The Strange Death of Liberal Canada
If history repeats, we are about a decade away from the publication of a book called “The Strange Death of Liberal Canada.”
The history in question is that of Britain’s Liberal party, which dominated British politics in the late 19th century, laid the foundations of the modern welfare state at the beginning of the 20th century, led Britain in the First World War … and then collapsed. It wasn’t reduced to rubble all at once, of course, but the transition from dominance to irrelevance was swift and bewildering. George Dangerfield captured the feeling of political observers in the title of his 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England.
Like Canada’s Liberal party, Britain’s Liberal party had roots in a classical liberal philosophy of legal equality and free trade. In the 1890s, the Liberals started to embrace a more interventionist approach. Free trade was still the foundation. But government would take steps to take the rough edges off capitalism.
Gradually, middle class support slipped from the Liberals to the Conservatives, but the Liberals became the party of industrial workers. The Liberals also enjoyed regional bases in Scotland and Wales. It was a winning combination.
A landslide in 1906 was followed by the enactment of the new program – old age benefits, health insurance, workman’s compensation – and the extension of the franchise. More victories followed. But then came the First World War and the end of the golden age. (Dangerfield argued the Liberal decline began prior to the war. Historians don’t agree. The Strange Death of Liberal England is, one wrote, “a literary confection which does not attempt serious analysis.” In this column, I’m mostly working from Chris Cook’s A Short History of the Liberal Party, which is the standard introductory reference.)
Liberal prime minister H.H. Asquith led the government into war and in 1915 he brought Conservatives into cabinet. But stalemate at the front and the terrible strain of the war on British society doomed Asquith. He was effectively pushed out. David Lloyd George, a leading Liberal minister, replaced him as prime minister, with the support of the Conservatives. Asquith and many other Liberals chose to sit in opposition.
In 1918, the war ended and an election was held. The de facto coalition of Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives won a huge victory and Lloyd George continued as prime minister for the next four years. (Minority governments were common in this era. So were coalitions, alliances, and a wide variety of electoral arrangements. As a Canadian reading about this history today, it’s striking just how completely it repudiates Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s claims about coalitions and how the Westminster system works.)
Outwardly, then, the Liberals were divided but still in much the same position they had been before the war. In reality, however, there had been a seismic shift.
Lloyd George’s Liberals – despite not having to compete with Conservatives in many ridings – had done poorly, and became in fact the junior partners in the coalition. Worse, Asquith’s Liberals were crushed. Worst of all, Labour became the official opposition for the first time.
The Labour party had been founded at the beginning of the 20th century (with earlier antecedents) but the Liberals had always co-operated with Labour, rather than treating it as a threat. There was even a secret agreement to minimize competition in the election of 1906. This approach worked well for the Liberals. Before the war, Labour’s support was in the single digits and the Liberal dominance of the industrial working class was never in doubt.
But with the split in the Liberal party, Labour moved aggressively. Its pitch to industrial workers wasn’t that it was more radical. In some ways, it wasn’t. Instead, it portrayed itself as the more united, more competent, more effective alternative to the Conservatives. And it worked. Whole swaths of voters switched from Liberal to Labour. Despite a modest Liberal resurgence in the election of 1923 – when a Conservative protectionist platform allowed Liberals to rally around the old battle flag of free trade – Labour steadily conquered Liberal territory.
In 1924, Labour formed its first government, a minority, and the Liberals were relegated to thirdparty status. Even more unfortunate for the Liberals was the determination of Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister, to avoid being seen as a socialist radical. His government was moderate and competent. And British politics increasingly looked like a choice between Conservatives and Labour.
Division is an obvious theme in all this. Another is the lack of leadership. Asquith and Lloyd George were both impressive men but their best days were behind them by the 1920s. The Liberals drifted. The party’s constituency associations crumbled.
However, notes Chris Cook, “this failure of leadership, together with bitter personal divisions within their ranks, tended to obscure a more fundamental weakness in the party: Its whole fundamental philosophy.”
It wasn’t clear what the Liberals stood for, what they believed, why they wanted to win. It wasn’t enough to be the alternative to the Conservatives. Labour was that.
And it wasn’t enough to be in the reasonable centre. Labour was there. Neither Asquith nor Lloyd George made any serious attempt to shore up the party’s intellectual foundations and so there were constant defections, with left-leaning Liberals going to Labour and rightleaning Liberals (including Winston Churchill) going to the Conservatives.
In 1926, Asquith retired. Lloyd George took sole control. He had one final chance to restore the party’s fortunes and he made the most of it.
Lloyd George assembled many leading intellectuals, including John Maynard Keynes, to discuss policy. Together, they published a series of important, insightful research papers and books. In the election of 1929, the Liberals had a policy platform which was hailed at the time, and by historians ever since, as the most intellectually distinguished document of its kind.
Liberal hopes were high and Lloyd George campaigned well. But it came to nothing. Because it was too late.
The Liberal share of the popular vote did rise substantially. But the Liberals didn’t have a base. Labour had taken Scotland and much of Wales from them, and snatched away industrial workers. As a result, the Liberal vote was spread evenly across much of the country. That’s deadly in the first-past-the-post system.
Labour elected 287 MPs, the Conservatives 260. The Liberals had 59. The circumstances had been right and the Liberals had done all they could, but still they were reduced to a rump, and they withered further in the years that followed. Never again did they seriously contend for power.
And if Canadian Liberals don’t see lessons in this history it won’t be long before someone writes “The Strange Death of Liberal Canada.”