Malcolm’s mother never sliced and served a cucumber without referring to its eructative effect. History is also supposed to repeat itself.
Therefore, in the light of the present small hysteria over the surging LibDem share of the vote, Malcolm reconsidered what went wrong for the Liberals last time.
Fortunately, thanks to three daughters’ historical studies, his shelves include two key texts:
Basically, the explanations furnished by historians fall under three heads. Some see the Party’s collapse as the consequence of a deep moral or ideological crisis, a loss of belief in Liberalism as a creed; they accordingly emphasise the emergence of a ‘revisionist’ school in the 1890s (i.e. Liberal Imperialism), the later cult of efficiency, the 1910 Secret Coalition talks, and, of course, the damage wrought by the ‘rampant omnibus’. Other historians draw attention to class divisions, though they disagree over when the Labour Party made its crucial breakthrough -the formation of the LRC in 1900, the return of twenty-nine Labour MPs in 1906, the Great Labour Unrest of 1911-14, or the industrial conflicts which culminated in the 1926 General Strike. By contrast, a third historical school (the ‘accidentalists’) emphasises matters of contingency, individual decision and chance. Would the Liberal Party, they ask, have floundered so badly in the 1890s but for Gladstone’s Home Rule bombshell? Or would Liberalism not very possibly have bounced back in the 1920s but for the fateful ‘mistake’ of putting Labour into office in early 1924? The Liberals seem also to have inflicted deep injury on their own party by the quarrels which rent the leadership in the 1890s involving those three prima donnas, Harcourt, Rosebery and Morley, followed a quarter of a century later by the implacable vendetta waged between the followers of Asquith and Lloyd George. It is also possible, of course, to combine two or more of these interpretations in a variety of ways.
So complex are these issues and so difficult is it to hazard an intelligent guess of what, say, might have happened but for the outbreak of the Great War, that historians are unlikely ever to reach unanimity. What follows are only a few personal observations.
Clearly, Winston Churchill was right when he percipiently observed in 1906: ‘War is fatal to Liberalism’. The Great War wreaked great damage on the Party. Nevertheless, there was still plentiful scope for a Liberal recovery. In the 1918 general election the two halves of the divided Liberal Party had polled over 350,000 more votes than had Labour, which was perhaps significant given the edgy relationship between many ‘Lloyd George Liberals’ and the Conservative Party and the widespread belief (especially in Scotland) that the coalition was only a temporary arrangement.
It is therefore tempting to assume that the Liberal Party’s collapse was due to some more profound cause, perhaps to its inability to adapt to changes in the structure of capitalism. An examination of the exact backgrounds of Liberal businessmen lends some support to this contention. Right through its history, the party made an appeal to ‘petit bourgeois’ groups, like small retailers and shop-keepers, who belonged to a dwindling sector of the economy. The Liberals also continued to do well in the manufacturing districts of northern England. Yet, from a very early stage, Liberalism started to lose the confidence of people engaged in the financial services sector; for example, no Liberal was returned for the City of London constituency at any time after 1880.
Yet this does not mean that by the start of the new century the Liberals lacked support in the world of corporate capitalism. For example, the great industrialist Alfred Mond, the creator of ICI, did not desert the Liberal Party for Conservatism until as late as 1925. Indeed, Mond’s case is also a reminder of Liberalism’s formidable powers of adaptation. Traditionally, Liberals had been proponents of a market ideology, which extolled competition and sought to maximise its scope. This continued to be the case. But at the same time some Liberals, like Mond himself, had come out by the 1920s in favour of a ‘managed capitalism’ and were advocates of ‘Rationalisation’ — which they saw, in quintessentially liberal terms, as a way of tempering the excesses of competition by the application of reason and science. A similar emphasis marked the Liberals’ Industrial Inquiry in the late 1920s. Thus did early twentieth-century Liberalism bequeath to posterity a legacy of laissez-faire (to be revived by ‘neo-Liberals’ like Hayek in later decades), while also providing a rationale for economic planning and pioneering the welfare capitalism which dominated the political agenda of Britain (and many other industrialised countries) in the period following the Second World War.
