This refers to the decline of the Liberal Party in Britain in the Late 19th Century and the early 20th Century. In particular the 1906 election which saw a triumph for the party has been selected as the point to assess its decline. The Liberal Party had been one of the dominant forces in British politics in the 19th century. But after the end of the First World War it faced a decline it failed to recover from. The historiographical debate on this has tended to focus on whether one could see the decline beginning before the war. This is what this essay seeks to discuss.
The issue of the decline of the Liberal party is complex and subsumes a vast part of late 19th and early 20th century history. This question asks whether the party was in decline before 1906 which is a rather strange way of viewing the politics relating to the Liberal party. 1906 ostensibly marked the triumph of the Liberal party in the election of that year under its largely forgotten leader Henry Campbell Bannerman where it won 401 seats to the Conservatives’ 157. So the idea of decline is not in this context an obvious thing to consider. It is when looking with an eye to the post war era that the consideration of the decline of the Liberal party pre 1914 and indeed before1906 comes to the fore. 1918 saw the Aquithian Liberal party reduced to 57 whist David Lloyd George’s section who supported the coalition government secured 133 (but it is important to note that these seats were uncontested by the Conservatives). 1922 saw Labour win 142 seats to the Liberal’s 116 and after this the gap widened. The inter-war years saw the end of the Liberal party as the one of the two dominant forces in British politics, a position that was assumed by the Labour Party. It is in this context that historians have sought to discover at what stage the decline of the Liberal party began. I would assert that this question complicates an understanding of the politics of this sweeping period. For it ignores a fundamental development that transformed British politics: the fourth reform act of 1918. The Liberal party of 1906 was in a rather different political arena to the one of 20years later. The era of universal adult manhood suffrage and the same process that was ongoing for women added 4.5 million male voters in 1918 compared to their number in 1910. The case I seek to assert is that the Liberal party successfully reformed in the 1890s and 1900s retaining its position as one of the two main parties of government in Great Britain. This means it was not fundamentally in decline before 1906, although it did have serious problems at times. But that its success was best suited to the franchise produced with the reform acts of 1867 and 1884. The trends of the late 19th and early 20th century and the development of the Liberal party meant that it was likely to face a serious challenge if universal manhood suffrage was passed.
To understand the party of 1906 one first needs to consider how this party differed to that of earlier. The party that existed for most of William Gladstone’s political career was rather different and one of 1906 had undergone serious change, which had helped to maintain its electoral popularity. Gladstone’s party had in effect three parts to it by the later stages of his career. There were the Liberals, the aristocratic Whigs and the radicals. It needs to be stressed that Gladstone was in favour of aristocratic government and until 1892 his cabinets had a strong aristocratic scent to them. For example that his cabinet of 12 of 1880 had 5 Earls, a Duke and a Marquis! But this belied the gradual tension that had been growing within the party. Gladstone had been able appeal to vast array of voters and politicians who saw the part of his governing ideas that linked to their own. The Employers’ Liability Act of 1880 and 1881 Irish Land Act were the sorts of action the radical MPs wished for. Yet Gladstone’s tactic had been to ally the party around one particular cause: in 1866 reform, in 1868 Irish Reform and his coming to support Home Rule in 1885. But the radical parts of his party were not satisfied by this. It detracted from the specific reforms that they desired. Further there was increasing antagonism between the aristocratic Whig tradition and the politics of the radicals. The 1880s saw the gradual decline of aristocratic liberalism with the resignation of the Duke of Argyll from the Cabinet and the creation of the Liberty and Property defence league. But it was the Home Rule Bill of 1886 that provided the key dividing point for the Liberals. First many radicals under Joseph Chamberlain left and formed a group known as the Liberal Unionist party. His disillusionment rested a great deal on the inability of Gladstone and the Liberal party to undertake the sort of policies he advocated in his “Unauthorised Programme”. This deprived the radical side of the Liberals of its key leaders. But Chamberlain’s departure did not mark the end of radical liberalism. Yet the other consequence of 1886 was long lasting: the end of Whig Liberalism. The Liberals consequently completely lost the support of the House of Lords and lost vital sources of funding for elections as some parts of the middle class were permanently lost. But this although showing a crumbling of the basis of Liberalism also saw the beginning of a firmer foundation for the party between its Liberal and more radical wings.
So I would contend that 1886 marks an important stage in the renewal of the Liberal party. But clearly to put forward a convincing case one needs to show a strengthening of the party over the ensuing period. Now this is not exactly easy to do. Gladstone continued to try to focus the party on the Irish question which increasingly its members were unwilling to do. Thus, by the time the party had returned to government in 1892, it was beginning to be split by the sectional interests within it, for example Lloyd George and his fervent backing of the disestablishment of the Church of Wales. One can see with the Newcastle Programme of 1891 the problem. Its sweeping reform attitude was rather controversial with Sir Wilfred Lawson moving for the vote the policy of “The mending or ending of the House of Lords”. Gladstone’s reaction in his speech was to accommodate these views but he did so more from a desire to bind the party over Ireland rather than support for its essence. He feared the divisions over policy that might ensue if they became of overriding importance. He spent much time trying to prevent what was already developing. The failure of his Irish Home Rule Bill left him to leave government whilst his colleagues could set about their reforming agenda. As Henry Asquith put it on the 27th of March 1894, the Liberals were and had to be:
“By the very nature of our principles and by the conditions which hold us together and combine us into common work for common purposes, a party in which the initiative of the individual is largely indulged, and in which there is the greatest possible interchange, not only of opinion but of action.”
But crucially he went on to qualify this by saying “So long as the different ends upon which the different sections bend their energies and to which they direct their efforts and ends are in harmony with the principles of our common creed”. The basic problem of the 1890s was whether or not there was a basic creed. 1886 had marked the beginning of changed party and it was in the 1890s that this party came to have the debate that would ignite its passion and self-belief. The problem was the support of specific causes by particular groups within the Party. Roseberry
once Prime Minister felt unable to cope with the situation. He felt bombarded with proposals. But as he said he was left with the impression that:
“Each article of the programme was equally urgent and supreme and each article of the programme equally incapable of postponement.”
The problem that affected the Liberals was an inability to translate their various reform proposals into legislation whilst encouraging the opponents of such bills into raising their banners of resistance. The National Liberal Federation did not help the party by merely reasserting the principles of Newcastle
at their meetings in Liverpool
(1894) and Cardiff
(1895). Roseberry tried to unite the Party over the opposition of the Lords to the various reform proposals following Gladstone’s method of unity over an overriding issue. But he failed to develop the specific reforms he intended to pass to transform the Lords. Harcourt meanwhile put forward his death duties budget and attempted to implement some radical policies. The election
of 1895 was a disaster for the party which failed to unite over a potentially highly controversial reform of the House of Lords
and was undermined by the sectionalism encouraged by the Newcastle Programme. Its leading figures Roseberry and Harcourt were unable to provide effective leadership. The result was the Conservatives winning 411 seats to the Liberals 177, but looked at in terms of the % of vote gained the Tories only secured 49.1% to the Liberals 45.7%. What one sees here is the process of a refocusing and realignment of a party seriously affected by the loss of a long serving leader
and the shifting basis of its support. It may have been divided and electorally unsuccessful but the party was continuing to further its appeal to the working class which was a significant process. This was no party in terminal decline.
This debate led to the dominance of what has been termed “New Liberalism”. This debate saw most reject the Newcastle Programme and that form of politics, for example Sir Edward Russell and Haldane who stated: “A Faith cannot be artificially manufactured. Let us remember this when next we go program making”. In 1898 the National Liberal Federation went so far as to deny passing a Newcastle programme and blamed this misconception on Gladstone. The Liberals seemed to be in disarray. Fowler feared the splitting of politics into a “system of groups” “and the ultimate division of parties into the haves and the have-nots” (1898) which is a rather prescient analysis of the future of British politics. The fear of party and class divisions becoming inextricably linked permeated through the Liberal party in this period. But this did not mean the Liberals believed in their inevitable decline. Rather it emphasised the need for them to be a true National party that appealed across the electorate. The problem was the Tories seemed to be winning over the Middle Class with their more crude appeals. The problem was that social reform required financing and this financing would require an element of redistribution of wealth which encouraged the class distinctions that many Liberals greatly feared. Roseberry saw the solution in appealing to national feeling arguing that Liberalism had long represented to many narrow interests and now needed to tap into the great feeling of nationhood in the country. But Roseberry’s solution and the solution that the party ultimately adopted were not the same. The Liberal Imperialists whom he supported and the so-called little Englanders put forward two very different party ideals. The latter group advocated encouraging difference of thought and policy as a distinctively Liberal quality. Henry Campbell Bannerman defined the Liberal party above all others as “the party of freedom of view”. The effects of the Boer War were significant in maintaining the divide in the party. But early in the 1900s the broad-church concept of the party prevailed. As long as the Liberals could maintain their party as a reputable and electable organisation it seemed inevitable that they would be elected once the Conservative government became unpopular which it did early in the Edwardian period. So one can begin to see the Liberal party emerge from a period of problems newly united. The Liberal party rather than being in decline in the Edwardian period was actually beginning to successfully re-establish itself as a powerful party of government and this was confirmed in 1906 with its landslide victory.
