Book review: Peace, Reform and Liberation – “the first port of call for anyone wishing to learn more about Liberal and Liberal Democrat history”

There has long been a need for a single volume history of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties covering the entire period from its roots in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century to the present day.

While Liberal history has received plenty of attention from historians, previous studies of the party have been limited to a specific eras or themes. In many ways of course the party has several histories. This includes the origins of the Liberal tradition in the Whigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the heyday of Liberal government in the middle of the nineteenth century, the party’s decline and near extinction between the 1920s and 1950s, its recovery in the second half of the twentieth century, and now the challenges of governing in coalition with the party’s historic enemies, the Conservatives.

So it is welcome that the Liberal Democrat History Group has sought to fill a gap with Peace, Reform and Liberation.

While this is a multi-authored volume with a total of 17 contributors, it avoids the disjointedness that one often finds in such circumstances. Authors have co-operated to ensure a relatively seamless transition between chapters. Likewise, while contributors range from academic specialists such as Martin Pugh, Eugenio Biagini and David Dutton to Liberal Democrat History Group stalwarts Tony Little and the two editors, all manage to avoid being either too highbrow or too folksy.

Although some of the authors are committed Liberal Democrats, this is not partisan, cheerleading history. Assessments are thoughtful and well-argued. For example David Dutton’s discussion of the key debate over the reasons for the Liberal party’s decline and the rise of Labour is as good a summary as one will read anywhere. His conclusion, while it could be criticised for fence-sitting, is surely correct. The Liberal party was not dead by 1914, nor was it destroyed by the first world war.

However, the advent of war, the split between the party’s two leading figures, Asquith and Lloyd George, the new assertiveness of the Labour party and the extension of the franchise in 1918 all created problems for the party and it dealt with none of them successfully. None, if reversed, would have automatically saved the Liberal party, yet each would have improved its chances of survival.

While the book is aimed primarily at the general reader, even those with a near-obsessive interest in the party’s history will find something new, interesting or thought-provoking here. For example, while there is a pride among modern Liberal Democrats that both Keynes and Beveridge were party members, one is struck by the limited nature of their involvement with official Liberalism. The former had no connection with the party between 1929 and his death in 1946, while the latter only joined when in his 60s. Their influence on Liberalism in the 1950s was not as great as might be imagined.

As Ian Hunter and Jaime Reynolds point out: ‘Liberals proudly identified with the contribution of Beveridge – and that of Keynes – but these sometimes co-existed uneasily with an attachment to traditional Liberal economics.’ Their intellectual legacy is lionised more in the party now than during their lifetimes when arguably their wider political influence was at its greatest.

As the book moves towards the present day, history segues into current affairs, yet the chapter on the post-merger era benefits from Duncan Brack’s insight as a party insider. For example, he suggests, in my view persuasively, that Kennedy’s leadership was not sabotaged by his alcoholism but rather: ‘Kennedy’s drinking was a symptom of his problem… he was an ineffective leader drunk or sober and he knew it.’

The book concludes with a brief chapter by Philip Cowley and Martyn Ryder on the coalition, and while Lib Dem activists can be forgiven a feeling of apprehension just now, the authors conclude on an optimistic note that: ‘after decades in which the party’s chances depended primarily on the actions of others, the Liberal Democrats now have their future more in their own hands.’

One could enter the odd caveat and quibble. In my view too much is made of the so-called ‘New Liberalism’ of the Edwardian era and more consideration might have been given to whether the electoral successes of 1906 and 1910 demonstrated the strength and adaptability of old Liberalism. While much attention is given to the role of local election success in Liberal revival, there is little discussion of the party’s achievements in local government.

There is the odd howler too: Lord Rosebery was chairman not leader of the London County Council; the Tokyo Olympics in which Menzies Campbell competed were in 1964 not 1966; the assertion that ‘economic liberalism aimed to exclude the least successful in society’ would be controversial enough applied to contemporary politics, but is surely anachronistic in reference to the 1820s.

Yet these are minor matters. Peace, reform and liberation is a fine achievement, a book that deserves to become the first port of call for anyone wishing to learn more about Liberal and Liberal Democrat history. Some might find the £30 cover price a bit steep, so let us hope there is scope for a paperback edition, and indeed for the book to be updated as the always eventful story of Liberal politics unfolds.

* Iain Sharpe is a Lib Dem councillor in Watford and blogs at Eaten By Missionaries.

You can buy Peace, reform and liberation: a history of Liberal politics in Britain 1679-2011 from Amazon here.

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16 Comments

  • I have not yet read the book, but I am sure that Keynes sat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords between taking his seat there in July 1942 and his death in April 1946, and, if so (he certainly did not sit on the Conservative or Labour benches), it cannot be strictly true that he had no connection with the Liberal Party after 1929.

  • paul barker 16th Nov '11 - 8:27pm

    How many of the 17 contributors are Women ?

