100 years on: 1922 election and the death of the Liberal Party

One hundred years ago Britain went to the polls amid strikes, a post-pandemic slump, and war.

By Paul Richards

One hundred years ago this November, the country went to the polls to elect a new Government. Not everyone in the country, of course: the 1918 Representation of the People Act had enfranchised all adult men for the first time, and women over 30, but women in their 20s remained without the vote.

On 15 November 1922, thirteen million people voted on a 73% turnout, and after six years of Coalition, the Conservatives won a majority. It was an election contested against a backdrop of industrial turmoil with 40 million days a year lost to strikes, a bloody civil war in Ireland and the Anglo-Irish Agreement which removed a hundred Irish MPs from Westminster, and a society indelibly marked by the Great War. Bright new war memorials proliferated in every city, town and village. The streets were filled with thousands of mentally and physically damaged men who were fortunate enough to come home, and behind the doors of terraces and suburban semis, there were millions of families grieving for the ones who didn’t.

Britain was governed by a Conservative-Liberal coalition led by David Lloyd George. But the radical Liberal was utterly hamstrung by his need for Conservative support. His government was committed to drastic reductions in public spending. In May 1921, government departments were sent an instruction that in 1921–22 their budgets would be £603 million, falling to £490 million the following year. Lloyd George appointed Eric Geddes, former transport minister and First Lord of the Admiralty, to propose where his axe should fall. The subsequent cuts – the ‘Geddes Axe’ – depressed the economy even further, as austerity tends to do.

The country was recovering from a global pandemic which had killed 228,000 people across Britain. After two years of ‘Spanish Flu’, people were no longer wearing their face masks. The British Empire, at its zenith in the early ‘20s, covered a quarter of the earth’s land mass. The aristocratic ‘bright young things’ partied through the night, fuelled by jazz, cocaine, and survivors’ guilt. But in the slums of Glasgow, Birmingham and the East End little children played shoeless in the gutters, and were carried off by scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles. The United Kingdom was troubled, fractured, and its politics reflected the uncertain, febrile atmosphere.

The 1922 General Election had a profound impact on our modern political system. The election result elevated the Labour Party to the status of His Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition for the first time, and created the pattern of Labour-versus-Tory which has dominated our politics for the past 100 years. This represents a remarkable rate of progress for a new political party founded from scratch just 22 years earlier. It was an important moment for Labour – an essential precursor to forming two governments in 1924 and 1929-31, and a solid step towards the 1945 landslide.

The 1922 election hastened the slow death of the once-mighty Liberal Party, victim of a bitter schism provoked by the charismatic and unpredictable David Lloyd George, mired in a cash-for-honours scandal, a man who according to AJP Taylor ‘aroused every feeling except trust’. For the Conservatives, it heralded a century of remarkable electoral success with sustained periods in office, and characterised their brutal pursuit of power.

Except for the charismatic, lascivious, and corrupt Lloyd George, who led the ‘National Liberal’ breakaway faction, the dramatis personae of the election were a lacklustre bunch. The official Liberals were led by the gifted but flawed Herbert Asquith (‘Squiffy’), in the tragic last stages of his alcoholism. The Tories’ leader was Bonar Law, former Home Secretary, and a leading player at the Carlton Club meeting on 19 October 1922 which triggered the collapse of the Tory-Liberal Coalition government and caused the subsequent election. Asquith’s daughter suggested that when considering the choice of Bonar Law or Lloyd George, ‘we are being asked to choose between one man suffering from sleeping sickness and another from St Vitus’s Dance’.[1] Alan Clark, in his history of the Conservative Party, says Bonar Law was ‘subdued and mouse-like he never made jokes, seldom laughed. He smoked a great deal and smelled of tobacco.’[2] The smoking would kill him within a year. Bonar Law holds the record for shortest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century with just 211 days in office, although his tenure looks positively boundless compared to Liz Truss’s 48 days in No.10.

