Depending on which definition of liberalism you refer to, this question could have two different answers; the parliamentary liberal party and the ideological creed of liberalism have fared enormously dissimilarly since the events of 1918.
The ideology of liberalism was arguably born from the Enlightenment of the 18th century, on the core values of individualism and freedom, and in the backdrop of the French revolution. Since then it has grown and radiated around the world, and can be said to be one of the most globally influential political ideologies, from its earliest forms of John Locke in the 1600’s, to Classical and Modern liberalism debates, all the way to the liberal two-party system in America, and the rise of the New Right in the western world in the 2000’s.
Although I will be arguing that the ideology of Liberalism is still greatly influential and prevalent in modern society after the events of 1918, it is undeniably true that parliamentary liberalism has been less successful.
The last Liberal majority government in Britain was in 1910, led by Asquith and Lloyd George, and since then the party has only held governmental weight in two coalition governments: 1918 and 2010. In this essay I will be discussing why the changes before 1918 so greatly damaged the party’s parliamentary credibility, yet allowed the core ideological values to carry on influencing British politics.
From 1802 when the United Kingdom was first created, to 1918 at the end of WW1, there was a strict two-party system in Britain, between the Tories/Conservatives, and Whigs/Liberals, however since this time, the liberal party has never again had sole parliamentary control. The factors that brought about this change have been widely discussed by historians.
Pugh argues that the common basis of liberalism used to be clear, placing weight on issues such as legal and constitutional reforms to improve civil liberties, and viewing economic freedom as a source of moral good (Pugh, 2012 p.108), however, from these initial core values, a form of ‘new liberalism’ arose in the 1900’s, namely modern liberalism, which showed a fundamental shift in ideology, in the belief that most restraints on liberty were actually of an economic or social reason, rather than legal, this split in ideology continued to nuisance the party, as it further fragmented MPs after the war.
Overall however, this period can be called liberalism’s heyday, and its dominance within the country was summarised by historian Vernon, when he claimed liberalism in this period was “one authentic, articulated ideology of the British bourgeoisie” (Vernon, 2011 p.11). Seeing as the working classes political power was significantly weaker than today, until the Representation of the People Act in 1918 finally allowed all men to vote, as well as female factory workers, the fact that liberalism was the obvious ideology of the middle class meant that, it was the ideology of the whole electorate.
It may seem puzzling that from these heights the party, in both election successes, and progress of their policy agenda, especially in the Gladstonian and 1906 governments, could fall so far as to never win an election again after 1918.
Historians are in disagreement over the process that allowed this fall, some subscribe to the ‘inenvitablist’ and others to the ‘accidentalist’ ideas; differing in opinion on to what extent the War played in the fortunes of the liberals.
The school of thought supporting the idea that the ‘accident’ of the Great War was the main feature of liberal decline draws its arguments from the seemingly obvious evidence, that the end of the war also brought the end of liberal power, as the first election after the war brought a succession of liberal losses, and their withdrawal from the two-party system, along with replacement from Labour.
However, the reasons behind these results are indeed deeply rooted, beginning with the fragmentation and disagreement within the ranks of the liberals. There was a widespread notion among liberal politicians that war was not appropriate or in-line with the message of the party (McKibbin,2010 p.22), due to misgivings towards conscription, state intervention, and censorship. These disagreements within the party can be seen to split and destabilise, ultimately leading to a divide between Asquith and Lloyd George supporters in 1916 (McKibbin,2010 p.23), with Asquithians never supporting total war. These uncertainties undoubtedly weakened both the functionality and public view of the party, at a time when the country required a strong government after a period of upheaval.
However, I believe that the argument for the inevitable nature of liberal decline holds more weight. At this time of uncertainty within the Liberals, the other parties were having no such issues, as the war benefitted both the Conservatives and Labour. Both the circumstances and the subsequent politics of war were much more suited to the Conservatives (McKibbin,2010 p.26); the circumstances in the sense that the war enabled them to gain governmental power on two occasions, without having to fight or win an election, due to the wartime coalitions, as well as the withdrawal of Asquith liberals leaving a vacuum that the Tories could fill. The politics of war were beneficial because they meshed more comfortably with the ideals of conservatism, and as the ‘party of property’ (McKibbin,2010 p.26), they were more readily enthusiastic to defend the private property that is at risk during war. These factors, combined with a fragmented liberal party, re-established the political pre-dominance of the Tories, and cemented their place in the post-war political system.
