Old Heroes for a New Leader: Lib Dem leadership candidates’ historical heroes

As we have in each of the Liberal Democrat leadership elections other than the first one (which took place in 1988, before the History Group had been formed), in June the Liberal Democrat History Group asked the two candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – those that they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. We placed no restrictions on their choices: they could choose anyone they wanted, whether a Liberal or not. 

The article below will be included in the summer issue of the Journal of Liberal History, due out in mid July. See elsewhere on this website for the full range of the History Group’s activities, including our meetings (the next one is coming up on 16 July), our short introduction to Liberal history and our wider range of publications.

Ed Davey – Paddy Ashdown

Liberals are not meant to have heroes, but I can’t help it. I don’t genuflect before grand or celebrity figures, but re-reading speeches or learning of the noble deeds of Liberals can move me the way opera or acts of military valour can have others dabbing a misty eye. 

I love Gladstone for his insistence that: ’the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own’. Or Asquith for, in the midst of unimaginable wartime stress, ignoring press opprobrium to visit German prisoners of war to demand their good treatment. That instinctive determination to defend the vulnerable is what, I believe, makes us Liberals.

Hard choice though this is, my Liberal hero is more recent: Paddy Ashdown, for whom I still grieve. 

As a new member of staff in 1989, what surprised me was how wonderfully Paddy treated youngsters like me. He had a reputation for being brisk – even brusque – but I discovered that was a front. 

I perched, as the party’s chief economics adviser, in what felt like a tiny garret atop the old Whips’ Office. Here I would receive handwritten notes thanking me for a piece of work, and I’ve kept them all. Whether eating, chatting or indeed drinking with junior staff at conference, Paddy was like the dedicated officer with his troops. He inspired loyalty and hard work in equal measure.

Paddy’s stories only added to his mystique and magnetism. A young colleague was startled to find a note on his desk from Paddy one morning: ‘Call me on my car phone at 5.57am.’ It wasn’t so much the earliness as the preciseness of the hour that startled. Another note, upon Paddy assuming the party’s leadership, read simply: ‘Please remove David Steel’s dead animal from my office.’ It was a buffalo skin presented by Chief Buthelezi. 

Sure, Paddy could be a task master, but even then I found him immense fun. Many a Monday morning my phone would bark into life: ‘Edward, come to my office now, please.’ From Paddy’s mouth ‘please’ became a command. Once before him I’d find he’d read some article over the weekend extolling a new economic policy that he wanted to adopt. And I’d spend a good thirty minutes dissuading him of some crazy, ill-thought-through fancy. 

My biggest disagreement with him came after I’d been elected in 1997, when he was determined to cling on to his pre-election plan with Tony Blair for close working relations with Labour – despite that strategy having been devised for a balanced Parliament, not for a Labour majority of 167. Brilliant as he was, he couldn’t persuade Parliamentary colleagues or the wider party that Lib-Labbery worked in this context, for it would have hitched us to policies we disagreed with without influence to change them.

Ironically, during the five days of coalition negotiations in 2010, it was Paddy and me who tried to convince Nick Clegg and co not to rule out coalition with Labour, despite the numbers being difficult to make work. 

It had been Paddy who first drew me to the party. All politicians have their causes, and for me it was the environment and education. Paddy made the green agenda a core strand of our identity when most MPs thought this a peripheral, even cranky, cause. I was hooked, and would like to think that my recently announced plan to decarbonise capitalism is one Paddy would have embraced with vim and verve. 

I’m an economist by training and so appreciated deeply that Paddy was, fundamentally, so economically literate. He took over a party that had been a little corporatist in its thinking but Paddy reconnected the party to its liberal roots, asking what a policy meant for the individual. He emphasised Mill’s idea of the power of education to unlock human potential. Without Paddy I’m not sure we would have had such ground-breaking Lib Dem achievements in government as the pupil premium, a development of his policy of a penny on income tax to improve education.

Finally, though a Liberal to his core, he sought to bring others into the Liberal tent. I took inspiration from Paddy when I called for a national government to deliver a people’s vote. How he made the Liberal Democrats a big enough tent for MPs of other parties to join us should be our inspiration. 

If elected leader, I will build on his legacy; Paddy, I miss you terribly.

Jo Swinson – Anita Roddick

It was through Anita Roddick that I first discovered what it was to be a campaigner. 

The Body Shop in the 1980s was ahead of its time: sourcing their ingredients ethically; promoting recycling; taking on its own industry on issues like body image in advertising. As a girl, I would go to the Body Shop to buy my strawberry or banana-shaped soap and sign the petitions at the till. That was how I discovered a whole range of causes: fair trade, cosmetic testing on animals, or another worthy cause. 

It fuelled my early environmentalism – something that has stayed with me ever since. I even tried to persuade my Dad – a Focus-delivering Lib Dem – to vote Green at the European elections in 1989. He didn’t, as he rightly argued that the Lib Dems were better placed to deliver green policies. One of the best gifts he ever gave me was a signed copy of Anita Roddick’s book, Business as Unusual, which I keep in my parliamentary office to this day. By that time I was 16 or 17, and the book reinforced in me a passion for how business can be a force for good. 

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Anita Roddick before she died in 2007. I have been lucky enough to meet people who knew her and worked with her, and the picture they painted to me was of a remarkable woman. She was a different kind of businessperson running a different kind of business. At a time when modern business was being defined by the Big Bang and the ‘greed is good’ culture of the Thatcher years, she defined an approach that declared that there was more to running a company than simply generating profits for shareholders. Her company was profitable, but it was also about social justice, about making the world a better place one recycled plastic bottle or hemp bag at a time.

In many ways, her approach had more in common with the socially conscious capitalists of the Victorian era – social reformers like Robert Owen and the pioneers of the Co-op movement, or the Quaker-run businesses, like Cadbury, who built homes for their workers. They may have taken a more paternalistic approach but they shared an understanding of capitalism as an agent for social justice.

And it wasn’t just her business philosophy that stood out like a sore thumb in the 1980s, it was who she was and how she conducted herself. She said what she thought; she dressed the way she wanted; she stood up for things she believed in. She was a determined, uncompromising, outspoken woman in an era of testosterone-fuelled alpha-male machismo – a great role model for an ambitious young woman like me. 

Her example has stayed with me throughout my life and has undoubtedly shaped many of my views on policy, both explicitly and implicitly. Not only have I remained an avid environmentalist, but her vision of responsible business has shaped my thinking on business and the economy too. As an MP and a minister I have championed many of the causes I first discovered through the Body Shop – from excess plastic packaging to taking on unrealistic body image depictions in advertising. And it’s why I have put creating an economy that puts people and planet first at the heart of my leadership campaign. I want to reward dynamic, innovative companies that focus on the long-term challenges our society faces – such as the climate emergency, health inequality and the challenges of an ageing population – and that empower individuals and prize the productivity that comes when workers are treated as human beings and not numbers on a spreadsheet. 

But as important as policies and political philosophy are, Anita Roddick also ingrained in me something more practical. She was, first and foremost, a doer. She was an activist who used her career and her business as a platform to make change happen. Her example taught me that it is not enough to simply believe things, or to criticise things, but to get out there and do things to make the world better. 

That spirit will be familiar to Liberal Democrats. We are a party of doers. We pound pavements in the rain. We campaign relentlessly for causes we believe in. We put in the hard work all year round because we are determined to make a difference. If I am fortunate enough to become Leader of the Liberal Democrats, above all else it is in that spirit that I want to lead.

Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats – New! Ebook and audio versions now available

350 years of party history in 32 pages

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s booklet, Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats, is the essential introduction to Liberal history. Now available in print, Kindle and audio versions.

Starting with the earliest stirrings of Liberal thought during the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the booklet takes the reader through the emergence of the Whigs; the growth of radical thought; the coming together of Whigs, radicals and free-trade Peelites in 1859 to form the Liberal Party; the ascendancy of the Victorian Liberals under Gladstone; the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George and the party’s landslide election victory in 1906; dissension during the First World War and the party’s eclipse by Labour afterwards; the long decades of decline until nadir in the 1950s; successive waves of Liberal revival under Grimond, Thorpe and Steel; the alliance with the SDP and merger in 1988; and the roller-coaster ride of the Liberal Democrats, from near-obliteration in 1989 to entry into government in 2010 to electoral disaster in 2015 and the road to recovery thereafter. Up to date as of summer 2017.

Print version. Full price £3; 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers; see page 3 of the most recent issue of the Journal for the discount code to apply when ordering this item. To order, click here.

The booklet makes an ideal gift from local parties to their new party members; we can offer a 50 per cent discount for bulk orders of 40 or more copies. To order, click here.

Kindle version. Price £3. Order direct from Amazon. This version up to date as of summer 2018.

Audio version. Order direct from Amazon or Audible or Audiobooks or Apple Books. This version up to date as of summer 2018.

Liberal Democrat History Group AGM, 28 January 2019

The Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group will take place at 6.30pm on Monday 28 January 2019, in the Lady Violet Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London, SW1A 2HE.

The agenda, minutes of the 2018 meeting and chair’s report for the year 2018 are attached here. Print copies will be included with the mailing of the winter 2018–19 issue of the Journal of Liberal History, which will arrive during the week beginning 21 January.

Paddy Ashdown 1941–2018

Paddy Ashdown, Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, passed away on 22 December 2018. As a tribute to his memory, we reprint here in full the chapter on his time as leader from our 2015 book, British Liberal Leaders. We hope this may help to explain to those readers who did not know him why he is remembered with such respect and affection. Rest in peace, Paddy.


British Liberal Leaders (2015): Chapter on Paddy Ashdown by Duncan Brack

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999, ranks as one of the most effective and successful Liberal leaders since the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s. Although the Liberal Democrats won more seats under Charles Kennedy and entered government under Nick Clegg, Ashdown inherited the party in much worse shape than Kennedy and left it in better shape than he found it, unlike Clegg. He created, out of the wreckage of the Liberal–SDP Alliance, a professional, modernised and effective political force. He took it through the wrangles over its name and collapsing support in the opinion polls to a new respectability, stunning local election and by-election victories and a higher number of Commons seats than at any time since 1929. And yet, his grand strategy of working together with the Labour Party, based on a common progressive agenda, to change the face of British politics forever – ‘the project’ – ultimately ended in failure.

  • Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (b. 27 February 1941), born in India to a family of soldiers and colonial administrators.
  • Grew up in Northern Ireland (hence his schoolboy nickname ‘Paddy’); educated at Bedford School.
  • Served in the Royal Marines (including Special Boat Section), 1959–72; diplomat and spy, 1972–76.
  • Married Jane Courtenay in 1962; one son, one daughter.
  • Fought Yeovil in 1979; elected in 1983, held seat until stood down in 2001.
  • Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina 2002–06.
  • Awarded KBE 2000, GCMG 2006, CH 2015.
  • Ennobled as Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, 2001.
  • Chair of Liberal Democrat 2015 election campaign.

Ashdown came into the Liberal Party as an outsider, with no long record of political activism. Nevertheless, his upbringing and early experiences clearly helped to generate strong political views. His father, ex-Indian Army, argumentative, politically radical and never afraid to hold a minority opinion, was a key figure, and his upbringing in Northern Ireland left him with a dislike of sectarianism (reinforced by a period of soldiering in the province in 1970–71). His years at boarding school in Bedford gave him self-confidence and self-discipline, together with an enquiring mind and a drive to learn and to compete; also self-sufficiency and a dislike of clubbishness. His years in the army, and the social structure behind its officer class, reinforced his progressive beliefs.

Initially a Labour supporter, Ashdown lost his sympathies for the party at the time of Barbara Castle’s abortive attempt to reform industrial relations law in the late 1960s and Britain’s drift towards industrial conflict under the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He only joined the Liberal Party by a lucky chance. In January 1974, while digging in the garden of his cottage in Yeovil, he was interrupted by a Liberal canvasser, who ‘wore an orange anorak, looked rather unprepossessing and had a squeaky voice to match’.[1] Despite Ashdown’s scepticism, he invited him in, and ‘two hours later, having discussed liberalism at length in our front room, I discovered that this was what I had really always been. That Liberalism was an old coat that had been hanging in my cupboard, overlooked all these years, just waiting to be taken down and put on.’[2]

Two years later he gave up his diplomatic career and set about contesting the apparently hopeless constituency of Yeovil – a decision he described as ‘naive to the point of irresponsibility. It just happens also to be the best decision I have made in my life.’[3] Displaying characteristic energy and drive, he built up his local electoral base, recruiting a formidable team of campaigners and applying the community politics approach promoted by the Association of Liberal Councillors. In 1979, he achieved his immediate objective of taking second place from Labour, and the party also won all the council seats it contested the same day. Although his plan had been to win the seat at the third election, he actually succeeded at the second attempt, in 1983.

His campaigning background helped him to build a reputation among the grassroots of the party and he proved an effective spokesman, first on trade and industry and then on education, during the 1983–87 parliament. He once observed that he never felt happy in the chamber of the House of Commons unless both the other two parties were attacking him. Having largely stayed clear of the bitter arguments over merger in the winter of 1987–88, he stood for the leadership of the new Social & Liberal Democrats (SLD). He based his appeal on the need to rethink the party’s approach, with the underlying theme that choice and individual freedoms were the entitlement of every citizen, but that with that came rights and responsibilities. Specific areas for new thinking included looking at the social security system, putting green politics at the top of the agenda, and using the market wherever possible to promote prosperity. On 28 July 1988, after a highly professional campaign in which he always seemed ahead, Ashdown was elected leader over Alan Beith, with over 70 per cent of the vote.

The characteristics he displayed during his early political career were to become ever more clear in his leadership. First, his self-belief and love of a challenge, perhaps fuelled by not thinking about it too clearly ahead of time – exemplified by deciding to fight Yeovil in the first place; as he put it later, quoting David Penhaligon, he won because ‘he was too naive to know it was impossible’.[4] Second, his penchant for plans – as in his three-election strategy for the constituency. Third, his political courage, including a number of instances where he took principled positions which were unpopular locally; although this caused some difficulty, they did not appear to damage his prospects in the long term, and he concluded that in general voters preferred MPs to do what they believed to be right, and respected them for it, even while disagreeing with them. He was to follow this instinct later, in supporting the Conservative government over the Maastricht Treaty of European Union. Finally, his evident love for the party and respect for its activists – which is not a universal characteristic of leaders.

It was clear even before his election to Parliament that he was a naturally gifted speaker; his first-ever speech to the Liberal assembly, in 1981, successfully opposing the deployment of US cruise missiles in the UK, won him a standing ovation. As leader he worked hard on his delivery and style, receiving assistance from, among others, Max Atkinson, author of the classic study of political speech-making, Our Masters’ Voices.[5] Although his conference speeches could occasionally suffer from being over-rehearsed, at his best he was a powerful and inspiring speaker, with a compelling voice and distinctive turn of phrase. He was probably even better at talks with small groups of party members or ordinary citizens, taking his jacket off and turning his chair round in an easy, familiar way. He dealt effectively with the media and although at times could sound sanctimonious (something of an occupational hazard for politicians from third parties, used to criticising both government and opposition), he came over well to the public, and frequently featured in opinion polls as the most popular party leader.

His career as leader of the Liberal Democrats can be divided into three phases, following the plan he himself had mapped out on becoming leader: ‘The first was survival from a point of near extinction; the second was to build a political force with the strength, policy and positions to matter again in British politics; and the third was to get on to the field and play in what I believed would become a very fluid period of politics.’[6] Strategic planning of this sort was absolutely typical of Ashdown, one of the characteristics almost everyone who worked with him remembered – he always had a plan, and a position paper, and when he achieved one objective he was often already looking ahead to the next. Other personal qualities included an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy, helped by his obvious physical fitness, and hyperactivity. He thought – and worried – about everything, ringing up party spokesmen, for example, to get them to respond to an obscure proposal in a local party’s conference resolution. He was fascinated by ideas, and published a series of books and pamphlets, including Citizen’s Britain in 1989, and Beyond Westminster in 1994;[7] his conference speeches often challenged party orthodoxies, particularly in the early years.

Ashdown needed all these qualities in his first phase (1988–92), that of survival. The party he inherited was demoralised, shedding members and almost bankrupt after the long-drawn-out process of merger; on the day he was elected leader, the Inland Revenue sent officials into party HQ to seize assets in lieu of unpaid national insurance contributions. Furthermore, the SLD faced challenges to its role as Britain’s third party, initially from the ‘continuing SDP’, those followers of David Owen who had refused to join the merged party, whose high-water mark was beating the SLD, in February 1989, into third place in the Richmond by-election. Four months later the SLD ended up in a humiliating fourth place in the European parliamentary elections, scoring just 6.2 per cent and falling well behind the Green Party. It sank even further in the opinion polls thereafter and had to sack more than half its staff in response to the membership and financial crisis. As Ashdown put it, he was ‘plagued by the nightmare that the party that started with Gladstone will end with Ashdown’.[8]

The financial and electoral crises of summer 1989 were bad enough, but they helped to bring to a head the third challenge faced by the party: confusion over its identity. Was the new party to be Liberal, Social Democratic or something else entirely? In practice, the argument was conducted over what the party was to be called. The decision, which Ashdown backed at his first party conference, to opt for the new name of ‘Democrats’ to replace the clumsy merger compromise of ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’, proved disastrous, undermining the sense of identity and self-image that party members need, particularly in difficult times. ‘Being a relative outsider compared to the older MPs,’ as he put it later: ‘I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies and a chromium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul – especially a very old party like the Liberals … I had nearly wrecked the party by becoming too attached to my own vision and ignoring the fact that political parties are, at root, human organisations and not machines.’[9]

An all-member ballot in the autumn chose ‘Liberal Democrats’ by a clear majority. In retrospect this marked the beginnings of recovery. Party finances and membership both stabilised, and the local strength and campaigning tenacity of the core of activists who stayed true to the party ensured that it saw off the other competitors for the centre-left ground; the Greens had clearly faded by early 1990 and after humiliating by-election results the Owenites wound themselves up in May 1990. The shock Liberal Democrat by-election victory of Eastbourne, in October 1990, underlined the fact that the party had survived – and also helped signal the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The party won two further by-elections in 1991 (the victory in Ribble Valley heralding the end of the hated poll tax) and achieved 22 per cent in that year’s local elections. Further local election and by-election gains, some with record swings, were to follow in the 1992–97 parliament, and in 1994 the party won its first ever seats in the European Parliament.

The fact that the party survived at all was very much due to Ashdown; it seems unlikely that had his leadership opponent Alan Beith been elected, he would have displayed the energy, drive and charisma the party needed. Ashdown also succeeded in finding positions for his party which were principled and distinctive, the constant quest for third-party leaders; as Ashdown himself said, ‘I would sell my grandmother for some distinctiveness for the party’.[10] The first of these was his championing, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, of the right of Hong Kong citizens to be given British passports in advance of the colony’s incorporation into China. Later on it included support for the Maastricht Treaty of European Union in Parliament, which included voting with John Major’s government after it lost its majority following internal rebellions, and pressing for western action on Bosnia and Kosovo; his repeated visits to the Balkan war zones helped to build public support in Britain for the NATO-led action that ended the Serbian attempt to destroy the Bosnian state.

Ashdown’s interest in policy ideas led him to take the chairmanship of the party’s Federal Policy Committee and to use it to establish a series of key policy positions, including a more market-oriented economic policy than the Liberal–SDP Alliance had possessed (including the proposal for independence for the Bank of England, later implemented by Labour), a strong environmental platform and a pledge to invest in public services, including, most memorably, a penny on income tax for education. By 1993, the party was coming top in opinion polls asking which party was the best on environmental issues; it also scored relatively well on education. Both the election manifestos produced under Ashdown’s leadership were well regarded by the media. ‘The Liberal Democrat essay far outdistances its competitors with a fizz of ideas and an absence of fudge,’ stated The Guardian in 1992.[11] In 1997, The Independent called the party’s manifesto the most challenging of the three, saying that politics without the Liberal Democrats would be ‘intolerable’; Peter Riddell in The Times enjoyed its ‘refreshing candour’ and admired Ashdown’s willingness to leap where Tony Blair feared to tread.[12] Ashdown was able to stamp his ideas firmly on the party largely because of the respect and admiration he came to enjoy among its members; as The Economist commented in 1991, ‘Ordinary party members will take things from him for which they would have lynched David Owen.’[13]

This all meant that in the 1992 election the party was able to run an effective campaign with an attractive policy platform. The build-up to the election was nearly thrown off course, however, by the revelation of a brief affair between Ashdown and his former secretary five years earlier. The support of his wife Jane, his own willingness to face a Westminster press conference and some deft public relations saw him through this painful experience, though it cast a shadow over the campaign. Overall, however, the 1992 election was a personal success for Ashdown, establishing him as a significant voice in British politics. He was consistently described in opinion polls as the most popular party leader, and the party’s policies, especially its pledge to raise income tax to spend more on education, were widely praised. The result – 17.8 per cent of the vote and twenty seats – proved that the Liberal Democrats were not going to disappear, as had seemed possible in 1989.

The second phase of the Ashdown leadership, from 1992 to 1997, centred around his attempts at realignment of the left, a common theme of previous Liberal leaders and an objective of Ashdown’s since the very early days of his leadership. Although there had been some contacts with Labour politicians and sympathisers before 1992, it was Labour’s fourth successive election defeat that provided the main opportunity for action. Exactly a month after the election, Ashdown delivered the ‘Chard speech’, given to an audience of only forty or fifty in a small town in his constituency, arguing that the party needed to ‘work with others to assemble the ideas around which a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives can be constructed’.[14] Although the speech was deeply unpopular within the parliamentary party (one hostile MP took to referring to it as a ‘burnt offering’), it was to prove the opening scene of more than five years of delicate negotiations with Labour, particularly after Tony Blair took over as leader in 1994. In due course Ashdown and Blair reached an agreement to focus their attacks on the Conservatives rather than each other. This included a formal abandonment of ‘equidistance’ by the Liberal Democrat conference in 1995, a decision reached after extensive consultation within the party by Ashdown; but since Liberal Democrat policy positions were generally much closer to Labour’s than to the Tories, and since the Conservative government was deeply unpopular by 1995, this seemed mainly simple common sense. In fact, cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats extended further than most realised at the time. In the run-up to the 1997 election the two parties agreed a (secret) list of Tory seats in which one party had little chance of winning and would therefore not invest resources, so as to give the other a clear run. Also as a result of joint discussions, during the election the Daily Mirror published a list of twenty-two seats where, if Labour voters backed the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would be defeated; in the event the party won twenty of them.

