The Liberal Party was one of the two major British political parties from the early 19th century until the 1920s, and a third party of varying strength and importance up to 1988, when it merged with the Social Democratic Party to form a new party which would become known as the Liberal Democrats.
(Some members of the Liberal Party disagreed with the merger, and formed the current Liberal Party, a minor party which claims to be a continuation of the old Liberal Party.)
The Liberal Party grew out of the Whig Party, which had its origins as an aristocratic faction in the reign of Charles II. The Whigs were in favour of reducing the power of the Crown and increasing the power of the Parliament, and although their motives in this were originally to gain more power for themselves, the more idealistic Whigs gradually came to support an expansion of democracy for its own sake. The great figures of reforming Whiggery were Charles James Fox (died 1806) and his disciple and successor Earl Grey. After decades in opposition the Whigs came to power under Grey in 1830, and carried the First Reform Act in 1832.
The Reform Act was the climax of Whiggery, but also brought about the Whigs' demise. The admission of the middle classes to the franchise and to the House of Commons led eventually to the development of a systematic middle class liberalism and the end of Whiggery, although for many years reforming aristocrats held senior positions in the party. In the years after Grey's retirement the party was led first by Lord Melbourne, a fairly traditional Whig, and then by Lord John Russell, the son of a Duke but a crusading radical, and Lord Palmerston, a renegade Irish Tory and essentially a conservative, although capable of radical gestures.
As early as 1839 Russell had adopted the name Liberal Party, but in reality the party was a loose coalition of Whigs in the House of Lords and Radicals in the Commons. The leading Radicals were John Bright and Richard Cobden, who represented the manufacturing towns which had gained representation under the Reform Act. They favoured social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England (many of them were Nonconformists), avoidance of war and foreign alliances (which were bad for business), and above all free trade. For a century free trade was the one cause which could unite all Liberals.
In 1841 the Liberals lost office to the Conservatives under Sir Robert Peel, but their period in opposition was short, because the Conservatives split over the repeal of the Corn Laws, a free trade issue, and a faction known as the Peelites (but not Peel himself, who died soon after), defected to the Liberal side. This allowed ministries led by Russell, Palmerston and the Peelite Lord Aberdeen to hold office for most of the 1850s and 1860s. The leading Peelite was William Ewart Gladstone, who was a zealous reforming Chancellor of the Exchequer in most of these governments. The formal foundation of the Liberal party is traditionally traced to 1859 and the formation of Palmerston's second government.
The Whig-Radical amalgam could not become a true modern political party, however, while it was dominated by aristocrats, and it was not until the departure of the "Two Terrible Old Men," Russell and Palmerston, that Gladstone could become the first leader of the modern Liberal Party. This was brought about by Palmerston's death in 1865 and Russell's retirement in 1868. After a brief Conservative interlude (during which the Second Reform Act was passed by agreement between the parties), Gladstone won a huge victory at the 1868 election and formed the first Liberal government. The establishment of the party as a national membership organisation came with the foundation of the National Liberal Federation in 1877.
The Gladstonian era
For the next thirty years Gladstone and Liberalism were synonymous. The "Grand Old Man," as he became known, was Prime Minister four times and the powerful flow of his rhetoric dominated British politics even when he was out of office. His rivalry with the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli became legendary. Gladstone was a High Church Anglican and enjoyed the company of aristocrats, but he grew more and more radical as he grew older: he was, as one wit put it, "a Tory in all but essentials." Queen Victoria, who had grown up as a Whig under the tutelage of Melbourne, became a Tory in reaction against Gladstone's moralising Liberalism.
Gladstone's great achievements in office were his reforms to education, land reform (particularly in Ireland, where he ended centuries of landlord oppression), the disestablishment of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland, the introduction of democratic local government, the abolition of patronage in the civil service and the army, and the Third Reform Act which greatly extended democracy by giving the vote to almost all adult males. In foreign policy Gladstone was an anti-imperialist and an avoider of foreign entanglenments, but even he found it hard to resist the imperialist ideology of Victorian Britain.