So we have now come to thought of New Liberalism. Men such as Herbert Samuel saw the ministry of 1882-5 as providing a starting point for a new form of Liberalism which was distinct from its practice earlier in the century when it had become a “negative policy, opposing foreign enterprises and entanglements, attacking the laws regulating trade”(1902- Liberalism). He put forward three causes for Liberal conversion to state interference:
“The state had become more efficient and its legislation more competent, and laws of regulation were found by experiment neither to lessen prosperity nor to weaken self-reliance in the manner foretold. It was realised that the conditions of society were in many respects so bad that to tolerate them longer was impossible, and that the laissez faire policy was not likely to bring the cure. And it was realised that extensions of the law need not imply diminutions of freedom but on the contrary would often enlarge freedom.”
This reflects the desire and attempt to reconcile old liberal ideas such as the importance of the freedom of the individual with new ideas of social polity and state responsibility. This was quite a radical step for the party to take in the 1900s but as already discussed and as indicated here it reflected a realignment of the Liberal party which sought to respond to the particular problems of the Edwardian era and especially those affecting those who were less wealthy. The Liberals sought to bridge a divide and did so successfully. The electoral pact between Herbert Gladstone and Ramsey MacDonald
to help the vote of both the Labour Representation Committee
and the Liberal party is a political manifestation of this. With this shifted outlook the Liberal party was in a strong electoral position in this era.
Yet as outlined in the introduction although the pre 1906 period should not be viewed anachronistically there were developments in the late 19th century and early 20th century that were the roots of the later fall of the Liberal Party. Firstly the Liberal party failed to effectively subsume within its fold of MPs a significant number of working class men. This was largely the result of their lack of funds to pursue a campaign, pay part of the costs of the returning electoral officer and provide for themselves and their family whilst in parliament. Further there was the fear of middle class Liberals that their interests would not be represented in parliament and so the local liberal associations rejected both Ramsey MacDonald and Keir Hardie. In the late 19th century and the Edwardian period this was no real problem and did reflect the more conservative attitudes of many Liberals. Another significant development was the decision of the miners as a result of the 1908 Walters versus the Ocean Coal Company court ruling which seemed to emphasise a court system against the miners. In this particular case the Judge and Mine owner were former and current Liberal MPs respectively. This like the Osborne judgement helped emphasis the need for the working class to unite to gain political change. So irrespective of graduated taxation and death duties and the idea of National Insurance the Liberal party unwittingly or perhaps even deliberately excluded what eventually became the Labour party from becoming subsumed within the Liberal party itself. This was possible until the miners who had previously happily supplied MPs who took the Liberal whip joined the Labour Representation Committee and required their MP candidates who received union funding as facilitated by 1913 act of parliament. One can see the growth of Trade Unionism from under ½ million in 1880 to 1m and above from 1893 and 2m and above from 1912. The war saw division in the party between Asquith and Lloyd George and this rivalry may well have been significant in preventing a further effective realignment of the party. But the key change came with the 1918 4th Reform Bill. The 1910 franchise had excluded women and various classes such as paupers, vast numbers of lodgers, many of the working class with the 3 years residency clause, living-in servant and various other groups. August 1921 saw 94.9% of men registered to vote. Now the 50% of the industrial working class which had been excluded were now able to vote. The interesting facts that Matthew, McKibbin and Kay note is that the Liberal vote when redistribute was split roughly equally between the Conservatives and Labour. The Liberals were unable to respond effectively throughout the 1920s to these changes both organisationally and in terms of their political language which remained relatively sophisticated. It was the late 1910s and the 1920s which saw the actual decline of Liberalism.
So one is left with the perplexing conclusion that the party was not in actual decline before 1906 or indeed the war. Yet that if franchise reform which would put in place universal manhood suffrage was passed, it would not be in a good position to cope with a form of politics which would be more affected by class and in which it was evident that the Liberal party had already prevented a permanent Lib-Lab alliance. The Liberal party was unable to meet this new challenge effectively, but the specifics of this is indeed another question. It has been touched upon to emphasise the significance of the undercurrents of the period this relates to and to help explain why things were not quite as good as they seemed in 1906 for the Liberal party.