Blair and Ashdown also agreed to collaborate on policy areas where they hoped to work together. The key outcome was a series of talks on constitutional reform led by Robin Cook, for Labour, and Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats. In March 1997 the group reached agreement on a package of proposals including incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, freedom of information legislation, devolution to Scotland and Wales (and elections by proportional representation to their parliaments), an elected authority for London, removal of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, proportional representation for the European elections, and a referendum on voting reform for Westminster elections. Most of this had been Liberal Democrat policy for years (or was a watered-down version of it), but much was new for Labour.

The Cook–Maclennan process was public, and in general was cautiously welcomed by Liberal Democrats. What was discussed in secret, however – and which would have alarmed many party members – was something much more dramatic, what Ashdown called ‘the big thing’: an agreement to fight the election on a common platform on at least two or three major issues. ‘If, as it appears,’ Ashdown confided to his diary in April 1996, ‘I have more in common with Blair than he has with his left wing, surely the logical thing is for us to create a new, more powerful alternative force which would be unified around a broadly liberal agenda.’[15] Ashdown went so far as to draft successive versions of a ‘Partnership for Britain’s Future’, covering constitutional reform, cleaning up politics (after several examples of corruption and dishonest conduct among MPs), the reform of welfare systems and economic policy reform, including investing in education, awarding independence to the Bank of England, and adherence to the criteria for entry into the single European currency. From July 1996, Blair and Ashdown started to talk about Liberal Democrat participation in a Labour government; Peter Mandelson later claimed that this would have involved including two Liberal Democrat MPs, Alan Beith and Menzies Campbell, in Blair’s first Cabinet.[16] Blair even sprang on a surprised Ashdown the idea of merger between the parties; Ashdown responded by saying ‘that may be a long-term destination … that may happen, say, ten years from now, probably under someone else’s leadership’.[17]

In the end, the ‘big thing’ was too big a step. What worried Ashdown and his colleagues was Blair’s refusal to commit firmly to the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections – the absolute bottom line for the Liberal Democrats, who could not be expected to tie themselves to a much bigger partner without being able to survive its eventual fall. Ashdown’s diaries record in painstaking detail a long series of meetings in which Blair was first educated about what PR meant and the different systems through which it could be introduced, and then prevaricated, hinting at his own possible conversion to it but stressing the opposition he would face in the Parliamentary Labour Party. By January 1997, the very small number of Liberal Democrat colleagues who were kept in the loop by Ashdown were unanimously urging him to drop the project, but he persevered, despite his advisor Richard Holme’s warning that: ‘You must not get carried away with the film script you have written in your head – two strong people standing up and shaping history.’[18]

As late as election day in May 1997, Blair and Ashdown were still talking about whether they could entertain any form of cooperation; Blair declared that he was ‘absolutely determined to mend the schism that occurred in the progressive forces in British politics at the start of this century’.[19] By the next day, however, Blair had changed his tone, talking merely of a ‘framework for cooperation’. Robin Cook later confirmed that Gordon Brown (Labour’s shadow Chancellor) and John Prescott (its deputy leader) had both made clear to Blair overnight their virulent opposition to any role for Ashdown or his colleagues in government. In any case, the size of Labour’s majority destroyed any argument for it.

The second phase of Ashdown’s leadership, like his first, must be accounted a success. He successfully rode the rising tide of support for centre-left sentiment and the rejection of the Conservative government that not only swept Labour into power in 1997 but delivered the highest number of seats for a third party for seventy years. Under a less skilled leader, the Liberal Democrats could easily have been squeezed out by Blair’s New Labour. Indeed, Ashdown feared this at the time, referring to the months after Blair’s election as Labour leader as the most difficult period of his own leadership; the party’s standing in the opinion polls sank from 25 per cent in 1993 to 12 per cent in 1996. It might have fallen further had the party not benefited from the defection of two Conservative MPs in 1996–97, helping to thrust it back into the limelight and suggesting that some at least of the departing Tory vote might prefer the Liberal Democrats to Labour. The abandonment of equidistance can thus be seen as an – ultimately successful – attempt to become part of the movement for change rather than being swept aside by it, and the party was able to benefit from the high level of anti-Tory tactical voting in the 1997 election, winning forty-six seats on a slightly lower share of the vote (16.8 per cent) than in 1992. Without this cooperation between the voters of both parties – and, to a certain extent, between the party organisations themselves – the Conservative defeat would probably not have been so overwhelming. The election campaign itself, focused tightly around the need to improve public services, was a success, and seen as a credit to Ashdown personally; it added five points to the party’s standing. And ‘the project’ with Labour had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997: probably Labour would have brought in Scottish devolution without any prompting from the Liberal Democrats, but their attachment to Welsh devolution and to proportional representation for the European elections was much weaker and may not have borne fruit in the absence of the Cook–Maclennan agreement.

In contrast, the third phase of the Ashdown leadership, 1997–99, was a failure, as the leader and his party increasingly came to differ over its future direction. Ashdown was determined to adopt a stance of ‘constructive opposition’ – opposing the new government where the Liberal Democrats disagreed with them, but working with Labour where they agreed, especially over constitutional reform. In place of a coalition, a Joint Cabinet Committee was established between the two parties to discuss issues where there was already agreement in principle, such as devolution or first-stage reform of the House of Lords. The announcement of the Committee came as a shock to the party, most of whom were not aware of the close relationship Blair and Ashdown had built up over the preceding three years. Ashdown freely admits that he bounced his party into accepting it – ‘I am absolutely convinced that we would never have got the party into the Joint Cabinet Committee … if I had gone through a consensual process’[20] – but this was a calculated part of his strategy. As he put it later:‘I quite deliberately went round building up my popularity in the party, both by delivering results and also by being very consensual, conscious of the fact that when I started to play on the field in Stage 3, I was really going to have to [use up this political capital and] … make myself unpopular with the party.’[21]

Being friendly to Labour was not too difficult to accept when both parties were in opposition; but maintaining this closeness when Labour was in government increasingly seemed less sensible to a growing portion of the party membership. Not only did this risk the Liberal Democrats being tarred with government unpopularity, when it came, but it seemed to achieve less and less in policy outcomes. The two big unfulfilled promises of Cook–Maclennan were reform of the House of Lords, where Blair showed no likelihood of accepting the principle of an elected chamber, and proportional representation for Westminster elections. Ashdown, increasingly frustrated with Blair’s prevarication, suggested a deal by which Liberal Democrats would agree to a coalition with Labour on the basis of an agreed policy programme, including PR. But Blair would never commit firmly, and the greater the delay in forming a coalition, the less possible it became, as the government steadily became less palatable to Liberal Democrat sensibilities. The government’s centralising approach to politics, its determination to stick to the Tories’ previous spending plans, thus putting public services under pressure, and the lack of any announcements on PR or British entry into the European single currency were not what the Liberal Democrats had fought the election for.

In December, the government finally announced the establishment of an independent commission on voting reform, to be chaired by Roy Jenkins. In practice this further weakened Ashdown’s chances of getting a coalition through his own party; if the government was doing what Liberal Democrats wanted on constitutional reform anyway, why tie the party in to the rest of its agenda, with an increasing proportion of which it disagreed? It was against this background that the Liberal Democrat conference in March 1998 agreed the ‘triple lock’ procedure for agreeing to ‘any substantial proposal which could affect the party’s independence of political action’. The support of the parliamentary party and federal executive would be needed for any such proposal; failing a three-quarters majority in each body, a special conference would be held; and failing a two-thirds majority there, an all-member ballot would need to be organised. The system was deliberately designed to tie Ashdown’s hands, though in fact it was not to be put to the test until 2010.

Throughout the summer of 1998 Ashdown attempted to nail Blair down to a commitment to a PR referendum, and other aspects of the Cook–Maclennan agreement. But despite a long series of meetings Blair seemed ever less likely to reach a final decision. Richard Holme described the process as like ‘being condemned to attend endless repeats of Hamlet’; Ashdown noted in his diary that ‘waiting for Blair is like waiting for Godot’.[22] In September Blair agreed with Ashdown to hold a referendum on PR before the next election, but six weeks later changed his mind yet again, feeling that he could not overcome opposition in the Cabinet and did not want to risk splitting the government. When, on 29 October, the Jenkins Report was published, advocating an additional member system of PR, Blair’s response was entirely neutral, with no commitment to a referendum; later that day Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, rubbished it publicly, and did so again in a Commons debate on the report the following week.

Ashdown was forced to conclude that ‘the project’ had failed and that his time as leader should end. (He had already decided, before the 1997 election, that he would stand down at some point in the next parliament.) He made one final, and predictably futile, attempt to extract a promise from Blair to state publicly that he would hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals, and in November he and Blair announced the extension of the remit of the Joint Cabinet Committee, following a review of its work and effectiveness; the remit was eventually extended to cover a number of specific European policy issues. The move roused predictable opposition within the Liberal Democrats, but Ashdown won support for it from the parliamentary party and, narrowly, from the party’s committees. After this had been agreed, he announced, on 20 January 1999, his own intention to step down as leader.

Ashdown’s resignation was to take effect in August, with the leadership election due to take place after the European elections in June. He therefore had the satisfaction of seeing the party do well in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in May, forming a coalition with Labour in Scotland; the party also performed well in the local elections held on the same day. A month later the introduction of PR helped the party increase its representation in the European Parliament from two to ten MEPs, the largest national contingent in the European Liberal group. When the leadership election concluded with Charles Kennedy’s victory on 11 August, Ashdown recorded in his diary: ‘I left the celebrations quietly and walked back to the House feeling just a tinge of sadness that I am no longer a leader of one of the great British political parties. But this was more than offset by the feeling of having cast off a very heavy burden … I felt very contented.’[23]

Why did the third phase of Ashdown’s leadership end in failure? He himself later blamed Blair’s overriding objective in his first term, which was to get elected for a second, rather than achieve anything as fundamental as reforming the political system; Blair’s overestimation of his ability to charm away opposition in his own party; and his underestimation of the strength of that opposition to any deal with the Liberal Democrats.[24] Ashdown felt that that was due in part to the fact that Blair was an outsider in Labour politics, not someone who had grown up in the tribal traditions of the party – a characteristic that Ashdown shared in relation to the Liberal Democrats, and which arguably led him to make the same error, to underestimate the strength of his own party’s opposition to a deal with Labour. Ashdown believed that Blair was serious about the attempt to reach a deal, but: ‘although I think he spoke the truth when he said that partnership with the Lib Dems was the big thing he wanted to do to reshape British politics, it never was the next thing he wanted to do. Hence the delays, which in the end killed us.’[25]

The result of the last phase of Ashdown’s leadership, as Tony Greaves has observed, was that: ‘Liberal Democrats loved their leader but, in so far as they sensed his strategy, most wanted none of it. The “what if?” question must be how much more could have been achieved if all that time at the top and personal energy had been spent on something other than “the project”.’[26] But was there a realistic alternative? Like Grimond and Steel before him, Ashdown was driven inexorably by the logic of the realignment/cooperation strategy. However well the Liberal Democrats performed in elections – and Ashdown hardly neglected that aspect of party strategy – it never seemed remotely feasible that the party would leap straight to majority government from third position, or even replace one of the two bigger parties as the main opposition. Sooner or later the party would hold the balance of power, and in the political circumstances of the 1990s, it was inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats could have reached an arrangement with anyone other than the Labour Party. Indeed, Ashdown was not particularly aiming for a hung parliament, in which, he thought, any attempt to bring in PR would be seen as weakness on the part of the bigger coalition partner; he wanted to introduce it from a position of strength, with both parties of the left genuinely behind it. His problem was that most of the Labour Party was never committed to PR at all, and saw no point in making any concessions to Ashdown’s party once they commanded a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. But Ashdown was always going to try; he possessed neither the temperament nor the patience to sit quietly on the sidelines, snatching what chances he could to advance incrementally.

No comprehensive and objective assessment of the ‘project’ with Labour has yet been carried out. It is not clear what, if anything, the JCC ever achieved, but it can certainly be argued that the Cook–Maclennan agreement had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997. Thus, Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats contributed to permanent and profound changes in the way in which Britain is governed. And in the final analysis, if Ashdown had delivered on proportional representation, the third phase of his leadership would have been seen as a triumphant success. It was a calculated strategy, but in that respect it failed.

Ashdown stood down from the Commons at the 2001 election. From 2002 to 2006 he occupied the post of high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina, reflecting his long-term advocacy of international intervention in the region. Back in British politics, he supported Nick Clegg for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2007, and played a full part in the 2010 general election campaign. With some reluctance, he supported the decision to join the coalition government with the Conservatives. In 2012 he was appointed chair of the Liberal Democrats’ general election campaign for the 2015 election. The characteristic energy and drive with which he took on the task could not save the party, however, from electoral catastrophe; probably, the party’s fate was effectively sealed after the first year of its coalition with the Conservatives.

Paddy Ashdown is held in enormous affection in the party he once led. His leader’s speeches to party conference – visionary, challenging, displaying a fascination with new ideas – have seldom been bettered, and he was just as at ease with small groups of activists. He coped well with the media and in general was an excellent party manager. He retained his energy, drive and enthusiasm, and his belief in the party and what it stood for, in the most trying circumstances. And above all, having rescued his party from near-collapse, he built it into an effective political force and did something with it. He left it with a distinctive and rigorous policy programme and, through the Cook–Maclennan constitutional reforms, he changed for good the structure of government within the UK. And whatever his disagreements with members over policy and strategy, he obviously always genuinely loved his party – which is rare among party leaders. And – which is even rarer – most of the time, they loved him too.

Duncan Brack is the editor of the Journal of Liberal History, and has co-edited and contributed to all the Liberal Democrat History Group’s previous books. He has been director of policy for the Liberal Democrats, chair of the party’s conference committee, and special advisor to Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He is currently vice-chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee.


1 Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown, London, Aurum Press, 2009, p. 156.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 162.

4 Ibid., p. 166.

5 Max Atkinson, Our Masters’ Voices: The language and body language of politics, London, Methuen, 1984.

6 Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries: Volume Two, 1997–1999, Harmondsworth, Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 2001, p. 494.

7 Paddy Ashdown, Citizen’s Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s, London, Fourth Estate, 1989, and Paddy Ashdown, Beyond Westminster: Finding Hope in Britain, London, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

8 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 50 (entry for 15 June 1988).

9 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, p. 246.

10 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, p. 495.

11 The Guardian, 19 March 1992.

12 David Butler and Denis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1997, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997, p. 178.

13 ‘Paddy’s people’, The Economist, 14 September 1991.

14 Paddy Ashdown, ‘A broader movement dedicated to winning the battle of ideas’, 9 May 1992, in Brack and Little, op. cit., p. 427.

15 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 419.

16 Peter Mandelson, The Third Man, London, Harper Press, 2011, p. 256.

17 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 452.

18 Ibid., p. 449.

19 Ibid., p. 555.

20 Interview with Paddy Ashdown, Journal of Liberal History, Vol. 30, spring 2001, p. 13.

21 Ibid.

22 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, pp. 254–5.

23 Ibid., pp. 489–90.

24 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, pp. 323–5.

25 Ibid.

26 Journal of Liberal History 30 (spring 2001), p. 28.

Meeting report: The 1918 Coupon Election and its consequences

Evening meeting, 2 July 2018, with Alistair Cooke and Kenneth O. Morgan; chair: Claire Tyler

Report by David Cloke

Baroness Tyler opened the meeting by noting ironically that the period featured two ingredients that attendees had come to know and love: snap elections and Liberal–Conservative coalitions. Indeed, the parallels with and significance for our own time were features throughout the meeting. The evening’s two speakers, Alistair Cooke (Lord Lexden) and Kenneth O. Morgan (Lord Morgan), whilst providing different perspectives on
the election both broadly divided their remarks into four main areas: the run- up to and context of the election; the election itself and its significance; the immediate consequences of the election in terms of the government that was formed; and lastly the longer-term consequences for British politics.

The immediate political backdrop to the election was the Representation of the People Act 1918, the Speaker’s Conference of 1916 that preceded it and the putsch against Asquith in December 1916 as a result of which Lloyd George emerged as prime minister but without a party. The Fourth Reform Act,
as Lexden described it, was larger in its sweep than any of its nineteenth-century predecessors, extending the franchise further than all the other Acts put together. The Act extended the vote
to all men over 21 regardless of wealth, class or housing tenure (matters over which reformers and their opponents had long haggled) and to most women over 30. The electorate numbered 21.4 million compared with 7.7 million in 1910. It was also noted in response to a question that the extent of the reform seemed to shut down any talk of further changes to the electoral system, such as the use of the Alternative Vote.

Morgan noted that the Lloyd George coalition had an ‘unreal nature’, dependent as he was on the votes of Unionist MPs. He needed
to ensure a future for himself and
his party. Morgan noted that Lloyd George recognised that the old party system was changing with the issues of disestablishment, land reform and even free trade diminishing in significance. He expected a fight between himself and Henderson, the Labour leader. Lexden reported that the Unionists had turned from the vacillating Asquith to the dynamic Lloyd George ‘with intense satisfaction’. Whilst they did not share Lloyd George’s deep distrust of Haig’s conduct of the war in Flanders, and accepted high casualty figures with a shocking equanimity, they admired Lloyd George’s vigour and virtuosity as a strategist.

Lexden spoke at some length on the reasons for the Unionists continuing to work with Lloyd George, noting that they had both low and high motives. Among the latter was patriotism, which, Lexden noted, Unionists like to claim as their special characteristic. After 1915 that meant positive enthusiasm for working with other parties to win the war and ensure that Britain remained a great power. With the latter in mind, Unionists were conscious of the spectacular victories in Mesopotamia and Palestine since 1916. Under the Lloyd George coalition the map had turned redder than ever before.

Nonetheless, Unionists recognised that the nation was deeply troubled, with acute industrial unrest and scenes of violence in Clydeside, Sheffield and elsewhere. This made it seem necessary to keep Lloyd George, and what was believed to be his special rapport with the working classes, at the helm in order to prevent a socialist revolution. The success of Labour in the 1918 election in obtaining a quarter of the vote whilst standing on an avowedly socialist programme bolstered this position.

Base party considerations also pointed in the same direction. Nothing was so obviously in the Unionist interest than a divided Liberal Party, and the deeper the division the better. There was ‘no surer way of Unionist ascendancy in British politics than through a broken Liberal Party.’ In Unionist minds, Lloyd George was a second Joe Chamberlain, a man who had been firmly captured by them. It was, nonetheless, an alliance sealed by great mutual admiration. Bonar Law and his main Unionist cabinet colleagues (Curzon, Balfour, Austen Chamberlain and F. E. Smith) greatly enjoyed working with Lloyd George and some of his principal lieutenants, Winston Churchill above all.

Lexden reported that the election had been conceived in the spring of 1918 as a khaki election to provide the coalition government with a mandate to see the war through to its conclusion. At that point few expected the war to be concluded before 1919 and Lloyd George himself thought that it could continue till 1920. By the July
of 1918, almost a hundred years to the day of the meeting as Morgan noted, the whip for Lloyd George’s Liberals, Freddie Guest, was negotiating a deal with the Unionists to ensure that the members of the coalition did not oppose each other in the forthcoming election: hence the coupon, a letter jointly signed by Lloyd George and Unionist leader Bonar Law.

One hundred and fifty-eight Liberal candidates received the coupon
at the election, ‘100 of whom are our old guard’, which Morgan argued was more than the Liberals deserved, indicating that they did pretty well out of the deal. He was interested in learning why the Unionists put up with such a generous arrangement. Morgan also argued that out of the negotiations a kind of new party came into being: the Coalition Liberals. Practically, this was necessary as the supporters of Asquith, who had generally opposed the government in the later stages of the war, retained the party machine and the Liberal Publications Department. Meanwhile another 253 Liberals stood without the coupon. According to Lexden, this represented a breach
so deep that a fully and enthusiastic united Liberal Party was an impossibility in the near future. Morgan agreed that it was a very painful schism and appeared to show Lloyd George breaking with his own party.

Morgan also noted that the choice
of candidates to receive the coupon was very haphazard and itself caused a lot of bitterness. It had been said that whether someone received the coupon depended on whether they had supported the government in the Maurice debate in May 1918. However, Morgan noted that Trevor Wilson had demonstrated some time ago that this had not been the case. Of the 159 pro-government Liberal candidates, only 54 had supported the government in the debate and some had actually opposed it. One candidate even received the coupon even though he had said that he didn’t want it! Conversely some Liberal candidates who did not receive the coupon supported Lloyd George as prime minister, as did some Labour candidates. Indeed, Morgan argued that it was a bit rash to be an opponent of the government in the atmosphere of the election.

In the event, the sudden change in the tide of the war in the autumn of 1918 converted the contest into a victory election. The focus of the election itself turned from war to peace. Keynes reported it as a jingoistic and chauvinistic election, whereas Morgan argued that this misrepresented what was a quiet, even dull, election. Nonetheless, Lloyd George stressed the importance of maintaining into the peace the unity of command that had ensured that the war had been won. He argued during the campaign that ‘only unity can save Britain, can save Europe, can save the world.’ As a consequence, a kind of presidential election emerged which Morgan felt let Lloyd George down.

In the run-up to the election, Morgan argued that Lloyd George’s main task was to win over his fellow Liberals. This he did through a ringing speech
at the Reform Club on 12 November, the day after the armistice, declaring that ‘it is not revolution that I am afraid of; it is reaction that I am afraid of.’
He called for a government of social reform and international leadership.

A joint manifesto was produced for the election, which, according to Morgan, had a strong Liberal tinge to it with much on social reform and reconstruction, reflecting the influence of Christopher Addison, the Minister of Reconstruction. Lexden described it as a ‘substantial programme of post-war reconstruction’. There was also a special Liberal manifesto for the election produced by the historian and Minister for Education H. A. L. Fisher. Morgan added that, in his six major campaign speeches, Lloyd George spoke overwhelmingly about social reform: about a ‘land fit for heroes’. He said little about ‘hanging the Kaiser’ or emphasising Germany’s war guilt. Only in the ‘off the cuff’ peroration of his final speech in the Colston Hall did he call for Germany to pay the uttermost cost of the war. Morgan suggested that it highlighted the risk of straying too far from one’s notes!

Lexden, meanwhile, felt that it had to be said that the prospect of punishing the Kaiser and his defeated country did seem to have been uppermost in the minds of some of the electorate, encouraged by a lurid and irresponsible press campaign.

By any standards, Lexden argued, the election itself was a landmark one. The transition from a terrible war to peace was itself momentous. So too was the scale of change in the electoral system since the previous election eight years earlier. More than three-quarters of the electorate had never cast a vote for any party in a national election. In addition to women being able to vote, a handful stood as candidates for the first time, one of whom, representing Sinn Fein, was elected.

Overall, the result was an overwhelming victory for the coalition. Bonar Law declared that Lloyd George could ‘be Prime Minister for life if he likes’. The Liberal part of the coalition polled 1,400,000 votes and won between 127 and 130 seats almost entirely without any Conservative or Unionist opposition. The Unionists gained 332 seats, enough for a clear majority in the House of Commons. The alternatives were, according to Morgan, not very distinguished. The opposition Liberals were almost annihilated, with only thirty seats and with their leader Asquith having been defeated. Labour meanwhile polled 2,245,000 votes and gained fifty- seven seats, becoming a national party.

Morgan also noted that the character of the Unionist party in the Commons changed, with many businessmen among their number who were not as reactionary as might have been expected. They had often dealt with trades unions during the war and had developed a sense of industrial partnership. The real diehards were in the constituency parties who emerged later in the parliament in the anti-waste campaign.

Morgan then went on to consider the record of the government that had been elected. He had initially reported the classic description by Keynes that it was of ‘a group of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out
of the war’. Morgan noted, however, that it was a dangerous and difficult time for any government: the collapse of great empires; a time of impending class war; turmoil in Ireland with the rise of the IRA. Overall there was a general feeling that everything was different, in part brought about by
the extension of the franchise and the empowerment of the working class and of women.

Morgan argued that there was a serious attempt at social reform under the coalition government, with Addison and Fisher especially active. There was an important Education Bill, a Ministry for Health and a programme of subsidised housing. Some of these proposals proved to be the target of the later anti-waste campaign and the Geddes Axe, which, in turn, led to the sense of a betrayal of promises. Nonetheless, Morgan suggested that the reforms represented the last hurrah of New Liberalism and were an important and underappreciated phase of the party’s history.

Lloyd George also sought to be relatively conciliatory towards labour and, in Morgan’s view, handled the Triple Alliance’s threat of a general strike better than the Baldwin government did later in the decade. He suggested that it was a result of Lloyd George’s open methods of diplomacy – the beginning of ‘beer and sandwiches’ at Number 10.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the government pursued a dreadful policy of retaliation through the ‘Black and Tans’. Despite that, in the end Lloyd George got what he wanted: a settlement that others had failed to achieve and which has survived.

Lloyd George also wanted to be a great conciliator on the international stage. He sought to reduce the reparations on Germany and to bring Russia back into the comity of nations. Ironically, the cause of his downfall was
the pursuit of a much more aggressive foreign policy in support of Greece against Turkey. In Morgan’s view the opposition from the Unionists came from an appeasement perspective, noting that Bonar Law wrote to The Times that ‘we cannot alone act as policeman of the world.’

Overall, Morgan argued, it was a defensible record in government, especially bearing in mind that other countries lapsed into dictatorship. That Britain was relatively peaceful was down to the coalition. However, it came at the cost of the destruction
of Lloyd George’s own party – something, Morgan later noted, he had always been rather careless about even in his earliest days in Welsh politics.

The Coalition Liberals lost ground steadily to Labour from 1919. Meanwhile the independent Liberals were uncertain of their policy and had little to say in response to Labour. Despite by-election gains in Hull in 1919 and the return of Asquith at Paisley in 1920, they struggled to find a theme. According to Morgan they gave the impression of being elitist, high-minded and patrician, highlighted by the attempt to promote Edward Grey as a leader of an alternative Asquithian movement. Both wings had high hopes of reunion, but hints by Lloyd George in early 1920 that there would be fusion between the government Liberals and the Unionists terminated that prospect. Essentially, Lloyd George did not have much interest in his own party. Morgan described Lloyd George’s efforts as an attempt to leapfrog the party system. Even in October 1922, when he was ejected by the rebellion of Conservative back-benchers, he was a strong coalitionist.

In his talk Lexden noted that, whilst critics of Lloyd George had always been present (he had been the Liberal the Unionists hated the most before 1914), it would take four more years of the coalition to convince a majority of Unionists that the party should face the future on its own. Among the leadership of the party the positive feelings they derived from working with Lloyd George did not lessen with the passing of the years, despite growing criticism of Lloyd George by junior ministers, backbench MPs and the party at large. Coalition became a way of life for the Unionist leadership, bringing together the best of Liberal and Unionist talent in government – they ‘never wanted coalition to end’. When asked why the leadership had not been aware of the growing rebellion, Lexden stated that it was down to the extraordinary obstinacy of Austen Chamberlain who simply would not accept advice. Morgan agreed that there was a feeling of complacency, perhaps exacerbated by the Tory whips themselves undermining the coalition.

For those Unionists who did not believe in permanent coalition with Lloyd George (who were increasingly a majority), the implications of the election were obvious. Their party was ideally placed to build a new political dispensation by attracting the votes of demoralised and bewildered Liberals through a genuine and deliberate promise of broad social reform and by treating Labour as a parliamentary rival rather than as a threat to the established order. Baldwin, Lexden argued, knew how to make Toryism attractive to Liberals.

Though few would have predicted it, Lexden noted that the future belonged to the Tories. In the years between the wars they won five large parliamentary majorities – no other party achieved a majority at all. The 1918 election was the first of these and a crucial staging post on the road to inter-war Conservative Party hegemony. With 335 seats they could have governed alone in a parliament that Sinn Fein refused to attend. Furthermore, it was impractical to imagine the combined forces of the opposition bringing themselves to work together. Thus, the consequences of the 1918 election were profound.

When asked what Lloyd George could have done differently morally or politically to avoid splitting the Liberal Party, Morgan replied – almost anything other than what he did.
He should have recalled the remark
he made on the death of Theodore Roosevelt: ‘he should never have quarrelled with the machine.’ Morgan did note, however, that it took two sides to make a quarrel.

David Cloke is the Secretary of the Liberal Democrat History Group

Europe: the Liberal Commitment – special issue of the Journal of Liberal History

Opposition to Brexit has become of the defining characteristics of today’s Liberal Democrats. And probably everyone knows that the Liberal Democrats’ predecessors in the Liberal Party supported British entry to the European Community in the 1970s and before. But where does this commitment derive from? The latest Journal of Liberal History(issue 98, spring 2018) explores the historical origins of the Liberal commitment to Europe.

As Anthony Howe discusses in the first article, one of the foundations of Victorian Liberalism in the nineteenth century was support for free trade, the removal of tariffs (import and export duties) on trade in goods. Normally discussed today in terms of the economic benefits, Liberal support in fact drew much more strongly from a belief in free trade as an engine of peace, building links between nations and promoting a cooperative rather than a military interventionist approach to international problems.

