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The new Liberal Party from dawn to downfall 1906 - 1924

Kenneth O. Morgan

Notes de la rédaction

This is a transcription from Lord Morgan's public lecture by Lauranne Fougère.

Texte intégral

From 1906 to 1914

1The Liberal Party and Liberal government, particularly from 1906, is a very important period of British history, often compared with the Labour government after 1945, another great phase of reform. But there is of course one big difference: the Liberal government of 1906 was pre-war, the Attlee government post-war. The Labour government in 1945 set the tone for post-war British development, politically and socially, down, perhaps, to the regime of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. By contrast, the Liberals I am talking about this morning were destroyed by the First World War. They almost disintegrated as a party. The Liberals that I am talking about were a casualty of total war.

2They won a great landslide victory in 1906, over 400 Liberal MPs, plus 29 Labour, plus 83 Irish Nationalists. So it was a great victory for the British Left, a great disaster for the Conservative Party, an enormous swing and many people, then and later, asked: “How was it was the Liberals won such an overwhelming majority?”

3At the time, much attention focused on religion, particularly in connection with the 1902 Education Act. It was the greatest victory for non-conformists, for Protestants in Britain since the time of Oliver Cromwell, when the King got his head cut off and people wondered what could happen this time. In fact, the impact of religion on British political life was relatively short-term. The non-conformists were to be disappointed clients of the great Liberal landslide.

4More important than religion, I think, was the rise of Labour. 1906 saw the first decisive impact of the working class on British politics. There was great concern with the rise of strikes, the growth of the Trade Unions, the rise of social questions. A major reason, in fact, for the Liberals' winning this enormous majority in 1906, was that they had a secret pact with the small Labour Party, or what came to be called the Labour Party, by which the Labour Party was given a free uncontested election in about 30 constituencies. Soon after the general election, the Labour Party, proper, was formed with Keir Hardie as its chairman, gaining 29 Members of Parliament. A new force had arisen, a spectre was haunting British politics, as Karl Marx would have said, and that takes you very much to the core of what was happening in Britain in the year 1906.

5If you think of Edwardian Britain, very commonly it is thought to be a time of great national self-confidence, and those, I think, terrible tunes by Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance, full of imperial glory. There were great imperial buildings going up in London, great imperial buildings going up in India, in New Delhi at the same time. But in fact, in my view, it was not a period of great national confidence. It was a period of anxiety. That is the background of the Liberal victory: anxiety about Empire after the war in South Africa and the death of so many thousands of women and children as a result of the atrocities committed by the British in concentration camps in South Africa; anxiety about the economy, fear that Britain's industrial supremacy was being overtaken by Germany and the United States; fear about national security, Britain being isolated in the world. Hence the “Entente Cordiale", as it was called, with France in 1904. Within Britain itself, great anxiety about the problems of the city, about poverty, about unemployment and as an aspect of these problems, as they affected women. The issue of women was not only a question of the vote but a matter of women's standard of living and quality of life. So all these factors were making it, I believe, a time of great concern, undermining self-confidence in Britain and all of them impinged on the Conservative Party.

6The Conservative Party in the 1990s was torn apart over Europe. The Conservative Party in the 1900s was torn apart about Empire. And thus it was that the Liberals won their great majority against the background of these accumulative anxieties, this tension about Empire and in particular defending the great Liberal cause, the one Holy Grail for which Liberals stood, free trade, free trade between the nations. All the Liberal values were embodied in free trade: cheap food for the working man, cheap raw materials for industrial producers, full employment, economic growth, a grand vision of prosperity and peace. This was what the Liberals were defending and this was what they claimed the Conservatives were threatening to destroy.

