Davies was elected to the House of Commons in the 1929 General Election as a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Montgomeryshire. In 1931, the Liberals divided into three groups and he became one of the Liberal National MPs supporting the National Government. He came under increasing pressure from his local Liberal executive and also his predecessor as MP Lord Davies who was President of Montgomeryshire Liberal Association, to move into opposition. In 1939, he resigned from both the Liberal Nationals and the National Government whip. In 1940, he was chairman of the All Party Action Group that played a significant role in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.
Leader of the Liberal Party
In 1942, he rejoined the Liberal Party, becoming a prominent figure in the Radical Action group, which called for the party to withdraw from the war-time electoral pact and adopt more radical policies. Despite the fact that he had been absent from it for a decade, with lingering suspicions that his commitment to Liberalism was less than full, he became leader of the party in 1945 after Archibald Sinclair surprisingly lost his seat in the electoral debacle of that year that reduced the Liberals to just 12 seats in the House of Commons.
Davies had not sought the position of leader and was not enthusiastic about it. However, with only 12 MPs, 6 of whom were only newly elected that year, the party's choice was somewhat limited. It was widely expected and generally hoped (probably even by Davies himself), that he would be only a 'caretaker' leader until the more dynamic and popular Sinclair could get back into the House of Commons. Since that never happened, Davies was in fact to remain party leader for the next 11 years, taking the Liberals through three general elections.
His first general election as party leader, in 1950, reduced the party to 9 MPs with barely 9% of the vote. In those of 1951 and 1955, the Liberals fell back even further, holding only 6 seats, with 2.5% and 2.7% of the vote respectively (although these vote shares were largely attributed to the huge drop in the number of seats the party fought). He finally resigned as leader at the party conference in September 1956 and was succeeded by the much younger and more vigorous Jo Grimond, following what was effectively a coup by the membership against the executive; both Davies and Grimond appeared to be unaware of the coup until it was over.
Davies therefore led the Liberal Party, which, in the late 19th and early 20th century had been a major force in British politics and a frequent party of government, through its lowest period, when it was reduced to a minor party: the result of the electorate's polarisation between the Labour and the Conservatives. The cliché "A Liberal vote is a wasted vote" argument never held truer than in the 1950s. He was personally well-liked, both in the party and beyond it. The general view of him was that of a personally decent man who did his best in a position to which neither taste nor temperament fitted him.
Davies was an alcoholic for decades, which left him in a weakened state of health, particularly by the time he took on the burden of party leadership. For two of his three general election campaigns as leader, for example, he was hospitalised. Also, despite the general affection in which he was held, his leadership was widely regarded as lacklustre and ineffective, thus contributing to the party's malaise at a time when it was most in need of direction.
In recent years, however, his role has been revised and treated more sympathetically. Historians now point out that with the Cold War tensions of the late 1940s and early 1950s in particular, leading the Liberal Party then would have been a challenge for anybody, and just by keeping the party together and in existence at all, Davies made a significant contribution. It has also emerged that he was offered cabinet office (Education Minister) in 1951 by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in exchange for supporting the new Conservative government but refused on the grounds that it would have destroyed the Liberal Party.
Clement Davies died in 1962, at the age of 78. Though still an MP, he was by then largely detached from the affairs of the Liberal party and acted semi-independently. He was succeeded as Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire by Emlyn Hooson. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1947.
Numerous personal tragedies darkened his life. He lost three of his four children within the space of a few years after the outbreak of the Second World War. His oldest son, David, died in 1939 as a result of natural causes related to epilepsy, and his daughter Mary committed suicide in 1941 (the family always refused to acknowledge that she had deliberately killed herself) and another son, Geraint, was killed on active service in 1942. Each of his children died at the age of 24, except for Davies's fourth son, Stanley, who survived until old age.
- Violet Bonham Carter, ed. Mark Pottle, Daring to Hope: Diaries 1945–1969 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000)
- Alun Wyburn-Powell, Clement Davies: Liberal Leader (Politico's, 2003) ISBN 1-902301-97-8
- Clement Davies 1884–1962 biography from the Liberal Democrat History Group
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Clement Davies
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire
1929 – 1962
|Party political offices|
Sir Archibald Sinclair
|Leader of the British Liberal Party
|President of the Welsh Liberal Federation