Cross-posted from Western Morning News
As polling day looms it seems certain that Britain is heading for another hung parliament, raising the prospect of a minority government or another coalition.
The resulting administration may well be more unstable than the current Conservative-Lib Dem government; things will certainly be messy to some degree. For those accustomed to the idea of living under a two-party system, in which Labour alternates with the Tories as the political pendulum swings, this is all very disconcerting.
But the story of another coalition, one formed a hundred years ago this month, casts things in a different light. It was the chaos of May 1915 that laid the groundwork for much of our modern political order; and our expectations about how party politics operates are to a considerable degree the legacy of the era of Asquith and Lloyd George.
The events of a century ago were of enormous significance for both the course and conduct of the First World War and for the political future of Britain. They resulted in the fall of Britain’s last solely Liberal government and its replacement by a coalition that included Conservatives and a small number of Labour figures.
H H Asquith, who had entered 10 Downing Street in 1908, remained Prime Minister, but now he was living on borrowed time. This was less of a seismic shift, then, than a tremor that foretold of bigger shocks to come in the future. To contemporaries, it appeared that the cracks in war-time national unity had been successfully papered over – for the meanwhile.
How, then, had this state of affairs come about? After the outbreak of war in August 1914 there had been an uneasy political truce. Irish Home Rule – the issue that had done most to poison relations between the parties in the Edwardian era –- was put on the statute book but with its operation suspended for the duration of the war. The Tories refrained from criticising the Liberals’ conduct of the war and Asquith, for his part, offered some sops in the direction of a cross-party ‘National’ approach, notably by appointing Lord Kitchener as Secretary for War. But the Conservatives, strongly embittered by Liberal actions over the previous few years, had not forgotten or forgiven. Crucially, in particular, they hadn’t forgiven Winston Churchill, first Lord of the Admiralty, who had betrayed them (they thought) by leaving their party over the issue of free trade in 1904.
By the spring of 1915, with British troops facing stalemate on the Western front, Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law’s MPs were discontented and concerned about the war effort’s apparent lack of direction. An explosion could not be far off.
No single factor triggered the crisis, but two issues stand out. First there was the public revelation of the shell shortages that the British army was facing in France. Then there was the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Jacky Fisher, after a seemingly minor disagreement with Churchill about the disposition of naval forces. When he learnt of Fisher’s action, Bonar Law made it clear that matters had gone so far that he would not be able to prevent his followers from attacking the government. Asquith reacted by agreeing to reconstruct the Cabinet and bring in some of the Tory leaders, including Bonar Law himself. As Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George later recalled, “This decision took an incredibly short time.”
In the end, the formation of the coalition was not enough to save Asquith’s bacon. At the close of 1916 he was ousted by Lloyd George who headed a new, more vigorous coalition government. The May crisis was tragedy for Churchill too: the Conservatives insisted on his demotion as the price of working with the Liberals. The significance of these events went beyond the merely personal, however. They not only led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions – which helped revolutionise Britain’s war effort – but were also a key staging post in the decline of the Liberal Party and the rise of Labour. The Labour v. Conservative “two party system”, which now appears to be breaking down, was never a part of the natural order of being, but a product of very specific circumstances, and should never have been expected to last forever.
Reflecting on 1915 reminds us, furthermore, that coalitions have often been part of British politics. The 65 years after the Second World War, when we did without them entirely, were arguably a strange aberration. Moreover, Asquith’s quick actions a century ago had consequences that took a long time to play out and that we are still living with today. Whatever happens as the result of the 2015 election, we should not expect to see all its results within days, weeks, or months. The reverberations may be felt for decades to come.