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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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). The Tories capitalised on this by gaining working class support through the Empire, in particular on the issue of the 1900 ‘Boer War’ election – the result of which meant that the Tories returned 402 seats and the Liberals just 184. The Conservatives could always count on the vast majority of the middle class – they feared they would have much to lose if the radical Liberals pandered to trade unionism or Irish Nationalism and the expanding lower middle class wanted to protect their salaries and properties in the suburbs away from the slums in the cities – they looked to the Tories to guard their newly found status in society – ‘villa Toryism’. The Redistribution Act 1885 was also a Liberal failure – the act was heavily influenced by Lord Salisbury to such an extent that when the new boundaries were drawn, Conservative voters could never be swamped, thus allowing middle class suburbs to elect Conservative MPs.  Therefore it can be argued that the development of class based politics as a result of the reform acts spelled an inevitable decline of the Liberal Party. However, universal suffrage was not granted until 1918. Only 60% of adult males could vote, and the majority of the working class was left out. Therefore, the growth of democracy was limited thus discrediting this factor as a principal cause for decline. It was the problems associated with being in power that posed a much greater threat to Liberal survival.

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The period 1880 to 1914 saw many problems that the Liberals had to contend with.  George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England argues that ‘it was in 1910 that fires long smouldering in the English spirit suddenly flared up, so that by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes’. Dangerfield argues that Liberalism in this period was undermined by four political nightmares.  The Tory revolt following the struggle with the House of Lords over Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909 was a difficult problem. Upper House obstruction in the Parliament of 1892-95 had reduced the government ...

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