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British Prime Ministers - 1892-1922

1892-1894 William Ewart GladstoneLiberal
1894-1895 Earl of RoseberyLiberal
1895-1902 Marquess of SalisburyConservative
1902-1905 Arthur James BalfourConservative
1905-1908 Henry Campbell-BannermanLiberal
1908-16 Herbert Henry AsquithLiberal
1916-22 David Lloyd GeorgeLiberal

In 1892 the Liberals were returned to office on a platform which stipulated expressly Home Rule for Ireland. In the new parliament there was a majority of forty, and on 18 August 1892 Gladstone, for the fourth time, was requested to form a ministry. The elections of 1892 were of interest by reason of the fact that they marked the first appearance of independent labor representatives in Parliament.

The two principal aspirants to the Gladstonian succession were Lord Rosebery and Sir William Vernon-Harcourt. Rosebery represented the imperialistic element of Liberalism and advocated a return of the party to the general position which it had occupied prior to the split on Home Rule. Harcourt and the majority of the party opposed imperialism and insisted upon attention rather to a program of social reform. From Gladstone's retirement, in 1894, to 1896 leadership devolved upon Rosebery, but from 1896 to the beginning of 1899 Harcourt was the nominal leader, although Rosebery, as a private member, continued hardly less influential.

The Earl of Rosebery, Liberal Prime Minister from 1894-5, did not enjoy the success in office of his Liberal predecessor Gladstone. His 15-month term as prime minister suffered from divisions within his party and Cabinet. He is best known today as a staunch upholder of the British Empire. In 1892 he became Foreign Secretary again in Gladstone's last administration. When Gladstone resigned in March 1894, Rosebery accepted the post of PM, although he did so reluctantly, regarding it as a dangerously poisoned chalice. His imperialist designs in foreign policy, such as expansion of the fleet, were defeated by disagreements within the Liberal Party, while the House of Lords stopped the Liberals' domestic legislation. Rosebery's government lasted only 15 months, falling over in June 1895 a vote of censure on military supplies. In the following year, Rosebery resigned as leader of the Liberal Party in the interests of party unity. He became the leader of the Liberal Imperialist division of the party, but retired from politics altogether in 1905 when Henry Campbell-Bannerman was chosen as Liberal prime minister.

By the time he became prime minister for the third and final time in 1895, Salisbury had become a well-loved elder statesman. The accession of the third Salisbury ministry marked the beginning of a Unionist ascendancy which lasted uninterruptedly a full decade. To cement yet more closely the Conservative-Unionist alliance Lord Salisbury made up a ministry in which the Unionist elements were ably represented by Joseph Chamberlain as Colonial Secretary, Viscount Goschen as First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Duke of Devonshire as President of the Council. There were problems brewing in the Cape Colony in South Africa. The Boer War broke out in 1899, splitting the Cabinet. The Home Rule question fell into the background; and although the Unionists carried through a considerable amount of social and industrial legislation, the interests of the period center largely in the Government's policies and achievements within the domain of foreign and colonial affairs. The most hotly contested issue of the decade was imperialism; the most commanding public figure was Joseph Chamberlain; the most notable enterprise undertaken was the war in South Africa.

In 1900 it was resolved by the ministerial leaders to take advantage of the public spirit engendered by the war to procure for the Unionists a fresh lease of power. The Government forced the fight upon the issue of South African policy almost exclusively, representing the opposition as "Little Englanders". The appeal was altogether successful. The Conservatives obtained 334 seats and the Liberal Unionists 68 - a total of 402; while the Liberals and Laborites carried but 186 and the Nationalists 82 - a total of 268. Salisbury resigned in 1902. His nephew, Arthur Balfour, replaced him as prime minister.

Arthur James Balfour, Conservative Prime Minister from 1902-5, succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, who had been his political mentor and champion. But his cabinet split on the free trade issue, and his relations with the king were poor. Defeats in the Commons and in by-elections led to Balfour's resignation in December 1905. In the subsequent Liberal landslide, Balfour lost his own seat, but returned via a by-election soon after. He continued to lead his party until 1911. But despite stepping down, his career was far from over. He became First Lord of the Admiralty in the wartime coalition, and then Foreign Secretary.

Until 1905 the office of prime minister was unknown to the law, but by a royal warrant of 02 December 1905 of that year the holder of the office, as such, was given precedence next after the archbishop of York. The prime minister was the medium of intercourse between the cabinet and the sovereign; he had to be cognizant of all matters of real importance that take place in the different departments so as to exercise a controlling influence in the cabinet; he was virtually responsible for the disposal of the entire patronage of the Crown; he selects his colleagues, and by his resignation of office dissolves the ministry. Yet he was until 1905, in theory at least, but the equal of the colleagues he appointed. The prime minister was nominated by the sovereign. "I offered," said Sir Robert Peel on his resignation of office, " no opinion as to the choice of a successor. That was almost the only act which was the personal act of the sovereign; it was for the sovereign to determine in whom her confidence shall be placed." Yet this selection by the Crown is practically limited. No prime minister could carry on the government of the country for any length of time who did not possess the confidence of the House of Commons.

The Liberals were restored to power in 1906 because the nation desired the doing of certain things which the Unionists seemed unable or disinclined to do. Most important among these things were: (i) the reduction of public expenditures and the curbing of national extravagance; (2) the remission of taxation imposed during the South African war; (3) the reform of the army; and (4) the undertaking of an extended program of social reform.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal Prime Minister from 1905-8, was seen as "a safe pair of hands". The Liberals split over the Boer War, with Lloyd George joining Campbell-Bannerman in denouncing the campaign, and Campbell-Bannerman himself caused a furore by refusing to withdraw his remarks about Kitchener's "methods of barbarism" being used to win the war. The Liberals went on to win the 1906 election. Following this win Campbell-Bannerman restored autonomy to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Ill health forced Campbell-Bannerman to resign, but he remained in Number 10 until he died almost three weeks later.

Herbert Henry Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister from 1908-16, became PM following the resignation of Henry Campbell-Bannerman. As PM, Asquith presided over a period of national upheaval, with the issues of Irish Home Rule, and womens suffrage dominating the era. In the matter of national expenditures they accomplished a momentary reduction, although the normal increase of civil outlays, the adoption of old age pensions, and, above all, the demand of the propertied interests for the maintenance of a two-power naval standard brought about eventually an increase rather than a diminution of the sums carried by the annual budget.

Asquith also brought Britain into World War One. To maximise government support he formed a coalition government in 1915. But this government was unsuccessful and unpopular for the war was going badly. The press blamed the deadlock on the battlefields on Asquith's procrastination. Asquith appeared sidelined when he accepted Lloyd George's suggestion that a small cabinet committee direct the war, to the exclusion of the PM himself. His subsequent change of mind led to a rift with Lloyd George which forced Asquith to resign in December 1916, on the same day as his Chancellor resigned. The success of Lloyd George's government consigned Asquith to the political wilderness, a situation compounded by the loss of his seat, and those of many of his allies in 1918.

David Lloyd George, Liberal Prime Minister from 1916-22, was one of the twentieth century's most-famous radicals. He is remembered as a man of great energy and an unconventional outlook in character and politics. In 1906 he was made President of the Board of Trade, and became recognised as a very able politician. Asquith later promoted him to Chancellor. He became one of the great reforming chancellors of the 20th century. To pay for wide-ranging social reforms as well as naval expansion, he intended, controversially, to tax land. He responded to the resultant outcry with passionate denunciations of landowners and aristocrats. During the war, Lloyd George threw himself into the job of Minister for Munitions, organising and inspiring the war effort. He later resigned in protest at the direction of the war, and on the later resignation of Asquith, Lloyd George accepted an invitation to form a government in December 1916. His dynamism ensured he was regarded as the right man to give Britain's war much needed impetus. Lloyd George was acclaimed as the man who had won the war, and in 1918 the coalition won a huge majority. It was the first election in which any women were allowed to vote. When the Conservatives broke up the coalition, Lloyd George handed in his resignation. The Liberal party never ran the Government again. Lloyd George later precipitated the fall of Neville Chamberlain by attacking his wartime failure in Norway in 1940.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:03 ZULU