Did ‘Votes for women’ cost Liberals the Cambridge seat in the Jan 1910 election?


Transcript from another blurred entry on the British Newspaper Archive (£).

Language, style and historical notes:

Politically-partisan – The Cambridge Independent was – in their words “The only liberal-supporting newspaper in Cambridge” – other newspapers tending to be Conservative-leaning.

“Mr Asquith” – The Prime Minister of the Liberal Government of the day.

“The Veto” is the House of Lords veto on Government legislation passed by the House of Commons. The Liberal victory in the general election that followed in December 1910 (although Buckmaster failed to regain the seat in Cambridge) led to the Parliament Act 1911 which removed the ability of the Lords to block legislation passed by the Commons, and only to delay it. It also removed the ability of the Lords to block ‘finance bills’ – ie ‘The Budget’.

“Facilities”Tabling a bill in Parliament on Government time. With ministerial backing and that of the MPs in the governing party, it all but guarantees that such a bill would clear the House of Commons. (The bigger the governing party’s majority, the stronger that guarantee – explaining why the Conservatives needed the Liberal Democrats to go into coalition with them in 2010 a century later).

“Tariff Reform” – a very long standing issue on whether Britain should have a policy of higher tariffs on imports, or pursue a policy of free trade. The argument in favour of free trade at the time related to the costs of food and the cost of living – imposing import tariffs on food being seen to drive up the cost of living, disproportionally hitting the poor hardest.



Cambridge Independent Press – Friday June 24, 1910

Facilities for Women’s Suffrage

“By the time our readers have these paragraphs in their hands, they will know the decision of the Cabinet as to the granting of facilities for the discussion of the Conciliation Bill for giving the Parliamentary vote to Women. This decision of the Cabinet, whatever it may be, will not be the last word on the subject of the facilities. We should therefore like to discuss the matter in its general bearings apart from any particular development of it. In so doing we shall not in any way touch on the arguments for or against Women’s Suffrage, as these by this time must be fairly familiar to all who take any interest in politics.

The chief question at the moment is one of tactics. it is impossible for the dullest of observers not to know the wonderful advance which Women’s Suffrage has made during the last year or two. Mr Asquith is no dull observer, but a resolute opponent of the movement, and he therefore would like to deny the fact if he could, but he is profoundly impressed it it, and admitted as much in his reply to the deputation on Tuesday. It looked at one time as if the action of the militant section had done great harm, but with the coming of the Conciliation Bill, the dropping of violent methods and the union of forces, the scene has suddenly altered. There have been three questions which at this moment have a mighty hold on certain sections of the public – the Limitation of the Lords’ Veto, Tariff Reform, and Women’s Suffrage, and it is hard to say which commands the greatest enthusiasm.

Women’s Suffrage then, however unwelcome the fact may be to some Liberals, is a living and growing issue which can no longer be ignored. The Liberal Party must have a plan of action with regard to it, till it is settled and out of the way. In our view what the Liberal Party wants is a clear issue, a straight fight, call it what you will, on the Veto. Its policy then should be directed towards getting that issue. The Tariff Reformers do now want to fight a General Election on the question or the House of Lords. They know how indefensible in argument the Upper Chamber is in its present form. Hence their willingness to enter into a Conference to see if the House of Lords incubus cannot be removed from the shoulders of the Tory Party. But we have small hope of the Conference. It is most unlikely that the leaders of the Opposition can concede enough to satisfy the Liberal demands. Hence we assume that the Veto difficulty will remain and that a straight fight on it will be all important to the Liberal Party.

Let us assume that facilities are given and that the Women’s Suffrage Bill passes the House of Commons. The House of Lords must either accept it or reject it. To our mind the only alternative is that the Lords will reject it. It is almost unthinkable that so conservative a body will give way the very first time it is asked. The instinct to ask for more time and further consideration will be irresistible. But the moment the Lords reject the Bill the whole force of those who put Suffrage first will be thrown on the Liberal side. Those who say “Suffrage first” now, will say, “Veto first” then. The conditions here described are the most favourable under which the Liberal Party could fight. The Lords would have “filled up the cup” both for men and women alike.

The other alternative would be that the House of Lords passes the Women’s Suffrage Bill. In this case, also, the Liberal ranks would receive a reinforcement, though not so great as in the first case. By the settling of the Suffrage question, one distracting issue would disappear and the Limitation of the Veto would of necessity become a more prominent issue, and, as has been seen, that must be the chief end of Liberal policy for the present.

There is a third possibility that the Government may refuse to give facilities altogether, or may give facilities for the second reading of the Conciliation Bill and no more. This latter course will not satisfy the more thorough-going advocates of Women’s Suffrage. They say they have had plenty of second reading victories. What they want is to see a Bill through the House of Commons, and they will be content with nothing less.

The experience of Cambridge at the last General Election should count for something. Some of the best workers and best speakers in previous contests did little or nothing to help in January 1910. That was one of the many difficulties Mr Buckmaster [Stanley Buckmaster KC – MP for Cambridge 1906-10] had to contend with. There are many able women up and down the country who are seriously considering whether they can continue to help the Liberal Party. If sufficient facilities are given, they will help. If not, Mrs Pankhurst will receive a great reinforcement, and at the next election the whole of those forces of the militant section will be used to the full against the Liberal Party.

With parties so nearly balanced as they are in this country, a very slight shifting of work and energy may have a great result. Every voter who changes sides counts two when the ballot papers come to be added up. These awkward facts myst be disregarded when a principle is at stake, but they may be fairly taken into account when the question is one of tactics merely. It will be observed that much of what has been said depends on certain assumptions which may not come to pass. There are also considerations on the others aide which there is not the space to go into, but on the whole the balance of argument seems to us in favour of granting full facilities, and we sincerely trust the Government will take this view.”

In the run up to the December 1910 General Election, Eglantyne Jebb returned from a visit abroad to campaign for the Liberals – receiving plaudits despite Mr Buckmaster not regaining his seat.

The argument made by the opinion writers at the Cambridge Independent was that if Liberal Prime Minister Asquith had agreed to support a Women’s Suffrage Bill so that it passed all stages in the Commons, the very conservative House of Lords, which at the time was full of hereditary peers, would instinctively throw out the bill. Thus creating a further constitutional crisis (the one at the time being on the Lords not passing Chancellor David Lloyd George’s Finance Bill – effectively blocking his ‘Budget’ that provided for the foundations of the welfare state.

Having the (Conservative-supporting) Lords also blocking a Government-backed Women’s Suffrage Bill, the full anger and rage of the Votes for Women movement would have turned from targeting the Liberals to targeting the Conservatives. Thus strengthening the campaigning power of the Liberals at a time when there was no TV or radio.

Given that Tory MP Almeric Paget held his Cambridge seat in the December 1910 general election by a mere 343 votes, chances are that Asquith’s refusal to move on the issue could have cost the Liberals the seat in Cambridge.

Had Asquith relented, Stanley Buckmaster KC might have regained the Cambridge seat and a Women’s Suffrage Bill passed in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Who knows what might have become of Eglantyne Jebb in that historical counterfactual? Could she have become Cambridge’s first women MP?


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