Liberal England died a century ago and we still haven’t learned anything

I have a strong interest in political history and in liberalism. Despite that, I am ashamed to say that I have only just read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England for the first time.

However, I am also glad that I waited so long, because the parallels between the situation in which the great Liberal Party found itself in 1914 and the situation into which liberals have got ourselves today are striking. Many of the tragic mistakes made by the Liberal leaders in the pre-war years have been repeated, with the lessons the Conservative Party taught the country about itself during the great People’s Budget and Home Rule crises either forgotten or ignored.

Yet again, the Conservatives have set the terms and we liberals have failed to grasp how and why things have changed around us. Dangerfield describes the pre-war Liberal government as “dying with extreme reluctance and considerable skill” – and if today’s liberals continue to fail to learn the lessons set out clearly in his book, that is the fate that awaits our movement as it drifts aimlessly and with no obvious purpose through these post-Brexit, post-liberal settlement times.

I am no Marxist, but there is truth in the notion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It was a tragedy that Asquith, with his Victorian notions of fair play and gentlemanliness, singularly failed to either anticipate or to respond effectively to the Conservatives’ evidently unfair and ungentlemanly attempts to wreck the People’s Budget.

The irony of the Liberals talking radically while remaining unflinchingly committed to a parliamentary solution, while the Conservatives made appeals to the sanctity of the constitution while making every effort to destroy it, should not be lost to modern liberals. We spent the May and Johnson eras patting ourselves on the back for each parliamentary defeat, only for Johnson to simply close Parliament down; we congratulated ourselves for playing by the parliamentary rules, only for Johnson to simply rewrite them by repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and secure an eighty seat majority (while ensuring the liberal, anti-hard Brexit Conservatives who had stood up to him inside the Commons chamber were booted out of politics forever). Liberals stood for the status quo and for institutional stability while the Conservatives made the radical case for change, and when that happens, the Conservatives usually win (see also: Thatcher).

There are echoes of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath in the Conservative response to the Irish Home Rule crisis, too. Again, those on the Liberal side of the argument – the Irish Party leader John Redmond, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the rest – spoke in radical terms of Irish freedom from England while expecting the parliamentary system to deliver it, at the same time as the Conservative Edward Carson was overseeing the creation of a citizens’ militia and the formation of a provisional government in Ulster should there be any attempt to include that province within an independent Irish state. As a result, Home Rule was weakened and eventually destroyed, with six of the nine counties of Ulster immediately contracting out of the Irish Free State that eventually came into being.

The Conservatives, to be sure, did not run any guns to the Brexit-voting towns of Blyth and Boston in 2016 – but the Brexiteers did seize the opportunity to win what they wanted outside of the Commons chamber, and to wrap inside the Union Flag a naked desire to secure Conservative political hegemony. The jingoistic card has always been the strongest in the Conservative deck, which is why they continue to play it to this day. And to this day, liberals in all parties and none continue to assume that an appeal to (let’s be honest here) safe, comfortable, middle-class values will be enough to right the ship of state and steer it away from dangerous, populist waters, regardless of the evidence in front of their own eyes.

Too many Liberal Democrats also continue to assume that offering ‘just enough’ to the struggling and the just about managing will be all the inducement needed to vote for our party, never mind that there is a socialist Labour Party to our left offering them more. Liberals tied themselves in knots pre-war on social questions (with a living wage witheringly characterised by Dangerfield as being thought “a frightful impairment of freedom”), and assumed that a taste of socialism would be enough to slake the thirst of the working classes for material betterment. Needless to say, it didn’t, and within a decade Labour had decisively supplanted the Liberals as the primary party of the left (that is to say, the primary anti-Conservative party). A century later, and Liberal Democrats still congratulate themselves on ‘their’ achievements in setting up old age pensions and the National Health Service, which is rather like a Newcastle United fan such as me pointing to our most recent league title win of 1927 as evidence of… well, anything at all.

Dangerfield describes liberalism as not just a political philosophy, but as “a profoundly conscience-stricken state of mind”, and I agree – indeed, I have previously written on this theme on this blog. A century on, and liberals still have not woken up to the fact that the rules of the game only matter for as long as everyone on the field agrees to play by them. If we don’t wake up soon, at some point the life support machine will be switched off. There are no prizes in politics for parties or movements which die honourable deaths. Just ask Mr Asquith.

* Stephen Howse recently worked for a Lib Dem MP and is now working for a not-for-profit while campaigning for the party in Newcastle.

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  • Tony Greaves 27th Apr '20 - 10:04am

    There are some interesting points in this article but beware – Dangerfield’s infamous book is rubbish. It’s full of his own American chip-on-shoulder prejudices, and as a historical account and explanation of why the Liberal Party fell from being the party of government to the third party in decline, in only a handful of years, it is basically just wrong. (Highly readable but wrong). For a much more balanced and reliable account, read Trevor Wilson’s “The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935”.

  • Thanks Stephen, an interesting and thought-provoking read.

    “Needless to say, it didn’t, and within a decade Labour had decisively supplanted the Liberals as the primary party of the left (that is to say, the primary anti-Conservative party). ”

    Indeed – and many Liberal Democrats are content to be the junior anti-Conservative party.

  • John Marriott 27th Apr '20 - 10:20am

    I read it last year and, if you can overcome the rather dated prose (it was written in 1934 after Dangerfield had abandoned these shores for a career in the US) it gives a fair analysis of why the old Asquithian Liberal Party kind of sleepwalked into oblivion. Yes, Herbert had a lot to answer for, as did his successor. It’s interesting that Lloyd George, like Ramsay MacDonald a decade or so later, got into bed with the Tories only to emerge with a reputation in tatters. What struck me above all was Dangerfield’s sneeringly dismissive attitude towards women, particularly middle class ones like the Pankhursts and their campaign for women’s suffrage. David Raw has kindly recommended other books to read on the subject of the demise of Liberalism, one of which, now purchased, I intend to read after finishing off Paxman’s take on WW1.

  • Stephen’s analysis is so close to absolute truth as to be the stuff of nightmares for almost everyone who cares about our party and its values. For nine years so many of our leading lights have marched us steadfastly away from the successes we had built up over the previous fifty years and back to being of no consequence as far as 90% of the population are concerned. Indeed, in just nine years we have collapsed to a position of parliamentary impotency that the Liberals took 60 years of drift achieve last time.

    However, at every stage there has been an endless cry of ‘We have done nothing wrong’ from those at the top of the party. But we supported and took the blame for five years for the Conservatives in parliament while they undermined us in almost every seat in England. In Scotland the SNP exploited our naivety to almost destroy us there. Even in Wales, our last heartland in the 1950s, Plaid, which is without doubt the most ineffectual of all the nationalist parties, defeated us in 2017 and then massacred us in 2019 in Ceredigion, while the Conservatives hold Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnor.

    And while this happened to us, so many of our party are just happy producing bland policy documents that are polished to shine like burnished gold, but are ignored by the media because they say nothing of interest and the public because they know we are going nowhere.

    We started in 2010 with our greatest chance ever of achieving something, with over 60 MPs who had won by fighting for and representing their communities. However, as soon as we got into government so many of them persuaded themselves that being in government was the same as fighting for their communities and in just five years most of them were annihilated. In that five-year period over 20,000 good Lib Dems left the party members dismay, while those that remained loyally pretended to themselves that their leaders were doing a good job.

    We had no cards left to play. Then the Conservatives gave us just one card, one chance to recover relevance and to show we could still fight for our communities – It was potentially the Ace of Trumps, Brexit.

    However, after two years of building a campaign fighting and winning for the communities we believe in, our leaders once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and threw our Ace away in a desire for a quick win in a snap election.

