords which initially rejected the budget.

The new Liberalism

Beyond these political and economic factors were a set of influences on the Liberals that have long interested historians. The Liberal Party assumed power in 1906 in a different intellectual context from that which existed on the last occasion it had held power, between 1893 and 1895. The ideas of Edwardian progressivism, sometimes referred to as the ‘new Liberalism’, had begun to permeate the party, encouraging an appreciation of the interdependence and mutuality of modern society and hence of the benefits of collective rather than individual action; a broader conception of the role that the state could play in the lives of citizens; and a more sympathetic response to poverty. These new ideas were derived from the political thinking of the Oxford don T. H. Green in the 1870s and 1880s; taken forward into the twentieth century by the social philosopher Leonard Hobhouse, the economist J. A. Hobson, and the historians J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond [see under Hammond, Lawrence Le Breton] among other intellectuals; discussed in ethical and political societies like the Rainbow Circle; publicized in newspapers and journals like the Manchester Guardian, The Nation, and The Speaker; and confirmed in the social research of investigators like Charles Booth who worked in London, Seebohm Rowntree who studied poverty in York, and C. F. G. Masterman, the Liberal minister of this era and the author of From the Abyss (1902) and The Condition of England (1909). The new thinking had begun to create a different set of social priorities from those associated with the classical, laissez-faire liberalism of the past. A social liberalism had emerged in which the state was seen as a beneficent prime mover of social progress and equity rather than a danger to individual liberty and enterprise. Poverty was no longer blamed on failings of character but understood in relation to a host of environmental factors for which individuals and communities could not be blamed.

Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe- Milnes, marquess of Crewe (1858–1945)

by Walter Frederick Osborne

It was in this fresh context that Liberal politicians, especially a new generation among them, began to address the social problems that had been brought to light in the preceding generation, from Andrew Mearns's Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883 to the publication in 1902 of the seventeen volumes of Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London.

The 1906 election in context

Though the eventual achievements of the parliament elected in 1906 were remarkable, the election was something of a fluke; the scale of the Liberal victory was in direct proportion to the scale of preceding Tory blunders but it exaggerated the degree of dependable Liberal support in the country. The subsequent elections in January and December 1910, during the crisis over the people's budget, saw the number of Liberal MPs reduced to 275 and 272 respectively, while Conservative support recovered and the party, together with their Liberal Unionist allies, took 273 and then 272 seats.

The 1906 election was singular for another reason as well: it saw the election of the first Labour MPs under the aegis of the LRC, who soon chose to call themselves the Labour Party, and who joined approximately twenty-four ‘Lib–Labs’ in the Commons, many of them officials of the miners' unions, who represented working-class constituencies and took the Liberal whip. The electoral pact of 1903 between Herbert Gladstone and Ramsay MacDonald, secretary of the LRC [see Leaders of the Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party], had given a large majority of the thirty LRC candidates a clear run as the single ‘anti-tory’ in selected constituencies, and this evidently worked successfully. Contemporaries tended to see this first cohort of the Labour Party as a wing of the Liberals, as they had seen the Lib–Lab MPs before them, and the first Labour MPs undoubtedly took time to establish any sort of separate political identity. Nevertheless the origins of a deadly competition between the two parties of the left were established in 1906. Great as was the victory at that election, and long though Britain was governed by successive Liberal administrations thereafter—until the wartime coalition was formed in May 1915—it was to be the last time that the Liberal Party formed alone an administration with an overall majority in the House of Commons.

We may reflect on two conclusions from the story of the 1906 election: that notable governments sometimes emerge unexpectedly and unannounced, and that even great electoral victories cannot insulate parties from the passage of events. Who among the Liberal MPs elected in 1906 could have foreseen the fatal combination of a world war, divisions in the party's leadership between Asquith and Lloyd George, the creation of a mass democracy by the Representation of the People Act in 1918 (the fourth Reform Act), and competition with another anti-conservative party for the newly enfranchised voters, that in combination would undermine the Liberal Party within another twenty years?


  • E. Myers, platinum print, 1890–93, NPG; Joseph Chamberlain [see illus.]
  • G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1902, NPG; Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman [see illus.]
  • G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1908, NPG; David Lloyd George [see illus.]
  • G. C. Beresford, photogravure, 1908, NPG; Herbert Henry Asquith [see illus.]
  • W. F. Osborne, oils, NPG; Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes [see illus.]
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National Portrait Gallery, London