Eugenio Biagini analyses the different approaches to Europe adopted by the Liberal leaders W. E. Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain. Gladstone, a committed internationalist, was a fervent supporter of free trade and an opponent of jingoistic nationalism; he was not opposed to the principle of pan-national empires, as long as their rule rested on consent and the protection of basic liberties. Chamberlain, the radical who broke with the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule, followed a different, ‘social imperialist’ path, arguing for the need for states to be powerful, democratic and reformist in social policy – strong enough to survive in the brutal world of international relations while also fending off the rising threat of socialism. His proposals for tariffs against imports from outside the British Empire, with the aim of binding the colonies more closely together, helped heal the divisions in the Liberal Party and underlay the Liberal landslide election victory of 1906.

The First World War posed a major challenge to the belief in economic progress as an engine of peace, and led to growing support for some form of world government. David Grace tells the story of Philip Kerr, a government adviser during the war and the peace conference at its end and later a Liberal peer (as Lord Lothian) and junior minister in the National Government of the 1930s. Kerr argued first for a federal structure for the Empire and then for a world federal union of the democracies; he helped establish the Federal Union organisation, which still exists today.

Robert Ingham’s article looks at the Liberal contribution to the Council of Europe, the body set up in 1949 to help bring European nations closer together; its main achievement is the creation of the European Convention on, and Court of, Human Rights. William Wallace traces the history of the Liberal commitment to UK membership of the EU. Now an article of faith in the modern Liberal Democrats, Liberal support was not inevitable. Right up until the 1960s, a significant minority within the party saw European integration as incompatible with free trade, rather than a step towards economic and political cooperation. After the Liberal leader Jo Grimond committed the party firmly to British membership, some of these small-state economic liberals left to form the Institute of Economic Affairs, which later became instrumental in supporting the Thatcherite revolution within the Conservative Party.

The debates in Parliament over the Heath government’s application to join the European Community saw a major split within the Labour Party; in 1971 69 Labour MPs defied a three-line whip to vote with the government in support of membership. Ten years later many of those MPs joined the Social Democratic Party, which fought elections in alliance with the Liberal Party and ultimately merged with them to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Shirley Williams, interviewed specially for this issue, recalls her role in the rebellion, discusses the history of Labour’s long confusion over EU membership and reflects on the importance of the European issue to the SDP and the Liberal Democrats.

Julie Smith provides an overview of Liberal parties in Europe and the development of European Liberal organisations. Although support for EU membership is a common theme amongst Liberal parties, the European Liberal family sees a wide divergence of views on economic and social policy. Liberal parties can be broadly divided into economic liberal (in general small-state anti-interventionists) and social liberal (more comfortable with government action) camps; in some countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, two liberal parties exist, one of each tendency. By 2018, leaders of Liberal parties were the second most numerous group within the European Council meeting of prime ministers, with eight compared to nine from the EPP (mainly Christian Democrats).

The issue concludes with reviews of books by Guy Verhofstadt and Andrew Duff. Subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History should already have received their issue; for others, it’s available for £10 here – or if you take out an annual subscription (£25, or £15 unwaged) you’ll receive this issue and three others. We hope the issue provides readers with an understanding of the roots – political and cultural as much as (if not more than) economic – of the long Liberal commitment to Europe.

New booklet on Liberal Thinkers

New from the Liberal Democrat History Group

Liberalism has been built on more than three centuries’ work of political thinkers and writers and the aspirations of countless human beings who have fought for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and open and tolerant societies.

Liberal Thinkers, the History Group’s new booklet, is an accessible guide to the key thinkers associated with British Liberalism, including John Locke, Adam Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Richard Cobden, John Stuart Mill, L. T. Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and many more. This second edition updates some of the entries in the first (2014) edition, and adds one new entry in place of one of the previous ones.

See ordering details here.

New booklets from the Liberal Democrat History Group

Just published:

Mothers of Liberty: women who built British Liberalism. The new edition contains the stories of the women who shaped British Liberalism – including Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, the suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the first woman Liberal MP Margaret Wintringham, Violet Bonham Carter, Megan Lloyd George, Nancy Seear, Shirley Williams and many more. This second edition updates some of the earlier entries and adds two entirely new ones and a table of all Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat women elected as MPs. With a foreword by Jo Swinson MP.

Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats. Now revised and updated to include the 2015 and 2017 elections and their aftermath, including the election of Vince Cable as leader. Now up to date as of July 2017. The essential introduction to Liberal history.

Sale prices cuts on our two Liberal leaders booklets: Liberal Leaders of the Nineteenth Century and Liberal Leaders since 1900. 50% off each until stocks run out (not many left!).

Concise history booklet updated to spring 2017

Just out from the Liberal Democrat History Group: Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats – 350 years of party history in 32 pages.

Revised and updated to include the coalition and its impact and the 2015 election and its aftermath. The essential introduction to Liberal history, now updated to March 2017.

Special discounted price for Journal of Liberal History subscribers. To order, see here.

The booklet also makes an ideal gift for new party members; we can offer a 50 per cent discount for bulk orders of 40 or more copies. Contact the Editor.

Directory of election candidates 1945–2015 now available

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s website now features a major new resource for students of post-war Liberal history: a comprehensive directory of all election candidates at every Westminster election from 1945 to 2015.

This is the first comprehensive biographical index to appear of the individuals who have contested a UK parliamentary election under the designation Liberal, Liberal Democrat and Social Democrat, over the years 1945–2015. Separate files cover eleven English regions (Devon and Cornwall, East of England, East Midlands, Greater London, North East, North West, South Central, South East, South West, Yorkshire, West Midlands), and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Westminster elections only, including Alliance Party of Northern Ireland candidates).

A typical entry includes details of birth and death, where known, education (school/college/university), career(s), elected local government offices held (though periods of service are often imprecise), party offices held, noteworthy distinctions/achievements, honours, publications etc, etc. Information on previous (or subsequent) activities with respect to other political parties is often included. Spouses and family often receive notice. Entries vary in length and presentation, reflecting the scale of the contribution which an individual made to the party and political life in the region or nationally, to parliament or his/her achievements in wider spheres of activity. Opinions expressed with regard to some of the more colourful personalities listed are those generally held.

The directory can be found here.

Liberal leaders booklets clearance sale

For a limited period, we are cutting the price of the two booklets below by 50 per cent – with a further 20 per cent reduction for subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History.

Liberal Leaders of the Nineteenth Century

This forty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal leader from the Great Reform Act to the end of the nineteenth century – the heyday of the Liberal Party. The total of eleven biographies stretches from Lord Grey to Sir William Harcourt, including such towering figures as Viscount Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone.

Normal price £4; special offer price £2 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

Liberal Leaders since 1900

The sixty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat leader since 1900. The total of sixteen biographies stretches from Henry Campbell-Bannerman to Nick Clegg, including such figures as H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, David Steel, David Owen and Paddy Ashdown. (Up to date as of 2013.)

Normal price £6; special offer price £3 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

Liberal Democrat History Group Christmas / New Year sale

As a special offer over the holiday season (until 6 January 2017) we are making our two short booklets on Liberal leaders available for 50% off:

Liberal Leaders of the Nineteenth Century

This forty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal leader from the Great Reform Act to the end of the nineteenth century – the heyday of the Liberal Party. The total of eleven biographies stretches from Lord Grey to Sur William Harcourt, including such towering figures as Viscount Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone.

Normal price £4; special offer price £2 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

Liberal Leaders since 1900

The sixty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat leader since 1900. The total of sixteen biographies stretches from Henry Campbell-Bannerman to Nick Clegg, including such figures as H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, David Steel, David Owen and Paddy Ashdown. (Up to date as of 2013.)

Normal price £6; special offer price £3 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

Best wishes to all our readers for Christmas and the New Year.