Gladstone’s decision to pursue a policy of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886 divided the Liberal Party to the core and prompted the departure of the Liberal Unionists, who subsequently formed a separate political party, under the leadership of the Marquess of Hartington.
Hartington’s own brother, Lord Frederick Cavendish had been murdered by republicans in Dublin and Gladstone’s critics were anxious to stem further violence in the country. They also feared that his plans for Ireland would destabilise the British Empire by giving other nations an appetite for self-determination.
In April 1886, a Liberal Unionist office opened in Spring Gardens and the following month, the Radical, Joseph Chamberlain visited Hartington’s Devonshire home, where he agreed to join forces with the Whigs in order to defeat the Home Rule Bill. In order to achieve their objective, Hartington and Chamberlain forged an electoral agreement with the Conservatives ahead of the 1886 election, where they went on to win 78 seats. So began a working relationship between the two men that was to last over the next 18 years.
Initially however, Chamberlain saw the alliance as a temporary arrangement. Despite having resigned from Gladstone’s cabinet in March, Chamberlain was confident that he would soon be re-united with his Radical colleagues and predicted that Home Rule would be promptly forgotten once the Grand Old Man had retired. He even formed his own National Radical Union as a distinct alternative to the Whig group of unionists. Writing to his colleague, Edward Heneace in July 1886, Chamberlain declared his intention to keep the association going on the basis that Gladstone’s supporters would come to their senses after a year or so, when they would be able to recover the old organisation in most cases. Once it became clear that Gladstone had no intention of either retiring, or abandoning Home Rule, Chamberlain realised that he would have to make his estrangement from the Liberals, a more permanent one and in August he joined with Hartington in formally establishing the Liberal Unionist Party.
Hartington was adopted as the party’s leader and a Liberal Unionist Association was formed, which compromised of around 500 financial supporters and a number of local clubs located in various constituencies. A number of prestigious scholars and philosophers gave their support to the organisation, which even published its own periodical, The Liberal Unionist, which was edited by the Spectator’s chief writer. Nonetheless, the party struggled to gain popular working class support due to the fact that it was dominated by Whig traditionalists who largely objected to measures of social reform.
As a result, the relationship between Hartington, as a Whig patriarch, and Chamberlain, as the Radical MP for Birmingham, was never an easy one. The two men particularly disagreed about the extent to which they should support the Conservatives in order to keep Home Rule off the statute book. Following the Liberal election defeat of 1886, Hartington decided to maintain the independence of his party by declining Salisbury’s offer to join the new Conservative administration. Nonetheless, it was agreed that the Liberal Unionists would keep the government in power until the threat of Home Rule had passed. Chamberlain expressed his belief that the Liberal Unionists should give Salisbury a very general pledge of support, on this basis alone. He also wanted to use the party’s leverage to influence the Conservative government’s legislative agenda and hasten the pace of social reform. Hartington, however, was more inclined to bow to Tory interests and angered Chamberlain when he decided to vote with the government over Parnell’s Tenants Relief Bill. Chamberlain began to complain that the Conservatives were moving slowly or not at all in terms of social reform and threatened to abandon the Liberal Unionists and withdraw his support for the government on more than one occasion. However, by the time Gladstone introduced his second Home Rule Bill, Chamberlain had moved politically closer to the Conservatives, who had become more open to the concept of limited domestic reform.
Despite the fact that certain Liberal Unionists, such as Sir George Trevelyan, drifted back to the Liberal fold, the party remained allied with the Conservatives throughout Salisbury’s second ministry, before finally joining Salisbury’s third administration in 1895. By this time, Hartington had succeeded his father as 8th Duke of Devonshire in the House of Lords and Chamberlain had developed even closer ties with the Conservative Party. As a result, tension between Chamberlain and Devonshire steadily increased, until the two men finally came to blows over Chamberlains adoption of protectionism in 1903, prompting Devonshire’s resignation from the Cabinet. The working relationship between the two men finally ended in May 1904, when Devonshire formally renounced the Liberal Unionist leadership in response to his colleagues’ abandonment of free trade. Although the party structure remained in existence until 1912, the essence of the organisation had essentially been eclipsed in 1895, when Liberal Unionists had all but merged with the Conservatives.
Historians have subsequently questioned how much the Liberal Unionists were able to achieve as a result of their alliance with the Conservative Party. G L Goodman (Liberal Unionism: The Revolt of the Whigs, Victorian Studies 3, 1959-60) argues that they were instrumental in putting certain pieces of legislation onto the stature book. The English Local Government (County Councils) Act 1888 is a legacy of Liberal Unionist influence and Chamberlain was also successful in ensuring that the 1891 Education Act provided Government funds so that the poor were exempted from paying school rates. Goodman also claims that the Liberal Unionists had a key role in preventing the Conservative Government adopting a tariff in the late 1880s. Nevertheless, he suggests that the group were prevented from exercising full independence due to the fear that they would damage the unionist cause if they were overly critical of the Conservatives. In addition, most Liberal Unionists had secured their seats with Tory votes and were therefore unlikely to jeopardise their future electoral chances by condemning their political partners.
For Gladstone’s Party, the formation of the Liberal Unionist group was particularly damaging. The Liberals were essentially relegated to the political sidelines over the next twenty years, as their former colleagues pledged their support for successive Conservative governments. Gladstone also complained to Harcourt that the Liberal Party had become dominated by the Radicals following the departure of the Whigs. Certainly, Liberal Unionism dramatically altered the nature of each political party and Goodman concludes that the Liberal Unionist Party was essentially a half way house, which entertained for a time much of the wealth and territorial influence which had been Liberal and was to be Conservative.