The Relugas Compact
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The Relugas Compact was the name given to the political plot hatched between H. H. Asquith, Sir Edward Grey and R B Haldane to remove Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman from the leadership of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom in 1905.
The name Relugas Compact comes from the meeting between Asquith, Grey and Haldane in September 1905. Asquith had taken a country house in Glen of Rothes in Moray. Grey had a fishing lodge at the village of Relugas about 15 miles away and the three met there to discuss the political situation. It was here they concluded their plan to kick Campbell-Bannerman upstairs to the Lords and render him at best “a dummy prime minister” while Asquith would hold the real power as Leader in the Commons and indulged in making the next Liberal Cabinet in their own image. As Haldane put it in his autobiography, “What we thus resolved on we used afterwards at times to speak of among ourselves as the ‘Relugas Compact’.
By the autumn of 1905 it was clear that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was weary of office and deeply unpopular. Even the government itself had more or less given up any hope it could win the next election, and it seemed inevitable that the first Liberal administration for ten years would soon be formed. Against this rosy backdrop and anticipating soon being in the Cabinet, Asquith, Grey and Haldane agreed that they would refuse to serve under Campbell-Bannerman’s leadership unless he gave up his seat in the Commons and went to the House of Lords. One probable aim of the Relugas plotters was to obtain a senior role in the Cabinet for Liberal former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, perhaps even as Prime Minister again or as Foreign Secretary. However this objective is disputed, and it does not appear that Rosebery was ever informed by the Relugas three that they had reached their compact, let alone what the details were. The main objectives of the plotters were to secure Cabinet places for Asquith as Leader of the Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, with Grey as Foreign Secretary or Colonial Secretary and Haldane as Lord Chancellor.
Liberal Imperialists and the Liberal League
Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Rosebery were leading members of the Liberal Imperialists, a centrist faction within the Liberal Party in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The Liberal Imperialists were in favour of a more positive attitude towards the development of the British Empire and Imperialism, ending the primacy of the party’s commitment to Irish Home Rule. In domestic affairs they advocated the concept of ‘national efficiency.’ This policy was never definitively set out, but the implication in the speeches of its leading lights was that the Liberal Party in government should take action to improve the social conditions, the education and welfare of the population, as well as to reform aspects of the administration of government so as to maintain British economic, industrial and military competitiveness.
Asquith and Grey were also tied to Rosebery through the Liberal League, a group set up in 1902 by Lord Rosebery and of which Asquith and Grey were vice-presidents. The membership of the Liberal League was eclectic however: according to H. C. G. Matthew it included “Liberal Imperialist MPs, a number of Fabians, Liberal landowners, imperialistically minded journalists and nonconformist ministers”. The Liberal League, which was a successor organisation to the Liberal Imperialist Council, had as its aim the promotion of Liberal Imperialism and the policy of the ‘clean slate’. In a speech at Chesterfield in 1901. Lord Rosebery had told the Liberal Party that, after successive general elections defeats, being out of office for six years and more to come, it had to wipe clean its slate and to write upon it something of relevance for the present and not hark back to old policies. He was of course referring mainly to Irish Home Rule but urged the adoption of the policy of ‘national efficiency’. The split between Rosebery and Campbell-Bannerman raised the possibility of the creation of a separate party of Liberal Imperialists led by Rosebery, based on the membership of the Liberal League but the ending of the Boer War in 1902 took a lot of the sting out of the opposition between the Liberal Imperialists and the mainstream of the party, although Rosebery himself never found it possible to reconcile himself to Campbell-Bannerman’s leadership. The Liberal League was eventually wound up in 1910.
Policy or personal ambition?
While it is true that the Relugas plotters, especially Haldane, had reservations about the suitability of Campbell-Bannerman as the right man to lead the Liberal Party in a programme of social, welfare and administrative reforms, there remains a doubt whether the Relugas Compact was really about the primacy of policy or whether it was more about the personal ambitions of the players. While the decline of the Conservative government in 1905 certainly gave the conspirators some added impetus, it is clear there had been a degree of forward planning by Asquith and Grey – although how much is difficult to disentangle from the normal intrigue and jostling for place that is inherent in politics. In January 1904, David Lloyd George had a meeting with Grey at his home at Fallodon in Northumberland to talk about prospects for a forthcoming Liberal government. At that time Grey proposed Rosebery or Earl Spencer for Prime Minister with Asquith Leader in the Commons. It seemed to Lloyd George however that what was important to Grey was that the Prime Minister, whether Rosebery or Spencer, should be a member of the House of Lords, ensuring that Asquith could have a free hand leading the party from the House of Commons. Anticipating the details of the Relugas Compact, Grey told Lloyd George that did not even mind if Campbell-Bannerman were to be Prime Minister so long as he could be persuaded to go to the Lords. As Lloyd George’s biographer points out, the agreement at Relugas accorded almost exactly with what LG had picked up at the beginning of the year before. Rosebery’s claim to the leadership could be ditched so long as Campbell-Bannerman would agree to go to the Lords and the Liberal Imperialists and Liberal Leaguers would have secured three great offices of state for Asquith, Grey and Haldane with Asquith firmly in control in the Commons.
However indirect or unknown, Rosebery’s role in the Relugas conspiracy soon began to unravel. Asquith, Grey and Haldane certainly saw an opportunity in late 1905 to end Rosebery’s isolation, to bring him and Liberal Imperialist ideas back to the centre of politics, hoping at the same time that their programme would further damage the Conservative government. But Rosebery was not a reliable ally. He attacked Campbell-Bannerman too aggressively and publicly and in a series of speeches in Cornwall and in particular in his address at Bodmin on 25 November he made a strong protest at CB’s willingness as party leader to see progressive social and education reform subordinated to Irish Home Rule, which he saw as impractical, and ruled himself out of ever joining a Liberal administration with such priorities.
The failure of Grey’s ultimatum
Grey, however, having been the most lukewarm of the triumvirate of plotters in September actually did have the courage to face up to Campbell-Bannerman, although he had the advantage of being the least desirous of the three plotters for government office. Grey told Campbell-Bannerman he would not serve in his Cabinet unless CB agreed to go to the House of Lords. This confrontation only seems to have strengthened Campbell-Bannerman’s resolve to stay on. If he had not seen it before, he now began to realise that this move against him was more widely supported than some tactic of Haldane’s alone. Campbell-Bannerman would not back down. He accepted the King’s invitation to form a government on 5 December 1905 and resisted further pressure on him to stand down from the Commons from Asquith and from others, including the King. In fact Edward VII had been kept in touch with the plans of the Relugas plotters through his private secretary Francis Knollys with whom Haldane had been corresponding. Haldane recorded in his autobiography that Asquith thought he was closest to the court because he had been working with the King and his staff in connection with London University and Grey agreed. It is not clear if this was a genuine attempt to gain the most direct access to the King, or if Asquith and Grey were just getting Haldane to do the dirty work.
The Relugas plotters cave in
Asquith accepted Campbell-Bannerman’s offer to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Grey (despite his ultimatum not to serve) agreed to become Foreign Secretary and so at least achieved that objective of the Relugas Compact. Haldane was also brought into the Cabinet, not as Lord Chancellor however but as Secretary of State for War. On 16 December 1905 Campbell-Bannerman announced a dissolution of Parliament and called a general election for January 1906. The coming of the general election and the forced unity this would bring to members of the Liberal Party meant the Relugas plotters were in no further position to intrigue against Campbell-Bannerman. The melting away of the conspiracy has earned for the Relugas Compact the description of "one of the most delicious comedies in British political history."
The irony of the failure of the Relugas Compact is that Campbell-Bannerman did in fact entertain some doubts about becoming Prime Minister and becoming Liberal leader from the Lords might have made life more bearable for him. He had not been in the strongest of health and must have accepted the truth in Asquith’s comment to him that combining the roles of Leader of the Commons and Prime Minister represented an arduous burden. He might also have felt some desire to respond to the King’s plea to him to consider his personal health. In addition, he did apparently have some reservations about his own ability to face Balfour from the Treasury Benches. During his first year in office the health of his wife Charlotte deteriorated and she died on 30 August 1906. It is doubtful CB ever properly recovered from this shock mentally or physically. He suffered a series of heart attacks over the following months, the last one in late November 1907. It affected him badly and he was forced to resign on 4 April 1908 and died on 22 April at No. 10 Downing Street.
Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister and retained the services of Grey as Foreign Secretary and Haldane as War Secretary. He went on to lead one of the most successful reforming governments of the 20th century.
- Malcolm Pearce and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History, 1867-1990: Democracy and Decline; Routledge, 1992, p 195
- Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Collins, 1964 pp 145-146
- Richard Burdon Haldane (Viscount Haldane),An Autobiography; Doubleday, Doran & Cmpany, Inc., 1929 pp 158-159
- Keith M. Wilson, The Policy of the Entente; Essays on the Determinants of British Foreign Policy, 1904-14; Cambridge University Press, 1985, p 20
- John Davis, Entry on Rosebery in Dictionary of National Biography, OUP 2004-08
- David Dutton, The History of the Liberal Party in the Twentieth Century;Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp15-16
- Iain Sharpe, Entry on Liberal Imperialists in Dictionary of Liberal Thought, Politico's, 2007 pp 214-216
- Oxford Companion to British History; OUP, 1997
- The Clean Slate, in Brack & Little, Great Liberal Speeches, Politico’s, 2001
- H. C. G. Matthew, Entry on Haldane in Dictionary of National Biography; OUP 2004-08
- John Grigg, Lloyd George: The People’s Champion, 1902-1911; Penguin Books, 2002 edition pp 83-88
- Michael Bentley: Politics Without Democracy: 1815-1914; Fontana, 1984 pp321-322
- Peter Rowland, The Last Liberal Governments: The Promised Land, 1905-1910; Barrie & Rockliffe the Cresset Press, 1968 p12
- Robert Rhodes James, Rosebery; Phoenix Paperback, 1995 p451
- Keith M Wilson, The Policy of the Entente; Essays on the Determinants of British Foreign Policy, 1904-14; Cambridge University Press, 1985, p23
- Michael Ratcliffe, review of Asquith by Stephen Koss, published by Allen Lane, 1976: The Times, 26.8.76 p9
- Roy Jenkins, Asquith, p154
- A J A Morris, Entry on Campbell-Bannerman in Dictionary of National Biography; OUP 2004-08
- http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=3&item=biography Biography of Asquith from the Liberal Democrat History Group
- http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=4&item=biography Biography of Campbell-Bannerman from the Liberal Democrat History Group
- http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=48&item=biography Biography of Edward Grey from the Liberal Democrat History Group
- John Plowright: The Relugas Compact, in: The Routledge Dictionary of Modern British history, vol 1, p. 221, 2006.