The Liberals' Last Hurrah

York Membery looks back to the crunch 1920s election which saw the party of Gladstone narrowly pushed into third place – a position from which it has never recovered.

The 1906 general election gave the Liberals a landslide victory - 399 seats and an overall majority of 130, with the Unionist Party reduced to a rump of 156. The big issue had been the threat to free trade, which was championed by the Liberals, versus tariff reform, proposed by the Unionists.

Less than two decades later, the Unionists' decision to embrace protectionism (tariff reform by another name) triggered the general election of December 1923. Once again, free trade was the Liberals' rallying cry and they went to the polls hoping that voters would return them to their 'rightful pre-eminence' in British politics. This time, however, there was no 1906-style electoral breakthrough, even if the result was breathtakingly close. Subsequently the party went into its long decline. So what happened in those seventeen years up to 1923?

The Liberal Party had still been in reasonably good shape in 1914. It had been in government for eight years and had triumphed in three elections in a row; with support from the Irish Nationalists and the Labour Party, it had introduced a raft of progressive legislation. However, the Great War subjected it to unprecedented strains. In 1915 Herbert Asquith, prime minister since 1908, took the Liberal Party into coalition with the Unionists, but - with the war going badly - the following year his one-time ally, David Lloyd George, led a 'palace coup' and ousted him.

Asquith's supporters never forgave what they saw as this act of treachery and when, after the November 1918 armistice, Lloyd George opportunist- ically went to the country in the 'coupon' election, the Liberal Party split. (The 'coupon' was a letter of endorsement for Lib- erals who supported the coali- tion government, signed by both Lloyd George and the Unionist leader, Andrew Bonar Law; no Unionist candidate stood against a Liberal with the coupon, or vice versa.)

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