What was the biggest misjudgement made by a Liberal Democrat* politician in the last century?

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2007

Leading political blogger Paul Linford has published an interesting list of what he considers to be the top 10 political misjudgements made by British politicians, defining ‘misjudgements’ as events which “arguably changed the course of history, and certainly adversely affected the careers of those who made them.”

Top of Paul’s list was:

1. Jim Callaghan not calling an autumn election, 1978

What happened: Prime Minister Callaghan ducks out of an autumn 1978 election after private polls show it might result in a hung Parliament. The ensuing Winter of Discontent puts paid to Labour’s credibility as a governing party and leads to 18 years of Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state.

What might have happened: Narrowly re-elected, Callaghan serves for a further three years as Prime Minister before handing over to Denis Healey, who, buoyed by North Sea oil revenues, goes on to establish Britain as a stable, continental-style social democracy. The defeated Margaret Thatcher is replaced by Francis Pym and relegated to a historical footnote as only the second Tory leader of the 20th century not to become Prime Minister.

All of which prompts the question: what was the biggest misjudgement made by a Liberal Democrat* politician in the last century? (Cue heated arguments about whether Lloyd George or Asquith bears greatest responsibility for the decline of the Liberal Party in the 1920s.)

* compulsory footnote: “or predecessor parties”.

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26 comments

Well that is an easy one.
David Steel cooperating with the formation of a seperate SDP.

by Geoffrey Payne on October 25, 2007 at 8:39 am. Reply #

I would like to name two.

1) H. H. Asquith’s decision to join the World War in 1914.

2) David Lloyd George’s decision to ally himself with the Conservatives against the other half of the Liberal Party in the “Coupon election” of 1918, and thus cause the future decades in the marginal.

Some claim that Lloyd George’s decisions which split the Liberal Party were necessary to win the World War, but at this point the war was already won.

by Anonymous on October 25, 2007 at 8:43 am. Reply #

I would, I am afraid, have to argue that the entire creation of the SDP was an error of judgement, and the only reason it wasn’t included in my original list is that there was no one individual to pin it on. It delayed the recovery of the Labour Party and thus the cause of social democracy by at least ten years, and didn’t, in the longer term, actually strengthen the political centre that much – the Liberals/Liberal Democrats would still have scored similar results at the 1992,1997, 2001 and 2005 elections had the breakaway not happened. And of course in terms of the careers of the individuals concerned, it was a disaster. David Owen and Shirley Williams would certainly have been Cabinet ministers again if they had remained in the Labour Party and Owen might even have become leader after Kinnock. It was Healey and Hattersley who made the right call in 1980-81 by staying and fighting.

by Paul Linford on October 25, 2007 at 9:26 am. Reply #

I have to disagree almost entirely with Paul Linford’s assessment.

Without the SDP the Liberal Party may very well have fizzled out entirely during the 1980’s. It was the launch and media buzz surrounding the SDP that made the third party poll as well as it did during the 1980’s, although this was not replicated in terms of seats due to the electoral system.

The SDP also brought a professionalism that did not exist before but is still felt in the party today and which has contributed greatly to the relative success of the party during the 1990’s and into the new millennium.

Also, Labour would have taken even longer to recover without the SDP. The prime inspiration behind an electorally successful Labour Party was the SDP.

Shirley Williams was out of Parliament in the early 1980’s and without the SDP would have probably pursued a successful academic career instead of going back into frontline politics as she would have found it difficult to get back in a predominantly left wing Labour Party. Owen and Rodgers would also probably have suffered a similar sideline. Jenkins may well have become a great and the good crossbench Peer.

I could go on, but to dismiss the positive impact of the SDP on both our Party and the Labour is extremley niave. The short term gains of the SDP were few, but the long term gains were considerable.

by Doug on October 25, 2007 at 9:44 am. Reply #

L-G’s alienation of the co-operative movement?

by Jock on October 25, 2007 at 9:46 am. Reply #

Paddy’s ‘project’ with Blair after the 1997 election.

Fortunately it failed on Blair’s inability to deliver, but if he had succeeded in putting Lib Dems in the cabinet, the party would now be dead.

A monumental misjudgement which circumstances prevented coming to fruition.

by Richard Church on October 25, 2007 at 10:07 am. Reply #

I’m with Doug at 4. re the impact of the SDP.

The problem with looking at errors of judgement since the second world war is that as the 3rd party any single decision by a Liberal or Liberal Democrat politician is not the whole picture. 1981-83 was the Golden Moment and you could pick Steel and Jenkins’ decision to give RJ the lead role in the election but in the end would the bigger forces at work have led to the same result?