Labour’s leader was John Robert Clynes, a founder member of both the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), president of his trade union for 25 years, Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) member for 35 years, and a Labour MP for 37 years. Despite his decades of public service, who remembers him today? He does not appear on banners; he is never quoted in speeches. He is Labour’s forgotten leader. However, Clynes does not deserve this oblivion. He was the first Englishman to be Labour leader, after Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, Ramsay MacDonald, and William Adamson who were all Scottish. Like so many of his generation of Labour pioneers, he was properly working-class, working in an Oldham cotton mill aged ten, but able, through dedicated auto-didacticism, to quote at length Ruskin, Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible. In 1900, Clynes was at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon, when the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was founded. He served as Home Secretary between 1929 and 1931 under Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. One of his more useful acts at the Home Office was to decline the visa of Leon Trotsky to enter the UK, as it would be seen as ‘shaking hands with murderers’. [3]

In the 1922 election with Clynes as Leader, Labour enjoyed a net gain of 85 seats, creating a new ‘red wall’ across Glasgow, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and London including wins in Bow, Camberwell and Tottenham. Yet despite his ministerial experience and electoral success, he was dumped by his Parliamentary colleagues (including dozens who won seats for the first time under his leadership) and replaced by Ramsay MacDonald, returning to the job after an eight-year absence. This, as Labour historians will recall, did not end well. MacDonald won by just five votes, largely because some of Clynes’ supporters assumed he had it in the bag and failed to vote: a valuable reminder that a promise of a vote is worthless unless, and until, it is cast.

Why is Clynes so little remembered or revered? His biographer Tony Judge suggests a combination of factors: that he left no papers for posterity; he became bewitched by the Monarchy and aristocracy (not the last Labour politician to so succumb); he was too jingoistic during the carnage of WW1; he embraced the Lloyd George wartime coalition a little too enthusiastically; and worst of all, he sided with Chancellor Philip Snowden’s misguided fixation with a balanced budget after 1929 as the industrial towns slumped, soup kitchens proliferated, and the dole queues got longer.[4] Clynes died in poverty aged 80, supported in his final years by a whip-round from former parliamentary friends and rivals including Winston Churchill.

It was unnecessarily waspish and unkind of Herbert Asquith to say at Bonar Law’s funeral in Westminster Abbey that they were burying the unknown Prime Minister next to the tomb of the Unknown Solider. The quote itself may be apocryphal. But whether real or not, it was prescient. By 1955, the great historian of all things Tory Robert Blake could fairly entitle his biography of Bonar Law ‘the unknown Prime Minister’.[5]  Bonar Law was the first Canadian to serve as a British Prime Minister. He served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lloyd George’s Coalition Government, and won the 1922 general election with 344 seats. However improbable it may seem today, the Conservatives won seats in Islington, Stoke Newington, Hull, Bradford, Blackburn, Leeds, Wakefield, Bassetlaw, Salford, Toxteth, and the Conservative Prime Minister himself represented Glasgow Central. This pattern of Conservative seats and urban working-class support reminds us there is no umbilical connection between the Labour Party and ‘the workers’.

This was an election more lost by the Liberals than won by the Tories. The Tories lost 35 seats on their 1918 performance, with an anaemic swing to them of under a percentage point. But they were up against two Liberal Parties and a growing Labour Party, splitting the anti-Tory vote three ways. It serves as a perennial lesson for political parties in the mortal dangers of splits, and the unpopularity of public spats amongst the voters. Asquith’s Liberals won 62 seats, and the Lloyd George’s National Liberals won 53. It was a classic case of a divided ‘progressive’ vote being outweighed by a united Conservative one. The uneasy Liberal rapprochement that came in 1923 was too late. Under the re-installed Asquith, the Liberals won over 100 seats with 29.7% of the vote (the largest per centage ever for a party coming third), but Labour had replaced them as the main opposition party. The Liberal Party, the great party of Gladstone, never formed a majority government again, stymied by its inability, according to Paul Johnson in his introduction to Dangerfield’s masterful The Strange Death of Liberal England, to fashion a response to

‘complex problems of industrial society, no fundamental appeal to the growing working-class electorate, and no understanding of the new, tempestuous forces of nationalism’.[6]

For Labour, the 1922 General Election meant a new role as the main challenger to the Conservatives, and for the first time the alternative Government. This was partly because of changes in the economy and society, and the extension of the franchise, but mostly because by the 1920s Labour had opted to be a party of mainstream, moderate, gradualist, and above all democratic socialism. For all its class warfare rhetoric, Labour was reaching out beyond the mills and mines to the new middle-classes, the England, according to JB Priestley, of ‘Woolworth’s, motor coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks’.[7] By rejecting the kind of insurrectionary socialism, with its death squads and gulags, that was being enacted in the USSR, Labour joined the nascent family of European social democrats. As David Marquand wrote in The Progressive Dilemma:

‘the demise of the Liberal Party as a serious contender for power and even the transformation of the Labour Party into a potential party of government owed less to class divisions than to differences of feeling and belief which cut across them: less to sociology than to politics. Liberalism perished because some liberals abandoned it, while others made only fitful and half-hearted attempts to stick to it. Labour replaced it because Liberals came  to believe that it had become the best available custodian of the Liberal ideal.’ [8]

The election brought Clement Attlee into the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), who would later enact so much of the Liberal Beveridge’s social plans and the Liberal Keynes’ economic plans, as well as the Fabian Sidney Webb, who had ensured Labour’s constitution and programme made no concession to Leninism. There were also four Co-operative Party MPs elected, ahead of the 1927 Cheltenham Agreement between the Labour and Co-operative Parties which created the electoral deal that has lasted ever since. Labour’s first MP of Indian heritage was elected – Shapurji Saklatvala – who had stood as a Communist candidate in Battersea North. Other notable MPs elected in 1922 included George Lansbury, fresh from the Poplar rates revolt, the Red Clydesider James Maxton, and the Liberal Isaac Foot (father of Michael).

One notable defeat was in Dundee, where Winston Churchill, then a ‘National Liberal’ supporter of Lloyd George, lost his seat to the Scottish Prohibition Party candidate (the sole victory for this short-lived party dedicated to banning alcohol). Labour took the second Dundee seat. Churchill, who had succumbed to appendicitis during the campaign, blamed his defeat on the newly-enfranchised women – ‘ great numbers of very poor women and mill girls’ as he disparagingly described them, who ‘streamed to the poll during the last two hours of the voting’. Churchill’s defeat left him, in his famous phrase ‘without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix’. [9]

The centenary of this moment of re-alignment, when Labour replaced the Liberals, should give Keir Starmer’s Labour Party some pause for thought. Labour has been in Government for little more than 30 years out of one hundred, including the fragile periods of office in 1924, 1950-1, and after 1976. Labour’s inability to win majority governments since Clynes’ advance one hundred years ago, must rank as a record of failure. The century since 1922 has been punctuated by bright moments of Labour triumph (1945, 1964, 1997), when in moments of lucidity it realises it must appeal to voters not itself. But to be in Opposition for 67 of the past 100 years is far removed from the party’s aims in Clause IV of its constitution: ‘Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern’.

For the Conservatives, the 1922 election was a vindication of the Carlton Club decision to withdraw support from the coalition government. The Newport by-election on 18 October 1922 was won by an anti-Coalition Conservative, boosting the confidence of those Conservatives who wanted to abandon Lloyd George, and predicting the nationwide results a month later. Newport joins the list of parliamentary by-elections, alongside Eastbourne and Glasgow Hillhead, with far greater national significance than the local result.  The Carlton Club meeting which triggered the 1922 election can be seen as an example of Conservative MPs placing party ahead of country, and showing zero compunction about defenestrating Prime Ministers, leaders, or anyone else in the way. This is a gene which has plainly passed down the Conservative generations.

As a footnote, those new Conservative MPs elected in 1922, like all new MPs, found themselves overwhelmed by the labyrinthine corridors, smoke-filled bars, impenetrable cliques, deadly rivalries, arcane procedures, and esoteric forms of address, so they decided to form a new body to help each other. The first chair was Gervais Rentoul, the new Tory MP for Lowestoft. They took as their name the year they were elected, and in April 1923 the ‘1922 Committee’ was born.

Paul Richards is a writer and you can follow him on Twitter at @Labourpaul

[1] Roy Jenkins, Asquith (London: Collins, 1964), P.495.

[2] Alan Clark, The Tories Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-1997 (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1998). P.5.

[3] Why Trotsky was denied asylum | UK news | The Guardian

[4] Tony Judge, JR Clynes A Political Life (London: Alpha House Books, 2015), P.2.

[5] Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858 – 1923 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955).  

[6] Paul Johnson, Introduction to George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Palladin, 1935), P.9.

[7] Quoted in David Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma From Lloyd George to Kinnock (London: Heinemann, 1991), P.20.

[8] David Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma From Lloyd George to Kinnock (London: Heinemann, 1991), P.26.

[9] Winston Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London: Odhams Press, 1932), P.162.

One thought on “100 years on: 1922 election and the death of the Liberal Party

  1. Pingback: A century which proves Labour only wins on the centre-ground - Progressive Britain

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