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Peace, Reform and Liberation

A History of Liberal Politics in Britain, 1679-2011


Edited by Robert Ingham & Duncan Brack


London: Biteback Publishing, 2011

Hardcover. xvii + 414 pp. ISBN 978-1-84954-0443-8. £30.00


Reviewed by Kenneth O. Morgan

The Queen’s College, Oxford



British historians have long been fascinated by the remarkable history of the Liberal Party. After the opening up of the riches of the Beaverbrook Library, including the papers of Lloyd George and Bonar Law, in 1967 it seemed for a time as if the fall of the Liberals had replaced the rise of the gentry as the main topic of historical debate. Certainly it is an astonishing story. From its tranquil launch at Willis’s Rooms in 1859, the party lurched from crisis to crisis, from majestic dominance to near collapse. There came the high noon of Gladstone’s leadership and then the Irish Home rule crash, a new dawn in the Edwardian years followed by depressing decline, humiliating disintegration after 1931, near extinction after 1945, renewed life through the alliance with the Social Democrats, a further period of third-party marginalisation, and finally the totally unpredictable entry into Coalition as minor partners to the Conservatives in 2010. As was said of Richard Nixon, it was the greatest come-back since Lazarus.

Its leading figures have experienced almost every kind of personal disaster. There was much sexual scandal (Dilke’s divorce, Lloyd George’s serial womanising, Jeremy Thorpe’s homosexuality with suggestions of conspiracy to murder, Mark Oaten’s rent boy, most recently Chris Huhne’s marital infidelity and its legal aftermath). There were excesses of drink (Asquith, Clement Davies, Charles Kennedy). At times there were serious money troubles, notably with the Lloyd George’s Fund obtained through the mass sale of titles. And there have searing crises of conscience which tore the party asunder—over Ireland in 1886, over war leadership in 1916, over the National government in 1931, over the Lib-Lab pact in 1977 and over the liaison with the SDP a few years later. It is remarkable that an institution recognisable as the Liberal Party has survived at all. And yet the Liberal tradition has without doubt contributed richly to the ideas and practice of British democracy. Its influence on political and economic ideas from Mill, through Green and Marshall, to Keynes, has been pivotal. Even in its present diminished form it remains a fount of mostly progressive ideas on such issues as constitutional reform, social ownership, the environment, and Britain’s relationship with Europe. We can never have too many books on its colourful history.

This new volume, taking a long view from the later seventeenth century to the Cameron-Clegg coalition of today, is a collective enterprise by many hands. It owes its origin to the immensely lively Liberal Democratic History Group, which runs an excellent quarterly journal under the editorship of Duncan Brack. An extraordinarily energetic figure who until recently was special adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and edits the Society’s journal in his spare time, Brack is joint editor ofthis new book, and also contributes a very well-informed chapter on the transition to the Liberal Democrats in 1988-2010. All the chapters are well done, with the most scholarly being those by Eugenio Biagini, Martin Pugh and David Dutton, covering the period from 1886 to 1929, when the impact of the Party upon British public life was at its most emphatic. The chapters are all broken up by personal vignettes of key individuals and episodes, or by lengthy quotations, which somewhat disturbs the flow of reading. But all of them are scholarly and buttressed by valuable footnotes and helpful bibliographies. This is an excellent book.

Some key areas are somewhat under-represented. Thus, given that Michael Freeden in his introduction rightly stresses ‘intellectual power’ as one of the Liberals’ claim to distinction, it is surprising that several key intellectuals do not receive more extensive discussion: John Stuart Mill, for example, gets short shrift, while Bentham is ignored. We might have had more psephological analysis for the late-nineteenth century, though this is redressed by helpful detail on the locations of Liberal revival from the 1960s onwards, starting with the legendary Orpington Man unearthed after the 1962 by-election. On the other hand, there is analysis of often neglected aspects, such as the party leadership of Archibald Sinclair after 1935 and Clement Davies in the dark 1950s. Other themes are set forth in rich detail, especially the internal debates on party democracy within the National Liberal Federation, party finance, and especially the party’s fortunes in local government, which are so often neglected. After all, from 1920 it was here that the roots of popular Liberalism most obviously began to wither. Equally it is in the ‘community politics’ of Liberals in local elections that the party’s partial revival from the 1960s began.   

The high noon came in the years between the 1867 Reform Act and the First World War. The party straddled old Whigs, ex-Peelites and inner-city radicals, with the important social contribution of the Lib-Labs in mining and other industrial areas. It was, as Sir William Harcourt observed, ‘a House with many Mansions’, but themes of participatory democracy, religious equality (especially via nonconformity in Wales and elsewhere) and the national and international imperatives of free trade gave it a kind of unity. Perhaps the house had too many mansions though: the 1891 Newcastle Programme seemed a shopping list for a miscellany of radical ‘faddist’ proposals, somewhat similar to the Labour Party’s notorious ‘suicide note’ under Michael Foot in 1983. But the party found huge new momentum through the New Liberalism of social reform, men like Hobson and Hobhouse giving the Liberal ethic a commitment towards social welfare through state action. Lloyd George, uniquely, was able to blend the Old Liberalism with the New. In the summer of 1914 he was buzzing with fresh radical ideas. But from the First World War it was downhill all the way. Savage personal conflicts between Asquithians and Lloyd Georgians after the wartime putsch of December 1916 led to decades of decline and near-death. Year after year, from Herbert Samuel to David Steel, Liberals dithered as to they were really a left-wing party close to Labour, or natural allies of the free-market Tories.

No clear answer was found before 1981. The creation of the Social Democrats then provided a new choice and challenge. In the end, after years of tragic-comic argument, the Liberals fused with the SDP and found new purpose in an era when the old bi-polar politics run by the Conservatives and Labour were being superseded. But the way ahead for what was now a smallish third party was never clear. In 1997 there was talk of joining Labour, with Ashdown’s Liberals offered (almost) the bait of voting reform. Thirteen years later, under the more naturally right-wing leadership of Nick Clegg, they joined the Conservatives in an unlikely coalition. The result has been a sharp fall in electoral support and in the reputation of Clegg himself. Issues like university tuition fees or support for the Conservatives’ dismantling of the National Health Service have led to agonised self-appraisal. But at least the Liberal Democrats are still players in centre stage. While the SDP seemed a muddled middle-class debating society, the Liberals could call upon historic traditions and living roots in many parts of Britain, especially in rural areas. In the turbulent centre ground of British political life, it was the long despised Liberals who called the tune.

It is often asked why after the First World War the Liberals did not so much decline as almost disintegrate, an experience from which they have never fully recovered. Personal strategic errors by key figures are a part explanation with both Lloyd George and Asquith culpable in different ways. But the war raised fundamental questions about British Liberalism which entered deep into its sub-conscious. War was never a happy experience for Liberals (witness the South African War) while the new powers of the central government were for many unacceptable. While Liberals reluctantly came to terms with centralist controls such as the Defence of the Realm Act, military conscription made inroads into civil liberty which undermined morale long before Lloyd George’s coupon with the Tories in 1918 did so. By then, the party was suffering from weakness of its basic components. Nonconformists with their cry for religious equality were no longer a political force. Wales and Scotland, two bastions of Gladstonian Liberalism, were shedding their late-Victorian quasi-nationalism in favour of the greater unionism of the Labour Party. The Irish Nationalist vote, in Glasgow and elsewhere, went Labour. The land question also seemed an issue of the past while the gospel of free trade lost its impact in a much-changed world economy after 1918, still more after 1945. Above all, working-class strongholds of pre-1914 Liberalism moved over to Labour en masse with class replacing community as the key influence in voting behaviour. There was no longer a core Liberal vote.

Weakened in their social base, nationally and locally, the Liberals lacked both an organising doctrine and a convincing narrative. Down to the present they remain uncertain as to whether they stand on the centre-left or the centre-right, in a vague middle ground or somehow elevated above mundane party politics on a high plane of moral principle all their own. Under the Coalition, disputes between market-driven economic Liberals of the ‘Yellow Book’ type and social Liberals cherishing memories of Keynes, Beveridge and the early welfare state, remain alive. The party’s future remains unclear, whether they survive within the Coalition or not. Their favoured escape route, PR or other voting reform, to match their votes with their parliamentary representation, seems to have disappeared with the heavy defeat of the Alternative Vote in the referendum of May 2011.

Nevertheless, the overall record of British Liberalism in its political form has been creative and constructive, even at times inspirational. They have identified key themes of civil liberty, human rights, social balance and international collaboration and made them their own. They are the only British political party to have placed an emphasis on citizenship, so central an idea to the French, and so marked an absentee from textbooks on British government. This history opens up the question as to whether intellectual power on its own is enough. The Labour Party, which drew so much from its Liberal predecessors, and which has itself contributed so richly to British social ideas, may now ponder whether it could suffer the same fate as the post-1918 Liberals. As it searches for an organising idea and a distinctive solution to Britain’s current ailments, could it be that, as Dean Acheson observed of modern Britain generally, the British left, having lost its empire, is now seeking a role?


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