History doesn’t repeat itself: why the Lib Dems won’t split

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2010

“A healthy pedestrian mowed down by a runaway omnibus” – Trevor Wilson’s metaphor to describe the fall of the Liberal Party between 1916 and 1931 is quoted approvingly by Professor John Shepherd, co-director of the Labour Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University, in a fascinating article in the summer issue of the Journal of Liberal History.

One of the Coalition memes doing the rounds among some of the commentariat is that, by embarking on a partnership with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have sealed their own fate, that a split is inevitable. After all, the argument goes, Lloyd George’s pact with the Tories, which reached its apogee with the ‘coupon’ election of 1918, saw the party divide into Coalition Liberals and Asquithian ‘Wee Frees’, a rupture from which the party never recovered.

The latest commentator to slip into the ‘history repeats itself’ error is Stephen Pollard, writing in the Telegraph, who argues “there is a lesson to be learned” from the past, before tendentiously concluding: “Given that the party is already so divided, there is surely little chance of history not repeating itself.”

So let’s take a brief look at Professor Shepherd’s article, The Flight from the Liberal Party, to remind ourselves of the conditions under which the Liberals previously split:

  • The Liberal Government of Asquith entered into the First World War with a “lack of clear war aims”, and having failed to “declare the nature and extent of the British military undertakings” – three Liberal cabinet minsters resigned in protest;
  • The Government introduced the Defence of the Real Act in 1914, with Liberals responsible for implementing “illiberal policies undreamt of by British Liberals … including press censorship, identity cards, food rationing and other state controls”;
  • Then the Liberal Government introduced conscription – a painful act for a party with a strong pacifist contingent – with the Military Service Act in 1916 in the face of opposition of 50 Liberal MPs and the resignation of the Liberal Home Secretary, John Simon;
  • The Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, was ousted from his post by Liberal War Secretary, Lloyd George – but with Asquith remaining Liberal leader, triggering “this crucial rupture within the party, now divided into two bellicose factions”, as exemplified by the ‘coupon’ jointly signed by Lloyd George and Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law;
  • This schism was compounded by the Coalition Liberals “post-war foreign and imperial policy and its attitude to the punitive Treaty of Versailles”, alongside the Government’s intervenetion in Bolshevik Russia, the Chanak crisi which almost precipitated war against Turkey, the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India, “and the ruthless policy of using the Black Tans’ in Ireland”;
  • Simultaneously of course the insurgent Labour party was able to take over “the Liberal mantle of radicalism in domestic, foreign and imperial affairs”, and by 1922 had surpassed the parliamentary representation of the Liberals who were now more or less equally split between the Asquith and Lloyd George rumps.

It is hard to imagine a more ‘perfect storm’ that could be faced by any political party, let alone a Liberal (with a capital L) government: the first ever world war, a failing war leader and a sharp-elbowed rival, a split leadership, a party forced to curtail citizens’ liberties, a government seemingly unable to make peace abroad, and a new, plausible rival for radical politics.

All of this is familiar historical terrain for students of Liberal history. But it’s worth recalling quite how dire was the situation which triggered the initial demise of the Liberal party. And though I’ve no doubt the Coalition years to come will be tricky ones, they will in no way be as difficult to navigate as were the years 1914-22.

Is it possible the Lib Dems could split? Of course. So is it also possible that the Conservatives or Labour could. But if the party did split, we can be sure the causes would be quite different to those which precipitated the party’s years of wilderness after the First World War.

So, yes, let’s be sure to look both ways to make sure there’s not a speeding omnibus heading straight for us – but the pedestrian looks to be standing his ground pretty well right now.