The people in the SDP who opposed merger clearly made a massively damaging mistake but I am struggling to bring myself to call Owen a liberal (maybe we can blame John Cartwright).

If you want to be controversial maybe you could argue the biggest mistake was not taking up Churchill’s offer to roll the Liberal Party up into the Tories after the war – would liberal ideals have had more impact by leading the Tories away from nationalist conservatism from the inside..?

Surely though the four biggest mistakes were

1. not strangling the LRC at birth (not sure which individual I should pin that on)

2. Asquiths ego splitting the party by not realising when it was time to go quietly in 1915-16

3. Asquith not backing the introduction of Proportional Representation when they had the chance before the first world war

4. Asquith opposing womens’ suffrage – not for its impact on party fortunes but because it was morally the wrong thing to do

But of course you could argue with each of these that HHA was the captive of circumstance…

by Ed on October 25, 2007 at 10:30 am. Reply #

Ed, I think HHA made many mistakes, but DLG wasn’t innocent, either. I blame them both for the fate of the Liberal Party, putting their swollen egos before liberalism. If only John Morley would have become the leader and Prime Minister after Henry Campbell-Bannerman, things would have been different.

by Anonymous on October 25, 2007 at 11:16 am. Reply #

8. Thats very true – I was just warming to a theme 🙂

And for the sake of disambiguity, I mean I think it was morally wrong (and therefore a disaster for liberalism) for so many of the Liberal leadership to oppose women’s suffrage not that I think HHA opposed it on those grounds.

by Ed on October 25, 2007 at 11:32 am. Reply #

David Penhaligon’s decision not to wear his seatbelt on his last fateful car journey – he’d have been a shoo-in for leader of the merged party if he’d still been around and would have avoided Paddy’s obsession with doing deals with Blair.
Ed, the setting up of the LRC wasn’t within the last century.

by Bernard Salmon on October 25, 2007 at 11:44 am. Reply #

4/ Doug. A lot of the benefits you refer to would have happened anyway if Roy Jenkins had joined the Liberal party. I know some Social Democrats say they never would have joined the Liberal party, but many of those were the ones who caused as serious problems later anyway, particulary David Owen.
The SDP actually damaged the reputation of the Liberal party in the peace movement and the green movement making it harder to recruit the kind of activists we needed to stand as councillors.
David Steel and the SDP were relying too much on short term opinion poll ratings and by-elections, but when the 1983 general election came, it was where we had a good local base of long term local campaigning that determined where our gains and marginal seats were.
Most of the SDP MPs lost their seats. It was Liberal “professionallism” that gave the SDP a lifeline for a feww more years.

by Geoffrey Payne on October 25, 2007 at 11:49 am. Reply #

It may have been rumoured that RJ was on the verge of joining the Liberal Party on his return from being EC President but I remain to be convinced he would have gone the whole hog and done that, even if he did I doubt he would have taken many others with him. The SDP made making the break from Labour much psycologically easier for many of those that are still in the Lib Dems today.

The SDP gave the third party a national credibility and professionalism, which would not have been achieved by Jenkins sole defection to the Liberal Party, which guaranteed survival for the third force as we know it. A sole defection would also have had no long term effect on the Labour Party.

by Doug on October 25, 2007 at 12:12 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey Payne wrote: “It was Liberal “professionallism” that gave the SDP a lifeline for a feww more years.”

Right, so the 26% obtained by the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1983 was solely attributable to the Liberal part of the Alliance. Even though the Liberal Party on its own in 1979 got 14%.

by Angus Huck on October 25, 2007 at 12:59 pm. Reply #

12 AH. I think the circumstances were right at the time for the Liberal party to do very well in 1983.
I never said that the 26% the Alliance got then was solely attributable to the Liberal party. However under our electoral system, as well as doing well in the national vote, we also had to do well locally in the constituencies, and that is where Liberal “professionallism” paid off, and where the SDP failed.
If we had a fair voting system, the story would have been completely different.

by Geoffrey Payne on October 25, 2007 at 4:57 pm. Reply #

No 13:

Polling during the early stages of the Alliance showed repeatedly that support for the Alliance above the Liberal base vote of about 10% was attributable to the SDP.

Also, the extra votes the Alliance obtained in 1983 came overwhelmingly from Labour. Few of these would have been available to the Liberals alone.

The Liberal Party, at the time, did not endorse targeting. In fact, the only constituencies won in 1983 as a result of exclusively Liberal campaigning techniques were Leeds West, Liverpool Mossley Hill and Yeovil.

