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On the brink of oblivion: the post-war crisis of British liberalism.

We have been forced to realize that the world is faced with the possible eclipse of British Liberalism.(1)

The recent parliamentary extinction of the Social Democratic Party has served as a timely reminder of the deep-seated difficulties which confront minority parties in the British political system, particularly while electoral practice remains firmly based on the first-past-the-post principle. Since the 1920s the Liberal party has enjoyed only third party status in a political game which is designed essentially for two rather than three players -- at least in the sense of players who have a reasonable expectation of winning the competition. Historians have expended much energy in charting and explaining the Liberal party's decline without reaching any final consensus on the subject. Even the chronological range of that explanation remains a matter of debate. It would, however, seem that the party never fully recovered from the traumatic split between the followers of Lloyd George and those of Asquith during the course of the First World War. After 1918 it found itself increasingly ill at ease in a party political landscape whose parameters were fundamentally shaped by class rather than religion as had tended to be the case in the nineteenth century. In the 1920s, despite enjoying something of an intellectual renaissance and notwithstanding a number of electoral false dawns, the party's decline in the constituencies and at the ballot box proved remorseless. After the general election of 1929 it never again looked to be a serious contender for power.

Yet for most of this period of more than sixty years the continued survival of Liberalism has not seriously been in question. The party has usually been able to maintain a respectable volume of popular support, notwithstanding its under-representation at Westminister. Only for a few precarious years after 1945 was the party's extinction as a national political force a distinct possibility. The party's fortunes between the general elections of 1945 and 1951 are of intrinsic interest to students of British liberalism. But they also throw light on the whole pattern of politics which evolved in this country after the end of the Second World War.

One of the virtues of the general election of 1945 was the opportunity it gave to clarify the political scene, which in party terms had been somewhat confused and obscured by the existence of National and Coalition governments for the previous decade and a half. Not since the general election of 1929 had the nation been offered a straightforward choice between independent political parties. At that election the Liberals had performed creditably, while still being penalized in terms of parliamentary seats by their third party status.(2) In the intervening period, of course, much had changed, not least as a result of the split in the Liberal ranks in 1931 and the creation of a separate Liberal National party under John Simon. Furthermore the impact of six years of war on the domestic political environment was bound to be profound, if largely unpredictable.

The Liberals faced the election of 1945 with some considerable advantages. Not the least was the recent recruitment of Sir William Beveridge to the party's ranks. Beveridge's task was not only to defend the seat of Berwick-upon-Tweed. He promised also to add significantly to the party's national appeal, since his name still radiated some of the lustre which had attached to it since his celebrated report on the creation of a welfare state three years earlier. At its head the party boasted Sir Archibald Sinclair, who had been a successful Secretary of State for Air in the Churchill Coalition. Up and down the country a large number of young candidates from the armed forces was ready to preach the gospel of Liberalism with a fervour which had perhaps been lacking since the 1920s. But other features gave less cause for satisfaction. Despite his Liberal credentials, Beveridge's ideas were not the party's monopoly. Most of his proposals had by now found their way into the electoral programmes of the Labour and Conservative parties. Gallup polls since 1943 had seen Liberal support stuck at around 10 per cent, rising to a peak of only 15 per cent in June 1945. Furthermore the war had left the Liberal party's constituency organizations in a poor state of repair and sometimes barely existing at all. Sir Percy Harris, Chief Whip until the dissolution, later recalled that until 1944 it had been almost impossible to persuade Liberals to take an active interest in party politics.(3) A last minute up-surge of enthusiasm could not make up for several years of organizational neglect. And two factors of more fundamental importance conspired against electoral success.

On the one hand Liberals faced something of an identity crisis. The themes which had given the party strength and vitality in earlier decades no longer seemed to have the same relevance for post-war Britain. After the sacrifices of the struggle against Hitler, the electorate was looking for something more tangible than a high-minded reassertion of abstract values: "Its ideals of freedom and tolerance; its assertion of the principle that every human being, and not merely the specially privileged, is a personality with a right to a reasonable share in the moral, intellectual and material progress of the world."(4) The party strove to present a middle way between its Labour and Conservative rivals, but it was one which failed to strike a chord with the majority of the electorate. "Liberal pamphlets in general were so high-toned as to be nearly academic."(5) Significantly, the election addresses of Liberal candidates, while stressing that the party was "the party of freedom," showed a greater diversity and inconsistency than was revealed by their political opponents.(6) Where Liberals did engage in detailed policy formulation, this was often surprisingly left-wing in both tone and substance. The principle was, for example, laid down that where public ownership proved more economic, Liberals would demand it without hesitation. In its commitment to take into public ownership the railways, a large part of road transport and the coal mining industry, the party seemed largely to have abandoned its historic commitment to economic freedom. Even Clement Davies, who was later to be accused of moving the party to the right, advocated in his election address the nationalization of coal, transport, electricity and also the land. This leftward lurch reflected in part the overwhelming public mood of 1945 and owed something also to the influence of "Radical Action," a group of young Liberals including Honor Balfour and Dingle Foot, who had been active in pressing such ideas for some years. Yet it was a movement to the left which had by no means embraced all active Liberals nor all the party's traditional voters.

The party's other basic difficulty was to convince the electorate that it was a serious aspirant for power. Even before the war its opponents had begun to seize upon what became one of their chief weapons in the post-war years -- the idea that a vote for the Liberals was a wasted vote. In the end, despite more ambitious predictions, only 306 candidates were nominated, a figure which would not have been sufficient to constitute a majority in the House of Commons even had every one been elected. In June a Mass Observation report revealed that there was a reservoir of good will towards the Liberal party, but also a strong feeling that to vote for it would be to throw one's vote away.(7)

In all the circumstances the electoral outcome was entirely predictable. The party managed to secure only 2.2 million votes, about 9 per cent of the total votes cast. In parliamentary terms the position was far worse. Its pre-dissolution strength of 18 was reduced to 12. Among the casualties were numbered the party's most distinguished figures. Sinclair lost by 62 votes in Caithness. Sir Percy Harris, the Chief Whip, and Beveridge himself were also defeated. Gwilym Lloyd George, who had been Minister of Fuel and Power since 1942 but whose continued loyalty to the party was already open to question, was the only surviving Liberal who had ever held government office. Nor did the party seem to be strategically placed to stage an effective comeback at the next election. Only 8.8 per cent of Liberals secured second place, while 84.9 per cent came third.(8) Officially the party put a brave face upon what had happened: "Though this figure [of 2,250,000 votes] fell considerably short of what was expected, it demonstrates quite clearly that there exists a substantial body of voters who are not prepared to compromise their Liberal principles and whose views are not adequately represented by either of the larger parties."(9) In reality, however, it was difficult to conceal the enormity of the catastrophe which had been sustained.

The reaction of the Manchester Guardian was perhaps symbolic of the Liberal party's malaise. That most reliable bastion of Liberal support commented that, while the adoption of a system of Proportional Representation might afford the party a viable future, "under the present system its hopes must be slender."(10) Under the editorship of A.P. Wadsworth the newspaper had moved into a position which was increasingly supportive of the Labour party as the only realistic vehicle of radical progress. The general election of 1945 effectively ended the formal links between the Guardian and the Liberal party, though not between the paper and liberalism as an ideal. In the years which followed the Guardian increasingly tended to describe its political outlook as "independent progressive."

Once the dust of the election campaign had settled, the Liberals' first task was to elect a new leader. Though the Conservative victor at Caithness had earlier pledged himself to stand down in Sinclair's favour, he now failed to do so. The man chosen for the dubious distinction of leading the party was Clement Davies, M.P. for Montgomeryshire. Sixty-one years of age, Davies had entered parliament in 1929. A successful lawyer who published in the field of agricultural and commercial law, his political career had so far largely lacked distinction, although a few insiders recognized the crucial role he had played in organizing the downfall of Neville Chamberlain in 1940.(11) Davies proved not to be a particularly original thinker in terms of new policy initiatives, though he did commit his party to support British participation in the early moves towards greater European union. More importantly, the party as a whole never gave Davies its full confidence. This perhaps reflected the fact that for eleven years he had aligned himself with Simon's Liberal Nationals, only rejoining the mainstream party in 1942. This was unfortunate since the new leader saw his primary role as holding the surviving Liberal party together as an independent political force. This, as will be seen, was no easy task, and for the next decade Davies presided over the party's fortunes at a time when Liberalism was at its lowest ebb.

The Liberal party of 1945 was not unique among parties faced with electoral disaster in believing that problems of organization lay at the root of its troubles. A committee was therefore set up to consider the state of the party's organization both at headquarters and throughout the country. Its report made gloomy reading. The weaknesses of the organization at headquarters and in the area federations, it said, were to a large extent but a reflection of the state of affairs in the constituencies. The failure to place the raising of party funds and the working of the party's machinery on a truly democratic basis "cannot be sufficiently deplored." The Committee "could not state too plainly" that the issue of whether the party should become an effective force or not "largely depends upon our success in establishing its finances on a wide and popular basis." As far as policy was concerned, the recommendation was for the establishment of a "Grand Committee" to be responsible for public pronouncements on matters of day-to-day concern and for taking the initiative on long-term issues.(12)

In the fields of organization and finance considerable progress was made in the first years of the new parliament. By 1947 it was reported that five hundred constituency party associations existed compared with only two hundred a year earlier. At the same time a series of ingenious devices were introduced, including the launching of the Liberal Newscard, to place the party's income on a sound and reliable footing. In reality, however, the central issue of the next few years was not to be finance or party organization or even policy, but the party's position within the political spectrum and its relationship with the Conservative party. Despite the leftish tone of the Liberals' manifesto,(13) this problem had been anticipated during the general election campaign when Churchill had remined Liberal voters of his own Liberal past and urged them to support the Conservative party as the only viable means of thwarting socialism. The Liberals had been obliged to use their election broadcasts primarily to fend off Churchill's unwanted advances, while the Manchester Guardian had poured scorn on the idea that Conservatism now embraced the central tenets of the Liberal tradition.(14) This difficulty was by no means resolved when the electoral contest was over. The party's left of centre orientation, so recently displayed to the electorate, was not easy to sustain granted the balance of views in the surviving parliamentary party. Furthermore, such was Labour's margin of victory that many Conservatives concluded that their chances of reversing the result on the next occasion that the country went to the polls would be negligible unless a majority of Liberal voters could be persuaded to renounce their traditional allegiance and join the Conservative camp.(15) Davies was therefore wise to warn Liberals at the opening of their Summer School a few weeks after the election to beware of the "Tory Spider" which sought to steal Liberal votes. Yet over the next few years the Conservative assualt proved remorseless, if somewhat unconcerted.

It was significant for relations between the two parties that important changes were taking place at this time within the Conservative ranks. Many Tories were convinced that the party would never be able to compete with Labour again unless it secured a more progressive image -- unless, in fact, its liberal wing came more to the fore.(16) One of the party's few compensations resulting from the 1945 election was the way in which much of its right-wing parliamentary dead wood had been swept away at a single stroke. Anthony Eden was among those who concluded that "there is no hope for the Tory party unless we can clear these disastrous old men out, and some of the middle-aged men too!"(17) In September 1945 a letter appeared in The Spectator from Quintin Hogg, M.P. for Oxford and a leading light in the Tory Reform Group. This body had for some time been pressing the Conservative leadership to adopt a more enthusiastic attitude towards the developing Beveridge-Keynesian consensus which had grown up during the war years. Hogg claimed that his supporters in the Commons numbered thirty or forty and that their policies showed "no striking difference from the Liberals." He even suggested that "if only the Liberals would come and help...we could, together, capture the Conservative Party."(18) By early 1946 informal discussions were taking place inside a small committee of Conservatives and Liberals to investigate the chances of a joint front to save the country from socialism. The chairman of the committee was Peter Thorneycroft, one of Hogg's colleagues in the Tory Reform Group and a future Chancellor of the Exchequer.(19) It was decided to draw up a statement for joint signatures entitled Design for Freedom. Such progress was being made that in November Liberal party headquarters felt obliged to issue a statement denying rumours of a Liberal-Conservative pact.(20) By the following January, however, the document existed in proof though it had not yet been published. What was striking was that the list of Conservative signatories included many who would play prominent roles in future Conservative governments including, besides Hogg and Thorneycroft, Reginald Maudling, Selwyn Lloyd, and Derick Heathcoat Amory. The Liberal signatories were mostly parliamentary candidates from the 1945 election, headed by David Goldblatt. This particular initiative largely came to an end when Clement Davies spoke out against it at Colwyn Bay on 15 February 1947. A note subsequently went out from Liberal headquarters reaffirming the party's independence and implicitly advising Liberals to dissociate themselves from the Design for Freedom movement.(21)

A somewhat different approach had been adopted by Harold Macmillan, who had lost his Stockton-on-Tees seat to Labour at the general election. Macmillan concluded from his own experience just how important Liberal votes could be for the salvation of the Conservative party. Returning to parliament in the Bromley by-election in November 1945, he noted with satisfaction that while the Labour vote had remained "uncomfortably high," that of the Liberal candidate had slumped disastrously, falling by more than a half from the figure secured at the general election.(22) It was even part of Macmillan's strategy at this time to change the name of his party since the word "Conservative" failed to reflect the sort of middle of the road policies which he was keen to advocate and which alone could woo erstwhile liberal supporters. He aired his ideas at Conservative rallies during the summer of 1946 and in a speech in September referred to the possibility of a "new democratic party." Macmillian further elaborated his views in an article published the following month in the Daily Telegraph under the heading "Anti-Socialist Parties' Task: the Case for Alliance or Fusion." This article, intended to coincide with the opening of the Conservative Party Conference, urged Conservatives and Liberals to come together "to promote a policy, not of passive anti-Socialism, but of an active and dynamic character."(23) Despite some sympathy from the Conservative Chairman, Lord Woolton, the mood of the Conference was not with Macmillan and, for the time being, his ideas were allowed to lapse.

If merger with the Conservatives threatened to result in the disappearance of British Liberalism as an independent political force, reunion with the Liberal Nationals offered a more constructive and less suffocating prospect. Though such a development would not presage an electoral transformation for the Liberal party, it would at least make it harder for the Conservatives to lay claim to be the true inheritors of Liberal tradition because of their close association with the Liberal Nationals. Serious discussions about reunion had taken place in the second half of 1943. Their failure had come as a relief to many within the mainstream party who regarded the Liberal Nationals as traitors for leaving their ranks in the first place. Dingle Foot, dismissing the Liberal Nationals as "Vichy Liberals," had been able to reassure Megan Lloyd George that "nothing remotely resembling a basis of agreement ever looked like emerging."(24) Clement Davies, only recently returned to the Liberal fold, offered a more interesting interpretation of the 1943 negotiations:

One set of people, namely so-called leaders, desire amalgamation so that they would join with Winston Churchill in forming a Centre Party; the others, like myself, feel that for a considerable time men have borne wrong labels. And that there are, in both branches, Radical elements which should join together with the object of carrying out a true Liberal or Radical policy which would certainly be opposed by Winston Churchill and the Tory Party.(25)

