Policy Papers

Liberal-Conservative Coalitions - ‘a farce and a fraud’?

Ian Cawood |

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Executive Summary

  • All six coalition governments in the last 120 years have involved the Liberal and Conservative parties.
  • The only peacetime coalition endorsed by two united parties was the 1895-1906 coalition between the Liberal Unionist Party and the Conservative Party, led by Conservative Prime Ministers Lord Salisbury and Arthur James Balfour.
  • This coalition foundered once the threat of Home Rule [for Ireland] receded and the Liberal Unionist leaders placed greater value on placating their Conservative allies than responding to the concerns of their own backbenchers and activists.
  • The coalition split after attempts to find new policy initiatives foundered, resulting in an electoral disaster in 1906 and the eventual fusion of the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists in 1912, forming the modern-day Conservative Party.
  • The 1931 Conservative-Liberal Coalition was formed to tackle a debt crisis, but when the election of that year produced an effective Conservative majority, the Liberals faced a choice of sacrificing long-held principles or sacrificing office. This split the party and condemned them to electoral obscurity for over forty years.
  • Liberal parties have tended to have had greatest policy influence when they have supported minority governments, especially from 1886-92 with the Conservative Government of Lord Salisbury, and from 1977-79 with James Callaghan's Labour Government.


There have been six coalition governments in Britain in the last 120 years, all involving Liberals and Conservatives:

  1. the coalition between the Liberal and radical Unionists and the Conservatives which lasted from just before the 1895 general election until the 1906 Liberal landslide;
  2. the first wartime coalition between Herbert Asquith's Liberals, Labour and the Conservative and Unionist Party which lasted nearly nineteen months between May 1915 and December 1916;
  3. the war-winning alliance between Labour, the Liberal supporters of Lloyd George and the Unionists that, through the device of the 1918 'coupon' election, managed to stagger on until 1922;
  4. the National Government of 1931 to 1940, initially led by Ramsay MacDonald, a coalition of the bulk of the Unionists, most of the Liberals and a veneer of Labour figures. This government proved unstable however, as free trade Liberals quickly withdrew their support, leaving a small rump of Liberal Nationals, led by Sir John Simon, in a government which became dominated by the Unionists;
  5. Churchill's eclectic wartime administration, which was abandoned as soon as Germany was defeated;
  6. The list is completed by the coalition between David Cameron's Conservatives, twenty seats short of a majority following the election on 6 May 2010, and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrat Party.

Startled by the unexpected warmth of the relationship that blossomed after May 2010 between new Cabinet colleagues from hitherto opposed parties, commentators have cast back into history to identify historical parallels and to predict the likely outcomes of the current coalition. The examples of the First and Second World War can be set aside, as no electoral arithmetic required these collaborations; they were formed to achieve maximum national unity at times of intense crisis. As Vernon Bogdanor has argued, even the peacetime coalitions of 1895, 1918 and 1931 are not perfect guides either, as these 'were formed before general elections and endorsed by the electorate ... not, as the current coalition has been, formed after a general election.' The present coalition is the product of a hung parliament and it is an arrangement of electoral necessity, grudgingly accepted by the larger party. Previous Liberal-Conservative coalitions, with the exception of the crisis-inspired 1915-16 government, have typically been alliances of factions, frequently following Liberal splits.

In one case, however, despite initial impressions, there was an alliance between two united parties. This was the 1895-1906 government initially led by Lord Salisbury, then by Arthur Balfour, which was eventually torn apart by the tariff reform issue, introduced by the radical Unionist Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, in 1903. A study of the relationship between the two parties in the initial Unionist alliance of 1886-1895, and of that in the full-blown Unionist coalition government from 1895 until 1906, makes for a useful comparison of the ideological and operational difficulties of different modes of cross-party collaboration in the British political system, which has contemporary resonance.