In 1874 Gladstone was defeated by the Tories under Disraeli, mainly because of a sharp recession. He formally resigned as Liberal leader and was succeeded by the Marquess of Hartington, but he soon changed his mind and returned to active politics. He was appalled by Disraeli's pro-Ottoman foreign policy and during 1880 he conducted the first modern outdoor mass election campaign in Britain, known as the Midlothian campaign. In 1880 the Liberals won a huge election victory, and Hartington had no choice but to stand aside and allow Gladstone to resume office.
Among the consequences of the Third Reform Act was giving the vote to the Catholic peasant masses of Ireland, and the consequent creation of an Irish Nationalist Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1885 this party won the balance of power in the House of Commons, and demanded Irish Home Rule (that is, the status of a self-governing Dominion for Ireland) as the price of support for a continued Gladstone ministry. Gladstone personally supported Home Rule, but a strong Liberal Unionist faction led by Joseph Chamberlain and the last of the Whig grandees, Hartington, bitterly opposed it.
The result was a catastrophic split in the Liberal Party, and heavy defeat in the 1886 election at the hands of Lord Salisbury. There was a final weak Gladstone ministry in 1892, but it also was dependent on Irish support and broke up on the rocks of Irish Home Rule. Gladstone finally retired in 1894, and his ineffectual successor, Lord Rosebery, led the party to another heavy defeat in 1895. Gladstone had dominated the Liberal Party for so long that it was lost without him.
The Liberal Zenith
The Liberals languished in opposition for a decade, while the coalition of Salisbury and Chamberlain held power and presided over the high noon of British imperialism. In 1900, led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman, they bravely opposed British policy in the Boer War, handing Salisbury a huge victory in the "Khaki election." But with Salisbury's retirement in 1902 the Conservatives went into decline, and then split over the issue of free trade. In 1906 Campbell-Bannerman, rallying the party on a platform of free trade and land reform, led the Liberals to the greatest election victory in their history (this was the last time the Liberals won a majority in their own right).
Campbell-Bannerman's ministry was one of the most brilliant in British history, although he himself was regarded as decent but rather dull. He was overshadowed by Herbert Henry Asquith at the Exchequer, Edward Grey at the Foreign Office, Richard Burdon Haldane at the War Office and David Lloyd George at the Board of Trade. In 1908 Campbell-Bannerman retired due to failing health and he was succeeded by Asquith, who stepped up the government's radicalism. Lloyd George succeeded Asquith at the Exchequer, and was in turn succeeded at the Board of Trade by Winston Churchill, a recent defector from the Conservatives. Between them they provided much of the government's drive.
The Liberals pushed through numerous pioneering social reforms, such as regulation of working hours, national insurance and welfare, as well as the reform of the House of Lords. This latter issue led to a titanic struggle with the Lords, including two general elections in 1910, at which the Liberals retained power but lost their overall majority, being left once again dependent on the Irish Nationalists.
As a result Asquith was forced to introduce a new Home Rule bill in 1912. Since the House of Lords no longer had the power to block the bill, the Unionists, led by Sir Edward Carson, launched a campaign of opposition that included the threat of armed resistance in Ulster, and by 1914 threatened to lead to a mutiny by army officers in Ireland (see Ulster crisis ). In their threats of violent resistance to Home Rule the Ulster Protestants had the full support of the Conservatives, now led by an Ulsterman, Andrew Bonar Law. The country seemed to be on the brink of civil war when World War I broke out in August 1914.
The war struck at the heart of everything British Liberals believed in. Several Cabinet ministers resigned, and Asquith, the master of domestic politics, proved a poor war leader. Lloyd George and Churchill, however, were zealous supporters of the war, and gradually forced the old pacifist Liberals out. The poor British performance in the early months of the war forced Asquith to invite the Conservatives into a coalition (on May 17, 1915). This marked the end of the last all-Liberal government. This coalition fell apart at the end of 1916, when the Conservatives refused to support Asquith any longer and gave their support instead to Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister at the head of a coalition government largely made up of Conservatives. Asquith and his followers moved to the opposition benches in Parliament and the Liberal Party was once again split.
