In the first half of the 20th century, Britain experienced two peacetime coalitions: the Lloyd George Government of 1918, and Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘National Government’ of 1931. Both were unsuccessful hearttransplants. After a while, political opinion reacted almost violently against them, and the double rejection served to discredit the idea of repeating the experiment. The prejudice in favour of clear-cut party politics seems to have been taken over by historians, for until recent years both coalitions suffered considerable neglect. Yet both were of decisive importance in redirecting the state after a catastrophe. The Great War and the Slump alike necessitated a clearing-up operation to restore a sense of stability and normality. The paradox on each occasion was that such a restoration demanded innovations and a clear break with the past. In recent years, the idea of coalition has again achieved a certain respectability, and, as if in sympathy, historians have moved to reassess the forgotten regimes. Now Kenneth Morgan has written a first-class study of the Lloyd Georgian experiment of 1918-1922.
For some time a muffled debate has been in progress about how political history should be interpreted; from the top downwards, or from the grass roots up? Dr Morgan’s book should serve as a model of how the problem can be resolved. His achievement lies in reconstructing the political nation as a whole: Cabinet, Whitehall, the press, business, financial and trade-union pressures, the constituencies, popular opinion, social and economic trends. Politics he treats as a process which must by definition integrate all these levels and activities. Full allowance is made for the Cowlingite vision of a closed world of politicians inventing roles at Westminster, but Dr Morgan’s book demonstrates that such roles must ultimately relate to the needs of a wider community. The penalty for irrelevance is redundancy, the fate of the Asquithian Liberals. The proximate cause of the fall of the Coalition was the meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club. But the long-run explanation ran deeper. Like the monarchy in the days of Charles I, the regime foundered because the Court lost touch with the Country. The mechanics of this process are beautifully displayed, the big wheels turning with the small towards the climax. This is indeed political history in its most ambitious and developed form, with technical accomplishment set off by literary skill. At the same time, it is controversial, for, to revert for a moment to the Stuarts, Dr Morgan has his King Charles’s head. He has returned from his investigations with an enthusiasm for the Coalition which bubbles through all his critical reservations.
The standard view of the Lloyd George Government is that it was founded on pure expediency, and its achievements flawed by overtones of jobbery, betrayal and reaction. At the start, it looked like a betrayal of the Liberal Party. The Lloyd George Liberals, already allied with the Conservatives in the wartime administration, definitely threw in their lot with them, and combined to crush the Asquithians at the polls. What possible motive could have prompted this deal, apart from the desire of Lloyd George and his faction to trade in party for jobs? The betrayal seemed to be swiftly revealed by Lloyd George’s plunge into the crude electioneering tactics of the ‘Hang the Kaiser’ election. Then there was the betrayal of social reform. Lloyd George was elected on the promise that he would create ‘a land fit for heroes to live in’, but in the event social reform was drastically curtailed and expectations mocked by the appearance of mass unemployment. The miners, too, felt cheated: led up the garden path to within sight of coal nationalisation, only to be smoothly notified by Lloyd George that it was no longer practical. But the overriding sense of disillusion sprang from the belief that the Coalition debased the coinage of public life. After the bloodbath of sacrifice, Lloyd Georgian politics appeared peculiarly grubby. Most of the famous phrases which cling to the Coalition have an unsavoury odour to them: the ‘hard-faced men’, the ‘Geddes axe’, the ‘honours scandal’.
For Dr Morgan these are narrowing perspectives, mostly the work of embittered critics of the Government indulging in humbug and distortion. He probably overworks this argument and underestimates the extent to which the Lloyd Georgian system produced genuine moral shock among straightforward squires, fastidious Asquithians and the spirits of Btoontsbury. There was much innocence abroad, and the sly politician had at least to look respectable, like Asquith: Lloyd George had the air of an unreliable company-promoter. Again, the 1918 election is presented as a sober affair concerned chiefly with social issues. But this was not how it was recalled by Churchill, who painted in The World Crisis a vivid picture of a chauvinist outburst of which he was patently ashamed. Yet Dr Morgan’s main contention stands: as a theory of the Coalition’s origin and activities, moral decline is trivial and unilluminating. He offers a radically different explanation which, in passing, stands the traditional argument on its head.
