Reform and Politics
The alliance itself was a fairly loose organisation of local “no-license leagues”, which combined all the prohibition and temperance groups in each licensing district. The alliance had no direct control over these bodies, but it did have its own funds and published a newspaper, The Prohibitionist. The alliance, as the national representative of prohibition opinion, was a formidable political force. The furore over the movement's demands for licensing legislation in 1893 wrecked the Government's legislative programme and almost brought it down. The alliance, as its constitution bound it to do, worked to ensure the election to Parliament of candidates sympathetic to its views and brought considerable pressure to bear. In the end this involvement in politics undoubtedly harmed the movement. Its tactics finally united the Liberals against such extreme demands. It helped Seddon, for it ensured him the warm support of the licensed trade. Later, when the national option poll was introduced in 1910, the alliance found it necessary to negotiate a rather shady political “compact” with the trade, an episode that nearly brought about its downfall.
The 1896 licensing poll was held on election day, with the result that more people voted and the prohibitionists received a severe setback. In 1899 this reverse was carried into the political sphere and most of the prohibitionist members of Parliament, among them Taylor, lost their seats. Prohibitionists also fared badly in polls for the election of licensing committees. From this date the prohibitionists ceased to be an effective force in Parliament and could safely be ignored as a political force. Although the alliance was able to force considerable amendments of the licensing laws upon the Government during the nineties, these changes were obviously made with great reluctance and Taylor was undoubtedly right in alleging that they were designed to hurt the licensed trade as little as possible.
During the 1900s the prohibition vote again increased and, indeed, was in the majority at every poll up to 1911. This success, however, only referred to the aggregate national votes. At the local level the prohibitionists found it very difficult to surmount “the three-fifths”, that is, the requirement that no-licence had to receive this proportion of the total vote to be carried. Between 1894 and 1908 only 12 districts went “dry”, in spite of the fact that in a national poll on the simple majority principle prohibition would have been carried in 1902, 1905, and 1908.
It is not surprising, therefore, that demands for a national poll became increasingly insistent. This had always had its advocates, but many prohibitionists believed that a gradual extension of no-licence through local polls would be less revolutionary and frightening and, therefore, more effective. But the increase in the no-licence vote after 1902 again lent strength to those who sought a national poll, as it appeared that this would easily result in national prohibition, and the annual conference of the alliance in 1908 carried a resolution demanding a poll on “colonial option”. In the general election of that year a majority of the members of Parliament returned were known to favour a national poll with a simple majority to carry any proposal, or at least a 55 per cent – 45 per cent majority.