The prospect of Liberal reunion now remained dormant until after the war. Then, in the summer of 1946, the Liberals and Liberal Nationals of London quietly came together and there was optimism that this merger would be followed elsewhere.(26) But the leadership of neither wing of Liberalism showed much enthusiasm for any further healing of old wounds. Davies was wary that reunion might destroy his hope of turning the Liberal party into a truly radical, but non-socialist, third force in British politics. By contrast the Liberal National leadership, mindful that its parliamentary strength was entirely a function of Conservative acquiescence at constiuency level, was keen to cement its relationship with the Conservative party. Thus, while the inter-Liberal negotiations petered out by the end of October 1946, those between the Liberal Nationals and the Conservatives culminated in the Woolton-Teviot agreement of May 1947, which allowed for the formal union of the two parties at constituency level and the adoption of candidates who could be recommended by either headquarters.(27)

Davies's fears were well-founded. The success of the Woolton-Teviot agreement encouraged renewed Conservative efforts to swallow the bigger fish of the Liberal party itself. In April Lord Woolton had proclaimed that the great need for those who recognized the threat of socialism was to unite. This, he argued, meant supporting the Conservative party because it was the only party capable of forming a non-socialist government.(28) Macmillan, too, reentered the fray, taking his message to a rally at Hawarden Castle, one of the holy shrines of Liberalism. There he asked: "What divides -- at this moment -- the Liberal and Conservative parties? What separates them? Nothing -- except the memories of the past ... Each condemns with equal vigour the grave mishandling, by the present Socialist Government, of our internal and external economy."(29) Churchill, stressing that the two parties could maintain their independent identities, was even prepared to think in terms of an electoral pact which would offer the Liberals a free run against Labour in sixty seats.(30) More sinisterly, in constituencies such as Dunstable, Bideford, and North Angus, so-called "Liberal and Conservative Associations" were being set up during 1947 as a result of meetings at which Liberals were either greatly outnumbered or from which they were actually excluded. Liberal headquarters warned that Conservative Central Office was pursuing a deliberate and carefully conceived campaign to destroy the Liberal party's constituency organizations. Valiantly the call went out to "all Liberals throughout the country to stand firm against Conservative overtures and to concentrate all their energies upon preparing for the coming fight."(31)

In this difficult situation internal unity and cohesion were fundamental necessities for the Liberal party. By 1947, however, divisions were becoming only too apparent. For most of its history the party had contrived to encompass a wide spectrum of opinion. At times, indeed, this had been a source of strength. Yet in the context of a parliamentary party reduced to only eleven members, a plurality of opinion and policy was a luxury which the party could not afford. Despite the radicalism of the 1945 manifesto, Davies had allowed the party to drift steadily to the right. He was not in any case the ideal leader for the circumstances of the time, being a "radical evangelist by temperament rather than a party boss."(32) Within the parliamentary party there existed a growing divide between those whose basic principle was opposition to socialism and those whose primary fear was absorption into the Conservative party. On the right wing Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris represented the free-trade tradition. Morris had nurtured a personal animosity towards David Lloyd George since a by-election in Cardigan back in 1921.(33) Outside parliament Morris could count on the support of Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, daughter of Asquith, and a powerful figure in the party's ranks even though she never sat in the House of Commons. Though Lloyd George had died in 1945, his name still adorned the parliamentary party in the person of his redoubtable daughter Megan (Gwilym having effectively transferred his allegiance to the Conservatives).(34) She saw it as her task to prevent the party drifting inexorably to the right and viewed the leadership of Clement Davies with wary suspicion. Relations between these two formidable women -- Lady Megan and Lady Violet -- were always cool. The fact that Lady Violet was a close friend of Churchill while Lady Megan was on first name terms with Prime Minister Attlee emphasized the differing orientation of their politics. Their elegant sparring, refighting the ancient battles of their distinguished fathers, seemed to suggest that the Liberal party itself was a survival from an earlier age. But in a very real sense they also personified two differing traditions of Liberalism which had never been fully reconciled, one with another, since the catastrophic split of 1916 in which Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George had been the principal parties.

By late 1947 the Liberal right wing had become disillusioned with the performance of the Attlee government. At the same time there was little reason for optimism about Liberal prospects. The party had tried hard to convince itself that a revival had taken place. Philip Fothergill, vice-chairman of the reconstruction committee, reported on the revitalization of the party organization in the constituencies, while the Manchester Guardian offered congratulations for evading the "well-furnished fly-parlour of the Conservatives."(35) But much evidence pointed in the opposite direction. In by-elections in those constituencies which the Liberals had also contested in the 1945 general election, their total vote had fallen from some forty-seven thousand to thirty-one thousand, a drop of about one-third in two and a half years. In seven of the twelve by-elections they had fought in this period they had forfeited their deposits.(36) In later years the occasional spectacular by-election success did much to sustain party morale and show the outside world that Liberalism was still alive. In the years under examination the party could derive no benefit from periodic triumphs of this kind. They did not occur. At a local level the party had incurred large-scale losses in the municipal elections of November 1945, surrendering its last strongholds among the borough councils, and had not since retrieved its position.

Minds were beginning to turn to the prospects of the next general election and, in a rare letter to Megan Lloyd George, Lady Violet spelt out her anxiety. She no longer, she confessed, believed that the Liberals could stage an effective comeback, certainly not by 1950. The present electoral system meant that even three-quarters of a million new Liberal votes would only result in an extra six House of Commons seats at most: "Meanwhile what is going to happen to the 10 we've got? ... One must face the possibility of Parliamentary extinction." Lady Violet's conviction was that the only condition which would ensure the ultimate survival of any third party was Electoral Reform. In the shorter term the only viable policy seemed to be what she rather obscurely described as the "stairless end," but "isn't it rather difficult to lead people down the 'garden path' to a 'stairless end' without telling them where they're going?"(37) To Lady Megan it was difficult to say more, but a month earlier Harold Nicolson had gained a clearer picture of Lady Violet's thinking:

She abuses the Government for abandoning all moral principle. Until now she had believed that the Liberal Party were closer to the Socialists than to any other party. Now she doubts it ... No, she feels closer to the left-wing Tories today. All of which suggests that the Liberal Party are about to create a common anti-communist front.(38)

Liberal disunity became increasingly apparent during 1948. The year began with rumours that Megan Lloyd George was about to join the Labour party, but in February she told the Cambridge University Liberal Club that she believed the party was moving not to the right but to the left. It was a claim which largely reflected her own wishful thinking. In November the parliamentary party split badly over the government's Iron and Steel Bill with Lady Megan and three other M.P.s refusing to vote with other Liberals against the bill. As leader, Clement Davies was only too aware of the electoral damage which such patent divisions could cause. To his predecessor he wrote: "I have no end of trouble here, as you can well understand. I believe if we can have real unity from now till the Election and a true loyalty, rising above mere personal idiosyncrasies, we shall be able to give a very good account of ourselves when the Election comes."(39)

But Davies's own efforts to boost his party's self-confidence met with rebuke from his colleagues. His claim, reported in the Economist, that the party had doubled its membership appeared to have been based on nothing more concrete than the findings of a Gallup Poll about the numbers of those who said they would vote Liberal and on the large and enthusiastic audiences which were attending Liberal rallies. Yet, warned Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, such facts could scarcely justify the conclusions which Davies had drawn and his assertion could prove embarrassing if it were challenged.(40)

In an attempt to consolidate party unity Megan Lloyd George was appointed Deputy Leader of the parliamentary party in 1949. But despite her new status Lady Megan made few efforts to moderate her views. Along with such colleagues as Dingle Foot she continued to urge that the party align itself unambiguously on the left and frequently found herself at odds with the majority of her colleagues on policy issues. Discussions on the state of the economy highlighted the differences of approach. The left was fearful of being seen to accept too much of the conservative critique of government policy. As Dingle Foot put it:

It looks to me as if the Tories ... are girding themselves up for an attack on the social services ... and a rise in unemployment figures. To my mind it would be fatal for us to lend ourselves, even by inference, to this campaign ... Even if we have to preach a form of austerity ... we should do it as defenders of the social services and full employment and not as an alternative gang of destroyers.(41)

In this situation Davies could only hope to maintain a semblance of unity by seeking refuge in ambiguity: "Clem intends to sound a clarion call . . . to blood, toil, tears and sweat. But the quantity of blood, the nature of the toil, the number of the tears and the precise purpose of the sweat are still undecided."(42) In January 1949 Lady Megan called upon the party to adopt a truly radical programme, adding rather provocatively, "Of course, that means shedding our Right Wing." The Western Morning News noted: "There have been hurried consultations between some of the other leaders of the party, who interpret this statement as a declaration of war against, perhaps, a substantial majority of its members . . . Lady Megan's attitude, far from bringing unity, might split the party."(43) As the 1945 parliament drew towards a close, such internal dissensions scarcely augured well for the party's electoral prospects.

