Why were the Liberals defeated in the general election of 1874?

While it has to be conceded that these were conceived with good intentions, it was their implementation and the attendant disastrous results that proved to be the party’s undoing. Reform had been the very soul of the party, which it had assiduously built from its inception.

Yet, in carrying out these reforms, the Liberal Party went overboard, much to its own detriment. Its reformatory zeal, which saw it carry out a series of reforms when it was in office in the period from 1868 to 1874, worked eventually to the advantage of the Tories, for most of its reforms, though carried out in earnest, were implemented without taking into account the intricacies and sensitivities of the constituencies they hurt. If the reforms were carried out to cater to one section of society, they invariably ended up antagonising another. Unable to balance these entrenched political institutions and lobbies, the party slid to defeat in 1874.

To this core cause of their defeat were added some secondary factors such as the legendary organisational and oratorical skills of the leader of the Conservative (Tory) Party, Benjamin Disraeli, who used these to good effect in the years his party was out of power and mobilised public opinion in its favour, and the fallout of economic difficulties caused by the corn crisis, and the depression of 1873. More than anything else, the significance of the Liberal Party’s loss in this election is profound -although it was to return to power in 1880, the election of 1874 turned out to be the seminal event of the start of its decline. The 1874 verdict signalled the death-knell of this party, whose redundancy to the British political system was officially sealed in this election. In less than half a century from this election, the Liberals were nearly wiped out from the political scene in Britain.

Part II:

Background to the elections of 1874:

The Liberals had been returned with a thumping majority in the 1868 election, in which they had fought on almost the same ideology that had dominated the party almost from its birth. If the policies of the establishment towards the Church became the plank from which they attacked the ruling establishment on the domestic front, the policy towards the United States of America was the platform on which they sought to establish themselves among the public. In the years leading to the elections of 1868, public opinion in Britain was strongly divided between the Leftist Liberals and the Conservatives.

The Civil War in America had provided a strong impetus for the polarisation of Britain’s leading political parties. Being Leftist in orientation, the Liberals looked to the American ideal of freedom and enormous wealth, while the Conservatives had mourned the loss of this fabulously endowed colony to a handful of people, who in their opinion were renegades who had nothing but total scorn and irreverence to the Empire. (Pelling, 1956, pp. 1-3) The Liberal Party had sought to extend its base among the electorate by building upon one of its foremost founding principles, as it had done in almost all previous elections -the Lockean theory of natural rights and the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. (Hudelson, 1999, p. 30) Its ideology was rooted in the formative years of its development dating to the late 18th century, and it believed in minimal government interference in the affairs of administration.

To it, “[s]ince the greatest danger of interference in the lives of individuals came from governments, (it) emphasized political liberty as the essential prerequisite for liberty in all its phases… Committed to the spiritual progress of the individual in its broadest sense, liberals believed in change and reform…” (Di Scala ; Mastellone, 1998, pp. 30, 31)

An era of reforms: In a few years leading to elections of 1868, England had been in the throes of extremely important changes, which necessitated major reforms in the social and political arenas. Beginning in the few years prior to Victoria’s ascension to the throne of England, there had been a series of reforms, the credit for whose initiation both the Tories and Liberals could take in almost equal measure. The prelude to these reforms was the combination of two major factors -the spectacular change in the economy and the explosion of the country’s population.

The onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century necessitated political changes that had to absorb the dramatic transformation of the economy from an agricultural to an industrial mode. These reforms had also to take into account the demographic changes brought about by a sudden increase in the population. Though there were a series of reforms aimed at the economy, the most important reform of a political nature that matched these was the Reform Act of 1832. What this Act did was to increase the number of voters based on certain qualifications. (Hopkins, 2000, pp.1- 5) While this Act gave the right to vote to every male householder in the boroughs, who had occupied a house with a rental value of at least �10 (Disraeli, 1998, p. 434), this was felt outdated in a few years. This was to give rise to the Reform Act of 1867. Under the provisions of this Act, enfranchisement was extended to all male householders in the boroughs and of occupiers of houses whose value was estimated at above �12. This was to not only increase the number of voters, it also had the effect of creating a stratification of the constituencies. The system created was such that any one political party could gain an upper hand over the other.

