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.”

***

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”. 

In 1940, a wartime coalition government was formed with the Liberals once again the dominant force. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sat as a Liberal MP since 1904, although his famous feud with Lloyd George and increasing discontent with what he saw as the creeping socialistic tendencies of his party meant he had remained on the back benches through the most of the 30s.

After a brief period of Tory government in the early 50s, another long Liberal ascendency under Hugh Gaitskill (Prime Minister 1955-1963) and Roy Jenkins (Prime Minister 1963-1974) transformed Britain: negotiating entry into the Common Market, presiding over decolonization, reforming divorce and abortion law and driving a massive expansion of Higher Education. A new multicultural society was emerging, leaving the opposition Conservative Party divided between unreconstructed reactionaries and “modernisers”, some of whom later split to form the niche Free Market Party to campaign for a smaller state. In the wake of their third successive election defeat in 1970, the leading Tory Lord Hailsham wrote a famous book called Must Conservatism Lose?

The answer, it turned out, was no. Commonwealth immigration, a more militant labour movement and a new radical youth movement, all drove a polarization of politics that soon generated the greatest postwar threat to Liberal electoral dominance. In 1972, driven in part by the Jenkins government’s attempts to rein in the power of Trade Unions, the so-called “gang of four” (Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle) defected to form a new Socialist Party. The Tories, now led by charismatic Enoch Powell, gained the largest number of seats in the 1974 election and led a minority government that was soon beset by strikes that shutdown the railways and the power stations, and by race riots in the cities. New Left intellectuals gravitated towards the new Socialist Party, which took a leading role in extra-parliamentary protest in a way that the old Labour Party, still with its roots in working-class communities in the North West and central belt of Scotland never did.

Yet despite frequent predictions of their decline, the Liberals endured and prospered, topping the polls in elections in the 1980s under Michael Heseltine and 2000s under Tony Blair. The secret of the Liberals’ success has been their ability to appeal with optimism to a sense of fair play and social justice. Unencumbered by a historic attachment to a particular interest group, willing to use state power pragmatically, polls have consistently shown the Liberals to be the party most Britons trust with the economy and are most likely to regard as “on their side”. Over the years, pundits have had fun mocking the vacuity of the Liberals’ famous campaign slogans: “Liberals Will Get Things Done” (Jenkins in 1966), “For the Many Not the Few” (Heseltine in 1987) or “Forward Not Back” (Blair in 2001). But they worked. The Conservative tradition in British politics has always been strong, but the Tories won only four General Elections since 1926: in 1950, when they were led by the moderate Anthony Eden, in the crisis of 1974, led by Powell, in 1992 when mild-mannered Douglas Hurd won the most unlikely victory against Heseltine’s by-then fractious Liberal party, and, most recently, William Hague’s minority government from 2001-2004.

Liberals have had the knack of presenting themselves as non-dogmatic yet radical when it comes to tackling social injustice; and as both patriotic and internationalist. The party’s most notable political tactic has been to steal its opponents clothes. The Gaitskill government borrowed the Labour policy of nationalizing gas, coal and electricity. Heseltine even co-opted some of the egalitarian language and willingness to use targeted state intervention pioneered by the Socialist Party—which ended up merging with Labour in 1985. To the frustration of the Randian libertarians in the short-lived Free Market Party, Liberals have always been comfortable talking about deregulation and de-centralisation even while simultaneously increasing spending.

Snipers from the Left and the Right accuse the Liberals of being complacent establishment centrists. And it is true that Liberals have remained on the shifting “middle ground” of British politics, casting their rivals to left and right as ideologues. Unlike their rivals they have sensed the sweet spot of British public opinion—a desire for everyone to have a fair chance in life, for government to be present but not controlling, for Britain to be open to the world yet proud of its distinctiveness. Yet at the same time the secret of the success of British liberalism has been its radicalism not its complacency: to embrace socially progressive causes, to take on vested interests whether they be over-mighty trade unions or over-mighty banks. The iconic brown and cream poster from the 1931 election with a scowling Lloyd George said it all: “He’ll get things done in time of need!”

Those moments when the party was in crisis in 1916, when it nearly split over the Lloyd George coalition, when Labour came agonizingly close to becoming the second party in 1924: how different the country might have been had it not retained its faith in the Liberals as the natural party of government…

* Dr Adam Smith is an active Liberal Democrat member based in St Albans and a professional historian

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19 Comments

  • What a fun ‘what if’! Nicely put, effectively capturing the essence of liberalism – radical yet not dogmatic.

  • Actually, it’s not hard. Asquith only had to step down as leader in 1916 and Lloyd George replace legitimately. Asquith was already mentally burnout by 1915. Lloyd George was a narscistic leader according to science, but such a leader is needed during times of changes.

    Between 1918 and 1924, it was Asquith who prevented the Liberals from reinventing itself. To tell you the truth, Lloyd George was far more receptive to new ideas, thats why we had “We can conquer unemployment”.

    Finally, unlike Asquith and his Imperialist wing (mostly on the right), Lloyd George was an all-out radical.

  • Nice bit of fun.

    I don’t understand why there is this emphasis on the 1924 general election. The Liberals united for the 1923 general election but failed to be the second largest party having 158 MPs to Labour’s 191.

    The 1916 crisis is mentioned and it has to be assumed that Asquith and Lloyd George came to an understanding and the Liberal Party was not split. It is not mentioned but it seems likely that there would have been an election in December 1918 in this version. The maximum length of Parliament was set out 5 years in 1911 and so the next general election after 1918 would be 1923.

