Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June by nationalist terrorists led, through a series of diplomatic and military escalations, to British entry into war against Germany on 4 August 1914. The month of July 1914 was therefore, in hindsight, an eerie moment between the cry of “havoc” and the dogs of war sinking in their teeth. But July 1914 was no peaceful idyll, at least in British politics: one hundred years ago, the political scene was in a particularly vicious and confrontational condition, and for a while civil war seemed more likely than war with Germany. British political discourse was becoming saturated with bloodthirsty talk.
The period from about 1909 to 1914 must rank as one of the periods in which party antagonism was at its most deep and bitter. The issues involved were important ones that went to the core of the British constitution, and to the very purpose of the British state; and they were intertwined in a way that made resolution seem impossible.
The struggle over the House of Lords in 1909-11 was eventually resolved in the Liberals’ favour, with a reduction of the powers of the Lords but no change, for the moment, in its fundamental composition. The passage of the Parliament Act sowed bitter division in the Conservative opposition, some of whose ultras were infuriated by the capitulation of the “rats” among the Tories who capitulated on the Parliament Act when threatened with the mass creation of Liberal peers to overturn the entrenched Tory majority. After the Parliament Act, it became commonplace for Tories to call the Asquith Liberal Cabinet a “revolutionary committee” that had replaced the constitution with an autocracy. The stakes had been very high in this constitutional issue; removing the Lords’ veto opened the way to further social reforms building on the 1909 Budget, and also to the cherished Liberal project of Home Rule for Ireland.
There are some parallels between the Conservative and Unionist Party of 1910-14 and the present state of the Republican Party in the United States. Both denied the legitimacy of their opponents’ electoral victory and the consequences of that victory, and exploited constitutional loopholes and anomalies in seeking to undermine governments they did not or do not like, while all the time claiming to uphold the best traditions of the constitution.
For the Lords rejecting the budget of 1909, one can read the various episodes of government shutdown in recent US history, and for the doomsday option, supported by many Tea Party Republicans, of failing to raise the debt ceiling, read the ultras’ intentions to veto the Parliament Act and contemplate de-funding the Army. The Conservative leadership, like the House of Representatives “leadership” of John Boehner and Eric Cantor, used extremist rhetoric and fuelled the fantasies of a base which had long forgotten that politics was, in the words of that great Conservative R.A. Butler, “the art of the possible”. Those who ride a tiger, like Balfour (who resigned as Conservative leader in 1911) or Cantor, end up devoured by it. Arguably, the cataclysm of 1914 saved the Conservatives from facing the full consequences of their words and deeds.
Parliamentary life in 1911-14 was a grinding war of attrition, as the Liberal government (dependent for its overall majority on the Irish Nationalists) forced through Home Rule and Welsh Disestablishment. While the Liberals would always win in the Parliamentary arena, the battle broadened out. “There are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities,” said Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, in menacing fashion in 1912.
Bonar Law and many other Conservatives supported direct action in defiance of Home Rule among the Unionist population in the north east of Ireland, even to the point of armed resistance. By 1914, as the Home Rule Bill neared the Statute Book, the situation was deteriorating. The Unionist Volunteers landed a cargo of guns from Germany at Larne in April 1914, virtually taking over the town in the process. Irish Nationalists counter-mobilised, forming their own volunteer paramilitary organisations and attempting a landing of guns near Dublin which – unlike the Larne operation – was opposed by British forces. The army was becoming dangerously politicised, with overt Unionist sympathies among some senior officers combining with the incompetence of the Liberal minister Seely to produce the “Curragh mutiny”.
In that month of July 1914, suspended between two ages, King George V made an unusual direct royal intervention in politics by convening a conference at Buckingham Palace to try to find a solution to the problems of Home Rule and Ulster. The broad shape of a compromise was, fuzzily, emerging. The Ulster question had previously been a means of stopping the whole Home Rule project, but now most Unionists were realistic enough to accept that there would be an Irish Parliament covering most of the island. The Liberals, while they disliked the idea of partition, were prepared to countenance the temporary exclusion of a section. The Buckingham Palace talks ground to a halt over the definition of the excluded area, before the question of timing had been properly raised. Asquith wrote that:
“We sat again this morning for an hour & a half, discussing maps & figures, and always getting back to that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man – the County of Tyrone.”
By the end of the war, the Irish issue had taken on a very different shape and the result was more harsh and radical than had seemed believable in 1914 – an effectively independent state in the South and a devolved statelet in the North. But the course of the border was still a bone of contention, as Winston Churchill famously observed in 1922:
“The whole map of Europe has been changed…but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”
The political world in 1914 was closed and incestuous to an extent that makes current concerns laughable. Political and professional London bestrode the world, but it was run by a small clique. Despite the partisan bitterness there were ties of friendship and professionalism across the lines. The prime example was the Other Club, a convivial cross-party dining club founded by Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith at the height of the constitutional battle in 1911. Its Club rules stated that the club’s raison d’être was that:
“Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.”
When Liberal Ministers were accused of insider dealing in Marconi shares, they recruited F.E. Smith and Edward Carson as their advocates in a resulting libel case, despite – or perhaps because – both were among the most vicious attack-dogs the opposition had at its disposal, and were thereby muzzled from political exploitation of Marconi. Smith and Carson accepted the job despite, rhetorically, regarding Lloyd George and his colleagues as dangerous revolutionaries hell-bent on destroying the constitution. Mutual opponents in Ireland, when they finally met for a sustained period at Buckingham Palace, found a wary understanding and respect. In 1922, there was even some thought of Michael Collins of the IRA being put up for membership of the Other Club.
But what might have happened if there had been a compromise on Ulster that prevented war breaking out in Ireland, or if Britain had stayed out of the European conflagration? Who would have won a “normal” election?
The years 1910-14 saw a regular flow of by-elections; they were much more frequent in those days, and not the rarity that they have now become. The Conservatives’ fortunes peaked in 1912-13 with some high swings from the Liberals, and they made some progress by attacking the teething troubles of the new National Insurance system. But the tide seemed to be ebbing in spring 1914; there was a swing to the Liberals in Wycombe in February 1914 and, in May, the Liberals fell not far short of gaining a Conservative seat at Grimsby. At least at parliamentary level (local government was somewhat different), the infant Labour Party was an irritant rather than a threat to the Liberals. Labour’s showing in by-elections in 1910-14 was usually poor, and in May there was a notable fiasco at North East Derbyshire, where Labour lost the seat to the Conservatives and trailed in third place, while the Liberals put up a strong challenge in this working class mining seat.
Therefore, from what one can tell, a 1914/15 election would probably have restated the verdict of 1910, perhaps with another small shift of seats to the Conservatives that would have done nothing except fuel the party’s impotent rage. There were storm-clouds on the right, in Ireland, in increasing industrial unrest and issues the party was mishandling such as women’s suffrage, but it seemed possible in 1914 that the future belonged to the Liberals. The Conservative Party that emerged from the confused political era of 1914-24 was totally changed; a party that spoke with a relaxed Baldwinian smile rather than the bitter snarl of the pre-war period.
John Campbell F.E. Smith (Jonathan Cape, 1983)
Edward Pearce Lines of Most Resistance (Little, Brown, 1999)
Neal Blewett The Peers, The Parties and the People (Macmillan, 1972)