Magazine article Renewal

Parties and People: England 1914-1951

Magazine article Renewal

Parties and People: England 1914-1951

Article excerpt

Ross McKibbin


This is the published version of McKibbin's Ford Lectures, delivered at Oxford in 2008. The lectures themselves arose from his Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford University Press, 1998) and are best thought of as a sustained argument with himself and those around him in the field of Labour history, chiefly taking the form of a political sociology and psephology of the period. McKibbin investigates both the path taken and the alternatives that might have been. It amounts to a discussion of the extent to which party politics was determined by social changes, on the one hand, and contingency on the other, together with analyses of the sociology of the electorate and arguments about the relationship between those forces and the kind of democracy that emerged in 1951.

McKibbin once argued that the eclipse of the Liberals by Labour was inevitable, but no longer holds that view. Instead of seeing the Edwardian system as an already disintegrating system, as he once did, he now presents an 'equipoise in balance in 1914' based upon a 'progressive alliance' of Liberals, Labour and (more fitfully) Irish Nationalists. It was ideologically grounded in free trade, free collective bargaining, an active social policy and constitutional reform. The impermanence of this alliance derived from its lack of a long-term programmatic affinity. It cohered around leftovers from Victorian politics. It also rested on a changing sociology and the dying days of confessional rather than class-dominated politics at a time when the electorate excluded women, together with forty per cent of the male population. All these arrangements were highly provisional.

Each party had strengths as well as weaknesses. New Liberalism could boast a forward looking programme of social reform and held the legislative initiative, keeping Labour tied closely to its coat-tails. But it also contained 'an unresolved confusion' at its heart, because it wanted to appeal to the industrial working class and yet to be classless. The New Liberal political problem was to persuade the middle class to back its redistributionary thrust on the basis of its own stake in social reform. But the political reality was middle class exclusion, by means testing, from both pensions and national health insurance. Their exclusion, according to McKibbin, 'encouraged not only class grievance but class hostility' (p. 12). This was an opportunity for a Conservative Party increasingly adept at exploiting anti-socialism.

But the Conservative Party itself was not entirely convincing in 1914. It was the loser of the last three general elections, tactically retreating from tariff protection, and advancing towards sedition over Ireland. McKibbin sees a party more comfortable than its rivals in occupying the space on 'the edge of the abyss'. This may have been because it was also the party political expression of England's dominant values and institutions and the home of most of its elites. Proof of its political efficacy in this role was its ability to win a majority of English seats even in 1910. Universal suffrage would not necessarily damage it, even in the absence of four years of war.

Finally, there is the Labour Party, McKibbin's main interest throughout his career, a party sharing most of the values and beliefs of the Liberals in 1914. Labour stood in subordinate relationship to the Liberal Party, apostolic succession only a distant possibility. We do not know what would have happened to the party system in the absence of four years of war. We do know that the Liberal Party was most damaged by it while the Conservatives emerged stronger as the champions of the victorious institutions (armed forces, monarchy, empire, etc) and of patriotism, unconditional victory and anti-socialism. The Labour Party emerged stronger too, thanks to the containment of ideological tensions at the margin of its pro-war, trade union-dominated organisations. …

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