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 current holder of the title of the most bizarre and confused general election in British history is the contest of November 1922. Its record may not last much longer – so perhaps it is time to dust off the history of this peculiar election, which took place at a time of party division, transformation and realignment and the secession of a part of the United Kingdom. It even struck contemporary participants as a weird business. Andrew Bonar Law, newly installed as Conservative leader and Prime Minister, confessed that “People hardly know where they are, and I am one of them”, while the recently deposed Prime Minister David Lloyd George referred to it as “this baffling election”.
It came after a turbulent parliament under a Conservative-Liberal coalition. By 1922, the strains in the coalition were showing, and the parties were manoeuvring for advantage. That there was an election at the end of the year was not a surprise, but the manner of its calling was unexpected. Rather than Lloyd George seizing the initiative, the Conservative back benches forced the pace. At a meeting at the Carlton Club in October they voted, against the advice of their leadership, to terminate the coalition.
The vote not only overthrew Lloyd George as Prime Minister but also took down the Conservatives’ own leader, Austen Chamberlain, who had been a loyal coalitionist. Bonar Law, who had stepped down from government the previous year and was the most senior figure untainted by the late coalition period, became leader by acclamation and formed the first Tory government since 1905. His Cabinet was described at the time as the ‘Second Eleven’ because so many of the most experienced coalition ministers refused to join it and remained in internal exile within the party. The new government was in the image of its Prime Minister, Bonar Law: austere, provincial and down-to-earth, as opposed to the outgoing leadership of Westminster sophisticates, wits, plotters and coalitionists.
The various non-Conservative parties were in disarray. Most of the Liberal Party membership and organisation supported Asquith’s independent Liberals, although the party had meagre representation at Westminster. The larger faction among the Liberal MPs was the coalition (National) Liberal group under Lloyd George, but the end of the coalition had stripped this political position of its meaning, and his attempts to fund a national organisation met with little success: it was a top-heavy Westminster group. The Liberals were too busy fighting their civil war to be a coherent force – an indulgence that cost them their position as a major party of state.
The Conservatives were also divided, but their leadership handled the problem more sensibly. Bonar Law did not attempt to drive the coalitionists out and, when Baldwin formed his second government in October 1924, he reintegrated most of the coalitionists, including some former Liberals such as Churchill. Some of the newly elected MPs of 1922 set up a backbench group that soon expanded to become the voice of all backbenchers as the 1922 Committee – institutionalising the backbench power that had imposed itself so dramatically at the Carlton Club.
The rising force was Labour, now free of its pre-war thraldom to the Liberals and in a post-war world of class conflict, industrial disputes and a sense that the electorate had been cheated of the progressive promises made in 1918. Labour spoke for a forgotten industrial working class in 1922, while the Conservatives and Liberals seemed obsessed by Westminster splits and gamesmanship.
The fall of the coalition had left a vacuum: in most constituencies people could not, even if they wished to, support the old leadership of Lloyd George and Chamberlain. The alternatives were essentially the Tories or some sort of renewed coalition involving Lloyd George, but there was no clear way of putting such a coalition together.
The Conservatives made few election promises in 1922. As the pro-Tory Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer put it, contrasting Bonar Law’s lack of promises with the high-flown oratory of Lloyd George which, in its view, ‘sowed the seeds of disillusion. [Bonar Law] recognises that the imperative need of the country is a period of tranquillity in which trade will have a chance of recovering. It is not a dazzling programme, but it is a programme dictated by common sense and the recognition of hard facts.”
The core of the Conservative appeal was that there was no stable alternative, and that the Government would oversee a period of ‘tranquillity’ in which there would be no rash departures in domestic or foreign policy. They upheld the Irish Treaty and forswore controversial ‘diehard’ policies such as protection and restoration of the full powers of the House of Lords. Few promises, few changes, an austere Prime Minister who seemed not to relish fame or action but was a solid party man: this was attractive to an electorate who had had their fill of the experimental, turbulent and highly presidential regime of Lloyd George.
The campaign was confused and meandering. Foreign policy featured to an unusual extent, with problems over post-war Germany, the possibility of armed intervention in Turkey and the aftermath of involvement in Iraq. Asquith condemned the long-term presence in Iraq that Lloyd George had established. In response, Lloyd George’s supporters accused Asquith of ‘a policy of scuttle’ and of giving in to ‘the “Stop the War propagandists”’. On domestic policy, however, there was little to choose between the Liberal factions or indeed the Conservatives. The choice was as much about style of government as anything else.
