A Liberal History Lesson

This morning, the Lib Dems claimed that Nick Clegg would “be the first Liberal leader since 1922 to lead PMQs”.

Being a proud history nerd, I thought, “eh? That’s not right”, since: 

a) “Prime Minister’s Questions” didn’t begin until 1961 (although PMs did answer questions in the house before that),

and much more importantly –

b) Asquith was leader of the Liberals in 1922 and he was (famously) Leader of the Opposition.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and people seemed to find it mildly diverting.

So I am a bit startled to have caused the Lib Dem press office to issue a statement rebutting my tweets.*  Don’t they have some cuts to announce?

But they seem to have missed my point.  Lloyd George was PM in 1922 and would make statements and occassionally answer questions in the House, BUT HE WAS NOT LEADER OF THE LIBERALS.

Let’s clear this up.

H. H. Asquith was leader of the Liberal party from 1908-1926. He was Prime Minister from 1908 -1916 

Lloyd George was Prime Minister from 1916-1922 but he was an apostate from the Liberal Party until 1923, having deposed Asquith, the Party Leader, to become PM. 

Asquith remained Leader of the Liberals, and when in Parliament, Leader of the Opposition. When the factions merged together again in the run up to the election of 1923, (when they gained nearly a hundred MPs), Asquith stayed the leader.

Lloyd-George only became leader of the Liberals in 1926, by which time they were a rump party.

Why do I mention all of this tedious detail about what was, basically a bit of press blather from the Lib Dems?

The short answer is because I like political history.

The longer and more pompous answer is that it is astonishing that people in the Lib Dems don’t seem to know much about the most important Liberal-Conservative coalition in British history.

They seem especially unaware that it split their party for a decade and was largely responsible for their decline as a national political force.  If I were a Lib Dem, I’d be worried that people in my party, including MPs,  know little about this.

The final answer is that I think Old Asquith gets a raw deal. He was a  decent PM, and it’s sad that the Lib Dems want to be associated with Lloyd-George, who destroyed their party, rather than Asquith, who nearly made them the great progressive party of the twentieth century.

Anyway, enough. I am right. That should satisfy us all.

*This sentence is comical, no?

24 Responses to “A Liberal History Lesson”

  1. Chris Brooke

    Hopi – you’re right, and the Lib Dems are being ridiculous.

    And – yes – the Lib Dems’ lack of awareness of their own history is really quite striking. There was a lovely moment in the early history of the Coalition when it became quite clear that the Lib Dems were led by someone who was historically illiterate, and the Tories by someone who knew, pretty much, exactly what he was doing. On the same day that Clegg made his stupid boast about how his democratic reform package was the most radical stuff since the 1832 Reform Act (which both overstated the radicalism of his own package and of 1832, while understating the genuinely important measures that came in between, like the 1918 Representation of the People Act), Cameron made his move to emasculate the 1922 Committee — as he knew full well that this was the body that brought down the previous attempt by the Tory leadership to govern alongside the Liberals, and he didn’t want to give the backbenchers the opportunity for history to repeat itself quite so straightforwardly.

    It could all be explained very simply — that Cameron was taught by Vernon Bogdanor, who knows about this kind of thing, while Clegg was doing his Anthropology degree. But whatever the explanation, I strongly suspect that we’ll continue to hear Clegg and some of the other senior Lib Dems making baseless claims about British political history, and the history of their own party, and it’s going to continue to be very funny to watch.

  2. Richard Blogger

    Hopi, you are right. I have noticed that this government is extremely keen on re-writing history (yes, I know all governments do this, but Cameron’s Tories seem especially keen to do this).

    Making sure that people stick to facts (and that means Labour too) should be a central tenet of the “new politics” we were promised.

  3. AB

    I commend you heartily for your historical pedantry and concur that HHA was generally a decent peacetime prime minister. (Balliol, naturally.) Pretty useless during wartime though. Bad handling of Ireland also.

  4. Mark Pack

    One upside of all this is it made me go and look up the last Parliamentary questions answered by a Liberal PM, which included this gem of an answer:

    “The answer to the first part of the question is in the negative, and to the second part in the affirmative.”

    They don’t make answers like they used to…

    (More at http://www.yourmandate.com/history-pmqs)

  5. Huw Clayton

    “Old Asquith gets a raw deal. He was a decent PM”

    Hmmmm. His government achieved reforms in the House of Lords, Old Age Pensions, child welfare and unemployment benefit, partly although not by any means exclusively due to his influence – all of which was a Good Thing, and Memorable.

    He was also a drunkard who spent more time chasing his daughter’s teenaged best friend than trying to impose discipline on an unruly cabinet, with the net result that the following happened (leaving aside the war for the moment):

    1) His Chancellor of the Exchequer and Attorney General both committed the offence of ‘insider trading’ over Marconi, yet both kept their jobs – until, that is, said Attorney General was made Lord Chief Justice six months later.

    2) Ireland nearly erupted into civil war, prodded ruthlessly on both sides by Carson and Churchill, one of whom wanted to bring all Ulster out in armed insurrection and the other wanted it to happen so he could retaliate with his shiny new warships

    3) World War One broke out before the Cabinet even realised there was a problem in Europe – partly because Asquith never could force Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to do his job properly.

    That aside, a very good post! It is irritating how often people glibly classify Lloyd George as a ‘Liberal Prime Minister’ – ‘Prime Minister who was officially a Liberal’ would be a lot closer to the mark.

