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Conservative Liberals and a liberal Labour Party? The Identity Crisis of the British Liberal Party 1906 - 1924

Richard Davis

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  • 1 It can be noticed, for example, that the Liberals’ electoral campaigns prior to 1914 made a deliber (...)

1The starting point for this paper comes from the questions that I have continually been asked by my students and the problems they have had with understanding exactly what the Liberal Party was and where to place it in the overall political framework of the time. These difficulties are added to by the frequent confusion between Liberal and liberal and the confusion between what liberal might mean in English and what it might mean in French. Questions are frequently asked such as ‘was it a party of the left?’, ‘What is a party of the centre?’ And if it is to be placed in the centre then what are the other points of reference by which we can set and position this centre? Given the three party system that evolved in the years covered by this programme (and this difficulty was made all the more acute by the first-past-the-post electoral system) how did, how could, the Liberals create or hold onto a clear identity; how could they carve out an identity that was distinct from that of their rivals? And precisely what identity was this? It may be that there are advantages in avoiding doing precisely this, that the Liberal Party, or any other political party for that matter, may have benefited from not clearing up the ambiguities over its identity; that by blurring (either deliberately or by default) the lines that separated the Liberal Party from its rivals they could cast a wider net, reaching out to all sections of society.1

2It is perhaps understandable that students should want a nice simple answer to these questions. To be able to place the Liberal Party they are studying in a convenient box, alongside, to the left or the right of other boxes, with clear lines of demarcation between them, and with a nice neat label on each of them. But of course it isn’t so easy. What might appear to be fairly simple and straightforward questions are in fact very complex. Nor could they ever be so simple. For a start the first difficulty comes from the fact that the raw materials that we are working with when we are dealing with the Liberal Party are complex and constantly shifting. And it is difficult to get a secure handle on them. They often appear to slip through our fingers when we attempt to grasp hold of them. In many ways the Liberals themselves have never known what they really are. One possible solution to achieve at least a degree of clarity may be to have something other against which to identify the Liberal Party, a mirror to reflect it in, or an opposite to allow us to show up the differences, to say what the Liberal Party was by saying what it was not. However, this doesn’t always help when the available ‘others’, here the Conservative and Labour Parties, are often themselves as unclear in their own identities as the Liberals.

3These debates are, of course, very much in the news at the time of writing (March 2011). And this ‘agrégation’ question comes with perfect timing and we can easily, and I would argue that we should, attempt to draw comparisons between the situation today and that of a hundred years ago. As an aside it also certainly shows the need for today’s politicians, indeed for all of us, to know a little of our history. Tony Blair has asked for history to be his judge over the Iraq fiasco; perhaps he should, as Lord Morgan and others wrote at the time of the war, taken a little more time to study the history himself. Perhaps the same can be said situation of Nick Clegg (I have no idea of the degree of knowledge of Nick Clegg or today’s Liberal Democrats of their party’s history – and of course the stakes over the future of their party are hardly comparable to the events in Iraq). But there are certainly parallels to be drawn. Where there are conclusions to be made and lessons to be learnt we will see very soon.

The Identity of the Liberal Party. Some Attempts at a Definition

4We could spend hours debating what exactly liberalism means and we need to be very careful with the ways we use this term. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: ‘generous, open handed, open-minded, unprejudiced, favourable to democratic reforms’. The more modern Longman dictionary has almost nothing to say and its definition is so loose as to be of very little help: liberalism defined as ‘willing to understand and respect other people’s ideas, opinions and feelings… supporting or allowing gradual political and social changes… allowing people or organizations a lot of political or economic freedom.’ The same source’s definition of a Liberal as simply a member of the Liberal Party is even less helpful. When we look to some of the French dictionaries the Petit Robert defines liberal as ‘favorable aux libertés individuelles, dans le domaine politique, économique et social’, and as being contrary to autocracy, dictatorial, dirigiste, fascist, totalitarian, despotism, absolutism, socialism and étatism. Liberals are ‘partisans de la liberté politique, de la liberté de conscience’, liberalism as the ‘ensemble des doctrines qui tendent à garantir les libertés individuelles dans la société’ or as a classical economic doctrine ‘prônant la libre entreprise, la libre concurrence et le libre jeu des initiatives individuelles’ synonymous with capitalism and individualism; ‘Le libéralisme préconise la liberté du travail et des échanges (cf. laissez faire). Le libéralisme s’oppose à l’intervention de l’état, à la constitution de monopoles privés.’ These definitions may provide a starting point for the debate but they do not take us very far and sets out only the broadest of clearly identifiable limits to what is and what is not liberal.

