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Academic Word List: Exercise 45

Read the following text, paying particular attention to the highlighted words.

The 1931 General Election

The 1931 general election gave the Conservatives a huge overall majority in the House of Commons, enabling them to pursue their tariff policy with little hindrance. The announcement of the election itself drew together the various elements in the Conservative party, and validated Baldwin's decision to enter the National Government. From 1931, threats to his leadership disappeared, Moreover, because the Conservatives took with them into the National coalition elements of the Liberal and Labour parties, the party competition of the 1930s became seriously unbalanced, the left being too shattered and divided to offer effective opposition.

The effect of this election on the other parties was disastrous. While it served to reconcile warring elements in the Conservative party, in the other parties it prevented any such reconciliation. In particular it widened the gap between Labour and National Labour, and made it quite impossible for any reunion to take place. For the Liberals, the election meant a breach between the party and its leader, Lloyd George, Indeed, it meant the end of Lloyd George's connection with the Liberal party. He refused to allow the party access to his fund, and partly for this reason the Liberals were forced to accept a drastic reduction in the number of candidatures, from 513 in 1929 to 112 in 1931, The condition of the Liberals was far more serious than that of Labour, for the Liberal party was beginning to lose its sense of identity and purpose (and has still not fully recovered it). Once the party had shown itself, in the 1929-31 Parliament, unwilling to support Lloyd George's programme of national reconciliation, it had no answer to the question: What did the Liberal party stand for? Its only rallying cry remained free trade; and yet it was clear that the 1931 election would result in a protectionist majority. The seeming gains made by the Liberals in the negotiations before the Cabinet agreed to an election - that there should be no joint manifesto, and no pledge to introduce tariffs, merely an impartial inquiry - turned out (as might have been expected) to be worthless. The squabbling in Cabinet over the formula on which the National Government was to fight the election was, in reality, a form of shadow-boxing: for, whatever the formula, it would be interpreted by those who had the power to interpret it, that is, the Conservative and protectionist majority. Lloyd George, himself perfectly willing to countenance departures from free trade in his 1918-22 Coalition, now argued that free trade was best defended through a vote for the Labour Party. The 1931 general election was the last election until that of February 1974 at which the electoral performance of the Liberals was of significance to the two major parties. In agreeing to fight the election as part of the National Government, the Liberal party abdicated from its role as a major participant in the political system.

Because they were losing their sense of identity, the Liberals were split three ways by the 1931 election - into Simonites, Samuelites, and the Lloyd George family group, The first group advocated co-operation, culminating in a merger, with the Conservatives; the second sought to preserve an independent Liberal party; the third sought co-operation with Labour. So also the French Radicals in the Fourth Republic were to splinter in all directions, participating in governments of both left and right. The Liberal party could no more than the Radicals answer the fundamental question of whether, with political liberalism and universal suffrage achieved, there remained a distinctive philosophy of liberalism which could differentiate the Liberals from other political parties.

Between 1929 and the formation of the second National Government after the general election, the Liberal party had been a genuine participant in the political system and the other parties had to consider carefully what its reactions might be. During the course of the 1929-31 government, MacDonald gradually appreciated that the hopes which he had entertained during the 1920s of eliminating the Liberals and winning over the whole of the progressive vote for the Labour party could not be achieved. It was for this reason that he felt compelled to offer the Liberals the alternative vote, an electoral system which would have the effect of entrenching the third party as part of the political system. The events between the formation of the first National Government and the general election, however, turned what had been an incipient three-party system into an unbalanced two-party system in which the Conservatives, reinforced by defectors from the Liberal and Labour parties, the Liberal Nationals, and National Labour party, were the obvious beneficiaries.

It was the general election, then, and not the formation of the first National Government, that was the crucial event in the politics of the 1930s. The King was involved in the decisions precipitating both events. In recent years there has been considerable discussion of the role of the Sovereign in the eventuality of a hung Parliament, such as that of 1929-31, and the general conclusion has been that her role is essentially a passive one. Yet both in the formation of the National Government and in the decision that it would fight the election as a government the King played an important, perhaps a crucial role. That was in fact the private view of Harold Nicolson, although he did not allow it to be expressed in his official biography of George V. In an unpublished section of his diaries, he writes of his interview with Queen Mary on 21 March 1949, "I talked to her about the 1931 crisis and said that I was convinced the King had been a determinant influence on that occasion. 'Yes certainly; he certainly was.' "

It is perhaps futile to ask the question, were the King's actions constitutional? In a country without a codified constitution, it is hardly possible to give a definitive answer. If one asks the further question, were the King's actions wise? one's answer is likely to be all too heavily conditioned by hindsight, by the views one takes of the later politics of the 1930s, of the restoration of a two-party system, and of the decline of the Liberal Party. The historian, perhaps, can do little more than echo Disraeli's pregnant remark in Sybil, Book IV, Chapter I: "when parties are in the present state of equality, the Sovereign is no longer a mere pageant."

(20th Century British History by Vernon Bogdanor)

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