It is regularly argued by historians that Disraeli would not have been able to attack the Liberals if their policies were not so unpopular in the first place, and this was the reason that they lost the 1874 election. Disraeli famously said that the Liberals were a ‘row of exhausted volcanoes’ due to their lack of innovative policies later on in the ministry. Historians note the unpopularity of the Licensing Act, which alienated brewers and drinkers, as a massive contribution to a loss of support from the masses. There were numerous scandals in government during Gladstone’s ministry, including irregularities in the Post Office in the summer of 1873, leading to the dismissal of the Postmaster-General and a cabinet reshuffle. The most significant of the Liberal’s unpopular policies was the Irish Universities Bill, which Gladstone was defeated over. In addition to this, the 1870 Education Act also generated opposition from Nonconformists who, in the 1874 election, voted mainly for Disraeli. However, they were unorganised and many were not sure how to vote in the election. Generally, the unpopularity of Liberal policies did lead to their election defeat in 1874 as it lost them the support of the middle and working classes and left them vulnerable to attack from Disraeli.
Historians such as Feuchtwanger argue that it was the growing divisions within the Liberal Party that caused its defeat in the 1874 election. He emphasises the ‘alienation of particular groups’ such as the National Education League, which was extremely disappointed with Forster’s Education Act and actually put up candidates to run against Liberal candidates in the 1874 elections, a large amount of whom were successful. Indeed, 200 of the 425 Liberal candidates pledged to repeal the Act. The Licensing Act also disappointed the United Kingdom Alliance who wanted it to be much more effective. In addition to this, there was still a wide natural divide between the Radical and Whig factions of the Party, which Gladstone was ineffective at keeping together as he did not see this as his role. The Whig faction was especially alienated by the attacks on the influence of the landed classes. However, though this time was particularly one of disunity, Gladstone had clearly shown in the past that he had the ability to hold together a divided ministry and so these divisions could not be the sole reason for the 1874 election defeat, though they most certainly contributed to it.
Numerous historians argue that the Liberal election defeat was not due to the parties or policies, but rather to the economic and social climate of the time. It is reasoned that, in the minds of the voters, the economic depression at the time would naturally have been linked to the Liberal government in power. As such the Liberals would have lost some support from those worst hit, those being the working and middle classes that were normally the basis for Liberal support. The depression also countered the Liberals initial reputation for being good financiers and creating a prosperous nation. The Trade Union revolt increased social unrest, which also reflected badly on the government and lost them support, though this was initiated as a response to the Trade Union Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act passed by the Liberals. There was also a growing labour movement that, partly because of these Acts, supported the Conservatives and therefore lost support for the Liberals. Overall, external circumstances did lessen Liberal support, though social unrest did start as a result of the unpopularity of some Liberal measures.
On the whole, it was the unpopularity of Liberal reforms that caused the Liberals to lose the 1874 election. These lost much of the Liberals’ support from the middle and working class and left the Party open to attack from Disraeli. A large amount of Liberal reforms also alienated groups within the Party, causing and widening numerous divisions. In addition to this, some reforms generated social unrest from groups who did not see any immediate benefit, which further weakened the Liberal Party and lost it enough votes for the Conservatives to win the election with a comfortable majority.
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