    We are in a mess and unless we change, Liberalism will finally die.

  • David Warren 27th Apr '20 - 10:48am

    I agree with Tony Greaves the Dangerfield book is poor, i didn’t even finish it. Wilson’s is much better.

    For me the key factors in Labour overtaking the Liberals were the widening of the franchise to all working class men combined with the Asquith/Lloyd George split. Had electoral reform been achieved in the 1920s that realignment might not have been long term but sadly it wasn’t.

    Winding forward the opportunity for our party to be able to break through is there if we wish to take it. The question is will we?

  • Katharine Pindar 27th Apr '20 - 1:56pm

    Totally agree about the need for electoral reform, Stephen, but there is no necessity for this despairing tone. You write, ‘Liberal Democrats still congratulate themselves on their achievements in setting up old age pensions and the NHS’. and then you decry it as past history, as if half the woebegone comments in LDV weren’t concerned with the less happy past history of the Coalition. Actually, people could comment that Liberals proposed (William Beveridge, to be exact) the reforms you mention, but it was Labour who disposed, actually carried them through.

    Some of us view that excellent history as a prompt to work with Labour now on progressive policies, and so in many ways we can do , But we have to have a distinctive voice as well, nationally as well as locally, to win many voters back to us. I believe we should agree to declare to voters something like this.

    “Liberal Democrats are going to call on the government now to deal with the real ills that affect us after the health crisis and the Brexit decision – ills that were there before but have often got worse since, including, so many people living in poverty, staff shortages in the NHS and social care, unemployment which has now risen sharply, not enough decent homes for everyone, and not good enough education and skills training. We demand that this government commits in dealing with these problems to serve and look after everyone, not just their own kind or where they want electoral advantage. We call it the new social contract, deserved by our hard-working people who have had so much to bear in the health crisis, just as the establishment of the NHS and social insurance were a new social contract which Britain’s endurance and suffering had well earned.”

  • The Conservative government (and the Labour Party) will be illiberal enough to allow the Liberal Democrats to survive.

  • @Katharine Pindar “Actually, people could comment that Liberals proposed (William Beveridge, to be exact) the reforms you mention, but it was Labour who disposed, actually carried them through.”

    Labour’s implementation of Beveridge’s ideas was, and has continued to be, a failure.

    “Some of us view that excellent history as a prompt to work with Labour now on progressive policies, and so in many ways we can do.”

    The history is not excellent, it is one of failure. Labour are a regressive force – they’ve sat occupying the left our space for a century and mainly just enabled the Conservatives to continue governing, partly by their existence and partly by their continual support for FPTP.

    You may want to work with (join with?) Labour, but many of us view them as a blocker to progress.

  • David Evans 27th Apr '20 - 3:58pm

    I fear that once again we are drifting into the usual failings of Lib Dems when talking about real problems, and that is ignoring past failures current problems and instead talking about how we would like things to be.

    Hence, we all want electoral reform, and so we talk about how sweet things would be if had it, but totally ignore the fact that we have no way of getting it because we are so weak. To get electoral reform we need a strong Lib Dem representation in the House of Commons (at least 60, but probably 326).

    Likewise we acknowledge that the Liberals in the 1910s (yes over 100 years ago now) did some very good stuff for the time, but as Katharine admits in the 1940s , we talked about it and Beveridge produced a blueprint, but Labour did it. Quite simply as far as most people are aware, when it comes to the NHS, we did nothing.

    We have to take our problems seriously and not believe that calling on the government to do something will achieve anything to revive our fortunes. We have to find ways to do things ourselves that will improve matters for ordinary voters and the only way to do that is through doing the really hard work of standing, working phenomenally hard and getting Lib Dems elected in increasing numbers to the local council.

    It is no use to just talk about things, or call on others to do it and hope that somehow people will somehow accept our words as more important than the action of doing it. Putting forward a Bill to allow a school child the right in law to go to the toilet or asking the government for a public enquiry into the government’s failure over Covid 19, as Ed did, just will not cut it.