What this increased electorate did was to create “…a more uniform constituency, particularly in the larger towns and in the counties. Previously, the smaller number of voters had led to the predominance of local interests, political, personal or sectional, and matters that swayed one constituency frequently failed to affect many others. The 1867 extension not only added more voters but tended to include whole groups with similar attitudes and needs. Thus while local influence was still powerful, particularly in the smaller boroughs, there was a common element in many constituencies which reacted in a similar fashion (to unemployment, better organisation, political appeals) all across the country. As a result, where national factors tended to benefit the government or its opponents in general elections, this benefit was registered by some successes in every type of seat.” (Mackintosh, 1962, pp. 162, 163) This is seen as one of the reasons the electorate swayed towards the Tories in 1874 -if Benjamin Disraeli could appeal to one constituency or class of the electorate, he could almost as effectively make the same impact on nearly the entire sweep of the voters. (Mackintosh, 1962, pp. 162, 163) The way in which he succeeded in this is illustrated later.

The Reform Act of 1867, of which the Tories were the architects may have provided for changes in the enfranchisement of the electorate, but they had not impacted the composition of the Liberal Party at the elections, which remained true to its radical character. “The 1867 Reform Act did not significantly change the social composition of the Liberal Party. Nearly half of the 384 Liberal MPs were drawn from the aristocracy and gentry, while almost a quarter could be classed as merchants and manufacturers. About sixty MPs were representatives of Nonconformist churches, such as Unitarians, Congregationalists or Baptists, or of Quakers, or Jews. A roughly equal number of MPs also seem to have generally sympathised with the Nonconformists, probably because many of their electorate were likeminded. From these figures, it would seem Gladstone would have to tread carefully, especially over religious questions, and this, of course, involved allied matters such as education and general social discrimination, particularly as these non-Anglicans had a radical reputation when approaching matters of this kind.” (Partridge, 2002, p. 108) The Reform Act of 1867, had, ironically, been carried out by the Tories, but helped the Liberals more, as it had compelled the Conservative Party to change their core character by making it more democratic, a change of image that had not gone particularly well with the electorate. It had particularly alienated the progressive middle class groups. (Sturmthal, 1953, p. 76) It was this set of factors that had helped accentuate the Liberals’ radical character. Thus, the Liberals had taken office in circumstances of strength. However, once in power under the premiership of Gladstone, they bungled up a series of reforms, their very raison d’ etre, which perhaps explains why the electoral verdict of 1874 threw up such a dramatically different result.

Part III:

General discussion:

Perhaps Gladstone’s policy in Ireland was to contribute to the defeat of the Liberals in 1874 like no other. An exploration of the Ireland case is a classic example of how the reforming zeal of Prime Minister Gladstone ricocheted on the party: Gladstone had considered Ireland his hobbyhorse from the time he assumed office. It is said that he famously remarked to the messenger who broke him the news of the election victory when he was felling a tree: ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’. His involvement in Ireland began almost immediately after he took office. Circumstances of the day had been such that he had to act in a great hurry about Ireland. When he became prime minister for the first time, it was at a time when passions about Ireland were running high in mainstream English life. Propelling him to act so urgently on Ireland was an earlier event that came to be known as the Fenian Rising of 1867. (Morrogh, 2001, p. 20) In November 1867, three Irishmen were executed in Manchester in England. The charge against them was that of murdering an English policeman when they attempted to rescue Fenian prisoners from a police van. The overwhelming evidence pointed to the fact that the policeman had died of just one bullet shot, but five men, all Irish were accused. Of these, three were executed, while it was widely believed that these men would also be set free in the way the other two were. This was widely seen as a gesture to please the English, who had to be mollified with some action for the killing of an Englishman. Added to this, the Catholics in Ireland were deeply hurt that these three devout men were not given even a decent burial.

