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About this book

Once teetering on the brink of oblivion, the British Liberal Party has again re-established itself as a major force in national and local politics. David Dutton's approachable study offers new insights into the waning, near death and ultimate recovery of the Liberal Party from 1900 to the present day. Discussions of politics, philosophy and performance are all skilfully interwoven as Dutton demonstrates how the party has become, once more, a formidable player on the political stage.

The second edition of this established text offers:
* an entirely new chapter on the coalition government
* a chronology of key events
* numerous suggestions for further reading.

This lively survey of British Liberalism from the era of Campbell-Bannerman to that of Nick Clegg reviews existing literature while offering its own distinctive perspective on one of the most compelling of political dramas.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The modern Liberal Party has already attracted a wealth of historical attention. Granted that the last purely Liberal government came to an end as long ago as 1915, that attraction might fairly be deemed excessive. In the twentieth century as a whole, the Liberals could claim nothing better than a poor third place in terms of electoral success, significantly behind their Conservative and Labour rivals. Yet the lack of Liberal success at the polls proved no barrier to continuing historical curiosity. Indeed, it was the party’s decline rather than its brief exercise of power that acted as a magnet to academic investigation.
David Dutton

1. Strange Death or Edwardian Summer, 1902–16?

Abstract
The period between the end of the Boer War in 1902 and the General Election of January 1906 saw a transformation in the Liberal Party’s fortunes. As a general rule it is governments that lose elections rather than oppositions that win them, but on this occasion the actions of the Unionists not only weakened their own party but also contributed directly to the strengthening of the Liberals by providing the latter with the factor they had patently lacked, at least since Gladstone’s retirement — unity. The 1902 Education Act, with its marked bias towards Anglican schools, rode roughshod over the sensibilities of nonconformist opinion and greatly assisted the process of Liberal reunication. The Licensing Act of 1904, an apparent sop to the Unionists’ supporters in the brewing trade, had very much the same effect. Organized Labour was alienated by the government’s failure to introduce legislation to reverse the Taff Vale judgment of 1902 and by the scandal surrounding the exploitation of Chinese workers in the mines of the South African Rand. Even more important was Joseph Chamberlain’s celebrated speech in Birmingham on 15 May 1903, in which the Colonial Secretary called for the ending of the prevailing system of free trade and the substitution of a regime of imperial preference.
David Dutton

2. The Liberal Civil War, 1916–35

Abstract
So much has been written of the Lloyd George-Asquith split of December 1916, identifying it as a seminal moment in the Liberal Party’s fortunes, that it is tempting to assume that the formation of the second wartime coalition marked a point of fundamental and irreversible division, after which little could be done to halt the processes of political decline. Arguably, however, it was less the fact of the split than its duration that did the party the most damage. What is beyond dispute is that between 1916 and 1923 — and, even in 1923, reunion and reconciliation were at best only partially secured — the Liberal Party moved from being the leading party of government into the position of the third force in British politics. In the same seven-year period, the Labour Party moved from the periphery of the political spectrum, first to the status of official opposition and then to the verge of forming its first, albeit minority, government. As the third party, the Liberals would have to operate within an electoral system that fails to convert a minority party’s share of the popular vote into a commensurate share of seats in the House of Commons. This fact in turn has the further long-term effect of discouraging the electorate from backing such a party, out of a desire to use their votes in support of a realistic contender for government.
David Dutton

3. So Few and So Futile, 1935–55

Abstract
In the 20 years after the General Election of 1935, the Liberal Party showed few if any signs of genuine revival. All the statistics and indices of decline, already established, continued to move in an unfavourable direction. The debilitating haemorrhage of Liberal votes seemed to have no end. Both in Parliament and local government the reduction of Liberal representation continued apace. The parliamentary party of 21, bequeathed by Herbert Samuel to his successor, went down progressively at succeeding General Elections, reaching an all-time low of just five MPs following the loss of the Carmarthen by-election in February 1957. Ironically, the victor in this contest was Lloyd George’s daughter, Megan, newly welcomed, like so many radical Liberals before her, into the ranks of the Labour Party. Five months earlier, a Gallup poll had put the party’s national support at a derisory 1 per cent of the electorate. Municipal elections continued to witness a fall in the overall number of Liberal candidates, and in the percentage of those who were successful at the polls. The proportion of council seats won dropped from 14 per cent in 1931 to just 7.2 per cent in 1938.1
David Dutton