  • Nick(not Clegg) 17th Nov '11 - 9:16am

    Perhaps it will be updated with a final chapter in 2015: an obituary?

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '11 - 12:45pm

    My own view is that Kennedy as surprisingly effective as leader – by being ineffective. That is, because he did not do much he let other stars shine, and this avoided what had been a huge problem under the previous leaders that national image of the party tended to be too much bound up with the leader – the party was seen purely as the personal movement of its leader rather than as a party with a distinct ideology.

    Among the many mistakes Clegg has made has been to turning the party back into one whose national image makes it seem the personal vehicle of its leader rather than as a party with a lot of able people, and a variety of ideas, and a long-standing ideology underpinning it. That is why “Cleggmania” was such a disaster – we lost all the other reason why people might support the party and made it seem the only reason for supporting it was that Nick Clegg was a jolly good bloke. And this sort of support is VERY soft. I have made no secret of my belief that Clegg has been incompetent in many ways (assuming he is not a plant deliberately trying to destroy the party, in which case, he is very competent at his real job), but I fully accept he was dealt an extremely difficulty hand with the situation following the May 2010 election, and even if he’d played it much more as I would have liked, we’d have lost a large amount of our soft support in 2010. However, the mistrust that has lost us even more comes about because if people don’t see the party as having long-term principles but instead just the personal vehicle of its leader, they are too easily misled by the claims from our non-coalition opponents that we are “selling out” and unable to see the argument through on how we are doing what we can with our underlying principles intact even though in difficult circumstances where we can achieve little.

    The idea that the best way of running any organisation is to have a charismatic leader at the top handing orders down is commonplace, we see it also in the cult of the CEO in business matters. Politically, however, it’s extremely dubious, and it is just not what we ought to be about. I regard the growth of personality worship in recent years, seen also in the obsession with “celebrities” as a thoroughly bad thing. The history of our party is one of spreading power, of opposition to aristocracy and to the established Church (obscure now, but in reality meaning opposition to the idea that there’s some special class of person – in that case bishops and ordained clergy, but in the modern world applies to much else – who are so much better than anyone else and who therefore should be in control of thought and action), and of trust in ALL human beings to be able to think and act for themselves. From this it moved into the idea of collegial governance, and then into things like workplace democracy, all very different from the modern idea of the CEO and the directly elected mayor which is trendy but stems from that.

    Therefore, perhaps we should have the courage, based on our historical principles, to stand against all this, and part of that would be NOT to have such a leader-based national image. If we look over the world and over history, charismatic leaders have often not worked out well. I could cite the rise of ancient Rome under the Republic and its fall under the emperors, but I also look at all those countries now run by dictators and semi-dictators. Then I look at Switzerland. Who’s the leader of Switzerland? Who ever was? Yet they haven’t done badly, have they? The thing with charismatic leaders is that they push the thing they are leading to the point where no-one dare say what’s going wrong, though they can see it. That old fable of the Emperor’s new clothes reminds us of that.

    Kennedy gave us a non-leader orientation by accident rather than design. But it didn’t do us badly, did it? To say we had “poor leadership” at the time we grew hugely in numbers of MPs, perhaps to a peak we will never see again, and I’m sure we won’t at the next election, is a bit silly, isn’t it? Or of it isn’t, maybe leadership isn’t such a crucial thing.

  • Ruth Bright 17th Nov '11 - 8:08pm

    Matthew – you always write brilliantly. When are you going to write a book about the party?

  • Matthew – I think you are re-writing the 2010 election and the role of Nick Clegg to suit your view of him now. Remember at the beginning of the campaign period that Nick Clegg was so little known that Vince Cable’s image was also on the bus and Cable was better known in many ways. It was the debates that changed this – and credit to Clegg for doing well in them. At that point the media then became interested in Clegg as the story, especially after he became Deputy Prime Minister. I do agree that, by luck or design, Kennedy was important in the transition from the Lib Dems being synonymous with Paddy Ashdown to being perceived as a party with several well known figures.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 9:06pm

    Oranjepan

    Britain is not Switzerland and cannot function as Switzerland, either because of our strategic location or because of our historic legacy. So any comparison is baseless.

    I am not saying Britain should function as Switzerland, I am just noting Switzerland a counter-example to any suggestion that for a country to prospserity needs identifiable personality-driven “strong leadership”.

    I might, for example, be tempted to ask, what was Britain doing while the Swiss were providing a refuge for war criminals and their loot?

    That does not invalidate my point. The point remains true whether or not you think the Swiss government has acted in an ethical way or not over the years. It was not a point about ethics.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 9:45pm

    Oranjepan

    you’re pushing it more than a bit if you’re suggesting Kennedy was ever PM material

    My original comment was prompted by the line in the original article ‘Kennedy’s drinking was a symptom of his problem… he was an ineffective leader drunk or sober and he knew it.’ The point I was making was that the idea that a “strong” charismatic leader at the front is the only way for an organisation to prosper is, in my opinion wrong. I did not write that Kennedy was “PM material” or anything like that, so it suggest to me you have no reply to my argument if your response is to suggest I wrote something which I quite obviously did not.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 10:03pm

    Maria M

    Matthew – I think you are re-writing the 2010 election and the role of Nick Clegg to suit your view of him now. Remember at the beginning of the campaign period that Nick Clegg was so little known that Vince Cable’s image was also on the bus and Cable was better known in many ways. It was the debates that changed this – and credit to Clegg for doing well in them.

    I know very well that Clegg was almost completely unknown at the start of the 2010 general election campaign. Indeed, that was why a not particularly brilliant performance in the first debate got written up so well – it was because people had no idea about him that when they saw and heard him for the first time and saw and heard that he was as competent as the other two (which is not saying much …) they responded so positively. Try to think about this in any situation – you have spent a long time supposing there were only two options in some particular circumstance, and you didn’t really like either, suddenly you were shown a third which seemed a bit better, and was at least new. Isn’t there a possibility that the novelty of this new choice might lead you temporarily to become over-enthusiastic about it?

    Sorry, but I do see this as THE big problem for us in the 2010 generl election campaign – so much expectation was built up with the “Cleggmania” boom at the start that when the mundane reality became more obvious as the campaign progressed we lost because we were unable to live up to the expectations that were built up at the start. I do feel that had we not had this boom in expectations at the start we would have done better later on. I do feel it served to divert too much attention purely onto the person of the leader and away from everything else our party had to offer, and that was in the end damaging for us.

    I didn’t watch the first debate, but I did watch the other two, and though I never liked Clegg, I wanted our party to do well, so I was really mentally urging on as I watched them, and having heard all this “Cleggmania” stuff thought perhaps I had underestimated the man and maybe he really was capable of a stunning performance. And what I saw surprised me – he was plodding, he kept missing what I thought were obvious good lines, sure I liked his poliices better than the other two, but I just coldn’t see the sparkle I supposed from what I had heard previously would be there. I rather feel there were plenty of others who were sympathetic to the party who had a similar impression – but if they weren’t lomg term supporters like me maybe they would have just switched away from supporting it in disappointment at Clegg just not living up to his billing.

    Now, the real point here is NOT that Clegg performed appallingly badly in the second and third debate, actually he was on the same level as the other two, but that my judgment of him was impaired by the way he had been so written up as some sort of hugely skilled super-hero after the first debate that I started off expecting much better.

    Do you get my point?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 10:10pm

    Neil Bradbury

    Matthew, I can’t agree – the 2005 GE was our opportunity for a massive breakthrough and it didn’t happen. Kennedy has to take responsibility for that

    So why is it you think we had so much better opportunity in 2005 than 2010? What was going so much better for us in 2005 that we should naturally have done better than in 2010?

    Sorry, I just can’t see it, yet your argunent depends on that – otherwise what I said holds: we did better in 2005 then 2010. Now, 2005 was still a time when it could be believed that New Labour has “ended boom and bust”, while in 2010 it was obvious how they had failed. So, if anything, surely 2010 should have been our big year of opportunity, not 2005. That is, even if our party was not better led and coordinated in 2010 than 2005, it should have done much better in terms of seats and votes in 2010 because of the much greater disillusionment with New Labour.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 10:30pm

    Oranjepan

    Frankly, the unconstructive and tedious pessimism in your comment is unwelcome. It certainly doesn’t show any quality I associate with leadership, and it’s particularly unimaginative.

    Eh, what do you mean?

    What I thought I was doing was challenging some commonly held assumptions about the necessity for “strong leadership” to make progress, and rasining some arguments against that common belief. Why do you claim it’s “unconstructive” and “unimaginative” to say something different from what everyon else is saying, to try and look at things from an unusual viewpoint? Why do you suppose it would be so much more constructive instead just to go along with the crowd, just to accept what is an assumption that seems to be so common now and so often put forward as if it is unarguably true?

    What I also thought I was doing was saying “Ordinary people CAN achieve great things by working together. They don’t need to wait until some big leader comes along and tells them what to do”. Why do you claim that is tediously pessimistic? Why do you suppose it would be much more optimistic, creative and imagitive to say “You lot can do nothing, you’re useless, what you need is some super-human to come along and order you all about”?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 10:35pm

    Ruth Bright

    Matthew – you always write brilliantly. When are you going to write a book about the party?

    When someone is willing to pay me to do it. Till then, I have to spend most of my tme doing what I do to earn money, which is teaching computer programming. Unfortunately, my views tend not to be those favoured by the rich and powerful, so unlike other people, I don’t get invited to join think tanks, to be a consultant, to write stuff in the newspapers, to be on the telly etc. If I was a “free markets are the answer to everything” person, I would perhaps have money thrown at me to do political writing, like so-and-so, and oojamaflip, and … well, you know who I mean.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '11 - 10:36pm

    Oranjepan

    I often find your comments entertaining (if lengthy),

    If I had more time, I would be able to write more briefly.

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