Renouveau du parti libéral? Les leçons de l’histoire

The fortunes of the Liberal Party between 1906 and 1924 can be summarized as having gone from the foremost political force with a landslide victory and triumphant government to the third party (which, in a bipartite electoral system, means the loser losses all) with little electoral support and no real influence on either politics or policy. The debate in the historiography has hinged on the reasons for what with hindsight can be termed terminal decline, leading to the disappearance of the great 19th century political force and tradition to a rump of a few dozen MPs (or less) having little impact on the course of affairs in the 20th century.

This decline was so marked that the first books which addressed the issue used the terms ‘death’ (George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914, first published in 1935) or ‘downfall’. Trevor Wilson’s book, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935 (1966) provides an alternative timescale for the demise.2

That there was a decline there is no doubt. What caused it, and therefore when to date it back to, gives rise to much discussion. Was the Liberal Party the agent of its own predicament or was it merely a victim of circumstance? Analysts have detected reasons to believe that the internal workings of the Liberal Party either condemned it in advance or, on the contrary, show that the symptoms present in the early period were neither inevitable or irreversible. Alternative external factors are also brought in to explain the phenomenon, the principal ones among these being the rise of the Labour Party and the impact of the First World War.

George Dangerfield situates the beginning of the decline in 1910 : ‘(…) it was in 1910 that the fires long smouldering in the English spirit suddenly flared up, so that by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes.For Dangerfield, the problems that were responsible for the decline of the Liberal Party were the, mainly external, il-liberal attitudes and attacks from several quarters involving labour unrest, the suffragette movement and Irish nationalists. For Cook, on the other hand, the war appeared to have been if not the sole cause, then a catalyst, transforming the Liberal Party, plunging it into decline: ‘the very totality of the First World War had a profound and disastrous impact on the party. For whatever reasons, the Liberal Party was never again to be the same after 1914 as it had been before.’4 This analysis lays the blame for the decline of the Liberal Party on the impact of the war, an external cause hitting a weakened political force.

Kenneth Morgan places the date at 1916, with the internal crisis in the Liberal Party, partly provoked by war contingencies, which led Asquith to hand the premiership over to Lloyd
George .Since December 1916, the Liberals have played an increasingly peripheral role; never since then have they shown any sign of a convincing recovery as a party of power.’5 Others again date the point of reversal to the 1918 ‘coupon’ election and the pact between the Conservative Party and the Lloyd George Liberals. Herbert Gladstone, Chief Whip at the time, concluded: The result of 1918 broke the party not only in the House of Commons but in the country. Local associations perished or maintained a nominal existence. Masses of our best men passed away to Labour. Others gravitated to Conservatism or independence.6Or again, the 1922 elections can be seen to have heralded the dismal future with a Conservative government returned to office and a poor showing by the Liberals.

Half a century after the final throes of Liberal government, in the nineteen-seventies, at a time when Liberal Party fortunes had not recovered, Kenneth Morgan concluded that ‘The Liberal Party in the age of Lloyd George was both the main agent of change and the major victim of some of its consequences.7Was the Party responsible for its own demise? If so, what factors contributed to this? Or was it society that moved on? Are they to be sought in the First World War? In the social make-up and transformations of the times? Thus, on one hand, causes internal to the party – its own evolution, the changes it introduced, and, on the other, external factors over which it had little control – social evolution, other political parties, the war – must be considered. The contributions in this issue of Cahiers du MIMMOC look at reasons which can be adduced to explain this that range through the following explanations : unclear identity (Davis, MacDonald), contradictory and confusing
policies (Singeisen, Sloman), personal antagonism and ambition (Morgan, MacDonald), and failure to move with the times (Morgan, MacDonald).

This paper looks at the different explanations for the unsuccessful attempt by the Liberal Party to renew itself by looking first at the political philosophy and party organisation of the
Liberals, and secondly, the Liberal Party’s response to challenges it encountered between 1906 and 1924, under two main headings: social and political change, and competition from the Left and Right. […]

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