chapter  10
21 Pages

SOCIAL REFORM

To contemporaries the potential appeal of policies designed to defend British agriculture and industry was fairly obvious. A commitment to restructuring Britain’s trade position and bolstering the domestic market for Britain’s industrial and rural producers made sense: it framed an appeal both to the Conservative party’s traditional rural constituency and to a core element of its more recently acquired urban support. However, the question remained as to how the Conservative party could attract the key working-class vote. Imperial unity was thought to offer popular appeal, but even the most enthusiastic imperialist accepted that ‘the Unionist Party cannot live upon an exclusive diet of imperialism’.2 Across the spectrum of Conservative opinion it was admitted, albeit reluctantly by some, that the main interest of the working class was material improvement in general and social reform in particular, but could this be provided in a Conservative fashion? Here, once again, tariff reform came into its own. One of the most important aspects of the political economy of the tariff campaign, and one of the reasons why it appealed to Conservatives, was that tariffs were the cornerstone of a distinctive social policy. The link between tariff reform and social reform was complex, and as the tariff debate evolved there were shifts in emphasis concerning their exact relationship. But, in the period 1903 to 1910, the argument that ‘Fiscal reform…is the indispensable condition of all other reforms’3 was constantly repeated as the Conservative party sought to construct a positive social reform policy.