Author Archives: Adam Smith

Liberal Britain – a counterfactual history

June 2017: The General Election has returned an entirely predictable result. It is the Liberals—yet again—who emerged as the dominant force.

Prime Minister Nick Clegg, seemingly secure in office for a second term, has now entered the familiar round of coalition negotiations with the third party—Labour. The oddly popular socialist maverick Jeremy Corbyn, no natural soul mate of the PM’s, leads a party with 85 seats. The leading radical left Liberal, deputy leader Yvette Cooper, is leading the coalition negotiations with Corbyn, with defence and welfare policy expected to be the biggest sticking points. But no one doubts that in the end a deal will be done as it has been done so many times before over the last century. Speaking on Question Time, the long-serving Liberal MP for Kirkaldy, Gordon Brown, son of the Manse and self-appointed heir of Scottish Gladstonian Liberal moralism, has taken up his traditional role, growling that the impending Liberal-led coalition must have a “moral compass.”

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The Liberals have long been regarded as the “natural party of government” in the UK, indeed one of the most successful election-winning movements anywhere in the world. But it could have been very different: there have been moments when Liberal dominance seemed under threat. Back in the 1920s, division had nearly destroyed the party. There had even been an unsettling moment in the election of 1924 when it seemed possible that more Labour members would be returned than Liberals. An article in the Spectator that year, subsequently widely mocked, had even been entitled—absurdly as it now seems—“The strange death of Liberal England.” But the crisis passed. After Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government presided over mass unemployment, the Liberals, once again under the leadership of the aging warrior David Lloyd George won the 1931 General Election in a landslide. The Liberal response to the Great Depression “dished Labour” in the phrase of the time by implementing a national system of health and unemployment insurance and by vast public works schemes all set out in a best-selling pamphlet called “We Can Conquer Unemployment”. Contrary to many predictions at the time rising class politics did not destroy the Liberal coalition as its non-conformist tradition was fused with socialist ideas and a commitment to full employment and trade union rights that kept a majority of the labour movement inside the Liberal tent.

In the run-up to the 1935 General Election, the first to be conducted under the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies, the Liberals were bolstered by Labour defections—including their former leader Ramsay Macdonald. The coalition government formed that year was dominated by Liberals but had the support of a faction of Tories known as the “National Conservatives”. 

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