When seven MPs left Labour on 18 February they made a point, at the press conference launching their Independent Group, of setting out their values and how they differed from those of the party they had just departed. Two very contemporary concerns – consciousness about racism (in this case, more specifically, anti-Semitism) and the wish to avoid Brexit – dominated their pitch, and were echoed when an eighth joined them the following day. Some of us were reminded of the Limehouse Declaration and the secession of a group of MPs from Labour at another time when it was considered unacceptably doctrinaire and leftist. It would be glib to say the events of January 1981 led only to the extinction of the participants’ Commons careers, and also untrue.
It took 16 years, but Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams could have designed the programme on which Tony Blair won the 1997 general election by a landslide. The three Tories who crossed the floor on 20 February – as they seem to have proved by associating themselves with the former Labour MPs – would have sat equally happily in Blair’s party: for Blair’s own ideology and theirs have similar roots that go back well over a hundred years. Blair was one ghost at the feast: but there were others, from the more distant past. For the ancestor of the SDP, of Tony Blair’s New Labour and the new Independent Group of MPs was the Liberal Party of Henry Campbell-Bannerman, HH Asquith and David Lloyd George.
Although readily endorsed by enlightened members of the upper and upper-middle classes, it won elections because before the Labour Party existed the Liberal Party sought to advance the lives and interests of industrial and agricultural workers, and garnered their votes. It was the party predominantly of provincial non-conformists, not of suave metropolitans. It owed nothing to existing orders or hierarchies. With the blot on its record that Asquith, for reasons that today seem incomprehensible, could not bring himself to support female suffrage – an opposition even he had to admit was absurd when women threw themselves unreservedly into the war effort – it was a truly progressive party. It sought to conciliate trades unions rather than confront them, acting when necessary as an honest broker between employers and workers, notably in the miners’ dispute of 1912 that threatened to bring the country to a standstill.
Apart from a few eccentric Liberal imperialists, the party held the concept of the British empire at arm’s length, not least because many of its members questioned the self-assumed right of proprietorship over other countries that went with imperialism; but also because some of them even questioned the common assumption that the white man was inherently culturally and intellectually superior.
Campbell-Bannerman described the conduct of the British in the Second Boer War, between 1899 and 1902, as reliant on the “methods of barbarism”: though he referred to the appalling conditions imposed on (white) women and children in concentration camps. The provocation of the Boers since the mid-1890s by British buccaneers who wished to make money out of the mineral wealth of southern Africa had affronted many Liberals other than Campbell-Bannerman, even before the collateral damage caused by the conflict.
The party’s default position in foreign affairs generally was non-interventionist, hence its agonies in 1914 when as a government it was responsible for deciding whether German violation of Belgian neutrality should force Britain into a war. Unlike the highly paternalist Conservative Party of the time, it believed in leaving everyone alone, whether at home or abroad.
Yet in the interests of progress the Liberal Party refused to let its individualist ideology trump pragmatism. It created an embryonic welfare state, when in 1909 it introduced old age pensions. Until then, once the elderly became too infirm to work they were consigned to the workhouse unless they had managed to save enough money to keep them in their last years – which almost no one in the working class could afford to do – or unless their children were prepared to support them (as many did). The pensions were not generous – five shillings a week (about £25 in today’s money), and payable only to those over the age of 70 at a time when the average male life expectancy was 48. But the Liberal government’s creation of the pension signalled its evolving belief that the state had a duty of compassion towards people unable to support themselves, rather than condemning them to end their lives in indignity.
The Liberals decided a progressive state should help people find work, and created a network of labour exchanges: an idea championed by Winston Churchill, who although starting and finishing his career as a Tory had joined the Liberal Party in 1904, because of his commitment to free trade. It also decided that the unemployed or the sick who were unable to work should not face the workhouse. The National Insurance Act of 1911 allowed for those who had paid their contributions to have unemployment and sickness pay, and maternity benefits. In keeping with the tenets of Liberalism, it relied on friendly societies and not a state organisation to provide the benefits under this act; but it proceeded from a clear understanding that a prosperous society such as Edwardian Britain could and should not tolerate want and squalor of the sort then rife, especially in industrial areas. It was nothing like as comprehensive a system of welfare as the third Labour government would create 40 years later, but it was infinitely more than anything the Conservative Party, for all Disraeli’s self-serving rhetoric about ending the divide between “two nations”, had done.
Although National Insurance, then as now, required contributions from employee and employer, the state also made its contribution. This had to be funded, as had the pensions, so brought an element of mild redistributiveness into the Asquith government. Determined to make the better-off pay more towards the civilising process, Lloyd George introduced what became known as his “People’s Budget” in April 1909. Mild it was: only those earning over £5,000 a year (half a million pounds in today’s money) would pay the new super-tax, which on sums above £5,000 would be levied at five shillings in the pound, or 25 per cent. Those still rich, but earning less, paid a lower rate of extra tax.
Yet there was an outcry that led to the House of Lords rejecting a finance bill for the first time since the reign of Queen Anne. To preserve the integrity of their vision, the Liberals called an election and, returned to office with the help of the Irish Nationalists, forced the Lords to pass the Budget after all. To avoid a repeat, they took through the Parliament Act of 1911 to strip the House of Lords of its veto, even threatening to flood the chamber with Liberal peers to pass the legislation (one would have been Thomas Hardy). Apart from the extension of the franchise to women and poorer working-class men, it was the greatest blow struck for democracy in the 20th century.
The old Liberal Party commended itself to its electorate as a party that championed the individual against the old, entrenched aristocratic landed interest. It believed in equality of opportunity and social mobility and, more to the point, in facilitating those things. It was William Gladstone, as Liberal leader, who ensured through the 1870 Education Act that a school place was provided for every child, whether by the church, private charity or if necessary by the state. Also during his first administration, from 1868 to 1874, he ended a civil service staffed by patronage and an officer class in the army confined to those who could afford to buy a commission.
In his second administration, between 1880 and 1885, the Married Women’s Property Act ended the outrage of a husband automatically acquiring, on marriage, the rights to anything his wife owned. He introduced the Second Land Act in Ireland to redress the balance between mainly absentee landlords and their tenants – to whom were promised fair rents, fixity of tenure and free sale. Above all, his Reform Act of 1884 gave the vote to another six million working-class men.
Gladstone’s short third administration began the process of allowing Ireland to rule itself, though it was the failure of the Home Rule Bill to get through the Commons that put him out of office. His inherent anti-imperialism did not end with Ireland; in all his spells in office he viewed with distaste the buccaneering freelance activities by Britons and others that come under the euphemism of “the scramble for Africa”. Earlier in the century it had been Liberal support for a Tory measure that had (in the teeth of opposition from Disraeli and the landed interest) repealed the Corn Laws and instituted an era of free trade that saw 27 years of consecutive economic growth from 1846 to 1873. Later, in the Rosebery administration that followed Gladstone’s retirement, William Harcourt’s introduction of death duties in 1894 sought to raise revenue by taxing the estates of the richest families in the country.
Since the launch of the Independent Group there has been talk by them and among their supporters of the desire not to fetishise poverty, but to escape from it. This idea of aspiration, of classlessness and of meritocracy was central to the old Liberal party. Few embraced the ideal better than Asquith himself. He came from a provincial Nonconformist middle-class family in Yorkshire, and after his father died when he was seven was shipped around various kindly relations before being sent to lodgings in London and attending the City of London School. He won a scholarship to Balliol, and was home secretary by the age of 40, in a House of Commons still dominated by the landed interest. He embodied the social mobility his party fought for, and once he became prime minister in 1908 chose men for his cabinet who were marked out by their talent and not by their birth. There was the odd aristocrat – Churchill, notably – but most of Asquith’s colleagues were self-made and from the middle classes, such as RB Haldane and John Morley, or had even more humble beginnings, notably Lloyd George and John Burns – who had been instrumental in the revolts of organised labour in the late 1880s.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Asquith’s belief in merit rather than birth was that he appointed to his administration the first three Jews ever to hold senior government posts: Herbert Samuel, Edwin Montagu and Rufus Isaacs. Isaacs was the most spectacular example of social mobility and achievement from a standing start. The son of a Spitalfields fruit importer, he once worked as a ship’s cabin boy; but raised the money to read for the bar and ended up as a marquess, having en route been attorney general, lord chief justice, viceroy of India and foreign secretary.