7The Liberal government down to 1914 was dominated by two men and one issue. Two men: of course Asquith, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. Very different men, very different in background: Asquith an elitist, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, perhaps the most famous college in Oxford. Lloyd George, a man who never went to university, brought up in a shoe-maker's home, Welsh-speaking, a Baptist in religion. Asquith the English insider. Lloyd George the Welsh outsider. They married, I may say, very different wives. There is Lloyd George with a very quiet lady from rural Wales. Asquith's wife was a rather glamorous gossip from high society. It was said of the two that Asquith told everything to his wife and Lloyd George told everything to other people's wives. So that tells you something about them. They came from very different backgrounds: Lloyd George, anti-imperialist, hostile to the Boer War, Asquith, a Liberal imperialist. So, very different men but they got on, they formed a very powerful partnership. They had politically a much more effective partnership than in recent years Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Britain. It probably helped that neither Asquith nor Lloyd George wrote a proper autobiography which has added somehow to the ill-will between the Blair and the Brown camp. They worked closely together on issue after issue. The real test of their partnership came in 1912 when Lloyd George was accused of corruption during the Marconi case. It was said he had made money out of contracts for telegraphy entered into by the British government. He could have gone. Asquith could have pushed him out but not a bit of it. Asquith fought tooth and nail to retain Lloyd George in the government. Asquith liked being Prime Minister. He thought the Liberals were the new party to be in government and he knew that Lloyd George was the Liberals' greatest asset. So Asquith fought to win. He defended his Chancellor successfully in the way that I do not believe would have happened between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

8The main issue was, as I have indicated, the social question. In 1906, they fought, I think, a largely negative campaign, attacking the Conservatives, particularly over free trade. But it became clear that what contemporaries called the “New Liberalism”, the Liberalism of social reform, was increasingly dominating the Liberal mind. The evidence of poverty, of urban deprivation, of the hard conditions of children and old people and working women gripped the Liberal mind at this period and very famous writers drew attention to these matters. I will mention two of them: Hobhouse and Hobson. L. T. Hobhouse was a pioneer of sociology. J. A. Hobson was a very interesting economist who had some impact on Lenin later on, indicating as I said, the range of social concerns that lay beneath the banner of prosperity and Pomp and Circumstance in Edwardian Britain. And increasingly and particularly after Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908, the New Liberalism of social reform dominated the public agenda, beginning in 1908 with the passage of Old Age Pensions, introduced by Asquith and carried through by Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

9As Chancellor, Lloyd George became the main political instrument of the New Liberalism. For him, it was not only a matter of social concern, of trying to remedy social evils. It was a financial matter. How would these reforms be paid for? Pensions meant twelve million pounds coming from the public purse. How was that to be financed? And very importantly it was a matter of political necessity. The Liberals had lost ground since 1906. They needed to recapture the initiative to stay in office and Lloyd George, particularly aware of this, and very interestingly, and I think this is the difference between the Liberals in 1908 and the Labour government in our country in recent years, the longer they went on, the more they became committed to a radical approach. If you like, they moved to the left, which is always a good place to move to in my opinion. There were two very important factors in Lloyd George's mind: the need for a Liberal free trade answer to social reform. How do you pay for it? The Conservatives said the foreigner will pay through tariffs. Lloyd George and the Liberals answered the rich would pay and capitalists would be subjected to progressive redistributive graduated taxation. From within the resources of the country, social reform would be paid for. And there is another factor too: fear of Labour. Lloyd George had very much in mind what he believed was happening in France and what was happening in Italy and had happened in Germany already, that Liberals would be overtaken by the Labour Party, with the nameless terror of socialism within the Labour Party and that it was important that the Liberals therefore had a political answer to the challenge of Labour.

  • 1 Editor's note: Speaker’s Lectures : Centenary of the Parliament Act, Lord Morgan, David Lloyd Georg (...)

