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Why Was The Period Between 1909-14 One Of Social And Political Conflict ? Essay, Research Paper

Compared to the late nineteenth century the first two decades of the twentieth century must have startled many people by the sheer magnitude of conflict and disturbances, both in terms of quantity and fierce militancy, that took place. These years immediately preceding World War I contrasted sharply with the Victorian Era, when for most of this time a prosperous, confident Britannia really did rule the waves. A fact underlined by the ’splendid isolation’ position that Salisbury’s Britain was able to maintain, whereby the sheer strength of her navy meant that she required no allies and was able to remain disentangled by Alliances. For much of Queen Victoria’s reign Britain was the undisputed master of the world, and her vast empire covered a quarter of the land on the planet; this fact undoubtedly instilled in her peoples an air of assurance, yet, towards the conclusion of the nineteenth century an there was an increasing feeling of concern and apprehension as nations such as Germany and U.S.A. continued to rapidly gain ground both economically and in terms of military strength. So, the fact that the period preceding the years 1909-14 was so settled surely emphasises the extent of conflicts during there years and perhaps the fact that Britain’s world position was becoming increasingly under threat may have had some psychological effect on her citizens, causing them to feel more restless and on edge, which may go some way to explaining why this time was so full of social and political conflict. `The Liberal Party was elected by an overwhelming majority in the General Election of 1906 and remained in power until 1915. As positions were changing on the world stage, so changes were occurring within the Liberal Party. The social reforms they carried out, such as old age pensions and National Insurance, would have been unthinkable twenty years earlier and the increasing prominence of men like Lloyd George and Churchill- the so called New Liberals- showed a clear shift in the outlook of the Liberal Party. The old policies of laissez-faire and individualism were being replaced by a more collectivist attitude and it was the Liberal’s desire to pass new reforms that led to the first major conflict of the period in question. `The 1906 election had left a distinct swing in public opinion towards the parties of the Left. It seemed that democracy had at last arrived, and that a radical reconstruction of long-established institutions would inevitably follow. The Unionist party, however, set out to frustrate the wishes of the people by a vigorous defence of existing policies and institutions. Its enormous majority in the House of Lords was the last remaining stronghold of Unionism, and it was the indiscriminate use of this power which ultimately led to the Parliament Act of 1911 restricting the Lords’ veto. `Of the 602 peers, only 83 described themselves as Liberals; 355 were Conservative Unionists and 124 were Liberal Unionists. This Unionist predominance in the Upper House can be traced back to the numerous creation of peers in the late eighteenth century. These Conservative forces had increased in number during the nineteenth century, but also occasionally had a Conservative House of Lords clashed with a Whig or Liberal majority in the House of Commons. In 1832, for example, the Conservative peers had passed the Reform Bill only after the threat of a royal creation of Whig peers. But in general the Upper House had adopted a cautious and non-partisan attitude, rejecting those measures, such as Gladstone’s Paper Duties, with which it disagreed without unduly provoking the government of the day. `However, after the Unionist debacle in the 1906 election, they alone had the power to uphold vital Unionist interests against the attacks of their Liberal and Socialist adversaries. As Sir Philip Magnus has pointed out, ‘No Englishman of any class would have hesitated before 1914 to exact the maximum advantage from any customary or legal privilege which he possessed; and the Peers, who had merely registered approval of Conservative measures for many years, would have been ashamed not to assert their full rights against the Liberal Government in 1906.’ In fact, the Unionist peers looked forward confidently to the coming battle, and were particularly amenable to the political manoeuvres devised by the party leadership for the new Parliament. `One of the chief causes reasons behind the conflict that arose between the Liberals and the House of Lords then was that the peers didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong and that it was their right to do all in their power to frustrate the plans of the new government. It can also be argued that the Unionist peers were reacting in a characteristic way; they were conservatives by birth and upbringing and were thus naturally opposed to those changes which undermined their way of life. `Another main reason why the conflict came about was as a result of Balfour, the Unionist leader at the time. Balfour’s tactics of using the Unionist peers to destroy the Liberal’s legislative programme were an attempt to meet the demands of his party for m `ore forthright