The Conservative-Liberal Unionist 'compact', 1886-1895

Unionist Liberals and the Conservatives had formed a pact before the defeat of the first Bill for Home Rule in Ireland, in the House of Commons on 8 June 1886, under the terms of which the two parties refused to put up rival candidates in any forthcoming election. The Liberal Unionist Party itself was founded in 1886 after William Gladstone's electoral defeat by the united action of the Unionist factions. Most had expected the 76 year-old Liberal leader to retire and for the Marquess of Hartington, the leader of the 78 unionist Liberal MPs, to resume the leadership of a reunited Liberal party, dropping the policy of home rule. Gladstone, however, did not retire, and so the Unionists were forced to form themselves into a separate political party and to enter into a strategic alliance with Salisbury's minority Conservative government.

Although ridiculed by contemporaries like Alfred Pease, William Morris, Herbert Asquith and Beatrice Webb as antediluvian Whigs and subsequently dismissed by historians as unable to come to terms with the new politics of mass electorates, the new party, after an initial period of indecision, had become an extremely effective political machine, with considerable funds, widespread press support and a vast network of over 400 local associations using the most modern means of disseminating their message. Their cross-class, cross-denominational appeal, which was crucial to the Unionist landslide in 1895, was based on their claim to be the true inheritors of the Liberal tradition. Looking back in 1912, the Earl of Selborne, Liberal Unionist whip between 1888 and 1892, said that the Liberal Unionists were 'the natural heirs of mid-Victorian Liberalism.' He argued that the Liberal Unionists had maintained the principles of constitutionalism, the defence of minorities and the benefit of the nation as a whole rather than self-interest, as well as the tenets of Protestant Christianity through educational reform, electoral reform and social protection for the least wealthy. It was the Gladstonians who had abandoned their principles in 1886, by surrendering to the forces of disorder in Ireland and threatening to abandon the religious and ethnic minorities to sectarian and possibly papist government by the Catholic, southern Irish majority.

By 1895, the Liberal Unionist Party could point to two solidly liberal achievements during the Liberal-Conservative electoral 'compact': the introduction of free elementary education and the democratic reforms of the 1888 Local Government Act, both of which Chamberlain had demanded in the 'unauthorised programme' of radical social reform during the 1885 election campaign. Although Liberal Unionists had not achieved the progress they wanted in extending land purchase for tenant farmers and introducing local government to Ireland (vital if they were, as Liberals, to defend the continuance of the Union), they could cite the Irish Land Act in 1887 and the 1892 Small Agricultural Holdings Act to demonstrate how they were challenging the rights of the landowning class. The Unionists emphasised that the Liberals had abandoned the 'unauthorised programme' due to Gladstone's fixation with Home Rule. Early in 1887, Joseph Chamberlain expressed his disgust that 'thirty two millions of people must go without much needed legislation because three million are disloyal.' In this way, an alliance between the Conservative and Liberal Unionists could prove itself a fount of economic and social reform and a means of improving the humanitarian achievements of the imperial mission.

The accession of Joseph Chamberlain as Liberal Unionist Party leader in 1892 led to a renewed drive for constructive reform, but Salisbury and his lieutenants successfully resisted these demands and while in opposition, managed to exploit the fundamental divisions among Unionists in 1895. When the Gladstonian Liberals suddenly resigned office in June 1895, it was a crucial turning point for the Liberal Unionist Party. Hartington, by now Duke of Devonshire, and Chamberlain entered the Cabinet, but in junior positions which emphasised their lack of influence. They unwisely failed to secure any agreement of policy (mainly as they themselves agreed on few issues). Although the Liberal Unionists challenged The Liberal Party, under their new leader Lord Rosebery, as the most authentically Liberal political party, and won a respectable tally of seats in the general election the following month, the promises of social reforms, such as old age pensions and housing reform which they made during the campaign, were swept away by Lord Salisbury once the Tories had secured a majority. All that survived of the Liberal Unionists' principles, beyond the maintenance of the Union, was a commitment to the concept of a Liberal empire. In an age of aggressive imperialism, this was insufficient to prevent the gradual defection of the independent nonconformist Unionists in a series of crises after 1895.

