There has been much written about the decline of the Liberal party during and after the First World War.
The facts are stark. In 1914 the Liberals were running the government under Prime Minister Asquith, and were used to being one of the big two, often in power. In the October election of 1924 they were reduced to just 40 seats, and stayed at such low levels as the third party ever afterwards.
The biggest drop occurred in the 1918 election. 426 Liberals stood for election. Of the 267 who stood as independent LIberals, only 26 were elected. Of the 159 Liberals who stod in support of the coalition government, 134 won. In 1922 they won 117 seats, and in 1923 159.
Various theories have been offered for the collapse, based on social change, the rise of organised Labour and the Unions support for the new Labour party, and the damaging split between Asquith and Lloyd George to run the LIberal party.
I normally disagree with those who argue that factions and divisions in great parties prevent them from winning elecitons or from being in government. Nearer our own time the war between wets and dries in the Conservative party did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from winning three elections in a row. There was no shortage of anti briefing from her party throughout most of her tenure. Nor did the deeply damaging and public rows between Mr Blair and Mr Brown prevent Labour from winning three times in a row. Most majority parties in government have people challenging the leader and have rival views of what is the best course of action. Some degree of division and debate is healthy to ensure the governing party is alive and thinking. Even undesirable levels of vituperation as with the Thatcher and Blair critics need not be terminal.
However, the fact that Lloyd George was prepared to press his claim to run the Liberal party to the point where two parties fought the 1918 election under different Liberal banners, and the fact that Asquith did not acdept the passage of power from himself to Lloyd George did take leadership struggles to new public levels which was electorally damaging.
I think the other distinguishing fact about the background to the Liberal collpase is that the Liberals under Asquith had taken the UK into such a dreadful war. The slaughter, and the sense of incompetence at high levels – “lions led by donkeys” – especially in the eartly stages before the coalition was formed and got to grips with issues like shell supply and how to fight in trenches made a huge impact on the public consciousness. The war is in my view the main reason for the collapse of the old Liberal party. Why did they take us into it? Why did they prosecute it in the way they did? Why did it take such huge slaughter on the western front? Why did many of them not see LLoyd George as he saw himself, “the man who won the war”, and just get behind him?