5Perhaps the central problem in defining liberalism comes when we consider its position towards the role of the state. It is here that we find the greatest divergence of opinions between rival forms of liberalism: for some a firm belief in a limited role for the state, and in the limited ability of the state to successfully change the nature of society even if wanted to, while others advocate a far more interventionist approach which sees a requirement for the state to take on a far more positive role. This is where the main difficulty for the Liberals and for the Liberal Party has always lain: what attitude should they adopt towards the state and the part it should play in society. Just as it did in the past, today the very same questions continue to trouble the Liberal Democrat heirs to the Liberal Party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George.

6This broad question of the position to adopt towards the state brings in its wake other more specific questions of economic policy, fiscal policy, and government spending. Who is to be taxed, on whom should the tax burden fall most heavily? How much state spending should be agreed on, and therefore how heavy should the overall tax burden on the country be, and then how and where is state revenue to be spent? What areas should be regarded as the priorities? The same broad question relating to society and the state similarly raises essential questions of social policy: what should the overall role of the state in social policy be, in particular in combating poverty and inequality? Are these to be accepted as inevitable realities? Or even, as some liberals may argue, seen as providing the necessary motivations and incentives to allow for a more vibrant and dynamic society? Alternatively should poverty be treated as an ‘evil’ to be eradicated and if so by what means? And if inequality is to be kept within acceptable limits what is acceptable or unacceptable? What, in short, is the role of the state in society in general? Do liberals defend the principle of a laissez-faire or an interventionist state? Beyond the state what role do they give to the other actors: the family, individuals, charities and churches? Should collective or communal responses be sought to society’s problems or does salvation lie in a respect for the individual with individualism a sacred cow? All of these raise basic questions about the nature and operation of society to which, as we will see below, the Liberal Party was rarely if ever able to provide clear answers or to speak on them with one voice.

  • 2 Friedrich Von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960, p.408

7The problems of defining liberal and liberalism have been frequently recognised. The ways in which the terms have been used in the United States, Britain and continental Europe have varied considerably. Equally over time they have taken on different meanings. On the right, Friedrich von Hayek, for example, writing in The Constitution of Liberty published in 1960 recognised the deep problems with the use of the term liberal, setting out, he said, to ‘rescue the term from… its misuse’. His liberalism was certainly not that of the rationalistic Continental liberalism nor that of the liberalism of English utilitarians, even less so that of British liberals of the Liberal Party since Lloyd George. ‘What I have called “liberalism”’, he wrote, ‘has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today.’ Instead he saw himself as a liberal in the tradition of Burke, Macaulay and Gladstone and took liberalism as meaning to ‘provide opportunity for free growth’ and not to ‘impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern’.2

8The words Liberal and Liberalism almost always come with some sort of prefix or suffix: ‘New’ or ‘Gladstonian’, ‘Asquithian’ or ‘Coalition’, ‘Unionist’, ‘Imperialist’ and many more . With regard to the period covered here, 1906 to 1924, there were, of course, various Liberal ‘brands and the rival personal brands of Asquith and of Lloyd George and their respective bands of followers. Even if we accept that the differences between the Coalition Liberals of Lloyd George and the Independent Liberals of Asquith were based more on personal affinities, or the lack of them, and on strategic and party political calculations, rather than on fundamental ideological or philosophical disagreements, it remains true that the Liberals as a group had great difficulties in clearly defining what they stood for. There was, as several eminent historians of the Liberal Party have pointed out, an inability of the Liberals themselves to know themselves. There are abundant examples from various Liberals to back this up. One typical example came from Alexander MacCallum Scott who had been a Liberal MP from 1910 until 1922 who, in 1925, (by which time he had left the Liberal Party), said that:

  • 3 Quoted in Michael Bentley, The Liberal Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p.207.