The Conservative party went into the general election of 1950 in a mood of optimism. The Labour government had apparently run out of steam; the Liberals seemed to pose few threats. A few months before the election Robert Bruce Lockhart recorded that Anthony Eden "was not very afraid of the Liberals, thought that they were finished as a Party and believed that Liberals north of the Trent, i.e. in the industrial areas, would vote Tory."(44) Eden may even have been led to believe that Liberals would enter an electoral pact with a Conservative party headed by himself -- a rumour which would have given him one more reason to think that the time had come for Churchill to stand down.(45) The Tories strove once more to present themselves as the true heirs of Liberal tradition, even if this meant sowing confusion in the mind of the electorate. By May 1949 Lord Woolton was claiming that in sixty constituencies the Woolton-Teviot agreement had resulted in a decision to sponsor a joint "Liberal-Conservative" candidate.(46) Liberals could only respond by asserting that the differences between Liberalism and Conservatism were fundamental and that the intimacy between the Conservatives and the National Liberals(47) was an entirely different matter.

As the election drew near Lord Moynihan, chairman of the Liberal Party organization, tried to clear up any confusion by suggesting to Woolton that Conservative candidates and those who supported the Conservative party should be prepared to fight the election as Conservatives and that "the name 'Liberal' should not be used by them in order to confuse the issue." Woolton replied, with some justification, that the National Liberals has as much right as anyone else to use the word "Liberal" in their titles.(48) At this stage the party leaders entered the dispute. At his adoption meeting in Woodford on 20 January Churchill spoke scathingly of "the very small and select group of Liberal leaders who conceived themselves the sole heirs of the principles and traditions of Liberalism and believed themselves to have the exclusive copyright of the word 'Liberal'."(49) This was followed two days later by a joint statement from Churchill and Lord Rosebery, President of the National Liberal Council, which made a rather half-hearted call to "Liberal-Conservative" candidates to use the prefix "National" where a candidate from the mainstream Liberal party was also standing. Clement Davies felt bound to protest and there was even talk of the Liberals taking legal action, but Davies was wide open to Churchill's rejoinder that he himself had felt happy enough to carry the label "Liberal National" for eleven years of his political career.(50)

From the Liberal point of view this wrangling over nomenclature was an unwanted distraction, but one which showed what little success they had had since 1945 in laying claim to a viable political identity of their own. Furthermore, internal party disputes remained just beneath the surface. It was against Davies's better judgement that the party's annual assembly went ahead immediately prior to the election. The leader's comments are instructive: "My one prayer now is that there will not be much discussion, debate or disputing. Now is the time when we should agree upon the spirit, and not debate the finer points. We must have unity and also show that we are a Party of action, and not a debating society."(51) In an effort to improve its credibility the party decided to increase considerably the number of candidates it would field. Eventually 475 were nominated, 169 more than in 1945. Even this decision did not command unanimous support. Two Liberal peers, Lords Reading and Rennell, who had been showing signs of dissatisfaction with party policy for some time, made clear their view that the party was in danger of spreading its resources too thinly. "Of course what they really mean," noted Davies, "is that there should be some kind of pact with the Tories."(52) Only tactful handling by the party's veteran leader in the upper house, Lord Samuel, prevented another damaging row.

At a national level no formal pact was made between Liberals and Conservatives despite the claims of many observers that, without it, the anti-socialist vote was in danger of being split. In Huddersfield, however, a local arrangement was arrived at whereby the Conservatives agreed not to contest the west division of the town, while the Liberals stood down in the east. Liberal headquarters tried to turn the Tory argument on its head by suggesting that there were constituencies such as Bethnal Green where it was the duty of the Conservative candidate to stand down, since only the Liberal could possibly defeat Labour. The Conservatives refused further concessions, though in three other constituencies -- Carmarthen, Greenock, and the Western Isles -- no Conservative stood and local support was given to the Liberal candidate.(53) For the most part Conservatives were left with the telling argument that a vote for the Liberal party was a vote wasted.(54) The claim carried credibility. Opinion polls and general perception suggested that the gap between the two leading parties was small, while few believed that the Liberals by themselves could achieve very much. This theme was taken up in the press with the Daily Telegraph emphasizing the party's futility in running so many candidates, while the Sunday Times stressed the need for a common stand against socialism and criticized the vanity of independent Liberals for refusing to recognize reality.(55) Churchill himself conducted a skilful campaign, blaming the Liberals for their refusal to co-operate, while emphasizing his own liberalism and the lack of substantial differences between his party and theirs by offering Lady Violet Bonham-Carter one of the broadcasts which had been allocated to the Conservatives.

The Liberal manifesto No Easy Way failed to make much of an impression. Many of its proposals appeared insufficiently distinctive, while no single theme or concept seemed to run through the whole document. Conservatives were able to draw attention to a considerable measure of overlap with their own statement, This Is the Road.(56) In the longer term it was not enough for the Liberal party to be simply non-Conservative and non-Labour. The statement on nationalization was indicative. "We are persuaded," stated the manifesto, "that there should be no consideration of any further nationalization of industry for a period of five years, until the results of nationalization to date have been digested."(57) In general No Easy Way illustrated the difficulties which Liberalism experienced throughout this period in carving out a viable and recognizable identity within the political spectrum. While the party struggled for its very survival, detailed consideration of policy seemed almost a luxury which Liberals could not afford. In any case the party's leading figures were often hopelessly divided among themselves and at the same time frequently at odds with the rank and file, as over the issue of conscription. Though the party produced several policy initiatives in this period which later achieved greater significance, including industrial profit sharing and separate parliaments for Scotland and Wales, it singularly failed to excite the electorate. Overall it was widely felt that Liberalism's radical pretensions had been appropriated by Labour, while the threat of socialism could best be tackled by the humane Conservatism of men such as Butler, Eden, and Macmillan.