Is the Independent Group searching for the Liberal Party that, to use George Dangerfield’s famous metaphor, died strangely in May 1915 when Asquith was forced into a coalition during the Great War?
It was killed first of all by the illiberal necessities of war – compulsion, conscription, censorship, interventionism and various other philosophical evils that sat ill with the doctrine and the traditions of the party of Gladstone, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Lloyd George, as a proto-socialist, saw a far greater role for the state. In December 1916, frustrated by the drift in the direction of the war, Asquith’s indecisiveness and the impossibility of a cabinet of 22 men making rapid adaptations of strategy, Lloyd George orchestrated a coup d’état to remove Asquith from office. He formed a government composed almost entirely of statist Conservatives, a handful of Liberals with no loyalty to Asquith, and some patriotic Labour MPs.
The ensuing division between Lloyd George and Asquithian Liberals was the second fatal blow. Asquith’s supporters – one of whom was Clifford Sharp, the first editor of the New Statesman – distrusted Lloyd George and considered him not just disloyal, but dishonest. Anxious to cover up his own failures, Lloyd George lied to the Commons in April 1918 about the numbers of men under arms on the Western Front. A senior general, Frederick Maurice, who knew the real figures, wrote to the press to accuse the prime minister of misleading parliament. Asquith, now leader of the opposition, tabled a motion of censure, in the debate on which Lloyd George lied again. He won because of his parliamentary majority, not because of his honesty. When a general election was called after the war ended for the following December, Lloyd George and Bonar Law, the Tory leader, agreed to fight as a coalition: but Liberals who had voted against Lloyd George in the Maurice debate were vindictively denied official endorsement or, as it was known, “the coupon”.
As a result, 127 Liberal candidates loyal to Lloyd George were elected, but only 36 loyal to Asquith, of whom Asquith himself was not one. The Tories, with 382 seats, dominated the parliament.
By the time of the next election in 1922 Lloyd George himself was discredited, and had failed to deliver on the “homes fit for heroes” promises of 1918. He was reduced to 53 seats, overtaken by Asquith with 62. These divisions allowed Labour, with 142 seats, to become the official opposition for the first time. A little over a year later it was a minority government. The progressive party, having divided, had been replaced by another, more radical one, whose growth and momentum had been greatly assisted by the support of the trades unions, which had hitherto contained a large number of Liberal voters. Labour completed the Liberals’ marginalisation by proceeding to consolidate itself, helped by the first-past-the-post system. Once the coalitions of the 1930s and the Second World War were over, the two party system was established, and the Liberals were not one of them.
From the 1920s to the 1970s the need for a mainstream political party to address the needs of the millions of people who defined themselves as working class, and to seek to tackle the disadvantages in their everyday lives, provided electoral opportunities for a Labour Party whose advocacy of state intervention, redistribution, strong unions and the collective had mass appeal. Labour made the weather in British politics not just between the coming of Attlee and the fall of Callaghan in 1979, but really from 1918.
However, Labour, having overtaken the old Liberal Party in 1922, is now splitting (as the Liberals did in 1918). It may yet find itself supplanted by something remarkably like those Liberals – a fiscally responsible party that eschews foreign wars and imperialism but believes in developing a humane welfare state, spurns sectarianism and radical collectivism, and doesn’t inevitably frighten moderate or Tory voters. However, this new grouping is also defined by its pro-Europeanism, which may limit its appeal in a Brexit-voting nation – and has already prevented one disaffected ex-Labour MP, Ian Austin, from joining it.
These are early days, but it should soon be clear whether history repeats itself.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph