The Liberals and the Great War, 1914-18

by Dr Michael Lynch. University of Leicester

new perpective Volume 2. Number 2. December 1996

Summary: The collapse of Liberal fortunes was remarkably rapid and the First World War is a central reason for Liberal electoral decline. Not only were Liberal principles compromised by the needs of war but the war was the occasion for a profound split between Asquith and Lloyd George and their supporters. With rapidly falling morale in the constituencies and the loss of women's and Irish support, the party was also disadvantaged by changes to the electorate in 1918. A challenging question remains, to which only theories, not answers, are possible: would Labour necessarily have eclipsed the Liberals without the circumstances of the First World War?

BY 1914 THE LIBERAL PARTY had been in office for nine years. During that time it had been undefeated in three general elections, had introduced a major programme of domestic reform, and had surmounted a series of deeply-troublesome social and economic crises. Yet, four years later in 1918, it was out of office, and so weakened that it would never again form a government. How is this remarkable change of fortunes to be explained? What happened in the war years between 1914 and 1918 to account for the enfeebling of the Liberal party? Although historians often differ in their answer to these questions, they agree that the impact of the First World War has a central place in any analysis of Liberal decline.

The Impact of the War on Liberal Principles

British political parties each possess a set of attitudes or beliefs that help to define their character. The working principles on which the Liberal party had been based may be broadly summarised as peace, non-intervention in foreign affairs, financial economy, free trade, social reform, home rule for Ireland and the preservation of the liberty of the individual. It was these concepts that the Liberals found impossible to maintain when burdened by the responsibility of waging total war.

The demands of the four-year struggle against Germany drove the party to adopt policies that would have been unthinkable in peacetime. Liberalism had never been wholly pacifist but it had developed a strong aversion to jingoism. The Liberals had vigorously opposed the Conservative government's conduct of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) as brutalising and degrading. But, in 1914, the Liberal government accepted the necessity of declaring war on Germany. This meant that in order to sustain Britain's war effort, they were now obliged to appeal to that same spirit of nationalism that they had formerly found so distasteful.

Thus began a process that, over the next four years, was to undermine many of the ideals to which the Liberals had previously held dear. The decision to enter the war against Germany was an obvious abandonment of the policy of seeking peaceful solutions to international problems. The soaring costs occasioned by war made it impossible to control government expenditure. Most telling of all, the concept of personal freedom was rapidly eroded by the growing encroachment of the State upon the rights of its citizens.

The change of direction forced on the Liberals was evident in the very first government measure of the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), rushed through Parliament in August 1914. DORA, which was re-enacted a number of times during the course of the war, conferred on the State and its agencies' unprecedented authority to control the lives of ordinary persons. A whole range of restrictions followed. The Press was subject to censorship and the government dictated what war news could be made public. Men were conscripted into the armed services. British travellers overseas had to apply for passports and identity cards had to be carried by ordinary citizens. Income tax rose from sixpence (2.5p) to six shillings (30p) in the pound. Food was rationed, alcohol and tobacco were heavily taxed, and strict licensing laws were imposed on public houses. Trade was directed, and controls were imposed on the use of currency. Employers in key industries were told what to produce, what wages to pay, and whom to take on the payroll. Employees were forbidden to strike or demand higher wages and could be made to move home and change jobs.

The irony was that it was a Liberal government that did all this, for, lthough Britain after 1915 was formally led by coalitions, the key ministers continued to be drawn from the Liberal party. The truth was that the longer the war lasted, the more Britain's struggle became a matter of survival. In such grim circumstances, the traditional peacetime values of freedom of speech and assembly came to be regarded as a risk to national security. Lloyd George, Prime Minister from December 1916, justified the Liberal shift by claiming that a democratic government in time of war had 'the right to commandeer every resource, every power, life, limb, wealth, and everything else for the interest of the State'.

The issue that most strikingly revealed how far the war had pushed the Liberals from their original stance was that of conscription. The character of the fighting on the Western Front, with its enormous drain on manpower, had shown by 1915 that the system of voluntary enlistment was simply incapable of providing the necessary troop numbers. The growing demand for the introduction of compulsory military service proved impossible to resist. In January 1916, Asquith finally succumbed and gave his support to the Military Service Act, which imposed enlistment on all males between the ages of 18 and 41. Some 50 Liberal MPs rebelled against the Bill, asserting that the State did not possess the moral right to force the individual citizen to participate in war. Though the majority of Liberals sympathised with the rebels they, none the less, voted for the Bill, believing that the circumstances of war made it necessary.

The conscription question split the Cabinet. Grey, the Foreign Secretary, and McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were among those who were deeply unhappy with the measure. However, Lloyd George, Munitions Minister, who had moved from his earlier uncertainties to a conviction that the war required the commitment of the entire nation, threatened resignation if the Bill were delayed. He objected fiercely to the concession that allowed conscientious objectors to be excused military service. Later, as Prime Minister, he colluded with Churchill in breaking a munitions strike by threatening to send the strikers to the war front.

