Aspects of British Political History, 1914-1995

By Stephen J. Lee | Go to book overview

3

THE DECLINE OF THE LIBERAL PARTY 1914-40

The decline of the Liberal party is one of the great changes in the political history of the twentieth century. The facts and figures are dramatic.

The high point of Liberal success was reached in the landslide of 1906 when, after two decades spent in political exile, they won 377 seats. Although they remained in power until after the outbreak of the First World War, some of their support bled away in the two general elections of 1910, when they won 275 and 270 seats in January and December respectively. The real change, however, occurred in the general election of 1918 when, for the first time in their history, they became, with 163 seats, the third largest party in the Commons. In 1922 the situation deteriorated even further as they shrank to 115 seats. A temporary recovery occurred in 1923 when the Liberals secured 158 seats but they slumped in 1924 to 40. They never again succeeded in reaching three figures, winning 59 seats in 1929, 37 in 1931 and 21 in 1935. Another collapse took place in 1945, the year of the Labour landslide, when the Liberals won only 12 seats. This chapter will examine and explain the way in which this process occurred.


WERE THE LIBERALS IN DECLINE BEFORE 1914?

Searching for the roots of Liberal decline has caused considerable controversy.

One argument is that the Liberal party had been exhausted by the array of problems which confronted it before 1914. This is put especially strongly by George Dangerfield in his influential work The Strange Death of Liberal England. Between 1910 and 1914 the Liberal governments faced a series of debilitating crises involving conflicts with

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