1951 – the nadir of Liberalism

The General Election of 1951 occurred only eighteen months into a parliament. It was called by a Labour government with a small parliamentary majority led by Clement Attle then at the head of what was a tired and ageing administration.

For the Liberals led by another Clement it proved to be a very difficult campaign for a party wracked by decades of division and desperately short of money. Liberalism was split with the breakaway National Liberals propped up by the Tories still enjoying parliamentary representation.

A situation that would exist until 1968.

Clement Davies, himself a former National Liberal, led the Liberal Party reluctantly followed the defeat of his predecessor Sir Archibald Sinclair in the 1945 Labour landslide. An attempt by Sinclair to regain his Caithness and Sutherland seat in 1950 had narrowly failed.

In 1951 only 109 candidates could be mustered and of these only 6 were elected an overall loss of 3.

The parliamentary party consisted of Davies, representing Montgomery, Donald Wade (Huddersfield West), Arthur Holt (Bolton West), Roderick Bowen (Cardigan), Rhys Hopkins Morris (Carmarthen) and Jo Grimond (Orkney and Shetland). Of these only Grimond had faced a Conservative opponent. Wade and Holt were successful only due to a local pact with the Tories. They were a diverse bunch and, as Chief Whip, Wade had quite a job working for a unified party position in the Commons. Bowen and Rhys Morris were on the right of the party, while Grimond represented a more socially liberal outlook.

Grimond’s philosophy would later become more developed following his assumption of the party leadership and his call for a non socialist left of centre alternative to conservatism. Despite the difficulties the Liberal show somehow stayed on the road. The history books tells us that Winston Churchill the returning Prime Minister and himself a former Liberal MP offered Davies a place in his cabinet at the Department of Education following the Tory election victory.

Acceptance might have meant the end for the party but after consultating with colleagues the offer was rejected by Davies.

Grimond is quite rightly credited with revitalising the Liberals beginning with the 1958 by election triumph in Torrington. This was the first byelection gain for the party in nearly thirty years and was followed by more including the famous one at Orpington in 1962. However it was Davies who held things together through difficult times and who arguably saved the party from outright extinction.

For those who thought 2015 was bad and it undoubteadly was 1951 has to be the nadir of liberalism.

The brave men and women who kept the party alive during those dark days are worthy of our appreciation. Without them there may never have been the modern day Liberal Democrats.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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33 Comments

  • Clement Davies is not forgotten in Montgomeryshire. His photograph hangs in the stairway of the Montgomeryshire Liberal Democrat office in Newtown. I have a parliamentary Christmas card signed by him amongst my older party papers.

  • Paul Barker 19th Mar '19 - 4:27pm

    In 1951 we got 2.5% of the Vote but we survived, its worth reminding ourselves & others that we have been way down before but we came back.

  • I would class the nadir as 1957 when the Liberal seat of Carmarthen was lost to Labour in a by-election. The Labour candidate was Lady Megan Lloyd George who had recently defected from the Liberal Party.
    To me the saviour was Jo Grimond who held up, for me, a vision of a radical liberalism. He also made sure that up to date policies were brought forward.

  • Donald Wade’s pamphlet Our Aim and Purpose (mentioned by Nick Collins) is a wonderful exposition of what it means to be a Liberal. We desperately need something like that now to help in the ideological battle of our times, starting with internal party education. Joining the Liberal Democrats because of a local issue (or even, dare I say it, Brexit) does not necessarily a Liberal make.

    I am pleased to own a signed photograph of Clement Davies in Churchillian pose and holding a cigar.

  • Richard Malim 19th Mar '19 - 6:02pm

    As a 13 year old I remember the Daily Mirror headline “Libs Cosh Tory Wooers”

  • Mick Taylor 19th Mar '19 - 6:33pm

    I never I think met Donald Wade, though his son was my A level math’s teacher from 1966-1968. On the other hand I did meet Arthur Holt, Roderick Bowen and Jo Grimond. And Paul Hunt is right. Our Aim and Purpose is a very sound exposition of the Liberal position that bears re-reading. I did recently meet the very competent woman who was Donald Wade’s agent and who had some very interesting comments to make about the 1964 election when Wade was defeated when he had a Tory opponent.

  • Andrew McCaig 19th Mar '19 - 7:08pm

    I daresay Donald Wade would be shocked at the demise of Liberalism in Huddersfield at parliamentary level.
    However as current Chair of the constituency i can report that we have not given up, won a seat from Labour with a vote increase of 14% in last May’s elections, and hope to win another on May 2nd.
    I grew up in Sheffield Hallam in the 60’s, the son of a lifelong Liberal, who never gave up through those dark postwar days. He would never imagined that we could ever have all the councillors in Ecclesall and take the Hallam constituency.
    So I would say “hang in there and the tide will turn again.”
    I very much hope there will be Euro elections. They are a massive opportunity for us although the TIGs risk splitting the vote.

  • Andrew McCaig 19th Mar '19 - 7:12pm

    I might add that in my father’s papers I recently found his letter of acceptance as a member of the European Movement. He did live long enough to see us join the EU, and he was very happy about that

  • Chris Bertram 19th Mar '19 - 8:19pm

    @David Raw – thanks for sharing that link to the Clement Davies speech – I kept expecting him to burst into “you’re my besht mate, you are …”. One has to feel sorry for him.

  • This is an important article. I love the fact that our membership surge in the last 4 years has given the party a new base of young members, but we should never forget the history and the soul of the party. And yes the fact that we came back from the 1950s nadir – and a similar one in 1988-90 – should give us heart today as we climb out of the 2010-15 trough.
    I regard Clement Davies as a Liberal hero for keeping us going in that difficult time. His alcoholism was very sad – as was the fact that three of his 4 children all died at the age of 24. His oldest son died first, of epilepsy; his daughter then took her own life; and another son was killed in the war. I’m glad that he is still remembered in Montgomery. He deserves to be remembered by all of us.

