Liberal Party (UK)

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In British politics, the Liberal Party evolved from the Whig Party in the years following the Representation of the People Act 1832 (the "Great Reform Act"). It became a major party which formed several governments from the 1840s to the First World War. It lost much of its support to the emerging Labour Party in the 1920s and became a minority group in Parliament. In 1988, the Liberals merged with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to form a new party which became the Liberal Democrats.


1832 to 1886

One result of Reform's wider enfranchisement was an increase in the number of middle-class Whig members taking seats in the House of Commons. These newcomers tended to be businessmen who favoured free trade and opposed the protectionist policies of the Tory Party. The Whig leader, Lord John Russell, had begun using the name Liberal Party by the end of the 1830s and it is widely, though not universally, accepted that his 1846 ministry was Britain's first Liberal government. Russell was able to form his administration after the free trade issue, specifically the proposed repeal of the Corn Laws, decisively split the Tories into two factions. The free trade supporters, known as the Peelites, "crossed the floor" (i.e., of the Commons) and joined forces with the Liberals.

The Liberals held power for much of the 1850s and 1860s under Russell, Lord Palmerston and Lord Aberdeen. In 1868, the party's new leader William Gladstone won the general election by a majority of 116 seats (387–271) over Benjamin Disraeli's Tories. Gladstone formed four administrations between 1868 and 1894; he was Prime Minister for a total of twelve years. Gladstone enlarged the electorate, which made him very popular among the working class, and introduced reforms in education, trade unions, the judiciary and the armed forces.

1886 to 1914

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were the architects of the People's Budget

Gladstone's eventual undoing was the thorny subject of Irish Home Rule, which in 1886 caused a split in the Liberals akin to the Peelite split forty years earlier. This time, it was the Conservatives who welcomed disaffected Liberal Unionists. There were ten years of Tory rule from 1895 to 1905 under Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour. This ended following another Tory split over free trade. Among the Conservative rebels was Winston Churchill who crossed the floor in May 1904. Balfour was succeeded by Henry Campbell-Bannerman who led the Liberals to a landslide victory in January 1906. Ill health caused Campbell-Bannerman's early retirement in April 1908 and he died only days later. He was succeeded by H. H. Asquith.

In April 1909, David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed the implementation of what has become known as the People's Budget. Backed by Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, Lloyd George declared that his goal was to wage war against poverty by means of social welfare projects to be funded by imposing high taxation on wealth, high incomes and landed property. The Conservative opposition, who represented the interests of wealth and landed property, argued that money should be raised by tariffs on imported goods. The budget was passed by the Commons but, in November 1909, it was vetoed by the House of Lords in which the Tories had a large majority. Asquith called a general election to get a mandate for the budget. Supported by the Irish Parliamentary Party and the rising Labour Party, the Liberals held power after the election in January 1910 resulted in a hung parliament. The Lords passed the budget soon afterwards. Another election was held in December 1910 and the outcome was another hung parliament with Asquith remaining in office. His government passed the Parliament Act 1911 which reduced the powers of the House of Lords.

1914 to 1945

The First World War began in August 1914. Asquith formed a coalition government in May 1915 but tensions arose in the Liberal Party over enactments such as conscription which made people subserviant to the needs of the state. Many Liberals, including Asquith himself, were sensitive about freedom of the individual from state control, even in the face of a global crisis. On the other hand, Lloyd George had become Asquith's rival and he agreed with the Conservatives that the government must adopt a resolute prosecution of the war. Lloyd George supplanted Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916. The internal conflicts were set aside until the Armistice in November 1918 but Lloyd George called a general election the following month. In this, his Coalition Liberals were unopposed by their Conservative allies while the Independent Liberals under Asquith were roundly defeated. The collapse of the Liberals coincided with the rise of the Labour Party and with the success of the suffragette movement and the Representation of the People Act 1918, the first to enfranchise women. Public dissatisfaction with the Liberals was confirmed by the result of the 1924 general election in which the party won only 40 seats after achieving less than 20% of the national vote.

