As we face the prospect of a Conservative Government, how we imagine our system ought to work will return to haunt us. Here Sunder Katwala, of the Fabians, takes on a defining 'historic' myth of British government. He then lays down a fivefold challenge to the next governing party in a welcome combination of real history and issues of 21st century policy.
1910 has a good claim to be the most underrated year in modern British political history.
It is never ranked with 1906, 1945, 1979 or 1997 as one of the most significant election years in modern British politics. Even within the deep constitutional crisis of 1909-1914, recently brought back to life by Iain McLean in his new book on what's wrong with the British constitution, it is usually overshadowed by the better-known landmarks of the People's Budget of 1909 and the Parliament Act of 1911. Yet 1910 was a particularly meaty part of that sandwich.
It might properly thought of as the decisive year in settling the rather important and very hard fought question of whether and how Britain would become a modern democratic polity.
1910 was one of only two years in which Britain had two General Elections, in an atmosphere of tumult which considerably outstripped that of 1974. Throw in the death of the King at the very moment when the Monarchy was deeply entangled in a heated partisan battle which touched uncomfortably on the hereditary principle itself and you have the closest British politics has ever come to the claustrophobic fictional thrillers of Michael Dobbs or Chris Mullin.
Yet less attention is paid to the period than it merits, perhaps because the crisis profoundly challenges many deeply cherished myths about Britain's evolutionary political development. Government and Opposition were more profoundly divided than at any time in the past three centuries not just over substantial national questions but in a deeper clash over the rules to settle such disputes, and whether they could be resolved politically at all.
Both Kings turned out to take a rather more expansive view of the powers of consitutional monarchy than those set out in Bagehot's theory. So the Liberals of 1910 were forced not only to dissolve their greatest landslide but to beat the Tories a third time before they could, like pulling teeth, extract the right of the elected government to govern at all.
The 1910 elections (results of January and December) divided the (incomplete) political nation down the middle - the Tories won more votes than the Liberals on the limited franchise and tied them in a dead heat for seats. But the balance of power in the hung Parliament was held by the Labour and Irish MPs, to the deep fury of a rather incoherent Tory Unionism, which rejected any devolution of power yet seemed to think that counting Irish votes or seats at Westminster was treacherous.
Yet this battle for democracy was not settled even by the two elections of 1910. While everybody knows that the first world war split the Liberal Party, yet how many are aware of how fortuitous its timing was for the Conservative Party, in saving it from self-destruction and the very brink of treason through a decisive rejection of political democracy?
So let me warn that mine will be something of a victors' history, in viewing this as an argument between a progressive Lib-Lab alliance of Democracy and Reform against the wrong-headed forces of Conservative Reaction.
But here is my new year challenge to the modern right: can anybody be found who would now speak seriously for the cause of the vanquished?
With the benefit of hindsight, surely almost everybody on the modern democratic right must now agree that their reactionary forebears got pretty much every big question of 1910 profoundly wrong.
The Tory fear of Democracy was heartfelt and apocalyptic. The explicitly stated fear was that the Tyranny of the Commons and the People would lead inexorably to the destruction of Property, the unravelling of Empire and the end of Order.
They were certainly wrong about the land taxes in Lloyd George's 1909 People's Budget, which levied half a million pounds in their first year, with Edward Carson's hysterical claim that they were "the beginning of the end of all rights of property" being not atypical.
The 1910 Tories were tragically wrong about Ireland. Across a full half century, between 1868 and 1916, the supposed heirs of Burke could barely understand the notion that they had any interest in seeking to accomodate the clear and settled Irish will for some substantial measure of Home Rule within the Union.
And, ironically, how wrong the Tory reactionaries of 1910 were about democracy, with many sharing the deep pessimism of former premier Lord Salisbury over this dangerous creed in which 'two day labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild'. How astonished, with hindsight, might they have been at their party's political dominance in democratic politics between 1918 and 1989.