By comparison with the major parties, the Liberals' national campaign of 1950 looked amateurish. Shortage of money limited the number of paid agents and workers they could employ, while on the hustings the party suffered from a lack of big names. Recognizing the vulnerability of their own local positions, figures such as Sinclair, Davies, Megan Lloyd George, and Frank Byers concentrated their electioneering in their own constituencies. As the campaign progressed the Liberals' argument that they were now fielding enough candidates to secure a majority in the House of Commons began to appear a sham. Many of those standing had been adopted very late in the day, lacked credibility as aspiring politicians and were not even well versed in the policies of their party. One veteran Liberal commented: "I felt in listening to a good number of speeches that our candidates made a poor impression, rather as if they thought it was fun to stand if their expenses were paid, but they had very little to say except rather out-of-date appeals to party feeling."(58)

The historian of the 1950 election has commented on the Liberal performance that "to win 9 seats with 475 candidates, and to lose 319 deposits . . . was a defeat on a scale which it would be hard to parallel."(59) After an interval of forty years this judgement still seems a fair one. It is true that the Liberals' total vote increased to 2.6 million, but as the party was fielding 50 per cent more candidates than in 1945 this was scarcely a noteworthy achievement, especially when the overall turnout was up by nearly four million. As in 1945 party headquarters responded with a note of defiance: "The Liberal Party carries on. Let there be no doubt about that."(60) But the press on the whole was highly critical. The Times spoke of the "national disservice" which Liberal intervention had occasioned and suggested that the party could best serve the interests of Liberalism in future by allowing its supporters to judge for themselves which of the two larger parties could do more to put the Liberal spirit into practice.(61) The Daily Telegraph, disappointed at the Conservatives' narrow failure to return to power, took comfort from what it perceived as "the final and total eclipse of the Liberal Party." Even the still generally supportive Manchester Guardian wondered whether the Liberals' thinly scattered vote could really form the basis of a national political party in the future.(62) Clement Davies, though putting a brave public face on the disaster that had occurred, privately recognized that the party faced a more difficult situation than at any time since the parliament of 1929. He took refuge in the iniquities of the electoral system and was soon writing to Attlee to press the case for electoral reform.(63) But perhaps it was Harold Nicolson, a Liberal at heart though the Liberals were the one party he never formally supported, who expressed the most widespread sentiment: "I am sorry, of course, for the Liberals, but they asked for it."(64)

Between them the Conservatives and Liberals had polled about 1.85 million more votes than the victorious Labour government. Observers were not slow to draw an obvious conclusion. Speaking as a former Liberal who had already made up his mind that the Liberal party had no independent political future, Lord Simon put the matter succinctly: "Conservatives and Socialists may be assumed to have polled their full strength on February 23rd. The problem, therefore, is how best to get those who voted Liberal to vote Conservative next time, if there is another election soon."(65) The prospect of a further election in the not distant future was strong in view of the Labour government's rather fragile overall majority of five seats. In March Churchill proposed the setting up of a shadow cabinet committee to "go into all the questions open between Conservatives and Liberals and to see what can be done to secure greater unity among the forces opposed to Socialism."(66) Prime Minister Attlee made some fun of the Conservatives' courtship of the Liberal party. Were the intentions of the leader of the opposition honourable or not?

He has been a very ardent lover of this elderly spinster, the Liberal Party. The elder sister -- the National Liberals -- was married long ago; she is now deceased. This now is the younger sister, but she is getting on. I can never make out whether the rt. hon. Member for Woodford is going to play Petruchio or Romeo. He gives her a slap in the face, then offers her a bunch of flowers.(67)

But Attlee's sarcastic tone may well have been designed to strengthen Liberal resolve to resist the Conservative embrace, since there was some evidence from by-elections that former Liberal votes were more likely to go to the Tories than to Labour.

Undeterred by Attlee's wit, Churchill continued on his chosen course. To the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee he declared on 16 May that Conservatives had to obtain Liberal support both as individuals and if possible as a party, not by any political deal but by proclaiming the fundamental principles on which those who voted against socialism were agreed.(68) On 29 April Woolton told Conservatives that he did not know "of any practical issues on which Liberals and Conservatives are not agreed," a claim which prompted Clement Davies to reiterate that there was no intention of compromising the independence of the Liberal party.(69) Woolton's statement followed the formal defection of Lords Reading and Rennell to the Conservative camp, a move which seemed, in Lord Salisbury's words, "to underline the broad measure of agreement which exists between those who believe in the free way of life, to whatever party they have hitherto belonged."(70) When Lords Willingdon and Cowdray also left the Liberal party in early May, it seemed that the process of defection might get out of control.

Davies seemed to believe that what was needed was a short statement of Liberal principle, defining what was distinctive about Liberalism and belief in which was fundamental to being a Liberal.(71) That Davies should be thinking in these terms was perhaps reasonable enough. But that he should do so without at the same time stating what that distinctive Liberal creed actually was perhaps encapsulates the difficulties which faced the party at this time. Davies's predecessor was, however, thinking in altogether more practical terms. According to Archibald Sinclair the electorate had lost faith in the capacity of Liberal candidates to win seats and were tending to vote against the candidate they liked least rather than for the candidate they liked best. All other considerations, therefore, had to be subordinated to the attainment of electoral reform. It was the duty of those with responsibility for the future of the party "not to indulge in the luxury of expressing heroic sentiments" but to ensure that the party survived. The way forward, thought Sinclair, was an arrangement with the Conservative party, on the lines of the Huddersfield agreement, limited to the next general election and based on a firm pledge by the Conservatives that they would, if returned to power, introduce a measure of electoral reform in the next parliament.(72)

The possibility that the Conservative party might accept a system of Proportional Representation was less remote in 1950 than it might now appear. Harold Macmillan, more than ever convinced of the need for a definite alliance with the Liberals, saw "a great deal to be said, in principle, for an experiment in Proportional Representation, limited to the big cities. It could do no harm and might do good."(73) Even Churchill was favourably disposed and, according to Nigel Fisher, made a moving but unsuccessful appeal to the 1922 Committee to be allowed to pursue an arrangement with the Liberals along these lines.(74) "On Electoral Reform," R.A. Butler confirmed to Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, "the battle was only too seriously engaged."(75)

During the summer Churchill seems to have entrusted to Butler the delicate task of negotiating with the Liberals in the person of Lady Violet. Butler's image on the liberal wing of the Tory party was assured following his successful remodelling of party policy from his base in the Conservative Research Department. The aim was evidently a pact for the next election and in June Butler drew up a document which he entitled an "Overlap Prospectus of Principles." The two negotiators agreed that there was no question of any joint endorsement of a common programme but only a statement of general principles with which both parties found themselves in agreement. Though Lady Violet regarded it as crucial, Butler urged her not to press the issue of electoral reform for the time being for fear of damaging the whole negotiating process. The proposed pact may not have been well regarded at Conservative Central Office since Lord Woolton seems to have delayed making a firm approach to Davies on seats. In the event the talks had ground to a halt by the end of the summer, partly because of the outbreak of the Korean War and partly because the two sides clearly had different priorities in the negotiations.(76)

To what extent Clement Davies went along with these negotiations -- to what extent, in other words, he had accepted Sinclair's arguments about the need for an electoral arrangement -- is not altogether clear. When stated the Liberal position to Churchill and Woolton he was at pains to emphasize not only that the Liberals were and should remain an independent party, but also that there would be no overall or central agreement made between party leaders or party headquarters for the allocation of constituencies, whereby one party would undertake to withdraw its own candidate in favor of the candidate of the other party. Such an agreement, he insisted, would never be permitted by the rank and file of the Liberal party even if the leaders were willing to enter into it.(77) Be that as it may, the Liberals were clearly moving closer to the Tories than at any time since the end of the war. Unfortunately, it was not a direction in which a substantial minority of the diminished parliamentary party wished to travel. Davies was aware of the problems that would arise if his leftwing colleagues were fully cognizant of what was going on, especially as in May he had issued a statement in the Liberal News that "the Liberal leaders have no knowledge of Conservative intentions or of Conservative proposals and no negotiations are taking place."(78)

Davies believed that there had never been a time when the party should be more united, more determined and more definite and clear in its aims and policy. And yet what was the reality?

If you attended our Liberal Party Committees, or the meetings of the Parliamentary Party, or saw the correspondence that I receive, I believe that you would come to the conclusion that there is no Party today but a number of individuals who, because of their adherence to the Party, come together only to express completely divergent views.