Conservative-Liberal Unionist Coalition, 1895-1906

The Liberal Unionist Party's survival into the twentieth century was assured by the electoral success of 1895, often overlooked by historians; but eventual fusion with the Conservatives could only be avoided with the active cultivation of the party's separate identity by the leadership, even as they entered a Unionist coalition Cabinet. That such support was not forthcoming is clear from the party records after 1895, which show little opposition to Conservative appropriation of former Liberal Unionist constituencies as retiring Liberal Unionist MPs were replaced by Conservatives. Some radicals and committed Liberals such as T.W. Russell and Leonard Courtney refused to go along with this and grumbled, resigned or returned to the Liberal Party. Chamberlain however preferred to prove his acceptability to the Tories rather than cultivate Liberal Unionists. Now colonial secretary, Chamberlain was determined to use the 'imperial mission' to reassure suspicious Conservatives and thereby to bolster his claim to become the leader of the united Unionists.

As Angus Hawkins has observed, exiting coalitions is much harder than entering into them. Many Liberal Unionists remained as committed to liberal policies such as temperance, non-denominational education, state support for the poor, further franchise reform and church disestablishment as they had been in 1885. Of course, these policies posed a particular threat to the Conservatives, the party of the church, the farmer and the businessman - and were, as a result, a significant stumbling block in the Unionist alliance. Once the Conservatives won an overall majority in 1895, the Liberal Unionists became increasingly irrelevant. Spurned by their own leader, rejected by their Liberal friends as traitors and distinctly uncomfortable with the associational life of Conservative supporters, the Liberal Unionists had to choose between principle and expedience. With no real threat of a third Home Rule Bill after 1895, and with Chamberlain's abandonment of social reform for the cause of imperial expansion, the party largely fell into disuse. Liberal Unionist organisations, both regionally and nationally, were neglected by their leaders, who preferred to address Conservative meetings, and backbenchers were largely ignored. The crucial role that the Party played in bringing working men and nonconformists to support a Conservative-dominated alliance was ignored firstly by Salisbury and then, most seriously, by Balfour in the 1902 Education Act - a measure which grossly offended nonconformist sensibilities by directing ratepayers' fees to support denominational schools.

Chamberlain's great achievement between 1886 and 1902 had been in securing the affection of a substantial body of nonconformist Liberals through the agency of organisations such as the Nonconformist Unionist Association. Now, even as he defended the Education Bill at angry meetings of his caucus in Birmingham, he wrote to Devonshire, 'our best friends are leaving us by scores and hundreds never to return.' Discontent spread nationally until a major protest meeting was held at Queen's Hall, London on 10 June, where Nonconformist Unionists were described as those 'who gave their votes to the betrayal of their co-religionists'. This was valuable ammunition in the Liberal Party's post-Boer War attempt to regain ownership of liberal, patriotic constitutionalism, in the face of the (allegedly) denominational, sectarian and anti-democratic Education Bill. The Liberal Unionist Party was thus in no position to mount an effective resistance to Chamberlain's attempt to overturn one of the central tenets of liberalism, free trade, in 1903.

By 1902, collective Cabinet responsibility forced Chamberlain to defend the Education Bill in a series of ill-tempered meetings in Birmingham. He was therefore desperate to reassert his radical credentials, and the tariff reform campaign, with its initial promises of social improvement, certainly allowed him to consolidate his support. It also provided an ideological glue to bind the two Unionist parties together as the Conservative Party had a longstanding protectionist instinct that even Salisbury had occasionally indulged. To Liberal Unionists like Arthur Elliot, Sir Henry James and Sir John Lubbock (now Lord Avebury) the abandonment of the principle of Free Trade, and the legacy of Richard Cobden and John Bright's campaign against the Corn Laws, was one pill they would not swallow under any circumstances. Between 1903 and 1906, eight Liberal Unionist free trade MPs left the party and rejoined the Liberals. Sir Henry James, in common with the remaining Liberal Unionist free traders, even refused to campaign for Balfour and Chamberlain in the 1906 election. The former governor of Ceylon, West Ridgeway, wrote an article announcing the death of the Liberal Unionist Party in which he claimed it had been 'strangled by its own parent.'

