The Liberal landslide of 1906

Today, it's a hundred years since voting began in the 1906 general election, in which the ruling Conservatives lost in a landslide to the Liberal Party. The new government, with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as PM (followed in 1908 by H.A. Asquith), had 400 seats; the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists managed only 156 between them.As a percentage of the national vote, however, it was much closer: 49% to 44%. This ushered in a most interesting time in British history: this parliament saw the dreadnought, spy and airship panics of 1909, the beginnings of British airpower and indeed the start of airpower politics. The general public first became generally aware of powered flight in this period, and the first signs of concern over air attack appeared; Blériot became the first to fly across the English channel. Outside of my parochial concerns, there were the beginnings of the welfare state, the People's Budget and the confrontation with the House of Lords. And two giants of British politics were introduced to the national - indeed, the world - stage: David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The fun didn't end with the 1910 election(s) either - but that's another story.

Anyway, congratulations to the Liberal Party! I haven't finished reading my British History for Dummies yet, so I don't know what they've been up to in the century since then, but with a start like that I'm sure they've gone from strength to strength :D

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11 thoughts on “The Liberal landslide of 1906

  1. At a tangent: given the UK Liberal Democrats' recent implosion and effective dismissal of their leader due to his admission of (long-term and widely-known) heavy drinking, I doubt whether the party will have had time to celebrate the anniversary of the 1906 Liberal landslide. The media coverage of the rather sad recent events has been a binge of hypocrisy and misrepresentation, particularly from the points of view of any of us with a historical perspective. Charles Kennedy has not, even under duress, said 'I am an alcoholic' (whatever that means, for it has no single meaning) despite the media implications that this is what he has admitted to. What he has said, in the traditionally pragmatic manner of the 'Celtic Fringe' which has produced so many leading Liberals, is 'I drink too much'. You mention Churchill and Asquith, both legendary imbibers (and, on the other hand, Lloyd George - the 'waterer of the workers' beer'). Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, and even, according to some recent reports, Margaret Thatcher, could be added to the 'heavy boozer' list. All would, doubtless, have agreed with Churchill that "I have taken more out of drink than drink has taken out of me." Had twentieth-century British public life relied upon immediate resignation due to heavy alcohol consumption, how different the history of the country - and the world - may have been… (Discuss?!)

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Wow, yes, it's hard to imagine a boozer like Churchill being tolerated by the press these days! When did this censoriousness start? There have been period panics about working class drinking habits for a long time, of course, going back to gin palaces in the 18th century and the like, but as you say, the nation's leaders could get away with it. I would have guessed some time around the 60s ... when the press started to become less deferential to politicians and suchlike? (I guess I'm thinking Profumo.) But if so, how did Thatcher (if she did indeed like to tipple) get away with it, in the era of the tabloids? Perhaps it came later then. Or maybe it's that it's tolerated as long as the drinker is successful as a leader, but if they start to slip it is latched onto as a convenient excuse to jettison them.

    I can't say there would be a similar issue here in Australia. But then, of course, our previous-PM-but-one (Bob Hawke) held the world's record for the fastest consumption of beer, which probably qualifies him to be a National Living Treasure :)

  3. I only read the Thatcher comment in press reports about the current Charles Kennedy furore; something about frequently 'smelling whisky on her breath'. She wasn't a heavy drinker, but that's the point - it's now reached the stage where almost anything amounts to heavy drinking. A la Ogden Nash (I think?), an alcoholic is indeed sometimes someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do.

    Yet, for reasons I can only summarize as chronic class-deference in this Old Country, we still seem to find the amount that Churchill, in particular, consumed to be an 'amusing' part of the Churchill myth. It is sometimes linked with his apparent 'battle' with depression - but I've never seen it suggested that the booze might have fuelled, not masked or 'medicated' his depression... Now don't misunderstand me: I'm neither belittling the personal horror which is alcoholism, nor suggesting that we apply current values retrospectively and ahistorically. But while we might accept that Churchill's consumption may have added to his 'Great Man' status in the discourses of the time, why do we still seem happy to smile at that as part of his myth in _absolute_ terms?