The Corinthians erected an altar to the unknown God. The Liberals erect their altar to the unknown principle. They write prize poems to it, but they can’t tell what it is. They are prepared to be martyrs for their principles if they could only find out what they are.’3

The Identity of the Liberal Party defined in relation to an ‘other’: the Conservatives and Labour

9If the definitions above do not give us a very precise picture, and probably did not give Liberals in the first quarter of the twentieth century one either, could we use a Conservative or a Labour ‘other’ to highlight what the Liberals were by pointing out what they were not? One immediate problem, however, emerges making it difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to provide this ‘other’ or to be an alternative against which to define the Liberal Party and allow it to present a clear image. Both Labour and the Conservatives were themselves constantly in flux and when we attempt to define them we come up against exactly the same difficulties as we do with the Liberal Party. What after all does a ‘conservative’ party stand for or a ‘labour’ party? And even if the attempt were successful to tie them down to some sort of ideological basis, to identify the pedestal or platform or plinth which they based themselves on, or to find in their party statutes or constitutions - or any other form of defining or founding document or text - proof of clear political objectives, were these ever followed through in practice when either party was in government?

  • 4 Editors' note: the most famous being W.S. Churchill who, under pressure from his constituency party (...)

10Therefore, without a clearly identifiable ‘other’ against which to present their differences, the Liberal Party’s own image and identity becomes all the more blurred. If the Labour Party had been a thoroughly revolutionary red and the Conservatives a deep, dyed in the wool, blue then the Liberals may have had an easier time in painting their own portrait and presenting it convincingly to others. But they were neither of them anything like this. Instead the colours, the party philosophies, their electoral programmes, and even more so the actual policies of parties in government, were unclear and always changing. Equally the pragmatism of the Labour and Conservative parties impinged on much of the ground that the Liberals wanted to claim as their own, on what the Liberals regarded as their home ground. There were also significant elements of liberalism in both the Conservative and Labour parties, after all many ex-Liberals could be found among their ranks having made the crossover from the Liberal Party with relative ease4 and without, in many cases, having to admit to having given up their commitment to what they regarded as liberal values.

11Despite these ambiguous dividing lines between on the one hand the Liberals and the Conservatives and on the other hand the Liberals and Labour, the Liberals found themselves in a different political position from their two rivals. Whereas the Conservatives and Labour had a firm ideological bedrock (and equally importantly an electoral one) on which to fall back in difficult times the Liberals found their ideological foundations to be far too shallow to be able to do the same. Even if we accept, as I think we must, that both Labour and the Conservatives were as pragmatic as they were ideologically committed, and that both were prepared to dilute their political principles when in government, they did nonetheless have a core support based on certain core issues. Loyalties to the Conservative and Labour Parties, whether they were based on class or certain of these issues, proved stronger and more resistant to challenges from outside than was the case for the Liberals. While the Labour and Conservative Parties could return to their fundamental values those less well defined principles of the Liberal Party were insufficient. As a result by the early 1920s, or even earlier, the Liberal Party was left floundering, stranded in an ideological, and electoral, no man’s land, uncertain of who or what they were, adrift and not knowing in which direction to turn.

12These problems that went to the very heart of what it meant to be liberal and what the Liberal Party stood for were exacerbated by more immediate difficulties that arose from the choices facing them during the period 1906-1924. The conundrum facing the Liberals was that the need (perhaps we should say the temptation) to collaborate with either the Conservatives or Labour in order to get into office and remain there was countered by the fact that by getting too close to another political formation they would inevitably blur the demarcation lines between them and further weaken their ability to put themselves across as a distinct and attractive political brand.