The years of unequal Liberal Unionist-Conservative alliance demonstrated the dangers of collaborating with the Conservatives, especially when Liberal Party leaders seemed more committed to their own political survival than the pursuit of commonly-held Liberal values. In a warning that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg might heed today, Alfred Pease, who had stayed loyal to Gladstone in 1886, gave his view of the compromises that the Liberal Unionists had had to make in these years:

I have often thought of a story I was told as a child of a Russian family flying before a pack of wolves, in their sledge with four horses. To save themselves they tried sacrificing one horse, then another, each victim reprieving them for a short time from a terrible fate, and in their desperation finally sacrificing their children, and all in vain... [liberal] principles, their promises...all had to be thrown away.

The Liberals and National Government, 1931-1940

Party politics between 1906 and 1931 remained extremely fluid. The Liberal Unionists eventually 'fused' with the Conservatives in May 1912, then the challenges of the First World War split the Liberals and, to a lesser degree, the nascent Labour Party. The post-war coalition government led by Lloyd George deepened the divisions within the Liberal Party, which did not really heal, even when Asquith and Lloyd George were politically reunited in November 1923. The Conservatives were divided over their response to the rise of Labour, while the Labour Party was deeply troubled over engagement with Soviet Russia and the extent of reform they should attempt in the minority governments they formed in 1924 and 1931.

In 1931, as in 2010, the scale of the financial crisis facing Britain led to the fall of a Labour government unlucky enough to be in office when the financial storm struck. Unable to get his Cabinet colleagues to agree to cuts in unemployment benefit, Ramsay MacDonald was invited by the King to form a 'National' government to deal with the political consequences of the financial crash. Under the terms of the Parliament Act of 1911, there was no need for an election as the Labour minority government could easily have been replaced with a coalition based on the existing Parliament elected in 1929. Furthermore, unlike in 2010, the Liberals in 1931 split over whether to join the National Government, with a faction supporting the incapacitated leader, David Lloyd George, while the majority followed the deputy leader, Herbert Samuel into the coalition. While Charles Kennedy and others may not have supported the coalition agreement drawn up on 11 May 2010, they did little to prevent the Federal Executive, together with the parliamentary party, voting overwhelmingly in favour of it.

In 1931, as in 2010, the fear of a debt crisis engulfing Britain led right-wing Liberals to bolster the new government's determination to reduce the national deficit through substantial and immediate budget cuts and tax rises. Secondly, some more left-leaning Liberals demanded 'equal sacrifice' which would entail cuts in all wages, salaries, rents and dividends, a cry which has echoes in the current Coalition's mantra that 'we're all in this together.' In the 1930s, the Bank of England warned that any increased taxes on private industry or levies on banking would drive employers, investors and financiers to take their money elsewhere and the idea was quietly dropped by the National Government.

The Liberals who joined the coalition in 1931 failed to get a clear agreement as to how the economic crisis was to be tackled, despite the unequivocal commitment to reflationary policies in their 1929 programme, 'We can Conquer Unemployment', largely written by John Maynard Keynes. Instead the election was held on the basis of the astonishingly vague 'doctor's mandate' which simply authorised the National Government to take whatever measures deemed necessary for Britain's economic recovery. The electorate voted for a coalition government that refused to spell out in detail what its plans for economic recovery were, mainly as they were unable to agree on any. When the Unionist Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, called for the implementation of import duties at the British Empire Economic Conference at Ottawa in September 1932, a faction of the Liberal Party, led by Samuel, refused to accept this final rejection of the Liberal article of faith, free trade, and left the government. This left the Liberal Nationals, led by Sir John Simon, in a position of complete dependence on the Conservatives who had a majority in the Commons, a state which was almost as 'degrading' as that of the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. After Simon's defection, the Conservative dominance of the National Government was apparent and MacDonald's folly exposed.

The involvement of the Liberals in the austerity programme of 1931-35 seriously eroded support among the electorate at a time when the Liberal Party was already weak. Public sector workers, especially teachers, never forgave the party for having overseen the harsh treatment handed out to their professions, while the bankers who they felt had caused, aggravated or exploited the crisis, got off scot-free. Working class voters never forgot the Liberals' support for the imposition of the means test on transitional benefits, and so Labour's vote recovered in 1935 at the cost of the Liberals, both 'Simonite' and 'Samuelite'. Some socially progressive Liberals were unable to contain their anger with their party's collaboration with the Tories and left, most notably, the young Michael Foot. The Liberal Nationals' continued presence in what, by 1935, was a Conservative government in all but name, handed Opposition to the National Government's ongoing austerity and tentative foreign policy to the resurgent Labour Party, now led by Clement Attlee.


