Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

THE LIBERALS: a tendency to self destruct.

In A.Graham on August 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm

by Alistair Graham

The Liberal Democrats, it seems, don’t learn much from history. But they ought to. Their party is the natural heir to the old Liberal Party, once a formidable political force that boasted the likes of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George amongst its leaders. It gave us great reforming governments – and yet by the middle of the last century it had been reduced to an irrelevant rump with a mere half dozen seats in Parliament.

It wasn’t just the the rise of the Labour Party that destroyed the Liberals. It was their own tendency to self-destruct that helped them to become political has-beens.

Twice during the last century, the Liberals went into coalition government with their old enemies, the Tories. On both occasions, the Liberal Party split and emerged weaker, and less relevant, than it had been before.


When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain had a Liberal government led by Asquith. He may have been a great reforming Prime Minister, but faced with one of the most savage conflicts of modern times, he was not up to the task. In 1916, Lloyd George became leader of the nation, backed by the Conservatives. The war ended in 1918, and in the “Khaki Election” of that year, Asquith’s Liberals were reduced to a mere 34 seats in Parliament – and Asquith himself was defeated.

Lloyd George, too, was soon swept aside, as the Tories took over the reins of his coalition government. Although a re-united Liberal Party made a partial recovery in the election of 1923, gaining 158 seats, it had by this time been overtaken by the Labour Party, which returned 192 MPs. Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister, with Liberal support.

That first Labour government under MacDonald was short lived. Within a year it had fallen, and the Liberal Party crashed – losing 116 seats in the ensuing election.


In the election of 1929, The Liberals (still under the leadership of Lloyd George) emerged with 59 seats, and once again chose to back MacDonald’s Labour government. But once again, the experience was short lived. The Wall Street crash of October 1929 left the government divided, and unable to cope with the slide into mass unemployment and economic collapse that followed.

In 1931, a “National” government was formed, with MacDonald remaining as Prime Minister, but now backed by the Tories. The bulk of the Labour Party refused to support this latest exercise in coalition government, leaving MacDonald to lead a party consisting of a mere half dozen “National Labour” MPs (including, briefly, the MP for the Forest of Dean) .  And, as it had done after the First World War, the Liberals split, on the issue of free trade. In 1935, the Liberal Party returned a mere 21 MPs. Those who had continued to support the so-called “national” government ended up with 33 seats – but this rump soon became an impotent appendage to the Conservative Party. Indeed, right up until the 1950s, many Tory candidates at election time described themselves as “Conservative and National Liberal” on their election addresses.

From there on it seemed to be down hill all the way for the Liberal Party. In the 1945 election, which saw Labour sweep to victory, the Liberals managed to return a mere 12 MPs – and the party lost its leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, in the debacle.

Worse was to follow. In the 1950s the Liberals were further reduced to six, and then five, Members of Parliament. A partial recovery took place under the leadership of Jo Grimond (followed by Jeremy Thorpe), but the party only really started to recover when it went into coalition with the breakaway SDP. The new Liberal SDP Alliance was heralded as “breaking the mould” in politics – and during the early Thatcher years it became almost trendy, particularly amongst the middle class literati..

But although its vote increased, along with its tally of MPs, it failed to make the breakthrough its supporters had hoped. Finally it transformed itself into the Liberal Democrats – and the rest, as they say, is history.


Now that the Lib Dems are once more junior partners in a Tory Government, what’s next for the party? Polls show that its support has slumped, and there are mutterings of discontent in the ranks, as the Party leadership tamely accepts Tory policies that it opposed so strongly during the election. History suggests that it’s in for a rough ride. At the very least it’s likely to lose seats at the next election. The party itself may split – as the Liberals did in 1918 and in 1931, but this time from a far weaker electoral base. Certainly the decision by Clegg and his colleagues to join forces with Cameron in the “Con Dem” government marks a low point in the party’s recent history.


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