Forgotten Liberal heroes: Charles Masterman

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market, especially since Bob Maclennan stopped making speeches to party conference. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series I am highlighting some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.

The role of the Liberal government, and David Lloyd George in particular, in bringing in some of the major pillars of the welfare state in the early twentieth century is well-established in the collective memory of the Liberal Democrats. It was the 1911 National Insurance Act which introduced national health insurance and unemployment benefit, in the teeth of opposition from the likes of the Daily Mail who said at the time that the insurance payments from workers would be an “unpopular tax” with “helpless victims”.

Forgotten though is the man who did the hard work of actually getting Part 1 of the legislation (the health insurance section) through the House of Commons and who was often talked about as a future party leader: Charles Masterman.

Born in 1873, Masterman was the great nephew of Elizabeth Fry (of £5 bank note fame for her work in making the prison system humane). Though very much an establishment figure by family and upbringing – he went to Cambridge, his brother became Bishop of Plymouth – he had the sort of breadth of experiences and interests that very few politicians now have.

Charles MastermanDespite his Tory family background, his political views quickly became liberal, with early writings of his experience living in London slums and attacking imperialism. During the First World War he was central to the country’s propaganda work, heading up the War Propaganda Bureau, and working with leading literary figures of the time, including Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and pioneering science fiction writer HG Wells.

But before then his political star had both risen and fallen. After a failed by-election campaign in 1903, this Christian Socialist and New Liberal became an MP in 1906 and three years later published The Condition of England, a study of the state of society. He was briefly out of Parliament in 1910-11, having had his elected in the December 1910 election ruled void but returning in another by-election. In the subsequent years he was Lloyd George’s secret go-between in dealings with Labour MPs. In 1914 he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Cabinet, necessitating yet another by-election (as was the rule for MPs appointed to such posts at the time). He lost his seat, tried again in another by-election, lost again and had to give up his ministerial career.

The reason for these by-election failures? The political opprobrium heaped on him for steering that 1911 legislation through. Writing later, Lord Beaverbook labelled him a “Splendid Failure” in a feature piece because he repeatedly lost elections, was unable to become a Cabinet minister and had a short political career. Yet he left behind achievements greater than that secured by many MPs who serve for decades.

He was briefly an MP after the war (1923-4) and died in 1927.

There are only two full-lengthy book biographies of him, one by his wife and both at eye-watering prices: Charles Masterman by Eric Hopkins (but see this very critical review) and CFG Masterman by Lucy Masterman.

Thanks to Jonathan Calder for suggesting the inclusion of Charles Masterman in this series.

For the other posts in this series see our Forgotten Liberal Heroes page.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Malcolm Baines 2nd Feb '11 - 12:06pm

    An interesting piece of Liberal history trivia – the Tory MP who Masterman defeated at Manchester Rusholme in the 1923 election was Jeremy Thorpe’s father, John Thorpe. Jeremy Thorpe, however, was not born until 1929.

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