The Liberals 1915-24

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?

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  1. Norman
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    WW1 is the last word pyrrhic victory's.

    It will be interesting watching the fortunes of the 2010 election victors, Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, and their Parties (especially if AV and the other constitutional changes happen) in the coming years to see who, if anyone, has got the better of the deal.

    Who knows, we may even see a Labour government in 5 years time. Unthinkable 18 months ago.

  2. nonny mouse
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    >>I normally disagree with those who argue that factions and divisions in great parties prevent them from winning elecitons or from being in government.

    The issue is oganisation. Big tent parties always have a wide range of conflicting views. It is when they organise as two parties within one that there are problems.

    In the Thatcher government the wets didn't really have a leader or a separate identity. They just fought for particular issues.

    In the Blair/Brown government the two sides fought but came together at elections. If New Labour had a single leader during the Brown years maybe it too could have split.

    The Liberal problem was that they had two valid leaders who took the factions in different directions and split the party in two.

    Some people argue that the Conservative right need a single leader. Surely the lesson from history is that they should continue and fight for their views as a individuals or as transient voting blocks rather than pick a single person to focus them into a party within a party. That could split the party in two, causing a realignment of the political landscape and keeping Labour in power for a generation.

  3. Mike Stallard
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I have always been plagued by the fascinating question. Myself I rather incline, in a two party country, towards the rise of labour as the answer. But then, Churchill did lose to Attlee in 1945 after another terrible blood letting.

  4. Huw Clayton
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  5. English Pensioner
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Certainly it is harder to find any justification for WW1 than WW2. But another factor could be the way the government looked after (or more to the point didn't look after) the returning soldiers, particularly those that had been injured. Perhaps the present government should at least learn this lesson from history and treat our wounded troops somewhat better than they are being treated at present.

  6. George Rowley
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I think the above is all of historical interest but I do not think there is much in commeon with the liberals at the beginning of the 2oth Century and the Libdems at the beginning of the 21st Century.

  7. Freeborn John
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    No doubt the policies of the governments of the time made a difference, but the biggest factor in the decline of the Liberal party has to be the extension of the franchise. The electorate rose from 7,709,981 in 1910 to 21,392,322 in 1918 when property restrictions on men over the age of 21 were lifted and the vote first given to women over 30 who were householders, married to a householder or held a university degree. And it rose to 28,854,748 in 1929 when women over 21 were allowed to vote on the same terms as men. This quadrupled electorate was unfortunately more inclined to support the re-distributive policies of the Labour party than the champions of liberty and equality in the Liberal party who had won them their votes.

  8. Demetrius
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    The period in question was an utterly different world. It can be hard to get into the minds of very many people at the time, their personal and mental lives were vastly different. I did know quite a number from this time. By 1918 many had simply had enough and the Liberals had been in charge. It is likely that added to the corruption and other scandals at the time people simply lost any trust in them. As for Lloyd George he did not "win" the war, the Germans lost it as a result of the relentless attrition. It was LG that put us into Palestine and we all know what has followed from that.

  9. Bill
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    What about two other factors?

    1. Churchill was originally a Liberal but crossed the floor to become a Conservative. In other words a represented a trend and showed how opinions changed.

    2. The same is true of Ted Heath's father who was a Liberal. Heath was some sort of Conservative.

    3. Lloyd-George was surely damaged by such books as were written by Keynes on the economic consequences of the peace. What about that lovely description of Lloyd-George as 'half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity'?

  10. grahams
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    As usual, you make excellent points But possibly you underestimate the role in the Liberals' demise played by Stanley Baldwin ("The most formidable politician I have ever known in public life" – WS Churchill)* and possibly Mr Cameron does not. As you say, however, history does not repeat itself, except in Afghanistan.

    *quoted by various biographers fgrom the Davidson papers

  11. Andrew
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I largely agree with your thesis – the First World War did immense damage to the Liberal Party, and the splits that plauged the Party afterwards finished it off.

    Huw Clayton has already mentioned it, but I must point out that your post does contain one major historical howler – namely that the Liberals did not have a majority in 1914 and were actually in a minority government. The last time they won a majority was in the landslide of 1906, but it is still fairly remarkable (and pretty unprecedented) that a Party which won such an overwhelming majority in 1906 would be reduced to a rump of 40 MPs less than 20 years later.

  12. Alfred T Mahan
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Probably the reason why so few people in the 1920s saw Lloyd George as "the man who won the war" is that they were close enough to events to know the truth and weren't bamboozled, as so many have been since, by his self-serving and mendacious memoirs.

    There is a strong argument for saying LG nearly lost the war – by refusing Haig sufficient manpower in 1917/18 to fight the war effectively and particularly to defend the Kaiserschlacht in March 1918, which he knew was coming. There were, unbelievably, more soldiers in Britain than in France and LG refused to release them for service, while at the same time persistently undermining Haig's command. You can be sure this was known by soldiers – the "lions led by donkeys" school really only gained ground in the 1960s with the publication of such books as Alan Clark's "The Donkeys" and Alistair Horne's "The Price of Glory" (both 1961). Haig had a state funeral in 1928 attended by hundreds of thousands – hardly likely if he was the obtuse hindrance LG suggested.

    Similarly the Navy wasn't impressed by his claim to have solved the submarine menace in a single meeting, even though the Navy hardly emerges from the convoy story with credit.

    Then as now, people don't like grandstanding politicians taking credit for others' achievements. This may explain his poor showing in the 1924 election.

  13. Trev
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    British morale held up remarkably well both in the trenches and the home front.

    The war was indeed forced on us and as most historians largely agree (not least German ones) the war was effectively prompted by Germany. British competence was no worse and, as the war went on, in some cases far better than either its allies or enemies. Huw Clayton is totally correct.
    Losses were terrible in WW1 because we had 4 solid years of fighting on the Western Front. The allied attrition rate from D-Day onwards is lower but still comparable to the attrition rate in WW1.

    So I am not convinced the war as such was the cause of decline, after all no one blamed Churchill for WW2 but he was voted out.

  14. Stephen W
    Posted August 7, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    As others have said there is a complete difference between a leadership dispute within a party and actually fighting elections against one another. I think in fairness to the Liberals they were kyeboshed by a variety of factors.

    The prestige Lloyd George won by winning the war meant that at the 1918 election 'his' Liberals were in a position to basically wipe out the official liberals under Asquith, who himself had been damaged by his conduct of the War. This was alright, but when the Conservatives dumped him in 1922 there wasn't enough time for the Liberal factions to reunite and so both were discredited at the 1922 election and were routed.

    The grievance and disunity this created, and the continuous rivalry between Asquith and Lloyd George prevented any effective Liberal recovery until it was far too late, only then for another split to occur. Basically the Liberals were split in one faction or another for the entire period 1916-1935.

    They also were damaged by the rancour from the period 1906-1914 when they ran possibly the most divisive and radical government the country had seen, equal to 45-51 and 79-97, on issues like Ireland, The people's budget and lords reform. Also the increase of the franchise meant that Labour were given a massive shot in the arm.

    I think perhaps the fatal mistake came when they allowed ramsay macdonald to form a government in 1923, despite having only a few more MP's than the Liberals. This allowed Labour to prove its credibility as a government and led to a polarisation between labour and conservatives that would see the liberals shut out and left shut out until the last few years.

  15. James Wilson
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    In 1914 there was great public pressure to enter the war. In 1918 the public hailed the the 100 days as (correctly) some of the greatest victories in the history of the British army. Haig was a national hero, and as another person has remarked public attendance at his funeral ten years later corresponded. Also as others have pointed out the whole "lions and donkeys" myth only gained ground years later with the rise of the pacifisit movement and the publication of some lightweight historical fantasies like Alan Clark's book. The actual quote has no basis in fact.

    Britain was unprepared for trench warfare because she had spent a century planning to avoid any major commitment to a European land war.

    I suspect that, again, the answer has already been put by other commentators, namely that the Liberals were hit hard for palpably failing to provide a land fit for heroes, as had been promised.

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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