The Plight of the Liberals
By WILSON HARRIS IN declining a post in Mr. Churchill's Administration Mr. Clement Davies took what must have been for him a hard decision, but on a short view it was no doubt the right one. For the leader of the Liberal Party to have gone into a Con- servative Cabinet would have disrupted the party finally. And though the future of the party is problematic, and its gradual atrophy may be inevitable, to take a step which would have forced the issue forthwith would have been to assume a responsibility which Mr. Davies naturally, and I think properly, did not feel justified in assuming.
But to refuse to force an issue precipitately does not mean evading it. And the essential issue—what is the future of the Liberal Party ?—cannot be evaded, unless indeed the present drift is to continue indefinitely till the handful of Independent Liberals in the House of Commons dwindles to nothing at all. It is not a question of what anyone wants to happen ; it is a question of what is actually happening and shows every sign of going on happening. And the facts are plain. After every set-back gallant words are spoken by the Liberal leaders, the determination to fight on is resolutely proclaimed—and the result at the next election is a worse set-back than ever. In 1945 the Liberals put 306 candidates in the field. Eleven were elected (one of whom not long after the election crossed the floor and joined the Labour Party). In 1950 there were 475 Liberal can- didates. Nine were elected ; 319 lost their deposits. In 1951 the wise decision was taken to " fight on a narrow front," with 108 candidates, and concentrate on the more hopeful seats. But the result was that no more than six Liberals were returned ; 66 lost their deposits.
The sorry story could be carried further. In almost every case where a Liberal did stand this time he secured fewer votes than the Liberal candidate in the same constituency in 1950. Voters not unnaturally want to do what they can to affect the colour of the coming Government, and they know' that no amount of voting for Liberals will do that. Liberal leaders are perfectly justified in contending that the present electoral system is unfair to the Liberal Party. It is ; but the argument is irrelevant, for there is no prospect at all of the system being changed. Liberals did not change it when they had the power, and they can hardly expect any other party to change it to its own detriment ?low.
From one point of view the record of the last half-century makes depressing reading for Liberals. I have been glancing again at a historic little book, Essays in Liberalism, by Six Oxford Men, dedicated to John Morley ; included among the six were Francis W. Hirst, J. Allsebrook Simon, Hilaire Belloc and J. Lawrence Hammond. It appeared in 1897, a dark period for Liberals, who were out of office for ten years on end, and it is of some interest that the first chapter contains a paragraph whose relevance today no one is incapable of appreciating: "There is a theory in economics and politics directly the opposite of our own, cutting at the root of our most, obvious principles,; and it is growing daily. It involves an attack upon personal production, personal accumulation and consequent personal possession: a theory which makes the individual and all the individual virtues of small account, and desires to emphasise rather the vague qualities of a State."
That was, and is, sound Liberalism. And it expresses precisely the view of Conservatism today. In this and other matters— for better or worse ; I am simply recording fact—the Conserva- tives have assimilated Liberal doctrines and are in a position to give effect to them, as the Liberals themselves unhappily are not.
I bought Essays in Liberalism when 'I was an undergraduate (not in 1897). Then, like a brilliant sunrise after a protracted night of gloom—for there was little Liberalism in Conservatives then—came the crowning mercy of 1906. In the House elected in January of that year the Liberals held 377 seats, the Unionists, as the name went, 157. In Campbell-Bannerman's Cabinet were Asquith and grey and Haldane and Lloyd George and Bryce and Morley ; Winston Churchill and Herbert Samuel were Under-Secretaries. Rarely before and never since has such a ?alaxy adorned the Treasury Bench. In that Parliament 377 ; in this Parliament 6. The downward slide has been all but continuous. There were many causes. One, of course, was the, rise of the Labour Party. The Lib-Labs were once a force in Liberalism, but when they hived off to make common cause with Labour, . and intellectuals like Charles Treveleyan and Arthur Ponsonby and Roden and Noel Buxton followed them4 the Liberal Party lost something in driving force as well a much in numbers. Then there have been two wars, and wars are not good for Liberalism. And there have been persbnal antagonisms. Individualists, as Liberals by the nature of thingi are, do not find it too easy to work always as a team. Witness the record of the Liberal nine in the last Parliament.
The figures tell their own story. In 1906-377 ; in 1910-274 (equal with the Conservatives). Then in 1916 came the smashing blow, when the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George,' followed by the election of 1918, when Lloyd George gave the " coupon " to scores of Conservatives standing against Liberals) split the party in half. There was never any real recovery. The House elected in 1918 consisted of 334 Conservatives, 131 Coalition, or Coupon, Liberals and 28 Asquithian Liberals, who alone are relevant today. In 1922 the Asquithians rose to 60 and the Lloyd Georgians fell to 57. In 1923, with Labour the largest/ single party, the combined Liberals were 157. In 1924 they were down to 40. The General Strike of 1926 found Asquith and Lloyd George taking different lines, and the fissure between the faetions deepened. In 1929, under the second Labour Government, the Liberals were up to 60. Then came the financial crisis, the National Government of 1931, with 35 Simonite and 33 Samuelite Liberals in the House. In 1935 there were 32 Simonites (now known as National Liberals) and 17 Independent Liberals. In 1945 the 17 had become 11 ; in 1950 it was 9 ; today it is 6.
Is a tide flowing with that strength and purpose to be stemmed and made to flow the other way ? It is hard to think so. Some indomitable optimists in the party, most of them my personal friends and all of them objects of my admiration—Lord Samuel and Isaac and Dingle Foot, and Clement Davies and Frank Byers and Asquith's and Lloyd George's brilliant daughters— think it can. But facts are overwhelmingly against them. The melancholy B.B.C. dirge, " The Liberal candidate forfeits his deposit," was not as pervasive this year as last, for the simple reason that less than a quarter as many Liberal candidates were standing. The persistence of the old Liberal stalwarts and the enthusiasm of the young Liberal stalwarts, particularly at the Universities, is magnificent—but is it practical politics ? Politics that are not practical do the world small service.
What in such circumstances are Liberals to do ? What specific contribution have they to make ? I do not say none, but is it enough to justify the continuance of the heart-breaking losing battle ? The fact is that in its outlook the Conservative Party is predominantly liberal. Stale talk about big business and hide- bound reactionaries may suit the soap-box, but it suits nothing else. There are Liberals—there were some in the last House— whose sympathies run strongly with Labour, and who hate voting with Conservatives even when their convictions compel them to. Some of them, I imagine (not necessarily the ex-Members), will gradually drift finally into the Labour camp. Others, quite certainly, will join the Conservatives, as so many have done already.
What will be left ? I am not going to use the term " hard core." Say rather a fine remnant—men and women who have grown up in Liberalism, for whom it is a faith little less than religious, who will vote Liberal wherever there is a Liberal candidate to vote for, and probably refrain from voting, unsocial though that is, where there is none. That they can be an effective political force in terms of votes no dispassionate student of recent history can believe. But in ideas they can, beyond a doubt. Liberals have done much to liberalise Britain in the last half-century, but plenty of liberalising is needed yet. It cannot be done through the Labour Party, for Labour's policy of Socialism and nationalisation is irreconcilably opposed to all Liberal ideas. Can it be done through the Conservatives ? There is every reason to think it could be. We have a Prime Minister today who has never really forgotten his old Liberalism, and Clement Davies was unquestionably right in promising him Liberal support " for measures clearly conceived in the interests of the country as a whole." The dissolution of the Liberal Party would mean the closing of a great chapter in British political history. But what will you if the chapter closes itself ?