Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – Ex-servicemen and the Liberal Party: the Great War generation and the electoral and parliamentary politics of the 1920s

Today’s blog ahead of our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this evening, is from Dr Matthew Johnson. Matthew is Associate Professor (Modern British History) at the University of Durham. He gave his paper at our last PPP seminar on ‘Ex-servicemen and the Liberal Party: the Great War generation and the electoral and parliamentary politics of the 1920s’…

The political and electoral collapse of the Liberal Party in Britain has long fascinated historians. Explanations for the party’s downfall have often focused on the crisis in Liberal ideology supposedly provoked by the demands of waging ‘total war’ after August 1914. The unprecedented militarization of British society during the war – in particular the introduction of military conscription – has been seen as posing a challenge to Liberal values which ultimately wrecked the party. However, what is often missed in this narrative is the extent to which the legacies of this wartime process of militarization were reflected in the Liberal Party itself, and in particular in the Liberal Party in Parliament.

Over the decade which followed the end of the war, more than 100 ex-servicemen who had served in the conflict were elected to Parliament as Liberal MPs, and scores more stood unsuccessfully as Liberal parliamentary candidates. These men included members of all three fighting services, enlisted men and senior military commanders, professional soldiers and those who had been swept up in the vast mobilization of the war years. While a number of historical studies have explored the involvement of the ‘War Generation’ in radical and reactionary right-wing politics, these ex-servicemen represent a dimension to post-1918 Liberal politics that has gone almost entirely unconsidered in the scholarship.

1918 campaign pamphlet for Liberal candidate Richard Reiss

Contrary to conventional assumptions about Liberal antipathy towards war, military service, and the armed forces, Liberal politicians who had served in the Great War regarded their status as ‘soldiers’ to be integral to their political identities and a valuable electoral asset. In electoral contests throughout the 1920s, Liberal candidates identified themselves by their military rank, drew attention to their wartime service, and published photographs of themselves in military uniform. Many directed special appeals for the votes of former members of the armed forces, presenting themselves as custodians of the rights and interests of the men who had served in the war. At the same time, like their opponents on the political right, they also framed their service records as demonstrating an idealised masculinity, which could be offered as evidence of their fitness for political office. By presenting themselves to voters in these ways, Liberal politicians directly challenged attempts by the political right to appropriate patriotism for narrow partisan advantage after the war.

However, such efforts sometimes ran into difficulties. Politicians who had served in ‘safe’ or comfortable military positions during the war – for example as staff officers, rather than in the trenches – or who had expressed reservations about certain aspects of the war effort were sometimes attacked by critics anxious to deny them political credit for a patriotic service record.

At the same time, politicians who had served in the armed forces were forced to confront the unstable and contested ‘meaning’ attributed to the Great War in its aftermath. Throughout the inter-war period, celebrations of the victory of 1918 competed with a narrative of disillusionment and futility, rendering the politics of ‘patriotism’ profoundly problematic. The position of ex-servicemen in post-war society was similarly ambiguous, with former soldiers regarded not only as ‘heroes’ but also as ‘victims’ and even, potentially, as a disruptive social element.

While Liberal politicians who had served in the war were more than happy to invoke their service records when framing appeals to voters, they proved unable to agree on how the political lessons of the war might be related to the challenges of the post-war world. This was evident in Liberal divisions over how to respond to the defining political controversies of the period – including problems of colonial violence, industrial unrest, and the advance of ‘Socialism’. Drawing different lessons from their experiences of military service, more than a third of the Liberal MPs who had fought in the war ultimately abandoned the party, following a bewildering range of different political trajectories. Many ended up in the Labour and Conservative parties, while others flirted with Fascism and Communism.

As the experiences and political careers of these men demonstrate, the problem facing the Liberal Party as it sought to confront the legacies of the Great War was not that Liberal politicians were ideologically incapable of using the language and visual imagery of war and military mobilization; rather it lay in the failure of Liberals to unite around a shared understanding of what the war had ultimately ‘meant’, and to incorporate this understanding into a broader, distinctly ‘Liberal’ vision for Britain’s political future.


Click here for the full Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series schedule at the Institute of Historical research, including information on tonight’s paper.

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