But what was really at stake in 1910 was power - and the demand for a permanent Tory veto over what democracy might otherwise decide.
That was Lloyd George's claim in describing the Lords asMr Balfour's poodle. If that sounds like partisan exaggeration, you could take it from the owner's mouth. Balfour had explicitly declared his doctrine that "the Unionist party should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great Empire". This was to be achieved via the theory that the Lords should have a 'referendal power', as a sort of citizens' jury made up entirely of the hereditary peerage (or 'five hundred men, accidentally chosen from the ranks of the unemployed' in Lloyd George's memorable populism) with the particular detachment to decide which of the elected government's policies truly reflected the democratic will of the nation. No special status whatsoever was given (as it would be in the later Salisbury doctrine) to proposals which had formed part of the previous election manifesto. It was for an elected government to fight another General Election if it wished to challenge the Lords, so allowing the Conservatives a shot at regaining power.
Though the Tory use of the Lords as a wrecking chamber was nakedly partisan, it is worth recalling that the 1910 Tories were absolutely sincere in their belief that they were motivated only by the lofty need to protect eternal national verities, while their opponents were driven by base partisanship and narrow class interests. Their conflation of the interests of the land and aristocracy, the Tory party and the nation seemed so natural and axiomatic, that they could not see why anybody else could possibly object. Indeed, any challenge was surely to invoke the ugly spectre of 'class war' from below.
Yet even by their own lights, the 1910 Tories were baffling in their tactics and lack of strategy, perhaps largely on the assumption that the Liberals were bluffing and the Monarchy would block the demand for new peers, however many electoral mandates were won for them. They were offered so much more than their obduracy merited in the long, and ultimately futile, constitutional conference between June and October 1910. This almost agreed the composition and powers of a reformed Lords, yet failed over Lord Lansdowne's insistence on reserving an absolute veto over Irish Home Rule, even with an Ulster exclusion. Lloyd George even conjured up a Grand Coalition in a surprise summer memorandum. Balfour's deputy Austen Chamberlain was tempted, and yet could shortly be found as the most prominent of the 'ditchers' who wanted the Lords to die with their boots on in 1911.
But the capitulation of the Peers did not end the story. The 1910 elections and the 1911 Act finally paved the way for Irish Home Rule. The Tory response was to reject entirely the idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty and political democracy. Balfour's successor Andrew Bonar Law was to state, in 1914, that “"There are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities" and that "I can imagine no lengths of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support her.”
This was no idle boast. The Tory leader and his supporters were prepared to pay for and ship the guns needed for an armed revolt. As Iain McLean recounts
A coalition including the king, the leaders of the Opposition, the House of Lords and a group of contingently mutinous army officers vetoed the policies of the elected government. What happened in spring 1914 was no less than a successful coup d'etat. It would have made a civil war in Ireland almost inevitable had it not been providentially overtaken by the First World War
'What's Wrong with the British Constitution?' (Introduction, available here from OUP as an online preview):
Five contemporary lessons from 1910
Is this simply ancient political history? Well, it is a stirring tale at least, even if we are all supposedly on the same side now. Political campaigning can and should take inspiration from the past. And much credit to William Wilberforce, there is a much richer reservoir of 'progressive' history on the centre-left than is to be found in the selective handful of pick and mix soundbites which our progressive Conservative friends can occasionally muster.
And there are also a surprising number of very contemporary resonances in the politics of a century ago.
The Lords and the Constitution: Next year's centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act - a supposedly temporary expedient - will pass before the question of the second chamber has been settled. Shouldn't that prove a moment for a major campaign to complete the democratisation of British politics? Ian McLean's book, as Stuart White has noted here on Next Left, makes a powerful argument that a democratic second chamber must form part of a broader constitutional settlement rooted in popular sovereignty.
And because British history is often a very gradual affair, the politics of 1910 may be about to return with a surprising twist.
