The Liberal Party was the dominant party of British Government from its emergence in the 1850s until the Great War, but by the 1950s it was virtually wiped off the political map. Controversy still rages over the reasons and responsibility for the collapse. Defections played a significant part in the decline, but until now they have never received detailed attention from historians or political analysts. This book studies all the defections of serving and former Liberal MPs from 1910 to 2010. The sheer scale of the exodus is striking: one in every six people elected as a Liberal MP defected at some point from the party. Each defection is explored, providing new perspectives on the controversies surrounding party leadership, divisions over policy and the impact of the Great War. The book sheds light on the long-term relationship between the Liberals/Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and the Labour Party. The definition of an inward defector has been taken as one who served as an MP for another party or as an independent before becoming a Liberal or Liberal Democrat MP. In the cases of both outward and inward defectors the person must have served as an MP before the defection and in both cases must have served at some stage as a Liberal or Liberal Democrat MP. However, this inevitably means that the criterion for qualifying as an inward defector is more stringent.
10 The Parliamentary LiberalParty
The Parliamentary LiberalParty as it existed from the end of the Second World
War until the LiberalParty’s merger with the Social Democrats forty-three
years later was a distinctive political body whose type is unlikely to be recreated, and Wainwright was an excellent example of the way it operated. It was
said, with varying degrees of accuracy, to be distinctive in three ways: its size,
its composition and its behaviour.1
The limited size of the Parliamentary LiberalParty is beyond dispute.
Though twelve MPs were elected
After almost a century, the LiberalParty’s near-demise is still an unresolved case. Many suspected causes have been investigated. Previous
researchers have focused their attentions on elections (Cook, Hart), the
role of the party leaders (Douglas, Owen), the rise of the Labour Party
(McKibbin, Wrigley, Tanner), social changes (Dangerfield, Pelling),
the failure of Liberalism to cope with the Great War (Wilson, Tanner,
Bentley) and the Liberal Nationals’ split (Baines, Dutton). All of their
evidence is relevant to the case, but it has not proved
Liberal defectors to minor parties
They, at any rate, did not leave behind them the slime of hypocrisy in
passing from one side to another.’1
The majority of the Liberal MPs and former MPs who joined the Liberal
Nationals did not do so deliberately to defect from the LiberalParty.
From the date of the formation of the National Government in August
1931 to the departure of the Samuelites from the government benches
in November 1933, the Liberals and Liberal Nationals were in many
respects two branches of one party, both on the government
The LiberalParty was the dominant party of British Government from
its emergence in the 1850s until the Great War, but by the 1950s it was
virtually wiped off the political map. Controversy still rages over the
reasons and responsibility for the collapse. Defections played a significant part in the decline, but until now they have never received detailed
attention from historians or political analysts. This book studies all the
defections of serving and former Liberal MPs from 1910 to 2010. The
sheer scale of the exodus is striking: one in every
from the Liberal
Unionist split of 1886, the LiberalParty remained relatively cohesive,
despite the fact that it was in opposition for all except three of the
first twenty of these years. In fact, during this period it was the beneficiary of a net inward migration of defectors – the most prominent
among them being Churchill, Seely and the Guest brothers in 1904.
In December 1910 the Liberal Government was re-elected, albeit still
without an overall majority, but its share of the vote increased from
43.2% in January to 43.8% in the December election. The Liberal
Liberal defectors to the Conservatives
Trevy Thomson . . . raised the question as to whether or not we were
an Opposition Party: a strange question to be raised in the LiberalParty
under a Tory Government.1
This chapter considers all the defectors who left the Liberal/Liberal
Democrat Party to join the Conservatives during the hundred years
covered by this study. The defectors are studied by grouping, according to their reasons for defection, as described at the end of Chapter 2.
Figure 2.3 gives an overview of the membership of each grouping.
Labour Party had recovered to 154 seats.
For Labour this was not a false dawn, as 1923 had been for the Liberals;
DEFECTORS AND THE LIBERALPARTY
when they achieved 159 seats, only to be crushed down to forty a year
later. The Labour Party, under Clement Attlee’s leadership, played
a significant part in the Second World War coalition and went on to
win a landslide in 1945 and a narrower victory in 1950, before going
down to defeat the following year. However, once in opposition again,
the Labour Party was dogged by internal tensions during the 1950s –
DEFECTORS AND LOYALISTS
Figure 2.1 Scale and direction of defections from LiberalParty
serious outflow of defectors. The vast majority of the defectors, 85 of
the 116 (73%), departed in the thirteen years from November 1918
to November 1931. The year 1924 saw the highest number of defectors, with 16; followed by 1931, with 10. One of the striking features
overall is the range of destinations, encompassing eight different
parties, excluding those who left to be independents (see
This book offers new research on familiar themes involving loyalties of politics, faith and locality. Richard Wainwright was a Liberal MP for seventeen years during the Liberal Party's recovery, but his life tells us about much more than this. He grew up in prosperity, but learned from voluntary work about poverty; he refused to fight in World War Two, but saw war at its cruellest; he joined the Liberal Party when most had given up on it, but gave his fortune to it; lost a by-election but caused the only Labour loss in Harold Wilson's landslide of 1966. Wainwright then played a key role in the fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the Lib-Lab Pact and the formation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance and the Liberal Democrats; he represented a unique Yorkshire constituency that reflected his pride and hope for society; and though he gave his life to the battle to be in the Commons, he refused a seat in the Lords. He is central to the story of the Liberal Party and sheds light on the reasons for its survival and the state of its prospects. At the same time, this book is a parable of politics for anyone who wants to represent an apparently lost cause, who wants to motivate people who have been neglected, and who want to follow their convictions at the highest level.