The roots of the Coalition, he argues, have to be sought in the experience of the Great War. Between 1914 and 1918 an unparalleled unity of social and political purpose was forged in Britain. The classes were welded together in the armies of the Western Front, and the factories and workshops of war production. Liberals and Conservatives, previously at each other’s throats over issues inherited from the Victorian era, buried these quarrels and joined together on a fresh basis as administrators of a collectivist and corporate state. Lloyd George brought in the representatives of both labour and capital. A wide consensus was established, and the invention of a new style of premiership was designed to provide the necessary executive drive to power the system. Of course, there were dissenting elements which remained outside the consensus: conscientious objectors, revolutionaries and militant shop-stewards, disgruntled Asquithians nursing their faded principles. But a new order had arisen. Although the Labour Party established its independence in 1918, it, too, was within the general framework of assumptions. Trade-union leaders expected to retain their new access to Whitehall, and the Labour programme itself reflected the influence of wartime collectivism. Labour, too, believed that industrial conciliation (‘Whitleyism’) offered a promising formula for the future.
Against this background, the decision of the Lloyd George Liberals to perpetuate their alliance with the Conservatives takes on a new meaning. On the personal plane, politicians like Bonar Law, Balfour, Milner and Chamberlain had found that they could co-operate with Lloyd George. Likewise, the Coalition Liberals had learnt to co-operate with their old opponents. But the heart of the matter was policy. The new power bloc, in devising a common policy for winning the war, had simultaneously developed shared conceptions of the transition to peace. These were symbolised above all in Christopher Addison’s Ministry of Reconstruction, with its ambitious portfolio of post-war reforms for industry and the social services. Whatever the political calculations, there was, then, a higher theme inherent in the General Election of 1918: it was called ‘to confirm the wartime consensus and to direct the wartime consensus to new ends’.
Dr Morgan does not ask us to suppose that the leaders of the Coalition were in a state of exalted idealism, in pursuit of a metaphysical general will. He is quite clear that they were in pursuit of their careers, and one of the virtues of his book is the attention given to the humdrum realities, the second and third tiers of office where men like Worthington-Evans and Griffith-Boscawen manned the engine-room. The argument is rather that the new wartime power bloc had a built-in logic which distinguished it from other combinations. It was a new force in the making, only to be blasted by the peace. To us, it may be axiomatic that the wartime collaboration of classes and parties was a forced marriage, doomed to dissolve after the armistice. But, Dr Morgan replies, this was not how the world appeared at the time. Bonar Law, for example, seemed to wash his hands of pre-war politics by declaring that a Conservative Party on the old lines would never again have a future. A coalition which obtained 526 seats in the House of Commons could be forgiven for thinking that except for a few ‘sectional interests’ it embraced the nation.
The ‘Grand Design’ of 1918 posited the continuation of the social unity of the war years. It follows that the polarisation of society between capital and labour was the primary reason for the stultification of Coalition policies. The dream of Whitleyism was succeeded by a phase of industrial militancy centring on the two state-controlled industries of coal and the railways. Meanwhile the adolescent Labour Party was managing to politicise class-consciousness in spite of the fact that social conditions were in general improving. Dr Morgan agrees that from the Cabinet’s point of view it became increasingly difficult to incorporate all sides and interests in the wartime fashion. But this does not exhaust his argument. He moves nimbly from the theme of social unity to the proposition that, even as this dissolved, the Coalition remained consciously an administration of the Centre, seeking the middle ground and the path of compromise.
On the left of the Coalition, he explains, was the Labour Party; on the right, the diehards. The Labour Party had a long way to go before it could claim solid working-class support, and in terms of policy it remained a party of protest, demanding changes without much conception of how they were to be brought about. For their part, the diehards were equally naive, spokesmen for repression, ever prepared to advocate the smashing of forces like trade unions and Indian nationalism which it would not have been possible to destroy anyway. The Cabinet, by contrast, searched intuitively for the consent of an undefined ‘public opinion’. A whole set of strategies was specifically designed to conciliate labour. In industrial affairs government intervention was calculated to reinforce the national trade-union leadership as against the shop-stewards. In the social field, the working week was shortened and unemployment insurance extended, but it was the housing programme which held pride of place. The initial target was the building of half a million subsidised homes for rent, but in the end only 170,000 were built, and Addison as Minister of Health was sacked for building too expensively. Dr Morgan provides a fine analysis of the housing failure, showing how the schemes of Whitehall were gradually boxed in by vested interests which included the building unions. The final, decisive constraint was finance. A campaign for economy in public expenditure, fuelled by bankers, businessmen, and not least the Treasury, resulted in the Geddes Committee and the curtailment of social expenditure along with other areas of the budget.
Dr Morgan can trace the ‘quest for the Centre’ in imperial and foreign affairs as well, for these, too, were the stuff of politics in Parliament and beyond. He concedes that there were large blots on the record, most spectacularly the resort to atrocity in Ireland. Against this, he can place the negotiations which led to the setting-up of the Free State, a policy hotly opposed by the diehards. Likewise, intervention in the Russian Civil War was followed by accommodation with the Bolsheviks. Lloyd George generally pursued the clear objective of easing international relations, especially the tensions between France and Germany. So it is ironical that one of the episodes which ended the Coalition was a frenzied bout of Lloyd Georgian warmongering which almost led to war with Turkey in October 1922. There may have been a kind of wicked method in his madness, for if one war had created the Coalition, would not another shore it up in evil days?
It would be quite unfair to imply that Consensus and Disunity is in some way a chapter of Lloyd George biography in disguise. Yet he is the nub of the question, part creator and part mirror of the forces of ‘the Centre’. Dr Morgan’s book is directly related to the boom in Lloyd George’s stock which has developed since his papers were opened to scholars in 1967. Once the great pariah, he threatens these days to become another Napoleonic legend, and there are evidently many historians who would like to recall him from Elba. The explanation is not far to seek. We live in an era of frustrated government, of party dogmas which verge on intellectual bankruptcy, and of problems which stubbornly resist solution. In retrospect, Lloyd George symbolises an executive magic which can radiate through the constraints of party, bureaucracy and social inertia, to act up the real problems of the day. Moreover Lloyd George was the great demagogue: his creed was not tyranny, but the mobilisation of consent. For Dr Morgan, the fail of the Coalition marks the end of a truly remarkable experiment whereby Lloyd George tried to achieve a higher synthesis in British politics. The Conservative rank-and-file rebelled against him, not for reasons of state policy, but from the primary desire to restore the autonomy of party. So it was more generally: the Grand Design was thwarted by the determination of society to divide by party and by class.
There is something mystic about Dr Morgan’s notion of the Grand Design and debate is likely to focus on this idea. Did the Coalition rise above class and party? There is an alternative line of explanation to be pursued. It could be argued that the war did not abolish or avert class politics, but actually established them in the shape of the industrial unrest of 1917 and the new Labour Patty of 1918. If so, the Coalition must essentially be interpreted as a bourgeois bloc in which the controlling shares were overwhelmingly in the hands of the Conservative Party, in other words, the Coalition was the guise in which the Conservatives chose to play class politics, as it guaranteed them initially a broader appeal. However, there was no doubt of ultimate Conservative control when key issues like the nationalisation of the mines or the cutting of the housing programme arose. Thus the question which the Conservatives divided over in 1922 was: how best to operate the party system – Coalition v. Labour or Conservatives v. Labour?
Who, then, believed in the concept of national unity, the Centre, and the middle way? Plainly the Coalition Liberals, because they had to.
They were a stage army, dependent on Conservative votes and without a party machine of their own. To maintain their role they had to conceive of the Government as a genuine coalition, and to be fair to them it was indeed the Coalition Liberals who gave the Government roost of its progressive character. On several occasions they found themselves in a minority within the Government. Perhaps their tragedy was that although the Liberals were divided, the old party divisions were not yet effaced, but ran through the Coalition (as John Ramsden argues), over Ireland, India and Russia. The politics of the ‘Centre’ were a fiction to which they clung with desperation. Dr Morgan’s history of the Coalition is a stylish and powerful challenge to old orthodoxies. But I remain somewhat sceptical, and inclined to judge by the ironic title of a book by Aneurin Bevan, the fellow Welshman of Lloyd George and Dr Morgan: Why not trust the Tories?