• G. R. Searle
Part of the British History in Perspective book series (BHP)


Major political parties seldom disintegrate; at least that has been the experience of Britain over the last 200 years or more. They may go through a period of prolonged electoral unpopularity, as the Conservative Party did after the schism over the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, or as Labour has done during the 1950s and 1980s. But parties of government, though sometimes written off, have usually bounced back again. The case of the Liberal Party is different. On the eve of the First World War it was enjoying its ninth successive year in office. But in the course of the War it underwent a fatal split and, despite spluttering attempts at revival in the 1920s, soon found itself on the fringes of national political life. By the mid-1930s the Liberals had dwindled to a rump of a mere twenty-one MPs. Only in the collapse of the Irish National Party and its replacement by Sinn Fein between 1917 and 1919 do we have anything remotely like this swift descent from glory to impotence.


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  1. 1.
    Wilson, T., The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914–1935 (London, 1966), pp. 15–16.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Clarke, P. F., ‘The electoral position of the Liberal and Labour parties, 1910–1914’, English Historical Review, 90 (1975), pp. 828–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Though Roy Douglas has written a mischievous article, entitled ‘Labour in Decline, 1910–14’, in Brown, K. D. (ed.), Essays in Anti-Labour History (London, 1974), pp. 105–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cooke, A. B. and Vincent, J., The Governing Passion: Cabinet Government and Party Politics 1885–86 (Brighton, 1974), p. 164.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See the first three essays in Langan, M. and Schwarz, B. (eds), Crises in the British State 1880–1930 (London, 1985), which provide a more sophisticated ‘modern’ Marxist reading of the turn-of-the-century British Liberal Party.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The most important book in this ‘school’ is that of Clarke, P. F., Lancashire and the New Liberalism (Cambridge, 1971). This interpretation is examined later in the book, especially in Chapter 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    A useful recent survey of the literature, which focusses on the Edwardian period, is Thompson, J. A., ‘The Historians and the Decline of the Liberal Party’, Albion, 22 (1990), pp. 65–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© G. R. Searle 1992

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  • G. R. Searle

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