National Liberal Party (UK, 1922)
Lloyd George had replaced the Liberal Party leader Herbert Henry Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916, at the head of a coalition ministry most of whose Parliamentary members were Conservatives. Asquith and many of his leading colleagues went into opposition, but at first it was not clear that the division in the Liberal Party would result in a formal party split.
Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law decided to continue the coalition after the end of the First World War. The two leaders agreed to issue a letter to a single government supporter in most constituencies for the 1918 general election, which thus became known as the 'coupon election'. Not all loyal MPs got the coupon and some who were offered it rejected the support, but this marked a formal division between Coalition Liberal supporters of Lloyd George and those Liberals loyal to Asquith and the official party.
After the coalition won the general election and the non-coalition wing of the party had suffered catastrophic defeat, the split in the Liberal Party became deeper. Of the 36 Liberal MPs elected without the coupon, nine supported the coalition. The others held a meeting and declared themselves to be the Liberal Parliamentary Party. During the course of the Parliament, the split spread through highest and lowest levels of the party organisation. At a meeting of the National Liberal Federation in May 1920, coalition ministers were shouted down, and the division became even more obvious.
Eventually, despairing of capturing the official Liberal Party, tainted with apostacy and awkward hypocrisy but adamant on the need to compromises to solve major social, micro- and macro-economic problems, the Prime Minister decided to set up his own party. A meeting was held in London on 18 and 19 January 1922. Its own National Liberal Council was formed. The division was complete, with members rapidly deciding with which arm of the party to side.
Upon the Conservatives withdrawing from the Coalition, Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister on 19 October 1922. The general election that followed was disastrous for both Liberal parties. Only 62 Liberals and 53 National Liberals were elected.
With the end of the coalition, the National Liberals had lost their reason for existing as a separate party. However, the bitterness caused by years of internal struggles made immediate Liberal reunion impossible and two parties retained their separate party organisations.
The political landscape was changed once more when the new Prime Minister and Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin decided to call a general election to seek a mandate to abandon free trade and introduce tariffs. Despite the deep hostility between the leaders of the Liberal and National Liberal parties, the call for a defence of Free Trade once more enabled all of them to unite around their most distinctive policy.
On 13 November 1923, the leaders of the two Liberal parties declared that "all candidates will be adopted and described as Liberals, and will be supported by the whole strength of the Party without regard to any past differences". This declaration marked the end of the National Liberal party - along with the stopping of its journal, the Lloyd George Liberal Magazine, in the same month. However, the money that the Coalition Liberal/National Liberals had accumulated from the sale of honours and other donations to finance the party were retained by Lloyd George as a separate political fund. This would remain a source of constant friction in the reunited Liberal party and would later lead to further divisions in the 1930s.
In the 1923 election about half the former National Liberals lost their seats - or failed to get re-elected. They included Winston Churchill, who had lost his Dundee seat in the 1922 general election, failed to be re-elected as a Liberal for Leicester in 1923 and who would return to the Commons as a "Constitutionalist" at the 1924 general election . He rejoined the Conservative party the following year. Others, like former cabinet minister Christopher Addison, had already joined the Labour Party, whilst many former leading members of the National Liberals, including Frederick Edward Guest and Alfred Mond, would eventually join Churchill and move over to the Conservative Party by the end of the 1920s.
- The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970, by Roy Douglas (Sidgwick & Jackson 1971)
- A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900-92, by Chris Cook (Macmillan Press 1993)