  • Michael BG – by 1916 the only way to save the party was to get rid of Asquith.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Jun '17 - 6:55am

    2 of the biggest mistakes ever made by the last Labour government; the war in Iraq and light touch regulation of the City of London institutions leading to economic catastrophe in 2008 onwards – how would that have been handled? And where would we be with tackling global warming? Would we have joined the Euro and what would have been the consequences of that? Would we have a federalist government maybe similar to Germany? Would that stave off or encourage an independent Scotland? Would we have some form of LVT and Tobin Tax? Would Parliament reflect the diversity of the UK?
    OK I know you are not writing a book but these things come to mind.
    When you write about deregulation, is this from the regulations set by a previous Liberal government? Not sure how that works.

  • Geoffrey – for banking, it depends on what kind of Liberal Party. A social liberal government with David Steel would never deregulate the financial sector. But with Michael Heseltine, a right-winger as leader during the 1980s, it would happen. Besides, “For the many not the few” would be more suitable for someone like David Steel other than Heseltine.

    Iraq war – no, of course. Additionally, successive Liberal governments between 1920s and 1990s would mean that military spending would be far lower than in real history, and this would benefit the economy massively.

    LVT and devolution would be introduced well before 1945.

    I disagree with the labour militant problem during the 1970s in this scenario, because industrial democracy, profit sharing and employment co-ownership have been our policies since 1918.

    Also, Harold Wilson would be a liberal in this timeline. And Wilson would be a bigger name than Roy Jenkins in the 1960s.

  • It is many years since I read “The Strange Death of Liberal England”, but if I recall correctly one of the principal strands in George Dangerfield’s argument was the failure of Liberal Government’s to settle the Irish question, largely due to the unscrupulous tactics of the Tories who were prepared to put party advantage above the desperate need to provide a solution that would avoid conflict and be fair to everyone. Er….

  • Lee_Thacker 18th Jun '17 - 9:44am

    What happened to Clement Davies, Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy? Did none of them have a big role in any of the post war Liberal governments?

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jun '17 - 10:20am

    Geoffrey Payne: As The Economist said at the time, if the UK had joined the euro the euro would have been different, in particular there would have been more financial discipline.
    Adam Smith: Should we have been more radical at the time of the Reform Act 1832? There was widespread support from the population, who became disappointed by the inadequate outcome. How about votes for women? (explicitly disallowed at the time). Winston Churchill’s mother was the wife of a cabinet minister and the mother of an up and coming MP. She was part of informal and influential discussion groups who were not allowed to express their directly by voting.

  • Adam Smith – Grimond being Foreign Secretary could have changed Britain’s approach to Europe fundamentally. You know, before working with Germany to form the European Coal and Steel Community, France sent Britain a request to join the Commonwealth. Accepting France’s offer could have made Britain a founding member of a huge trade bloc that include real-life EEC plus the white Commonwealth nations.

    The Tories just feared the Liberal Party, although Labour by that time was already far more powerful as they had become the beacon of the working class and the trade unions.

    You need to blow away the Soviet Union to prevent Churchill from leaving the party. Oh wait, one problem is that a Liberal Britain would be a perfect target for Soviet spies.

  • Thanks for writing a positive article, optimism & forgiveness are just what we need at this point.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Jun '17 - 1:07pm

    Thanks for this amusing and interesting take on political history. I am taking the last two sentences in the penultimate paragraph as the message of what we believe.

  • @ Thomas
    “by 1916 the only way to save the party was to get rid of Asquith.”

    The only way to avoid the split in the Liberal Party was to keep Asquith on board in some way. In 1940 Neville Chamberlain became Lord President of the Council and remained in the Cabinet. According to Wikipedia there was an agreed solution which kept Asquith as PM agreed on 3 December 1916. If Asquith had agreed there might have been a Bonar Law government (5th December). Both would have kept the Liberal Party united and its leading members in government.

  • Michael BG – I mean that Lloyd George would have to replace Asquith as leader of the Liberals as soon as the war ended. The popularity of Lloyd George would help the party to at least become the main opposition if not to turn the table.

    The best scenario would be Asquith retiring from politics in 1916, well, and Lloyd George would become both PM and Leader in a legitimate way.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '17 - 10:03am

    Adam Smith 18th Jun ’17 – 10:27am: In the 1918 general election women were not allowed to vote unless they were 30 years old or more. If, in this counterfactual exercise we abolish this anomaly and allow women to vote on equal terms with men, we no longer need the changes which happened in 1928 and it would no longer be the case that the 1929 general election became a competition by all three parties for the newly enfranchised women aged 21-30. Therefore John Maynard Keynes and “we can conquer unemployment” would be the main issue, hopefully popular.
    Later on, irrespective of party, we should recognise that Michael Heseltine likes to plant trees and put him in charge of the Forestry Commission and the Crown Woods.

  • @ Thomas
    “I mean that Lloyd George would have to replace Asquith as leader of the Liberals as soon as the war ended.”

    That could have worked under either solution. In 1918 Asquith could have been ennobled and Lloyd George could have succeeded as leader of the party. This could have happened either if Asquith was still PM or if he was just leader of the Liberals and say President of the Council in a Bonar Law led coalition.

    It should be remembered that the role of Asquith in any new government after December 1916 was the cause of the split in the party and it seems likely that Lloyd George was the author of there not being a solution found acceptable to Asquith and the majority of the Liberal MPs.

  • Could we have a slightly more believable counter factual where Nick Clegg listens to older and wiser hands and doesn’t make a total horlicks of coalition. Where we are prepared to be strong enough to face Call me Dave down and defeat his crude and obvious attempt to stab us in the back. Where we stick to our promises of an end to broken promises, voters continue to trust us and we hold the balance of power again in 2015. There would be no Brexit vote or dodgy deals with the DUP.

    On the other hand re-reading my first sentence, I think the original article is more believable.

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