Sir John Simon lays his ghostly hand on Clegg’s shoulder

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Sir John Simon

I wonder if Nick Clegg would recognize the photo of the man above? If he doesn’t, then he should familiarize himself with it. Sir John Simon took his faction of the Liberal Party into the National Government in 1931. Simon’s reasoning was similar to Clegg’s: he was acting in the national interest. In order to understand how things got this way for the party we need to go back a little further to the end of the First World War.

The  so-called “Coupon” election saw Andrew Bonar law’s Coalition Conservatives come in first place with Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals in second place.  The National Coalition, which had governed during the war, was thus returned in a landslide.  But there was simmering discontent among the Tories who formed the largest group within the coalition.  The Conservatives managed to prove that Lloyd George’s had been selling knighthoods and peerages (quite possibly one of the biggest open secrets of its time).  There was also anger among many Tories and Unionists over the creation of the Irish Free State. Other events added to the mess, the coalition collapsed and an election was called.

There had been a division among the Liberals that stemmed from 1918 when many of their MPs rejected the coalition coupon (we could, of course, go back to the split over Home Rule but let’s leave that for another time). This group was led by Herbert Asquith, whom Lloyd George had replaced as party leader in 1916. Deep cracks had developed within the Liberal Party during the years of the coalition and matters came to a head when coalition ministers were shouted down and heckled during the 1920 Liberal conference.  Lloyd George formed his own party, the National Liberals, to contest the election. The 1922 election saw the Lloyd George’s party split the vote while Asquith was pushed into third place by the ascendant Labour Party. The Conservatives under  Andrew Bonar Law were returned with an overall majority. But this was not to last. In 1923 another election was called when Law resigned due to ill-health. Stanley Baldwin replaced him and although he held a decent majority, he called an election. The result was a hung parliament and the Liberals, newly reunited under Asquith, won 158 seats and were in third place.

The following year, another election was called, ostensibly on the issue of tariffs. Baldwin fared better. Nonetheless Labour increased its share of the vote, which led to a realignment of the political poles. The tension was now between the Conservatives and Labour with the Liberals officially becoming the third party. 1924 was a disaster for Asquith, as well as losing his seat, the party’s 158 seats were reduced to 40. Baldwin didn’t have enough seats to command an overall majority and declined to form a government and a confidence and supply arrangement was negotiated between Asquith’s Liberals and Ramsay MacDonald, while Lloyd George was left to smoulder on the backbenches.This put the Labour Party into power for the first time as a minority government. But this didn’t last, thanks in part to the Campbell Case, the infamous Zinoviev Letter and some latent anti-socialist feeling that had been whipped up by the Tory press (plus ça change).

The 1929 election was fought against the backdrop of the 1926 General Strike and resulted in a hung parliament, with Labour forming a minority government.  In 1926,  Lloyd George replaced Asquith for the second time and the party took 13 more seats but it was all over for the Liberals as a major force in British politics. Decades of divisions, splits and tensions had finally reduced them to a parliamentary rump.

Labour were split over their response to the Depression with prominent members of the cabinet, such as Arthur Henderson, threatening to resign. MacDonald was urged to form a National Government and when the general election was called in 1931, Baldwin’s Tories formed the largest party in the Commons. Lloyd George fell ill and de facto leadership of the party fell to Herbert Samuel, whose report in 1926 had partly led to the General Strike and was tasked with leading the party in the election. Ironically, Samuel had been a  supporter of Asquith. Liberals were divided over support for the National Government and Samuel’s party split into three factions: the Liberal Nationals who supported the National Government, Lloyd George’s Independent Liberals and the mainstream liberals led by Samuel. They never really recovered.

Sir John Simon – a cold fish of a man by all accounts – took the bulk of the party (the Simonites) and joined the government, while Samuel took the rest (the Samuelites) and,  in 1935, crossed the floor to oppose the government. But it was hopeless, in the General Election that year, Samuel lost his seat and the number of Liberal MPs was cut by a third when they lost 12 seats. Simon’s Liberal National party was virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative Party and in those constituencies where the party stood candidates with a healthy majority, they were unopposed by the Tories. In 1935 they held onto most of their seats and lost only 2.

After the war, the mainstream Liberal Party under Archibald Sinclair won 12 seats. The Liberal Nationals won 11 seats. But the writing was on the wall for both liberal parties. The Woolton-Teviot Agreement between the Liberal Nationals and the Conservatives merged the two parties at the constituency level in 1947. They even changed their name to the National Liberals but they were nothing more than a Tory-owned brand name. In 1950 they won 16 seats, while the mainstream Liberals’ number of seats dropped from 12 to 9. By the time of the 1951 general election, this number had fallen to a mere 6. The Liberal Party’s number of seats never broke through into double figures until the elections of 1974 and, even then, the party could only win 14 seats under ill-fated Jeremy Thorpe.

Nick Clegg was elected as an MP in 2005 after serving as an MEP,from 1999 to 2004 but he had plotted to take control of the party a year earlier. Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, had done much to improve the Lib Dems fortunes and the party held 62 seats. Clegg was given the job of the party’s spokesman on European affairs and was being tipped as a future party leader. This seems to have gone to his head because later in the same year, he was one of the signatories to a letter demanding Kennedy’s resignation. Kennedy was forced to resign and Sir Menzies Campbell became caretaker leader. Campbell was then rudely pushed aside by Clegg and Huhne, whose supporters declared him to be “too old”. Clegg and Huhne distanced themselves from the ageist comments but there’s little doubt that they played a part in Campbell’s departure from the leadership contest. Et tu Nick? Et tu Chris?

Nick Clegg has never faced a split in his party but like Simon, he believed that he was acting in the national interest.  He inherited a party that was in much better shape than when Paddy Ashdown had been leader. Clegg effectively squandered the good work that was done by Kennedy by dragging his party, first to the right and then into the arms of the coalition. If he’d have done the sensible thing, he’d have taken the option of a confidence and supply arrangement with a Tory minority government. Instead his miscalculations and lust for power are likely to cost the Lib Dems badly in the next general election. The public will not forget the Lib Dems behaviour over tuition fees, the NHS, benefit caps and the EMA.

So far, Clegg has kept an iron grip on the parliamentary party but the constituency parties are more restive with numerous defections from the Liberal Democrats to Labour in local councils across the country. Even so, Clegg seems to have  marginalized any opposition. Even Charles Kennedy sounds as though he’s on-side these days!

The Lib Dems have two choices: they can split or they can stay together and be slaughtered at the ballot box. There is another way: they can dump Clegg but how easy is that? If that happens, the Lib Dems are likely to see a repeat of 1935 and we know how that movie ends.

So what happened to Simon? He was Home Secretary under Baldwin and Churchill kicked him upstairs in 1940, but he did not sit in the War Cabinet.  He was a Tory in all but name. And Clegg? What will become of him? Well, a similar fate awaits him: he will lose his seat and will be elevated to the Lords. That’s what happens to toerags: they’re rewarded with ermine robes and a seat on the red benches.

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1 Comment

Filed under 20th century, Government & politics, History, Liberal Democrats

One response to “Sir John Simon lays his ghostly hand on Clegg’s shoulder

  1. Reblogged this on Representing the Mambo and commented:
    Interesting piece providing some historical context regarding the travails currently facing the Lib Dems and their beleaguered leader Nick Clegg.
    The Lib Dems are an opportunistic party of protest, nothing more. When they do win power, locally or nationally, they are forced into choosing between their radical, vote-winning rhetoric and the real politics of their leadership. Unsurprisingly they always go with the latter and the results are always messy. The Lib Dems can quite reasonably expect to be cast to the outer darkness at the next election and deservedly so. Would things have really been different if Charles Kennedy or Menzies Campbell were still leader? Somehow I doubt it, unfortunately.

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