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.
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.