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How far was the Decline of the Liberal Party in the Period 1867 to 1918 due to the effects of the First World War, rather than due to the growth of Democracy?

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Introduction

How far was the Decline of the Liberal Party in the Period 1867 to 1918 due to the effects of the First World War, rather than due to the growth of Democracy? The Liberal Party faced many problems in the period 1867 to 1918. The growth of democracy and the development of class based politics meant the Liberals needed a new direction and a new identity. Middle and upper classes voted Conservative, and increasingly the working classes were abandoning the Liberals for Labour. There were other problems including the issue of women suffrage, Irish home rule, and the disputes with the House of Lords. However, the Liberals' fate was sealed with their conduct of the First World War. No firm direction, divisions in the party, coalition governments, undermining of Liberal ideology, the increase in franchise and the exponential growth of the Labour Party all resulted in the destruction of the Liberals. The subsequent social reforms of 1832, 1867, and 1885 increased the number of working class voters so that by 1885 60% of adult males could vote, and politics became more divided on class grounds. The working class would traditionally vote Liberal as opposed to conservative, but increasingly the Liberal Party were neglecting working class issues such as wages and providing jobs with the inevitable result being the rise of the purely working class Labour Party - 'The Liberal Party was bankrupt of ideas, and lacked popular roots in the community which would have enabled it to withstand the assault upon its traditional ideas' (A). ...read more.

Middle

Upper House obstruction in the Parliament of 1892-95 had reduced the government to impotence as the peers abused their powers over the Lower House. The Liberal victory in 1906 brought with it an 'ambitious and constructive policy of social reform...which necessitated the introduction in 1909 of a highly controversial budget' (B). The rejection of this by a Conservative majority in the House of Lords instigated the Parliament Act 1911 which successfully curbed the powers of the Upper House and resulted in a comprehensive defeat of the Lords. A further problem was Britain's mighty industry - 4 million days were lost through strikes in 1912 alone. However, most trade unionists were not interested in a general strike to overthrow capitalism, and still gave grudging support to the parliamentary forces of the Labour Party. The issue of women's suffrage gained much publicity, but the Pankhursts' WSPU was an irritant rather than a serious threat. The only real problem occurred when the women started to starve themselves when imprisoned for acts of violence - this was dealt with efficiently by the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913. However, the issues regarding Ireland posed potential political dynamite. In 1912 the issue of Home Rule came to the forefront and there was a high chance of civil war breaking out. The resultant guerrilla war by the nationalists against the irregular forces linked to the crown represented the collapse of the perceived chance that a peaceful answer could be found to the Irish problems. ...read more.

Conclusion

The rise of Labour as a result of the war, represented through the war by Arthur Henderson, legitimised the party and Henderson's position in the war cabinet provided the pivotal credibility and confidence. There was almost full employment during the war, which meant increases in the number of member of the trade unions - 4 million in 1914 to 6 million in 1918 - which increased funds and support for the party. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 increased the franchise further from 8 million to 22 million - as most of the newly enfranchised were working class this greatly benefited Labour. The new Labour programme also enabled them to fill the gap left by radical Liberals in many parts of the country. Liberal dependence on Irish Home Rule Party collapsed - as they lost much ground to Sinn Fein (1918 Sinn Fein held 73 seats compared with just 6 for Irish Home Rule Party). The Russian revolution inspired working class consciousness, therefore increasing support for Labour due to class based politics. Labour also benefited as their socialist policies of nationalisation of industry needed during the war had worked well, for example coal mining and the railways, thus providing further credibility. The decline of the Liberal Party was most certainly due to the war. Huge events such as the split between Lloyd George and Asquith and the rise of the Labour Party opened deep cracks in the Liberal Party, which ultimately caused the disintegration of what once the most dominant party in the country. Thomas 1 ...read more.

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