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The decline of the Liberal
The nature of the topic
The decline of the Liberals has long been a popular examination topic and, not surprisingly, since the transformation in the party’s fortunes was so fundamental and dramatic. The party which took Britain into the First World War, and which had been one of the great political forces of the nineteenth century, was never again to form a government on its own. Historians have long debated the causes of this headlong rush into obscurity. That they have reached no consensus should perhaps not surprise us, since it is much more difficult to explain a process than a single event. Liberal decline is an integral part of British history and therefore is best tackled as part and parcel of a wider study. Thorough preparation should yield several exam questions on allied topics.
The vital first steps
Before tackling the issue of ‘why’ you have to ask ‘when’ and ‘to what extent’. Only if you know exactly what it is you have to explain can you hope to explain it. Hence, in your initial reading, keep these two issues in mind. When did decline first begin? Was it in 1916, with the split between Asquith and Lloyd George? Was it in the period of Liberal administration from 1905, when the party was divided between the ‘New Liberals’ and the traditionalists? Should we go back to 1886, with Joe Chamberlain’s defection? Or, on the contrary, should we look at the period after 1918? Also, ask how precipitous the decline was. Obviously this requires knowledge of the election results after 1918. The construction of a time-chart should help.
Next you need to assess decline in particular periods. These should include the following:
Then you have to make up your own mind about the relative importance of the different periods and of the causes operating in them.
There are many other areas to consider.
a) A new dimension to an essay will be provided by considering Liberal performance in local elections. Did decline in local politics precede that in the national arena? Why were local associations so demoralised by the 1916 split?
b) How important was Liberal ideology in the decline of the party? (Did any of the parties take ideology seriously?)
c) Was the 1903 Lib-Lab pact a long-term mistake for the party, providing sustenance for a rival?
d) How was the Liberal party financed? Was lack of money their greatest problem?
e) Familiarise yourself with the major historiographical interpretations (e.g. with Dangerfield specifying 1906-14 as the key period of decline and Wilson pointing to the importance of the war years). But make facts central to an essay, not simply historians’ views.
Beware of textbooks that simply have a chapter on Liberal decline. Such books foster the delusion that this is a self-contained topic. Chris Cook’s A Short History of the Liberal Party (Macmillan, 1993) is a stimulating read.
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