University of Leicester
2014FreemanGJPhD.pdf (1.75 MB)

Beyond Westminster : grass-roots Liberalism in England, 1910-1929

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posted on 2014-02-21, 13:03 authored by Gavin James Freeman
The reasons for the changing political fortunes of the Liberal Party have caused considerable debate amongst historians; however, the historiography to date has lacked sufficient examination of this process at its grass-roots. Melding two sets of under-utilised primary sources - the minute books of Liberal Associations and local newspapers - this thesis examines the grass-roots of the Liberal Party in case-study constituencies across three distinctive regions in England (the Home Counties, the Midlands and the north-west). The Liberal Party had adopted the New Liberalism at the grass-roots, however in a way that complemented traditional Liberalism. This was a potent political agenda and one that seemed to be equal to anything that the Conservative and Labour parties had in the late Edwardian period. The evidence at the grass-roots indicates that Liberals’ were able to adapt to the First World War more easily than the conventional historiography suggests. Conscription and the formation of the Asquith Coalition in May 1915 were not popular, yet there was recognition that they were necessary for the successful prosecution of the war. Additionally, the December crisis of 1916 created unease at the grass-roots, with overwhelming support for Asquith to remain leader of the Liberal Party. However, the evidence is that this unease did not automatically translate into a split at the grass-roots, and the successful conclusion of the war overtook party considerations during the conflict. The prime cause of decline for the Liberal Party began as a result of the dynamics and consequences of the Coupon election in 1918. During 1919 and 1920 the grass-roots of the Liberal Party were unsure of their role and consequently the party vacated political space that the Labour Party filled. This was a period of missed opportunities for the Liberal Party. Reunion, when it came in 1923, was welcomed readily by the rank and file, who were dissatisfied with the elite dragging their heels on this matter. There is also evidence for a revival at the grass-roots during Lloyd George’s leadership. However, by 1929, the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system entrenched the Liberals diminished stature in such a way that from that point on they were considered the third party of British politics.



Ball, Stuart; Horrocks, Sally

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University of Leicester

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  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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