  • Jane Ann Liston 27th Apr '20 - 5:06pm

    ‘Middle-class’? What does that imprecise and emotive term actually mean here?

  • Nigel Jones 27th Apr '20 - 5:08pm

    David Evans, I agree that calling on government to do certain things is not enough. I think with so few MPs, they could form a leadership team that focusses on messages for the general public and local campaigns. They can spend too much time in Parliament and not enough directing and helping the party out on the streets.
    Electoral reform and decentralisation of the way we are governed are a key part of this, but as you say, not issues we can achieve anytime soon, though that is no reason for not trying to convince people these things are needed. Local campaigning on the issues like unemployment, fairer wages, public services, business rate reform should be at the centre alongside specific local issues and the way we are governed.
    People are rarely interested in the detail of government issues, but long term local campaigning on these things outside parliament must surely be the way forward.

  • Jane Ann Liston 27th Apr '20 - 5:09pm

    Also, while I can sympathise with your team not having won the League since 1927 (until 2016 mine hadn’t win the Scottish Cup since 1902) it’s wrong to compare that temporary achievement with the creation of the NHS and pensions, which are still with us.

  • John Marriott 27th Apr '20 - 5:53pm

    @Jane Ann Liston
    As it was I that referred to the Pankhursts as ‘middle class’ perhaps I should explain as you wind your neck in. Whilst there were undoubtedly so called ‘working class’ (that’s middle class in the states by the way) women involved in the suffragette movement, Mrs P and her daughters clearly weren’t. That’s probably why Dangerfield appeared to dislike them so much, being middle class (by the definition of that time) as well. “Women know your place”, as Harry Enfield’s character famously said. I really haven’t got a problem with identifying with the middle class myself. I grew up on a council estate in Leicester, went to Grammar School, then Cambridge and became a teacher, as well as being a Lib Dem councillor for thirty years. What’s in a title, anyway?

  • Stephen Howse, “Many of the tragic mistakes made by the Liberal leaders in the pre-war years have been repeated,”…… Which ones, Stephen ? Dangerfield might be an entertaining read (sorry, John M.), but he was a journalist not a historian.

    Dangerfield overstates pre-WW1 events. The immediate pre-war by-elections could have been worse.. expect wheret NUWSS suffragists – not Pankhurst suffragettes who reinforced Asquith’s stubbornness – supported Labour and allowed the Tories to gain Liberal seats in three cornered fights (see Midlothian byelection, 1912).

    The Strange Death of Liberal England ? What about Scotland the pre-WW1 Liberal stronghold ? With the exception of the Khaki Election of 1900 (49%) Liberals never polled less than 50% until 1918 ? Fifty eight seats in 1910, eight in 1924.

    Beveridge ? yes, a significant contribution to the idea of the NHS, but Bevan and Labour enacted it three years after Beveridge lost his seat in 1945.

    He also had some odd ideas. As a member of the Eugenics Society he promoted the study of methods to ‘improve’ the human race by controlling reproduction. In 1909, he said men who could not work should be supported by the state, “but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights – including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood”. Very liberal ?

    2020 owes more to the 2010 election and subsequent events, incompetence, and general muddle. No clear strategy or policy ideas, conflict between hanging on for grim death social liberals and remaining Orange Bookers, and nothing to fire or inspire the electorate. Maybe that, Stephen, mirrors the 1920’s.

    Let’s hope Keir Starmer is better than Ramsay Mac.

  • Liberals have their greatest success when Newcastle United are champions of the football league. As far as I know the Ravens are still in the Tower of London, so this pandemic will not bring down the United Kingdom or the LibDems. If the ‘Toon’ can repeat its glory days, the LibDems will be back in government. (Having the right Chairman and coach helps too.)

  • william francis 27th Apr '20 - 9:35pm

    I don’t agree with your assessment with the loss or the working class vote for the Liberals to Labour.

    For one the manifestos Labour party of 1900-1930 were that much different from the Liberal’, if only somewhat to the left. Indeed the Labour party of that time occupided a political position more akin to the Lib Dems during the New Labour years.

    Not to mention even with the collapse of the Liberals in the 1920s, Labour could only govern with their help until 1945. Even past that date, they only managed to govern for 20 years out of the remaining 55 of the century.

    This is important to remember when considering the electoral role of the working classes politically. There is nothing to suggest they left the Liberals part for socialism, given how so many of them voted Tory since (I mean the Tories could not have governed for most of the 20th century without considerable working class support).

  • Steve Comer 28th Apr '20 - 9:36am

    The Dangerfield book leans heavily on the ‘inevitability’ of Labour overtaking the Liberals due to the rise of organised labour and the widening of the franchise, but as others have said the Trevor Wilson book is more balanced. The Labour Party only gained traction because the Liberal Party failed to evolve and refused to select ordinary workers as Parliamentary candidates, preferring to keep it within the closed shop of the professional and business classes. Had the Liberal Party moved with the times, then give the electoral system it would probably have evolved into something more like the Candian Liberal Party of the US Democratic Party, and Socialism would have remained a third force.

    What upsets me though is the fact that the party WAS making progress between 1993 and 2007. The revivals of the early 1960s and 1970s had not been sustained, but in 1992 we recovered from the abyss, gained sustained strength in local communities for a decade and in 2005 secured our highest number of seats since 1929. Then what?

    Some of the party big weeks denounced our 2005 manifesto as a shopping list, complained that we were positioned to the left of a Labour Government and started to push a more free-market even neo-Thatcherite stance. We managed to do that just as the financial crisis discredited that conventional wisdom! We then blundered into a hasty coalition and our front bench disregarded all those in the party who had experience of dealing with coalitions and minority control at local level. It also failed to heed the warnings from those of us who understood the public sector, and indeed represented its workers, that attacking some of our core voters was not sensible poilitics!

    I’m someone who joined the Liberal Party over four decades ago, yet I’d be hard pressed to articulate what the party is for these days. (Not a problem I ever had pre-2010). Its not the policies is the themes an values. People know instinctively where the Green Party , the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or even the Brexit Party are positioned, but the Liberal Democrats have an identity problem. Yet we shouldn’t, our instincts for social justice, civil liberty, internationalism, equality and de-centralisation should be solid foundations, yet too often we come across as wishy washy centrists in a polarised nation.

  • Yes, Ruth, and also try his, The electoral position of the Liberal and Labour parties, 1910–1914, P.F. CLARKE, The English Historical Review, Volume XC, Issue CCCLVII, …

    If you;re a glutton for punishment : Gavin Freeman, The Liberal Party and the Impact of the 1918 Reform Act in The Advent of Democracy : The Impact of the 1918 Reform Act on British Politics, ed. Stuart Ball Wiley, 2018.

    The Libs missed an open goal when they could have had PR into the 1918 Act. G.R. Searle is very entertaining on Corruption in British Politics, 1895-1930, as is his The Liberal Party, Triumph and Disintegration, 1886-1929, and Catherine Ann Cline on ‘Recruits to Labour’.

  • @Steve Comer “I’m someone who joined the Liberal Party over four decades ago.”

    You do surprise me.

    “the Liberal Democrats have an identity problem.”

    Indeed they do, when some of our members think it should be Labour Lite, as we see:

    “[O]ur instincts for social justice, civil liberty, internationalism, equality and de-centralisation should be solid foundations, yet too often we come across as wishy washy centrists in a polarised nation.”

    I suspect you mean equality of outcome, which is disturbing. And equally disturbingly you omit freedom, personal liberty, personal responsibility, enterprise, diversification and fiscal responsibility.

