July 28, 2009

British Politcs before World War I division and polarization, Guns and Butter

IN the political era before World War 1 many issues dominated politics that today are minor issues electorally. However some issues that matter today were also large issues then.

One was closely linked to imperial issues and that was defence and defence spending. The linked questions of how high UK defence spending would whether Britain should join the bulk of major European powers that practised conscription , how hard a line should be taken against threats (France in the 1890's Germany afterwards) were all linked questions perhaps unsurprisingly the party of empire and national union the conservatives were predominantly more hawkish and militaristic- though there were plenty of hawks ( Winston Churchill was a strongly left wing liberal in this era)) in the liberals and many Tories had some dovish tendencies (Andrew Bonar Law was at least in peacetime dubious about conscription for example) the immediate run up to World War 1 saw an increasingly assertive stand against Germany-and an increasingly high defence budget (particularly defending British naval superiority against a Germany fleet designed around sinking it). This change was under a liberal government the party less keen on such measures-and despite this they were attacked by many conservatives and unionists as being insufficiently radical in this shift. The famous writer Rudyard Kipling (a fervent well connected Tory) was one of the most famous of these critics. Many Tories took what happened in World War 1 as a vindication of these pre war criticisms’. Kipling’s famous words "If any ask us why we died, say twas because our fathers lied" are an attack on what he saw as pre war excessive pacifism(not onthe war itself as they are so often represented and as I wwent around for years beleving) which in his eyes had led to devastation at the hands of Germany. In turn of course the horrors of the war also produced a huge upsurge of anti war sentiment-though by this time Labour even more than the liberals were the prime necessary channel. Even before the war naval bases and construciotn sites such as Bootle tended to be strongly Conservative.

Economics was also a major issue in this period. To some degree this involved debates about the expansion (or even creation) of the Welfare state- Conservatives were more sceptical than liberals) and a "new liberalism" became increasingly central in the early decades of the 20th century. However both liberal support and Tory opposition were muted and mixed. The great John Morley a leading liberal stuck to the old Gladstonian faith in small government and in the pre war era the rising Tory star F.E. Smith was a big advocate of an expansion in such support.

The bigger differences were on how to pay for such changes. The Tories by 1906 in large measure prompted by this question had mostly come around to supporting protectionism-this support was basically unanimous for those Tories who did support expanded welfare This had had the somewhat ironic effect that by 1910 the handful of Tories such as Hugh Cecil who were free trade tended to be on the hard right wing of the Conservative party on other issues. .Protection provided a measure for providing such support that fitted in well with Tory ideology, defending against foreigners and holding together both the country and more significantly the empire ("imperial preference" was the preferred term by conservatives). The liberals would take no stand since the 1850's Gladstone had inspired them into an monolithic commitment to free trade-when that cracked a bit even in Britain in the early 20th century era of rising tariffs (the Uk was still the last major country to reimpose tariffs-in the eaerly 1930's) . This gave them a powerful cry "cheap bread" Tariffs were probably the great vulnerability of the conservatives- so much so that by the 1910's they’d increasingly come around to promising a referendum before tariffs were to be introduced.

However the liberals had to pay for the spending elsewhere - and this caused them their own problems. If the Tories sought revenue in accordance with ideas of nationalism and imperialism the liberals tended to seek revenue according to their own ideology- fighting "privilege" this led to supports for some increase in income taxation-and even more inheritance "death duties" and land tax. This alienated from the liberals both the very well off (who were hit hardest by these taxes)but also significantly highly rural areas whose incomes would be directly or indirectly hit by land taxes. In the 1910 election the liberals did badly in their traditional dissenting west country strongholds and terribly in the bread basket of the south east). Only In Ireland and rural Wales where issues of religion and constitution trumped bread and butter issues did rural anti tourism weather this effect.

