Blame Lloyd George

W.G. Runciman

  • Parties and People: England 1914-51 by Ross McKibbin
    Oxford, 207 pp, £20.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 958469 7

When Oxford University Press commissioned Ross McKibbin to write the volume in the New Oxford History of England covering the years 1918 to 1951, they got more than they bargained for. McKibbin couldn’t contain what he wanted to say within the covers of a single volume, and Oxford wouldn’t agree to the inclusion of a two-volume work in their series. The result was the separate publication in 1998 of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51, which concentrated on the social history, now followed by the publication of the Ford Lectures delivered in Oxford in 2008, which concentrate on the political history.

The story McKibbin tells, with predictable skill, is of the way the successful Edwardian alliance between the Liberals and Labour came to be followed by the disintegration of the Liberals, Labour’s traumatic humiliation in 1931, a seemingly unchallengeable Conservative dominance up to 1940, Attlee’s unexpectedly large majority in 1945 and the return of the Conservatives under Churchill in 1951.

No reader is likely to disagree with McKibbin that ‘the historical evolution of this political system was not inevitable.’ Indeed, those (if any) for whom history is still about great (or not so great) men may want to argue that it was just a series of personal failures of character and judgment at the critical moments: Asquith’s in 1915-16, MacDonald’s in 1930-31 and Chamberlain’s in 1938-39. But the influences at work were of course a great deal more complicated than that. The explanation of what did (or didn’t) happen lies, as McKibbin rightly says, somewhere in the relationship between underlying social change and contingency in the context of a parliamentary franchise which was enlarged from the 7,709,981 men eligible to vote in the general election of December 1910 to the 28,850,870 men and women eligible to vote in 1929.

The replacement of the Liberals by Labour as the anti-Conservative party of government has been a subject of dispute among both participants and commentators ever since it occurred. In the book on the early history of the Labour Party which established his reputation, McKibbin argued that the organisational and financial resources provided by the trade unions had by 1914 put Labour in a position to overtake the Liberals as the party representing the working-class interest. He has now moved closer to what seems to be broad agreement among historians of the period that the Liberal Party was in a stronger position, electorally speaking, in 1914 than it looked in retrospect. Even though the First World War exposed dilemmas and divisions among the Liberals which might otherwise have been contained, it is not inconceivable that if Asquith had brought Bonar Law into a coalition to be dissolved as soon as the war was over, an election fought in 1918 might have kept the progressive alliance intact with the Liberals continuing as the dominant partner. But the survival of the alliance was always going to depend on agreement between Labour and the Liberals on the issues which mattered most to the enlarged electorate. As these changed, and party preference became more closely linked to ‘class’, the Liberals found themselves in the position of representing neither ‘capital’ nor ‘labour’, and in the 1920s that was not an electorally promising position to be in.

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