13The danger for the Liberal Party that inevitably arose from getting too close to their political adversaries (and for some Liberals their outright enemies) took several forms. Ideologically there was a good deal of overlap with the policies of the Conservatives and Labour, even to the point of sharing certain key policies such as free trade with Labour. It is also possible to see problems from getting too close personally as a result of the friendships or acquaintances of several Liberal leaders with leading Conservatives and Labour leaders (which may be another lesson for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats today). There were also dangers in getting too close electorally in the form of an electoral pact or alliance of sorts. The pact with Labour before First World War was the least problematic of these given the favourable balance of power between the two parties. The ‘coupon’ election agreement of 1918 was far more challenging and was to have catastrophic consequences for the Liberals’ fortunes. This was aggravated by frequently getting too close in government by sharing office in the Asquith Coalition of 1915-16 and the Lloyd George coalition from 1916 onwards, particularly in the post-war period when the Coalition Liberals found themselves in the delicate position of working alongside the increasingly hostile Conservatives and in a position, ultimately, of dependence on them. To this we could add the problems they faced by getting too close to Labour as a result of their support for the formation of the first Labour government in 1924 and maintaining it in office during its brief unhappy time there.

14The alternative, however, to go it alone, was hardly possible. By the early 1920s such a choice would have condemned the Liberals to a position of influence perhaps but without power, and certainly excluded from office. And why be in politics if it isn’t to hold power, to do something. From the point of view of the electors the same sort of question may be asked as to why should a vote be cast for a party that is very unlikely to actually be in government and therefore in a position to apply the policies you are voting for. Against that what is the point of being in office if you are unable to do what you want, to hold true to your principles.

15The attacks made by many Liberals against the Conservatives in the years before 1914 allowed the differences between them to be made clearly and vocally – and to good effect for the Liberals’ electoral fortunes. Equally there is nothing like a common enemy to unite your own troops and to hold onto their loyalty and to motivate them in their campaigns. However, how could this still be a convincing message after the Liberals, or at least some of them, had spent so long working in close collaboration with the ex-enemy? Here again, this same problem will no doubt confront Nick Clegg and today’s Liberal Democrats in much the same way.

16The question may therefore be asked as to whether the temptation of office, and the power that came with it, was too strong for the Liberal party to resist? Was the lure of power convincing them to sacrifice some sort of liberal principal? Was this true for the Liberal Party as a whole, for the Lloyd George faction or for a handful of individual Liberals? At the same time the Liberals’ attempts to present themselves as a distinct political force from Labour was flawed given that they had worked in tandem with them in the ‘progressive’ alliance before 1914 and had then voted for and kept the Labour government in office in 1924. Such forms of political pacts or government coalition, or simply a looser form of cooperation and collaboration, with Labour and the Conservatives did much to add to the Liberals’ own sense of identity crisis and equally significantly made it all the harder for them to present a coherent and convincing message to the electorate.

17In terms of an overall, and overarching, ideology it is, therefore, difficult to fix a clear Liberal identity. Turning to particular areas of policy, and even if it is not possible here to analyse in depth the whole range of policies, can we seek to identify what was specifically liberal or specific to the Liberal Party in them and ask if the Liberals ever lived up to their own ideas or principles (even if we – or the Liberals at the time - can or could agree on what they were)? Although this can be no more than a brief overview of the actual policies of the various Liberal governments it quickly becomes apparent that it is difficult to identify specifically and distinct policies. It is rather the internal contradictions of ‘Liberal’ policies, the contradictory visions and policy attitudes held by the rival Liberal factions, and the extent to which many of these were often shared as much by rival Labour and Conservative groups as they were by the Liberals, that become evident.