This event greatly hurt sentiments among the Irish nationals in England and the US for years to come. However, this was not an isolated incident; within just six months of this incident, another happened to exacerbate the already bitter feelings between the English and the Irish. In September of that year, in the same city, police arrested the leader of the Fenian demonstrations, Thomas Kelly and his associate. When they were being transported, an English policeman in charge of them was killed and these two men rescued. Again, five men were brought on trial, and three were executed. These served as milestones in the terribly troubled relations between the English and Irish communities.(Mcgee, 2001) This led to riots in England, and constituted the immediate legacy thatGladstone inherited; and his response was typical and predictable: reforms. Although no great sympathiser of the Irish cause earlier on in his career, once seated in the Prime Minister’s saddle, he realised that things needed to be handled differently in Ireland. He was of the conviction that once the roots of the Irish problem were addressed, the problem would be sorted out automatically. These roots, he believed, lay in addressing the social problems in that country, whose redress would automatically dissuade the Irish from demanding independence, or even some sort of self-government. On this assumption, he initiated a triumvirate of reforms that were to become perhaps the most famous of his reforms.

(Morrogh, 2001, p. 20) With the intention of winning the hearts and minds of the Irish, he focussed his reforms on a three-pronged strategy, consisting of religion, land and education. The first approach was to disendow and disestablish the Anglican Church of Ireland. By this, the government took over all property of the Church, valued at a staggering �16 million, and divided it into three parts -the largest part of the share went to the rectors and others who had a ‘vested interest’ in the affairs of the Church, making the Church a kind of an unofficial corporation. The second part went as aid to two other Churches in Ireland -the Catholic and the Presbyterian, whose income by this one legislation shot up by 14 times. Finally, the third part was meant for the uplift of charitable institutions, such as asylums and hospitals. His second major reform in Ireland was the Land Act of 1870. The essence of this legislation was that it legalised a custom that had been prevailing in Ulster province, by which the landlord was obliged not to raise rents arbitrarily, and was restrained from evicting the tenant without just compensation for the expenses the latter had incurred on improvements made on the owner’s land. This Act extended the legalisation of this custom to the whole of Ireland. The ineffectiveness of this law was soon felt, as it did not deal with a very important component of the land situation of the day -it did not protect the tenant who had not paid his rents and had accumulated them. In fact, it was with the passage of this law that evictions became more audacious and frequent. Finally, Gladstone sought to reform Ireland on the education front. (Seignobos, 1900, pp. 71, 72) In this sector, the major move Gladstone took up was the Irish Universities Bill in 1873. The aim of this reform was the creation of a non-sectarian university in Ireland.

But even before it could be enacted, it was killed in the House of Commons, forcing Gladstone to resign. (Party political histories 1868-1902) On the domestic front, too, he introduced reforms that had far-reaching effects on education. His government promulgated the Education Act in 1870. This Act “…created the nucleus of the modern state system of education.” (Roach, 1991, p. 3) The need for this vital reform was felt throughout the 1860’s, a period in which education was failing to catch up with the progress in the technological and industrial advancements. The purview of this Act was to bring into the fold of free, public education those students whose parents, derisively called ‘the dangerous classes’, were not rich enough to be considered the respectable working class, or poor enough to be clubbed in the class whose children were considered destitute. (Feuchtwanger, 1985, p. 14) For all the sincerity and good intention with which Gladstone’s government carried out these reforms, he had clearly underestimated the reaction of the radical elements in this party. His efforts at reforming the educational sector failed to please the Radicals in the party, who were unhappy that education was not made compulsory or totally free of cost. With the intention of freeing the Civil Services from patronage, he introduced the Civil Service Examinations reforms in 1870, and the following year, introduced a legislation called the University Tests Act, aimed at freeing appointments to the country’s prestigious educational institutions from ideology, but both these reforms severely annoyed the aristocracy. More reforms in 1872, such as the Licensing Act, which restricted the sale of liquor in pubs up to a point of time, and the more famous Ballot Act, which introduced the secret ballot, turned out to be total flops, riling established elements in the party. (Party political histories 1868-1902) All these contributed in no small measure to the party’s defeat by an electorate, which had clearly had an overdose of reforms.

