Peace, Reform and Liberation: how does the new party history measure up?

Late last year a new history of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties was published. In this post William Wallace reviews it, whilst you can watch Paddy Ashdown, Julian Glover and Shirley Williams talk at the book launch here.

I had not expected to enjoy this book as much as I did, or to learn as much from it. It covers the political history of 332 years in 372 pages, unavoidably gliding past major episodes with passing glances. Eleven chapters by different authors suggested a degree of incoherence. Yet there are some clear underlying themes, and a number of aspects of Liberal history with which I was not entirely familiar. The choice of established experts to contribute specific chapters offers a useful summary of recent scholarship, with footnotes and suggestions for further reading for those who wish to pursue particular aspects further.

The first challenge the volume faces is when to start. The meeting in Willis’s Rooms in 1859, from which the Gladstonian Liberal coalition emerged, is reached only at the end of Chapter 2. The formation of Lord John Russell’s administration in 1846, and the Lichfield House meeting of ‘Whig, Radical and Irish Repeal MPs’ in 1835 are noted as earlier points where like-minded politicians came together. Chapter 1 begins, however, before the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689, with the emergence of the Whigs who supported limited government and opposed monarchical autocracy. This reminds us of the legacy of the Whigs – and of philosophers of limited government from John Locke onwards – and the development throughout the 18th century of their ambivalent alliance with non-conformists and radicals. Most of the aristocratic Whig families left the Liberals before 1914, over Ireland or progressive taxation; though Conrad Russell, the last President of the Liberal Democrat History Group, was a direct descendant of one of their greatest families.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the fragility, but remarkable longevity, of the Gladstonian coalition – as well as the almost impossible figure of the Grand Old Man himself. How did they stand him for so long? It’s scarcely surprising that Chamberlain went off, and that the party went into the wilderness for several years after his departure. Chapter 5 emphasises the importance of the ‘New Liberals’ in creating the ideas round which the social reforms of the 1906 government were shaped. Chapters 6 and 7 portray Asquith as a deeply unsympathetic figure in the party’s interwar decline, holding onto the leadership far too long, nurturing the feud with Lloyd George into embittered old age. It would have been better for the party, too, if Lloyd George had retired from politics after 1929; the continuation of what became in effect a family group of MPs preserved the feud between factions into the following generation.

The final four chapters trace the recovery of the party from what seemed like irreversible decline in the early 1950s to control of major cities from the 1980s, and a share in national government in 2010, through a succession of revivals and reverses, shifts of strategy and tactics, and stubborn persistence by activists who refused to give up in spite of repeated disappointments. The paradox of a party that built its strategy, from 1959, on a hoped-for ‘realignment of the left’, which sustained a Labour Government in office in 1964-6 and again in 1976-8, which came close to a coalition with Labour in 1995-7, entering government at last in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, is explained with reference to the arrival of a ‘post-Thatcher’ generation in the party, whose approach to politics was shaped by opposition to Labour’s authoritarian and centralising strands, as well as by the particular dynamics of the post-election position and by the resistance of many Labour MPs to negotiation. But here we are passing from history to current politics.

There are helpful ‘text sections’ alongside the narrative to provide some details on major personalities and events, from the Peterloo Massacre to T.H.Green and Clement Davies (I had not known that Davies ‘struggled with a long-term drink problem’ for his entire political career). It’s good to read the generous recognition of the intellectual contribution Michael Meadowcroft has made to Liberal thinking over the past 45 years.

Unavoidably, there are themes that I would like to have seen developed further. The importance of non-conformity as an element in Liberalism, from 1689 to the end of the 20th century – providing a solid electoral (and financial) base for the 19th century party, and an underlying moral and idealistic foundation to party policies – is underplayed. When Butler and Stokes conducted the first in-depth study of British voters in the 1960s, the evidence showed that nonconformist parentage was one of the strongest predispositions for support for the Liberal Party. Sadly, we are now another generation away from that tradition, and the wider electorate retains little awareness of it; though there are still many activists, MPs and peers whose parents or grandparents were nonconformist ministers. There’s a useful appendix on the development of party structure and organization, but only intermittent coverage of the role of finance – and of lack of finance – in the party’s fortunes.

Michael Freeden in his introduction notes that, “no other political movement in the UK has been blessed with such intellectual power at its disposal, even if the liberalism of the party often lagged behind that of the thinkers”. It’s remarkable that the Liberals attracted a succession of public intellectuals, from John Stuart Mill to J.M.Keynes and William Beveridge. The final chapters however pay more attention to organizational experts than to thinkers; like both the other main parties, we have been less successful at attracting people of ideas as we have got better at targeting elections.

One personal pleasure was to be reminded of how warmly the media welcomed the party’s 1979 manifesto – for which I was partly responsible. What does not appear in the book is that half-way through the election campaign, when it looked possible that the Conservatives might not win enough seats for an overall majority, David Steel reluctantly gave me permission to speak informally to my opposite number in Conservative Central Office, just in case we found ourselves asked to negotiate after the election result. A telephone conversation with Chris Patten shook me. He was already familiar with the details of the Liberal manifesto and where its proposals overlapped with, or contradicted, elements in the Conservative programme. They were prepared to negotiate if necessary, thought no hint of that possibility had leaked out. As the final chapter shows, the Liberal Democrat leadership in 2010 was far better prepared – even though it had anticipated negotiating with a different partner than the one that was prepared to make compromises after the election.

Lord William Wallace is a government whip and spokesman for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office.

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

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One Comment

  • Surely the party that emerged in 1859 was the party of Parlmeston & Russell as well as Gladston? As they were the joint first leaders with Queen Victoria opting for Parlmeston as ‘Prime Minister’ when confronted with the choice between the new Liberal Parties joint leaders. A choice she described as being between those “two terrible old men”.

    I hope to pick up the book at Spring conference though after this good review.

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