18In the area of foreign policy we can find among the apparent list of Liberal ‘principles’ the opposition to foreign alliances and foreign entanglements and an opposition to the autocratic regimes of central and eastern Europe. In practice, however, we can see how successive Liberal administrations supported the Entente Cordiale, and therefore indirectly an alliance with Tsarist Russia, which ineluctably drew Britain into the system of European alliances that was to end so catastrophically in 1914. Equally, the secret military agreements signed with France before 1914, had they been more widely known, would no doubt have horrified many Liberals. After 1918, both Liberal factions defended an internationalism, with its support for the League of Nations, the rejection of the old style of diplomacy, support for democracy and national self-determination in Europe but on this issue where was the difference with the policies of Labour or the Conservatives? Equally, if the Liberals stood for internationalism and peace, what of the rhetoric of squeezing Germany ‘till the pips squeak’ or of ‘hanging the Kaiser’, expressions that were not heard only from the jingoistic Conservative ranks but also from some Liberals. What of Lloyd George’s handling of the Chanak crisis and his warmongering support for the Greeks, a policy that upset even the majority of Conservatives for being too gung-ho?

  • 5 Editors' note: see David Singeisen 'The Liberal Party, Overseas Policy and Armaments, 1900-1914' in (...)

19Similarly in defence policy how do we reconcile the liberal belief that opposed increasing expenditure on arms, and the fear that arms spending and arms races would only lead to greater international tensions and insecurity, with the repeated decisions to increase the defence budget before 1914 and in particular the naval building programme?5 The unprecedented levels that the overall defence budget reached during the First World War, and the enormous debt this engendered, would no doubt have horrified earlier generations of Liberals.

  • 6 Kenneth O. Morgan, The Oxford History of Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984, p.587.

20Other areas of policy give a similar picture of inconsistency: between the trade union legislation before 1914 and the decision to send tanks against Red Clydeside in 1919; the traditional support for Home Rule, even if this was always kept within certain limits and never fully overcame the suspicion of majority Catholicism, and terrible repression imposed by a Liberal Prime Minister and Irish Secretary after 1916; the variety of opinion within Liberal ranks towards the question of votes for women; the commitment to social welfare reforms but the desire to keep these within strict financial limits and which continued to include all the rhetoric of the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor and which never fully abandoned the objective of fiscal policy of retrenchment, financial rigour and low taxes. As has often been underlined it was the experience of war in 1914-18 that was so damaging to liberal principles. The long list of illiberal policies imposed by the successful pursuit of the war effort and the compromises introduced by the Liberal lead administrations of Asquith and Lloyd George simply tore the heart out of many fundamental liberal principles. The introduction of conscription, the alliance with the autocratic regime of Tsarist Russia, the effective nationalisation of key parts of the economy and the creation of what has been describes as a ‘Leviathan of state power and collectivist control without precedent’6 over British society were anathema to many liberals. On all these issues, and many others, where does the true liberalism lie? Who were the true Liberals and what was true Liberalism? How did either differ from the Conservatives and Labour? Is liberalism what the Liberals do? Or is there a genuine liberal message that can be found here somewhere? If there is indeed an agreed true version of the liberal message on which side of these particular debates does it lie?

21Liberalism and the Liberal Party should always be seen as a coalition that was hard to hold together. Liberalism always meant different things to different Liberals. If they couldn’t agree amongst themselves on what they stood for how could they present a convincing message to the electorate? The fact that the Liberals’ clothes were stolen by others only made this harder for them.


22In conclusion I would like to come back to my initial question ‘What is a Liberal?’ The ease with which many of the pre-1914 Liberals disappeared into the two other main parties suggests that the party political dividing lines were not firmly or permanently set. Many individual Liberals found the cross-over either to the Conservatives or to the Labour Party relatively painless and many found new political homes and many prospered there. Today Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have similarly moved easily into an alliance with the Conservatives. The new political grouping of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats looks almost seamless at times now, something which may be regarded in a positive light as regards the effective functioning of government but which raises serious difficulties for the parties involved. If so were the differences as great as appeared at times before the formation of this coalition? Similarly were the differences between the Liberals and the Conservatives before 1914 so great? Were the sometimes virulent attacks made by some Liberals on the Conservatives over social policy, the reform of the House of Lords and the many other issues that dominated the political debate of that decade not so deeply rooted as appeared? Or was this more a question of political rhetoric, a tactic destined to score political points? This idea is supported by the fact that Lloyd George was contemplating redrawing the lines of British party politics at the same time as he was virulently attacking the Conservatives. It could, of course, be argued that there was as much confusion and lack of coherence, perhaps of political honesty or ideological consistency, in the Labour and Conservative Parties as there was in the Liberal Party.