His action of concessions to Ireland, far from being welcomed, had the effect of creating a rift in his own party. Over this issue, Lord Hartington quit the party, and took with him a sizeable minority and effectively deflated the Gladstone ministry. This was a fracture in the party from which the Liberals never really fully recovered. This was to turn out to be a major contributor to the disastrous result the Liberals suffered in the election of 1874. (Morrogh, 2001, p. 20)

Secondary factors: Added to all these were events such as the famous speeches by Disraeli in front of large crowds at Manchester and Crystal Palace in April and June of 1872, which were to sway public opinion towards the Tories. Although there was nothing new about what he said in these speeches, his words rang a bell in the minds of the electorate. He did not focus much on the economy, but vowed that he would fight out the Liberals through a process of legitimate, constitutional process, according to which, in his opinion, minor concessions might occasionally have to be given for the larger goal. The major areas of his speeches were the daily, living conditions of the people. He also belligerently attacked the prime minister on the foreign policy fronts. He attacked the government for its perceived failures, while not even vaguely spelling out his own plans. The major areas of the day, social reform and the Empire, were left untouched; nevertheless, these speeches did contribute to the shifting of public opinion in favour of the Tories in the election of 1874. This could have been one of the catalysts for the verdict of 1874, for these speeches are considered landmarks in the way public opinion was swayed towards the Tories, which not only gave them a resounding victory, but also planted the Conservative Party in the minds of the British electorate as a party that could deliver in critical areas for the masses and infuse them with pride about everything that was British for almost the next century. (Hoppen, 1998, pp. 610, 611)

If these speeches were one aspect of the way in which the Tories attacked the Liberals, they certainly were not the only one; the Conservatives had been laying the groundwork for their performance in the 1874 election years in advance. They took steps to strengthen the party at the organisational level. Choosing constitutionalism as their main plank, they thus were carving themselves a niche at the grassroots level. In this direction, Disraeli established a Conservative Central Office, using this as the medium with which he articulated his viewpoint. It cannot be doubted that this organisational consolidation was one of the causes for the 1874 verdict. The highpoint of this organisation was the conference and banquet it held in the Crystal Palace in 1872, in which Disraeli laid out clearly the party’s plans. This is considered the first great party agency. That its impact was really profound can be gauged from the fact that even the Liberals, once out of office, under Joseph Chamerlain started a similar political medium, at which it could communicate its viewpoints clearly to the electorate while organising itself politically. (Smellie, 1962, p. 228)

Role of the economy: It is often suggested that around the middle of the 19th century, there was general prosperity in the economy, mainly because the tumultuous changes brought about by the transition of an agricultural economy to an industrialised one were buffered by the stability of agriculture. However, once the price of corn fell, this paved the way to a full-scale depression in 1873. The result was that the British economy went into a state of downturn that led to serious repercussions for several years to come. The year of election saw British agriculture being given a series of blows, especially for crops that were dependent on the price corn commanded. This proved to be the catalyst for the Liberals’ defeat in the 1874 election, because Gladstone’s policies had no solutions to these problems. (Clark, 1962, p. 57)

Part IV:

Conclusion: So significant was the defeat of the Liberals in the 1874 elections that not only was the party to suffer from a setback it never recovered from, it also signalled the start of the end of liberalism as a political philosophy. In its birthplace, it died a quick, natural death. This is attributed to two major reasons -it did not adapt itself to the changing times and remained steadfast to the original goals it sought to achieve, even when they had become obsolete over time. Secondly, it could not extend its voter base to the working-class. Mass politics was never their forte, and “try as they might, British Liberals could not appeal to the collective will of new constituencies and simultaneously preserve their devotion to individual liberty. In England, the greater the philosophical need to synthesize liberty and positive government, the more irrelevant liberalism became.” (Steigerwald, 1994, p. 5) From its heyday during the time when the likes of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and On Liberty by Mill fed the intellectual development of the continent, culminating in the Reform Act of 1832 in which it sought to infuse the blood of liberty in Britain, (Hudelson, 1999, p. 59) its irrelevance was rapid; in the early years of the next century, it had become antiquated. The event that triggered the collapse of Liberalism and of the Liberal Party in England was the election of 1874. Though the Liberals did return to power later, they were severely hamstrung with organisational problems, and with the passing away of Gladstone, the party had, for all intents and purposes, seen its demise, too.