British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System

By David Powell | Go to book overview

Introduction

The emergence of an organised party system was one of the defining features of British political history in the nineteenth century. The supremacy of parliament had been established before 1800, but it was only after the extensions of the franchise in 1832 and 1867 that parties in something like the modern sense became a permanent feature of political life, crucial alike for sustaining governments with parliamentary majorities and for mobilising extra-parliamentary electoral support. In this way the shifting factions of the eighteenth century were gradually replaced by an increasingly coherent division of politicians into 'Whigs' and 'Tories', the forerunner of the Liberal-Conservative two-party system of the late Victorian period. The evolutionary process was generally smooth, despite the occurrence of occasional upheavals such as those of 1846 and 1886. In 1846 Peel's Conservative party split over the decision to repeal the Corn Laws, and was out of power for a generation in consequence. Peel's followers - Gladstone among them - subsequently joined forces with the Whigs to form the Liberal party of the late nineteenth century. But these developments took place in a comparatively closed parliamentary world, in which in any case party loyalties were still fairly fluid. They altered the balance within the party system that was evolving, but they did not completely overturn it, nor did they threaten the existence of the system itself. Similarly, the events of 1886 - when Gladstone's Liberal party split over the question of Irish Home Rule - temporarily weakened the Liberals to the advantage of Conservatives but left the basis of the two-party system more or less intact. The capacity of the major parties for recovery over an extended electoral cycle was amply demonstrated by the Liberals' overwhelming victory at the general election of 1906, which brought to an end nearly twenty years of Conservative predominance.

In the thirty years after 1906 the party system was substantially transformed. The Liberal party, victorious in 1906, had, by the mid-1930s, been reduced to a forlorn remnant of its former self following the wartime split between Asquith and Lloyd George and subsequent electoral decline. The Labour party - in 1906 little more than a trade-union pressure group heavily dependent on Liberal support - replaced the Liberals as the main party of the left, forming minority governments in 1924 and 1929 and retaining the status of a national opposition party in the 1930s, its own split of 1931 notwithstanding. Even more striking, in

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British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface and Acknowledgements vi
  • Abbreviations vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Parties and Politics in Edwardian Britain 10
  • 2 - The Crisis of Partisanship, 1910-14 34
  • 3 - The Crisis of War, 1914-18 58
  • 4 - Coalitionism and Party Politics, 1918-22 90
  • 5 - Three-Party Politics, 1922-4 117
  • 6 - Politicians and the Slump, 1924-31 142
  • 7 - Crisis Resolved: the 1930s and After 171
  • Conclusion 192
  • Notes 199
  • Further Reading 212
  • Index 215
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