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Reference group
Liberal Nationals (act. 1931–1968) were a parliamentary group who broke away from the mainstream Liberal Party in 1931 and enjoyed a theoretically independent existence until 1968 when they were finally submerged within the ranks of Conservatism. In their early years they were often referred to as Simonites, followers of Sir John Simon, who led the group from its formation until his own elevation to the House of Lords on becoming lord chancellor in May 1940. The Liberal division of 1931 focused on differing attitudes towards Ramsay MacDonald's minority Labour government of 1929–31 and, latterly, participation in the same prime minister's National Government set up in August 1931. The key policy issue that separated the Liberal Nationals from their former Liberal colleagues was their readiness to consider all options, including tariffs, to deal with the severe financial and economic crisis facing the country in the early 1930s. When, therefore, the mainstream Liberals left the National Government in September 1932 over the Ottawa agreements, which set up a system of imperial preference, the Liberal Nationals stayed firmly within its ranks.

Most accounts of the 1930s have relegated the Liberal Nationals to little more than a contemptuous footnote. Largely because of their abandonment of the traditional Liberal commitment to free trade, they are depicted as unprincipled renegades, driven only by a desire to save their parliamentary seats and ready to sell their political souls to the tory devil in order to cling on to the last vestiges of power. For much of the decade it was widely assumed that they would eventually be obliged to return, repentant, to the Liberal fold and that the split of 1931 would, like the earlier division between Asquith and Lloyd George, one day be healed. Indeed, official Liberal Party publications continued until the Second World War to list the principal organizations and institutions of the Liberal National group as if they remained part of the mainstream party.

In fact, by the mid-1930s the Liberal Nationals had established the apparatus and organization of a separate political party, under the chairmanship of Ivor Guest, Viscount Wimborne. By the beginning of 1933, the Liberal National Organization had been set up with headquarters in Old Queen Street, under the direction of Robert Hutchison, first Baron Hutchison of Montrose (1873–1950), the chairman of the Liberal National Council and a former chief whip of the Liberal Party. It was soon agreed to set up area organizations to handle propaganda work both in constituencies already held by Liberal National MPs and in others that were not. The holding of a successful first national convention in June 1936, attended by more than 700 delegates, marked the culmination of a period of intense organizational activity. Meanwhile, in the general elections of 1931 and 1935 Liberal National candidates were returned in more than thirty constituencies. Among those elected were Clement Davies, George Lambert, Geoffrey Shakespeare (who was briefly the Liberal Nationals' chief whip), and William Mabane (1895–1969). In the latter part of the decade, the party received an influx of new adherents from among those Liberals who, in an ever more threatening world, saw the need to support the foreign policy of the National Government.

The motivation of the Liberal Nationals varied and there is no consistent correlation with the earlier loyalties of the Asquith–Lloyd George feud. Some were certainly moved, as their critics charged, by electoral considerations, while others, like Robert Bernays, who defected to the Liberal Nationals in 1936, were influenced by the opportunity for promotion. Most usually, however, the Liberal Nationals represented that right-leaning strand of Liberalism which had come to see socialism as the ultimate political threat and which, anticipating the strategy that would become common among Liberals of a later generation, believed that, under prevailing circumstances, the Liberal creed could only be advanced in partnership with another party. The Liberal Nationals thought of themselves as far more than the lackeys of the Conservatives and mounted a claim to be the authentic voice of a modernized Liberalism, fully capable of making an important and distinctive contribution to British politics.

Simon held high office as a Liberal National throughout the lifetime of the National Government. He was successively foreign secretary (1931–5), home secretary (1935–7), and chancellor of the exchequer (1937–40). At the same time his fellow Liberal National, Walter Runciman, was president of the Board of Trade (1931–7), thus occupying a crucial position in the development of the government's policy on tariffs. Upon leaving office in May 1937, Runciman became president of the Liberal National Council. Other Liberal Nationals who achieved cabinet rank included Ernest Brown (minister of labour, 1935–40), (Edward) Leslie Burgin (1887–1945; minister of transport, 1937–39, and minister of supply, 1939–40) , Godfrey Collins (secretary of state for Scotland, 1932–6), and Leslie Hore-Belisha (minister of transport, 1934–7, and secretary of state for war, 1937–40). Numerically speaking, therefore, the party was well represented in the cabinets of the 1930s, a reflection less of the intrinsic strength of the Liberal National group than of the determination of successive prime ministers—MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain—to maintain the ‘National’ credentials of the government while keeping the right wing of the Conservative Party in check.