Reactivating old anti-SDP prejudices at this stage in the party’s history is frankly silly.

by Angus Huck on October 25, 2007 at 5:07 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey Payne:-

Your argument is somewhat skewed by the fact that the majority of seats the SDP defended in 1983 were either safe Labour seats or at best straight Tory versus Labour seats.

No SDP seats had a particularly strong showing from a third party in their electoral history (with the exception of Crosby and Hillhead where byelections were won under unusual circumstances) and indeed some seat didn’t have Liberal candidates at all until 1979 as the Liberals did not up until then contest all seats.

Therefore, you are confusing successful Liberal Party gains made on the 1983 election night where the Liberal Party was already well organised and had history(for example, winning back Montgomery which they lost in 1979 and gaining Roxburgh which was essentially part of David Steel’s old seat – amongst the Liberal Party gains, none can be considered a surprise) with the brutal truth that under the electoral system the SDP was probably lucky to win the six seats that it did in 1983 due to the difficulties of mobilising a third party force and presence in two and a half years where none existed previously.

by Doug on October 25, 2007 at 5:27 pm. Reply #

“No SDP seats had a particularly strong showing from a third party in their electoral history.”

Caithness & Sutherland was a Liberal seat between 1964 and 1966, held by George Mackie.

I remember a discussion with a friend during the 1983 campaign when, for that reason, we concluded that it was the one seat the SDP was certain of holding

I imagine the Liberals would also have won Charles Kennedy’s seat in 1983.

by Jonathan Calder on October 25, 2007 at 6:19 pm. Reply #

How about Lloyd-George’s decision not to support the nationalisation of the Coal industry. Had he done so the effect on the miners support for the developing Labour party could have been profound.

by Hywel Morgan on October 25, 2007 at 6:47 pm. Reply #

My impression has always been ( as someone who would happily change the party’s name back to just “Liberal”) is that we got the best out of the merger. The SDP’s organisational gene has dominated with better structures and presentational effort. The Liberal party’s philosophical gene has been dominant. Ergo the numerious references these days in internal communications to “liberalism” rather than the more abstract Liberal Democracy”.

If it had been the other way round then god help us!

by David Morton on October 25, 2007 at 7:13 pm. Reply #

17 – You cant be serious! You really think, that the Liberals should have supported nationalisation?

by shocked on October 25, 2007 at 9:18 pm. Reply #

Biggest misjudgement:

Jeremy Thorpe’s decision to silence Norman Scott by sending Andrew Newton to shoot Rinka in 1975.

by shocked on October 25, 2007 at 9:49 pm. Reply #

Having failed to capture the value of mineral rights for the common wealth as part of the 1909 budget then yes, state ownership of such rights would have been justified. Though perhaps not the business of extracting the minerals!

by Jock on October 25, 2007 at 10:03 pm. Reply #

I’m a little concerned that Stephen has given us the short end of the stick in this article.

The list is compiled of misjudgements from across the political spectrum, but the way the article is composed it gives the impression that we claim the inheritance of all of them – which is certainly not true!
Should our next leader be the person who leads out of exile and back into government someone will perhaps draw up a top-ten list of difficult and unpopular decisions which proved correct in retrospect and they will list the departure of Ming as one of the most significant.

We must get better at recognising our positive contributions and selling our achievements rather than assuming humility will obviate humiliation.

by James on October 25, 2007 at 10:37 pm. Reply #

A personal misjugment that damaged the party in recent history is of course Mark Oaten’s leadership campaign of 2006.

To declare for the leadership in the knowledge that you only had the true support from one member of the Parliamentary Party counts as short sighted arrogance in the extreme. There was also the botched attempt to get Kennedy’s backing, then it got farcical with reports of a break in at his office just as he was being squezzed out of the contest.

But the biggest misjudgment of all was that Oaten even entertained the idea of leading the party when he knew all too well there was such a huge clunking skeleton in his own cupboard that would almost certainly have been used against him had won the contest. As the party was still recovering from the downfall of Kennedy, this could have damaged the party possibly beyond repair had he won.

Putting his ego first and his party very much second was a sad end to what could have been a very promising frontbench career.

by Doug on October 26, 2007 at 9:51 am. Reply #

Another misjudgement:

David Lloyd George’s decision to sell peerages.

And I’m not sure, but whose decision was it to give MPs free hands, when Liberals still had the majority and could have decide to introduce PR to elections? DLG or HHA?

by Jan on October 26, 2007 at 10:25 pm. Reply #

Michael Meadowcroft’s decision to found a split off party.

by poiuytre on October 27, 2007 at 4:26 pm. Reply #

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