Clement Davies – The Forgotten Leader

(Mary Evans Picture Library)

Clement Davies, who led the Liberal Party between 1945 and 1956 doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. A Welsh barrister first elected to parliament in 1929, Davies aligned himself with the Liberal National MPs in 1931 who supported Ramsey MacDonald’s new coalition government. He then returned to the orthodox Liberal fold in 1942 and in 1945 following Labour’s landslide victory, he found himself as a member of a parliamentary party of just twelve with nine seats lost including the Caithness constituency of Sir Archilbald Sinclair – party leader since 1935.

At the time, it was thought Sinclair might soon return to the Commons because his Conservative opponent had promised only to serve until the war with Japan was concluded. In the event however, this promise was not kept. In these circumstances, Davies was elected Chairman of the Liberal parliamentary party, effectively making him the leader – a role he ended up performing for the next three General Elections. 

The party he was asked to lead was in a parlous state: short of money, with many local associations moribund and dwarfed by the two main parties that dominated the 1940s political scene. Only 306 seats were contested in 1945 with many losing their deposits. The years ahead were even worse and by 1951, there were only six Liberal MPs, five of whom were elected without a Conservative opponent. Donald Wade in Huddersfield and Arthur Holt in Bolton were returned as a result of a pact to keep Labour out in their respective towns. 

That same year brought the Conservatives back to power with a majority of seventeen. This ended six years years of Labour government, despite Labour polling more votes nationally. Returning to Downing Street, Winston Churchill, himself a former Liberal, invited Davies to join his new government as Minister for Education with two more junior posts going to Liberal MPs.

After discussing the offer with colleagues Davies declined, arguably saving his party from extinction. Acceptance would almost certainly have led to absorption into the Conservative Party, something Churchill favoured in the face of a strong socialist opponent in Labour. 

As Leader, Davies led a party often pulled in different directions. On the left sat Megan Lloyd George daughter of the former PM and on the right Violet Bonham Carter daughter of LG’s predecessor Asquith. They disagreed on even the most trivial of issues including a debate about what colours the party should use in a byelection where Megan made clear her determined opposition to using the colour violet. The 1955 General Election brought no improvement to the party’s fortunates and in 1956, Davies was replaced by a youthful Jo Grimond. 

It is Grimond who is credited with reviving Liberal fortunes, but the process had already started under his predecessor. In the 1954 Inverness by-election, the party polled 36% in a seat that they hadn’t contested at the previous election coming within 1,331 votes of winning. 

On retiring as leader Davies continued to serve as MP for his Montgomeryshire constituency until his death in 1962. By then, the worst days were behind the party. A party that he led during its darkest days, in many ways he is a forgotten leader but I believe he deserves recognition as the man who saved Britain’s Liberals.

David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats