TLIAD: The Quiet Death of Liberal England


A British TLIAD

Oh yes, what's all this then?

It's a TLIAD – a Timeline In A Day – about British politics.

You're one of them are you?

A Politi-Brit? Yes. A Liberal? No.

So its about the old pre-1988 Liberal Party?


And will it actually be finished in a day?

Of course not – I'm too British to defy such a long-standing tradition. Besides which, what kind of tribute to the Liberal Party would it be if I actually kept a promise?

That was supposed to be an anachronistic satirical joke wasn't it?


You're even doing the inner dialogue bit.

Tradition, uncritical acceptance of.

Agent Boot” eh? Sounds like someone's a closet Lavender fan?

Very much so, along with several other works after six long years of forum lurking. The user name is a homage to two of my favourite writers, in addition to being a real world allusion to a British political giant. This short timeline marks my transition from shadow lurker of the AH wilderness to full poster. It started as ideas accumulated from research into the time period for a much larger project, and quickly bloated into a work in its own right.

Get on with it then.


The Member for Berwick rose slowly from his desk, letting out a barely audible sigh. The weight of years fell heavy on the frame of an old, old man. How many still looked up to him? How many invested hope in him? Hope for the future – now apparently so bleak, now entering the complete unknown. And yet it was all falling apart.

Stepping carefully around piles of folders, some decades old, he made his way to the office window. The light of a clear evening only just beginning to fade, he watched the traffic outside. How much the town had changed over the years, since he'd first been elected. How hopeful he'd been back then...

From the corner of his eye he spotted the faint glow of a street light, gradually growing brighter, offsetting the darkness. The lights were coming on.
I was interested, and then I reached the end of your internal monologue. How flattering - thank you for reading Lavender.

I await to see the shape this takes - around here, Liberal-focused TLs can be either overloaded with handwavium or really good. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Tread carefully!

EDIT: I am ninja'd! Your hints suggest Alan Beith has taken a different fork in the road at some point in his career. A lovely inversion of Grey's 'the lights are going out all over Europe', too.
I was interested, and then I reached the end of your internal monologue. How flattering - thank you for reading Lavender.

I await to see the shape this takes - around here, Liberal-focused TLs can be either overloaded with handwavium or really good. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Tread carefully!

EDIT: I am ninja'd! Your hints suggest Alan Beith has taken a different fork in the road at some point in his career. A lovely inversion of Grey's 'the lights are going out all over Europe', too.

I would like to join my co-writer in the warm thanks - so much so that I am taking the time out from my own marathon to write this!

This really is a very kind thing to say, and I am really flattered that we have got a long-time lurker to join. It means a lot, and it

I do look forward to reading more - I do like what I see thus far. Continue!

I was interested, and then I reached the end of your internal monologue. How flattering - thank you for reading Lavender.

I await to see the shape this takes - around here, Liberal-focused TLs can be either overloaded with handwavium or really good. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Tread carefully!

EDIT: I am ninja'd! Your hints suggest Alan Beith has taken a different fork in the road at some point in his career. A lovely inversion of Grey's 'the lights are going out all over Europe', too.

Speaking of members of Berwick, another Liberal MP for that very seat was one Edward Grey, which would also work with the idea of 'the lights coming on' and a Quiet Death instead being the result of no World War One and instead Labour and the Conservatives gradually devour their voting base over time rather than during the midst of a decade-long split in the party.

Or it could also be about the leadership of one Alan Beith wherein the Liberals are the less lucky ones during the Alliance or even having no Alliance itself.
Speaking of members of Berwick, another Liberal MP for that very seat was one Edward Grey, which would also work with the idea of 'the lights coming on' and a Quiet Death instead being the result of no World War One and instead Labour and the Conservatives gradually devour their voting base over time rather than during the midst of a decade-long split in the party.

Or it could also be about the leadership of one Alan Beith wherein the Liberals are the less lucky ones during the Alliance or even having no Alliance itself.

I wondered whether it was Sir Edward, but a quick Wiki told me he never held Berwick - but I defer to you on that. My first instinct was to assume it was Grey, interestingly.

EDIT: And I just reread Wiki and sure enough, Grey was MP there. Damn my eyes (literally)

As the birth date of modern British politics, and in the hindsight of future landslides, it is easy to forget just how close the election of 1979 actually was. The unpopular Labour government of James Callaghan, barely managing to turn around the turbulent economic climate of the 1970s, faced up against the unknown quantity of Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. While Labour's image was tarnished for years to come by the “Winter of Discontent”, Callaghan retained a significant advantage over Thatcher as both the most liked and more “Prime Ministerial” of candidates.

Some in counterfactual circles have speculated as to the results of a snap election held in late 1978 - a date anticipated by many analysts at the time. As it was, Callaghan waited. It was a gamble he lost, albeit barely.

Close results in a number of seats (among them Birmingham Northfield, Belper, Hornchurch and Dudley West) cut into the projected Conservative majority. In the end, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street as Britain's first female Prime Minister with a small majority of 17.

Con 326 (43%), Lab 282 (37%), Lib 11 (14%)
Conservative Majority of 17


Prime Ministers James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.

The biggest losers, proportionately, were the Liberal Party and the Scottish National Party. The Liberals lost a quarter of their vote share, the SNP lost most of their seats.

Labour's return to opposition, like on so many occasions before and since, heralded a bout of party infighting. Callaghan was personally blamed by many activists for the party's defeat, and for what they saw as betrayals of the party's core values.

Eventually Callaghan decided that he had had enough. Pending a change in the party's mechanism for electing its leader, he resigned, offering his protégé Denis Healey as successor.


Healey's election as Labour Party leader surprised no-one. More concerning to those who read the "small print" was the success of his opponent Michael Foot. Foot, identified with the Tribunite “soft left” of the party, came within only ten votes of beating Healey. It was a near miss which bouyed the spirits of the Labour Left, and which effectively guaranteed Foot's re-election as deputy leader.

Meanwhile the Tory party was riven by a similar, if less public, level of infighting. The first two years of the Thatcher government had been driven by a harsh agenda of privatisation and monetarism. It was an economic model which two decades earlier had been advocated only by fringe figures, and which was yet now being applied in full to the UK.

While Britain's role as the monetarist Guinea Pig may have been but a distraction to navel-gazing Labour members, it was enough to profoundly unsettle many of the government's own backbenchers. Much of the old guard had never taken to Thatcher. With unemployment rising and the country's economic problems only worsening, they were rapidly losing what little faith they had. For many, like former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the spectre of the Great Depression was too much to risk. The intervention over three hundred top economists, in the form of a signed letter to the Times, was enough to break the camel's back. With one eye on a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, Thatcher pulled back from the most extreme measures. The rate of privatisation would be slowed. Full blown monetarism could wait until the next parliament, once a solid majority had been won. thread: Could the Social Democratic Party (SDP) have been successful?
TsarGingrich: Looking up obscure UK political parties on the wiki yesterday, came across these guys
"The Social Democratic Party was a minor centre left political party founded in Manchester in 1979 by Donald Kean. The party fielded one candidate in Warrington at the 1979 UK general election, who received only 144 votes and came bottom of the poll"
Could they have had more success? Was there a scope for a "centrist" party in this time period?
NewsAtBenn: Doubtful - sounds like a one man band. A better candidate might be Dick Taverne's "Democratic Labour Party" from earlier in the decade.
PvtPike: Didn't some on the Labour right plot a breakaway centre party in the early 80's? Maybe with established political figures leading it they could have some success?"
NewsAtBenn: There was something like that - people like Shirley Williams, Colin Phipps and David Owen were often mooted as likely "splitters". Problem is, Williams was out of parliament from '79, and Phipps went in '83. Owen was too close to the leadership at this point. There was no way that he was going to abandon his future cabinet minister's car for the political wilderness.


Interesting start. I don't quite see what's happened with the '79 election - the vote shares are identical to OTL yet the numbers of seats for Tories and Labour are different?
Why is "de-nationalisation" (Thatcher herself hated the phrase "privatize") happening so much earlier ITTL? IOTL, it only really went ahead after the NUM had been defeated and the Tories had won a very comfortable third term. I can't see why it'd be attempted at all so early on in a scenario where the Conservative majority is considerably smaller.
I like this. The opening assumption was that the Liberals, being the subject of the TL, would thrive somehow - but look at the title.

Is this a TL exploring the possibility of a true two-party system in mainland UK? Will the SNP be the third party by 2014? A handful of Liberals in the southwest, literally two or three, and that's it?

Seems like a good topic for a TLIAD, but I could be up the wrong tree at this point.
The Prime Minister's presumptuousness aside, the next general election had looked for months like delivering a Labour landslide. Whatever memories people had of the winter of '78-79 were more than dwarfed by what had happened since, combined with the ghost of Ted Heath and the three day week. The economic chaos of monetarism followed by a very public u-turn had seen unemployment exceed three million for the first time since the war. Labour were united – at least on the surface – under Healey and his loyal deputy. Whatever indulgent extremes pursued by idealistic local councils, no-one could pin that on the former Chancellor.

The election of 1983 would have delivered a Labour majority – had it not been for an intervention from Buenos Aires. The invasion, and subsequent recapture of the Falkland Islands was an electoral game-changer. For all the failures and upheavals of her term in office, Thatcher succeeded in wrapping herself in the flag. Healey campaigned valiantly. As a war veteran himself, many felt that Healey better encapsulated the public mood better than the triumphalist Thatcher. Campaigning alongside Foot and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Owen, the Labour leader was generally better received than his Tory counterpart. Only the IMF loan and the indulgences of the GLC remained as thorns in his side, endlessly trumpeted by the Conservative-supporting press.

The result, allowing for some regional shifts, was much a copy of four years earlier. Thatcher returned to Downing Street with the same frustratingly-small majority.

Con 334 (42%), Lab 289 (39%), Lib 6 (13%)

With both main parties gaining seats, the only unequivocal losers of the 1983 election were the Liberal Party. After the false hope of a revival in the early '70s, and the taste of power in the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, it was a crushing return to obscurity and irrelevance. Expected by many to resign, leader David Steel instead signalled his intention to remain as party leader, even as the party was reduced to its Celtic fringes.

Many analysts have speculated as to whether the Liberals could have achieved greater success in the turbulent political atmosphere of the 1980's. While most accept the inevitability of Britain's gradual return to a two-party system (as typical of most countries with First-Past-The-Past elections), some have drawn parallels with the Liberal's success a decade earlier – when the industrial disputes and strife of the 1970's and the seeming inability of either main party to govern effectively led many voters to understandably seek a “third way”.

Yet despite the superficial comparisons, the political climate of the 1980's had a few subtle differences. The rhetoric of “Thatcherism” and of monetarist ideologues was reigned in by tradional Tory pragmatism. Likewise, while the antics of Tony Benn and Ted Knight made for good copy, those individuals were never anywhere near the real levers of power. Between Thatcher's Tories and Healey's Labour Party, voters had all the choice they wanted; and with the result as close as it looked to be, this was really no time for a “wasted vote”.

Thatcher's second term proceeded as a slightly more harmonious replay of the first. The economy was returning to growth – though everyone disputed the reasons why. Likewise inflation and unemployment were at last falling. Companies like British Aerospace, Britoil and British Telecom were privatised. For the most part these were profitable companies sold to raise revenue. No moves were made however, towards a privatisation of larger utilities like British Steel or British Petroleum. British Coal, the heavily-unionised bane of Ted Heath, naturally remained untouchable.

It was after the disappointment of '83 that the undisputed “leader” of the Labour Left, Tony Benn, made his move. Narrowly re-elected in Bristol South East, the 1983 Labour leadership election seemed to Benn's moment. And yet it wasn't to be. While the Left had captured many CLPs, they still lacked the numbers within the PLP. Healey, while never loved in the same vein as Hardie or Atlee, still had the grudging respect of his colleges. The new electoral college (50% PLP, 25% CLP, and 25% affiliates) split for Healey 54-46. To those familiar only with the tabloid caricature of Tony Benn, it could be expected that this would usher in a new era of infighting, of obstructionism, of ritual blood-letting. But Benn was a loyalist first and foremost. Many had forgotten that he served dutifully as a cabinet minister in the 1960s, when Foot was still a troublesome backbencher. Whatever personal differences he held, and despite his left-ward drift, the Movement came first. As Benn would say immediately after “When the electorate speak everyone should tremble before their decision, and that's certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of this contest.”

So it was that Healey continued his rule on the Opposition benches. Many of the older figures from the 1974-79 period had retired from the shadow cabinet – chief among them Michael Foot who retired to spend more time with his books. Replacing Foot as deputy leader was rising star among the soft left Neil Kinnock. Joining Kinnock in the shadow cabinet were other “bright young things” including Robin Cook and John Prescott.

While Labour lacked total unity, Healey's battles with absolutist union leaders only helped his public image. Further his expulsion from the party of the Troskyite “Militant” group removed a latent line of attack. With the old and “modernising” right of the PLP given their leader's full backing, internal party reforms further marginalised and silenced the vocal Left.
Replies to comments...

Firstly, thanks to everyone so far. Its proved surprisingly nerve-wracking to dip a toe in the water after so long. This place can sometimes seem a tough crowd, and its inevitable that there will be someone who knows more about the time period than I do, ready to call up anything that seems unlikely or implausible or out of character. So its reassuring to be encountering positive responses and general interest :)

@Meadow and Lord Roem - see now I'm even more star-struck. Thank you for the kind encouragement.

I'm also very satisfied that my Berwick reference drew all of the hoped for connections. Saying no more on that at this point.

@Thande - '79 is as OTL at the national level, its only a few changes at constituency level (some of which are alluded to in that section) that result in the different seat totals. Seats where the OTL Conservative majority was <2%, or in some cases <0.5%. As in OTL 2010, its these local results which have such a bearing on the national picture.

I'll grant that its slightly "handwavium". OTL 1979 was much closer than 1983 and 1987, at least in seat totals. This was something I only realised when researching another TL idea - shift just a couple of seats into the red column and Maggie's majority quickly melts away from comfortable to narrow.

@Basileus Giorgios - You are correct in that the "big" denationalisations - Steel, Petroleum, Rolls Royce, utilities - didn't happen until later. The denationalisations attempted here mirror the smaller ones from OTL '79-83, of profitable firms like Cable and Wireless. Its only from the perspective of TTL, lacking some of these bigger and more controversial attempts, that the small moves are considered as historically notable.

That a narrower first-term majority is something which would put the brakes on full-blown Thatcherism is something I've tried to incorporate, hopefully with some success.
You know, I don't think we've ever had a 'Labour get back in in 1987' TL before. 1983/4, yes, but never 1987. It looks like we might be headed that way here, and I for one am excited.

Good characterisation of Benn, by the way.
When Thatcher called an election for June 1987 both parties felt confident. The Conservatives, though hated by many, remained untarnished across most of the south and east of England. Labour under Healey looked more like a competent Government in waiting than ever before. Turnout remained high, as voters went to the polls conscious of how close the result was likely to be.

Con 338 (45%), Lab 286 (42%), Lib 3 (10%)
Conservative Majority of 24

It was another small majority, but it was a majority nonetheless, and a third consecutive term for the Prime Minister. In the Conservative Central Office there was exuberance. In Transport House, only disappointment.

Labour had got their highest share of the vote since 1970, and yet the collapse of the Liberals across southern and rural England, combined with an increasing electoral polarisation between north and south, had seen the Tories cling on. Healey would retire a year later in 1988.

Reduced to a bare rump, the Liberal Party contemplated its mere survival. The old Liberal-Tory non-aggression pacts that had ensured the party's survival through the 1950s were a thing of the past. Not even their Celtic heartlands would be enough, as election campaigns grew more presidential, and the presence and influence of individual MPs dwindled. At one point Steel was rumoured to be considering winding the party down – yet fellow MPs Alan Beith and Malcolm Bruce would not hear of it. Likewise a refocussing exclusively on local elections was pitched, but rejected for fear of permanently ceding the national stage. As it stood, the Liberal Party staggered on, a shell of what it had been as little as a decade earlier, looking increasingly like a relic from a lost age. Steel would step down as leader in 1988, to be replaced by long-standing MP Alan Beith.

Alan Beith​

After ten years as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher opted to retire on her own terms. Often hamstrung by small majorities and the obstinance of the “wets”, she drew satisfaction from carrying out at least some of her agenda. Britain had been changed from the country of 1979, if not completely. With older allies sitting out, and younger men still too junior, her hand-picked successor won the near-unanimous support of Conservative MPs thread: Could Labour have won in '87?
RougeBadger: As it says on the tin, based on OTL's results, could Healey have become Prime Minister?
Field: I think you'd need a 1983 POD for this - a narrower result then, combined with a younger leader taking over, and Labour might just come out ahead in the seats.
Jedd_Capes: Its a challenge certainly. By '87 the world economy was leaving the decade-long malaise of the oil shocks. Whether they deserved it or not, the Conservatives were getting the credit for this. Don't forget that Healey was still tarred as the Chancellor of IMF bailouts. The Tories got a lot of mileage from that "You Can't Trust Labour on the Economy" soundbite, something which rung true at the time. The Tory vote share actually increased in a lot of marginal seats.

