A desperate re-telling of British political history

11:20 am - April 21st 2010

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contribution by Tim Fenton

As the fallout from the first Leaders’ Debate continues, the Tory cheerleaders within the blogosphere have been reduced to a state of desperation: they don’t want to appear nasty towards Corporal Clegg but their belief that Young Dave only had to turn up and look confident has been shot apart.

The prospect of a hung parliament, and potential coalition Government, is clearly causing distress, so much so that creative retelling of history to frighten voters back to the Tories has begun.

And yesterday’s singularly desperate storyteller was Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda. Dale has exhumed David Low’s caricature of Lloyd George as coalition Prime Minister (after the “coupon election” of 1918) riding a two headed donkey.

He says that this Government was “possibly the worst … of the 20th Century”, which fails to explain why Lloyd George was, by 1922, at the height of his personal popularity. He summons the memory of Michael Foot in telling what did for LG.

What sunk Lloyd George was partly that he had no party by 1922: the coalition had ended (so the two headed donkey was no more), and the Liberals, something that Dale’s simplistic analysis omits, were split between those backing LG and the followers of Herbert Asquith, with the latter having been part of the opposition after 1918.

When the election came in 1922, LG and those of like mind stood as a party separate to the Liberals, and suffered as a result. The Tories, who had formed the bulk of the 1918 coalition, emerged if anything stronger (the lesson of what happens to a politician who has no party was not lost on LG’s friend Churchill in 1940).

And the Tories did it again in 1931: Ramsay MacDonald and a group of Labour and Liberal MPs went into a coalition “National Government” with them, the Tories emerging by 1935 as a party with a parliamentary majority of around 200. MacDonald was, on one occasion, discovered by Lloyd George wandering around the House of Commons looking lost: he left LG with the impression that he had come to realise he had been duped.

If there is one lesson to learn from recent peacetime coalition Governments in the UK: you go in with the Tories, and you end up getting screwed over.

The Liberal Party suffered most, though they inflicted much of the damage by their infighting and indiscipline. Labour were rescued by their contribution to Churchill’s wartime Government, and the desire of the electorate not to go back to the policies that had failed so many of them in the 30s.

Nick Clegg, an Asquith Liberal, and the likes of Chris Huhne, who leans towards LG, will know their history well enough to hold together, and treat the Tory cheerleaders with the contempt they deserve.

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Reader comments

I’m not sure whose discomfort I’m enjoying most; the Tories blind panic that it’s suddenly all gone Pete Tong, and by the way where the hell did it come from, or Labour desperately rummaging around the box of political opportunism to find the principles they abandoned circa 1997.

Sometimes you just have to love the great British public!

2. Flowerpower

You’re right: there is no need for the Tories to delve into past history to support their campaign.

The present day offers more than enough scope.

Today we see that unemployment has been going up again.

Yesterday’s inflation figures were a disgrace.

Brown himself may be in denial, but an increasing number of people are waking up to the fact that Labour has made a mess of the economy.

3. astateofdenmark

The events of the 1920s are salutary warning to the present Labour Party. Old parties can die. Politics is suddenly interesting.

It is also a warning to the LDs. Coalition governments have a tendency to harm the LDs, fairly or not. The best thing for Clegg to do, is stand aside and do the issue by issue thing and let labour and/or the tories take the flak.

Unless of course Clegg wins, but that is a different story.

4. Ken McKenzie


Unemployment almost always continues to rise after a recession has ended, and that’s what everyone expected to happen (and expects to continue for quite some time). The last recession saw over a year of rising unemployment even after it had ended.

However, dire predictions of unemployment reaching 3m by the end of 2009 turned out to be wrong (we might not reach 3m at all, although I suspect we might), and unemployment is rising rather slower than expected. The signs point to Labour actually not making a complete pig’s ear of the recession – or at least doing better than most people expected.

The best thing for Clegg to do, is stand aside and do the issue by issue thing and let labour and/or the tories take the flak.

This is what Asquith did in 1923 – despite getting more or less the same number of votes as Labour (both were miles behind the Tories), the Liberals stood aside and let Labour govern in the hope that its difficulties would benefit the Liberals.

Have a look at the election in 1924 to see how that turned out…

even someone with a heart of stone would have to feel sorry for tory bloggers and posters to internet forums. their panic is palpable. it wasn’t supposed to be like this. boo hoo its not fair

@6 adrian

OK..it’s a fair cop. 100% Scottish Granite here…. and loving it 😉

Thanks for that, very interesting. I too hope that Nick remembers history well.

9. Flowerpower

@ 6 Adrian

It’s the Labour supporters I feel sorry for. Looks like Gordon’s going to struggle to get >25% of the popular vote.

Flowerpower, are you on the Lucozade today? Comment strafing left right and centre, are you perhaps hoping that your comments will single-handedly reverse the Tories fortunes?

And you do know it looks bad when you’re just slinging mud and ignoring rebuttals?

There are few reasons for admiring Lloyd George or upholding him as a model to emulate.

He went on a visit to Germany in August 1936 to meet with Herr Hitler. Here is a video clip of that meeting:

On his return to Britain, Lloyd George wrote an article for the Daily Express on 17 November 1936:

“I have just returned from a visit to Germany. In so short time one can only form impressions or at least check impressions which years of distant observation through the telescope of the Press and constant inquiry from those who have seen things at a closer range had already made on one’s mind. I have now seen the famous German Leader and also something of the great change he has effected. Whatever one may think of his methods – and they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country – there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvellous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook. . .

“What Hitler said at Nuremberg is true. The Germans will resist to the death every invader at their own country, but they have no longer the desire themselves to invade any other land. . .

“The establishment of a German hegemony in Europe which was the aim and dream of the old pre-war militarism, is not even on the horizon of Nazism. …”

It was explained at the time that Lloyd George didn’t really know about “the camps”, which is curious as the entry on 16 March 1936 in George Orwell’s research diary for his book for the Left Book Club that was to become: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) reads:

“Last night to hear Mosley [founder of the British Union of Fascists in 1932] speak at the Public Hall [in Barnsley], which is in structure a theatre. It was quite full – about 700 people I should say. About 100 Blackshirts on duty, with two or three exceptions weedy looking specimens, and girls selling Action etc. Mosley spoke for an hour and a half and to my dismay seemed to have the meeting mainly with him. He was booed at the start but loudly clapped at the end. Several men who tried to interject with questions were thrown out . . . one with quite unnecessary violence. . . . M. is a very good speaker. His speech was the usual clap-trap – Empire free trade, down with the Jew and the foreigner, higher wages and shorter hours all round etc. After the preliminary booing the (mainly) working class audience was easily bamboozled by M speaking as it were from a Socialist angle, condemning the treachery of successive governments towards the workers. The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews who were said to be financing, among other things the British Labour Party and the Soviet. . . . M. kept extolling Italy and Germany but when questioned about concentration camps etc always replied ‘We have no foreign models; what happens in Germany need not happen here.’ . . . ”
George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1 An Age Like This 1920-1940 (Penguin Books) p.230.

Plainly, knowledge of the existence of “the concentration camps” in Germany was already in the public domain in Britain in 1936. Lloyd George had no excuse.

What is overwhelming in the Tory press and blogosphere is the sense of entitlement. It is our turn and this should not be happening is the consistent theme. The attacks and smears on Clegg were entirely predictable. Following US politics to the gutter we have already had a birther lite smear from the Mail, and a death panel lite smear from the Telegraph.

I suspect that Clegg will steer from parallels with Lloyd George. Too easy.

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