4. Two Steps Forward and One Back, 1955–79

Abstract
At the beginning of 1956 both Clement Davies and Leonard Behrens, the party’s acting president, published optimistic New Year messages, claiming that Liberalism was on the march again. Though such optimism prompted a measure of ridicule in the press and among political opponents, there was nothing surprising in these Liberal pronouncements. At least since the 1920s, the party’s unrealistic and sometimes illogical pretensions had been an important factor in keeping it alive. Objectively, however, and despite the bottoming-out of the process of Liberal decline revealed in the recent General Election, there was little hard evidence to sustain such high hopes apart from an encouraging by-election result at Torquay, Devon, in December 1955, where the Liberal candidate took 23.8 per cent of the vote. Even when, the following February, with the Conservatives’ post-election honeymoon rapidly receding in the face of a worsening economic climate, the Liberals secured 36.4 per cent at Hereford and 21.4 per cent at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, any triumphal flag-waving was surely premature. Yet, with the hindsight of half a century, it is now clear that Davies and Behrens had at least an element of truth on their side. The Liberal tide had turned, and though there would be much ebbing as well as flowing in the years ahead, the process of revival had indeed begun.
David Dutton

5. A Cracked Mould and a New Beginning, 1979–2001

Abstract
For most of the period after 1945, one of the most difficult problems facing the Liberal Party had been that of identity. Committed Liberal activists believed they knew where they stood — though often disagreeing on this issue among themselves — but the voting public was altogether less certain. In part, this reflected the way in which the post-war Conservative and Labour parties, dominated by their left and right wings, respectively, had competed for the centre ground of British politics. That convergence was often disputed and denied. The two parties had a vested interest in maintaining the outward appearance of confrontation, stressing the extremism of their opponents — that Labour threatened full-blown socialism, and the Conservatives would unleash the unbridled forces of the free market. The Liberals also saw considerable advantage in projecting their opponents as being at the extremes of the political spectrum. In 1980, David Steel suggested that post-war British politics had seen relatively small changes in public opinion result in alternating periods of Conservative and Labour government, accompanied by ‘violent switches in public policy’.
David Dutton

6. Right into Government, 2001–11

Abstract
If, as is inevitably the case, a political party’s success is measured primarily by its performance in General Elections, then the first decade of the twenty-first century was a period of only modest progress for the Liberal Democrats. In the election of 2001, the party secured 52 seats from 18.3 per cent of the popular vote, while, in 2010, the corresponding figures were 57 seats and 23 per cent of the vote. Yet such statistics conceal a fundamental transformation in the party’s position, taking it from informal and essentially powerless co-operation with a centre-left Labour Party to full partnership in a coalition government led by a centre-right Conservative Party. It was a development that few could have envisaged as the new century opened.
David Dutton

Conclusion

Abstract
A survey of more than 100 years of the history of the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrat Party, demands that some tentative conclusions be drawn. The most intriguing question concerns the relationship between the party as it stood in 1900 and that existing in the second decade of the twenty first century. The name on the bottle has certainly changed, but are its contents essentially the same? At the most fundamental level, a clear institutional continuity is apparent. The party may have come near to going out of business in the decade after the end of the Second World War, but it never actually did so, and it has been handed on by successive generations of leaders, activists and followers without interruption. It has been the victim of many defections, most notably in 1931–32, and, more recently, has benefited from the arrival of new recruits, especially following the merger with the majority of the Social Democratic Party in 1988. But enough of the core has always been retained to guarantee a legitimate pattern of descent from Campbell-Bannerman to Clegg. This institutional continuity is confirmed by the party’s extra-parliamentary structure.
David Dutton
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