10Hence Lloyd George's People's Budget of 1909 which introduced a great range of new taxes. These were direct taxes carefully worked out not to annoy Liberal voters: taxes on estates, higher income tax, duties on drink, duties on tobacco, a new road fund and petrol duty. It was the beginning of the motor car in Britain and this was a fruitful source for new taxation. What particularly horrified people at the time was what seemed to them the class war aspect of Lloyd George's Budget, the attack on land, a whole range of duties on land, of which the most important was what was called the tax on the unearned increment, by which was meant the increased value that land acquired through the growth of industries, through the development of cities while landowners sat there and saw the value go up. Should they not be taxed on the enhanced value of that land? These measures infuriated the Conservative Party, they infuriated particularly the House of Lords. The House of Lords today on many issues tends to be on the left of the House of Commons but in 1909, it certainly was not and very foolishly and unconstitutionally they threw out Lloyd George's budget. This resulted in a big fight between the government and the Lords. The Liberals won two general elections and in the end, the Parliament Act of 1911, which we are celebrating this year, which the Speaker of the House of Commons is celebrating with a series of lectures to mark that event, which I have launched1. So this was a major triumph: the People's Budget, in financial terms and in major political and constitutional terms, the Parliament Act of 1911, that meant the budget had to go through and the House of Lords could in future only delay government measures, including Irish Home Rule, for two years. So Irish Home Rule would therefore also come about.

11Lloyd George intended clearly the budget to be the launch pad of social reform. He was a different kind of Chancellor. He did not just add up the books like a kind of super accountant. He saw treasury policy as the motor that would drive social change forward and thus it was that he followed it up in 1911, again the centenary of it this year, with a very remarkable act, the National Insurance Act, a state-wide system of support for health, if workers fell ill, and in part for unemployment, if you were thrown out of work. It was based on a contributory principle and therefore people accepted it, as people were used to contributing to their own private insurance policies. Here, one can see the birth of the British Welfare State. In my opinion the most notable contribution of the history of the world that Britain made in the 20th century was the idea of the Welfare State, of a comprehensive system which embodied, not just political citizenship, but social citizenship, that within the framework of social welfare, all would participate and in a sense, all would be equal. From that time onward, right through the Beveridge report in the Second World War, I think that you can fairly argue that Lloyd George's National Insurance Act has been the framework of the Welfare State.

12In some ways, that was the high noon of the Liberals before the war, followed by a very difficult period, one of Labour disputes, the threat of a general strike, much violence including notably in South Wales, the militancy of the suffragettes, women demanding the vote and the threat of possible civil war in Ireland between the Catholic South and the Protestant North. Some people have argued that the Liberal government was really falling apart over these issues. I think the only one that was really insuperable was actually Ireland, and that you can argue quite strongly that the government in some ways was rather relieved when the First World War came about because it got them off the hook as far as Ireland was concerned.

13But in general, in my opinion, the Liberal government was still powerful in 1914. The economy was doing well. 1913 was the best ever year for British exports,exports of coal, exports of cotton, exports of manufactured goods. The government could claim to be guardians of peace and prosperity. They had not invaded other countries, there were no Iraqs during the period of the Liberal government before 1914. They still had Lloyd George, the most charismatic politician in the land, still working on behalf of more progressive social policies. In 1914, Lloyd George and one or two colleagues close to him were working on a number of different themes: education, housing, very interestingly the possibility of making the health centres under the National Insurance Act the basis for a kind of proto National Health Service. And so there were many new ideas and the government was still powerful. In my opinion, on the eve of war in 1914, the Liberal government while facing challenges from a reviving Conservative Party, was at its most creative, still active, still with the zest to govern.

From 1914 to 1918

14Then came the war. From the beginning, the war was a time of great anxiety for the Liberals. Deeply divided in mind, crucially, Lloyd George decided to remain in government and soon became the most forceful spokesman for a “fight to the finish”. Most Liberals reluctantly supported the war. They were persuaded that it was a war for Liberal values, for defending gallant little Serbia, gallant little Belgium, according to Lloyd George, gallant little Wales. All these small nationalities were being upheld. But there were very important Liberals who were, from the start, anti-war. And there is a very interesting body: the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), which was anti-war, committed to a democratic foreign policy, who said the war had come about because of secret treaties, anxious that civil liberties should be preserved in war time. Many of these people joined the Labour Party after 1918.

15So there were divisions from the outset and the divisions got worse after May 1915. A coalition formed. The government was no longer a purely Liberal government. There was great uncertainty about what would happen. The Liberals retained the key offices, Asquith remained Prime Minister, but the whole balance of the government was changed, with the Conservatives now in Cabinet and one or two Labour people also changing the balance, the tone of the government. And most worrying of all, in the view of some people, Lloyd George was moving, it seemed, away from his roots, away from his anti-war radical past, working increasingly with the Conservatives in the pursuit of total war. The great highlight of this war time argument was military conscription.

16This foreshadowed the great split. There was a big argument over conscription in the winter of 1915-1916. Here was a fundamental issue for Liberals. How wholeheartedly were they committed to fighting the war? The Home Secretary, a Liberal, John Simon, resigned. Asquith seemed dilatory, unable to make up his mind. Lloyd George was working with the Conservatives. In the end, military conscription was introduced for all males between 18 and 45 years of age but it was a hugely divisive factor within the Liberal Party. It embodied the key principle between, if you like, total war on the one hand and civil liberties on the other hand, rather the kind of argument we have had in Britain latterly which exercised us in the House of Lords about counter terrorism legislation. How do you strike the balance between security and freedom? And during this period, a group of Liberals drew up a list of perhaps a hundred backbencher Liberals who said if there was a crisis, a showdown, they would support Lloyd George as Prime Minister and not Asquith.

17The divisions went on as Lloyd George's position became more and more unique and anomalous. He became Secretary of State for War in July 1916 and then in November and December it was known that Lloyd George was engaged in private talks with the Conservative leader, Bonar Law and the Irish Unionist leader Carson. What they were proposing was something quite fundamental, that the British government be remodeled, that a war council be created to run the war, of which Asquith would not be a member. This caused great tension between Lloyd George and Asquith. Asquith seemed to accept the proposal at one time, 4th December, 1916 but decided that perhaps it was too much of a sacrifice for him. It is not clear why but he broke off negotiations with Lloyd George and the Conservatives and, in a series of backstairs manoeuvres, Lloyd George got the support of the Conservative or Unionist Party, as they were called, and by one vote, quite importantly, the Labour Party. Over a hundred Liberal backbenchers, again, emerged to confirm their support for Lloyd George and Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, as the head of a mainly Conservative government. So if you are looking for the downfall of the Liberal Party, it’s right here, in the first week of December 1916, when the crucial developments happened.

18After that Lloyd George was rather detached from his party. There was a great similarity in many ways to Clemenceau in France, also acting very much as an individual, acting apart from the radical party. Lloyd George seeming perhaps less like a Prime Minister, more like an American President. He claimed he was still a Liberal, he strengthened the Liberal representation in his government, particularly with the introduction of Winston Churchill, who was still very much a Liberal at that time in 1917. There were major reforms introduced: a big Education Act, the Reform Act of 1918, by which women over the age of 30 were given the vote. So reforms were introduced but, increasingly, the government was dominated by the Conservatives, and increasingly so when the Labour Party left the government.

19The future for the Liberal Party was quite unpredictable after this. A very important debate in Parliament took place in May 1918, the Maurice Debate. Very serious allegations were made that the British government had deliberately run down the numbers of troops on the Western front in France and that Lloyd George and other ministers had lied to the House of Commons about it. In the key vote in the Commons 98 Liberals voted against the government, 70 Liberals voted for it. In a very rough and ready way, this became the basis for future Liberal division. Lloyd George was now working with his own supporters and with the Conservatives to make arrangements for the next general election. It was assumed there could be a war-time election in which the Liberals and the Conservatives would run joint candidates. And Lloyd George's Liberals did quite well. They got about 150 seats for guaranteed supporters of the Prime Minister. The war now rapidly came to an end. The election happened just after the Armistice and there was an enormous victory, a landslide, for Lloyd George's coalition government with 520 Members of Parliament, as against only 29 Independent Liberals. Amongst those defeated was the former Prime Minister, Mr Asquith. It was a fatal divide for the Liberal Party. It institutionalized the gulf between supporters of Lloyd George's coalition and opponents of that coalition. “Here is a great split”, observed Winston Churchill. It led rapidly to the fragmentation of the Liberal Party. The real winners of this election interestingly, I think, were the Labour Party. The Labour Party in 1918 listened to the advice, the only, I think, effective political advice he ever gave, of the famous dramatist George Bernard Shaw. Shaw said to the Labour Party Conference: “Go back to Lloyd George and say: “Nothing doing”. And Labour kept out of the coalition and it soon emerged, in my opinion, that they were the real winners, the clear voice of the British Left from that time onwards.

From 1918 to 1924

20After the war, the Liberals therefore were divided into two. Coalition Liberals aligned with the Conservatives in support of the government and Independent Liberals, Lloyd George and Asquith, the two great allies, now ranged against each other. They had separate organisations, separate newspapers. Lloyd George had his own private funds, interestingly, to pursue his own political objectives. How did he get this money? By selling titles for people to go sit in the House of Lords. There was a kind of Dutch auction conducted in London clubs including the Reform Club. Lloyd George built up his funds and nothing could be more divisive than a private treasury of money held by one erratic individual. Lloyd George said “I am still a Liberal. Look at what I am doing: we are promoting housing, promoting health policies, we have got money extending unemployment insurance”.

21But in fact, more and more Liberals, including many Liberals who supported the government, were now deeply uneasy at the course of government policy. They saw a government presided over by the most famous Liberal in the land, Lloyd George, a government that was making inroads into free trade. It was pursuing a terrible policy in Ireland, a policy of reprisals with auxiliary forces known popularly as the “Black and Tans”, waging war against Irish Republicans. Liberals were very worried too, as were liberal people very much in France and other countries, about the government's foreign policy. The vindictive aspect as they saw it of the Treaty of Versailles, a policy of reparations imposed on Germany, the treatment of nationalities in areas like the Sudetenland in the western areas of Czechoslovakia. Many Liberals were deeply influenced by the famous book by the economist J. M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace which depicted the peace as fundamentally unjust and the product of post-war chauvinism.

22So, Liberals who claimed to support the government felt morally, as well as politically, on the defensive. They were very much now sitting targets for Labour. Many of Lloyd George's Liberals represented industrial seats in mining areas, for example, they were sitting targets for the Labour Party and they became weaker and weaker and lost constituencies in by-elections. There is another thing which is very commonly forgotten by people who write about these matters: look at local government, don't just look at Westminster, look at local councils and in the localities and the regions, there is a growing tendency for Liberal Councillors to lose their autonomy and to be acting with the Conservatives particularly in what were called Rate-payers organisations, signs that the Liberals were now lining up with their fellow capitalists the Conservatives, in an anti-Labour front.

23What was the future for the Liberal Party with Lloyd George still Prime Minister? Lloyd George's answer at one time was that they might merge with the Conservatives. One or two Liberals have suggested that in the present coalition in Britain but I think what happened in 1920 was a warning against it. Talks of the Conservatives about a merger or fusion broke down because Lloyd George's Liberals, even Churchill felt that they were Liberals on free trade, perhaps on social reform, They wanted to keep open the possibility of Liberal reunion with their Asquithian colleagues. And so, the Liberals seemed to have no obvious purpose now. They were not going to ally with Conservatives. They were divided amongst themselves, no one knew what could happen at the next general election. So, attempts to remould the party system had failed. Key Liberal ministers, Christopher Addison the social reformer, Edward Montagu, Secretary of India, left the government. Many people wondered whether Winston Churchill, with his obsession about Bolshevik Russia, could be classified as a Liberal any more. And what was worse too, the Conservatives were also objecting to the Lloyd George government. If the Liberals thought the government was too Conservative, Conservatives thought that the government was too radical. In the end peace was made in Ireland, which the Conservatives did not favour, like the recognition of the Bolshevik government in Russia. In the end, the Conservatives objected not so much to the content of policy, as to the form of policy under Lloyd George, Lloyd George's contempt for the constitutional system, his presidential manner. The British do not like Julius Caesar or, if you like, the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, in their domestic history. They prefer a collective non-presidential system. Lloyd George was getting over-mighty. In the end, the Conservatives rebelled against the government and it collapsed in October 1922. In the next election, the Liberals were hopelessly divided: 62 Asquithian Independent Liberals, 53 Lloyd George Liberals. The future of the Liberal Party was now in doubt.

