David Maddox: History repeating itself for Lib Dems

Nick Clegg must be wondering whether his party is 'doomed to repeat history' by not learning from it. Picture: Getty
Nick Clegg must be wondering whether his party is 'doomed to repeat history' by not learning from it. Picture: Getty
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THERE is a certain irony that, in the same week as the Westminster parliament celebrates its 750th birthday, the UK government should be laying down the draft clauses to remove further power from it and devolve it to Holyrood.

The coincidence though could be seen as an appropriate one, given that when he first called parliament on 20 January, 1265, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort was decentralising power from the English monarch. Now his successors are decentralising it geographically.

But this is far from being the only significant anniversary this month in Westminster that still shapes our understanding of politics today. One of these will be marked by a meeting of the respective history groups of the Lib Dems and Conservatives in the Liberal Club next week.

The meeting, to be chaired by a descendent of former prime minister Herbert Asquith, will mark the centenary of the first Liberal-Tory coalition in 1915.

The comparisons with the modern Lib Dem coalition are striking. In both cases the two parties came together in an act of national unity to take on a major global crisis. In 1915 it was the First World War, in 2010 it was the ongoing economic crisis.

The key difference was in 1915 it was the Liberals who were the bigger party inviting the Tories in as junior partners.

However, politically in 1915 the decision to invite the Tories in was the beginning of the end for the Liberals. They never won a majority again and in fact split before the war was won, with David Lloyd George becoming prime minister. The Tories propped up Lloyd George until an infamous meeting at the Carlton Club in October 1922 when they ditched him.

The party made two brief returns to government in the Great Depression of 1931 and during the Second World War, each time working under a Tory prime minister, each time splitting the party, and seeing their seats decline to near extinction in 1945.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the Liberals in 1974 over-ruled their leader Jeremy Thorpe from doing another deal with the Tories.

But one hundred years on from that first coalition, Asquith’s successor Nick Clegg must be wondering whether his party is “doomed to repeat history” by not learning from it, as the Italian essayist George Santayana famously put it.

A UK-wide poll yesterday put them in fifth place behind the Tories, Labour, Ukip and the Greens, and only just ahead of the SNP even though it can only appeal to 8 per cent of voters.

Deals with the Tories have historically split and damaged the Liberals, and today seems no different.