The Tories’ Death-Wish

Kenneth O. Morgan

  • Tariff Reform in British Politics by Alan Sykes
    Oxford, 352 pp, £16.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 822483 4

‘What baffles one is the persistence of the party in a cause that was politically so calamitous.’ These perceptive words by Lord Blake, the foremost historian of the Conservative Party, aptly sum up the handling of the issues of protective tariffs and imperial preference by the Conservative or Unionist Party between 1903 and 1914. These Edwardian years were dominated by the Liberals, and especially by Lloyd George’s populistic brand of democratic radicalism and social reform. Yet the story is not so much one of the Liberals outplaying their sluggish rivals with a skilful display of virtuosity, as of the Tories, with resolute and impacable persistence, shooting through their own goal. The electoral landslide of January 1906 was almost entirely the product of Unionist mistakes, even though a Liberal majority of some dimensions was highly probable. The speed with which the deep divisions within Liberal ranks over the Boer War were healed was entirely due to the incompetence of their opponents. Saddled with the Dear Loaf and Rome on the Rates, with Chinese Slavery and Taff Vale, with Randlords and Landlords, Unionist candidates in constituency after constituency went down to inevitable and grinding defeat. Food taxes were their supreme liability, one fully exploited by the Liberals, who were able to point to recent improvements in the terms of trade, through an export-led boom.

After that débâcle, the Unionists looked like making a recovery by 1908. By-elections were turning sharply against the Liberal Government, whose legislative achievements to date were meagre, and who faced insistent pressure from the Labour Party on its left flank. But once again the Tories plucked defeat from the jaws of victory. Almost incredibly, they successively harnessed to themselves such dismal allies as the backwoods peers, the coal-owners, Ulster Covenanters, Welsh bishops, and generals of ambiguous loyalties. They left their opponents to ask the question ‘Who governs Britain?’ Most damaging of all, they continued to flirt with tariff reform until the end of 1913, long after the original economic rationale had faded, and in the face of repeated evidence of its unpopularity in the country, not least in agricultural areas. By then, though, the harm was done. On the eve of war, in the summer of 1914, it was the disconsolate Unionists whose morale was low: the Liberal Ministers were relatively buoyant. Far from dying ‘a strange death’, as Dangerfield had it, the Liberals retained the zest to govern. They offered in Asquith a presidential leader of unique gifts. In Lloyd George, now embarking on the radical new programme in relation to finance, local taxation, housing, health and land foreshadowed in his 1914 Budget proposals, they had the most dynamic and attractive force in public life. Marconi or no. It is by no means certain that the 1915 general election would not have seen the Liberals extending their ten-year lease of power, in renewed semi-coalition with a more aggressive but still basically ‘progressive’ Labour Party. Even in 1915, the Tories’ death-wish might again have prevailed. For a party so often popularly credited with an innate assumption of a providential right to govern, ‘in power or in opposition’, as Balfour once observed, it was a strange, anarchic, self-destructive phase.

Much new light is shed on these mysteries by Alan Sykes’s fascinating new book, which covers the 1903-13 period. He traces again the now familiar story of Joseph Chamberlain’s crusade for tariff reform, which captivated the party faithful and captured the party machine between 1903 and 1905. In particular, he emphasises the place of social reform in Chamberlain’s programme and the need to give Tory ‘democracy’ a broader working-class base. At the same time, Mr Sykes makes it clear that Chamberlain’s own concern with social reform was incidental and increasingly haphazard. It was imperial union, achieved by the fiscal link of preferential tariffs, that was the fundamental objective. Nor was it based on the empire as it actually existed: India, for example, played no part in Chamberlain’s grand design. It was also drawn from a sketchy analysis of the nature of the British economy, especially of the needs of domestic agriculture. Yet for some years, tariff reform swept all before it in Tory circles, the electoral débâcle of 1906 notwithstanding. It was notably assisted by the policy of drift pursued by Balfour, surely one of the most inept party leaders in history, even if one of the most intelligent. By contrast, the Unionist Free Traders, the Cecils, Gorst, Elliot and the rest, were repeatedly outmanoeuvred and outgunned. They were unable either to convince their party colleagues of the merits of free trade or to prise the liberal Imperialists away from their Liberal attachment. The efforts of Strachey in the Spectator, Cromer and others to form a new centre bloc in politics failed ignominiously: judged against their example, the prospects for Roy Jenkins in serving as pied piper of the centrists today cannot be encouraging. Of the 157 Unionists returned in the rout in January 1906, no more than 33, and probably even fewer, were free traders. The ‘whole hoggers’ had won the game, at least for the moment.

After 1906, Mr Sykes’s account becomes more original and interesting. The continuing attachment of most Unionists to tariff reform is related to the growing influence of labour upon politics. Events such as the Osborne Judgment, which shed grave doubt on the Trade Unions’ political levy, became central to Tory calculations. Another factor was the emergence of Milner, a much more dedicated social reformer and vigorous collectivist, as champion of the tariff reformers in place of the ailing Chamberlain. Mr Sykes has much of interest to say on the rise of the Milnerites (so important in political history down to 1922) and also on the role of W.A.S. Hewins, director of the LSE and an ardent tariff reformer, as Balfour’s economic mentor between 1906 and 1910. But the tariff retained its general unpopularity, especially in free-trade Lancashire which had so long been the very epitome of Tory hopes of building up a viable Tory democracy. Social reform, in its Liberal guise, easily outbid tariff reform here. Attempts to field a string of Tory working-class protectionist candidates in the January 1910 election failed, while, the TUC bluntly announced that tariff reform was a ‘malignant disease’ that would push up the workers’ cost of living, and provide no remedy for either unemployment or under-consumption. In addition, tariff reform was yoked with the class-war posture of the House of Lords which had rejected Lloyd George’s ‘people’s budget’. The general election of December 1910 saw the first dawning recognition within the Unionist higher command that food taxes met with scant popular allegiance. In somewhat curious circumstances, they committed themselves to a referendum on tariffs (the contemporary panacea for constitutional difficulties, in contrast to the nostrum of electoral reform fashionable in some centrist circles today). Again they failed. The last phase of the Tory commitment to tariffs came with Lloyd George’s new land campaign in the autumn of 1913. This led to great difficulties for the Unionists, not least in their attitude towards the protection of agriculture. Unionist farmers were rebellious now. Spokesmen for Northern agricultural interests reported that ‘we shall not make any progress in the West Riding while food taxes occupy so prominent a place in the party programme.’ The Tory riposte to Lloyd George lay in land purchase and higher productivity, rather than in tariffs. By the end of 1913, food taxes were no longer part of the Tories’ immediate programme. Milner and the agricultural reformers turned instead to the theme of greater technical, productive efficiency. The Unionists gave up any serious attempt to claim to represent the working class. They turned again into an unalloyed employers’ party, digging in to defend private property and a hierarchical social order. Chamberlain’s tariff crusade had foundered on the political and social realities.

As far as it goes, Mr Sykes’s account is very helpful. It is based on an impressive range of manuscript and printed sources, and a secure understanding of the intricacies of Unionist politics at the time. Building on the foundations that he has laid, three further lines may, perhaps, be suggested. Politically, the link between tariff reform and the Liberal Party needs further exploration – and the link with the Labour Party, too, if one thinks of Blatchford. Grayson and the British Socialist Party. Despite its title, this book is concerned almost entirely with the political Right. In particular, the ambivalence shown by Lloyd George towards tariffs from 1905 onwards requires comment. His period at the Board of Trade in 1905-8 (ignored here, as in so much of the literature) was to witness some notable deviations from strict free trade, especially in the Patents and Merchant Shipping Acts. He flirted with the idea of imperial preference at the 1907 colonial prime ministers’ conference, and ‘believed in businessmen’ (to quote Lincoln Steffens) for the rest of his career. In 1910, his projected Lib-Con coalition would have relegated free trade, along with other ‘Old Liberal’ shibboleths like Irish home rule, the Lords veto and Welsh disestablishment, to the status of a ‘non-controversial’ issue to be settled on non-controversial lines. This was a serious phase in his career, as John Grigg’s fine biography makes clear. It is certainly not enough to dismiss the 1910 coalition memorandum, as Mr Sykes does, as the product of ‘an attack of nerves’. From 1910 onwards, L.G. was to some degree an Empire man, if not protectionist. He was a free-thinker in finance as in religion. This applied, too, to followers of his such as Addison and Mond. By 1917, the alliance between Lloyd George and the social imperialist Milner was a vital axis in political life. The Lloyd George premiership of 1918-22 saw significant inroads into the purity of free trade, with imperial preference embodied in Austen Chamberlain’s 1919 Budget, the ‘safeguarding’ of key industries and attempts to rescue the currency in the face of depreciated exchanges overseas. To attribute the quasi-protectionism of the post-war coalition simply to its Tory majority simply will not do. The extent to which Lloyd George and other secular-minded Liberals deviated from the Cobdenite true faith is worth inquiry, too.

Secondly, a much fuller reconstruction is needed of the economic and financial debates of pre-1914 Britain. Indeed, the discussion here of the economic difficulties of Edwardian Britain is unduly brief. In the face of the free traders’ mindless patriotic optimism about the staple industries and the power of ‘invisible exports’, the tariff reformers did generate a powerful debate about basic structural problems in Britain’s trading and investment patterns and within British industry and agriculture. It chimed in with new concern, at the turn of the century, about foreign competition and higher standards of productivity, technical skill and managerial competence in Germany, the United States and elsewhere. The Chamberlain men also drew attention to the need for new questions to be asked about the production of wealth in Britain, and not merely its more equitable distribution, the standard theme of J.A. Hobson and other Liberal pundits. They pointed out, also, the need for a broad inquiry into the financial base for social welfare, and the political and social assumptions on which welfare policy was based. This underlay the arguments about the Budget of 1909 and even that of 1914, with the need to uncover fresh sources of revenue through rating reform and to strike a new balance between local and central expenditure. It led the Liberals to find new forms of direct taxation, to combat the insidious appeal of tariffs and taxes on consumption. Again, it is a welcome feature of Mr Sykes’s book that he leads us on to these wider considerations.

Finally, a new political study of Joseph Chamberlain still seems urgently needed in spite of Denis Judd’s concise biography and the massive labours of Garvin and Amery. The quality of Chamberlain’s radicalism, his iconoclasm and idealism, his values and motivation, require further investigation: Richard Jay’s forthcoming study of Chamberlain will therefore be ardently welcomed by all historians. Chamberlain, with his racism, his jingoism and his frequent philistinism, may seem an unattractive figure today. For all that, as a catalyst, as a positive as well a destructive force, he looms massively over British public life in the early 20th century. Long after his death, notably through their being championed by his son, Neville, his causes lived on and conquered. Studies exist of John Bright and Lloyd George, those other great radical, Nonconformist, provincial outsiders. A revisionist look at Joseph Chamberlain remains a major gap in our historical armoury.