By 1933, the party had undergone a three-way division into the opposition Liberal Party, the Conservative-supporting Liberal Nationals and, Lloyd George among them, a small group of Independent Liberals. Individual members played significant parts in the momentous Conduct of the War debate on 7 and 8 May 1940. Party leader Sir Archibald Sinclair was the third speaker on the 7th and he made a forceful complaint about the inefficiency of the Conservative government under Neville Chamberlain. Later that day, Sinclair's eventual successor Clement Davies was active in his encouragement of Leo Amery, whose speech denouncing Chamberlain is probably the most famous in parliamentary history. At the time, Davies was chairman of the influential All Party Action Group which urged a dynamic and resolute war policy under a vigorous leader. On the 8th, Lloyd George made what would be his last great Commons speech when he called upon Chamberlain to resign. That happened two days later and Churchill formed his coalition government which held office until May 1945. As Secretary of State for Air, Sinclair was an important member especially as he was frequently co-opted to the war cabinet. Other Liberals were appointed to junior positions including Ernest Brown, Dingle Foot, Harcourt Johnstone, Gwilym Lloyd George, William Mabane and Hugh Seely.

1945 to 1989

In the post-war period, support for the Liberals dwindled to a mere 2.5% of the vote in 1951 and they became a parliamentary rump which gained occasional headlines as a repository for anti-government votes in by-elections. There was something of a revival in the 1970s and party leader David Steel became a significant figure for his participation in the so-called "Lib-Lab Pact" by which the Liberals supported James Callaghan's minority government. The pact ended when Callaghan was torpedoed by industrial strife of the notorious "Winter of Discontent". The Liberals again lost support in 1979. Steel was a defiant opponent of Margaret Thatcher and her divisive policies. Some Tories tried to accuse him of mysogyny and he retorted that he was all in favour of a woman becoming Prime Minister, but not "that woman".

In 1981, ideological differences in the Labour Party caused Roy Jenkins and others to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. Steel and Jenkins forged a co-operation called the Alliance prior to the 1983 general election and it returned 25% of the vote. Because of their established grassroots throughout the country, and their effective tradition for locally based "community politics", the Liberals provided the main part of the Alliance infrastructure and resources. The two parties formally merged in 1988 and became the Liberal Democrats in October 1989. A small group, led by former MP Michael Meadowcroft, rejected the union and continued using the name Liberal Party. This was eventually wound up, but subsequent attempts have been made to revive it.

Policy and structure

The Liberal Party was always opposed to centralisation. The local constituency parties held the real power and influence while the national office was effectively administrative and exerted little of the overall control that is evident in the Labour and Conservative organisations. Candidate selection in the Liberal Party was exclusively the responsibility of the local groups and individual members held a direct vote in party leadership elections. Equally, the party's finances were handled at the local level.

Opposition to centralisation was a key component of the party's underlying philosophy. The Liberals were never noted for any form of ideology akin to socialism or capitalism. Rather, the party was characterised by its "attitudes" to various concepts and issues. Arguably, the main thrust of the party's political agenda was the idea of progress being achieved by individualism. The Liberals therefore supported human rights and emancipation. It has been argued that the collapse of the Liberals became inevitable during the First World War when their egalitarian ideals were superseded by Lloyd George's pragmatic acceptance of the need for state control as the primary means of ensuring victory. The split between the egalitarian and state factions occurred at a fateful time when the franchise was being expanded to include women and the emergent Labour Party was able to adopt the mantle of reform.

The essential Liberal policies were always free trade and government reform but their ideal was to champion private enterprise by individualism without state control. However, they advocated state control of education, industrial relations and social welfare. Such contrasts meant that the electorate were left in doubt as to what the Liberals actually represented. With the Labour governments of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, they knew exactly where they stood. At the other extreme, the same is true of Thatcher and perhaps all Conservative governments until 2019. The Liberals were strongly idealistic on foreign policy and this was another factor that caused friction during the First World War. Typically, as a free trade party, the Liberals were pacifist and internationalist, strongly supporting international co-operation. The global conflict revealed their lack of pragmatism and readiness to fight. Lloyd George had those qualities but the support he needed came from the Conservative and Labour parties, not from his own party. As a result, the Liberals fell apart and never recovered their major party status.