Are we witnessing the strange death of Labour England
I’ve never joined a political party: but a long time ago I did run as a political party candidate. For the space of two weeks, in a school mock-election, I tried to get the votes of my fellow-pupils for the British Liberal Party.
It was 1966 – the year England won the World Cup, the first year of Swinging London, the year of “Good Vibrations”, “Nowhere Man” and “Paint It Black”. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was running for re-election against the new Conservative leader Ted Heath, but I couldn’t have cared less.
I was a spotty fourteen-year-old, at school in central London. There were plenty in my class itching to stand for Labour or the Tories, but no-one wanted to be the Liberal, so I was “volunteered” to stand for the one party that was certain to lose.
The Liberals were the perennial also-rans. They never won more than a couple of handfuls of seats in Parliament, even though their vote had climbed a little from its mid-Fifties nadir of just over two-and-a-half percent.
I went to the Party’s national offices, where they gave me some stickers, posters and campaign literature.
I made a speech or two in class, and received, after a fortnight’s campaign, the magnificent total of two votes.
In the real world, the Liberal Party led by Jo Grimond won 12 seats at the 1966 election.
12, out of 629.
That’s pretty much the story of British Liberalism for exactly a century.
Until a hundred years ago, Liberalism had been the dominant cast of mind in Britain for a long time.
The writer George Dangerfield put it like this: “Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman ... was something of a Liberal at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air or respectable and passionate idiosyncracy which is said to be typical of his nation”.
That’s a passage from “The Strange Death Of Liberal England”, a book I like so much that my own copy has finally fallen to pieces from overuse.
One reason it’s so compelling – aside from the elegance of the writing, and the way it often reads more like satire than dusty history – is that Dangerfield saw something that others had never really noticed or understood: that events beginning on May 6, 1910 changed Britain for ever.
That was the date of the death of King Edward VII, and thus the official end of the Edwardian era.
The first cause of the Liberals’ problem, says Dangerfield, was a confrontation between the elected government of Herbert Henry Asquith and the unelected House of Lords – a conflict in some ways not unlike the fight between Gough Whitlam and the Senate, known as the Supply crisis, in 1975.
In Dangerfield’s account, “In its political aspect, the House of Lords was extremely conservative, quite stupid, immensely powerful, and a determined enemy of the Liberal Party. It was also an essential enemy. If anything went wrong, if one’s radical supporters became too insistent, if one’s inability to advance became too noticeable, one could always blame the Lords. It was therefore a melancholy fate which decreed that the Liberals should turn upon their hereditary foe; that they should spend their last energies on beating it to its knees; and should thereupon themselves – expire”.
Unlike Gough Whitlam, Asquith won his Supply crisis, and in doing so deprived the Lords for ever of their power to block money Bills.
Dangerfield anatomises these events, and three other factors whose novelty overwhelmed the comfortable certainties of Edwardian Liberalism: the threat of civil war in Northern Ireland; the rise of the Suffragette movement; and the rapidly increasing power of “syndicalism” – in other words, the trade unions.
Historians have argued with aspects of Dangerfield’s thesis, but there’s no denying his central insights: that there are moments when political certainties can turn on their axis, and that sometimes, the greatest victories presage the greatest defeats.
The Liberals had won the 1906 election by a landslide – a majority of 129 seats.
The two elections of 1910 reduced their share of seats from almost 60% to just over 40%, and led to hung parliaments.
Looking back at the voting trend lines, it’s clear that over the next few decades, Liberal support declined disastrously, while Labour’s correspondingly rose.
By the Thirties, Labour was the dominant left-of centre force.
I imagine that Britain’s current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is either unaware of the significance of that spring of 1910, or he doesn’t believe in omens, for May 6 2010 is the date he picked to go the polls; and he now appears to be staring down defeat.
Poll after poll is showing that the Lab/Tory political duopoly that marked most of the 20th century is no more, and that this is – for the first time in a very long time – a genuine three-horse race.
Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the Liberals are known now, performed so well in two debates that he’s said to have transformed the political landscape.
And in the last day or so, some polls even suggest that the Labour Party may come in third. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/26/labour-support-fall-icm
It’s a mighty fall from the huge majorities gained by Tony Blair from 1997 onwards.
It’s also a reprieve for the Conservatives: only five years ago, the writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft penned a book in homage to Dangerfield, ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’, in which he predicted that the once-triumphant party of Mrs Thatcher could easily go the way of the Asquith Liberals.
Britain has seen massive changes in the last two decades. The huge shifts in its economy, away from manufacturing, engineering, coal-mining, towards financial services and consumerism, have hugely undermined the union foundations of the Labour Party.
As in Australia, membership of all parties has dwindled, especially as the women who were often parties’ administrative backbone have gone into the workforce.
Politics has become professionalised, with image at the forefront, so that a single performance in a televised debate can galvanise a significant proportion of the electorate.
So it’s not necessarily fanciful to think that, in just over a week’s time, the British political landscape will change again, in ways which will shape the next hundred years.
The Strange Death of Labour England, anyone?
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