The most dramatic change to the party politics in this time is undoubtedly the rise of Labour, and its replacement of the Liberals. A variety of reasons lead to this growth of Labour, not least the fact that the electorate increased exponentially in 1918, meaning that its core voters were finally given an appropriate share of influence. Pugh states that “21 million people could vote in the 1918 election… it dealt the liberals a blow from which they never recovered” (Pugh, 2012 p.161), implying that the new enfranchisement, and the party’s electorate bases had dealt the liberal party a deadly blow.
The competition between Labour and the Liberal’s has long been named ‘The Progressive Dilemma’ by prominent historians such as Marquand. Marquand argues that due to the electoral system in Britain being based on majoritarianism rather than proportionality, combined with two parties fighting over one demographic (the progressive vote), this meant that the fall of the liberals was inevitable, because only one of these parties would survive in a two-party system, while all others would live as third parties (Marquand, 1999 p.24).
It can be argued that the Liberals tried to combat the issue of the Progressive dilemma by joining forces with the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ (BBC); this new party, the Liberal Democrats, debatably addressing the problem, by providing a middle alternative, and started their career well, coming a close third to Labour in the 1983 election, with 25.4% of the vote (UK political info). However, they soon lost momentum, and the progressive vote continued to be split.
A further factor to support the idea that the fall of liberalism was inevitable is the growth in class voting during this time, which was surmised by historians: “Class voting was incompatible with the continued success of the Liberal Party” (Lawrence and Taylor.1997 p.108).
This theory is based on the ‘class homogenisation’ that occurred during the war, aided by further industrialisation and trade unionism. As the working classes became more class conscious, the political system must respond, and it did so in the form of the Labour party. As the Conservatives and Labour became mass, class parties, the liberals had no such defined electorate, and therefore no distinct goals.
Mckibbin also points to first past the post as a cause for the end of successful liberalism, claiming that labour victories after the 1920s were due to “an electoral system which inadequately reflects the preferences of the majority of voters” (Mckibbin,2010 p.67). Undoubtedly, the British electoral system does inevitably lead to a two-party system, however I believe that the issues discussed above, are the core reasons for liberal demise, which were then cemented by the voting system, where the liberal party was trapped in its position as a Third party.
In conclusion, I agree in some senses that liberalism indeed had ‘had its day’ by 1918, as clearly, the party’s electoral success crashed after this point. There are many complex and interwoven reasons behind this, including the effects of World War One on society, the implications that this had for class politics, the agency of the opposition parties, and the failure of the liberals to offer cohesion and a strong agenda to the public.
Despite this however, the values of positive freedom, individualism, the importance of the free market and a small state, have made an inconceivably large impact on western politics. Clearly seen in both Britain and Europe, but also in America. Even the most left-wing aspiring politicians must show some interest in these ideals to be considered viable, shown in the failure of Bernie Saunders in America, and the initial deriding of Jeremy Corbyn, both for straying too far from the liberal middle ground that is considered standard in the modern west. Furthermore, great influence from classical liberalism can be seen in the New Right ideology, possibly even taking it further, to the extent of market fundamentalism.
Overall, yes parliamentary liberalism in Britain was defeated in the years after 1918, but still the principles of conceptual liberalism live on in influencing other parties, and therefore the world.
- BBC – On this day – 1981: ‘Gang of four’ launches new party http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/26/newsid_2531000/2531151.stm
- Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor – Party, State and Society. Electoral behaviour in Britain since 1820, 1997.
- David Marquand – The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair, 1999.
- Ross McKibbin – Parties and People, England 1914-1951, 2010
- Martin Pugh – State and Society: British social and political history since 1870, 2012.
- James Vernon and Simon Gunn – The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain, 2011.
- UK political Info – a resource for voters, students, journalists, and politicians.