  • James Fowler 28th Apr '20 - 1:54pm

    ‘The Strange Death’ is a great journalistic read. I wouldn’t entirely dismiss it as such, but as others have said it needs to be taken in conjunction with other more scholarly works. The intellectual explanation I suggest is not that liberalism died but that the Liberal Party allowed the other parties to appropriate the bits of it they liked. The managerial explanation is basically that Asquith and Lloyd-George ruined the organisation by infighting. Finally, socially the war radically altered the geometry and networks of power relations between classes and individuals in a way that hugely strengthened patriotism and collectivism, but weakened liberalism. Put those all three things together and any Party could easily collapse.

    In terms of what this article says I suggest that liberalism, if not the Liberal Party, is still here. Happily, liberalism will never go away. The Strange Death was actually a Strange Theft. A truly liberal Party needs to reclaim its stolen goods.

  • @James Fowler “In terms of what this article says I suggest that liberalism, if not the Liberal Party, is still here. Happily, liberalism will never go away. The Strange Death was actually a Strange Theft. A truly liberal Party needs to reclaim its stolen goods.”

    Indeed, what an excellent point.

    Which is why the so-called “economic Liberalism” of the Conservative Party is, in fact state-sponsored monopolistic corporatism, and the Welfare State designed by Beveridge was implemented as a Socialist state monopoly, rather than as a contribution-based insurance safety net as it is in our European neighbours.

  • @Stephen Howse “I’ve long thought that the Protestant proportion in the Republic declining might also have something to do with them ‘marrying out’ and their children subsequently being raised Catholic – is this something that you can say you’ve seen?”

    I’m minded of what Graham Norton has said about feeling different whilst growing up in the Republic of Ireland – that he initially thought it was because he was protestant. 🙂

    Surely it’s a combination of three things:

    – “marrying out” as you suggest
    – differential rates of population growth (contraception, dear boy …)
    – migration to UK or elsewhere (not everywhere was accepting of protestants initially; remember the flight of the Earls).

  • Richard Underhill 28th Apr '20 - 2:59pm

    Michael Meadowcroft 28th Apr ’20 – 11:09am
    ” all it lacks is well prepared and persuasive Liberals to expound it”
    How many times was Russell Johnston elected as an MP since 1964? persuasive?
    How many times was Michael Meadowcroft elected as an MP? persuasive?
    If you’re Liberal you’re international, you can’t be one without the other.
    Litmus test, 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid? Others will want this money. They do now.
    What should any British government (Liberal or not) do about the invasion of Belgium?
    What should any British government, (Liberal or not) do about conscription?

  • Richard Underhill 28th Apr '20 - 3:03pm

    28th Apr ’20 – 11:09am
    Why did we lose the 2016 referendum?
    Was there a lack of enthusiasm?

  • Dusted down my copy of Dangerfield for a quick fact check to detect accuracy and prejudice… (well… we are self-isolating). Here’s a quickie for starters :

    Dangerfield : December, 1910 General Election : “The country went to the polls in small numbers”.

    Fact : Total turnout was 86.6% : the highest percentage turnout of the 20th Century…… admittedly on the smaller franchise qualification….. and the Liberals increased their share of the vote.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Apr '20 - 4:48pm

    Some interesting discussion here. Just to correct Michael Meadowcroft in one thing (something that one rarely gets the chance to do!) – Ian Bradley’s book is “The Strange Rebirth of Liberal BRITAIN”. Unlike Dangerfield he is not an English Supremacist!
    I agree with Ruth Bright that WW1 was a major catalyst in the collapse of the Liberal Party, including as it did the Asquith-Lloyd George split – but a lot more than just that. It might have happened anyway but – at its most simplistic – if a united Liberal Government had managed to win the war, things might have been rather different.

  • @ Tony Greaves So what’s your take on the long term impact of the Union of Democratic Control and the NUWSS, then, Tony ?

  • Dilettante Eye 29th Apr '20 - 8:41am

    Allow me to be controversial.

