Forgotten Liberal heroes: Charles Masterman

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market, especially since Bob Maclennan stopped making speeches to party conference. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series, I highlight some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.

Charles MastermanThe role of the Liberal government, and David Lloyd George in particular, in bringing in some of the major pillars of the welfare state in the early twentieth century is well-established in the collective memory of the Liberal Democrats. It was the 1911 National Insurance Act which introduced national health insurance and unemployment benefit, in the teeth of opposition from the likes of the Daily Mail who said at the time that the insurance payments from workers would be an “unpopular tax” with “helpless victims”.

Forgotten though is the man who did the hard work of actually getting Part 1 of the legislation (the health insurance section) through the House of Commons and who was often talked about as a future party leader: Charles Masterman.

Born in 1873, Masterman was the great nephew of Elizabeth Fry (of £5 bank note fame for her work in making the prison system humane). Though very much an establishment figure by family and upbringing – he went to Cambridge, his brother became Bishop of Plymouth – he had the sort of breadth of experiences and interests that very few politicians now have.

Despite his Tory family background, his political views quickly became liberal, with early writings of his experience living in London slums and attacking imperialism. During the First World War he was central to the country’s propaganda work, heading up the War Propaganda Bureau, and working with leading literary figures of the time, including Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and pioneering science fiction writer HG Wells.

But before then his political star had both risen and fallen. After a failed by-election campaign in 1903, this Christian Socialist and New Liberal became an MP in 1906 and three years later published The Condition of England, a study of the state of society. He was briefly out of Parliament in 1910-11, having had his elected in the December 1910 election ruled void but returning in another by-election. In the subsequent years, he was Lloyd George’s secret go-between in dealings with Labour MPs. In 1914 he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Cabinet, necessitating yet another by-election (as was the rule for MPs appointed to such posts at the time). He lost his seat, tried again in another by-election, lost again and had to give up his ministerial career.

The reason for these by-election failures? The political opprobrium heaped on him for steering that 1911 legislation through. Writing later, Lord Beaverbook labelled him a “Splendid Failure” in a feature piece because he repeatedly lost elections, was unable to become a Cabinet minister and had a short political career. Yet he left behind achievements greater than that secured by many MPs who serve for decades.

He was briefly an MP after the war (1923-4) and died in 1927.

There are only two full-lengthy book biographies of him, one by his wife and both at eye-watering prices: Charles Masterman by Eric Hopkins (but see this very critical review) and CFG Masterman by Lucy Masterman.

Thanks to Jonathan Calder for suggesting the inclusion of Charles Masterman in this series.

For the other posts in this series see my Forgotten Liberal Heroes page.

3 responses to “Forgotten Liberal heroes: Charles Masterman”

  1. I live in what was Masterman’s constituency (West Ham North; now part of West Ham) and I do sometimes the 1910 election as an example to candidates and activists as an example of what can happen if you break the rules.

    His brief return to Parliament came when he ended the political career of John Thorpe, father of Jeremy.

  2. (hopefully Constructive). Do any of these books reside in the remnants of the Library at NCL does anyone know? I am assuming that the only access more widely is through the inter-County borrowing scheme nowaday – expensive. In other words, these occasional pieces are always welcome, informative and even encouraging. However also frustrating when it is not easily clear how /where follow-up reading can be done in the absence by a measure of over one hundred miles to a decent academic reference library. (I reside in West Cornwall!). Thank you for these items and your time and attention. Graham Ford.

  3. CS Masterman’s brief return to Parliament was actually in this constituency then named as Manchester Rusholme now largely M/cr. Gorton. In 1985 when I was selected to be our Local Government Candidate in Levenshulme Ward, a previous Cllr, (who had lost his seat in 1949) C.R de la Wyche and his wife who had both supported me added to my concerns that the last person chosen by the membership in that particular room in Slade Lane for our party when they were young had been C.S. Masterman – and he had been elected as Liberal MP for the Rusholme Division. His selection for the soon after election in which he lost was a formality for the party executive not the membership. Adoptions for both elections were held in larger rooms elsewhere. I served over 25 years before ‘Cleggism’ did me in.

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