leadership and more militant policies. The Tariff Reformers blamed him for failing to convert the British electorate to their new protectionist policies, and they were justified in their criticism, since Balfour’s ‘trimming’ policy on Tariff Reform had not helped the party in its last years in office. The Tariff Reformers did not, however, doubt the validity of their case in 1906, nor did they accept the fact that it had been their programme which had largely contributed to the Unionists’ rout at the election. However, in spite of causing the Unionist defeat, 109 of the 157 Unionist M.P.s in the new House of Commons were Tariff Reformers. Thus Tariff Reform had to remain in the forefront of the Party’s policies, even though Balfour might have preferred to drop it. Indeed, Joseph Chamberlain might have replaced Balfour as party leader had he ot been struck down with paralysis in July 1906. Balfour remained as party leader in spite of the widespread dissatisfaction of Unionists with his uninspiring leadership. His unscrupulous use of the Unionist majority in the Lords was one way of appeasing his critics. `Kenneth Young, Balfour’s most recent biographer, has gallantly defended Balfour’s conduct in these years. While frankly admitting his deficiencies as a leader of men, Young praises Balfour’s mastery of political tactics and claims that he must not be held `responsible for causing the dangerous constitutional situation that arose. He would have us believe that Balfour was as much a victim of the prevailing political hysteria as were his Liberal opponents. It is nevertheless difficult to escape from the conclusion that the Unionist leader must himself take much of the blame for the bitterness and constitutional tumult which his policies provoked. By 1906 his detachment from democracy was complete, and his obstructionist attitude was finely calculated. He saw no purpose in giving his party a constructive policy whilst in opposition; he believed the real business of an opposition was to oppose. He found willing accomplices in the Conservative peers. `There is however, another side to the argument, stating that the Liberals were infact to blame for the conflict with the House of Lords and that it was due to their deliberate introduction of Bills that they knew the peers would never pass that led to the confrontation. An example often cited by those who follow this thesis, is that of the ‘People’s Budget’ introduced by Lloyd George on 29 April 1909. It was an attempt by the Liberal government to answer its critics and its followers alike, who could clearly see that the Liberals were failing to live up to expectations, mainly as a result of the House of Lords blocking a large proportion of their legislature. This disappointment with the government was reflected in a series of by-election reverses in 1908 an `d it had somehow to restore its authority if it was to retain and rally its supporters. `The People’s Budget precipitated the constitutional crisis which ended two years later in the Parliament Act, which curtailed the Lords’ veto. How far it was deliberately framed to provoke a clash with the Lords remains a matter of some controversy. Malcolm Thomsom, the official biographer of Lloyd George, claims that Lloyd George with Asquith’s approval intentionally drafted his Budget so as to court its rejection by the peers. This would appear to be in accordance with the Chancellor’s increasing resentment at the irresponsible conduct of the Lords and with his strong desire to reduce their powers. However, Roy Jenkins, author of Mr. Balfour’s Poodle, puts forward the interesting opinion that it never seriously occurred to the Government that the Lords would dare to challenge the Commons’ supremacy in financial matters by attacking a Finance Bill. He argues that a controversial Budget was the Liberals’ alternative to limiting the power of the House of Lords. The clash with the Upper House, rather than being planned, grew out of the course of events. Once the peers had been unwise enough to reject the Budget, the Liberals took the favourable opportunity of fighting them. `It is also true to say that the Liberals made many efforts to avoid conflict during the crisis. The Liberals were just as averse to the creation of new peers as were the Conservatives and they gave the Lords every opportunity to pass first the Budget and later the Parliament Act, so that the King would not have to carry out the threat of more peers. Two elections in 1910 gave the Lords plenty of breathing space and there were various attempts to reach a compromise, such as the Round Table Conferences. The Liberals might possibly be accorded some of the blame, but for the most part this must be shouldered by the peers themselves, the Conservatives, and Balfour their leader. `The great obstacle of the House of Lords having been removed, the Liberal government could now address again the thorny issue of Home Rule. To that extent the Liberal government of 1912 enjoyed an enormous advantage over the Liberal government of 1893. But it also had great disadvantages. In the first place, it did not have the commanding leadership of Gladstone. Asquith was a Home Ruler in much the same spirit that Sir William Harcourt had been. It was preferable, marginally, to coercion; and it fairly