Liberal Democrats are making the same mistake that doomed the Liberals

A century on, the party again faces the same questions about its role that the Liberals failed to answer

David Lloyd George and HH Asquith, the UK’s last two Liberal Prime Ministers (source: Wikipedia)

In its heyday, the Liberal Party was one of the dominant forces in British politics. After the party’s landslide victory in the 1906 general election, the UK would have Liberal Prime Ministers for the next sixteen years, and then would never have another one again.

The fall of the Liberal Party and “the strange death of Liberal England” is one of the foundations of modern British politics. There’s still ongoing debate about the nature of that fall: did the Liberal Party jump or was it pushed? If the party could have found a way to bridge the gap between Asquith and Lloyd George, could it have survived as a major force, or was the changing nature of the country and the advent of universal suffrage always going to lead to it being eclipsed by the rise of the Labour Party?

Of course, those aren’t two mutually exclusive positions and most will come down at some point on a spectrum between them. One might say, for example. that changes in the structure of British society and politics made the Liberal position harder to maintain, but there were better ways the party could have reacted to those changes. And while the collapse of a previously major party is an interesting spectacle, it is not a unique one, and there are many parties around the world who, just like the Liberals, either failed to adapt to changing circumstances or let internal feuding bring them down. (Many managed both)

Which brings us to the Liberal Democrats, who, while never being quite as powerful or prominent as their predecessors, spent a long period as the pre-eminent third party in the British political system. That time has now ended, and the party has now had three disappointing general election results in a row, been through four leaders in the last five years, lost a huge part of their former local government base, and have been languishing in the polling doldrums for over a year.

Now, I could write a long section here about the current state of the Liberal Democrats and the internal debates within the party, but luckily, my friend Will Barter has already done that, and I recommend you read his posts on the party’s current dilemmas:

While the situations of the parties in 1921 and 2021 are not entirely analogous, I would contend that the arguments about how they got into that position are. In both, there is an ongoing discussion about whether the party and its leadership are responsible for the position it finds itself in, or if it’s because the party is at the mercy of much larger political and social changes that have destroyed the ground on which it used to rest.

At one end of the spectrum we have the position that the party made bad decisions (or at least decisions that the public regard as bad) but that this is part of the ebb and flow of normal politics. Poll ratings are depressed now but once the voters have got over (or been persuaded to get over) blaming the party for those bad decisions then things will return to normal. After this restoration of normality, the party will go back to being the leading third party in a two-and-a-bit party system. In this vision, the best strategy for the present is to hunker down, keep campaigning locally and wait for the storm to pass over and then when it does the party can re-emerge from the shadows and take advantage of politics returning to “normal”.

This is the strategy the Liberals of the 20s and 30s took — indeed, the Liberal Party’s leadership was convinced they’d make major gains at the 1945 general election — when they chose to believe all the changes going on were merely temporary and that eventually normal politics would return and the party would be back in either power or opposition.

At the other end of the spectrum, the argument is that the changes in society and politics over the last few years have had and are having such an effect on the country that there can be no return to any form of previously “normal” politics. Instead, the party needs to think fundamentally (both philosophically and practically) about what it is, what it is for, and what its role is in this new era, in precisely the way the post-1922 Liberals did not. On a socio-economic level the 2008 crash, Brexit and the pandemic have utterly changed things, but also the UK political system is now organised in a different form to the one it took in the Liberal Democrat heyday. There are no longer just two big parties competing in a national Downsian positioning conflict (if there ever were) and instead we have a whole range of parties competing in different ways in different places. Even if there are still two large parties the rise and effect of the SNP, Greens, and UKIP/Brexit/Reform mean the Liberal Democrats can no longer sit in the middle and play an honest broker/plague on both your houses role.

This is not a situation a party can find a way through by just hunkering down and hoping for things to get back to normal, because this is normality now. This then leads to the questions that weren’t asked a hundred years ago — what is a liberal vision for this era? How can that vision be brought into being? And perhaps the one that no one really wants to ask, but should: is a liberal political party the best way to achieve that, or even necessary for the creation of a liberal society? And if it is, what form should that party take in this current system?

None of those are easy questions with easy answers (though I would recommend reading The Generous Society for an interesting perspective on the first of them) but the trap British liberals fell into a hundred years ago was assuming there were easy questions with easy answers and we’ve been paying the price ever since. Before the same mistakes get repeated (and with entirely new mistakes for a new century added on) the Liberal Democrats need to decide if “let’s just hope all this goes away” is the best strategy they have for the coming years. If the party wants more than that, it needs to be deciding what it wants to be now, not regretting missing this opportunity in decades to come.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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