About his own position he seemed near to despair. It was one "almost of supine weakness." If he gave support to a definite course of action, trouble immediately arose and a split was threatened. He would, he said, willingly resign his office if he thought that would help and was only restrained from doing so by the fear that such a move would be cited as further evidence of division in the party.(79)

The result was a rather ludicrous spectacle. The parliamentary party of nine members -- nicknamed by Labour "the Nimble Nine" -- could have been expected to exercise an influence out of proportion to their numerical strength in a House of Commons which was so finely balanced between the two leading parties. Instead the nine members sometimes divided in three different ways in parliamentary divisions. Despite his protestations of impotence, Davies was himself partly responsible for the confusion, failing to provide the strong leadership from the top which the situation demanded. The young Jo Grimond, only elected to parliament in 1950, found himself catapulted into the difficult role of party whip: "Loyalty, gratitude and admiration bound me to Clem but I was never quite sure on what branch he would finally settle."(80) A cartoon in the Sunday Graphic with the caption "Spring Double" pictured Davies astride two horses, one called "Labour" and the other "Tory."(81) In practice the Liberal party had no real wish to help the Conservative opposition to bring the Labour government down at an early date. It was in no position to fight another election, particularly from the financial point of view. Davies even sought an agreement with Churchill to try to limit the number of parliamentary divisions, whose very regularity was part of the Tories' tactics to wear the government down and bring it to its knees.(82) The impression the Liberals gave, therefore, was that their "sole purpose [was] to prevent an early defeat of the Government."(83)

By the autumn of 1950 there was a widespread feeling of depression among the party's senior figures. Davies tried to rally the Liberal Assembly at Scarborough, but his claim that the party was united and free of jealousies and envy was a hollow one.(84) At the same meeting Megan Lloyd George managed to avoid accusing the leadership of dealing with the Conservative enemy, but complained that there had certainly been a "shift to the right." Privately Violet Bonham-Carter warned Davies of the possibility of electoral extinction: "In times of crisis people go for decisive solutions. End the stalemate -- give one of the two major Parties a proper majority -- Stop this nonsense of carrying invalids on stretchers into the division lobbies etc. That will be the public mood -- and it will be fatal to what is left of our Party -- whose survival I passionately desire."(85) By-election statistics seemed to support Lady Violet's analysis. The Conservatives were enjoying a series of promising results, partly, contemporaries noted, because of a collapse in the Liberal vote.(86) Since the Liberals would not in any case be in a position to fight many seats at the next election, an electoral pact seemed more and more desirable as far as Lady Violet was concerned.

After a meeting of Liberal leaders in October at which majority opinion was clearly in favour of seeking and supporting regional arrangements on the Huddersfield model, Lady Violet tried once more to stir Davies into action. It was no longer possible to dodge the central issue -- "whether on balance we desire the return of a Socialist or a Conservative Government next time." For the Liberals, she stressed, survival was the problem. If the party was reduced to only four or five M.P.s, as seemed quite possible, then "we can no longer pretend to be a National Party with rooms in the House of Commons, a Chief Whip, a Party Broadcast etc." A decisive declaration of intent might well split the party, "but better even a split with survival than a united death." Lady Violet felt that the party was drifting without purpose, that an election might find it unprepared and that the time had come to renew contact with Lord Woolton.(87) Davies replied that he was personally prepared to help bring the Labour government down, but "if I made this proposal I know that at once there would be a split right from the start." Those M.P.s most likely to dissent were Megan Lloyd George, Emrys Roberts and Edgar Granville, but concluded Davies, "the truth of the matter ... is this. They are not concerned really about the Party or the country. They are concerned about themselves only and think that their best chance lies through help from the Socialists."(88) Thus, with another election likely within a matter of months, the Liberal party once again seemed to be on the verge of disintegration.

In the event of the election did not take place until October 1951. As the campaign opened, it was reported that the Liberals had 174 candidates provisionally adopted. Many however soon withdrew, while some constituency associations found that they lacked sufficient funds to finance a contest. With the number of firm candidatures dropping alarmingly the party announced on 26 September that it had decided to fight on a narrow front. 109 candidates were put into the field. This was less a matter of tactics than of necessity. The party "appears, in fact, to have fought on as wide a front as was practicable."(89) Nor were Liberal efforts concentrated where their best chances lay. Three seats where the Liberals had come second in 1950 were left uncontested, while a number of hopeless constituencies were fought once more, including twenty-nine where deposits had been lost in 1950. Davies's claim that the Liberals had "deliberately planned to contest selected seats" does not stand up to inspection.(90) At best, therefore, Liberals could only hope to hold the balance of power in the new parliament. The cry of the "wasted vote" was likely to be more potent than ever unless Liberals gave a clear indication of the way in which they would employ their parliamentary strength. As a Conservative election leaflet put it, "the Independent Liberal Party has no hope of power and to support a party without hope is itself a hopeless action." Davies, however, refused to give any advance commitment of support to either of the two major parties.(91) In practice many ex-Liberal candidates in areas where no Liberal was standing showed their preferences by throwing their weight behind other candidates, in most cases Conservatives.(92)

The party organization was even weaker than in 1950. The number of fulltime agents, which had stood at 140 in October 1949, was now down to fortyfour.(93) Only in a few seats were Liberals able to mount a full-scale campaign, Elsewhere issuing an election address and holding a few poorly attended meetings was all that was attempted. The party had "an impossible task in trying with very limited resources to make the electorate aware of the party's continued existence and of the justification for it."(94) The Liberal manifesto, The Nation's Task, stressed the importance of securing strong Liberal representation in the new House of Commons in order to check the extremism of the other parties. But it failed to give a clear picture of distinctive Liberal policies. Lord Teviot of the National Liberals seized upon the opportunity to argue that as there was "no fundamental difference in policy between Liberal and Conservative ideas," Liberals in constituencies where no Liberal candidate was standing should be urged to vote Conservative.(95) It was an invitation which Davies continued to resist.

Efforts to extend the "Huddersfield formula" came to very little. A comparable pact was reached in Bolton where Conservatives did not oppose the Liberal candidate in Bolton West, while the Liberals stood down in Bolton East. In three seats in rural Wales Liberals were not opposed by Tories and in Dundee too the Conservatives did not stand. Most noticeably Violet Bonham-Carter was not opposed in Colne Valley and Churchill made a point of speaking on her behalf. The theme of his speech was entirely predictable: "I find comfort in the broad harmony of thought which prevails between the modern Tory democracy and the doctrines of the famous Liberal leaders of the past."(96) One Conservative election leaflet, which appealed to the memory of David Lloyd George and urged Liberals to make their votes effective and preserve liberalism by voting Conservative, stirred up controversy, but in general the Conservatives were more restrained in their quest for Liberal votes than in 1950, recognizing perhaps that the impact of too overt a courtship might be counter-productive.

Probably no Liberal seriously expected anything but another electoral disaster. The Liberal vote slumped to under three-quarters of a million -- less than 2.6 per cent of the total; the party's representation in the Commons fell from nine to six and sixty-six candidates forfeited their deposits. Only a few pockets of strength now remained, concentrated in Wales, Scotland, and the West Country. Elsewhere the Liberal vote was distributed fairly evenly, though it was strongest in agricultural areas. The modest figure of 20 per cent support was secured in only three urban constituencies. Only Jo Grimond was returned in the face of Conservative opposition and it was fairly clear that at most the party would have held only three seats if the Conservatives had stood against all their candidates. The Times commented that the "party which for thirty years has fought to survive with almost incredible tenacity, has received a fresh blow."(97)

Liberal votes certainly seem to have been decisive, but only in terms of helping the Conservatives achieve a narrow, but still comfortable, majority of seventeen over all other parties. The statistics suggest that few Liberals, deprived of a Liberal candidate in 1951, felt unable to register a vote and that the majority of them transferred their support to the Tories. In Constituencies where Liberals stood in 1950 but not in 1951 the swing to the Conservatives was greater than in the country as a whole. Something like 60 or 70 per cent of those who had supported Liberal candidates in 1950 seem to have transferred their allegiance to the Conservatives when the possibility of a Liberal vote was no longer open to them. This factor may have accounted for more than half the seats which the Conservatives won from Labour.(98) Harold Macmillan's contemporary judgement was that Liberal votes had been particularly important in securing Conservative successes in areas north of the River Trent "which have suffered under the Socialist tyranny."(99)