In 1918 Lloyd George, "the Man who Won the War," led his coalition into another Khaki election, and won a sweeping victory over the Asquithian Liberals and the newly-emerging Labour Party. Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law wrote a joint letter of support to candidates to indicate they were considered the official Coalition candidates - this "coupon" as it became known was issued against many sitting Liberal MPs, often to devastating effect, though not against Asquith himself. Asquith and most of his colleagues lost their seats. Lloyd George still claimed to be leading a Liberal government, but he was increasingly a prisoner of the Conservatives. In 1922 the Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the continuation of the coalition in general, citing in particular the Chanak Crisis over Turkey and Lloyd George's corrupt sale of honours amongst other grievances, and Lloyd George was forced to resign. The Conservatives came back to power under Bonar Law and then Stanley Baldwin.
At the 1922 and 1923 elections the Liberals won barely a third of the vote and a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons as many radical voters abandoned the divided Liberals and went over to Labour. In 1922 Labour became the official opposition. A reunion of the two warring factions took place in 1923 when the new Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin committed his party to protective tariffs, causing the Liberals to reunite in support of free trade. The party gained ground in the 1923 general election but ominously made most of its gains from Conservatives whilst losing ground to Labour - a sign of the party's direction for many years to come. The party remained the third largest in the House of Commons but the Conservatives had lost their majority. There was much speculation and fear about the prospect of a Labour government, but comparitively little about a Liberal government, even though it could have plausibly presented an experienced team of ministers compared to Labour's almost complete lack of experience as well as offering a middle ground that could get support from both Conservatives and Labour in crucial Commons divisions. But instead of trying to force the opportunity to form a Liberal government, Asquith decided instead to allow Labour the chance of office in the belief that they would prove incompetent and this would set the stage for a revival of Liberal fortunes at Labour's expenses. It was a fatal error.
Labour was determined to destroy the Liberals and become the sole party of the left. When Ramsay MacDonald was forced into a snap election in 1924, and although his government was defeated, he achieved his objective of virtually wiping the Liberals out as many more radical voters now moved to Labour whilst voters concerned about socialism moved to the Conservatives. The Liberals were reduced to a mere forty seats in Parliament, only seven of which had been won against candidates from both parties and none of these formed a coherent area of Liberal survival. The party seemed finished and during this period some Liberals, such as Churchill, went over to the Conservatives, while others went over to Labour. (Several Labour ministers of later generations, such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, were the sons of Liberal MPs).
Asquith died in 1926 and the enigmatic figure of Lloyd George returned to the leadership and began a drive to produce coherent policies on many key issues of the day. In the 1929 general election he made a final bid to return the Liberals to the political mainstream, with an ambitious programme of state stimulation of the economy called We Can Conquer Unemployment!, largely written for him by the Liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. The Liberals gained ground, but once again it was at the Conservatives' expense whilst also losing seats to Labour. Indeed the urban areas of the country suffering heavily from unemployment, which might have been expected to respond the most to the radical economic policies of the Liberals instead gave the party its worst results. By contrast most of the party's seats were won either due to the absence of a candidate from one of the other parties or in rural areas on the "Celtic fringe ", where local evidence suggests that economic ideas were at best peripheral to the electorate's concerns. The Liberals now found themselves with 59 members holding the balance of power in a Parliament where Labour was the largest party but lacked an overall majority. Lloyd George offered a degree of support to the Labour government in the hope of winning concessions, including a degree of electoral reform to introduce the alternative vote, but this support was to prove bitterly divisive as the Liberals increasingly divided between those seeking to gain what Liberal goals they could achieve, those who preferred a Conservative government to a Labour one and vice-versa.
