If the contentious Joint Enterprise law applied to politics, the Liberal Democrats would be the luckless juvenile looking at a decade behind bars because he happened to be a member of a gang present when somebody else in that gang committed a murder, in the wrong place at the wrong time yet in possession of blood-free hands. Those Lib Dems who lost their seats during the Great Election Massacre keep stressing they have no regrets about entering into a coalition with the Conservatives five years ago because they sacrificed party principles ‘for the good of the nation’. Unfortunately, noble self-sacrifice in a profession where self-interest is paramount counts for little; their coalition partners had no scruples in cannily manipulating public opinion so that Nick Clegg’s mob bore the brunt of any opposition to coalition policies. Well-versed in the Dark Arts of Westminster, the Tories played the game with almost admirable ruthlessness and the fatally naive Lib Dems are left decimated.
If we stand back and look at historical precedents, however, the party has been here before, albeit in its previous incarnation sans Democrats; the problem is that all these precedents happened before any of us were born, even Ming Campbell.
Although a Liberal administration had been in office for eight years when the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914 (since winning a famous landslide in 1906), many of its most prominent ministers were pacifists and Asquith as PM found the mantle of war leader didn’t sit easily on his shoulders. Lloyd George and Churchill were a little more gung-ho and pressurised Asquith into forming a coalition with the Tories a year after the outbreak of hostilities, one that fell apart at the end of 1916. The Liberals’ coalition partners switched their allegiances to Lloyd George and the Welsh Wizard became Prime Minister of a coalition largely consisting of Conservatives, one he held together and then led to victory at the General Election held just a month after the end of the war. Unlike the Election we’ve just experienced, in 1918 Tory and Liberal MPs who’d been members of the wartime Cabinet didn’t revert to pre-coalition enmities when Parliament was dissolved, with Lloyd George and Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law specifying which candidates were ‘official coalition candidates’, something that spelled defeat for the sitting Liberal MPs who hadn’t participated in the coalition.
For all his legend as ‘the man who won the war’, Lloyd George’s thirst for power cost both him and his party dear. His coalition eventually collapsed in 1922, when the domination of the Tories within it forced Lloyd George’s resignation. In the General Election that followed, the Liberal vote was split between Asquith heading the official Liberals and Lloyd George leading ‘the National Liberals’, resulting in the Liberals as a whole being reduced comprehensively to third-party status at the expense of the emergent Labour Party. This had been inconceivable a generation earlier, but the situation was to grow considerably worse for the Liberals in successive Elections.
Although the two Liberal wings reunited under Asquith’s leadership to fight the 1923 General Election, the end result was a Hung Parliament; with support from Asquith, Labour under Ramsay MacDonald formed its first government, though this minority administration didn’t last long. Just when it seemed as if General Elections were in danger of becoming an annual event, the 1924 Election saw the Conservatives swept back to full power for the first time since Lord Salisbury’s victory in 1900, and another five years passed before the next one. The Liberals’ representation in 1924 dropped from 158 seats to a paltry 40 and even Asquith lost his amidst the carnage.
With Lloyd George back at the helm, the Liberals improved their performance at the 1929 General Election, which once more climaxed in a Hung Parliament; but the National Government coalition that eventually arose from the deadlock was dominated first by Labour and then by the Tories as the country entered the Great Depression and then the Second World War. The Liberal share of the vote continued to plummet as the 1930s progressed; at the last pre-war Election in 1935, the party was down to 21 seats, with Liberal leader Sir Herbert Samuel losing his. After the war, the Liberals seemed a spent force, winning 12 seats in 1945, 9 in 1950, 6 in 1951, and then the same again in 1955 and 1959.
Eric Lubbock’s famous Orpington By-Election shock victory of 1962, in which the Liberal candidate overturned a Tory majority of 14,760, was regarded as the beginning of the Liberal revival, but even under such a charismatic and popular leader as Jeremy Thorpe (1967-76), the most number of seats the party polled at a General Election thereafter was 14 in February 1974. When it was announced at the 1983 General Election that the Liberals under David Steel would contest it in alliance with the SDP, the combined seats won totalled 23. Following an official merger between the two in 1988, the Liberal Democrats were born and the gradual rise of the new party at local council level helped push support high come General Election time; the Lib Dem zenith occurred under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, when the party won 62 seats at the 2005 Election.
Despite the brief blip of Clegg-mania in the wake of the first leaders’ TV debates in 2010, the Lib Dems lost five seats at the following General Election; but 57 was enough to warrant the phone call from David Cameron. And the rest, as they say, is history – a bittersweet one for the Liberal Democrats indeed.
Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Alistair Carmichael, Tom Brake, Norman Lamb, Greg Mulholland, John Pugh and Mark Williams – the tiny boy’s club of Liberal Democrat members re-elected to the Commons in 2015. 48 Lib Dem seats lost, a staggering and humiliating thumbs-down from the electorate made all the harder to swallow by the fact that the party’s coalition partners emerged from the partnership unscathed and stronger, winning a majority without the need for Lib Dem support. For all the talk of Labour’s decimation in Scotland, the magnitude of the defeat the Lib Dems suffered is arguably even greater, as Labour at least held onto 231 seats in England and Wales. Where the leaderless party goes now is open to question. Should they merge with Labour, their natural allies, and cease to exist as a separate party? Should they drop the toxic ‘Democrat’ part of their name and return to being the Liberal Party? Should they start from scratch at local council level and rebuild their reputation and representation in a long protracted revival akin to the one they embarked upon from 1962 onwards? I doubt the party itself even knows.
For many years, the Lib Dems were not merely ‘the protest vote’, but the only viable alternative to Labour left and Tory right; similarly, during the Blair era, when Labour had encroached upon Tory territory and the Tories themselves were in a bit of a muddle, the Lib Dems seemed to be the genuine opposition voice; even during the coalition, it’s now evident that they served to restrain some of the more reactionary Tory responses to numerous issues, not that this ultimately did the party much good. Deprived of their presence in great numbers, I think Parliament will be a poorer place for it. Support for David Cameron is not exactly universal, and Labour today doesn’t seem to really know what it stands for anymore than it did in 2010. The need for a strong third party appears greater than ever. The fact that this third party in 2015 is a nationalist collective that represents only one of the UK’s four constituent countries is something few saw coming – although who was the third largest party after the 1918 General Election, with 73 seats? Sinn Fein. The past may have been composed of many colours, but it would seem the future certainly won’t be orange.