The Strange Afterlife of Liberal England

What does he know that we don’t? Throughout this election campaign, even in both the bruising television events that he shared with other party leaders, Lib Dem chief and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has seemed as buoyant and lively as he was during the “Cleggmania” of five years ago. If, as the polls suggest, his political career is doomed (and the only thing on which the pundits are agreed in this election is that the Lib Dems will be the biggest losers in terms of seats) then the man himself is showing few signs of acknowledging it. Perhaps his sense of humour could be gallows-flavoured: various polls in his Sheffield Hallam constituency suggest that his Labour rival Oliver Coppard could well just edge ahead in Thursday’s election. If this does happen, it will be a seismic act of tactical voting: definitely not natural Labour territory, Sheffield Hallam is home to a lot of students who will not easily forget or forgive Clegg for his spectacular U-turn in 2012 over tuition fees. It will also be a big psychological boost for Labour: Hallam is the one part of South Yorkshire that the party have never represented in Westminster. Even if Clegg does not lose his seat, for all his confident talk about the terms in which he and his party are willing to enter another coalition, many in the Lib Dems feel that they need a cleansing spell in Opposition after what has been quite a bruising experience for them in government.

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader since 2007
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader since 2007

It would not be the first time the leader of Britain’s centrist party has lost his seat in an election: this also happened to former Prime Minister H H Asquith in 1918, Herbert Samuel in 1935, and Archibald Sinclair in 1945. Then again, British Liberals of all ranks are well practised in brave-face application under apparently hopeless conditions. Jo Grimond, Liberal leader from 1956 to 1967, famously declared ‘I intend to march my troops to the sound of gunfire‘ at the party’s annual conference in 1963: it is unclear to what extent he meant this to be a joke. Whether or not his intent was humorous, Grimond’s leadership did, in fairness, set the Liberals on their long-hoped-for recovery from near-extinction in the 1950s, a recovery that saw the party enter government with the Conservatives in 2010.

Nick and Dave’s Exhilarating Adventure could very easily never have happened – not just because not all Tories were champing at the bit to form a coalition with anyone five years ago, whatever the election result, but also because there was nothing inevitable about the Liberals’ recovery.

The critical moment for the Liberal Party was the last weekend of October 1951. The Conservatives had just pipped Clement Attlee’s Labour Party at the post in that month’s general election – despite winning fewer votes in the process (48 per cent of all votes cast, compared to 49 per cent for Labour). The Liberals were at rock bottom, winning just 6 out of 625 seats (in the previous elections of 1950, ’45, and ’35 they had held 9, 12, and 21 seats respectively). Winston Churchill formed his second government, and offered the cabinet post of Minister for Education to the then Liberal leader Clement Davies. Doubtless Davies was tempted: education was an ongoing interest for him, and, having been in politics since the 1920s, at the age of 67 he must have felt that he was personally owed something for all the effort and energy that he had only reluctantly put into a political career – considering that beforehand he had been a very successful and wealthy lawyer. There were other issues in the background: in the years after the War the Liberal Party had become increasingly fractious and divided, with some MPs orienting towards the Conservatives (like David Lloyd George’s second son Gwilym) and others more openly gravitating towards Labour (like Gwilym’s younger sister Megan). There was also more painful trauma on his mind: Davies was grappling with a drink problem, which may or may not have been connected to tragedy in his personal life (he lost three of his four children in the War when they were in their 20s). Ever the democrat, however, Davies insisted to Churchill that he would first have to refer the matter to his senior Liberal colleagues. All but one of them – the exception was Asquith’s daughter Violet Bonham-Carter – urged him to reject Churchill’s offer, since to accept it would prove the final nail in the ailing Party’s coffin, precipitating a damaging split that a party with just half a dozen MPs would have no hope of surviving intact.

Turning down tempting job offers is never easy, and in politics this must be particularly difficult, given the potential power and influence involved, but Davies duly reported the verdict of Thanks, But No Thanks back to Churchill. It was yet another addition to his various troubles: the independent socialist MP for Pembrokeshire, Desmond Donnelly, wrote to a friend that ‘Old Clem was swilling gin in the smokeroom in mid-afternoon to reject the job old Samuel made him refuse. However if he throws in his hand with the Tories any more he will be finished.‘ Not only that, but Davies may also have been thinking of how he could possibly have explained accepting a government post in the light of his own stirring words during the ’51 election campaign, in which he had promised to secure the Liberal Party’s independence:

The principle of Liberalism is to be found in the spiritual values that it puts upon every individual man and woman, and that’s why I fight on, paying more attention to the dignity of my fellow-men than to any material wealth, however great that may be. We are proud of our tradition. We are proud of our principles. We are here to tell the people what we think is the right thing to do. If it’s sacrifices that have to be made, then we will face up to them. It is in their way that this country will build up its great strength, and its influence, not only on the Commonwealth but upon all other free nations. It is for that, ladies and gentlemen, I still fight on, and will fight on, and I give you the assurance that as long as there is a breath in my body I fight for freedom and for Liberalism.

Years later, after Davies had quit the Party leadership, Violet Bonham-Carter wrote to him to say that she had been wrong in her October ’51 advice:

One must construct as well as criticise. Whatever you may have thought or felt you refused office then – a great personal sacrifice – because you felt that in so doing you were interpreting the people’s will. Looking back I feel that you may well have been right. Your action – however disinterested & patriotic – might well have split the remnant we had left. (I must add that only Winston’s leadership made me think it possible. I cld never have contemplated it under Eden! Winston was never a Tory – as the Tories know.) But whether right or wrong it was a great & selfless sacrifice – which few would have made – & one that will always be remembered – with reverence & admiration.

Violet Bonham Carter
Violet Bonham Carter

For all the campaigning genius of Jo Grimond and later Liberal leaders, it is easy to forget that, without Clement Davies’s fateful decision in October 1951, his successors would not have had a party to revive in the first place. After Grimond took over, of course, he and his successors Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel, set themselves the task of rebuilding a radical but non-socialist progressive alternative to Tory government in Britain. The task required inspiring leadership, which they provided, but it was also helped in no small way by the Conservatives’ gradual shift to the right and Labour’s lurch to the left in the 1970s – the latter of which convinced a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs that their party was so beyond saving that they would have to set up a new one, which they then first allied and then merged with the Liberals, to form the Liberal Democrats. As Margaret Thatcher and then John Major continued to take the Tories even further to the right the Lib Dems continued to attract more support at the polls. Even when Tony Blair gradually dismantled the socialist parts of Labour’s programme it was not the end for the Lib Dems, as under Charles Kennedy’s tutelage they succeeded in attracting more progressive-minded voters (and there were plenty of them) turned off by Blair’s increasing and alarming taste for things like foreign wars and PFI deals.

Historians from George Dangerfield onwards have rightly debated furiously what is called the Strange Death of Liberal England from the 20th Century’s second decade, but have tended to pay relatively less attention to Liberal England’s equally strange Afterlife from the 1950s onwards. Moreover, as we approach another general election and another likely hung parliament, it is worth thinking for a minute about a largely forgotten British Liberal who, virtually single-handed, would guarantee that the Conservatives’ and Labour’s ongoing quest to turn the country’s political system into a strictly two-party affair would forever be scuppered.

As for Clement Davies himself, after quitting the leadership of his Party he remained in the House of Commons up until his death on 23 March 1962 at the age of 78, living just long enough to see fellow Liberal Eric Lubbock win the Orpington by-election the previous week, in a sensational swing against the incumbent Tories. Whatever Davies’s lingering feelings about having declined a government job, he must have taken some satisfaction on seeing some of the fruits of his drive for the Liberals’ independence.