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1922 and all that

October 19, 2012

Ninety years ago this morning the last Liberal-Conservative peace time coalition government imploded.  Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister, never to return to power.  Austen Chamberlain was replaced by Bonar Law and has his place in history as the only Tory leader of the 20th century never to be Prime Minister.  A month later the Conservative party won an overwhelming victory in a general election.  Within two years the Liberal Party had been eclipsed by the new Labour Party as the main alternative to the Tories.

Are there any echoes from 90 years ago?  I’m sure there’ll be some Tory MPs who would like to see a repeat of the events of 19 October 1922 when Tory backbenchers met at the Carlton Club and voted to end the coalition.  But they are a small minority, mainly people never keen on Cameron’s leadership of their party.  The stronger echo is the flexing of back bench power to steer the leadership.  This is much stronger in the current Tory Party than in the Liberal Democrats.  This is despite the fact that my party is supposed to be the more democratic.

The new Conservative MPs elected in the 1922 election formed a committee, soon dubbed the 1922 Committee that is with us to this day.  It was the 1922 committee that removed Iain Duncan Smith in 2003.  Tory backbenchers elect their chairman (and man is right there) and also leaders of several sub committees.  They speak for backbench opinion in the Commons chamber and the media and supposedly keep ministers in touch with colleagues.

The Liberal Democrats, having been out of government for so long, had no structures for reconciling backbench and ministerial opinion.  So in June 2010 Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set up backbench committees for Lib Dem MPs not in government, joined by Peers, which would have seemed an odd concept to the 1920s Liberal Party.  Since then I have been co Chair of the Treasury and Business Committee, performing the same role as John Redwood, Chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee of the 1922 Committee.   But the joke among several Tory MPs is that I have more access to government ministers…

The Lib Dems, inside Parliament and among members in the country, are still getting used to being a party of government.  We’ve felt the exhilaration of power and tasted the vitriol of unpopularity.  We’re going through a period of rapid transition from perennial opposition and pressure group mentality to being one of the three natural parties of government.  The relationship between colleagues in government and those outside is still evolving, with each backbench chair performing the role in different ways.  Bringing the public finances into balance and getting the economy onto stable growth are at the heart of the coalition.  So I have adhered to the “Treasury view” while carving out a niche campaigning on ethical capitalism, against tax avoidance and pro consumer power.

Maybe in time Lib Dem backbenchers will have a 2010 committee.  It sounds a bit odd now.  But I guess ninety years ago nobody thought “the 1922” would have an enduring political meaning.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. buryzee permalink
    October 19, 2012 4:01 pm

    It is nice reading about the past history of our parliament and the committes etc. Stephen. I congragulate you for getting into the higher ranks. Have you contemplated about the mess we have in the lobbying system. I read a bit in the wikipedia and felt disgusted. To think that, in a democracy of ours we the people are powerful. And delligent MP’s like yourself try to put our views in the House. But after reading the wiki page all that went out of the window. The power base is the Lobby. ‘The professional lobbying industry has been rapidly growing since the mid-1990s and in 2007 was estimated to be worth £1.9 billion, employing 14,000 people’.I never knew about the revolving door. Ha ha. Accepting money for introductions is ‘frowned on’ but not illegal. Hee hee

    I do hope you all get together and thrash this horrible business in the House and get better regulation into it. The self regulatory body, at the moment is a farce, and if the MP’s think that we do not know these points, they can be called backword and stupid.I do hope everyone reading this forgive me as this is off-topic, but this is politics init?

    • October 19, 2012 10:45 pm

      The Coalition Govt is planning a register of lobbyists. I sit on the committee that has reviewed the plans. We must cover in house (ie those that are on the payroll of one organisation) as well as lobbying consultants.

  2. Crow permalink
    October 19, 2012 8:25 pm

    Take care, there is not necessarily a ‘natural party of government’. There are other dynamics too. Habituation the greatest by far, but another may best be summed up as ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. Obama for example was not imaginable to most as a President, the world pretty much assumed a black man would never reach the Oval Office! This was conventional ‘wisdom’ to all but every talking head the world over. it wasn’t till he got there that they were silenced. Same goes for Churchill, who Tories claim as one of their own, but he was not a first choice for any of them at the time, he was just the one who was right for that moment. I doubt he as a typical Tory either.

    Events will drive this more than plans or parties. I read a strange but useful point, that parties don’t ‘win’ elections, they lose them. By folly, disgrace, whatever it takes to smite them low and end up giving ground for something else. So there IS a kind of natural order to it, but don’t confuse that with the notion of a ‘natural party of government’, because there isn’t one beyond habits of voters. Start thinking you can safely predict those, and you’ll be seeing faces in clouds and woodchip wallpaper…

    I’m interested in this business of Tory backbenchers in 1922 calling to end the coalition, then winning a strong Tory majority. I wasn’t aware of this, I’m not a historian; your education was definitely better than mine (I was dragged through school after school as parents moved, a bullied outsider who got little or no support from anyone, even my parents, in the debacle that resulted, I taught myself most of what I know beyond basic reading and writing and some physics and maths). Despite not knowing, I’m aware that if the Tories reach the point where they end the coalition on their terms, having used the Liberal party to consolidate their own power, we may be in danger of either a cruel Tory rule, or a massive unstable swing to the left as last time, with only a public now aware of the dangers of unrestrained free market policies to temper the doings and give us some hope of stability in future. If the Liberals REALLY want to retain any strong basis for enough respect to keep them close to power, they MUST break the coalition themselves, if it be broken at all. I’m not yet sure if is should be despite my various utterances about this, but I hope you can see the logic of what I’m saying here.

    The only real shot at a ‘natural government’ is to see the outcome before it happens. I’m not talking about clairvoyance, I mean it’s like hitting a missile, you have to aim where it will be, not where it is now. You need visionary skill for that, it is never enough to count beans, or worry about what the other lot think. You need to see what they do not, so that events will not sweep you aside as much as they do others..

    • October 19, 2012 10:47 pm

      I think this coalition will last until the 2015 general election. Both parties need the govt to be a success and the main measure will be economic stability.

  3. Crow. permalink
    October 20, 2012 10:32 am

    So long as both parties DO need that, then ok, but you said yourself that Tories deciding they do not need Liberals is strongly precedented. You went so far as to say “The stronger echo is the flexing of back bench power to steer the leadership”, and we well know that the Tory back benchers mostly (and loudly) state that they want nothing more than to free themselves from a yoke of Liberal restraints. Given how right wing the nation has become, this would be dangerous, it would be best that the Liberals broke a coalition and did so for reasons the public can respect. Two other nations have risked a left wing vote to prevent that kind of risk (France and Holland), and it should be clear from this that there are other dynamics beyond economic stability (issues of sovereignty, for example, and a right for a nation to determine its own government).

    I shouldn’t have to keep banging on about how bean-counting isn’t enough to get us through this time, but it looks like maybe I do. You’ve said things that make me aware you know better anyway, after all you’d tax the rich before the poor, right? So surely you agree as I do that if ‘Noblesse’ cannot ‘Oblige’, then we’re all in the shit because people need good examples to follow and we fail if we do not get that. So the question isn’t so much the economic stability, but how we attempt to get it. Social cohesion based on live-and-let-live is more likely to work because it engages people’s own motivations instead of coercing them, so it’s cheaper to do, and easier. HOW we do this counts! If you ignore this, you might as well be saying “The ends justify the means”, and even I know enough history to know the dangers of THAT line of argument!

  4. Crow permalink
    October 26, 2012 12:55 pm

    Stephen, if you want a break from the bean-counting discussions in the Starbucks thread, maybe this will do it:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20093569
    Any chance you might get behind that and push it along? After all, if we can’t have trust, can we at least have transparency without people being threatened if they tell the truth? Maybe once large firms and institutions tire of public scrutiny they will want to justify trust and have people leave them alone again.

  5. Mark Solomon permalink
    November 12, 2012 2:44 pm

    Like the details about the workings of the 1922 and LD equivilents Stephen but you made one factual error- William Hague was leader of the Conservatives from summer 1997 until the end of 2000 – the 20th century- but was never PM so Austen Chamberlain is not the only one. OK,the first chance Hague had to be PM was the first 21st c. election in 2001 but that doesn’t invalidate my point!

    • November 12, 2012 10:43 pm

      we’re both right! I knew what I was saying, Austen Chamberlain was also the first recognised leader of the Conservative party from the 1840s not to become PM. Hague didn’t get his shot until 2001 and then there were two further losers in IDS (who never faced the polls) and Michael Howard.

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