The worst British Government of the 20th Century?
This enabled me both to make any point about classic laissez-faire economics without having to defend Widdecombe or Duncan Smith. On further, more mature reflection, however, I have come to the conclusion that the Liberal Government of 1906-1916 was the most destructive Government ever to exercise office. The reason for this is not to be found in the creation of a state pension policy, nor yet the extensions of powers to Trade Unions. Both these policies, though arguable on ideological grounds, were not disastrous, and may even have been beneficial to society at large.
The area in question was foreign policy. Loath as I am to criticise an alumnus of such a marvellous institution as my alma mater (shared, I believe, with the Pedant-General), the Foreign Secretary Lord Grey was a disaster without parallel. Put simply, the Liberal Government advanced its system of alliances to the extent that full military support for France was more or less guaranteed. The extension of this alliance to Russia arguably made the European confrontation with Germany much more likely.
So the British Government, by its policies, made a major European war more likely. Now it can be argued that the First World War was both unavoidable and, to an extent, necessary, to curtail the aggressive expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. Whan is undeniable, however, is that, at a time when the peacetime German Army measured over 1.5 million men the British Army, while excellently trained, numbered barely a tenth of that number. In addition, the German system of conscription had created a reserve of approximately 5 million, while the British reserves were less than 100,000.
The British Government therefore espoused an aggressive interventionist foreign policy without creating an army suitable to support it. While money was spent on the Navy, policies were enacted that ensured that it would be of limited utility in war with Germany. When war came, the British entanglement proved critical. The action at Mons delayed the German advance sufficiently for the French and British to reverse it at the Marne.
The subsequent military expansion made a swift German victory impossible, putting them on the defensive until the Spring of 1918. It also, however, made a swift conclusion of any kind impossible, making the long drawn out slaughter unavoidable.
If the British had stayed out of the war altogether, France would have been swiftly defeated in 1914. If the British had sent a significant military force in 1914, of a million men say, Germany might have been forced to sue for peace in 1914. By committing a token force that proved enough to delay Germany but not defeat her, the Liberal Government achieved the worst of every world.
This great failing neutralises every success of the Government. Pensions were created - fortunately for the millions of parents whose sons were killed on the Western Front. Labour rights were extended - while the working classes were decimated in Flanders.
It comes as some consolation to think that the Liberal Party never again held office alone after the fall of Asquith.