If the result of the election were not bad enough, one further pitfall awaited the depleted party -- albeit one that was dressed in an attractive disguise. Churchill's parliamentary majority was adequate enough and he had no real need to seek Liberal support. But the election had seen the defeat of those left-wing Liberals whose presence in the party's ranks had been the most serious impediment to closer relations with the Tories. Perhaps also Churchill was keen to re-create the sort of "National" rather than party political authority which he had enjoyed during the war, or he may simply have been a final opportunity to extinguish the party of which he was once a member. For whatever reason Churchill decided to offer Clement Davies a post in his cabinet as Minister of Education. Davies was keen to accept, but felt obliged to consult with senior colleagues including Lord Samuel before making a decision. On 28 October Liberal party headquarters announced that Davies had felt unable to take up Churchill's offer, but that, in view of the government's narrow majority in the House of Commons, it would be willing to give it support "for measures clearly conceived in the interest of the country as a whole."(100) Davies's decision was crucial. So low were the Liberals' fortunes in the wake of the 1951 election that, if he had accepted, the remaining party might well have broken up in pieces. His refusal was perhaps the greatest act of service rendered to his party during eleven years as leader.

Defiance in adversity had become something of a Liberal trade mark. After 1951 it seemed particularly hollow. "Our beachhead is not enlarged," the party conceded, "but it remains." "We refuse to be stamped out," Davies told the Liberal Assembly the following year. "In spite of all temptations we still prefer our own doctrine and we are determined to maintain our independence."(101) Privately he seemed to take some comfort from the strength of Liberalism among the undergraduate population.(102) Davies was, he said, less depressed than he had been in 1945 or 1950. "I cannot give a reason for this. It is just a state of mind and may be quite illogical."(103) But the party's difficulties were far from over. Shortage of leaders was a particular problem. Lady Violet and Lady Megan, its two most charismatic figures, had both been defeated at the election. The defeat of the promising Frank Byers in the 1950 election was a particular blow. Sinclair had given up hope of returning to the Commons. In the New Year Honours of 1952 he was created a viscount, but plans that he should become the party's leader in the upper house were thwarted by his own ill health. He did not take his seat until 1954 nor make his maiden speech until 1956. As a result Lord Samuel stayed on as leader in the Lords until 1955, when he was eighty-five years of age. The depth of the party's roots in history had been a major factor in keeping it going when so many other factors pointed towards extinction. Samuel's departure cut the final tie binding the Liberals to an earlier, happier age. On his retirement Violet Bonham-Carter admitted that "it is hard for those who remember the great men of our Party to continue to serve its shadow among the lesser ones."(104) Davies himself soldiered on as party leader until 1956, while fighting a private battle against drink.

After 1951 the party's popular following in the country had still to plumb new depths. In September 1956 it fell, according to Gallup, to a derisory 1 per cent. Liberals contested only 17 per cent of the by-elections held in the period 1951-55, yet 88 per cent of their candidates still contrived to lose their deposits.(105) Yet, paradoxically, the Liberals' darkest hour had now passed. "I honestly believe," wrote Clement Davies in the wake of the 1951 election, "we have now reached the nadir and that from now on we shall begin to climb steadily the hill of prosperity."(106) Once Davies had rejected Churchill's offer of ministerial office, the question of Liberal absorption into the Conservative party ceased to be a live issue. Capturing the Liberal vote in one way or another had been a Tory priority in the six years after 1945. After 1951 it was no longer necessary. From the middle of the decade the Liberal electoral position slowly improved, particularly under the leadership of Jo Grimond. Grimond was much more successful than Davies had ever been in laying claim to a distinctive Liberal identity within the political spectrum, having a far clearer view than his predecessor of his party's ultimate destiny. Liberalism benefitted also from growing disillusionment with an extended period of Conservative government and, from the late 1960s onwards, from the increasing perception that the two major parties were abandoning the political centre ground.

It was the absence of these factors which caused the Liberal party such difficulties in the years 1945-51. In so far as Liberals had a power-base it was in the Celtic fringe. This had been true even in the nineteenth century. After the Second World War, however, what had once been a power-base looked increasingly like a last refuge. In the election of 1950 the party made much of its "classlessness." Yet this was part of the problem. Outside their isolated strongholds Liberals drew their support equally from both sexes and from all ages, all classes and all occupations. This evenness worked to their disadvantage in the first-past-the-post political system.(107) But it was not easy for Liberals to escape from this impasse while both the Conservatives and Labour edged towards the political centre ground. Despite the rhetoric of inter-party disputes the two main parties were more closely aligned in terms of basic policies than at many other times in their history. Thus, while the general election of 1951 was among the most bitterly fought of the post-war era, its outcome probably led to fewer changes of policy and direction than any other outcome party political change-over of modern times. Attlee's Labour government, notwithstanding aspects such as its nationalization programme, was a centre-left administration dominated by hard-headed social democrats rather than ideological socialists. Most of its social programme was warmly applauded by Liberals. Likewise the post-war Conservative party took enormous strides towards accepting the wartime consensus based on the ideas and ideals of Beveridge and Keynes. In such a situation the political centre was already heavily occupied, leaving little room for the intrusion of a Liberal alternative. That alternative claimed to oppose both "socialism" and "toryism" but these were but caricatures of the stance of the Liberals' opponents.

Many Liberals saw clearly what had happened. In 1955 Gilbert Murray commented: "Nearly all the educated people I meet are Liberals, but vote Conservative."(108) It was, said Lord Simon, "the height of absurdity to imagine that the modern democratic Conservative is identical with the reactionary Tory of the past."(109) "Winston has given the real lead to Liberal thought in the last few years," agreed Murray.(110) He went further: "I am really inclined to think that it is the Tory party that is extinct, not the Liberal. They have had to accept a more than half Liberal leader, and on the main lines of policy people like Winston and Eden scarcely differ from us."(111) Murray had himself voted Conservative in 1950. But perhaps another former Liberal, Lord Winster, put the position even better: "There has ceased to be any reason for a Liberal Party. It has done its job. It has made England liberal."(112)

(*)I should like to thank Christine Guiliani for help with the preparation of this article and Philip Bell for perceptive comments on an earlier draft.

(1)Report of Reconstruction Committee appointed after the 1945 general election, cited A. Watkins, The Liberal Dilemma (London, 1966), p. 43.

(2)The Liberals polled 5.3 million votes, 23.4 per cent of the total, but secured only 59 seats.

(3)Sir P. Harris, Forty Years In and Out of Parliament (London, n.d.), p. 184.

(4)R.B. McCallum and A. Readman, The British General Election of 1945 (Oxford, 1947), p. 61.

(5)Ibid., p. 68.

(6)Ibid., p. 108.

(7)Report No. 2259, cited Watkins, Dilemma, p. 42.

(8)J.S. Rasmussen, The Liberal Party (London, 1965), p. 12.

(9)Liberal Magazine, Aug. 1945.

(10)Manchester Guardian, 27 July 1945.

(11)D.M. Roberts, "Clement Davies and the Fall of Neville Chamberlain, 1939-40," Welsh History Review 8 (1976-7), pp. 188-215; Lord Boothby, My Yesterday, Your Tomorrow (London, 1962), pp. 253-55.

(12)The Times, 18 Mar. 1946.

(13)The party's leftward orientation continued for some time. Davies's opening speech to the new parliament was effectively a message of congratulation to the Labour government. It was not until the Transport Bill in December 1946 that Liberal M.P.s (with the exception of Lady Megan Lloyd George) voted against a major measure of nationalization policy. An important development was the resignation of J.L. Horabin as Chief Whip in the spring of 1946. Eighteen months later he joined the Labour party.

