Yesterday's event at the National Liberal Club was very successful: well attended, two fascinating presentations and a largely excellent discussion though there were a couple of contributors who asked the speakers to confirm something that the latter had already said. The event was recorded and as soon as it goes on line this blog will link to it.

The account of Asquith's 1915 - 1916 coalition and its eventual failure raised many interesting questions, one of which, in my mind, concerned the Churchill coalition of 1940.

In 1915, as both speakers, Dr Ian Packer and Dr Nigel Keohane, made clear, Asquith was in charge of the coalition negotiations, despite the fact that his position was weakened by continuing problems both domestically and with the conduct of the war. He created a Cabinet in which the Conservatives took a secondary position and continued to be the Prime Minister. (A couple of questions about his personal problems to do with Venetia Stanley breaking off the relationship in 1915 and his son Raymond being killed in 1916 elicited the replies that Asquith was not the man to give in to emotions publicly, regardless of his private reaction.)

By the end of 1916, however, the coalition was finished and Asquith's resignation together with most of his Cabinet (not Arthur Henderson, the Leader of the Labour Party) was a miscalculation: Bonar Law might not have been able to form the new government but David Lloyd George could and did. It lasted to the end of the war and was re-elected in 1918. It collapsed when Conservative MPs famously announced that they did not want to be part of a coalition in 1922. That was, effectively, the end of the Liberal Party as a powerful body in British politics.

The causes for the collapse of Asquith's coalition were many but the most important was that the failures continued. The Battle of the Somme did not produce the outcome that had been hoped for though being able to fight it said something about the government's ability to organize and arm a large army, the Battle of Jutland was, in many ways, a disaster, the landing at Gallipoli even more so and by the end of 1916 it was becoming clear that Russia was not likely to be a useful ally for much longer.

Food stocks were running low and conscription (which was pushed by Lloyd George) caused a great deal of discontent.

When we look at the coalition of 1940 we can see a good many of the same problems. Militarily, things were going badly even though it had been expected that Churchill becoming Prime Minister would help the war effort and produce some victories. At the same time, there was discontent over conscription, over the home front not being organized well, there were continuous strikes and continuing propaganda produced by the Communist Party, under orders from the Comintern to oppose the war and praise the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Unlike the British Union of Fascists, the CPGB was not banned and its propagandists were not interned as the government did not want to upset the unions. (Interestingly enough, the French Communist Party was proscribed as soon as war had been declared on Germany.)

While the latter disappeared on June 22, 1941 (to be replaced by demands for a Second Front Now) other difficulties remained to which one can add the fact that from about 1942 on Churchill spent a great deal of time out of the country and the very important fact that he categorically refused to discuss post-war aims, being even less interested in that subject than Lloyd George had been. Caught between Attlee who was working on post-war aims domestically and Stalin who had his eyes fixed on the post-war international structure from a very early stage, Churchill and the Conservative Party were to pay heavily in 1945.

There were criticism of the way the war was run and a number of votes of no confidence taken in the Commons there was never any serious consideration of Churchill's coalition being replaced before the end (near enough) of the war.

The most obvious reason is the absence of a credible alternative to Churchill once Halifax had been shipped off to the US although he, too, would have faced problems unless the Labour Party changed its 1940 attitude. For that very reason, as Dr Keohane pointed out yesterday, Bonar Law, whose political position was a good deal weaker than Asquith's, survived the débâcle of 1916 while his opponent did not: there was no Lloyd George in the Conservative Party and though the old boy was still around in 1940 he alone considered his claims to leadership seriously.

Added to that the fact that Churchill, unlike Asquith, was a great orator and an inspirational though, oddly enough, not a particularly popular leader and one can see why his position remained secure despite misjudgements, bad news, various mistakes and illnesses.

Perhaps, the fact that in 1940 Churchill was not as secure as Asquith in 1915 contributed to the success of his coalition: he had to share fairly with the Labour Party, whose senior members were given important positions, beginning with Attlee, who became Deputy Prime Minister and was in charge of the home front. The Labour Party and the unions used the war years to consolidate their control over large parts of the country and its economy, something that was vital in the post-war creation of their own brand of the welfare state.

As we approach the end of another coalition (well, maybe) there are bound to be various discussions on the subject. It is worth mentioning that Dr Packer started his presentation with a half-joking comment that the 1915 coalition indicated that coalitions may not be good news to the Liberal Party and, perhaps, its successor.


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