Joseph Chamberlain tried to use the unity of the Empire fostered by the Boer War to promote the idea of Tariff Reform. Its purpose was to create an imperial internal market this would promote trade within the Empire and through the erection of Tariff walls discourage trade from outside it. It sounded good in theory but in practice it lead to higher food prices which alienated both working and middle classes. Now that many of the working class could vote after 1884 Third Reform Act this would have serious consequences at the general election. Chamberlain’s policy also split the Conservative party as many of them believed in free trade like the Liberals.
One other impact of the war, was that it made it easier for the Liberals and the Labour movement to form a political alliance this was due to their shared attitudes towards the war. The Lib-Lab pact further enhanced the Liberals prospects in 1906.
There was several other factors which when combined had a major impact on the result of the 1906 general election.
The first one was the quality of the leadership of both parties. Both Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservatives and Henry Campbell-Bannerman, leader of the Liberals cannot be considered as leaders of the first rank. Balfour who succeeded Lord Salisbury (who had been the dominant Conservative leader of his time) in 1902 on the former prime minister’s death had not in the intervening years shown himself as a capable leader. He failed to foresee problems like that of Chinese Labour and the Taff Vale case, he was indecisive on Tariff reform allowing Chamberlain too much latitude. He was heavily associated with the Education Act a most unpopular policy. Finally, he was responsible for the timing of the election and could have waited for another two years. Meanwhile, his opponent Campbell-Bannerman who was by no means a superstar had three very able lieutenants: Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. It was these three who after Bannerman’s death in 1908 who took the Liberal party to great heights.
The second factor concerned two acts of Parliament which offended non-conformists opinion and helped them return their support to the Liberal party after divisions over Home Rule for Ireland, this helped to revive the Liberal party. The fury over the Education Act of 1902 was over the fact that through their rates non-conformists were going to be forced to help pay for Roman Catholic and Church of England schools. They launched a campaign against the act which was supported by the Liberal party. Furthermore, there was another piece of legislation which also infuriated non-conformists opinion, the 1904 Licensing Act which proposed to compensate publicans for the cancellation of their licenses. Since the brewers were supporters of the Conservatives, non-conformists denounced the act as the ‘Brewers Bill’.
The third factor were issues which alienated working class opinion in the years prior to the election. The first issue concerned Chinese labour who were being imported into South Africa. Not only did this raise a moral outcry by non-conformists about the treatment of the Chinese, but British trade unions feared that employers might bring them into Britain, so pushing down wages at home. With unemployment high in 1905 and with inadequate support for the unemployed, opposition to ‘Chinese slavery’ damaged the Conservatives. They also lost support due to their failure to support the trade unions over the Taff Vale case. The Conservatives refused to introduce trade union supporting legislation after the employer in the case won. This encouraged trade union support for the idea of a Labour group in parliament and for campaigning against the Conservatives in the election.
Finally, though the election was not fought on the issue of social reform, the issue of poverty in Britain in the early 1900s had come to the fore. The Boer War had exposed the amount of malnutrition, especially in the cities and led to concerns about the physical decline of the British race. Conservatives failed to address this problem in any significant way, whilst Liberals were working on a new form of Liberalism which would seek to tackle this problem.
In conclusion, in the years before the 1906 general election, the Conservatives lacking leadership and direction managed to alienate large sections of the electorate. The Liberals were able to fight an essentially negative campaign exploiting Conservative policy errors. It also helped that the liberal party was united post Boer War. The Boer War certainly played a large part in the politics of this period. It helped the Liberals in many ways but the Conservatives were mainly the authors of their own misfortunes and it was these rather than the Boer War that had a decisive impact which enabled a Liberal victory.