The Liberal government which took office as a minority administration in December 1905, before securing an overwhelming popular endorsement at the General Election of January 1906, remained in power until May 1915.
It is justly regarded as one of the most distinguished governments of the twentieth century, its leading figures a collection of political luminaries which included David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith and Edward Grey. It is often credited with laying the solid foundations of the Welfare State which were consolidated and developed by the Labour administration of 1945-51. Yet hindsight reminds us that this government was also the last Liberal government in British history and historical attention has focussed as much upon arguments about the intrinsic health of the Liberal party in the decade before the First World War as it has upon the government’s undoubted achievements.
At the conclusion of the 1906 election the new Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, stood at the head of the largest anti-Conservative majority for more than 80 years. With 400 MPs elected, the Liberals had a majority of 130 over all other parties combined. Yet the first years of Liberal government gave few indications of its ultimate achievements, for its radical reforming zeal was repeatedly thwarted by the Unionist (Conservative) dominated House of Lords. Not until the retirement of the ailing Campbell-Bannerman in April 1908 did this situation begin to change. Asquith brought a new energy to the premiership and duly introduced a scheme of old age pensions, scarcely generous in its provision but of enormous long-term importance in terms of defining the responsibility of the state towards its citizens. But of even greater significance than Asquith’s succession was the appointment of Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer and the promotion of Winston Churchill to the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. Over the next few years these two men provided the essential axis which fashioned an impressive programme of reforming measures of which the creation of labour exchanges and the introduction of a system of insurance against unemployment and sickness were perhaps the most important.
It had always been assumed that the Upper Chamber would not interfere with financial legislation. The rejection by the Lords of Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909 therefore created a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude, which was not resolved until the dramatic passage of the Parliament Act in the summer of 1911, whereby the Lords’ powers of veto were reduced to a right of delay of just two years and completely removed in relation to financial measures. In the meantime two further general elections had been held in the course of 1910 which had wiped out the Liberal government’s parliamentary majority of 1906 and left it dependent upon the support of Labour and Irish Nationalist MPs for its continuance in office. This situation significantly changed the tone and substance of the government’s legislative programme. On-going Irish support was conditional on the introduction of a third Home Rule Bill, something which the Liberals, mindful of their unhappy experience of the 1880s and 1890s, had deliberately avoided in the years since 1905. And now, granted the erosion of the powers of the Upper Chamber, this measure was bound to reach the statute book unless the Unionist opposition could somehow force another general election. Not surprisingly, Ireland dominated the government’s parliamentary agenda until the coming of European war in the summer of 1914, by which time no resolution had been found to the dilemma created by the juxtaposition of the government’s insistence on bringing its legislation to fruition and the steely determination of Unionists and particularly the Protestants of Ulster to resist, by force if necessary, the imposition of rule from Catholic Dublin. Indeed, many historians have pictured Ireland, and possibly Britain itself, as on the brink of civil war when the European crisis of 1914 imposed a completely new set of priorities on the political landscape.
Nonetheless, the government’s radical thrust did not entirely disappear in the last years of peace and there is clear evidence that Lloyd George’s fertile brain had begun to embark upon a new crusade for land reform before the outbreak of war diverted the attention of the Chancellor and of the country as a whole. The government was also looking to end the anomaly of plural voting, a reform which would have improved its prospects for the next general election.
The government survived the declaration of war largely intact, the cabinet and most of the parliamentary party convinced that there was no alternative to British participation once the German army had violated Belgium neutrality in fulfilment of the terms of the Schlieffen Plan. But war was not the easiest of environments in which Liberalism could thrive. Many traditional Liberal values had to be foregone or compromised. Individual liberties had to be sacrificed in the interests of the state. By the spring of 1915 the military stalemate was causing questions to be asked about the effectiveness of Asquith as a war leader. Even so, when, after nine months of warfare, the Prime Minister, for reasons which have been endlessly explored but never satisfactorily resolved, invited the opposition parties to join him in a coalition, few would have imagined that Britain’s last purely Liberal government had come to an end.
Victorious in three successive general elections and with a distinguished legislative record to its credit, it might seem strange to trace the origins of the Liberal party’s decline to the era. Yet, ever since George Dangerfield penned his famous and evocative work, The Strange Death of Liberal England, in the mid 1930s, historians have queued up to discern the evidence of decay. At the same time, others have stressed the vitality of Liberalism in this period, the creativity of a New Liberalism which had finally cut loose from the constraints of nineteenth-century individualism. This party, which was successfully adapting to a changing political environment, including the advent of class-based politics, was only destroyed by the impact of an unprecedented and unpredictable total war. Herein, between the extremes of Liberal decay and Liberal prosperity, lies one of the most disputed issues of modern British political history. The truth remains tantalisingly elusive.
Few would now accept anything like the Dangerfield thesis that Liberal England somehow died strangely in the last years of peace, its principles and values falling victim to a pattern of violence consisting of trade union militancy, the excesses of the suffragettes, the obstructionism of the House of Lords and the fanaticism of Protestant Orangemen, a pattern to which the coming of European war provided but a fitting climax. But of more weight is the argument that the Liberal party was in danger of being outflanked as the party of the Left, the party of the British working class, by the rise of the embryonic Labour party as a significant force in British politics. Ironically, Labour had established its parliamentary foothold of around 30 MPs in the 1906 General Election largely courtesy of the Liberals, following the conclusion of a secret electoral pact in 1903 between Ramsay MacDonald, Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, and the Liberals’ Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone. By this the Liberals had agreed to stand down in a number of constituencies, leaving Labour a free run, in order to avoid splitting the anti-Unionist vote. But did this represent the unseeing creation of a Frankenstein monster, destined one day to replace the Liberal party as the main non-Conservative force in the country’s politics? Labour’s true strength at this time, it has been suggested, was concealed by the partial nature of the pre-war franchise which deprived as many as four men out of every ten and all women of the right to vote.
The evidence, however, is contradictory. Electoral results, particularly by-elections in the last years of peace, have been used by many writers to suggest that the Liberal party was more than holding its own against the challenge of Labour, while it is by no means certain that the majority of those excluded from the franchise before the passing of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 were natural working-class Labour supporters. Thus, the final verdict on Britain’s last Liberal government must remain open. While the intrinsic importance of its legislative achievement is uncontested, it must be a matter of on-going debate whether this was the last gasp of a doomed political movement or the likely springboard for future achievement later in the twentieth century, thwarted only by the intrusion of the First World War.
David Dutton is Professor of History at the University of Liverpool. He has written or edited a number of books including biographies of Austen Chamberlain, John Simon and Anthony Eden. His study of the twentieth-century Liberal Party will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan.