Monday, 21 September 2009

Can history teach us anything about the balance of power?


The Liberal History group was spoilt for choice this year as Duncan Brack pointed out it is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Liberal Party at the Willis Rooms, it is 100 years since the people's budget (mind you the Cable/Clegg proposal to tax houses worth over £1m is a very practical commemoration of that event) and it is also the 200 years since Gladstone was born in Liverpool.

So instead of doing anniversaries they chose instead to look at the lessons history can teach us about hung parliaments. This hasn't happened as often as you might imagine; 1924,1929, the Lib/Lab pact of 1978 and if you stretch a point the Scots Parliament and the Welsh Senydd.

It is clear that Liberals have got better at handling this dilemma. The first time in 1924 Asquith screwed up badly. He was far too laid back-not to mention befuddled with brandy and he was up against Ramsey MacDonald whose clear objective was to destroy the Liberal Party. No good faith there then. Interestingly he was dealt by far the strongest hand if we judge by number of MPs. Having fallen to only 40 seats after the fall of Bonar Law's Tory government, the 1923 general election returned 159 seats . Southport Liberals won with John Brunner-the son of Sir John Brunner the long time Radical MP for Cheshire-and co founder of ICC. This is also the election where the correlation between the Liberal vote and conformist chapel was strongest and it was certainly the chapels that underpinned the Liberal success in the town

A significant boost was given to the campaign by the decision of Baldwin-the new Tory PM to cut and run early allegedly in order to get a mandate for his policy of introducing import tariffs. Both Lloyd George Liberals and Asquithians could unite around free trade. But as the speaker Professor Martin Pugh pointed out the unity did not run very deep. This point was picked up later by Michael Meadowcroft-a Sandgrounder and former MP for Leeds West-who told us about a conversation with a long time Leeds Liberal who as a young man was hired to work in a by election in city. It turned out that his job was to run messages between the two groups who occupied separate floors of the campaign HQ.

There was no arrangements to sustain the government. Asquith appears to have taken the view that there was going to be a Labour government at some stage and the no overall majority situation of 1924 was as safe as it got.

1929 was far better. The election campaign had given Lloyd George a clear policy mandate and momentum. Although he had far fewer seats than in 1924 he did have clear direction. Many who voted Labour expected them to introduce the sort of policy that the Liberals had campaigned on to conquer unemployment. Sadly Lloyd George was slow to understand the need for PR-indeed he had missed the chance in 1916 to enact the legalisation.

Initially it looked as if Lloyd George was doing well. He served notice that he was not going to a compliant. There was a Coal Bill early on and some of the votes were very close indicating that the Liberals could not be taken for granted.

Sadly as time drifted on and the economic situation got worse unemployment rose and the radical plans in the Liberal manifesto were not followed the chance was lost. Those Sir John Simon began to feel increasingly uncomfortable and the seeds of the Liberal Nationals were sewn.

From this period we can see that unity of purpose is essential, as is having a clear and well researched policy position. Despite the large Liberal vote in each of these elections there was no parity of esteem-especially from the Labour Party.

Martin Pugh, drew attention to the impact that the personalities of the key players. In particular he saw in the emotionally repressed and insecure -possibly even paranoid- behavior of MacDonald a man who could not trust his own party let alone Lloyd George or Asquith. You can't help wondering whether 80 years on whether the Labour Party has saddled themselves with a leader with similar characteristics?

The two modern examples -the Lib Lab pact and the devolved administrations- are very different. Most of the particpants are still about. Certainly in relation to the Pact the wounds have not all healed. Many Liberals identify the failure to get PR for Europe-or indeed seemingly even to fight for it as a betrayal. Maybe that it would be best-if you are interested-to read the review of that bit of the meeting on the Liberal History website when it is published there.