What if . . . The Liberals hadn't split

Reading a review copy of Roy Hattersley's new life of David Lloyd George last week, I fell to wondering whether history could have worked out differently. We remember Lloyd George today as the great, reforming chancellor who laid the foundations of the welfare state, the munitions chief who mobilised the nation to win the First World War, and the long-serving Liberal prime minister who steered Britain through the Great Depression.

Appeasement may have tarnished his reputation; but as Hattersley points out, had it not been for Lloyd George's New Deal, Britain might not have been so well prepared for the long war against Hitler's Germany.

Oddly, however, the turning point in the Goat's career was an event over which he had little control. We often forget today that, for a brief moment at the end of 1916, it seemed that he would turn against his own closest colleague, Prime Minister H H Asquith. But on 4 December 1916, Asquith, whose conduct of the war had been much criticised by his coalition colleagues, decided to let Lloyd George chair the new war committee. Had he chosen differently, the Liberal Party might even have split, throwing both men into the wilderness. As it was, however, Asquith became "the Man who Won the War", leading the Liberals to victory in the 1918 and 1922 elections and handing over to his brilliant Welsh deputy three years later.

The really intriguing question, though, is what would have happened to the British party system if Asquith and Lloyd George had fallen out. Historians now talk about the "strange rebirth of Liberal England", to borrow the title of George Dangerfield's classic book, arguing that the expansion of the franchise, the resolution of the war in Ireland, the implosion of Unionism and the failure of the Labour Party to make headway meant that Liberal hegemony was always inevitable. Might Labour have toppled the Liberals as the "progressive" party?

The answer, clearly, is no. Liberalism was so deeply rooted in British political tradition - especially among nonconformists and the progressive middle classes - that it always had an enormous advantage, while Labour's ageing leaders seemed adrift in the new world of the 1920s. A decade later, indeed, many of Labour's senior figures had virtually joined the Liberals, most famously Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.

Buoyed by the intellectual inspiration of Keynes and Beveridge, Liberalism carried all before it. When Lloyd George stepped down in 1937, he gave way to the greatest Liberal leader of all in Winston Churchill. And even now, under our third Lib-Lab administration in 20 years, we remain a quintessentially Liberal country, renowned for our modesty, sobriety and sexual decorum - the most ironic of Lloyd George's many legacies.


Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial