Politics, Plate tectonics and the destruction of the Liberal Democrats

Before the recent General Election, David Cameron boasted that the Conservatives would have a Candidate in all 650 seats across the UK. The 650 became 649 when it was decided not to field a CU candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.  Following the General Election, we have been told (albeit unofficially) that Conservatives will not be putting up candidates against the UUP at the next General Election.  At the end of July, a letter written by from Conservative Party Chief Executive Andrew Feldman to NI Conservative Area Chair Irwin Armstrong suggested that Conservatives would not be fighting against the UUP in elections at Assembly or Parliamentary level (source: Ian Parsley).  Yesterday, as reported by Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home, Conservative MP Nick Boles has suggested that the Conservatives might enter into a non-aggression pact with the Liberal Democrats at the next General Election. How times change!

Mr. Boles’s idea is interesting but I wonder if he has considered the possibility that the Liberal Democrats could self-destruct, bringing politics back to a two-party system?

History indicates that politics works a bit like the history of tectonic plates, albeit in a miniscule time frame.  Political Parties split up and merge just like what happens to continents over millions of years.  Parties also adopt policy positions and change them, just as continents change their positions of latitude and longitude on the Planet.   

The Whigs originated as Presbyterian religious zealots from Scotland.  In 1650, their forbears, known as the Kirk Party, entered into a treaty (the treaty of Breda) with Prince Charles (later King Charles II).  Charles agreed to establish Presbyterianism as the official national religion in Scotland, England and Ireland.  The Kirk Party’s ambitions were thwarted when Cromwell defeated them at the battle of Dunbar. 

Within a generation, the remnants of the Kirk Party joined the Earl of Shaftesbury and his supporters in their quest to introduce measures to exclude the Catholic prince James Stuart (later James II) from ascending the throne.  This new political faction became the Whig Party.  Those who opposed the measures and were in support of James’s rights of succession were the Tory Party. 

It is ironic that more than a century later, these forbears of the Liberal and Conservative parties were to occupy different political positions on the libertarian axis.  William Pitt (the Younger), the Whig Prime Minister, resigned over the refusal by King George to grant Catholic emancipation.  The Tories, on the other hand, were opposed to such reform for a further generation.  It is like comparing the Sahara Desert with Antarctica.  In the middle Ordovician period (about 450 million years ago) the land which later became the Sahara was near the South Pole, while the land which later formed Antarctica was near the equator.

By 1829, the Tories had changed their position to become in favour of Catholic Emancipation.  Under the administration of the Duke of Wellington, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed.  By 1834, the Tory Party, under Sir Robert Peel, became the Conservative Party. 

In the mid 1840s, fault lines opened up within the Conservative Party.  The abolition of the Corn Laws – a response to the Irish Famine – did far more damage to the unity of the Conservative Party then than the Maastricht Treaty later did to the Party in 1992.  A faction, calling themselves the Peelites and numbering about a third of the Conservative Party, was in favour of free trade.  The remainder were not.  In 1859, Lord Palmerston led a coalition of Peelites (which included William Gladstone), radicals and Whigs to form the Liberal Party.  Later in their history, the Conservatives would embrace and become the champions of free trade.  

Within the political system, the Conservatives had been very much the party of “slow change” while the Liberals tended to be far more radical.  Under Benjamin D’Israeli, the Conservatives renewed themselves by becoming more radical with the introduction of social legislation, including slum clearance and town planning.

It was within the Liberal Party that the next “tectonic” split occurred.  In 1886 and 1893, William Gladstone’s Liberals introduced Home Rule Bills for Ireland.  These were opposed by the Liberal Unionists led by Lord Hartingdon.  Initially, they formed a separate party and became allies of the Conservatives, forming a coalition Government with them in 1895.  In 1912, the Liberal Unionists Merged with the Conservative Party.  The new party became the Conservative and Unionist Party.  

Free trade was a very big political issue in the early 20th century with working classes linking it very firmly to the price of food.  The Conservatives were still very much the party of protectionism.  In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide election victory but this was to be their last without an alliance.  The First World War proved to be the Zenith of the Liberal Party.  Pacifists in the party resigned over legislation such as the Conscription and Defence of the Realm Act.  The Liberal Party was now badly split.  In 1915, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was forced to invite the Conservatives into coalition.  Asquith lost the support of the Conservatives and Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916 and the leader of the pro-coalition Liberal faction.  In the 1918 election, the “pacifist” wing of the Liberal Party lost heavily whilst that part of the Party led by Lloyd George retained its seats.  The Conservatives were now the overwhelmingly powerful force in the coalition.  In 1922, it was broken apart.  In the General Election which followed, the Liberal Parties lost heavily, leaving Labour as the second largest party for the first time.  By the 1923 election, the two factions of the Liberal Party became re-united.  In the General Election of that year, they re-gained seats, winning 158 altogether.  However, those gains were at the expense of the Conservatives.  In the 1924 election, the Liberals lost heavily and were reduced to 40 seats.  They would never again be one of the two largest parties.

The Labour Party came into existence out of rise of the Trade Union movement.  It was not formed from a break up of any other party.  Perhaps this event can be likened to an island formed out of volcanoes, such as Iceland.  Certainly, the rise of Communism and Socialism were like an Ice Age which flowed until the 1980s then ebbed rapidly, resulting in the Soviet Block and China becoming capitalist countries.  Socialism has not suffered quite the same decline but the Labour Party would never again be as far to the left as it was in 1983.  Today, it is still regarded as the party of big Government and higher taxes.    

It is difficult to pinpoint the time that the Conservative Party from being “anti” to “pro” free trade.  Certainly, Winston Churchill, previously a Liberal and later the Conservative party leader, was always a supporter of free trade.  Harold McMillan (1959-63) worked with states outside the EEC to form the European Free Trade Area but it was Mrs. Thatcher’s Administration which moved the Conservatives to their current position on the free market economy.  Reforms were made in relation Trade Unions and Professions where restrictive trade practices were either heavily diluted or removed.  The Right to Buy Scheme, reforms to the Rent Acts and privatisation were all measures contributing to a larger and less restricted private sector economy. 

Ironically, when Ramsay McDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister in 1923, Labour supported free trade.  Since that time, Labour steered its party towards protectionism.  In the Wilson / Callaghan Government of the 1970s, Labour introduced price controls.  On the Labour supply side of markets, they maintained their position on protectionism which retained Trade Union Power, including retention of the Closed shop and secondary picketing.  Their most extreme positions on protectionism were taken between 1964 and 1992.  The Labour Government which came to power in 1997 left undisturbed many of the reforms introduced in Mrs. Thatcher’s administration.

The Conservative Party has always tended to be the party least likely to oppose fighting wars.  Pacifism, seen in the Old Liberal Party transferred to the Labour Left.  Under Michael Foot, the Labour Party supported unilateral nuclear disarmament.  When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, Foot was against military intervention.  As Mrs. Thatcher famously said, “Labour would never have fired a shot.”  In the 1983 General Election, Labour lost by a landslide.  This was also a time of schism within the Labour Party.  Four senior politicians, Dr. David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rogers had left the Labour Party to form the SDP.  In the 1983 General Election, they were in alliance with the Liberal Party.  Later this party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats. 

Since the war, the Liberal Party (and its successor the Liberal Democrats) has lurched further to the left.   This has made it difficult for them to retain truly liberal policies.  This has led to an ideological fault line opening up within the Liberal Party dividing social liberals on the one hand from the classical (Gladstonian) free market liberals on the other.  The former, which represent the left of the party, favour more spending on Public Services.  The latter camp, which includes Nick Clegg and David Laws, support the line that there should be less Government.  So will this fault line lead to a new political “tectonic” re-alignment?

It could very well be.  There is very little ideological daylight between social liberals and the mainstream Labour Party.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives have retained a liberal economic outlook for a very considerable time whilst in other areas of policy, such as Human Rights and the Environment, the Conservatives are looking increasingly like a modern Liberal Party. 

The present Coalition Government is on a mission to cut public spending in order to reduce the budget deficit and the National debt.  For time being, nearly all Lib Dems are united behind this mission.  However, what becomes of Lib Dem policy after the Government brings the deficit into balance? 

It is at that point that the “small staters,” if still in coalition with the Conservatives, are likely to prefer a continued drive to reduce the size of Government whilst the social liberals will be roaring for increased Government spending.  Such a rift is likely to be open and very damaging, leading to a further reduction in Lib Dem popularity and defections to Labour and the Conservatives.  They could then be at a point from which they could never recover.  Then again, they could be saved from extinction by a non-aggression pact of the kind suggested by Mr. Boles.

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10 Responses to Politics, Plate tectonics and the destruction of the Liberal Democrats

  1. shane says:

    I enjoyed the history lesson. I also find it ironic how the descendants of the Whigs – those who opposed James II because of his Catholic faith- came to later champion the rights of Catholics a century later. In a way, it makes sense. Unlike in Ireland, where support for the Stuarts was largely pragmatic (because the Stuarts offered the best hope for the liberty of Catholics) the English Tories who supported the Stuarts did so because of a doctrinaire constitutional agenda – believing in the legitimate rights of inheritance. When the Glorious Revolution overturned that principle, those Tories who could stomach William, and later the Hanoverians, were still the most disposed to royal authority, which was now based on an explicitly anti-Catholic foundation (the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights) . Many prominent members of the United Irishmen were big fans of the Glorious Revolution, and seen the rebellion of ’98 as its natural trajectory, something which has the potential to embarrass Sinn Fein.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Labour were once advocates of free trade. Marx was also a big fan of free trade and Marxists have always traditionally opposed protectionism. How did the Tory party, once the party of the landed aristocracy, become the party of business, and the Liberal Party, once the party of the rising bourgeoisie, become a quasi socially democratic party? That has always interested me.

    • Seymour Major says:


      Thank you. Likewise, I enjoy your references to history.

      I could have written a lot more on this subject. I could have talked about the rows inside the Conservative Party over Suez (1956), Rhodesia (1960s and 1970s) and (Maastricht). However, the essay had already got to over 1700 words and I had to stop. Now you have tempted me to write a wee bit more.

      The Conservative’s original constituency was indeed the Aristocracy and the landed gentry but that was not going to be big enough to win elections. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was amongst a series of statutes which increased the size of the voting franchise. Every increase in the franchise pushed the average voter further down the social scale. As the franchise increased, the Conservatives were forced to expand their coalition to win elections. Pitching for the middle class and the business vote was the natural and obvious way to expand that coalition but it still was not easy. The Conservatives suffered internal tensions over free trade right throughout the 19th century and into the 1920s.

      What seems to have led the Conservatives to abandoning defending tariffs was the rise of the left. In order to defend capitalism, they had no choice but to defend free trade.

      The Conservatives were also able to observe the policy failures of the first majority Labour Government outside of coalition. It soon became clear that collectivism disincentivised business and would never be conducive to a thriving economy. This is a key passage of what Winston Churchill said in the 1950 election manifesto

      “Socialism has imposed a crushing burden of taxation amounting to eight shillings of every pound earned in this country. Enterprise and extra effort have been stifled. Success has been penalised. Thrift and savings have been discouraged. A vote for Socialism is a vote to continue the policy which has endangered our economic and present independence both as a nation and as men and women.”

      As to the Liberals becoming social democrats, the evolution of their position had been developing in that direction before Labour became a mighty party. The so-called “people’s budget” of 1909 was certainly a radical wealth redistribution programme. In fact, there is little doubt that Liberals would have occupied most of the ground occupied by Labour, had the latter not come into existence.

      I will return to the theme of “political tectonic plates” in relation to Northern Ireland’s past and future in a post to be written soon.

  2. shane says:

    John Locke is often seen as the father figure of English liberalism. He strongly supported religious tolerance for non-conformist Protestants but strongly opposed the same tolerance for Catholics because…er…Catholicism is intolerant! I think some liberals today (now on the ‘right’) see a modern parallel with Islam.

    James II’s Declaration of Indulgence had went far beyond the Act of Tolerance, granting religious liberty to even Muslims and atheists: http://www.jacobite.ca/documents/16870404.htm

  3. I’m not sure your use of “social liberal” is correct. Perhaps you mean “social democrat”? As far as I can tell, both factions of LibDems are social liberals – it’s the main policy position that unites them. Also, it was the Conservatives’ newfound (or rediscovered) emphasis on social liberalism that made the coalition possible.

  4. Editor says:

    This attempt to compartmentalise based on historical precepts shows, very clearly, what Karl Popper referred to as the poverty of historicism. There is no objective common thread linking the past to the present in the ways you are collectively trying to describe. Indeed, why you wish to describe political developments in this way is beyond me. Shane, you are especially fond of glib historicism.

    The Conservative Party has been all over the place in terms of its defining ‘ideology’. During the Thatcher era the Party turned very libertarian – with Thatcher heavily influenced by Hayek. But the most important thinkers in the party at that time were politically maverick and just happened to find a home in the party – notably the monetarist Sir Keith Joseph. However, no Conservative leader since Thatcher has had any real defining ideological positions on anything – certainly not social or fiscal policy. Cameron, like Blair, has been grasping for a populist position that defines him. So far his ‘big society’ idea is a mere damp squib – in similar vein to ‘New Labour’.

    None of your analyses identifies populism as the common thread uniting recent administrations – but it’s what makes Blair, Cameron and Clegg depressingly alike.

    • Seymour Major says:

      I agree with what you say about Thatcher. I also agree that UK politics has become much more populist in recent years.

      The post was not meant to be an analysis of the present ideology of David Cameron’s conservatives or the present Labour Party.

      The post highlighted party splits and the propensity of political parties to change, substantially, their position over a period of time in order to win power. The post also pondered the possibility of a fatally damaging split in the Liberal Democrats and placed that point alongside Nick Boles’s suggestion that the Conservative Party should enter into a non-aggression pact with the Conservatives.

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