As Britain entered the 20th century, regularly alternating two-party Government was firmly established, and had been so for a century since a short-lived 'Ministry of all the Talents' under Lord Grenville was formed to fight the good fight against Napoleon in 1806. (It failed to defeat Boney, but did succeed in ending slavery in Britain in 1807). By 1900, as Gilbert and Sullivan had it,
'Every boy and every girl,
That's born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal.
Or else a little Conservative'.
But by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 a third force had arisen to disrupt this cosy consensus: the Labour party. Itself an alliance between working class Trade Unionists and middle class Fabian Socialist intellectuals, Labour was destined to eventually replace the Liberals as the 'Progressive' party in British politics. In 1915, when the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith formed an all-party coalition Government to bear the increasing strain of fighting the war, he felt obliged to include Labour – in the shape of their party leader Arthur Henderson – in the War Cabinet, alongside the official Tory opposition.
Although normal party hostilities were technically suspended 'for the duration', warfare inside the supposedly united Government was as fierce as the fighting in the trenches. Asquith – like Neville Chamberlain in the Second World War – was an able administrator in peacetime, but not an inspiring war leader. Though the majority of his Liberal party remained loyal to him, his Tory colleagues turned increasingly critical. Aided by an ultra-patriotic press, led by Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail and Times, Asquith's Conservative critics painted him as a fumbling peacenik, whose heart was not in the fight. Ironically, their candidate to replace the PM was the energetic Welsh radical Lloyd George, previously a Tory hate figure, but whose drive and determination were seen as crucial to achieving victory.
In December 1916 the Tories succeeded in ousting Asquith from No.10 – he nonetheless remained Liberal leader – and putting Lloyd George in his place. The Welsh wizard more than fulfilled expectations of him as a war leader. Although unable to sack Haig, the Generals presiding over the slaughter on the Western Front, he streamlined Government, running the country from a collection of sheds in the back garden at Downing Street – brought in conscription, dragooned industry to serve the war effort, and turned Whitehall into a war-winning machine. In doing so, he won the loyalty of the hardline Tories who had previously abhorred him – but alienated his former Liberal colleagues. In stark contrast to Churchill's ejection in 1945; Lloyd George's coalition continued after the war was won in 1918, and was triumphantly re-elected in the 'Coupon election' but by now it was effectively a Tory Government with a nominal Liberal leading it.
It did not take the newly-elected rank and file Tory MPs too long to notice that their leaders – Bonar Law, Curzon, Milner, Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead - were under the spell of a Prime Minister who may have been a wizard, but was certainly no Conservative. Peacetime politics resumed with a vengeance in 1922 when the Tory infantry revolted at a meeting in the Carlton Club and voted against continuing Lloyd George's coalition. 'The cabin boys have taken over the ship' sneered Birkenhead, but the MPs' mutiny succeeded, and the Tory Parliamentary party is still called 'The 1922 Committee' in memory of it.
Verdict on the 1915-1922 coalition: It succeeded in its goal of winning the war, but that natural party politics re-asserted themselves once the flush of victory had faded. In passing it also – and fatally – split the Liberal party.
The December 1923 General Election produced a dreaded hung Parliament. The Tories were the biggest party with 258 seats. The runners up – for the first time – were Labour with 191; while Asquith's Liberals won 159. Asquith took his revenge on the Tories for ousting him in 1916 by allowing Britain's first Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald to take office as a minority Administration. The arrangement soon fell apart, however, as the Liberals were reluctant to approve Labour laws, and another election in 1924 gave Stanley Baldwin's Tories a majority.
Labour won narrowly in 1929, taking 288 seats to the Tories' 260. Lacking an absolute majority once again, they were only able to rule with the agreement of the greatly depleted Liberals, now led by Lloyd George, who like the Lib Dems today had around sixty seats. Labour took office under the shadow of the Wall Street Crash, which by 1931 had become the Great Depression with millions out of work. MacDonald's Labour Cabinet split over introducing drastic spending cuts which MacDonald and his Chancellor Philip Snowden thought necessary, but which the Unions and most Labour MPs thought an abomination. Intending to resign, MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace, where King George V persuaded him to stay in office and preside over a multi-party 'National Government' coalition to deal with the economic crisis.
MacDonald, nothing if not vain, liked the King's idea but most of his party did not. In the ensuing General Election of October 1931, the National Government was massively endorsed by the electorate, winning an overwhelming 470 seats. However the vast majority of those MPs were Tories, with 'National' Liberals contributing 68; and 'National Labour' a derisory and unlucky 13. The Labour party itself, again led by Arthur Henderson, was decimated, returning just 52 MPs. Along with Lloyd George's four non-National Liberals, this Labour rump formed the only official opposition to the National Government. The Tories tolerated an increasingly incoherent MacDonald as their puppet Premier until 1935, when he handed over to Stanley Baldwin.
The National Government's mandate was renewed by the voters in the 1935 General Election – the last to be fought until the Second World War's end in 1945. In 1937 Baldwin retired and was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain. Although he had been a reforming Health Minister and a competent Chancellor, Chamberlain's Premiership was dominated by the rise of Nazi Germany and his initially popular, but ultimately disastrous policy of appeasing Hitler. His inertia as a war leader, and rising criticism from both the Labour opposition and Tory rebels, led to his downfall in 1940, and his replacement by Winston Churchill who formed a new coalition with Labour and the Liberals to fight the war.
Verdict on the National Government: Adopting orthodox deflationary measures led to a gradual economic recovery, but this was patchy and only helped the south and Midlands. The north, Scotland and Wales remained bitterly blighted by unemployment. The Government's refusal to rearm and face down Hitler was unimpressive, but the Labour opposition was also paralysed by the popular mood of pacifism.
Churchill's wartime coalition was completely dominated by his commanding personality. Focusing on winning the war, he left domestic matters to others. Under Labour ministers like Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson's grandfather) the state took unprecedented powers to direct the citizen; and introduced the Welfare State (the Beveridge Plan). Memories of the 'Hungry Thirties'; hopes for a new, egalitarian Britain; Socialist domination of the intellectual agenda and impatience with old-style Toryism all contributed to Labour's 1945 General election landslide.
Verdict on Churchill's coalition: Although successful in recovering from a seemingly hopeless military position, as in the First World War, the necessity of harnessing the national war effort contributed to a big state 'Socialist' atmosphere which made the return of Labour and widespread nationalisations almost inevitable.
After the war, party politics returned to the pre-Great War position of alternating two party Governments, with the difference that Labour had replaced the Liberals as Britain's second party. Governments were sometimes elected with wafer-thin majorities (eg. Labour in 1964 and 1974) – but managed to struggle on until more favourable circumstances enabled an election to be called resulting in more comfortable majorities. In 1977-79 the Liberals under David Steel agreed to an informal Lib-Lab pact which enabled James Callaghan's Labour Government to negotiate increasingly choppy industrial waters until it was put out of its misery by Margaret Thatcher.
A final verdict on Britain's three coalitions of the mid-20th century were that they did succeed in getting the country through the three specific crises they were formed for: the two world wars and the Depression. However, their final outcomes were not what their initiators envisaged. In Harold MacMillan's famous words, "Events, dear boy" – blew them off their original course.