There are, therefore, strong grounds for saying that, by 1918, all the principal causes that had characterised pre-war Liberalism had been jettisoned or gravely compromised. Britain's entry into the war had effectively ended the notion of the Liberals as a peace party. The economic regulation of the State by the wartime governments had marked the abandonment of free trade. Conscription and censorship had challenged the concept of the freedom of choice of the individual.

The Leadership Crisis

As well as weakening Liberal ideals, the war was also the occasion, if not the cause, of a crippling split in the Liberal party. In December 1916, Lloyd George with Conservative backing ousted Asquith and took over as Prime Minister. Historians continue to disagree over who was responsible for Asquith's fall. Lloyd George's desire for personal power, Asquith's political misjudgements, Conservative intrigues: these figure among the explanations for the leadership crisis. However, the reasons for the split are less important than its consequences.

Immediately following Asquith's replacement, some 130 Liberal MPs declared their readiness to follow Lloyd George. Yet, although Asquith had been removed as Prime Minister, he continued as official leader of the Liberal party. He refused to serve in Lloyd George's Cabinet; instead he became leader of the parliamentary opposition. This anomaly meant that the Liberals were divided from 1916 onwards between the Asquithians, who claimed to be the official Liberal party, and the followers of Lloyd George, the Prime Minister. The political harm this did was revealed in 1918 when, in the first election for eight years, the Conservative Coalitionists won an overwhelming victory. Asquith's Liberals were reduced to only 28 seats, less than half the number gained by the Labour party. It is true that Lloyd George continued as Prime Minister, but his Liberal supporters had retained their seats only because the Conservatives had agreed not to put up rival candidates in their constituencies.

The party split that began in 1916 may be interpreted as marking the great divide between old and new style Liberalism. Broadly speaking, those Liberals who remained loyal to Asquith were members of the higher professional classes: financiers, merchants and lawyers figured prominently. Lloyd George's supporters were humbler in origin: smaller businessmen and radical nonconformists were typical. Some political analysts see this as an illustration of the class politics of the time, a revolt of the former outsiders in British politics against the existing political establishment. One historian goes so far as to describe those who backed Lloyd George as representing 'a long-delayed revolt of the provinces against London's political and cultural dominance: a revolt on behalf of the factories and workshops where the war was being won'.

The fracturing of the party left Lloyd George as Prime Minister dependent on the support of the Conservatives. However, Lloyd George's willingness to work with the Conservatives was not simply a matter of political expediency. By 1918 he had come to believe in the virtues of coalition consensus politics over those of party interest. Moreover, the way he conducted government, relying increasingly on outside experts rather than political colleagues and rarely visiting the House of Commons, detached him further from his Liberal base. This created an extraordinary situation; the outstanding Liberal of his day no longer felt that his first loyalty was to the Liberal party.

The Party's Electoral Problems

Divisions among the Liberal leaders tended to take the heart out of party workers at grass-roots level. Historians now stress the importance of what was happening in the constituencies. The underlying problem for the Liberal party was that, though the majority of its members had come to accept that the war required great sacrifices, it was hard to come to terms with the suspension of the government's pre-war social-reform programme. Liberal morale sank. It became increasingly difficult to recruit and motivate local party workers. In 1918 the Liberal party's Chief Whip lamented:

Masses of our best men passed away to Labour. Others gravitated to Conservatism or independence. Funds were depleted and we were short of workers all over the country. There was an utter lack of enthusiasm or even zeal.

There is little doubt that the Liberals lost irrecoverable electoral ground during the war. The pacifist Union of Democratic Control was a constant reproach to the government. In addition, the Irish Nationalists, who before 1914 had normally supported the Liberals on domestic issues, felt betrayed by the government's policy towards Ireland. The suspension for the duration of the war of the Home Rule Act, together with the severity of the government's crushing of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, had indicated that the Liberals were far from solving the Irish question. The Irish Catholic electors in England largely turned to Labour, while in Ireland the Nationalists began to vote for Sinn Fein. An additional difficulty was that Asquith's sustained resistance to votes for women created a reluctance among many female party workers to continue serving the Liberals. This was made more serious by the growing number of women activists who joined the Labour ranks following an agreement between the Labour party and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

An equally important factor accounting for the decline in local support for the Liberals was the 1918 Representation of the People's Act, a reform which increased the electorate from 7 million to 21 million. A number of historians regard this trebling of the electorate as having had momentous political consequences. The greater number of new voters were working class; their natural inclination was to support the Labour party. In the 1918 election, Labour's share of the vote rose from 7 per cent to 22 per cent, in direct proportion with the growth in the overall electorate, and the number of Labour MPs rose by a third from 42 to 63. The post-war trend towards the replacement of the Liberal party by Labour as the second largest single party had been established.

