Crisis of Conservatism 1900-1914

Essay, 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 70


How appropriate is it to view the period between c1900 and c1914 as representing a crisis of Conservatism? Why did the movement for Tariff Reform cause so much debate within British politics at this time?

In terms of sheer electoral strength, the Conservative party’s record in government is unequalled. Their dominance of the political landscape was an unaltered feature of the late nineteenth century. However, the fall-out from the controversial tariff reform policy was an ever-present encumbrance that would undermine the Conservative party’s stability, let alone progression, for almost a decade to come. Whilst many saw the period between 1900 and 1914 as a ‘crisis of Conservatism’[1], others highlight the downfall as a circumstantial blip brought upon themselves for failing to address the social concerns such as those highlighted by Booth’s and Rowntree’s ground-breaking welfare studies[2]. This essay will outline the reasons why the Conservative party was not in crisis during this time, but undertaking a structural and transitional period brought about by a combination of weak leadership, bad policy decisions and a cavalier attitude to a stronger, more tactically astute opposition.

The period between 1886 and 1902 saw the Conservative party enjoy sustained electoral prosperity, partially as a consequence of the Liberal party’s split over Gladstone’s unrelenting pursuit of Irish Home Rule legislation. In 1900, Lord Salisbury entered the fifth year of his third term as Prime Minister following a landslide victory in the ‘Khaki election’. The Boer War victory, unspectacular as it was, had galvanised the Conservative party and Salisbury’s successful efforts to fend off German intervention was greeted with praise. The post-war mood of nationalism had reaffirmed the Conservative party’s stature as natural leaders in war. But the Boer War and the subsequent depletion of British military strength had taken its toll on Salisbury and distracted him from affairs at home. Even so, the Conservative’s image as the party of Empire would win them support from the newly-enfranchised working classes who responded favourably to the notion of protecting British jobs and industry via a platform of national loyalty and patriotism.

The growing trend of left-wing organisations and agencies continued afoot: The Social Democratic Federation (1884); the Fabian Society (1884); the Independent Labour Party (1893) and the Labour Representation Committee (1900)[3]. Salisbury’s political response to this developing tendency was tokenistic and failed to smother the flames of growing socialist discontent; The Workmen’s Compensation Act, passed under his jurisdiction, was seen by some as the beginning of the Welfare State. In truth it was little more than a perfunctory gesture; a hurried extension to previous legislation brought about to appease agricultural workers and to counter the mounting pressure, particularly from the Fabian Society. The nascent Labour party was further spurred by the Taff Vale ruling (1901), when the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) lost a precedential court trial brought about by the Taff Vale Railway Company. The legal action against the union claimed that picketing was in violation of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875). The House of Lords upheld the decision and nullified strike action as the ultimate instrument of active unionism[4]. The rail union was fined for loss of profits during the strike. Workers and unions alike saw the Labour party as the most likely source for redress as the class divide began its rise to prominence in the body politic. Up until the Taff Vale decision the Labour Representation Committee was more of a federal organisation and union affiliation was not forthcoming. By 1909 even the biggest and most powerful union, the Miners’ Federation, had signed up.

Salisbury left office in July 1902, through a combination of ill-heath and exhaustion, handing over control to his nephew, Arthur Balfour. Salisbury died one month later, the last British Minister to serve from the House of Lords. The legacy of his final few years in office was his resilience to the Irish Home Rule debate and his ability to use the Boer War as a stark reminder of Britain’s (seemingly) imperialistic nature and the need for Britain’s defence and security to be at the top of any political agenda. The Boer War had focussed the nation’s minds on ‘national efficiency’; questions were asked as to why it took three years for trained, professional soldiers to overcome what were, in essence, a band of agricultural workers. The evidence pointed to the quality of the British soldiers and confirmation was forthcoming when it was discovered that in some towns as many as nine out of ten recruits had been rejected because of their poor levels of fitness. The anxiety surrounding the state of military power corresponded with Germany overtaking Britain in economic growth. As a result the question of welfare reform was pushed into the spotlight more than ever.

One of Balfour’s first undertakings was the introduction of the Education Act, which abolished school boards and handed the primary, secondary and technical education responsibility to local education authorities. Importantly though, it permitted Anglican schools (commonly associated with Conservatism) to benefit from local taxation support. Although the new administrative structure would last the next century, it riled the non-conformists and was voted against by both Liberal and Labour parties. Indeed, the new Act could be seen as a spur to reviving support for the Liberal party.


[1] Green, E.H.H.,The Crisis of Conservatism 1880-1914, (London: Routledge, 1995) pp. 268-269

[2] Thackery, David,Rethinking the Edwardian Crisis of Conservatism, (Cambridge, CUP 2011)

[3] The Labour Representative Committee would rename itself as the Labour party in February 1906.

[4] The Liberal government’s Trade Disputes Act (1906) reversed the effect of the decision.

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Crisis of Conservatism 1900-1914
Manchester Metropolitan University Business School
BA Politics
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crisis, conservatism
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Karen Worgan (Author), 2014, Crisis of Conservatism 1900-1914, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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