Liberal parties have always been broad churches, made up of highly independent-minded MPs. This has made them ideally suited to the creation of coalitions with other political parties. Some members of the Liberal Party have always aligned more closely with the principles of their rivals than with those of their own Liberal colleagues. For this reason, their leaders have been able to enter coalitions when it suited their own purposes (usually electoral survival or ambition for ministerial office) on three peacetime occasions in the last 120 years. Unfortunately, this has also meant that a substantial proportion of those Liberal parties soon became, in Vernon Bogdanor's words, 'uneasy, nervous and insecure after the situation that produced them [had] been resolved.' On the first two occasions explored here, individual Liberal MPs increasingly felt that they were expected to give up too many of their principles by their leaders for the sake of coalition harmony. As a result, both of the Liberal groupings of 1895 and 1931 gradually disintegrated, to their long-term detriment. By contrast, the Liberal Unionists achieved their greatest degree of influence between 1886 and 1892 by remaining on the Opposition benches and making clear that their support was dependent on legislative compromise, in much the same way that David Steel extracted the terms of the Lib-Lab Pact in March 1977. Some Liberal Unionists believed that they succeeded in achieving their aims from Salisbury's minority government on around a quarter of issues. Similarly, the Liberals achieved a few of the ten points from the 'Agreement' that formed the basis for the 1977 pact, including a free parliamentary vote on the use of Proportional Representation for European elections.

It is telling that, unlike in 1895 and 1931, but as in 1977, the Liberal Democrats only agreed to join the Coalition Government of 2010 with a clear set of policies agreed by both parties, trying to extract the maximum return for their collaboration. In this respect, they appeared to learn the lesson of history that Conservative leaders of coalition governments would never willingly neglect an opportunity to promote their party's agenda and to neglect those of their junior partners. The recent rebellion over House of Lords reform has, however, revealed the hollowness of any political agreement between unequal signatories, as the Conservatives reverted to their habitual behaviour, putting the needs of Conservative whips and party managers before those of their coalition allies. Having joined a coalition as the smaller party, the Liberal Democrats now face the same poor choice as their predecessors in 1895 and 1932: to accept those of their aims that the Conservatives are willing to accede to and to bear a share of popular opprobrium for supporting a Conservative government committed to austerity; or to withdraw and risk the accusation that they, like Labour in 1929, are unable to face the harsh realities of government. If they choose the former they must surely hope that some sign of economic recovery has arrived by 2015, and there are no knee-jerk Conservative initiatives on European Union membership, which would prove as unpalatable to modern Liberals as Chamberlain's tariff reform programme was to many Liberal Unionists in 1903.

It remains to be seen whether the experience of the current government will mean that the rank-and-file Liberal Democrats come to regard coalitions in the same way as the leading Liberal Unionist Lord Derby judged them in 1886: as he persuaded Lord Hartington not to join Salisbury's government that year, Derby commented, with some prescience, that coalitions 'were always unpopular and seldom lasted long.'

Further Reading

Vernon Bogdanor, The Coalition and the Constitution (Hart Publishing, 2011)

Ian Cawood, The Liberal Unionist Party: A History (I.B Tauris, 2012)

David Dutton, Liberals in Schism: A History of the National Liberal Party (I.B. Tauris, 2012)

Richard Rempel, Unionists Divided: Arthur Balfour, Joseph Chamberlain and the Unionist Free Traders (David and Charles, 1972)

Vernon Bogdanor, 'Riding the Tiger: The Liberal Experience of Coalition Government Government' Journal of Liberal History 72, (2011)

Angus Hawkins, 'Coalition before 1886: Whigs, Peelites and Liberals', Journal of Liberal History 72 (2011)

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