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

By David Powell | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The crisis of the party system began in the Edwardian period before the First World War. It arose out of a struggle between the Liberal and Conservative parties that had its origins in the Victorian era but which erupted into a fiercer partisanship in the battles over the People's Budget, reform of the House of Lords and Irish Home Rule. However, this historic conflict between Liberal radicalism and the Conservatives' defence of the established order was overlaid by newer concerns. Politicians of both major parties were aware of mounting pressures for social, economic and political reform that threatened the basis of their traditional duopoly. Most obviously there was the challenge of Labour, which the Liberals partly contained through the electoral expedient of the 'progressive alliance' but which nevertheless introduced a more explicit class/industrial element into the political equation. Other groups, notably women, were protesting at their exclusion from the political process. Yet the more the Liberals moved to respond to radical pressures - whether the 'old' radicalism of nationality and Nonconformity or the 'new' of social welfare, industrial reform and democratisation - the more desperate Conservative opposition became. The Conservatives countered New Liberal policies of progressive taxation with the alternative interventionism of tariff reform, but otherwise mounted an increasingly strident defence of aristocratic privilege and the status quo, even to the extent of countenancing violent rebellion in Ulster against parliament's enactment of a Home Rule Bill. The broad consensus that had underpinned the Liberal-Conservative party system in late Victorian Britain was breaking down. So, too, was the two-party system itself. The Liberals after 1910 were dependent for a parliamentary majority on Labour and the Irish. The Conservatives, unable to escape from their own minority status, were slipping into the dangerous waters of anti-constitutionalism and a revolt of the 'radical right'.

The First World War did not entirely resolve the pre-war crisis but altered its context. Many of the traditional causes of Liberal-Conservative rivalry were rendered irrelevant. On the other hand, a series of new political, ideological and social challenges emerged. The single-party Liberal government that had entered the war gave way in 1915 to the Asquith coalition, an unhappy combination which was succeeded by Lloyd George's government in 1916. In the

-192-

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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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