    For sure, populism is a swear word in these parts, but what if populism is the political default, and more significantly, what if populism has always been the default?

    The precursor to populism is a mood; a groundswell collective public mood which understands what it wants to achieve, which then goes searching for a body of politics which will resolve that mood?

    By example :
    The wartime mood was that ‘we needed to beat Germany from sweeping across Europe and finally invading Britain.’
    Everyone, including the working class of Britain chose a Tory in the form of Winston Churchill, for the task in front of them.
    So Winston Churchill was the populist choice for the mood of war-time.

    Once Germany was defeated, the mood changed. The new mood was ‘we’ve had enough of rations, of dodging bombs, and of sending our children to war, and we now want quality healthcare, quality schooling, quality housing’

    This new postwar mood went in search of a populist home, and Winston Churchill didn’t fit with the new post-war mood. And whilst Liberals ‘shoegazed’, and dithered, Bevan grasped the post-war mood with both hands, and started the roll out of homes, schools and a healthcare system fit for all.
    So Bevan was the populist choice for a post-war mood.

    So, the mood of any particular time and resultant populism are the default driving force, for who gets to form a government, which is the exact reverse of what the Lib Dems constantly try to do.

    Liberals, are constantly trying to ‘fold’ voters into liberalism, whereas as the collective public mood changes, voters are out ‘shopping’ for a body of politics which resolves their populist mood?

    Politicians think they are in control, but it’s an illusion. Populism is ruthless with politicians and it will ‘hire’ politicians for the mood of the time, and ‘fire’ them unceremoniously, when a mood changes and a new politics prove more suitable for the new mood.

    Shout your liberal values from the rooftops as loud as you want, but the mood isn‘t listening, and it never has.

  • Peter Martin 29th Apr '20 - 9:51am

    “Liberal England died a century ago……”

    I don’t think so. Except maybe someone could argue that It depends on where you put the capital letters. But what do they matter?

    A typical pre WW1 Liberal voter would have have been, by today’s standards, highly racist and sexist. Only a minority would have approved of votes for women.

    The abolition of capital punishment, gay rights, same sex marriage, even the right of a royal to marry a divorced person? Not likely! It would be interesting to go back in time to ask the questions, but we can get some idea from speaking to our more elderly relatives.

    We are more liberal than ever. That’s what really matters.

  • @ Peter Martin ” Only a minority would have approved of votes for women.” Not so, Peter. The N.L.F. consistently voted for it and in Asquith’s time a majority of the Cabinet was in favour of it.

    Suggest you get ‘The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. 1897-1914 by Leslie Parker Hume, Garland Publishing, 1982. and Suffragists and Liberals: The Politics of Woman Suffrage in Britain, David Morgan, Basil Blackwell 1979.

    @ Ruth, That’s two more for you, Ruth. Both cheap online with Abebooks.

  • Andrew Tampion 30th Apr '20 - 7:24am

    On votes for women I remember a talk on the Representation of the People Act 1918 at which the Speaker stated that the Liberal’s were opposed to women on the grounds that women were more likely to vote Conservative and pointed out that the Liberal’s have never formed a Government on their own since women were granted the vote.

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Apr '20 - 9:51pm

    I joined the SDP in 1986 and became a Councillor in 87. I definitely backed a losing party but the attraction of the SDP was that it was new and that it married an emphasis on social justice with a strong defence policy, but that’s in the past and should remain there.
    This discussion is interesting to Liberal Historians but it gets us no further in discovering how we can re engage with voters who rely on food banks to stay alive, nor does it give a clue about what the Lib Dems stand for now.
    I think of myself as a Lib Dem now not ex SDP but this living in the past takes up so much intellectual energy that might be better used in proving that there is a point to voting for our party. So much of the time we seem to have to reach back to a past in which there were few cars and even fewer aeroplanes, let alone the technology which is keeping us sane during lock down and return to Liberal political philosophers who did not know what universal suffrage was like. I do it myself, I’m fond of the 1909 budget to support redistributive ideas which I believe are necessary now. 1909 to defend redistribution in an age of food banks and homelessness? It’s ridiculous.
    We have a different approach to politics than either Labour or Tory who both have a them and us approach. We see society as a community, made up of many communities. We want to see policies which benefit the community as a whole, not the few and not even the many. Community politics made us popular with the public at a local level so why on earth didn’t we apply this way of working at a national level? The hostile environments various government departments operate cries out for reform so those who depend on them have a say in how they operate.
    It’s time for all you clever people to get creative rather than analytical and try to influence the future rather than rewrite the past.

