One Hundred years of Liberalism

Part One - Rooted in the Future

A twenty-first century Liberal would have surprisingly little difficulty in recognising a kindred soul amongst the Liberals of the early nineteenth century. The only major allowance to be made would be in regard to the social elitism of the time and, even then, it is mainly the pace of change from the Great Reform Act of 1832 onward that would frustrate the Liberal of today. Even in earlier centuries there were those, such as John Locke, who wrote with a clear Liberal perception of the nature of liberty, and those who, at great personal risk, won and entrenched the supremacy of parliament over the king.

It was not that the word "Liberal" was in exclusive use by a party at the time - its use even in a broad political context only dates from the 1820s - and the colloquial use of Whig and Tory preceded that of Liberal and Conservative respectively by many decades. Certainly there were those who stood on a "Liberal" ticket in 1832 and thereafter at both national and local levels, but there was no central party structure nor mass individual party membership as we know it. Indeed, well into the twentieth century, there were those who, under the broad Liberal umbrella, identified themselves as "Radical" and who stood for election as such.

Where there were two member constituencies, deals would often be done to maximise the anti-Conservative vote. In Northampton, for instance, the Radical Charles Bradlaugh was paired with the "mainstream" Liberal, Henry Labouchere, to ensure the election of both candidates. As an atheist Bradlaugh refused to take the religious-based oath as an MP and was prevented from taking his seat. The Liberals and electors of Northampton remained remarkably loyal to Bradlaugh, electing him four times in four years until he was able to sit in the Commons!

The one Liberal leader able to hold the different factions together, and who bestrode nineteenth century politics, was William Ewart Gladstone. Four times Prime Minister - forming his last government at the age of 84 - it is often forgotten that Gladstone began his political career as a Conservative MP, partly because, as high church Anglican it was more natural to identify with toryism. Non-conformists tended to be Liberal. Similarly, landed gentry were Tory but industrialists - however wealthy - were Liberal. Maintaining a government majority for legislation required constant negotiation with groups in both parties - curiously similar to the continual problems facing an American president and his dealings with Congress.

Alongside the extension of the franchise, the development of urban constituencies to recognise the industrialisation of Britain, and the secret ballot, came the evolution of political parties. It became more and more difficult to maintain the elitism of early Victorian politics and the formation of the National Liberal Federation in 1874 is regarded as the definitive moment when modern political parties began. Even then the London headquarters had little or no power to impose decisions and its influence on local candidate selection came mainly from its ability to fund electoral contests. If, as was often the case, the local constituency had wealthy backers, or a rich candidate, it could easily ignore the wishes of the NLF officers in London.

The national party manifesto is also a twentieth century concept as is the idea of being a "good" constituency MP. In the papers of Herbert Gladstone, WE's youngest son and one of my predecessors as MP for West Leeds, is a letter from his constituency chairman suggesting that he might soon pay a visit to Leeds "seeing that it is two years since he last visited the constituency"! The lack of widespread party membership and of party democracy did not denote a lack of fierce partisanship; older constituents in West Leeds would often relate how as children they would accost other children with the question, "are yer blue or yaller?" and hit them with a rolled up newspaper if they gave the wrong answer.

The key figure in the organisational development of the Liberal party is Francis Schnadhorst. A Birmingham businessman, Schnadhorst is largely unknown today and no biography of him exists. Nevertheless it was Schnadhorst who realised that, with the enfranchisement of working men and the introduction of the secret ballot - before 1870 the elector's votes were recorded and published, thus enabling much bribery - the formation of a membership organisation and the thorough organisation of election campaigns would bring electoral success. Under his local mentor, Joseph Chamberlain, he demonstrated vividly in Birmingham the effectiveness of his organisational skills. The NLF wanted him to take over the party's national organisation but, with Schnadhorst unwilling to move to London, it took an enormous fee to get him to spend even part of the week at NLF headquarters.

Fortunately for Liberals, Schnadhorst remained with the party after the split of 1886 when Gladstone's determination to give Home Rule to Ireland led to Chamberlain leading a Liberal Unionist revolt which eventually led him and his followers into a united "Conservative and Unionist" party. Schnadhorst's organisational skills, allied to Gladstone's public stature and the tentative Liberal steps towards encouraging working men into Liberal politics, gave the Liberal party a considerable head start in twentieth century politics.

Party candidates in municipal elections have a longer history than is often realised. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, inaugurated local elections and was the catalyst for local party involvement in those elections. Even the elections for the Board of Guardians, which administered the Poor Law, and, later, for the School Boards were contested on party lines. The local franchise was wider than that for parliamentary elections and thus provided the opportunity for local parties to involve more individuals - including some working men - in the electoral process.

The success of this forerunner to the community politics concept of the 1970s in the urban cities can be gauged by the fact that, with the exception of a few short months, Liberals controlled the Leeds Borough (and, later, City) council for fifty-seven consecutive years from 1835! Civic pride and municipal innovation was at its highest in those years when Britain's towns and cities were dominated by coalitions of Whigs, Chartists and Radicals. It is easy to forget in the destruction of local government over the past sixty years, that Liberals developed a vast range of municipal services, including gas, electricity, local hospitals, water supply and trustee banking - all in addition to public health, libraries, education and housing.

By the end of the nineteenth century Liberalism was at a cross roads. It had presided over the transformation of the democratic process, both in terms of the enfranchisement of most working men, the introduction of fair electoral practices and the establishment of local democracy right down to the parish council level. In addition it had overseen the remarkable development of the infrastructure of our cities, including sewage disposal and the supply of pure water - reforms which did more than any other single innovation to improve the health of the population and to extend life expectancy. However, the party was split over the introduction of home rule for Ireland and its response to the rise of organised labour and to the birth of the Independent Labour Party was timid and tentative. These issues would play key roles in determining the fate of the party in the next century.

Part Two - Assisted euthanasia

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.

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

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.