Britain underwent enormous change in the brief period from 1906 to 1924. Its constitution was altered in important ways with the reform of the House of Lords and the creation of the Irish Free State. At the same time, the first important steps were taken towards the modern Welfare State with the introduction of the first old age pensions and benefits for the unemployed and the sick, all of which constituted a massive revolution in the role of the state in British society.
Such reforms were only won after the most contentious political struggles, which seemed at times to threaten a breakdown of the entire British political system. In all of this, the Liberal Party and the Liberal governments, from 1905 onwards, played the central role. Their achievements in office were considerable and, a century later, are still being looked to by some contemporary observers as a source of inspiration, none less than the present Liberal-Democrats who have returned to office in 2010 for the first time in almost 90 years.
Yet, despite this impressive record, within the space of a decade from 1916 onwards, the Liberal Party was split between rival factions and leaders, whose personal animosities poisoned the party’s existence for years to come. Ideologically, the Liberals had lost their way and no longer convinced the electors of post-war Britain. The party which had won a landslide at the polls in 1906 was, by 1924, reduced to a mere 40 seats in Parliament, one tenth of the number it had won, less than 20 years before. How and why this great party of the radical reforms of 1906-1914 collapsed in this way continues to fascinate students of this subject.
Part I. — The Achievements, Decline and Debacle of the Liberal Party
The Challenges and Crises
Some Causes of Death: Social Changes and the Rise of Labour
Some Causes of Death: the Demands of Total War
Some Causes of Death: the Guilty Men
Some Causes of Death: Liberals, Labour and Conservatives
Conclusion: Natural Causes or a Strange Death?
Part II. — The Liberal Party: Origins, Philosophy and Structures
Origins, Traditions and the Legacy of Gladstone
Foreign Policy, Free Trade and Empire
New Liberalism, Self-Help, Laissez-Faire and the State
Liberals and Labour: the Progressive Alliance
The Liberal Party Structures
A Liberal Electorate: Nonconformity, Class and the Regions
Conclusion: a Broad Liberal Church
Part III. — The Liberal Party in Office, 1905-1914
The Return to Power
A Slow Start: Limits and Frustration, 1905-1908
The Radical Reforms: Old Age Pensions, National Insurance
The People’s Budget
The Constitutional Crisis, House of Lords Reform and the Irish Problem
Conclusion: The Liberal Party on the Eve of War
Part IV. — The Impact of War and the Coalitions, 1914-1918
Britain Goes to War
The Challenge of Total War
The Wartime Coalition, May 1915-December 1916
The Fall of Asquith and the Liberal Party Split
Lloyd George, the Coalition Liberals and Asquith
Part V. — The Liberals Divided. Decline, False Dawns and Debacle, 1918-1924
The “Coupon” Election
Civil War in the Liberal Party
Reforms, Retrenchment and Coalition with the Conservatives
An Indian Summer or a Party in No-Man’s-Land?
The End of the Road
Postscript: The Liberal Party in the late 1920s and 1930s
Conclusion. — How, when and why the liberal party died
Governments and principal ministers
Autour de l'auteur
Richard Davis is a professor of British Studies at the University of Lille III. He has published articles in the field of contemporary British history and British politics. He is currently working on a book dealing with Britain’s relations with Charles de Gaulle and the European Communities in the 1950s and 1960s.