23Did this lack of a clear political line exacerbate the Liberals’ decline or was it a strength? A sign of a pragmatism and an ability to transcend the confrontational dividing lines of politics? Was it the basic problem or part of a possible solution? However, while not coming down off the fence may sometimes be advantageous it cannot be carried on indefinitely. This approach may allow difficult policy choices to be avoided and may allow a party to appeal to various, perhaps mutually antagonistic, constituencies by leaning one way and then to the other, to left and to right, or by constantly balance between the two. Alternatively we could perhaps reject such a one-dimensional, linear, left-right, interpretation and argue that there exists a different plane, neither left nor right with the Liberals nobly standing above the left-right political fray. If applied successfully this can be the source of considerable political, or at least electoral, benefits as evidenced by Tony Blair and his so-called ‘third way’. But what of maintaining a clearly identifiable set of political principles, Liberal or other, in such a pragmatic approach? Is the end result a political compromise or a compromised politics?

24The demarcation lines of British politics were clearer when, as was the case before 1914, the Liberal Party stood out against certain things. But this stance was always more difficult to maintain when it came to outlining a plan or a project for the future. Perhaps Liberalism is ill-suited to be a political party and better suited to be a broad movement, a pressure group, exercising influence in a more diffuse fashion over all the mainstream political parties.

  • 7 Friedrich Von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge, 1944, p.221.
  • 8 Richard Bellamy, Liberalism and Modern Society. A Historical Argument, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania S (...)

25Writing in 1944 Hayek put forward the view that the English were all by nature liberals. ‘The English’, he wrote, ‘hardly know to what degree they differ from most other people in that they all, irrespective of party, hold to a greater or lesser extent the ideas which in their most pronounced form are known as liberalism. Compared with most other peoples only twenty years ago almost all Englishmen were liberals – however much they may have differed from party Liberalism’ 7, and this extended, according to Hayek, to the majority of English conservatives or socialists. Liberalism, in this view, was an inherent part of British civilization while he condemned socialism and all forms of totalitarianism as essentially un-English. More recently Richard Bellamy has argued that liberalism has become almost universal in the contemporary world, that it ‘dominates political thinking across the political spectrum… From New Right conservatives to democratic socialists, it seems we are al liberals now’. This, Bellamy argues, is ‘unsurprising given that liberal ideals and politics fashioned the states and economic systems of the 19th century, creating the institutional framework and the values within which most of the West continue to live and think’. The end result, he argues, has been ‘liberalism’s recent mutation from ideology to meta-ideology’.8

26Returning to the first quarter of the 20th century it is possible to see some earlier signs of this transformation, this mutation, as the Liberal Party’s clothes were gradually being stolen by others thus blurring ever more the demarcation lines between it and its political rivals. In fact the process could be seen as more widespread than a one-way transfer of liberal ideas beyond the Liberal Party and the question may be asked as to who was stealing whose clothes? Who was left as the Emperor parading naked at the end, still claiming to be wearing a certain and distinctive ideological style but in fact wearing a rather unconvincing combination of second-hand or hand me downs, a mishmash of off the peg, one size fits all, and ultimately ill assorted and unattractive set of clothes?

27Lloyd George, over the course of his political career, certainly tried on different styles, each one giving quite different appearances. From the early radical Welsh firebrand, to leading statesman of reform, to war leader and ardent defender of the national (British) cause, to post-war collaborator with some of the most reactionary elements in British politics to later day proto-Keynesian, which one is the true Lloyd George? The Liberal Party as a whole seemed to offer many of these different images over the period from 1906 to 1924 – and to present many of them simultaneously with their different strands of thought, and rival personal allegiances and loyalties.