For a win in '87 you'd need a much cleaner break from the Labour governments of the 1970s. The superficial policy shifts of 80-87 weren't enough.
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@Meadow - I'm almost disappointed now that I'd already decided not to go down that path.

Incidently "The Prime Ministers Who Never Were" (Biteback Publishing, 2011) has a good chapter where Healey becomes PM in '87. It focuses mostly on foreign policy over domestic, but sticks out as one of the better scenarios in that collection.
This Field guy sounds like a highly intellectual character. I wish he had an OTL counterpart.

So the Liberals are on the verge of going gentle into that good night. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. 'twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gire and gimble in the wabe. #poetry

I can't wait for more, this is all very readable and plausible. Interludes on are to be encouraged.

John MacGregor

John MacGregor's ascension to the Conservative leadership would have seemed unlikely just a few years earlier. Yet after fifteen years of Thatcher leadership there were surprisingly few Prime Ministerial candidates waiting in the wings. “Acorns rarely grow under mighty oaks” as one commentator put it. Howe and Lawson had faded in Thatcher's eyes – after a decade of minor Cabinet disagreements she simply no longer trusted them to continue her legacy. Parkinson had fallen to scandal, Tebbit to an IRA bomb.

MacGregor had entered Cabinet in the 1985 reshuffle. For two terms Thatcher had felt obliged to keep certain “wets” in her cabinet. Only in 1987, holding the political capital of three election victories and with one eye to the future, did she feel safe opening up space for those specially groomed to lead. MacGregor was moved from Chief Secretary to the Treasury to Agriculture, and from there to Education, and (following Lawson's resignation in 1988) to the position of Chancellor. If anyone could be trusted to continue the Thatcherite legacy it was him, or so the Iron Lady reasoned.

At first all went well. MacGregor had the fortune of good economic times – the legacy some argued of that early eighties Monetarism. Many Conservatives MPs, having developed bad blood with Thatcher, now felt that here was a man they could work with. Even “wets” who had been argumentative since 1975 were prepared to give the new man a chance. So it was in the wider country. It seemed the sentiment of many that Thatcher had chosen the right moment to go. Conservative voters generally approved of the change; “Thatcherism with a different face” was the message. Against a bruiser like Healey, MacGregor might have struggled – but Healey was gone and in his place was a young Welshman of limited public profile. MacGregor performed well in favourability surveys, and the Tories began to recover in the polls.

And yet it couldn't last. When it became clear that MacGregor would no more listen to them than had “that women”, backbenchers resumed their restless nature. Abortive attempts at rail privatisation led many to suspect that MacGregor was pushing a privatisation agenda for its own sake; that he was pursuing an ideology without reason or justification. Attempts to reform local authority funding saw the government tied up in introspection and legislative wrangling. Finally the outbreak of an agricultural epidemic, limited in duration though it turned out to be, hit much of the governments traditional rural support. The outbreak turned from natural disaster to scandal once it became traced back to lax Department of Agriculture regulation – something which could be pinned directly on the Prime Minister. Spitting Image best captured the impression of a Prime Minister unable or unwilling to act with their re-purposing of a well known fast food advertising jingle; the line “There's an indifference at MacGregor's you'll abhor!” was subsequently used at a number of Parliamentary debates.

Limited by the same small majority, and lacking in Mrs Thatcher's forceful persona, there was little that MacGregor could do to stop the tides of history. thread: WI: David Owen PM?
Redroy: As the title says, could Britain's youngest foreign secretary have made it to the top job?
Unit17: Doubtful... wasn't Owen a serial resigner? What are the odds he gets there then goes in a fit of pique?
TheOverseer: You'd need a POD in the late 70's, early 80's I think. Maybe have Healey step down in '83 or something? By '88 Owen was out of the shadow cabinet and something of a “yesterday's man".
GoldenBrown: Healey sacked him in the '87 reshuffle. Both men were known to be pretty arrogant and aloof – I guess that Owen got fed up of waiting and Healey got fed up of being pressured to name a date for his departure.
Redroy: Maybe if Foot had won in 1980? He retired in '83, so there's Owen's chance to win the leadership as next in line.
Unit17: Foot winning in 1980 is ASB. Coming within ten votes of winning really was the ceiling for a “Left” candidate at the time. Foot was respected as a hard-working Deputy Prime Minister and as a thoughtful and witty orator, but he could never have won the leadership, not in 1976 or in 1980. Further there's noone the left could have run who would've done better.
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