Unfortunately for the Liberals, they seem to have been slower to have grasped the political implications of the emergence of the rise of the corporate economy. Thus, whereas, C. C. Davidson, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, made great efforts to tap the big industrial and financial companies in the run-up to the 1929 general election, the Liberals continued, despite the ‘Million Fund’, to look to sympathetic entrepreneurs to replenish their central war chest. This was an unsatisfactory arrangement, not least because many of these individual subscribers were looking for ‘recognition’. The Liberals were unwise to have risked incurring another ‘Honours Scandal’ like the one which had so damaged Lloyd George’s reputation in 1922. In consequence, unwilling or unable to modernise their fund-raising methods, the Liberals became stuck in what one historian has called the ‘Plutocratic Era’, without properly making the transition to the class-based system adopted by Labour (reliant on trade union subventions) and by the Conservatives (closely connected to big business).
But this, in turn, takes us on to what was perhaps the Achilles’ Heel of Liberalism: its particular attitude towards class. ‘The Liberal Party is not to-day, it never has been, and so long as I have any connection with it, it never will be, the party of any class, rich or poor, great or small, numerous or sparse in its composition. We are a party of no class’, Asquith was still defiantly telling the faithful in 1921. Lloyd George did not dissent. To quote from a historian who has made a specialised study of Preston: ‘The Liberals remained essentially populist, being unable to make any specific appeals to members of the working class as such, and this allowed leading Liberals to present themselves as leaders of a popular coalition which did not in fact exist’.
Now, admittedly, it was a convention of British political life, observed by all Conservatives and many Socialists, that parties should deny any intention of furthering the interests of anyone social class. Even Ramsay MacDonald, the socialist, took this line. Yet no-one was in any doubt where the sympathy of the Labour and Socialist movement lay. The Conservative Party provided a mirror image of this. Leaders like Baldwin denounced ‘class politics’ as essentially ‘un-English’, a foreign commodity imported from Russia. But while managing to attract a considerable working-class following, the Conservatives owed most of their electoral success to the skill which they played upon middle-class anxieties. Thus they were able to have their cake and eat it.
But the Liberals had little chance of pulling off a similar trick. Theoretically, they could have consolidated their position as the party which traditionally most manual workers supported by establishing formal links with the trade union movement, while at the same time protesting their devotion to the interests of the ‘nation’ as a whole. But though they were willing to reformulate their programme in order to accommodate the new welfare issues, the Liberals could not bring themselves to make any very great effort to place significant numbers of working-class candidates in winnable seats.
Moreover, whereas the Conservative Party enjoyed close ties with big business (though it was usually deemed prudent not to draw public attention to this fact), the Liberals continued, right until the end, to have very ambivalent feelings about trade unionism. In most of the big industrial disputes of the period, the Liberals were at best neutral and more often hostile to the cause of the strikers. These were the circumstances in which the Labour Party was able to establish itself in the affections of many working-class communities. And as Labour extended its organisation in the 1920s, the old working-class Liberal vote atrophied. True, the rise of Labour also created hostility to Socialism which the Liberal Party might have successfully exploited; indeed, many of their municipal and parliamentary candidates did precisely this. Yet, when all is said and done, by the 1920s the Conservatives were better placed than the Liberals to function as a ‘party of resistance’; for, in Ross McKibbin’s words, ‘it was known that the Conservative Party was the party of bourgeois propriety and dignity’.
Even so, electoral reform could still have saved the Liberals. But luck was not on their side. The traditional ‘first-past-the-post’ system militates against a third party acquiring a representation commensurate with its electoral support in the country as a whole. Hence, the narrow failure to carry either the Alternative Vote or Proportional Representation in the years following the Great War left the Liberals in a very weak position, while the bungling of the attempts at ‘fusion’ in the spring of 1920 shut off the possibility of a rather different kind of come-back.
Finally, the Asquith-Lloyd George feud further weakened the party at a crucial historical turning-point, for the collapse of the coalition ushered in a confused phase of three-party politics between 1922 and 1924, the outcome of which could not easily be foreseen. Yet the Liberals, given a great opportunity in early 1924, had blown their chances before the end of the year. By the time the party had reorganised itself around a new leader and a new programme, it was too late to break up the Conservative-Labour duopoly presided over by MacDonald and Baldwin. Despite the creation of the ‘Alliance’ in the 1980s and the subsequent formation of the Liberal Democrats, this is the political system within which we are still living.