often a generational clash between â€˜Oldâ€™ and â€˜Newâ€™ Liberals, they both
included a strong Nonconformist component.56 Moreover, there was no
necessary contradiction between the policies advocated by each group.
The continuity between the two was best personified by Lloyd George,
whose 1909 land campaign â€˜retained the form of a traditional crusade
against â€˜â€˜privilegeâ€™â€™ . . . [but] its content became major social reformâ€™,
S. Collini, Liberalism and sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and political argument in England,
1880â€“1914 (1979), 42.
T. Lloyd, The general election of 1880 (1968), 160.
K. Laybourn, â€˜The rise of Labour and the decline of Liberalism: the state of the debateâ€™,
History, 80, 259 (1995), 225.
S. J. Brown, â€˜â€˜â€˜Echoes of Midlothianâ€™â€™â€™, 71, 182â€“3. 56 Searle, The Liberal party, 64.
Democracy and the politics of humanitarianism 365
focusing on urban land values, minimum wages and housing develop-
ments.57 With the notable exception of old age pensions, the measures
introduced by the new government in 1906â€“9 tested and vindicated the
enduring relevance of Old Liberalism. This was obviously the case with
free trade and the 1906 Trades Disputes Act.58 â€˜Home Ruleâ€™ for South
Africa in 1909 was not in the same league, but was important for the
Liberals: it vindicated the pluralistic view of the empire and United
Kingdom celebrated by Gladstone from 1886.59 It was also consistent
with the New Liberal â€˜inclusiveâ€™ patriotism which sought to transcend
conventional class struggle. As Readman has shown, despite the Radicalsâ€™
display of social hatred for â€˜landlordismâ€™, even their advocacy of land
reform â€˜largely stemmed from a conviction that it would do much to
bolster the national character of the peopleâ€™.60 The â€˜feudalâ€™ nobility and
the House of Lords were attacked in the name of the â€˜public goodâ€™, rather
than of class struggle. It was a refined version of Gladstoneâ€™s â€˜masses
versus classesâ€™, not the watered-down variety of Marxâ€™s proletarian gos-
pel, which inspired Lloyd Georgeâ€™s rhetoric and helped to contain the
Labour party in 1910.61
This is not to deny that, already before 1914, the shift from cultural to
class politics was eroding the viability of Old Liberalism.62 But it is to
remind us of the extent to which the period under consideration was one
of transition. In this respect, Clarkeâ€™s theory about the importance of the
Liberals being ready for the politics of class is still persuasive. For
Asquithâ€™s party was, so to speak, ahead of the game, and well provided
with a supply of men, ideas and experience which would shape the
collectivist consensus throughout the period 1918â€“1945. The real ques-
tion is why, after 1918, so many of these men and ideas â€˜migratedâ€™
into Conservatism, National Liberalism and especially the Labour
party, whose first two governments included a number of former
Liberal ministers and MPs such as Haldane, Trevelyan, Ponsonby and
Wedgwood. In other words, Clarke helps us to identify the problem
behind Liberalismâ€™s decline. The latter had little to do with the alleged
inadequacy of the partyâ€™s ideas and policies. Instead it was about the
Packer, Lloyd George, 194.
J. Thompson, â€˜The genesis of the 1906 Trades Disputes Act: liberalism, trade unions and
the lawâ€™, Twentieth Century British History, 9, 2 (1998), 175â€“200.
Ellis, â€˜Reconciling the Celtâ€™, 391â€“418.
P. Readman, â€˜The Liberal party and patriotism in early twentieth century Britainâ€™,
Twentieth Century British History, 12, 3 (2001), 295.
N. Blewett, The peers, the parties and the people (1972).
P. F. Clarke, â€˜Liberals, Labour and the franchiseâ€™, English Historical Review, 92 (1977);
Bebbington, â€˜Nonconformityâ€™, 655.
366 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
post-war generation believing that traditional liberal values were best
promoted through other party organizations.63 The Irish equivalent of
this problem is, in a sense, easier to solve. The decline and fall of parlia-
mentary Nationalism is closely linked to generational clashes, cultural
shifts and the disruption caused by war and terrorism in 1916â€“18.64
There is no equivalent of the electoral collapse of Redmondâ€™s party in
post-war British politics. The oft-quoted rebuttal of Clarkeâ€™s Lancashire
thesis â€“ namely that the New Liberalism was much less prominent in
other parts of the country, where the party stuck to its Old agenda â€“ is not
completely convincing.65 Of course, â€˜constituency parties could empha-
sise particular aspects of the â€˜â€˜nationalâ€™â€™ imageâ€™.66 But, while local elec-
toral outcomes essentially depended on party organization (rather than
ideas), in order to be effective New Liberalism needed to be established
not so much in the constituencies as at the centre, where it was indeed
well entrenched before the First World War. Moreover, among many of
their supporters in the country, â€˜peace, retrenchment and reformâ€™ con-
tinued to provide an adequate battle cry for the local Liberal parties well
into the twentieth century.67 In fact the combination of a New Liberal
ministry and Old Liberal caucuses and MPs in parts of the country may
have been highly suited to a time of change â€“ when ideas of state inter-
vention were still controversial and less than welcome to many of the
working class, its intended beneficiaries.68 In so far as the latter preferred
â€˜independenceâ€™, trade union rights and fair wages sufficient for them to
save for hard times, they too, and even the early Labour party, were closer
to Old Liberalism than to any variety of socialism or New Liberalism
which might lie ahead in the future.69
B. M. Doyle, â€˜Urban liberalism and the â€˜â€˜lost generationâ€™â€™: politics and middle class
culture in Norwich, 1900â€“1935â€™, Historical Journal, 38, 3 (1985), 617â€“34.