  • Pieter-Paul Barker 2nd May '20 - 12:48pm

    quite right Sue

  • Michael Berridge 2nd May '20 - 5:35pm

    @ David Raw
    The December 2010 election was the second that year, made necessary by proposals for electoral reform. Roy Jenkins writes in his biography of Churchill (2001, p.191): “Not unnaturally in the circumstances it was an apathetic contest. One in six of those who had voted in January declined to do so again. Fifty-four seats changed hands. … But these were basically cross-currents in a basically static sea.” The state of the parties was almost unchanged: Lib -3, Con -1, Lab +2, Irish Nats +2. “A third election was clearly out of the question.”

  • John Littler 2nd May '20 - 9:49pm

    Steve Comer has it right:

    Some of the party big wigs denounced our 2005 manifesto as a shopping list, complained that we were positioned to the left of a Labour Government and started to push a more free-market even neo-Thatcherite stance. We managed to do that just as the financial crisis discredited that conventional wisdom! We then blundered into a hasty coalition and our front bench disregarded all those in the party who had experience of dealing with coalitions and minority control at local level.
    It also failed to heed the warnings from those of us who understood the public sector, and indeed represented its workers, that attacking some of our core voters was not sensible politics!

    I’m someone who joined the Liberal Party over four decades ago, yet I’d be hard pressed to articulate what the party is for these days. (Not a problem I ever had pre-2010).


    What is the point of coming up with another Industrial strategy policy that is more purist free market than the Tories, when they own that area of politics as internal party policy trading.

    The LibDems essence needs to be boiled down to something relevant to most people, that they can understand and which has a chance of appearing in a few publications

  • @ Michael Berridge 2010 ? But, thanks for your comment. You are (give or take 100 years) nearly correct, but I’m afraid Roy Jenkins is very much incorrect.

    January, 1910 turnout 86.6% (an all time record).

    December, 1910 turnout 81.2% – Still very high – (compare, 62.9% in 2019).

    Roy Jenkins more than exaggerating to make a point..

    You’re correct in the sense I transposed the two figure, but it undermines Dangerfield. Having said that I’m only eleven months out compared to your 100 years….. but good spot.

  • John Littler 3rd May '20 - 8:39am

    This piece predicates itself on the distant past and then refers to relevance at present. Few above have made reference to where this party needs to go now. Universal Citizens Income was a policy of this party before any other. Now we are trailing others on it.

    The LibDems need to own the future. We need radical change to herald the Green Economy and a policy to manage change and support people as a wave of automation and advanced computing takes not only working class but professional jobs in thousands. It will likely put little or nothing in it’s place which cannot by done by these physical and learning power technologies. This has never happened before as previous revolutions cut working class work, while increasing managerial, clerical and technical work and allowing crafts and personal services to expand, but the country cannot pay it’s bills on massages, tattoos and gardening while much of the money heads off to Silicon Valley.

    People do not know what is coming, but Alvin Toffler predicted all of this in “The Third Wave” in the 1970’s. The next 5-10 years will have the disrupters like tech giants and new arrivals hit the economy and people like a sledge hammer and in political terms, the Tories, Labour, Nationalists and Greens are all probably in a better place to be able to make sense of it. A dose of the free market is not remotely going to cut it.

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