28What then was the end result? A coat of many colours, a blend of different materials interwoven into an attractive and hard-wearing and resistant pattern; assembled into a well-cut set of clothes, or a patchwork coming apart at the seams? Liberalism as an ideology certainly leaves much room for a party identity, perhaps too much room. But for the Liberal Party identity to work there has to be a branding of the party (this is no doubt using the vocabulary of the late 20th century but I think the same still applies to this earlier age). There is always a need for a coherent image, held together by a party more or less united, pulling in the same direction, and not one speaking with such different and discordant voices. That those liberals leaving the Liberal Party could do so but still often continued to talk of themselves as liberals left everyone confused.

29Liberalism in a world where everyone is more or less a liberal ceases to mean anything. The complaint was frequently made that the Liberal Party was being squeezed between the millstones of revolution and reaction but it was precisely because the Conservatives and Labour were not being pulled towards the political extremes of the far left and right that the Liberal identity was being undermined and questioned. The outlines of liberalism and of the Liberal party were threatened not by the extremes. That was perhaps the problem seen from continental Europe where there were clear ideological fractures and where the whole liberal world was being challenged from fascism and communism. But this was not the situation in Britain. The Conservatives were not tempted by ultra-nationalism, and their leaders such as Stanley Baldwin showed a much more moderate face in the inter-war years, and Labour was not tempted by Bolshevism, as was seen in the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald.

30If we try to define a Liberal identity as an expression of a liberal ideology this does not provide very clear cut answers. Their support for individual liberties, religious tolerance, freedom and democracy, international peace constitute no doubt broadly liberal policies and a liberal ideology but are too indistinct to provide a clear party political identity. If we take liberalism as what the Liberal Party or the Liberal governments do in the name of liberalism then the answers remain equally unsatisfactory. The Liberal governments, or the Liberal lead coalition governments, did so many different things, many of which were contradictory, that it becomes difficult, especially from 1916 onwards, to make out a distinctly liberal set of policies. Once again this leaves us wondering what the true identity of the Liberal Party was. When we try to get into the details on specific policies the Liberals are speaking with too many contradictory, often mutually antagonistic, voices. As a result the Liberal voice was either reduced to an indistinct murmur or to an incomprehensible cacophony.

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1 It can be noticed, for example, that the Liberals’ electoral campaigns prior to 1914 made a deliberate attempt to appeal to all the ‘productive’ classes which were taken to include the workers and all those in business and commerce who contributed to the economic activity and the productive capacity of the country. The minority of those who were regarded as unproductive and parasitic and which remained beyond the Liberal pale was small.

2 Friedrich Von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960, p.408.

3 Quoted in Michael Bentley, The Liberal Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p.207.

4 Editors' note: the most famous being W.S. Churchill who, under pressure from his constituency party, came over to the Liberals from the Conservatives in 1904 and who, in 1924, regained a seat in the house as a Conservative candidate and sat on their front bench as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

5 Editors' note: see David Singeisen 'The Liberal Party, Overseas Policy and Armaments, 1900-1914' in this volume.

6 Kenneth O. Morgan, The Oxford History of Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984, p.587.

7 Friedrich Von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge, 1944, p.221.

8 Richard Bellamy, Liberalism and Modern Society. A Historical Argument, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp.1-2.

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Richard Davis, « Conservative Liberals and a liberal Labour Party? The Identity Crisis of the British Liberal Party 1906 - 1924 », Les Cahiers du MIMMOC [En ligne], 7 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2011, consulté le 22 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard Davis

Professeur de civilisation britannique, Université de Lille 3
Auteur de The Liberal Party in Britain (1906-1924), Paris : PUF, 2010 ; Britain and France Before the War: Appeasement and Crisis, 1934-1936, Londres : Palgrave-Macmillan, 2001, 197 pp ; avec Emmanuelle Avril, Comprendre la Grande-Bretagne de Tony Blair, Lille, Presses universitaires Septentrion, 2001. Il fait partie de l'équipe des rédacteurs en chef de Recherches britanniques.

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