reflected the balance of what could be reasonably demanded on the one side and reasonably conceded on the other. Asquith could not on this issue nor on any other offer inspiring leadership and for this reason he himself must take much of the responsibility for the conflict that followed and the fact that had World War II not broken out, civil war may well have done. `However, the cause of conflict cannot be attributed only to Asquith’s poor handling of events and many would argue that the Conservatives did much to antagonise matters. Indeed the attitude of the Conservatives in threatening to give all-out support to Ulster’s defiance of Home Rule has come in for even harsher criticism than their earlier policy of using the House of Lords to destroy the budget of 1909, but this view is often difficult to sustain. To even moderate Unionists it seemed that the Liberals had used Irish votes, in any case grossly overrepresented, to tamper with the constitution by passing the Parliament Act and were then forced to honour their part of a corrupt bargain by implementing Home Rule, an old, discredited and destructive policy, which had never been approved by the British electorate. This policy meant coercing a quarter of the population of the island of Ireland into giving up their British allegiance, a procedure which was clearly unrealistic. In these circumstances, so most Unionists felt, they could only back up Ulster’s resistance. `There were admittedly many in the Unionist Party who were less concerned about Ulster and more about using it to stop Home Rule altogether. Lansdowne, with his great Irish estates, and the Cecil family, who had little sympathy for the bigoted Presbyterians of the north-east, were among them. For Lansdowne Unionism in the south was at least as important as Ulster. Bonar Law on the other hand, whose own roots lay in Ulster, was in the last resort prepared to accept Home Rule, provided Ulster, suitably defined, was excluded. Unionists of all shades believed that if Home Rule was clearly submitted to the British electorate, as it never had been, then the result would be a resounding Unionist victory. In the later stages of the crisis, as the Home Rule Bill neared the statute book, it became the main aim of the Unionist leaders to precipitate a general election, if necessary through the King’s veto on the bill or his dismissal of his ministers. The relentless passion with which the Unionists opposed Home Rule owed something to the fact that they hoped thereby to expunge the humiliation suffered over the Lords’ veto and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat; also to the continuing difficulties in the party over tariff reform and the failure of any other coherent policies to emerge for the social and economic tensions of the age. `The Home Rule Bill was infact a moderate measure, similar in many respects to Gladstone’s Bill of 1893 and, like its predecessor, based on a policy of Home Rule for Ireland. However, in the intervening period the divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland had hardened; and the Liberals now found themselves opposed by the united stubborn resistance of the Ulster Unionists, prepared to push their opposition – as the formation of the Ulster Volunteers soon showed – to the point of armed revolt. The extremist and provocative sentiments expressed by the Ulster Unionists, the Irish Unionists, and also many members of the Conservative Party were denounced by Asquith as a ‘Grammar of Anarchy’. But Anarchy was not something that Asquith could either comprehend or master. Faced with intransigence and subversion by the Unionists both at Belfast and at Westminster, and unwilling or unable to impose a more compromising policy upon his Irish Nationalist allies, Asquith adopted his old policy of ‘wait and see’. By a display of ‘massive calmness’ (in his admiring biographer’s phrase) and the conviction that the Irish question remained a suitable case for parliamentary treatment, the Prime Minister hoped to bring his opponents to their senses. Yet the ultimate effect of this policy of ‘drift’ was to exacerbate rather than relieve the growing tensions in Ireland, tensions which were bound to increase anyway during the two year waiting period, between the introduction of the Home Rule Bill and the moment when in 1914 – the Lords having exhausted their powers of rejection under the new Parliament Act – it would become law. Hence these years saw amounting menace in Ireland: the formation of private armies north and south of the border, the growing grip on the province of the Ulster Unionist Council, the Curragh ‘Mutiny’, and the Larne gun-running incident which so inflamed Catholic opinion. By July 1914 the country had been brought to the brink of civil war. `In March however, bowing to harsh facts, Asquith had offered the opposition an Amending Bill which would have postponed the application of Home Rule to Ulster for six years. This was dismissed by Carson as merely ‘a stay of execution’. Nevertheless, the party leaders made one final if half-hearted effort to agree on a solution at the Buckingham Palace Conference held in July. This was, almost inevitably, a failure, and with its collapse and Britain’s entry into the First World War about a week later, the Irish constitutional