Idiosyncratic and individualistic though particular defections and defectors may be, the patterns made by aggregating their personal political paths often illuminate wider political trends. Alun Wyburn-Powell has therefore done other historians a great service by systematically documenting the defections of serving and former MPs to and from the Liberal Party and its successors in the century from 1910.
One example: parties suffering a severe decline in their political fortunes usually see a drip drip of figures switching to other parties. The absence of such a trend for the Liberal Party before 1916 lends weight to those who see its decline as not something that had set in by 1914, caused by long-term factors, but rather something triggered by the First World War and how the party handled it.
In amongst the 116 defectors from the Liberal Party (out of 707 people in total who served as a Liberal or Liberal MPs in the period) are some utterly bizarre individuals, such as Cecil L’Estrange Malone. He went through Liberal, anti-Communist and Communist parties, being so evasive about his previous memberships that his constituency chairman wrote to him saying he, “found it very difficult to form any opinion as to what your political views really were and as to what party you, in fact, belong”. A passing mention is made too of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, never a Liberal MP, but worth mentioning for his unique combination of being expelled from the National Party of Scotland for Communist views and from the Communist Party for Scottish national views.
There is some evidence found for Paddy Ashdowns’s “toffs defect” theory: “If ‘toffs’ are defined as being aristocratic, wealthy, Eton-educated and of high military rank, ‘toffs’ were indeed more likely to have defected”. There is also evidence found for defection often being a career-enhancing move, with defectors more successful at subsequently holding political office or being awarded a peerage than those who stayed loyal.
When it comes to their political impact, I think the book understates the national impact of defections – helping set the national mood, positive or negative, about a party – and overstates the local impact – yes, defections often result in a bump in the constituency vote share at the next election, but it often was not enough to make a seat change parties and was only a transitory bump. It would have been good to have seen a more detailed analysis of this point.
That aside, it is a well-researched book which fills an important gap in the analysis of Britain’s political history.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.