In 1931 MacDonald's government fell apart under the impact of the Great Depression, and the Liberals agreed to join his National Government, which was dominated by the Conservatives. Lloyd George however was ill and did not join himself. Soon, however, the Liberals faced another divisive crisis when it was proposed to fight the 1931 general election as a National Government and seek a mandate for tariffs. From outside the government Lloyd George called for the party to abandon the government completely in defence of free trade, but only a few MPs and candidates followed him, most of them related to him. Another group under Sir John Simon emerged who were prepared to continue their support for the government and take the Liberal places in the Cabinet if there were resignations. The third group under Sir Herbert Samuel pressed for the parties in government to fight the election on separate platforms. In doing so the bulk of Liberals remained supporting the government, but two distinct Liberal groups had emerged within this bulk - the National Liberals led by Simon, also known as "Simonites", and the "Samuelites" or "official Liberals" led by Samuel who remained as the official party. Both groups secured about 35 MPs but proceeded to diverge even further after the election, with the National Liberals remaining supporters of the government throughout its life. There were to be a succession of discussions about them rejoining the Liberals but these usually founded on the issues of free trade and continued support for the National Government and came to little (though in 1946 the Liberal and National Liberal party organisations in London did merge).
The official Liberals found themselves a tiny minority within a government committed to protectionism. Slowly they found this issue to be one they could not support in any way. In early 1932 it was agreed to suspend the principle of collective responsibility to allow the Liberals to oppose the introduction of tariffs. Later in 1932 the Liberals resigned their ministerial posts over the introduction of the Ottawa Agreement on Imperial Preference . However they remained sitting on the government benches supporting it in Parliament, though in the country local Liberal activists bitterly opposed the government. Finally in late 1933 the Liberals crossed the floor of the House of Commons and went into complete opposition. By this point their number of MPs was severely depleted. In the 1935 general election, just 17 Liberal MPs were elected, along with Lloyd George and three followers as "independent Liberals". Immediately after the election the two groups reunited, though Lloyd George declined to play much of a formal role in his old party. However over the next ten years there would be further defections as MPs deserted to either the National Liberals or Labour. There were however a few recruits, such as Clement Davies, who had deserted to the National Liberals in 1931 but now returned to the party during the Second World War and who would lead it after the war.
Samuel had lost his seat in the 1935 election and the leadership of the party fell to Sir Archibald Sinclair. With many traditional domestic Liberal policies now regarded as irrelevant, he focused the part on opposition to both the rise of Fascism in Europe and the appeasement foreign policy of the British government, arguing that intervention was needed, in contrast to the Labour calls for pacifism. Despite the party's weaknesses, Sinclair gained a high profile as he sought to recall the Midlothian Campaign and once more revitalise the Liberals as the party of a strong foreign policy.
In 1940 they joined Churchill's wartime coalition government, with Sinclair serving as Secretary of State for Air, the last British Liberal to hold Cabinet rank office. However it was a sign of the party's lack of importance that they were not included in the War Cabinet. At the 1945 general election, however, Sinclair and many of his colleagues lost their seats to both Conservatives and Labour. By 1951 there were only six MPs, all but one of them were aided by the Conservatives not putting up a candidate. In 1957 this total fell to five when one of their MPs died and the subsequent by-election was lost to the Labour Party, who fielded the former Liberal Deputy Leader Lady Megan Lloyd George as their candidate. The Liberal Party seemed close to extinction. During this low period, it was often joked that Liberal MP's could hold meetings in the back of one taxi.
Through the 1950s and into the 1960s the Liberals survived only because a handful of constituencies in rural Scotland and Wales clung to their Liberal traditions, whilst in two English cities, Bolton and Huddersfield local Liberals and Conservatives agreed to each contest only one of the city's two seats. Jo Grimond, for example, who became Liberal leader in 1956, was MP for the remote Orkney and Shetland islands. Under his leadership a Liberal revival began, marked by the famous Orpington by-election of 1962, in which the Liberals won a seat in the London suburbs for the first time since 1935. The Liberals became the first of the major British political parties to advocate British membership of the European Economic Community. Grimond also sought an intellectual revival of the party, seeking to position it as a non-socialist radical alternative to the Conservative government of the day. In particular he appealed to the new university students and graduates in the post-war world, appealing to younger voters in a way that many of his recent predecessors had failed to do so, asserting a new strand of Liberalism for the post war world.
