by Michael Meadowcroft
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Liberal Party appeared to be poised to re-assert its long dominance of British politics. It had been the first party to organise itself effectively on a national basis; the franchise had increased from 813,000 at the time of the first reform act of 1832 to 6.3 million at the general election of 1895, with the additional electors including a significant number of working men who were expected to vote Liberal; and it had retained the support of a number of businessmen who had prospered enormously during the long years of the industrial revolution.
On the debit side, however, were a number of worrying problems. Gladstone had died in 1898 without leaving an obvious successor as party leader; and the Irish question had split the party asunder taking the radical Joseph Chamberlain and 92 other Liberal MPs out of mainstream Liberalism into the "Liberal Unionists" who by 1912 had drifted formally and inexorably into the ranks of the Conservative and Unionist party.
Even more significant as it would turn out, even though at the turn of the century it was but a small cloud on the horizon, was the failure of the Liberal Party to accommodate the nascent aspirations of working class men. The existence within the Liberal ranks of the Lib-Lab MPs and of such high profile union leaders as John Burns - the first working man to achieve cabinet rank - could not hide the palpable evidence that Liberal Party leaders were incapable of making the psychological changes necessary to make the party the natural home of ambitious labour politicians.
It was not that the hierarchy wasn't warned. In a letter of March 1890 to local Leeds MP Herbert Gladstone remarkable in its prescience, John Shackleton Mathers, the Hon Secretary of the Leeds Liberal Association, wrote:
"There are questions ..... coming on in leaps and bounds ...... To use the broadest term, I mean Socialism and by that I mean immediately all the questions which concern capital and labour; all that which concerns the very direct interests and comforts of the toilers.
For over five years I have been warning friends that, unless the Liberal Party took up and considered these questions and dealt with them, a great Labour party would spring up and sweep aside both Tories and Liberals as such and govern for themselves.
You may think this Utopian, it only remains so until the hour, and not a moment beyond, when the masses have accumulated funds to sustain their men for their cause."
Such warnings were barely heeded and in retrospect the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 created more nails ready for hammering into the approaching coffin of the Liberal Party.
In the meantime however, the party sloughed off the electoral disaster of the "khaki" election of 1900 in the throes of the Boer war. In Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman the Liberals in 1899 had at last found a leader who was both sound on policy and capable of welding together a cohesive parliamentary party. When in late 1905 Balfour's Conservative government split and then collapsed over protection and free trade, "C-B" formed a minority Liberal government pending the imminent general election. The 1906 election produced a landslide Liberal victory. Two thirds of Conservative MPs were defeated and the Liberals more than doubled their representation, to hold 400 seats in a parliament of 670 members.
Within that huge majority party sat some twenty-five Lib-Lab Members but in addition there were twenty-nine Labour (and one Lib-Lab) members who took up places on the opposition benches. Ominous this certainly was, but there was the obvious excuse that the government benches were greatly overcrowded. Twenty-four of these Labour MPs had been victorious in the absence of a Liberal candidate followed a Lib-Lab concordat agreed in 1903 between Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone and Labour Leader, Ramsay Macdonald.
This agreement, innocuous enough at the time, and beneficial in a number of Liberal constituencies in which Labour candidates were withdrawn, proved in hindsight to be disastrous to the future of the Liberal Party in that it gratuitously gave Labour its first substantial group of MPs and thereby an independent voice both in parliament and in the media. Whether the party arithmetic would have been different without the Great War of 1914-18, that cataclysmic political event of the following decade, and the subsequent cleft between Asquith and Lloyd George, is still a matter of argument but by the election of 1922 only 54 independent Liberals were elected, compared to 142 Labour MPs. The tables were decisively turned.
Such a dramatic decline was far from the mind of Campbell-Bannerman and his Cabinet as they prepared the progressive programme of the new government. Nevertheless C-B was shrewd enough to realise that he had to maintain party unity by balancing ".... sops for Labour .... [with] other Bills of general interest to balance them." Even so, the government's first burst of legislation was designed to secure its leftward flank. The Trades Disputes Act of 1906 overturned the Taff Vale judgement and restored to trade unions their legal immunities in relation to strike action that had been undermined by an earlier ruling of the House of Lords. There was also a new Workman's Compensation Act, a School Meals Act - based on a private member's bill introduced by a Labour MP - and a Medical Inspection Act.
Although the Conservative dominated House of Lords allowed these measures to pass, it thwarted an Education Bill and a bill to curb plural voting. C-B expressed his and the Liberals' frustration by passing a motion in the Commons as early as June 1907 calling for legal restrictions on the Lords' powers. Given that any bill to achieve this would need to be passed by the selfsame Lords, it was no surprise that it took until 1911, and the threat of the creation of hundreds of Liberal peers, to achieve the first curtailment of its powers.