problem was shelved for the duration. `Much of the blame for this bitter social and political conflict must surely lie with the Liberal Party. In their handling of the Irish Question in these years they had committed many cardinal errors. Having first imposed an undemocratic solution which was intolerable to the people of Ulster, they then expected the Protestant minority in Ireland to behave in the best traditions of British liberalism by passively accepting the decisions of the majority. They appeared to be applying British remedies to an Irish problem. Ireland has had no opportunity for the democratic traditions of peaceful change to grow – of minimal violence, of the minority accepting the decisions of the majority and of the majority not taking decisions which the minority regards as genuinely intolerable. Her bloodstained past has scarred her to this day. Bitter racial and religious conflict, fear and suspicion made the Protestant people of Ulster unwilling to accept the rule of their hated enemies, the Catholics of the South. It was the Liberals’ tragedy that they had failed to appraise the true nature of Ulster’s misgivings; that their mismanagement had made the situation there more impossible; and that a democratic solution to the Ulster problem was now out of the question. `A concurrent problem with that of Irish Home Rule, although one perhaps not quite as spectacular, was that of industrial unrest. On the very day that George V gave his approval to the new Parliament Act, 18 August 1911, the country was faced with its first national railway strike, an indication of the new spirit of ‘labour unrest’ and trade union resurgence, which seemed to typify the four years preceding the First World War. Labour unrest was marked by major industrial disputes between 1910 and 1912 on the railways and in the mines and docks over pay, conditions, and (for the railwaymen and dockers) union recognition as well, disputes which spilled over into other industries up to 1914. Contemporaries were alarmed not only by the extent of strike action but also, in the words of a recent historian, by its ‘violent, unofficial and insurgent character’. This was seen in the legendary rioting at Tonypandy in November 1910 during the bitter South Wales coal strike, the prelude to the national strike of 1912; and `in the sporadic looting and rioting in some of the ports during the dock strikes of 1911-12. There were fears at the time that the temper of the industrial movement smacked of syndicalism, although it is difficult to back up this feeling with any hard fac `ts. `So, what had caused this unrest? It would appear that the fundamental reasons were economic. The cost of living had risen by some four or five per cent between 1902 and 1908, and by a further eight points between 1909 and 1913. The rise in money wages had kept pace between 1902 and 1908, but had lagged behind between 1909 and 1913. Thus the pressure on trade unions to seek wage increases was correspondingly greater. Moreover, the rise in the cost of living did not hit all the workers in the same way. Those who were better off were better able to survive a fall in the relative value of wages than the manual worker, for whose labour there was no steady demand and whose wages therefore rose and fell more irregularly. This would explain why industrial unrest in the years 1906-14 was largely confined to two sectors: unskilled and lower-paid labour on the one hand, and on the other, workers in two industries, coal-mining and railways, who were prepared to coerce their employers by industrial action. `The cases of the railwaymen and miners illustrate the plight of the lower-paid workers particularly effectively. Railwaymen’s wages had been falling behind those of other wage-earners since the 1880s. Hours of work were long and career prospects poor. The Act of 1894, regulating goods rates in perpetuity, had restricted profits at a time when prices were rising. Just as the companies were trying to cut costs by means of wage reductions, the men were demanding wage rises that would enable them to keep pace with other wage-earners. Similar problems beset the coal-mining industry. Falling productivity since the late 1880s and steadily rising costs (caused, for example, by the implementation of the Eight Hours Act) were not offset by any increased demand for coal. The mine-owners had reacted with wage cuts and a stricter interpretation of the rate paid for the various kinds of coal seam. Overall, the miners’ wages were falling, creating bad labour relations and demands for strikes. `A marked increase in the power of trade unions had coincided with the men’s demands for more militant action. The Trade Disputes Act (1906), passed in response to Labour pressures, had reversed the Taff Vale decision and restored the rights enjoyed by trade unions under the Acts of 1871 and 1875. Picketing, sympathetic strikes, and secondary boycotts were henceforth within the law, while a union could not be sued for damages unless the action complained of had been committed with the sanction of the union executive. `A further factor working in favour of the unions was the second wave of ‘new unionism’: union membership, especially among seamen, dockers and general labourers, rose by over sixty per cent between 1910 and 1914. Pelling explains this rise in union members `hip in terms of the exceptionally low unemployment rate in the years 1911 to 1914, and draws the conclusion, ‘Men could more readily defy their employers when the supply of potential blacklegs was at its lowest.’ The workers’ bargaining position was furthe `r strengthened by the joining together of unions to form such amalgamations as the National Transport Workers’ Federation in 1910 and the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913. `It seems clear, moreover, that a substantial number of workers were becoming disillusioned with the traditional channels for improvement, and that there was an ever-widening gulf between the older generation of conservative union leaders and the rank and fi `le, many of them young, articulate and convinced that their leaders had ’sold out’ to the very system they were trying to change. ` `However, in reality, the working classes were more worried about rising prices and unemployment. While they welcomed non-contributory old age pensions, they resented strongly having to pay the national insurance contributions in 1912, and some of the labour unrest could be attributed to this. `The Osbourne Judgement (1909) and the Governments four years’ delay in reversing this highly provocative legal decision made matters worse. It weakened the powers of the Labour Party and as they were the party most sympathetic to trade union demands, it be `came increasingly difficult for the trade unions to work through parliament; extra-parliamentary action was thus the only option. `The charges that the Liberal Government were responsible for the workers’ protest and that they aggravated relations between Capital and Labour remains to be examined. While it is true that their belief in the social and economic status quo ruled out any fundamental changes in the organisation of industry, they undoubtedly made a positive effort to understand, to help, and to satisfy trade union grievances wherever possible. It is difficult to fault the meditation in industrial crises of Lloyd George and Churchill and of Sir George Askwith, their highly competent conciliator. The Government went on to create permanent machinery for disputes (conciliation boards, the use of arbitration and the Industrial Council), and frequently appeared to side with the workers in the battle with their employers. Moreover, by carrying out important industrial reforms, such as the Eight Hours Act, the Trade Boards Act, and the Minimum Wages Act, they achieved real progress for working men that was not always appreciated by them at the time. Thus, it is hard to substantiate the claims that in its handling of the ‘labour question’ the Liberal Party was provoking further conflict. `Indeed, the above allegation could more aptly be applied to Asquith and the Liberal Party’s handling of the women’s suffrage issue. John Stuart Mill had begun the parliamentary campaign for women’s suffrage as far back as 1867, when he had tried unsuccessfully to amend the Reform Act so that it would include female as well as male householders. The respectable, constitutional movements for women’s suffrage set up after 1867 by Miss Becker and Mrs Fawcett had continued to present a reasoned case for women’s suffrage and to create a decisive shift of public opinion in favour of a moderate measure of reform. However, their attempts to persuade Parliament failed, and failure produced disillusionment and contempt for the constitutional approach among a militant female minority who, by their fanaticism and increasingly anarchical activities, posed a severe challenge to established authority. `The long term cause of this conflict was the fact that women had attained a wide measure of social and political emancipation in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and this had served to wet their appetites for more power. The legal status of women had been improved by the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 which allowed a woman to continue as the separate owner of her property when she married and by the Guardianship of Children Act (1886) which allowed a mother to claim custody of her children if her marriage broke up. Women’s political rights were also being advanced: in 1884 unmarried women were allowed to vote for the new county and borough councils. In 1894 both married and unmarried women were permitted to vote for the new urban and rural district councils and could stand for elections to these councils. `More short term factors to explain why the situation got out of hand include the fact that the procrastination of Asquith’s ministry was responsible both for discrediting constitutional methods and for causing the suffragettes to turn to civil disobedience. The Prime Minister was actively hostile to the idea of extending the franchise to women. As he told the Commons during the debates on the 1912 Conciliation Bill, ‘I oppose this … on the broad and simple grounds that in my opinion, as a student of history and of our own public life, experience shows that the natural distinction of sex, which admittedly differentiates the functions of men and women in many departments of human activity, ought to continue to be recognised as it always has been recognised, in the sphere of parliamentary representation.’ Taking advantage of the real political barriers to women’s suffrage, the limited amount of parliamentary time available and the growing volume of anti-suffrage opinion, Asquith deferred action, thereby provoking the suffragettes. ` `In June 1912, Asquith introduced a major reform measure, the Franchise and Registration Bill, designed to destroy plural voting and property qualifications for voting. It was the Government’s intention that the Bill should be amended to include female suffrage. It passed its second reading, but when the debate on the committee stage opened in January 1913, Mr. Speaker Lowther ruled in answer to a question that, since amendments granting women’s suffrage would change the nature of the Bill, it would have to be withdrawn and a new Bill introduced. Asquith therefore promised time for women’s suffrage in a private member’s Bill, but this measure was defeated by forty-seven votes in May, 1913, and women had still not got the vote when the First World War broke out. ` `Although the Speaker’s ruling on the 1913 Franchise Bill was not the Government’s fault, Asquith revealed his true feelings when he wrote privately to Venetia Stanley: ‘The Speaker’s coup d’tat has bowled over the Women for this session – a great relief.’ Moreover, there seems to have been an unfortunate disparity between the timid way the Government handled practically open rebellion in Ireland and their inhumane use of forcible feeding and the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act when dealing with militant women. Dr. Rover spotlights the failure of the Liberals and indeed of Liberalism on this issue: ‘As women were required to prove they wanted the vote without being able to ballot on the subject, they could only have recourse to demonstrations and agitation. If they behaved in an orderly manner, they were told that they did not show sufficiently strongly that they demanded enfranchisement and that they were weak, dependent creatures who ought not to have it. If on the contrary, they resorted to violence it was said that their behaviour proved they were unfitted to exercise the vote. `It is impossible, however, to condemn the Liberals entirely for what happened, since the suffragettes’ unwillingness to compromise and their unscrupulous campaign of violence were ultimately self-defeating. In their fury, the suffragettes mistakenly concentrated their attacks on the Liberals, who, in spite of the inaction of their leaders, were the women’s best hope of success since they were on balance the party more sympathetic to them. Politically damaged by suffragette activities, particularly in by-elections, the Liberals were even less disposed to meet their demands. As Dr. David Butler puts it: ‘If the militant suffragettes had not overreached themselves, some measure of female suffrage would probably have been achieved, but their violence exacerbated fears of what women might do with the vote if it were granted.’ `Between the years 1909 and 1914, there was a great deal of political, social and industrial unrest and conflict: the Commons versus Lords conflict brought to a climax by Lloyd George’s 1909 budget and skilfully handled by Asquith in probably his greatest achievement. Suffragette agitation, not particularly well handled by the government, which ought to have introduced a women’s suffrage bill before the situation got out of hand; however this was unlikely to happen as Asquith opposed votes for women. Industrial unrest was kept under control mainly thanks to Lloyd George, with the Government handling the strikes with a mixture of conciliation and firmness. And the Irish situation; worsened by the attitude of the Conservatives, but again, ineptly dealt with by Asquith and his ‘wait and see’ approach. `Historians have argued about just how serious the threats to law and order were, given the amount of violence and unrest. George Dangerfield in his vividly written The Strange Death of Liberal England argued that in 1914 Britain stood on the verge of anarchy and perhaps revolution. He believes that there would have been a massive general strike led by the Triple Alliance, probably in October 1914, ‘an appalling national struggle over the question of the living wage’. Coinciding with civil war in Ireland, this would have placed a enormous strain on the governments resources. Could the Liberals possibly have maintained law and order? Only the outbreak of the First World War saved Britain from an internal social catastrophe. On the other hand, many writers feel that this is exaggerated. T.O.Lloyd points out that there were the beginnings of a trade depression early in 1914 which would have made a strike less likely. Although people were uneasy about what might happen, ‘England in 1914 was not on the verge of plunging into disorder and chaos’. ` ` `Bibliography ` `Aiken K.W.W. The Last Years of Liberal England `Benning K. Edwardian Britain – Society in Transition `Cole & Postgate The Common People 1746-1946 `Dangerfield G. The Strange Death of Liberal England `Feuchtwanger E.J. Democracy and Empire `Lowe N. Mastering Modern British History `Morton G. Home Rule and the Irish Question `Pankhurst S. The Suffragette Movement `Read D. Edwardian England `Shannon R. The Crisis of Imperialism 1865-1915 `Taylor A.J.P. Essays in English History