Opinion: A hundred years ago…

Rt. Hon. H.H. Asquith  (LOC)1910 was a momentous year for Liberals in UK government, with a long-desired end to bitter struggles with the Conservatives over House of Lords reform arriving at a  triumphant conclusion. Now a House of Lords of whatever persuasion would no longer be able to resist indefinitely progress for the vast majority of democratically drawn-up Parliamentary bills, and Asquith, Lloyd George & co could take much credit for this. Only four years later, however, the country slipped into a war, the wastage of human life caused by which remains unrivalled in the history of western and of European civilisation. What could have gone wrong?

1910 also marked the beginning of  – and 1914 the near-culmination of – a slide in Liberal fortunes which within a decade of the second date would see a national institution reduced to a crowd of irrelevant backbenchers. Asquith was still leader; did he any longer have any party to follow him?

Does history repeat itself? The centenaries recently of both these eventful years must, from the point of view of Liberal Democrats  in particular, beg such a question.  In 1910 Liberals in Britain were at the top of their form, still being cheered publicly on occasion and still – despite the inconvenience to the electorate of two separate general elections being held in that year – faring well in national plebiscites.  It seemed that Toryism would remain permanently in the backwaters – until the Great War came. Not that it was wrong to fight for a cause widely viewed to be just … perhaps, though, it was the way this was done that seemed to many within the Liberal party itself to be amiss. Shortage of ammunition, shortage of resources and acute paucity of individuals who could take wise decisions  in particular seemed to prevail … then ensued the fatal case of a broken promise – conscription! Asquith had pledged it would never happen but then, egged on by Conservative luminaries who always thought they knew the best way to fight the war, it did. Many Liberals were appalled. To make a pledge like this to the British people – especially younger people – and then to desert it, seemed like treachery.

Fast-forward: 2010, and Liberals (now as Liberal Democrats) are in government again. Taking on this role – this time in a coalition with power-hungry  Conservatives – was felt by only a small minority to be a wrong, bad or necessarily  ill-fated choice. Throwing ourselves headlong into such a battle – with the Labour Opposition it should be emphasised – was hailed as being  in the interests of all. Notwithstanding glimmers of scepticism on the final outcome of such a partnership hovering in the background the number of seats held at both Parliamentary and local level by our party remained buoyant, robust. Between 2010 and 2014 however there has been a sad parallel with those earlier halcyon days described by Roy Jenkins as the “Indian summer of the Liberals”. We have lost much ground. What can be done now, especially at local government level, to redress this?

Whilst it might be deemed inappropriate, even irreverent, to compare 2014 with 1914 it remains a fact that the Liberal party in both those decades (Lib Dems today) staggered into a campaign it understood little and appeared to have grasped even  less, one in which the Opposition was wholly underestimated and one  for which it was wholly unequipped – ideologically and in terms of back-up resource too.  Ironically both campaigns related to battles fought within and against European  misjudgement – although this time we had an enemy within our own walls too!  Of course in 1914 this did not simply  imply hating the Germans even more but it did mean recognising the enemy we were up against.  Could the same maybe be said in retrospect of our 2014 insurgence too?

So how can Liberal Democrats re-emerge in local government with so many council seats lost? It’s not easy to say, but the party now needs – in my view – to hark back to its true strength – localism. Only in the not-too-distant past, with all available resources and membership not vastly greater than they are now, Lib Dem activists from the strictest Whig to the most able Radical door-knocked, surveyed and letter-dropped relentlessly along every street and throughout the greatest number of communities they could on issues that only they – and not elected politicians at the centre,  of whatever colour  – could tackle and resolve.  It was their own pastures’ people they served – not any kind of ideology. Traffic calming, transport, schools, housing, beating-away corruption; once they knew about these things then they generally tried to deal with them in as enlightened a way as possible   Many of us will still recall today each individual breakthrough, too, as it occurred… Central party mandates were not ignored, neither were they significantly changed – it all just got done differently locally, somehow. It was solely perhaps that the best-heard messages, those that really made the difference, were emanating from the level at which the knowledge was – and not from the Palace of Westminster alone.

I feel sure that we Lib Dems can rise to this challenge once again. Our country did indeed win that First World War, despite infinite blunderings in cabinet rooms, as much through the efforts of those who kept ordinary things going – shops, trains, clothing factories, schools – as through any specific political or military decision-making at all. Those at the top did make their mark, however – but can we honestly say that every detail, other than the final victory itself, worked out in just the way any of us would have either wanted or expected it to? As ever it is only qualitative local decision-making that ensures any real difference.

* Neil Hughes is PPC for Penrith & the Border

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9 Comments

  • Asquith for all his faults was a politician of huge talent, with a great intellect. And two of that highly gifted cabinet went on to become winning Prime Ministers in war time (unlike Asquith himself) Lloyd George and Churchill.

