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 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. Yes this was a failure, but over 90 years on a solution has still yet to be found. Perhaps a more pressing issue for the Liberals was that if they granted Home Rule for Ireland, the Irish Representatives in Parliament would leave Westminster therefore resulting in a loss of support which on more than one occasion was pivotal to Liberal majorities in the Commons.
However, any Liberal successes were muted as the party presented an image of chaos and one that was not capable of governing the country. Therefore a policy of ‘New Liberalism’ was adopted – an attempt to reinvent themselves to succeed in an era of class based politics. Liberalism was not in decline on the eve of war, and the party now showed some direction with the new party programme and the concentration on New Liberalism. However, it was the events of the war that finally crippled Liberalism, plunging them into obscurity from which they never returned.
The war marked a turning point for the Liberals. The First World War was a total war meaning huge state intervention. This principally undermines Liberal ideology – their belief in individual rights and liberty could not be upheld in a total war. Conscription was a big issue, which Asquith delayed until 1916. This, however, did not stop the resignation of the House Secretary and at least three other Cabinet Liberals threatened to do so fearing the dangers to individual liberties but Asquith’s ‘gradual approach to this policy kept the cabinet together, although Simon resigned and Lloyd George threatened to do so’ (C). The defining moment in Liberal history came in 1916 with the split between Lloyd George and Asquith. The feud between them divided and destroyed the Liberals and placed the destiny of the post of Prime Minister in the hands of the Conservatives. The December 1910 election saw the Liberals win 272 seats, but by 1918 Asquith’s section of the party won just 28 while Lloyd-George’s won 133. This decline was crucial, especially at a time of war when the country needs unity. 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.