It was a time of political chaos, when the Government of Britain was wracked by internal divisions and factions. Cabinet meetings were characterised by open hostility and serial resignations, and the Prime Minister seemed to stand back and watch the fighting so as not to alienate one faction or another. The issues being argued about were Britain’s place in the world and it’s trading relations with other countries – issues that were essentially economic but which had become lost beneath a jingoistic cloak of patriotism and colonialism. Leading politicians involved in the struggle would change positions with alarming regularity, creating confusion amongst their supporters and a degree of dismay amongst the wider electorate. It would all eventually end in political tears for many of the people involved.
Sounds familiar? It was, of course, the summer of 1903. Joseph Chamberlain – that champion of Liberal free trade who had recently become a convert to the idea of tariffs and Imperial Preference – had resigned from the Government. Whilst he was no longer a member of the cabinet, he was still a powerful political player and his son, Austen Chamberlain, remained in the cabinet to represent his cause. The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, content to stand back and try to gauge which way the wind was blowing, was rendered useless and went on to lose the General Election in 1906.
Now, we tend to look back on the events of 1903 and ask, “What on earth was it all about?” When the country should have been concentrating on modernising its industrial structure and improving the social conditions of its population, it wasted its time with a sterile argument between politicians who were championing their own fanciful ideas. We can look at old vintage postcards of the period like the one above, and shake our twenty-first century heads and say, “what a waste“.
I am not trying to suggest that current events are an exact repeat of the ridiculous arguments of 115 years ago. After all, there is one big difference: there are no political postcards this time around.