Despite the prominent role that he occupied, Simon's leadership was not a source of strength to the Simonite group. His relations with his colleagues were often strained. By late 1934 Runciman regarded Simon as the ‘weakest link in the Govt’ (MacDonald's diary, 4 Dec 1934, TNA: PRO, PRO 30/69/1753/1). Hilda Runciman found it ‘distasteful’ that her husband was associated with an organization of which Simon ‘calls himself leader’ (Hilda Runciman's diary, 24–5 June 1937, U. Newcastle, Runciman papers, WR add. 12). A common complaint was that Simon was insufficiently robust in standing up for his colleagues in the inter-party discussions inside the upper echelons of the government. When Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office in January 1940 he was highly critical of his leader for failing to support him. ‘Peace at any price for John’, judged Henry Morris-Jones (1884–1972), Liberal National MP for Denbigh. ‘His party does not count—except when he wants to make use of it’ (diary, 16 Jan 1940, Flintshire RO, Morris-Jones papers, 21).

Liberal Nationals also served throughout the duration of Churchill's all-party coalition formed in May 1940. Simon became lord chancellor and leadership of the party passed to Ernest Brown, who was successively secretary of state for Scotland (1940–41), minister of health (1941–3), chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (1943–5), and minister of aircraft production in the caretaker government (May–July 1945). The participation of both Liberal Nationals and mainstream Liberals inside the wartime government again muddied the dividing lines between them and it was inevitable that the question of reunion should be considered. But two sets of negotiations in 1943–4 and again in 1946 failed to produce agreement. Questions of policy posed few difficulties, but the Liberal Nationals were adamant that, with the ending of the war, it remained important to maintain an anti-socialist alliance with the Conservatives, whereas the Liberals insisted on preserving their complete independence.

The ending of any semblance of National Government deprived the Liberal Nationals of their primary raison d'être. The years of war had also eroded their organizational infrastructure and the party was reduced to just eleven MPs in the general election of 1945. The collapse of talks on Liberal reunion hastened a rationalization of the Liberal Nationals' relationship with the Conservative Party. Following negotiations between Charles Kerr, Lord Teviot, chairman of the Liberal National organization, and the Conservative Party chairman, Lord Woolton, agreement was reached in April 1947. Under the terms of the Woolton–Teviot agreement it was arranged that, in constituencies where each party had an existing organization, a combined association would be formed under a mutually agreed title. In constituencies where only one of the parties had an organization that body would consider enlarging its membership to include all who supported joint action against socialism.

‘There is no question of either side relinquishing its identity’, insisted Woolton (The Times, 12 May 1947). The reality, however, was rather different. In the majority of constituencies the Liberal Nationals (renamed National Liberals in 1948) were soon overwhelmed by their more powerful allies. As the first generation of Simonites left the political stage the National Liberals failed to renew themselves in terms of membership and organization. The hybrid titles under which joint candidates stood at successive general elections were little more than a historical curiosity. In a minority of constituencies, however, the National Liberal presence remained significant, with local tories believing that their electoral appeal could be enhanced, particularly in marginal seats, by continuing to stress the National Liberal connection. Individual National Liberals remained prominent in the Conservative governments of the 1950s, with Jack Maclay and Charles Hill reaching cabinet rank. Some well-known Conservatives, including Michael Heseltine (b. 1933), Ian Gilmour (b. 1926), and John Nott (b. 1932), found themselves standing under Conservative and National Liberal colours as they sought election to the House of Commons. Finally, however, following the general election of 1966, steps were taken to assimilate the remnants of the National Liberal Party within Conservatism. The National Liberal Council was wound up in May 1968.

D. J. Dutton


N. Cott, ‘Tory cuckoos in the Liberal nest? The case of the Liberal Nationals, a re-evaluation’, Journal of Liberal Democrat History, 25 (1999–2000), 24–30 · D. Dutton, Simon: a political biography of Sir John Simon (1992) · D. Dutton, Liberals in schism: a history of the National Liberal Party (2008) · D. Dutton, ‘John Simon and the post-war National Liberal Party: an historical postscript’, HJ, 32/2 (1989), 357–67 · D. Dutton, ‘1932: a neglected date in the history of the decline of the Liberal party’, Twentieth Century British History, 14/1 (2003), 43–60 · G. Goodlad, ‘The Liberal Nationals, 1931–1940: the problems of a party in “partnership government”’, HJ, 38/1 (1995), 133–43 · I. Hunter, ‘The final quest for Liberal reunion’, Journal of Liberal Democrat History, 32 (2001), 12–16 · Bodl. Oxf., Simon papers · U. Newcastle, Runciman papers · Flintshire RO, Morris-Jones papers