The postwar middle class suburban generation began to find the Liberals' policies attractive again, and under Grimond and his successor, Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberals regained the status of a serious third force in British politics, polling up to 20% of the vote but unable to break the duopoly of Labour and Conservative and win more than fourteen seats in the Commons. An additional problem was competition in the Liberal heartlands in Scotland and Wales from the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru who both grew as electoral forces from the 1960s onwards.
In the February 1974 general election the Conservative government of Edward Heath lost its overall majority. The Liberals now held the balance of power in the Commons. Heath offered Thorpe the Home Office if he would join a coalition government with Heath. Thorpe was personally in favour, but the party insisted on a clear government commitment to introducing proportional representation and a change of Prime Minister. The former was unacceptable to Heath's Cabinet and the latter to Heath personally and so the talks collapsed. Instead a minority Labour government was formed under Harold Wilson but with no formal support from Thorpe. In the October 1974 general election the Liberals slipped back slightly and the Labour government won a very slender majority. Thorpe was subsequently forced to resign in a sordid sex scandal. The party's new leader, David Steel negotiated the Lib-Lab pact with the new Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, whereby the Liberals would support the government in crucial votes in exchange for some influence over policy. This pact lasted from 1977-1978 but proved relatively fruitless as the Liberals' key demand of proportional representation was anathema to most Labour MPs whilst the contacts between Liberal spokespersons and Labour ministers often proved detrimental, such as between finance spokesperson John Pardoe and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey who did not get on at all.
When the Labour government fell in 1979, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which pushed the Liberals back into the margins. In 1981 defectors from the moderate wing of the Labour Party, led by former Cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams, founded the Social Democratic Party. The two parties fought the 1983 and 1987 general elections jointly as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. During 1982 and 1983, at the depths of Labour's fortunes under Michael Foot, there was much talk of the Alliance becoming the dominant party of the left and even of Jenkins becoming Prime Minister. In fact, while the Alliance won over 20% of the vote each time, it never made the hoped-for breakthrough in terms of parliamentary seats.
In 1988 the two parties merged to create (after a number of name changes) the Liberal Democrats. Over two-thirds of the members, and all the serving MPs, of the Liberal Party joined this party, led first by Steel and later by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. With the fading away of the ex-Labour element after 1992, this party is seen by many continuation of the old Liberal Party under a new name, and some of its MPs and many of its rank-and-file continue to refer to themselves simply as Liberals. However others argue that the Liberal Democrats do not always follow traditional Liberal policies, whilst in terms of personalities they argue that both Paddy Ashdown (who was closer to the SDP than the Liberals on several matters) and Charles Kennedy (who was an SDP not a Liberal MP) are not old-style Liberals. Although the Liberal Democrats retain both the ethos and policies of the old Liberals in local and regional government and continue to be seen as centrists, in Parliament they are seen as to the left of the Labour Party. This is primarily due to Labour's move to the right under Tony Blair, but is also the result of the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy more strongly supporting the public sector against privatisation, and maintaining traditional Liberal opposition to militarism in the face of Labour and Conservative support for the War in Iraq.
The post 1988 Liberal Party
A group of Liberal opponents of the merger, including Michael Meadowcroft formerly Liberal MP for Leads South West and Dr Paul Wiggin who served on Peterborough City Council as a Liberal, continued under the old name of "the Liberal Party"; this was legally a new organisation (the headquarters, records, assets and debts of the old party were inherited by the Liberal Democrats), but its constitution asserts it to be the same party as that which had previously existed. It has a handful of local councillors, though its annual assembly scarcely attracts more than a hundred members, and it has never been a serious contender to win seats in the House of Commons.
Liberal leaders 1859-1988
Liberal Leaders in the House of Lords, 1859-1916
Liberal Leaders in the House of Commons, 1859-1916
Leaders of the Liberal Party, 1916-1988
Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-2001 (6th edition). Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. ISBN 0-333-91838-X