The Liberal Party 1894-1906

By Rathbone, Mark | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Liberal Party 1894-1906


Rathbone, Mark, History Review


Mark Rathbone charts a dramatic transformation in the fortunes of the Liberal Party by examining its leaders.

In 1891 John Morley insisted that the Liberal Party consisted simply of Gladstone: after him, `it will disappear and all will be chaos'. This article sets out to examine the problems suffered by the Liberal Party in the period after Gladstone's retirement, and to explain how and why they were overcome for the party to win a landslide election victory in January 1906.

The era of Rosebery and Harcourt

Morley's prediction proved to be an overstatement, but after Gladstone's retirement in March 1894 the party certainly did suffer a period of chaos. Gladstone's own preference for a successor was Lord Spencer, while the party would probably have chosen Sir William Harcourt, who had become the leading radical on the Liberal front bench after Joseph Chamberlain's defection to the Unionists in 1886. Queen Victoria, however, consulted neither Gladstone nor any other Liberals, but sent for Lord Rosebery, a racehorse-owning aristocrat much more to her taste than Gladstone (whom she had once described as a `half-mad firebrand') and invited him to form a government. Thus Rosebery enjoys the unusual distinction among Liberal leaders of having become leader against the wishes of a majority of Liberals, both in Parliament and in the country, by the personal choice of the reigning monarch.

He had first come to public attention in 1884, when Gladstone invited him to join the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works. Rosebery haughtily turned this down, saying that the office had `neither dignity nor importance ... being only a sort of football for contending connoisseurs'. Throughout his career, he adhered to this principle of placing his own dignity and importance above all other considerations. In 1886 he was offered, and accepted, a post which came closer to matching his own conception of his merits, that of Foreign Secretary, although he showed a marked reluctance to return to this office in Gladstone's Fourth Ministry in 1892. He was only persuaded to do so by the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales.

Anyone following Gladstone's quarter-century at the head of the Liberal Party was bound to suffer from unfavourable comparison with the Grand Old Man. Rosebery had the additional disadvantage of sitting in the House of Lords. There was nothing unusual about this, of course -- Lord Salisbury had been Conservative Prime Minister from 1886 to 1892. But for a Liberal Prime Minister in this period sitting in the Lords must have been a difficult experience, even a humiliating one. For since the split of 1886 over Home Rule for Ireland, most of the Liberal members of the House of Lords had become Liberal Unionists, effectively deserting to the Conservatives. Rosebery therefore faced over 400 opposition peers, with only some 85 Liberals on the benches behind him. Moreover, the Unionist majority had asserted its strength only six months before by defeating the centrepiece of the Liberal Government's legislative programme, the Home Rule Bill.

Not only did Rosebery as Prime Minister sit in a chamber in which Liberals were greatly outnumbered, but he also had to work with the Liberal leader in the House of Commons, Sir William Harcourt. This both men found difficult, to say the least. For most of Rosebery's 15 months in office, the two were not on speaking terms. Harcourt wrote on one occasion, `As you know, I am not a supporter of the present government', an extraordinary statement for a Chancellor of the Exchequer in office to make! Rosebery himself commented after the ministry's fall, `the firm of Rosebery and Harcourt was a fraud upon the public'. No doubt this situation was partly Harcourt's fault (he was notoriously difficult to get on with) but much of the blame must fall on Rosebery's shoulders. After all, he was Prime Minister and could have dismissed Harcourt if he really found him impossible to work with. …

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