    So just one Liberal cabinet of that time produced three of our greatest Prime Ministers.

    With the greatest of respect to Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander the current Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers are political pygmies in comparison. Harsh but fair.

  • Asquith miscalculated in the 1923 post election negotiations after an almost three way deadlocked result, leading to the slaughter of MPs in 1924, (almost 75% went down), something from which the party has never recovered. Let us hope and pray that another similar slaughter of the innocents does not follow next year, although it seems almost inevitable.

  • Tsar Nicholas 26th Aug '14 - 8:44pm

    1910 did not mark the beginning of the slide in Liberal party fortunes.

    The liberals were more than holding their own until at least 1914. It was the war that disrupted the Liberal party.

  • WWI certainly harmed the Liberal Party but surely it was the rise of the Labour Party following the extension of the franchise in 1918 to all adult males and women over 30 and the split between the followers of Asquith and Lloyd George which caused the collapse of the Liberals as a major force. Labour seemed to offer something new and exciting to younger voters – Socialism. Many find the Liberal Democrats hard to define and Miliband is offering an alternative to the realities of our economic problems which is attractive to many people who find their situation hard or are bored with the need for financial discipline. The Greens seem to have attracted middle class idealists but not the mass of the people in the way that Labour did between the world wars and UKIP appeals to the sort of plague on all your houses people who used to vote Liberal as a protest without really understanding what they were voting for and now they know they do not like it.

    Austerity does not seem to affect the majority of the people when coffee bars and such like seem to be packed with those who are happy to spend a lot of money buying something which would cost a few pennies to make at home. There was a similar feeling of boredom among many in 1914 and the War offered excitement and relief from monotony as it does to those who join groups like ISIS or who clamour for intervention in other people’s squabbles. I hope we have learned a lesson from what happened in 1914 and 1939 and the temptation to intervene is sternly resisted.

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Aug '14 - 11:42pm

    It’s too easy now to ignore the fact that the 1910 government, after 2 elections, relied on Irish Nationalist votes, as well as a pact with Labour. It was a coalition on the basis of granting Irish Home Rule, which the Liberal leaders were not universally ecstatic about as a policy but could not disclaim (and would not do so, if it meant votes). So, yes the party’s fortunes were somewhat on the slide, but not irrevocably so. Probably the decision to bring the Tories/Unionists in during the war (which there were few alternatives to) really started the decline. It made the coalition more unwieldy and brought Lloyd George a lot of querulous Tories he could intrigue with.

  • Almost every time the Tories have been part of a coalition government they have devoured their coalition partners, . The one exception has been the Labour Party in Churchill’s wartime ministry of ’40-’45, who went on to soundly defeat the Conservatives in the first post-war election. I leave it to other political historians to suggest what made the election of ’45 different.

  • Something like 70% of the Trades Unions were un and semi-skilled and were only ever going to vote Labour. Many craftsmen and especially the self employed voted Liberal. After 1922 many small employers who had previously been Liberals left for the Tories. Liberals had been the party of choice for craftsmen and those in small and medium businesses but changes in the nature of businesses meant this sort of employment became squeezed post 1922. The war aggregated many small companies into larger ones which favoured Labour/unions and Employers/Tories.

    The rise in self employment and smaller companies at the expense of larger one could favour the LDs in the future.

  • Tsar Nicolas 28th Aug '14 - 11:55am

    @nvelope2003

    There is no evidence that the Liberals were under threat from Labour before the outbreak of the War. The War not only brought about the split in the party over conscription, a bitter divide which fed into the Asquith/Lloyd George antagonism; it also saw a political truce, which hampered the Liberals from carrying on politics in the constituencies, while Labour, through its trade union arm, was not so restricted. I have seen no evidence that the extension of the franchise affect the result too much. many of the first time voters were young men in the forces, and turnout among these was disappointingly low.

    @Matt (Bristol)

    I think it is clear that the reliance on Labour and Irish nationalists after 1910 accelerated the programme for change. The 1910-14 period was more productive than 1906-10, when the Whig element of the party was able to obstruct social legislation. And, of course, by 1911 the House of Lords problem had, to some extent, been dealt with.

  • It was under Asquith that conscription was introduced although the support of Conservative MPs would have made it difficult for the Liberals to prevent it. The problem for the Liberals was that there political principles seemed irrelevant in the crisis caused by the war and although many of those who had always supported them continued to do so not many younger people did so. It is interesting to note that many seats were not contested by the Liberals after the war even in places like the West Country and Labour candidates did well as a result but by 1923 when a reunited Liberal Party put up a full slate of candidates the Liberals regained their former position in rural counties and won 159 seats.

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