24For the next couple of years the issue was the contest between the Liberal Party and Labour. The Liberals came to realize they simply could not remain divided. If they were still to be a credible party, they had to set aside their disputes over Lloyd George and his fund. They did come together in defending free trade in 1923 when rather surprisingly, they actually won 157 seats, which is easily the best showing that they have made since the First World War. But the Labour Party won more seats and formed the first minority government in 1924. It became apparent that in Britain's version of the class war, that the Liberal Party was being squeezed in the polarization between capital and labour, between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. The first Labour government was not a particularly happy period for the Labour Party but it was a disastrous period for the Liberals. In 1906, if you recall, they had won 401 seats. In 1924, they won 40. They were clearly now the third force of British politics. After that, they rallied a bit under Lloyd George and gained 59 seats in 1929. But then in 1931, they did even worse than in 1918. In 1918, they divided into 2. In 1931, they divided into 3. In 1918, they were discredited as a party of government. In 1931, they were discredited as a party of opposition. The Liberal Party was now, I think, probably most effective not in Parliament, but in pressure groups, for example, in the League of Nations Union calling, in vain, for a system of the rule of law in international affairs. Key figures were moving to other parties: Churchill, most famously, joining the Conservatives, people like the son of Isaac Foot, Michael Foot, and the son of Wedgwood Benn, Tony Benn, moving to the Labour Party, with the Liberal Party seemingly by-passed by the course of events.

Conclusion

25In conclusion, the Liberals had not just declined at this period. They fragmented disastrously. Why was that? Well, it would be apparent, I think, that the war was a crucial episode for them, arguments over particularly the issue of military conscription and the whole debate about the conduct of the war. But I also think that there were long-term issues: social issues were changing, the land question was losing its supremacy in a world dominated by industrial matters and the conflict between capital and labour. The British economy was different. The great exporting industries like coal and cotton were in decline and free trade therefore became a less central theme. Religious issues were disappearing, the chapels were in decline, many of them closing down. In Scotland and in Wales, the force of nationalism in those countries was a waning force, where a kind of Unionism, seeing Britain as a whole, dominated, rather than the quasi-national appeal championed by the Liberals before 1914. So, if you like, there are long-term reasons for the decline of the Liberal Party. But it would not be right to end on that note.

26The note to end on is rather to emphasize the enduring impact of the Liberal government between 1906 and 1914, of enormous long term resonance. They created the beginnings of our Welfare State. They established the power of democracy and the rule of law in a new way and reinforcing the primacy of the elected House of Commons over the House of Lords. They began, if you like, the vision of a pluralistic United Kingdom. If you want to see the roots of devolution in Scotland and in Wales you should look to the Liberal regime before 1914, when Scotland and Wales developed their identity. Even after 1924, great intellectual Liberals like the economist Keynes, the social writer William Beveridge, remained influential forces. The Liberals are again in coalition now with the Conservatives. I think the connection between the Liberals then and the Liberal Democrats now is almost zero; almost every aspect of Lloyd George's People Budget, redistributive taxation, measures for reducing unemployment, social measures like allowances for children, are being scrapped. There is no obvious ideological connection between the great party then and the rather shambling minority party in Britain at the present time but what it did was to create a great historical landmark. It provided an enduring thrust, making Great Britain the country that it is today.

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Notes

1 Editor's note: Speaker’s Lectures : Centenary of the Parliament Act, Lord Morgan, David Lloyd George lecture, 11 January 2011. http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/house_of_commons/newsid_9487000/9487828.stm.

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Kenneth O. Morgan, « The new Liberal Party from dawn to downfall 1906 - 1924 », Les Cahiers du MIMMOC [En ligne], 7 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2011, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/mimmoc/671 ; DOI : 10.4000/mimmoc.671

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