Liberal Nationalism and the Decline of the British Liberal Party: Three Case Studies

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By the beginning of the 1930s, the British Liberal Party was in a state of long-term decline. After years of internal dispute and division the party had apparently come together again under the leadership of David Lloyd George to fight the general election of 1929, offering the electorate an imaginative set of proposals to deal with the prevailing scourge of unemployment. But the electoral return of just fifty-nine MPs came as a bitter disappointment, and the following two years were marked by a return to bitter internecine disputes. Fresh lines of division emerged over the appropriate attitude to take towards Ramsay MacDonald's minority Labour government, whether the central Liberal principle of free trade could still be upheld in a world that was rapidly going over to protectionism and, latterly, the degree of enthusiasm felt for the National Government established in August 1931. Nonetheless, most Liberals, with the exception of a small family group around Lloyd George, found it possible to offer support to the new government when it sought a "doctor's mandate" from the electorate to carry out the measures necessary to rebuild the national economy.

In terms of MPs returned, the Liberal Party enjoyed a modest revival in the general election of October 1931. Held in the peculiar circumstances in which the newly formed government sought authority for policies that had yet to be determined, and following a campaign which amounted in most cases to the Labour Party against the rest, as many as seventy-two successful Liberal candidates made their way to Westminster once the results were declared, an increase of thirteen on the figure secured in the general election of 1929.

Such statistics are, however, misleading. The party's gains were made at the expense of Labour in the absence of Conservative opposition, a function of the horse-trading which resulted from Liberal and Conservative participation in the National Government. Just ten of the seventy-two elected Liberals had triumphed over Tory opposition. In terms of votes cast, the continuing Liberal decline was only too apparent. There had been a drop of three million from the figure secured in 1929, though this was partially to be explained by the absence of Liberal candidates in many Conservative constituencies contested in 1929. Overall, Liberals stood in just 160 seats in 193 i compared with 513 two years earlier.

Any satisfaction which Liberals sought to derive from their increased representation in the House of Commons did not last long. On 5 October 1931, three weeks before the general election, a group of about two dozen Liberal MPs, headed by Sir John Simon, had resolved to set up a body to support Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald "for the purpose of fighting a general election." After the election it became increasingly clear that the Simonites--or Liberal Nationals as they came to be called--were moving towards the creation of a separate party. Their motives varied widely. Some genuinely believed that the national emergency was sufficiently grave to necessitate unequivocal support for the government, even if this involved the abandonment, perhaps temporarily, of established Liberal policies and principles such as free trade. Others were no doubt attracted by the prospect of the withdrawal of opposition, particularly Conservative, in their constituencies. Still more Liberal Nationals, frustrated by the impotence of Liberal politics over the previous decade and a half and alienated by the left-leaning instincts of party leaders such as Lloyd George, were convinced that the historic Liberal Party was finished and that it was necessary to make a fresh start if Liberal values were to be preserved. At all events, the break was formalised following the Ottawa Economic Conference of July-August 1932. The resulting trade agreements, which imposed tariffs based upon imperial preference, prompted the resignation from the government of Liberal ministers from the mainstream party now led by Sir Herbert Samuel. …