Bew, â€˜Moderate nationalismâ€™; Garvin, 1922: the birth of Irish democracy, 123â€“55; Laffan,
Resurrection of Ireland, Campbell, Land and revolution, 166â€“225; M. Wheatley,
Nationalism and the Irish party: provincial Ireland, 1910â€“1916 (2005).
K. O. Morgan, â€˜The new Liberalism and the challenge of Labour: the Welsh experience,
1885â€“1929â€™, in K. D. Brown (ed.), Essays in anti-Labour history (1974), 164, 170;
Laybourn, â€˜The rise of Labourâ€™, 215.
Tanner, Political change, 15.
M. Dawson, â€˜Liberalism in Devon and Cornwall, 1910â€“1931: â€˜The old time religionâ€™â€™â€™,
Historical Journal, 38, 2 (1995), 425â€“37; C. P. Cook, â€˜Wales and the general election of
1923â€™, Welsh History Review, 4 (1968â€“9), 387â€“95; M. D. Pugh, â€˜Yorkshire and the New
Liberalism?â€™, Journal of Modern History, 50, 3, (1978), D1139â€“55.
H. Pelling, â€˜The working class and the origins of the welfare stateâ€™, in Pelling, Popular
politics and society in late Victorian Britain (1979), 1â€“18.
P. Thane, â€˜The working class and state â€˜â€˜welfareâ€™â€™ in Britain, 1880â€“1914â€™, Historical
Journal, 27, 4 (1984), 877â€“900; Thane, â€˜The Labour party and state welfareâ€™, in
K. D. Brown (ed.), The first Labour party, 1906â€“1914 (1985), 183â€“216.
Democracy and the politics of humanitarianism 367
Laybournâ€™s claim that â€˜[t]he primary cause of the Liberal decline and
Labour growth was obviousâ€™ â€“ namely, that â€˜the voters had abandoned
the Liberal party in favour of its Labour or Conservative rivalsâ€™70 â€“
appears so self-evident and yet is wide of the mark. For, in absolute
terms, the Liberal vote continued to grow after 1918, reaching its peak
in 1929, when the party had twice as many votes as in 1906. But by then
they amounted to only 23 per cent of the votes cast under the recently
introduced universal suffrage. Thus the Liberalsâ€™ problem is not that they
were â€˜abandonedâ€™ by their old supporters, but rather that in the 1920s
they attracted a smaller share of the new voters than their competitors.
Moreover, in terms of their ability to offer new policies, although they had
been leading â€˜progressiveâ€™ opinion until 1914, they seemed to have lost
the initiative during the war, when free trade and humanitarianism were
discredited and New Liberal strategies were also adopted by the other two
parties. They managed to regain their dynamism only in 1929. But by then
Lloyd George had wasted much of his credibility as a national leader and the
party was unable to match its rivals in terms of organization and funding.
Meanwhile Nonconformity (or the Free Churches, as they began to be
called) remained a potentially powerful force in politics. Lloyd George
unsuccessfully sought to mobilize this constituency in the inter-war
period. He claimed, not without some justification, that â€˜when the
Evangelical Free Churches have failed to play any notable and active
part in the struggle for social reform and for international justice and
freedom, they have been weak and negligibleâ€™. By contrast, â€˜they [have
become] strongest when they are fired with enthusiasm for some living
cause which vitally affects the practice of Christianity in human lifeâ€™.71
However, for the Liberals the problem was that, although the Dissenters
never did become committed supporters of the Labour party, in the
1920s and 1930s their allegiances were divided, as Labour MPs became
the main advocates of the â€˜Nonconformist conscienceâ€™ in matters such as
drink control and gambling.72
In any case, what is most remarkable in the post-war era of universal
suffrage is not the rise of Labour, which was very slow and painful, but the
continued electoral dominance of a rejuvenated Conservative party,
which was able to recast Unionism in terms of national unity above social
strife, instead of territorial integrity against the claims of separatist
Laybourn, â€˜The rise of Labourâ€™, 207.
Lloyd Georgeâ€™s memorandum, 18 May 1938, cited in S. Koss, â€˜Lloyd George and
Nonconformity: the last rallyâ€™, English Historical Review, 89, 350 (1974), 108.
P. Catterall, â€˜Morality and politics: the Free Churches and the Labour party between the
warsâ€™, Historical Journal, 36, 3 (1993), 667â€“85.
368 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
nationalisms.73 This involved stealing the New Liberalsâ€™ mantle, which,
as Daunton has shown, they did with some success in 1925â€“9, with the
help of Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer.74 It is also significant
that, at least as late as 1920â€“3, the Conservatives felt that they ought to
make a real effort to â€˜deactivateâ€™ Old Liberal time-bombs â€“ such as Welsh
disestablishment, the relationship between church and state in Scotland,
and the â€˜Irish questionâ€™ â€“ which Lloyd George might have been able to use
in order to mobilize an anti-Unionist popular front. Baldwin contributed
promptly to the settlement of all these questions, including Home Rule
(in the shape of the Irish Free State and devolution in Northern Ireland)
and prevented the Lords from precipitating a new 1910-style constitu-
tional crisis.75 However, he could not avoid defeat on another â€˜Old
Liberalâ€™ sacred cow â€“ free trade â€“ around which the anti-Conservative
vote rallied both in 1923 and 1929.76
The role of the mass party
Despite the NLFâ€™s reputation as the cutting edge in â€˜caucusâ€™ and
â€˜machineâ€™ politics, it remained anchored to the idea of the supremacy of
its representative council even when this formula proved inadequate. The
same Liberal veneration for local democracy which inspired popular
support for Home Rule militated against the creation of a more effective
electoral machine. Continual changes in the constitution illustrated the
difficulty of finding, to the question of â€˜what the party wasâ€™, a liberal
answer which would also be an effective solution to the problem of â€˜how
the party should workâ€™, that is, how it could win elections. It may be
significant that, when the supremacy of the representative councils and
the practical need to win elections became incompatible, it was to the
preservation of the former that priority was given.
Furthermore, the NLF was unable to reconcile two notions of repre-
sentation then current among popular radicals. The one prevalent within
the NLF, and embodied in its constitution â€“ in all of its many drafts â€“ was
that representation meant representation of individual members: the
S. Evans, â€˜The Conservatives and the redefinition of Unionism, 1912â€“21â€™, Twentieth
Century British History, 9, 1 (1998), 1â€“27.
M. Daunton, Just taxes: the politics of taxation in Britain, 1914â€“1971 (2002), 124â€“35.
G. I. T. Machin, Politics and the churches in Great Britain, 1869 to 1921 (1987), 313â€“6,
226; K. Matthews, â€˜Stanley Baldwinâ€™s â€˜â€˜Irish questionâ€™â€™â€™, Historical Journal, 43, 4 (2000),
Howe, Free trade, 274â€“308; Trentmann, â€˜Bread, milk and democracyâ€™.
Democracy and the politics of humanitarianism 369
NLFâ€™s motto was the old radical watchword of â€˜one man one voteâ€™77 (later
women were also included78). However, there was another, community-
based, specifically working-class notion of representation, which entailed
that of communities rather than individuals. This was best exemplified
by the â€˜block voteâ€™ exercised by the north-eastern minersâ€™ unions in the
selection of parliamentary candidates: in practical terms, it was achieved
either internally, by infiltrating the Liberal caucuses, or from the outside,
by imposing on the Liberals conditions for the trade unionsâ€™ electoral
A possible way of reconciling such conflicting notions of representation
could have taken the shape of something like the secret 1906 agreement
between the German trade unions and the social democratic (SPD)
leadership: the latter â€˜undertook to avoid and play down policies offensive
to the trade unions. In return, the trade union leaders renounced any
attempt at establishing a separate political line for themselves.â€™79 Thus
the unions became the main prop of the party leadership against the
militant left, demonstrating the truth of Toquevilleâ€™s maxim that
â€˜democracy is not the enemy of oligarchy but perhaps its most fertile
soilâ€™.80 The SPD developed into a model of Weberâ€™s â€˜bureaucratic mass
partyâ€™, that is one which was held together by oligarchic organization (in
which the trade union bosses played a major role).81 Moreover, such a
solution, had the Liberal party been able to adopt it, would have provided
the leadership with the power to control the rank-and-file organization.
However, this would have required a degree of centralization that neither
the NLF nor the Liberal party as a whole possessed at the time.
A more feasible alternative would have been to accommodate, within
the NLF constitution, both individual and corporate membership for
trade unions and other associations and leagues, such as the Liberation
Society, which could then be allotted some form of â€˜block voteâ€™. That this
was not attempted was one of the reasons why the NLF was unable to
absorb other radical pressure groups, a failure which remained its major
long-term weakness,82 especially in contrast to its Irish counterparts. On
Report of the Conference, 31 May 1877, 15, in NLFAR. As J. Chamberlain emphasized,
â€˜The vote of the poorest member is equal to that of the richest. It is an association based
upon universal suffrageâ€™ (ibid.).
In fact, from as early as 1877 Chamberlain felt he had to allude to prospective womenâ€™s
membership: â€˜I donâ€™t say anything about women, although it may appear ungallant not to
allude to them, and although I am aware that there are many good Liberals who think that
they, too, might be consulted as to the legislation by which they are considerably
affected.â€™ (Report of the Conference, 31 May 1877, 23, in NLFAR.)
Nettl, â€˜German Social Democratic partyâ€™, 78. 80 Cited in ibid., 79.