The Rise of the Labour Party

Some historians hold strongly to the view that the First World War did not so much damage the Liberals as reveal the harm already done them by the growth of the Labour party. In 1934 an important work appeared which seemed to offer a convincing explanation of Liberal decline. In The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield suggested that the serious crises that troubled Britain between 1911 and 1914 were a proof that the Liberal governments had been unable to cope with the pressing social, political and economic issues of their time. As a party they were too politically moderate and therefore were soon superseded by the Labour party which was much better equipped to deal with the issues of the twentieth century.

This argument was modified in 1966 by Trevor Wilson in The Downfall of the Liberal Party. In his book, Wilson likened the Liberal party to an ageing man who was already unwell by 1914 but was finally finished off by being knocked down by a bus in the form of the First World War. The demands of total war ruined the Liberal party by destroying its morale and creating a crisis of leadership; the restrictive measures resorted to by the State took the heart out of the Liberals by destroying their traditional beliefs in individual liberty. This left the way open for Labour.

The role of the Labour party has become a crucial part of the debate over Liberal decline. Until fairly recently there was a general assumption that, given the changing nature of Britain in the early twentieth century, with an enfranchised and politically-conscious working class, the Labour party was bound to take over from the Liberals as the voice of the workers. The growing urbanisation of Britain and the increase in trade union affiliations, gave the Labour party a financial strength and an electoral potential that the Liberals could not match. As politics became increasingly a struggle between the forces of capital and those of labour, the party whose very name made it the political representative of labour was destined to attain power.

Contemporary historians are now, however, very wary of accepting what was basically a Marxist notion of the inevitability of labour takeover. The idea that Liberal decline is to be explained in terms of class politics is difficult to sustain. Writers, such as David Marquand and Duncan Tanner, have pointed out that the strength of the Labour party and the weakness of the Liberals in 1914 have both been exaggerated. They argue that the impressive feature of the Liberals in 1914 was not their weakness but their strength; after all, they had successfully survived all the challenges that had confronted them since 1908. While it is true that the Labour party had grown in membership in the country at large, mainly through trade-union affiliation, it was not a real force in Parliament before 1914 and had never looked capable of becoming an alternative government to the Liberals. The reason why it took over from the Liberal party had more to do with the effect of war and the oddities of the British electoral system than a straight rejection of Liberalism and a popular embracing of Labour. This suggests that the demise of the Liberal party was no more inevitable than was the rise of the Labour party.

Even if one accepts that there were long-term causes of Liberal decline, the fact remains that it was during the First World War and not at another time that the party splintered and became unelectable. What would have happened to the Liberal party had the First World War not intervened must remain a matter of speculation. And, in the end, it is facts not speculation with which the historian has to work.

Words and concepts to note

enfranchisement: the grant of the right to vote.

jingoism: the willingness to engage in aggressive war in pursuit of national interests.

The Union of Democratic Control: an organised parliamentary group representing the Liberals' anti-war tradition.

New Liberalism: distinguished by its commitment to social reform and its desire to woo the working-class voters

Marxism: an interpretation of history as essentially a struggle between opposing economic and social classes, destined to end with the triumph of the proletariat (the organised industrial working class).

Questions to consider

w Which pre-war Liberal principles were abondoned during the First World War?

w Which was the more important reason for Liberal problems; the impact of the war on Liberal principles or the leadership crisis?

w How far did 'New Liberalism' meet the aspirations of the newly enfranchised voters?

w How would you justify the claim that the supplanting of the Liberal party by Labour was not inevitable? (You may find it useful to consult David Dutton 'The Conservative Party in the Nineteenth Century', new perspective, Vol. 1, No 2, December 1995, pp. 2-5, when you form your answer.)


Further Reading: G.R. Searle, The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration 1886-1926, 1992; Ross McKibbin, The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-24, Oxford, 1974; Duncan Tanner, Political Change and the Labour Party, 1900-1918, Cambridge, 1990; John Turner, British Politics in the Great War: Coalition and Conflict 1915-18, London, 1992; Trevor Wilson. The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914-35, London, 1966; Chris Wrigley, David Lloyd George and the British Labour Movement: Peace and War, Brighton, 1976; Keith Laybourn and Jack Reynolds, Liberalism and the Rise of Labour 1890-1918, 1984.

The Liberals and the Great War, 1914-18 by Michael Lynch. newperspective 1996

Dr Michael Lynch, who teaches at the University of Leicester, has been a chief examiner for a number of A Level Examination Boards. His works on modern British and European history include Gladstone and Disraeli (1991) and Lloyd George and the Liberal Dilemma (1993).

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