Waterloo Lodge in the snow
Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee

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One Hundred years of Liberalism

Part Three - Vanity, feeble leadership and the loss of nerve

by Michael Meadowcroft

Britain at the end of the First World War was a country bereft of its youth, its vigour, and its self-confidence. Those who survived the conflict, and the families of those who had not returned, blamed the "old order" and its class ridden certainties for the political failures that had produced the war and for the manifest failures of its execution that had led to the pouring of young lives into negligible gains of desolate territory. If this were to be the "war to end all wars" then deep changes in society would be required.

Having seen the failures of their "elders and betters", working class men were not inclined to accept the privileges of a ruling class that had hitherto virtually monopolised all positions of influence. Nor were women prepared to accept a docile role having had both to take on increased roles in industry and to cope alone with their families whilst their menfolk were at the front. It had been a Liberal government that had taken Britain to war and a Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, who had been a key opponent of female suffrage.

The Liberal party had already lost some key figures to a Labour party which, despite having had an ambivalent attitude to the war, was now setting itself up as a formal political party with a detailed constitution and a determination to build a mass membership. The prospects for Liberalism in 1918 were hardly very prepossessing. Lloyd George, still at this point the astute opportunist, saw that his best chance to remain in office was to continue the wartime coalition, and used the division lists in a key parliamentary vote in May 1918 - the Maurice debate - when Liberal MPs split between supporting and opposing the government, as the basis for receiving the coalition government's endorsement at the October 1918 election.

Lloyd George had retained his reputation both as a pre-war radical and as the man who came to the helm and led Britain to victory. Essentially he was, by 1918, a leader without a party whereas, with Bonar Law, his opposite number, the Conservatives were a party without a leader. The infamous "Coupon", signed by Lloyd George and Bonar Law, went to some 150 Liberal candidates and, though there were more Asquithian Liberal candidates, the election result was catastrophic for the Liberal party. 133 Lloyd George Liberal MPs were returned (plus 333 Coalition Conservative Members and 10 Coalition Labour) and only 28 independent Liberals survived. Labour itself increased its numbers to 63 - surprisingly few in an election which for the first time had a full adult male franchise and a partial female franchise.

Lloyd George's personal stature and popularity was such that one of the great "might have beens" of politics is whether, if Asquith had given up the leadership of the party when Lloyd George formed the coalition government of 1916, Lloyd George would have chosen to lead the party on its own into the 1918 election and whether he would have succeeded in winning it. As it was, the deep antipathy between the two men fuelled the party's long term decline and the haemorrhage of support to Labour continued, assisted by the enfranchisement of working men and women.

There was no new zeal or enthusiasm; no inspiration and no fresh thought and the party staggered on towards the following election living on its past glories. There were those such as Ramsay Muir and Ernest Simon who realised the gravity of the ideological vacuum but whilst Asquith carried on as leader into his eighth decade and Lloyd George became increasingly the captive of the Conservatives, Liberalism missed any opportunity it might have had to be the standard bearer of the radical wing of British politics and found itself floundering in the wake of a Labour party that prospered by default rather than by drive and leadership.

The 1922 General Election saw the Coalition Liberals representation halved (to 62) and the independent Liberals' doubled (to 54) but this was still a miserable result. Labour, with 142 Members, became the official opposition. However one analysed the figures, Liberals were the third party - and still divided.

Two distinct factors now came into play. First, some months before the election, Ernest Simon, Ramsay Muir and Edward Scott (son of The Manchester Guardian's proprietor, the redoubtable C P Scott) had met to seek a way of revitalising Liberal thought. This meeting resulted in the Liberal Summer School which met for the first time in September 1921, with such intellectual luminaries as J M Keynes, Walter Layton and Hubert Henderson participating. The possibility of a new progressive Liberalism was at last on the horizon.

Second, the results of the election were clear evidence that continuing as before was neither a tactical nor electoral option. Initiatives towards Liberal unity came from both the leadership and the grassroots and were suddenly given an unexpected boost when the new Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, called a fresh general election on the issue of tariff reform. No other issue could have served to give the Liberals the gift of a common platform, and the campaign for free trade united the two ailing wings. Asquith and Lloyd George appeared on platforms together, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, and the party cobbled together 30% of the popular vote and 158 MPs. The Conservatives were still the largest party with 258 seats but lacked an overall majority. In the euphoria of Liberal revival the fact that Labour had gained almost fifty seats and was in a clear second place was not initially regarded as a fundamental obstacle to Liberal advancement, and internal tactical discussions took place with the object of ensuring that, in due course, the King would call on Asquith to form a government.

Any Liberals - or Liberal Democrats - today who believe that the balance of power is easy to deal with should examine the events following the 1923 election and, particularly, the vulnerability of the party in third place. Suffice to say that the Liberals were outmanoeuvred and ended up trapped into supporting a Conservative amendment on the Campbell case, involving the prosecution of the editor of a left wing journal for publishing a "subversive" article, which the minority Labour government chose to regard as a motion of confidence. The government fell and the determination of both other parties to destroy the Liberals as a political force had succeeded, at least in the short term.

For the Liberals the 1924 general election saw vividly the miserable consequences for a third party of first-past-the-post voting. Relatively small shifts in voting gave the Conservatives 413 MPs, Labour 151 and the Liberals only 42 - a defeat compounded by the fact that the party's financial resources only enabled it to fight 340 seats. The party's internal divisions were inevitably exacerbated by the result and Asquith staggered on a nominal party leader, from an earldom in the House of Lords, having lost his Paisley seat, until 1926.

Despite this endearing formality, it was clear that to all intents and purposes the leadership had passed to Lloyd George who grasped the initiative, encouraged the Liberal Summer School, set up a series of high-powered enquiries and prepared for a forthright Liberal challenge at the next general election. This was to be the last gasp of the Liberal tradition that had dominated pre-1914 politics.