    In any case, didn’t Sir Herbert Samuel occasionally lead for the National Government, as Home Secretary, in 1932? which would make him the last Liberal leader to answer questions in the Commons on behalf of the Government (essentially what PMQs now is).

  6. Chris Brooke

    In any case, didn’t Sir Herbert Samuel occasionally lead for the National Government, as Home Secretary, in 1932?/

    I was wondering something similar, whether scratching away at Hansard would find Samuel or Sir John Simon speaking for the National Government in more-or-less similar circumstances as little Nick Clegg’s been doing today.

    And it’d be great if someone could come up with an example from the archives, as it’d add an additional level of wrongness to today’s historical burblings from various Lib Dems…

  7. Brian Hughes

    Nice post and so much well deserved fame! If the polls are correct it may well be another 88 years after this parliament before another “Liberal” leader gets to “lead” whatever by then passes for PMQs.

    Let’s hope there’s a Hopi-like someone around then to remind their press office (should such an anachronism still flourish) that Cleggie was only doing it cos his master was away and that he’s a LibDem not a Lib.

    “Cleggie knew my father,
    father knew Cleggie…”

  8. AB

    In other historical illiteracy news, I note that Cameron today called the UK a junior partner to the US in the fight against Hitler in 1940, almost exactly replicating Tony Blair’s howler about the US standing shoulder to shoulder with Britain during the Blitz.

  9. Dai

    Glad to see Clegg’s forgotten his rant about “the two OLD parties” vs. the Liberals then…

  10. Newmania

    Breathe it in , the heady aroma of working class dissent Why its almost overpowering . Is it Balliol man AB , Oxbridge educated Sen or perhaps the sturdy sinew and rolls ups of Cambridge academic Chris Brooke ?

    * tugs forelock with the natural deference of his low estate *

    Sorry for interruptin’ your jolly joke young sirs . Most amusing I`m sure Asquith eh …well well I must tell the wife , she will be tickled pink

  11. Parasite

    That’s not historical accuracy, that’s revisionism. Asquith was leader of the “wee frees”, those Liberals who accepted his leadership and repudiated the Coalition; LG was leader of the Coalition Liberals, ie those Liberals who accepted his leadership and supported the Coalition.

    The latter were the biggest; the two factions re-united in 1923. It holds that LG was the last Liberal to answer questions as PM.

    Of course you knew all this. I never thought the Labour obsession with drivelly attacks on teh evil Con-dems, being the only thing holding the party together, would have to go this obscure!

    • Huw Clayton

      ‘The latter were the biggest; the two factions re-united in 1923. It holds that LG was the last Liberal to answer questions as PM.’

      Yes but he was not leader of the Liberal party. The party machine still answered to Asquith. Therefore the claim that Clegg is the first Liberal leader since 1922 to lead for the government – on that specific point – remains wrong.

      Moreover, it is not the case at all that a majority of Liberals accepted Lloyd George’s leadership – a majority of those that survived the election of 1918 did, which is not the same thing. Previously, the two factions had broadly equal numbers, and the majority of Liberal candidates in 1918 (note, not MPs elected) followed Asquith – 253 against 158 who took the coupon (some of whom did not regard Lloyd George as their leader anyway – Asquith himself, who was unofficially couponed, did not for a start).

  12. Quietzapple

    Quiet right, and Asquith was a great PM of whom these clowns might be proud were they worthy of the name Liberal.

    The Tories aren’t too hot on political history either.

    On YouTube they posted a filum re their party’s historic leaders in which they claimed Pitt The Younger (who incidently introduced graduated income tax) as one of their own.

    Pitt claimed to be a Whig, and it’s typical tory acquisitiveness to try and poach him.

  13. stephen

    Perhaps the LibDems believe that rewriting the history of 1922 will draw attention away from their rewriting of their history of April and May in 2010?

  14. Travis

    Not quite correct.

    The Liberal party split over whether to continue the coalition following WW1- into those who supported Asquith and those who supported Lloyd-George.

    At the 1918 election, all 159 Lloyd George Liberals won their seats. Only 26 ‘Squiffite’ Liberals won a place in the Commons and Asquith lost his seat.

    Lloyd-George still considered himself a Liberal, as did the coalition Liberals.

    • CS Clark

      I’ll have to look out for the question ‘When was the last time the Leader of the Liberal Party asked a question of a Liberal leader across the despatch boxes in the House of Commons?’ at the next pub quiz then.

    • Huw Clayton

      Actually 133 of 158 Lloyd George candidates won their seats (although that’s an imprecise definition of those candidates endorsed by the ‘coupon’ – see my comment above). Only 28 of 253 official opposed Liberal candidates did.

      Your main point still stands, as Lloyd George thought of himself as a Liberal, but he had effectively had the whip withdrawn.

  15. David Walsh

    A belated response – but if I accept your analysis it seems a bit of deja vu is needed in these trying times. On that basis would this analogy with HH mean that Charlie is the squiffy of our days ?

  16. David Singeisen

    @ Huw Clayton, 21st July


    Apologies, I saw your comment on Marconi and my inner pedant couldn’t resist. Lloyd George and Isaacs weren’t technically guilty of insider trading – the contract (Admiralty, wasn’t it?) was given to the British Marconi Company and they bought shares in the American company. As they were separate companies what we have here is idiocy, but I don’t think we have insider trading.


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