Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 23

The decline of the Liberal Party

Study Sources A to G and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A: General election results and statistics 1910-1929

General Election results (1910-29)

Source B:

Memorandum by Herbert Gladstone, director of Liberal Headquarters, written in November 1924

The results of the 1918 election broke the party, not only in the House of Commons, but in the country. Local associations perished, or maintained an existence in name only. Masses of our best men passed away to Labour. Others drifted to Conservatism or independence. Over and over again our remnants in the constituencies declined even to hold meetings. In the election of 1922, many constituencies actually refused to fight, even though candidates and funds were available.

Source: quoted in C. Cook, The Age of Alignment 1922-29, Macmillan, 1975.

Source C:

Extracts from the diary of C.P. Scott, Liberal Editor of The Manchester Guardian, 1921

What struck me most about Asquith was his immobility. He had not moved - did not really know about things. He could see no good in Lloyd George or anything he did. All the time he (Asquith) laid down the law with great positiveness. Altogether a somewhat grumbling and very old, old man...

Sir Donald Maclean [an Asquith Liberal MP] told me, ‘I have done with Lloyd George. I could never work with him or under him’. Of Asquith himself, though entirely loyal, Maclean said that he was not gaining but losing ground in the country. He had missed a great and unique opportunity by his failure to make any impact in Parliament since his return, mainly because of laziness.

Source: T. Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C .P. Scott 1911-28, Collins, 1970.

Source D:

Letter written by Sir Charles Hobhouse, a ‘New’ Liberal journalist and former MP, to C.P. Scott, 7 November 1924

I doubt if the Liberal Party any longer stands for anything distinctive. My reasons are on the one side that moderate Labour - Labour in office - has represented essential Liberalism better than the organized party since Campbell-Bannerman's death. The Liberal Party never seems agreed within on essentials. Part leans to the Tories, part leans to Labour, part has nothing distinctive. Tradition and class distinctions kept many good Liberals outside Labour. Now Labour has grown so much that it tends to absorb them and to leave only the ‘bad’ Liberals who lean towards the Tories.

Source: Quoted in C. Cook, The Age of Alignment, 1922–29, Macmillan, 1975.

Source D: Annual Report of Home Counties Liberal Federation, May 1924.

Annual Report of Home Counties Liberal Federation, May 1924

All through our areas the revival of Liberalism continues... Political activity is greater than at any time since the outbreak of the Great War. .. Liberalism has never been more active in this area except in the years preceding the landslide of 1906.

Source: As Source D.

Source F:

Statement by the Secretary of the Midland Liberal Federation, 5 September 1925

It has become a very difficult thing since the war to secure candidates, because in dark times like these when there are so few decent chances to offer a candidate, it has become exceedingly difficult to find men and women who are prepared to face a contest and provide all the money.

Source: As Source D.

Source G:

Historian Chris Cook writes about the decline of the Liberals

The problems stemmed, not from the split of Asquith and Lloyd George, but from the fundamental and long-term weaknesses in the structure, social composition and outlook of the party in the industrial areas... It was a middle class party which failed to accommodate working class candidates or to produce a relevant industrial policy. Perhaps the war accelerated these factors. But they were quite clearly at work before 1914.... After the war, a succession of body -blows coming on top of the changing social structure reduced the party from supremacy to powerlessness...[The final blow was] the folly of the Liberal course of action in…1924...

There was a lack of consultation between Asquith and Lloyd George. No Liberal leader really thought about the possibility that the party, though supporting Labour in parliament, might find itself constantly under attack in the constituencies... The Liberals voted Labour into office without any understandings or conditions, and without having considered how they would fare if Labour refused to co-operate... Either the Liberals would have to support Labour measures or vote against them. To vote against meant an election which, for financial reasons, the Liberals did not want.

Source: C. Cook, The Age of Alignment 1922-29, Macmillan, 1975.

Questions

  1. Source B says that ‘the result of the 1918 election broke the party’. Using the statistics in Source A, show how the 1918 election was a serious blow to the Liberals in the House of Commons. (3 marks)
  2. Using the statistics in Source A, show how the ‘first past the post’ electoral system works to the disadvantage of smaller parties. (5 marks)
  3. Source G mentions ‘the folly of the Liberal course of action in…1924’. Using Source G and your own knowledge, explain what the writer means by this statement.(4 marks)
  4. Sources B,C,D,E and F were all written by Liberals. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sources for the historian trying to reach a conclusion about why the Liberal party declined? (15 marks)
  5. Historian Trevor Wilson argues that the First World War was mainly responsible for the decline of the Liberals, because of the way in which it split the party between Lloyd George and Asquith supporters. Using the evidence from these sources and the information in Chapter 23, explain whether you agree or disagree with Trevor Wilson. (18 marks)
(Total 45 marks)