1900s in the United Kingdom


In 1902 A J Balfour became Prime Minister of a Conservative Government. The nation was relieved that the Boer War was over. The Afrikaners called it De Tweede Vreiheides Oorlog (The Second Freedom War). For the Afrikaners the First South African War (sometimes called the First Boer War) was De Eerste Vreiheides Oorlog (The First Freedom War).

The United Kingdom’s national debt jumped considerably as a result of the war. People were also rattled by the UK’s relatively poor performance in the war. The world superpower had taken two and a half years to defeat the poorly armed Afrikaner states. The British Empire looked vulnerable. A third of the volunteers for the army during the Boer War were rejected on the grounds of being unfit for military service. People lamented the ”unfitness of the race.” A century of slum dwelling had meant that many working class boys had rickets and the like.

The Liberal Party bitterly attacked the Conservatives over poverty. They said that under the Conservatives millions of people had been reduced to penury. The working poor had barely enough to eat. About 70% of the population was working class. ABout 35% of the population lived in poverty. Around 29% of the population was middle class. Perhaps 1% was upper class. The working poor included those who were not in regular employment.They were navvies and other seasonal workers.

Some people were anxious about this poverty. Anti-poverty campaigns were organised by churches and other charities. Others thought that the youth needed to be tempered by military training. Drill halls were set up. Men would meet their to wear army uniforms, march outside and practise shooting. Sir Robert Baden-Powell was an army officer who had served with great distinction in South Africa. In 1907 he helped to found the Boy Scouts. He held a camp for boys at Brown Sea Island. This was the first even scout camp. Scouting then took off as a worldwide movement. Boys were encouraged to observe their religion whatever it may be and to be loyal to their land. They wore uniforms and learnt scout craft – map reading, how to light a camp fire and pitch a tent. It was self consciously quasi military.

The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were fusing more and more. People often called them Unionists since they both believed in the Union. When people spoke of the Conservatives they usually meant the Liberal Unionists too. Officially they were two separate parties who worked in tandem. In reality they were blurring into each other.

The Labour Representation COmmittee had been founded in the 1890s. In 1900 it became the Labour Party. Labour stood at the 1900 election and garnered 2% of the votes. Some Liberals formed local pacts with Labour. Some towns were double seater constituencies. A constituency would return two members of Parliament. The Conservatives would put up to candidates. The Liberals and Labour would field one candidate apiece. This way they had a good chance that at least one anti-Conservative would be elected. This helped the Liberals remain strong in certain areas and keep the COnservatives out. In the long run it may have sown the seeds of the Liberal Party’s decline.



King Edward VII has ascended the throne in January 1901 on the death of his mother Victoria. Edward VII was a noted boulevardier. He was a francophile but French satirical magazines ribbed him for his heavy drinking and womanising. He had a mistress named Alice Keppel. She was an ancestress of Camilla Parker Bowles. Edward VII has been described as a ”corpulent voluptuary.” Despite his louche ways he was a distant and authoritarian father. He said that he had been terrified of his father and would ensure that his sons were scared of him.

Edward VII said that he was a referee in the dirty game of politics. Unlike his mother he did his best to conceal his preferences.

In 1902 Edward VII sailed to India for his Durbar. A durbar is a coronation ceremony. This took place at the emperor’s camp north of Delhi. New Delhi had not yet been built. Edward VII received the homage of hundreds of Indian princes. There was some grumbling from Congress politicians who felt that the ritual was too costly and backward looking. One princeling accidentally turned his back on the Emperor of India. Some advanced nationalists assumed the prince was slighting Edward VII and they were elated.  Edward VII had of course been through this before. He had undergone a like ritual in the 1870s when he represented his mother. Victoria never went to India. Monarchs almost never travelled abroad. Moreover, it was hard for many Indians to accept that they were ruled by a woman.



In 1904 a Conservative MP defected to the Liberals. His name was Winston Spencer-Churchill. Honourable Spencer-Churchill was the son of the late Lord Randolph Churchill. Winston Spencer-Churchill decided to drop the first barrel of his surname. He then treated Spencer as a middle name – Winston S Churchill. This was also to move himself up the alphabetical order. Hon Churchill had made a name for himself as a journalist in Sudan and in Cuba covering the revolt against the Spanish colonial authorities. He had also been a journalist in South Africa and engaged in fighting. He was captured. He later escaped and the hunt for him was extensively reported in the press. This buoyed up British morale at a time when the war was otherwise going dismally. He escaped by stowing away on a train to Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). At Lourenco Marques he had walked to the British consul. He was hailed as a hero when he returned to the United Kingdom and subsequently elected for Oldham in the Liberal interest.

Churchill had admitted in his early 20s that he was of Liberal leanings. He joined the Conservatives because his family connections gave him the best chance of advancement in that party. His conversion to the Liberals had been largely opportunistic. It was seen as a weather vane. If someone unprincipled like Churchill defected to the Liberals then it meant the Liberals were on the up.

The Conservatives considered a moderate form of Home Rule for Ireland called devolution. Conservative backbenchers barracked their leadership for mulling over this policy. It would jettison a core Conservative policy. The scheme was abandoned.

Unionists began to consider tariff reform. This meant taxing imports from outside the British Empire. The British EMpire would be a free trade zone. This would protect imperial industry and agriculture. Some called this imperial preference. Free trade was a shibboleth of Liberalism. The Liberals had emerged from those Whigs and Conservatives who had been against the corn laws. Ironically Joseph Chamberlain, a Liberal Unionist, was one of the most outspoken advocates of imperial preference. Radical Joe had become Imperial Joe. This was a give to the Liberals. They denounced this as a tax on survival. It would hit the poorest hardest.

The Liberal leader was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Campbell-Bannerman was a north Britisher. He was not an especially inspiring figure. He was something of a compromise between the moderates and the radicals within the party. Sir Henry was also completely middle class in his origins. He was the first Prime Minister to be unquestionably bourgeois.

In December 1905 the Conservative Government fell. King Edward VII asked Campbell-Bannerman if he could form a government. Sir Henry said that he could and obliged. It is important to note that the Liberal Government dates from 1905 and not 1906 as is often erroneously stated. Campbell-Bannerman formed a Liberal Government and immediately called an election. In January 1906 an election took place.

Asquith was one of the most prominent Liberals. He campaigned with two loaves – a big one and a small one. Which would you rather have for a penny? He said that the Unionists would bring in tariff reform. This would drive up the price of the staple food. It would hit the poorest. Churchill said, ”We know what another Conservative Government will mean: dear food for the millions – cheap labour for the millionaire.”

The Liberals triumphed in the 1906 election. The Conservatives were reduced to 130 seats. This was their worst result ever. What went wrong for the Unionists? Their leader Balfour was lacklustre. The Party had been in office for over 10 years. The Unionist Government had led the country to an ignominious victory in South Africa. Taxes had had to go up.

The Liberals had an ambitious plan to tackle poverty. State pensions were introduce. These old age pensions were contributory. ANyone who had spent time in prison was excluded. The Liberals brought in tea braks at work. This was an idea piloted through by Winston Churchill. They also founded labour exchanges. Jobless persons had previously to traipse from one place to another seeking work. National Insurance became the basis of paying for old age pensions, unemployment benefit, sickness insurance and accident insurance. There were free medical inspections at schools but no free healthcare.

A law was passed restricting smoking to those over 16. Children were banned from pubs. Fines were introduced for minor offences such as swearing and urinating in the street. Until then people went to prison for a few days for these misdemeanours.

In 1908 Campbell-Bannerman fell ill and resigned the Premiership. King Edward VII appointed Henry Herbert Asquith in the stead of Campbell-Bannerman. H H Asquith was the son of a Yorkshire businessman.

SOme Conservative began to agitate for national service. By this they meant compulsory military service. Almost every other country in Europe had it. The British Army was tiny compared to those of other large countries. Half the British Army was abroad at any one time.

The Germans began to expand their navy. Germany had acquired colonies at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. She ruled Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Dahomey, Cameroon, Namibia, the Caroline Islands and Papua New Guinea as well as a few ports in China such as Tsingtao. In order to protect her trade routes she needed a substantial navy.

This explanation did not wash with His Majesty;s Government. The British Government was suspicious that Germany had aggressive intentions. Germany may have been defensive. Without a formidable navy it would be easy for the Royal Navy to cut off Germany from her colonies and other markets.

Germany had overtaken the United Kingdom economically. She produced more goods and coal than the UK. This was not just in total but per worker. Her products were better and cheaper. The UK was falling further behind. Russia was undergoing and industrial revolution. Russia was breathing down Britian’s neck. In the 1920s Russia would surely overtake the UK as the third industrial nation.

The Unionists demanded that the Liberal Government spend more on the navy and build more warships. The Royal Navy had invented the dreadnought. This class of battleship had this name since it had nothing to fear. It could outsail anything it could not outshoot and outshoot anything it could not outsail. The trouble was this rendered all pre existing warships obsolescent. Pre-dreadnoughts were not scrapped. They were just no longer so powerful.

The Germans soon stole blueprints for the dreadnought. They were able to build their own.

The Liberals gave into Unionist pressure and ordered more warships. This had an unintended effect of reducing unemployment in Liberal strongholds in south-west England, Clydeside, north-east England and so forth.

The cost of building up the navy meant that the government could no longer afford its social reform programme. How were ends to meet? There was an increase in taxation. The Liberals introduced progressive taxation. That is to say the more one earned the higher a proportion of one’s income one had to pay. The highest band was called supertax. Supertax was sometimes abbreviated to surtax. Some wags quipped that it was ”Sir” tax since knights and baronets were most likely to pay it. Gladstone, that Liberal prophet, had spoken against progressive taxation. Labour was adamantly in favour of graduated taxation. The wealthy spluttered with indignation that they should have to pay more income tax.

Despite undoubted Liberal successes the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists recovered rather quickly. Despite his lack of the common touch A J Balfour remained leader. One of their luminaries Joseph Chamberlain died. His son Austen Chamberlain was later elected leader of the party.

The Labour Party was gaining strength. Even though the Liberals did much to alleviate poverty this only seemed to increase Labour support. The trades unions were gaining members. There were ever more strikes.



As part of the Liberals’ wide ranging efforts to reduce privation they introduced an audacious budget in 1909. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer was David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was abominated by Conservatives for his fervent opposition to the Second South African War. Lloyd George was an unashamed Liberal. He said that cottage bred people like him intended to help the needy. He was forthright in denouncing privilege whether it be economic privilege or the position of the Church of England in Wales where it had state protection despite being the denomination of a minority.

Lloyd George announced the people’s budget in purple prose. ”This is a war budget. We are waging war on squalor and ignorance.”

In the House of Commons the Liberal majority made sure that the budget passed easily. The House of Lords was firmly within the Conservative grasp. Tory peers voted down the budget. So began parliamentary ping pong. Asquith fulminated that it was wrong for the House of Peers to stand athwart the will of the elected chamber. Many Conservative lords replied that they were entitled to vote on money bills as any other. Moreover, this bill was not mentioned in the Liberal manifesto. Asquith warned that if the Lords persisted in blocking the budget then an election would have to be called early. As the Lords continued to prevent the passage of this bill H H Asquith went to Buckingham Palace and requested a dissolution of Parliament. His Gracious Majesty Edward VII acceded to this request.

About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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