Polling day was a new departure in that it was the first General Election in which all the voting took place on one day. It was also only the second election with the mass franchise of all men and most women, which added to the sense that it was a new sort of contest. The results were a qualified mandate for Bonar Law, tranquillity and the Tories. Their majority was upwards of 70 seats, with the help of some nominal opposition members who usually supported the Government. On the face of it the new administration’s support in the country was weak: its 38.5 per cent of the vote was the lowest for a majority government until 2005 and 2015. But this was artificially lowered by the Conservatives only contesting 482 out of 615 seats, and not counting the votes given to pro-Tory independents and National Liberals. Two women were elected: Nancy Astor for the Conservatives in Plymouth was joined by Liberal Margaret Wintringham, elected for Louth.
The National Liberals were the principal losers in the election. Their most famous casualty was Winston Churchill, defeated by a Prohibitionist in Dundee. They were exposed to heavy losses in two categories of constituency – seats where the coupon agreement had been rather generous in giving a Liberal a free pass in a potential Tory seat, and the most vulnerable flank of the coalition in industrial working class seats. The Conservatives picked off 24 seats, many of them in rural and small town England, some of which (Banbury, Saffron Walden) have been continuously in Tory hands since then. Labour made 45 gains. Again, several of these became strongholds so secure they even survived the 1931 rout: Aberdare, Limehouse, Don Valley among them. The ‘Wee Free’ Asquithian Liberals became the larger of the two parliamentary factions, although the combined Liberal presence was well down on 1918.
While the Conservatives won the election in the most important sense of having a majority government, Labour were also long-term winners. They became the principal non-Tory force in the Commons and the country, with 142 seats and 29.7 per cent of the vote. From having been almost entirely about working class representation, the Labour Party acquired another facet through the election of a number of socialist intellectuals in 1922. Sidney Webb won in Seaham, and was joined by the noted barrister Patrick Hastings (cat-called from the Tory benches as a ‘traitor to his class’) and doctor and social reformer Alfred Salter. Another change on the Labour side was the arrival of a group of radical socialist MPs elected from Glasgow and its surrounds, where Labour had done exceptionally well. Beatrice Webb commented to her diary that:
“The Scottish contingent reinforced by the new intellectuals were always in attendance; they spoke incessantly, with ease and without any concern for the opinions of the “gentlemen of England’; they are intensely aggressive without being disorderly. Altogether they made the rest of the House “sit up” and the Press become attentive.”
In 1922, the militant representatives of Glasgow’s working class were as culturally unfamiliar at Westminster as the Irish nationalists of the 1870s or the SNP delegation of 2015. While the election made Labour look, in size and breadth, more like a potential party of government, it also introduced tensions between the socialist left, trade union interests, Fabians and ex-Liberals that were manageable during the 1920s, but which produced periodic explosions from the early 1930s onwards. An early warning sign was the post-election coup that installed Ramsay MacDonald as the party leader, replacing the previous chairman of the Parliamentary Party, J.R. Clynes.
It was not entirely clear to observers at the time that the 1922 election had created a new political structure that would last for generations – the Conservatives as the leading party of the state, with Labour as the alternative government and the Liberals as the third party. Bonar Law hoped that Labour had peaked in 1922, an election called at a time of serious unemployment and industrial unrest, and that once the Liberal Party had reunited it would challenge the Tories for power.
Lloyd George was less sanguine after the result, agreeing with C.P. Scott that “it was a disaster for the Liberal Party, worse if possible than that of 1918 because there was less excuse for it’. The fatal weakness was that the two Liberal factions together had fewer seats and votes than Labour, and that their seats were more weakly held. Labour had established its safe seats in 1922, while the Liberals had smaller majorities and often depended on the forbearance of either the Tories or Labour to give them a straight fight against the main challenger. It was a precarious foundation for a major party.
The electorate of 1922 voted for a period of dull government, but they did not get it. Baldwin’s experiment in tariff reform failed at the 1923 election, to be followed by the first Labour government. In the two years after the Carlton vote there were four changes of Prime Minister. Nor was it the end of coalition – for another one was formed in 1931 and yet another in 1940. But the election was a demonstration of the divides that can appear between party leaders, MPs and parties outside Westminster, and of the possibility of a party being replaced as a contender for power thanks to its own divisions and long term social change. The politicians of 1922 knew they were looking at the future through a glass, darkly – more than the confident planners of the 1940s or 1980s ever did. It is not surprising that aspects of 1922 seem relevant to our own times.