One major economic issue did not fit well into the conflict between the two parties. The rights and immunities of trade unions. The Labour Party in the UK was not born (initially) as a Socialist party but as a party to defend the interests of Labour Unions from "aggression" by the Taft Vale which stripped trade unions of many legal immunities (nearly all subsequently re-abolished by Thatcher). Though liberals tended to be more sympathetic to the claims of trade unions ultimately their claims fitted well neither into the Tory vision of national and religious union and the defence of property or into liberals dislike of "privilege" (in a way that was not true of protectionism) thus the early Labour party (still very much the poor relative) was created by and benefitted a great deal from the existence of one cleavage that had difficulty fitting in with the existing major party lines. So strong was it's support that both parties reached out to it’s to al-the liberals as a deal with the labour party (and to gain the support of trade unionists in many liberal held seat) essentially repealed Taft Vale and a Tory dominated house of lords did not dare block repeal- the same house of lords of 1906-1910 that killed most other major liberal legislation from Wales to tax.

Finally an issue should be mentioned that crosses most categories -immigration, in this era a minor issue mostly to do with Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. It was however bitterly unpopular in many such areas. Unsurprising the party of religious establishment, nationally solidarity and suspicion of foreign economic competition-the conservatives were the party that supported restrictions more avidly-and gave them a great vote in the eastern slums of London.

Lastly one issue should be mentioned that combined all the issues economic, constitutional and even international - the powers of the House of Lords. After 1886 the House of Lords was nearly monolithically Conservative (home rule in 1894 had passed the commons-and was then voted down 10-1 in the Lords).This was unsurprinsly given its membership was overwhelinglyvery affluent and Anglican. Thus it acted as a guarantee of the interest of the side the conservative party incline on all such issues- including property taxation and the constitutional structure. It's undemocratic (indeed at that point overwhelmingly hereditary) nature made it a ready target for the liberals-and their campaign against the frustration of their agenda by the lord probably staved off defeat in both 1910 elections. AT the same time of course voters who strongly opposed land tax or home rule-had every reason. too back the Houseof Lords retention’s of its powers One reason why theories nearly won the 1910 election on defending an undemocratic house-was so many voters thought the behaviour of the house justified it’s power.

This is of course a picture of David Lloyd George- the man whose budget in 1909 domiantd the first of the two 1910 elections and helped trigger the destruction of most of the powers of the Lords He did as much as nearly anyone to polarize the British electorate to an unprecedented degree in the run up to the "Great War".


James Higham said...

Your writing of my era of study now. The amazing plethora of alliances always gets me and it was thus inevitable that war must arise. As Buchan said, 'That had been booked, arranged.'

Anonymous said...

Thanks James I persalyincline to the view it was more the result of German intensions than anything else but i'm sure people will continue to debate it!


Vino S said...

Kipling's quote does sound odd. Surely if he was trying to blame the war on a complacent attitude among the pre-WW1 British gov't he would have said soemthing along the lines of "...we are dying because our fathers did not bother to prepare us..." It seems odd to accuse them of _lying_.

The whole issue of tariffs and social reform is interesting. I have always been a bit puzzled about how, after 1846, the Tories accepted free trade and then, post-1900, swung against it. It seems to me, though, that tariffs would have had a regressive effect. Tories were thus proposing to fund the nascent welfare state via regressive taxes; the Liberals were proposing to fund it by progressive taxes. I definitely prefer the latter!

Sulla said...

Kiplings' quote i think is abit like a mirror of lots of attitudes against the Iraq war today. HIs point was that liberals etc had lied in saying Germany wasn ot a threat war was not a danger , we dint need massive rearnament had been a lie, there can never been another major war, the liberals can prevent one etc - and the result had been the deaths of so many men in World War I. He may have meant self-deception more- but I wouldn't necessarily think he was being so generous!

The Tariff issue is obviously diverse-i think the growing enthuasim for empire also played it's part with the tories-in a sense it was the least popular side of imperalism-and the least consensual and 1906 was the reverse of 1900. Obviously tarifs would have been regressive.