    As for applying censoriousness to our current 'leaders', I believe the turning point came at the end of the 80s/early 90s with the rise of the 'psychiatrization of everything', the 'Oprah-' and 'Diana-fication' of the public spheres, and the widespread use (and sometimes over-use) of Prozac. The strange Blairite combination of puritanism and 'touch-feelyness' is an extension of all of this; but then, I wrote my best 6,000 word MA paper on these last points. As it is rather a hobbyhorse of mine, all highly inflammatory, and wildly off the topic of the 1906 Liberal landslide, I shall stop!

  4. One self-correction: Anthony Eden wasn't a drinker. He was a heavy user of amphetemines; like that other, more famous, Kennedy, JF. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, used virtually everything going while directing US activities in Vietnam...

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author

    I think it's precisely because of the Churchill myth that we tend to accept it as an amusing foible - as Angus Calder (I think) says regarding the Blitz, attempts to revise the myth tend not to subvert it but become incorporated into it (or else ignored altogether). So the great man had feet of clay? That just shows he was human, and makes his achievements all the more impressive. And so on. Whereas with Asquith, for example, I think we would tend to just shake our heads when we hear that he was visibly drunk when speaking to Parliament - Asquith doesn't have the mythical status to help prop him up (so to speak) that Churchill does. Nor does poor old Charles Kennedy ...

  6. You're absolutely right, Brett: myth as 'amusing' protection/immunization against criticism of serious personality foibles/flaws - I'll be using that one.

    Incidentally, Calder's 'Myth of the Blitz' is one of the most interesting books I've ever read, and can perhaps be said to have changed my life. The fact that my now PhD supervisor Dan Todman - of 'TrenchFever' and "The Great War: Myth & Memory" - set it as part of my MA course proved a major turning point for me. It, and Dan, made me challenge my own prejudices against "Military History" (although the exceptions continue to prove the rule in that field, for me personally). Over time, this became why, although we perhaps look like on odd match on paper, and I had more obvious and, er, "senior" candidates available, I specifically asked Dan to supervise me in writing a PhD on the 'mythic' 1960s.

    Has Dan's book reached Australia yet? I would strongly recommend it: discursive yet narrative; empirical yet cultural; rational yet passionately engaged; about WWI (specifically the Western Front) yet far more universally relevant; and simply, accessibly and amusingly written. If you haven't read it yet, I really think you should. And he doesn't know I'm saying this!

  7. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, The Myth of the Blitz is a top book, and it's definitely an exemplar of the "new" military history. I quite enjoy the old sort, from time to time - but I don't think I'd want to actually do it myself.

    Dan's book hasn't turned up here yet, but as it happens I got impatient and ordered it from Amazon UK the other day! Which with my luck probably means it will be in the local bookshops next week, and cheaper too ...

  8. A final postscript to our alcohol debate. I've just watched a BBC Four documentary which made me wonder if someone at the Beeb is an 'Airminded' fan:

    "Tired and Emotional"
    Wed 25 Jan, 21:00 - 22:00 60 mins
    Do drink and politics mix?
    The history of British politics is partly one of mammoth drinking sessions and politicians fortifying themselves to cope with the demands of the job. From Churchill's whisky glass to George Brown's tired and emotional reputation, some of our leaders' best, and worst, professional episodes have been carried out under the influence.
    Eddie Mair explores the history of drink in the corridors of power, and how social attitudes of what is, and isn't, acceptable have changed from 'squiffy' Asquith and William Pitt the Younger to the Liberal Democrat's recent woes.

    Unfortunately, this was a hugely missed opportunity: shallow, 'whimsical', narrative history which never rose anywhere near the level of analysis. Perhaps we should move into Anglo-Australian television production, Brett?

  9. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Oh, I think it's better to concentrate on getting the PhD now, and then the book deals, TV don gigs and fame and fortune generally are sure to follow! I mean that's practically guaranteed, right? :D

    I'll have to look out for the documentary - they sometimes pop up over here.

  10. Tom

    i think that the history of Britain is really intresting and that the wisdom used by the liberals durring the 1906 election was top class

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