  • @ Ruth Bright The less said about that man the better.

    Apart from the more well known stuff associated with him his behaviour towards the then PPC, Garth Pratt, in the run up to 1970 was appalling. Garth is sadly no longer alive – I’m told he literally died laughing at some Tory folly on the BBC News twelve years ago. He was a young man of great talent and promise…. the son of a bus driver who defeated Lord James Douglas Hamilton to become President of the Oxford Union.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Mar '19 - 11:37pm

    The record for losing deposits was the Labour Party’s 1983 general election result under the leadership Michael Foot.
    Their manifesto was described by a Labour MP as “the longest suicide note in history”, Check it out.
    After that the threshold for deposits was reduced from 12.5% to 5%.

  • Before my time, though Jo Grimond was still the leader when I joined the Young Liberals. And I still have a copy or two of Donald Wade’s ‘Our Aim and Purpose’ somewhere. I kept a small stock back then to give to new members.

  • The late John Ashworth, from Cheadle, told me he celebrated the 1950 General Election whilst an officer in the Merchany Navy, as colleagues celebrated Tory or Labour victories with a gin and tonic, John not wishing to be left out celebrated each Liberal lost deposit with his own gin and tonic.
    He added the following day he was rather under the weather!

  • The late John Ashworth, from Cheadle, told me he celebrated the 1950 General Election whilst an officer in the Merchany Navy, Mid Atlantic, as colleagues celebrated Tory or Labour victories with a gin and tonic, John not wishing to be left out celebrated each Liberal lost deposit with his own gin and tonic.
    He added the following day he was rather under the weather!

  • David Hughes 20th Mar '19 - 9:17am

    Regarding the difficulties of ‘whipping’ this group, the task in fact fell to Jo Grimond from the point of his first election in 1950 until he succeeded Davies as leader in ’56. Donald Wade only became Chief Whip at that point; I remember him as a kindly figure at party assemblies well into the 1970s. One of his remarkable achievements was how close he came to retaining his Huddersfield seat at the 1964 election, even after the local electoral pact with the Tories had ended — I think he was only about a thousand votes adrift — a testament to how well he had come to be regarded locally.

  • chris moore 20th Mar '19 - 9:18am

    Excellent article and subsequent comments and links. Thanks to the Davids and others.

  • David Warren 20th Mar '19 - 10:38am

    Really pleased the article has been so well received and thanks for all the positive comments.

    I am passionate about Liberal history, particularly the immediate post war period. Being active in a Liberal association or a parliamentary candidate back then would have been a pretty hard slog.

    For anyone wanting to know more about this period ‘The Liberal Party A Study of Retrenchment and Revival’ by Jorgen Scott Rasmussen is an interesting read.

  • There are a number of articles on Clement Davies on the Liberal History Group’s website at https://liberalhistory.org.uk/people/clement-davies/ which I found interesting when we were last discussing leaders on LDV

    In the appreciation of Davies by Emlyn Hooson. he notes: “I recall that Clement
    Davies then invited me to be a member of a strange body called the Liberal Party Committee — apparently, entirely nominated by the leader. This body effectively decided and controlled the policy of the party. Some of the debates were, to
    put it mildly. vitriolic… I would normally sit between the two captivating mistresses of the generally acerbic, but always charming comment, Lady Violet Bonham Carter and
    Lady Megan Lloyd George. They always chose to sit at the end of the table directly facing Clem. Each of them was very critical of him but from entirely different directions.

    “…A particularly difficult session ended one day with a very mundane matter at the end of the agenda. Cornwall required a recommendation for the colour the party should use in elections. Lady Violet witheringly suggested it was obviously ‘a subject for you, Megan dear, to advise upon’. Upon which Megan rejoined: ‘Oh well, dear, I don’t really mind what colour they have, provided, of course, it’s not violet’.

    I will leave it to readers to decide whether we have improved in our internal discussions!

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Mar '19 - 12:18pm

    There is a strength in acknowledging the history of the party but, unfortunately, that strength can sometimes turn into shackles. I come from the SDP wing of the party, which was the first party I joined. A great deal of its’ appeal was its’ freshness, that it didn’t seem to matter who you were, you could still become active in the party. We are in the same situation again with new members being the lifeblood of the party. Not only that, the country’s political system is creaking badly which is an opportunity for a radical rethink of how Westminster operates and I don’t just mean PR etc.
    We value free thinking but quite often go back to ancient Liberal policies to justify a new approach, particularly in the field of economics. We value diversity but members who have a personal link to Liberal history can often receive positive comment which others don’t. This is a bit off putting for new enthusiastic activists.
    We need to have our passion firmly committed to the future, to making life better and what we did in the past should be a tiny light compared to the blaze of 21st century radicalism.

  • As we’re discussing party history, I have been in touch recently with Gwynoro Jones,. who some will no doubt remember was an SDP founder and leading figure in the Alliance in Wales throughout the 80s. He was a terrific speaker and made many entertaining, radical speeches at party conferences – some of which you can watch on his youtube page. Like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSZ2BsHeyGc
    He tells me he is writing a book about the Alliance years, which I think will be fun.

  • David Warren 20th Mar '19 - 9:12pm

    That sounds like it would be a very interesting read.

  • Richard Underhill 10th May '19 - 7:27pm

    Just a quote from page 138 Jo Grimond’s Memoirs Heinemann 1979 [434 30600 2]
    “At UNRRA too I discovered that most American foreign activities are an extension of their home politics. That is why so much of their foreign policy is mistaken. It accounts, for instance, for their bungling in Africa, … ”
    Was he right?
    Could he still be right?

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