Only after New Labour's removal of most hereditary peers from the legislature would a future Tory government would finally experience for the very first time what every single non-Tory government in history has always faced: a House of Lords in which it does not have a partisan majority. Conservatives are already worrying about the difficulty of carrying their proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act.
"Some of them are talking of creating Conservative peers to get repeal through. This would be 1832 and 1911 all over again", writes McLean in an OurKingdom commentary. So will the next 'peers against the people' cry go up from the populist right, with Chris Grayling donning the mantle of Lloyd George? (Or might that depend on a TV mini-series being commissioned in time).
The Union: Their Irish policy has a good claim to be the most costly political mistake the Conservatives ever made. Yet very few Conservatives could by 1997 see that, after Thatcherism and the Scottish Constitutional Convention, devolution was necessary to save the Union. If that is now accepted, yet the challenge of creating a more pluralist and accomodative Unionism capable of sustaining the Union remains, if this is to disappoint fears (or hope) that a future Tory-SNP clash could end the British project once and for all.
The politics of class: Anybody suffering from the delusion that 'class war' has broken out in British politics might benefit from re-reading the Parliamentary debates of 1909-11. That Liberal-Conservative battle certainly saw a more heated rhetorical argument over privilege, democracy and class than anything achieved since the principal political battle became that between the Conservatives and Labour. And certainly the accusation of 'class war' was made more prominently 'from above' in an attempt to define what was legitimate and illegitimate in democratic politics.
Progressive Conservatism: The politics of 1910 is an important reminder of how to get a 'progressive Conservatism' is to defeat them politically, so that they have a new status quo to adapt to and conserve. That was the principal route to the progressive Conservatism of Baldwin in the 1920s, Churchill and Macmillan in the 1950s, and perhaps (to a lesser extent) Heath in the 1970s. David Cameron's half-progressivism is captured in the ambiguity of whether and how far he must accomodate the New Labour changes of the last decade, or whether he can, like the Conservatives of the 1930s and 1980s use an age of austerity strike out on his own Tory course.
Lib-Labbery: 1910 was a triumph for Liberalism. But it was a triumph made possible by a progressive Lib-Lab alliance. The Tories had a plurality of the popular vote in both 1910 elections, and were tied for seats. The (third) Labour party did not ask which party had most votes or seats, but chose its alliances in that hung Parliament on values and principles. That alliance achieved a historic democratic breakthrough on which the later legislative achievements of Labour governments also depended.
The relationship between the Labour and Liberal parties has never been an easy one. Demos Director Richard Reeves recently suggested at an Open Left thinkathon that the 1893 Fabian manifesto 'To your tents O Israel' was the great historic missed opportunity of British progressive history, as the Fabians attacked the Liberal government, moved away from 'permeation' and advocated the creation of the Labour Party.
But that seems to me to misread the history of the 20th century, in which almost all of the great if brief flurries of progressive advance in British politics have been the direct product of Labour and Liberal cooperation.
The Labour party entered Parliament in 1906 through the (secret) Lib-Lab pact of 1903, and helped to achieve the Liberal democratic breakthrough of 1910-11.
The great welfare settlement of the Attlee governments after 1945 enshrined the ideas of Beveridge and Keynes, and so set the contours of British politics for three decades.
The social liberalisation of the 1960s was led by the great liberal icon Roy Jenkins as a Labour Home Secretary, while the abortion bill was introduced by David Steel and carried with much Labour backbench support.
The post-1997 constitutional reforms, the most significant changes to British polity since 1911, were achieved by the educative force of the liberal pressure group Charter 88 on Labour opinion, and by Lab-Lib cooperation in opposition and briefly in Cabinet committee during Labour's first term.
At other times - in dealing with the unemployment of 1920s and '30s, or facing the Thatcher challenge of the '80s, - these progressive forces have been scattered and divided, resulting in Tory dominance.
It remains odds against that this important lesson of 1910 will have a decisive impact on the politics of 2010. But that history of progressive cooperation is far from over.
Cross-posted from Next Left.
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