C-B's grasp on the parliamentary programme and on the effort required to achieve it began to slip. His wife's illness and subsequent death in August 1906 hit him very hard and his own health soon began to fail. He died, in 10 Downing Street, in April 1908. He had been a far shrewder Liberal politician and leader than many expected and it is arguable that a fit Campbell-Bannerman in office for, say, a further ten years would have maintained a united party and inhibited the rise of Labour. As it was he left a party in some disarray. By-elections were already being lost - to both Labour and Conservative - and the municipal elections showed heavy Conservative gains.
Campbell-Bannerman's natural successor was Herbert Asquith but the most significant consequence of C-B's death was the promotion of David Lloyd George to the Chancellor of the Exchequer post vacated by Asquith. The combination of the two men, the cool intellectual Asquith and the flamboyant radical Lloyd George, produced a stream of progressive legislation: the introduction of old-age pensions, the establishment of labour exchanges and trade boards, the creation of of a National Insurance scheme to cover sickness, invalidity and unemployment, plus a minimum wages act for the miners.
These measures were generally well received but Lloyd George's 1909 budget was a challenge of a very different order. It was, he said "a war budget .... for raising money to wage implacable war against poverty and squalidness." Taxes were raised on incomes - particularly top incomes - on death duties, on spirits and tobacco and on liquor licences paid by publicans and brewers. But the new tax that startled Conservatives, and in due course provoked the House of Lords, was a modest tax on the increments of land values and on the value of undeveloped land. Discarding the established principle that financial measures were outside the remit of the upper house, the Lords threw out Lloyd George's budget on 30th November 1909, thus setting the scene for the following year's titanic struggle between Commons and Lords.
Asquith immediately called a general election on the issue of "Peers versus the People", and found his majority wiped out. On the basis of a 4.7% swing to the Conservatives the number of Liberal MPs fell to 274 - a net loss of 126 - while the Conservatives had a nett gain of 106 seats. Asquith stayed in office on the support of the 82 Irish Nationalist and 40 Labour members, but, inevitably, the need to rely on the two minority parties skewed the government's legislative programme. Even so, it was clear that Home Rule for Ireland could not pass while the Lords retained their veto and, consequently, there was broad support for the Liberals' Parliament Bill aimed at curtailing the Lords' powers. The Lords at last realised the danger they were in and, belatedly, passed the 1909 budget.
The unfortunate Liberals continued to be accident prone. Having extracted a commitment from Edward VII to create enough new peers to emasculate the House of Lords if a second election was successfully concluded on the issue, the monarch died on 6th May. Inter-party conferences were then held in an effort to spare the new king an immediate constitutional crisis but by the Autumn these had a reached an impasse and a second general election was inevitable. The new King, George V, insisted on awaiting the inevitable defeat of the Parliament Bill in the Lords before granting a dissolution. In the event the December 1910 election produced an almost identical result to that eleven months earlier and Asquith was still forced to rely on the Irish Nationalist and Labour MPs. The sole difference was that, in the face of a reluctant assurance from the King to create sufficient new peers to ensure the passage of the Parliament Bill, the Lords voted on 10th August 1911 to curtail their own powers.
Now the Irish Nationalists had a glint in their eye and could see a - long - legislative timetable leading inexorably to Home Rule by the summer of 1914. In the event only the imminent threat of world war in August of that year baulked the Irish. Despite the myopia on Ireland and the disruption caused to the government by the militant suffragettes, Asquith and Lloyd George pressed on with their land and fiscal reforms. The electoral evidence from the years before the war is that the Liberals were picking up support at the expense of both British parties. The scheduled 1915 general election, cancelled following the outbreak of war, would have been an absolutely decisive contest and would probably have set a definitive pattern for future party strengths.
War in itself is appalling and, given the draconian restrictions it inevitably places on freedom of speech and on civil liberties, it is always detrimental to Liberalism. When, as in 1914, it is a Liberal government - on its own until the formation of the coalition government in May 1915 - that has to introduce illiberal measures, the political fall out is doubly damaging. The inexorable momentum towards conscription, finally enacted in January 1916, led a score or more of dissident Liberal MPs to begin meeting as a group with Labour MPs. Many of these, led by C P Trevelyan, arguably the cream of radical Liberalism, crossed the narrowing divide into the ranks of Labour candidature in the 1920s.
As if there were insufficient pressures on Asquith and the Liberal party in 1916, his leadership of both party and war came increasingly under pressure. In May 1915 his close confidante Venetia Stanley announced her engagement to Edwin Montagu, one of his own ministers and his son Raymond was killed in action in September 1916 - two events which fuelled his latent alcoholism and his consequent ill health. The war was not going well and Lloyd George, who had become War Minister in July 1916, demanded more and more influence over the direction of government policy.
The Conservative members of the coalition needed the kind of boost that Lloyd George's leadership promised them, and by December Asquith came to the conclusion that the increasing intrigues were an affront to his standing and his self-respect. He resigned and Lloyd George assumed the reins of power. The Asquith family, and the majority of Liberal party loyalists, never forgave Lloyd George for ousting their party leader. This open breach was a permanent and vivid electoral handicap and, despite valiant efforts in 1923 and 1929, it was never fully healed. Thus arrived the second fundamental party split. Its electoral effects would soon be all too evident.
[to be continued]