(14)McCallum and Readman, 1945, pp. 141, 185.

(15)It is worth noting that even in the 1945 landslide Labour did not secure a majority of the popular vote. A system of Proportional Representation might presumably have led to something other than a Labour government.

(16)The adjective "liberal" is used here to mean being favourable towards reform, rather than its contemporary usage suggesting advocacy of free-market economics.

(17)R.R. James, Anthony Eden (London, 1986), p. 311.

(18)R. Douglas, The History of the Liberal Party, 1895-1970 (London, 1971), p. 253.

(19)Rasmussen, Liberal Party, p. 103.

(20)The Times, 18 Nov. 1946.

(21)Douglas, Liberal Party, p. 253.

(22)H. Macmillan, Tides of Fortune (London, 1969), p. 288.

(23)A. Horne, Macmillan 1894-1956 (London, 1988), p. 298; N. Fisher, Harold Macmillan (London, 1982), p. 130.

(24)Foot to M. Lloyd George, 7 Aug. 1943, Lloyd George MSS (National Library of Wales) 20475, C3173.

(25)C. Davies to S. Davies, 3 Nov.1943, Davies MSS (National Library of Wales) C/1/16.

(26)Liberal Magazine, July 1946.

(27)D.J. Dutton, "John Simon and the Post-War National Liberal Party: an Historical Postscript," Historical Journal 32, 2 (1989), p. 360.

(28)Douglas, Liberal Party, p. 255.

(29)Macmillan, Tides, p. 310.

(30)D. Butler, Coalitions in British Politics (London, 1978), p. 95; Watkins, Dilemma, p. 48. Churchill's initiative only became public during the 1950 election campaign.

(31)The Times, 27 Nov. 1947.

(32)F. Boyd, "Clement Davies" in E.T. Williams and C.S. Nicholls (eds.), The Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970 (Oxford, 1981), p. 279.

(33)The Times, 23 Nov. 1956 (obituary of Hopkin Morris).

(34)In the general election of 1950 Gwilym Lloyd George actually appeared on Conservative platforms in constituencies where there was a Liberal standing. In 1951 he accepted reality and was elected as a Conservative.

(35)Manchester Guardian, 23 Apr. 1947.

(36)In fact the Liberals made no by-election gains in the whole period between the 1945 and 1951 general elections and never looked remotely like doing so.

(37)V. Bonham-Carter to M. Lloyd George, 17 Nov. 1947, Lloyd George MSS 20475, C3168.

(38)N. Nicolson (ed.), Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters 1945-62 (London, 1968), pp. 111-12.

(39)Davies to A. Sinclair, 16 Feb. 1949, Davies MSS J/3/3.

(40)V. Bonham-Carter to Davies, 2 and 9 May 1949, Davies MSS J/3/4 and 6.

(41)Foot to M. Lloyd George, 15 Aug. 1949, Lloyd George MSS 20475, C3174.


(43)Western Morning News, 12 Jan. 1949.

(44)K. Young (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart 1939-1965 (London, 1980), p. 704.

(45)Ibid., p. 696.

(46)H.G. Nicholas, The British General Election of 1950 (London, 1951), p. 82.

(47)The Liberal Nationals were renamed National Liberals in 1948.

(48)Nicholas, 1950, pp. 83-84.

(49)Watkins, Dilemma, p. 50.

(50)Nicholas, 1950, pp. 83-84.

(51)Davies to Sinclair, 17 Jan. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/12.

(52)Ibid., 6 Jan. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/10.

(53)Nicholas, 1950, pp. 42, 82.

(54)Lord Kilmuir, Political Adventure (London, 1964), p. 170.

(55)Nicholas, 1950, pp. 174, 182-83.

(56)Ibid., pp. 121, 93.

(57)F.W.S. Craig, British General Election Manifestos 1900-1974 (London, 1975), p. 163.

(58)G. Murray to Davies, 10 May 1950, Davies MSS J/3/25i.

(59)Nicholas, 1950, p. 299.

(60)Watkins, Dilemma, p. 55.

(61)The Times, 27 Feb. 1950.

(62)Manchester Guardian, 25 Feb. 1950.

(63)Davies to Sinclair, 22 Mar. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/14.

(64)Nicolson (ed.), Nicolson: Diaries, p. 188.

(65)Memorandum for Lord Woolton, 27 Feb. 1950, Simon MSS (Bodleian Library) 98, fos. 130-31.

(66)M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. viii (London, 1988), p. 529.

(67)House of Commons Debates, 5th Series, vol. 472, col. 592.

(68)Gilbert, Churchill, viii, 529.

(69)The Times, 1 and 3 May 1950.

(70)Ibid., 17 Apr. 1950.

(71)Davies to Sinclair, 28 Apr. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/22.

(72)Sinclair to Davies, 3 May 1950, Davies MSS J/3/23.

(73)Macmillan, Tides, p. 318.

(74)Fisher, Macmillan, p. 132.

(75)Butler to V. Bonham-Carter, 3 Aug. 1950, cited A. Howard, RAB: The Life of R.A. Butler (London, 1987), p. 170.

(76)Howard, RAB, pp. 168-71.

(77)"Liberal position as put by me to Mr. Winston Churchill and Lord Woolton," n.d., Davies MSS C/1/54.

(78)Liberal News, 26 May 1950.

(79)Davies to G. Murray, 11 May 1950, Davies MSS J/3/26i.

(80)J. Grimond, Memoirs (London, 1979), pp. 147-48.

(81)Sunday Graphic, 12 Mar. 1950.

(82)Davies to Churchill, 4 May 1950, Davies MSS J/4/17.

(83)Macmillan, Tides, p. 318.

(84)Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 Sept. 1950.

(85)V. Bonham-Carter to Davies, 23 Sept. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/40.

(86)R. Cockett (ed.), My Dear Max (London, 1990), pp. 113-14.

(87)V. Bonham-Carter to Davies, 27 Oct. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/43.

(88)Davies to V. Bonham-Carter, 15 Nov. 1950, Davies MSS J/3/45.

(89)D. Butler, The British General Election of 1951 (London, 1952), pp. 94-95.

(90)"The case for voting Liberal," The Listener, 4 Oct. 1951.

(91)Davies to V. Bonham-Carter, 11 Jan. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/53.

(92)Butler, 1951, p. 95.

(93)Ibid., p. 22.

(94)Ibid., pp. 146-47.

(95)Teviot to Davies, 4 Oct. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/58.

(96)Gilbert, Churchill, viii, 646.

(97)The Times, 27 Oct. 1951.

(98)Butler, 1951, pp. 242, 266-67.

(99)Macmillan, Tides, pp. 360-61.

(100)News Chronicle, 29 Oct. 1951.

(101)The Times, 19 May 1952.

(102)Davies to G. Murray, 9 Nov. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/65.

(103)Ibid., 15 Nov. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/67i.

(104)J. Bowle, Viscount Samuel (London, 1957), p. 357.

(105)A. Cyr, Liberal Party Politics in Britain (New Brunswick, 1977), p. 102.

(106)Davies to G. Murray, 9 Nov. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/65.

(107)Nicholas, 1950, p. 300.

(108)D. Wilson, Gilbert Murray, O.M. 1866-1957 (Oxford, 1987), p. 391.

(109)Simon to Isaac Foot, 1 Dec. 1947, Simon MSS 97, fo. 50.

(110)P.F. Clarke, Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge, 1978), p. 286.

(111)Murray to Davies, 12 Nov. 1951, Davies MSS J/3/66.

(112)Young (ed.), Lockhart Diaries, p. 620.
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Author:Dutton, David
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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