Liberal Party (Britain)
Liberal Party (Britain)
The Liberal Party in Britain was formed in March 1988 as the Social and Liberal Democratic Party (SDP) when the Liberal Party merged with the Social Democratic Party. A vote in July 1989 finalized its new name as the Liberal Democrats. The two merging parties had merely strengthened the alliance between the two parties that had existed from 1981 and that had operated since that year under the dual leadership of David Steel (Liberal) and David Owen (SDP). In 1988 Owen refused to agree to the merger and Steel, although he led the Liberals into the merger, declined to lead the new party. The leadership of the new party fell to Paddy Ashdown who won a contest against Alan Beith, in July 1988. Ashdown now led a small struggling party whose position was thwarted by the fact that Owen continued to operate outside the merger with his short-lived continuing SDP, and Michael Meadowcroft, Liberal member of Parliament (MP) for Leeds West, refounded the by now miniscule Liberal Party. Nevertheless, since that period the Liberal Democrat leaders Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, and Ming Campbell have successfully revived the status of the Liberal Democrats, and indeed the old Liberal Party, to a level of political success not seen since the 1929 general election.
The revival of the Liberal Democrats began with a by-election victory at Eastbourne in October 1990, an event that contributed to the fall from office of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It continued to secure victories in parliamentary by-elections and in municipal contests, although it won only twenty seats in the House of Commons in the 1992 general election, securing only 18 percent of the vote, an insufficient number to project it to major success under the first-past-the-post (winner takes all) British system of electing the House of Commons. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats have continued to grow in number and influence, largely on a mixture of Liberal policies, and have risen to approximately 60 members of Parliament (MPs).
Traditionally the Liberal Party has been committed to free trade but by the 1980s it was drifting toward the view that government might, under some circumstances, be justified in intervening in economic growth. It also supported the Conservative Party in Europe in 1993 by endorsing the Conservative government and the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. The Party supported the Labour Party under Prime Minister Tony Blair, following the general election of 1997, and particularly supported the Labour government’s moves toward devolution for both Scotland and Wales, the Celtic areas that the Liberal Democrats and the old Liberal Party had traditionally considered to be their strongholds. However, its distinctive demand for proportional representation in elections marks it off from the Conservative and Labour parties, who prefer to maintain the existing winner-takes-all strategy of British parliamentary politics. Although Blair set up a commission on changes in the voting system under Lord Roy Jenkins of Hillhead, LDP leader in the House of Lords, to examine alternative political systems and to make recommendations, the Labour government has shown scant interest in any system that would undermine its massive parliamentary majorities secured under the winner-takes-all system. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats had an indication of what might be elected when the European elections of June 1999 were conducted on a basis of proportional representation. Under the winner-takes-all system used in 1994 they secured only two members of the European Parliament (MEPs) with 17 percent of the vote. In 1999 they secured ten MEPs with only 13 percent of the vote.
Although it attracts support from across the social divide, the Liberal Democrat Party tends to attract middle-class and professional people committed to the ongoing protection of individual rights but who are prepared to accept that the state has an important social role to fulfill. It is now no longer the party of big business as it was in the nineteenth century but more that of the small shopkeeper and the small businessperson. It also represents the interests of some of the old right-wing Labour voters who left the Labour Party in 1981 to form the SDP, and which finally flowed into the Liberal Democrats.
Despite its growth, the Liberal Democratic Party of today is a far less successful party than the old Liberal Party that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, even though its policies are still largely in tune with the old Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is considered to have emerged at a meeting at Willis’s Rooms in 1859 when the Whigs, Peelite Tories who opposed protectionism, and radicals met to serve under Lord Palmerston. The group was subsequently led by Lord John Russell and W. E. Gladstone, who firmly established Gladstonian Liberalism in his 1868–1874 and 1880–1885 ministries and drew considerable support from the nonconformist religions at this time. From the start the Liberal Party was committed to free trade, religious toleration, efficiency, and an international policy of promoting peace. Although the Nonconformist association has long gone, most of the other policies are reflected in the modern Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Party operated throughout the country in Liberal clubs organized into constituencies through local bodies that denoted their number: the Liberal Two Hundred or the Liberal Four Hundred. These groups were brought together and given a sense of unity by the formation of the National Liberal Federation in 1877.
Under Gladstone the Liberals split in 1886 on the issue of Home Rule for Ireland, the Home Rule supporters siding with Gladstone and the Unionists, who favored the continuation of the union with Ireland, moving with Joseph Chamberlain into the Conservative Party. Lord Rosebery, who succeeded Gladstone in 1894, pressed for issues such as temperance, strongly supported by the Nonconformists and the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. However, the divided party struggled until 1905 when it replaced the Conservatives and won a general election in 1906. This brought about a landslide Liberal victory, which sustained the Liberal Party in office until 1915 with the help of two further general elections in 1910. During these years the Liberals, greatly influenced by their parliamentary leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and their Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced the Liberal social reform of old-age pensions and national insurance, which were designed to alleviate poverty and avoid the need for a costly break-up of the New Poor Law. However, though these were remarkable developments, the Liberal Party found difficulty in prosecuting effectively Word War I, which started in 1914, and Asquith formed a wartime coalition government in 1915. As a result when Asquith resigned as prime minister in 1916, perhaps with the expectation of being brought back, Lloyd George stepped into the breach. The result was a split within the Liberal Party, which was not officially healed until 1923. Even then the Liberal Party remained divided, and by the 1930s there was the Lloyd George group, the Samuel group, which was the old Liberal Party, and the Sir John Simon Liberals, who joined the Conservative Party. Long before this final split the Labour Party had replaced the Liberal Party as the progressive party of government in British politics. Over the next fifty years the Liberals declined as a party, with occasional revivals under Jo Grimond and Edward Thorpe as well as a brief period of a Lib-Lab Pact in 1977–1978. However, none of this brought the revival of the Liberal Party back to the position of being a party of government, and even under the modern Liberal Democratic Party the prospects of forming a government remain extremely remote.
SEE ALSO Multiparty Systems
Cook, Chris. 1998. A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900–1997. London: Macmillan.
Dangerfield, George. 1936. The Strange Death of Liberal England. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Grigg, John. 1978. Lloyd George: The People’s Champion, 1902–1911. London: Eyre Methuen.
Searle, George R. 1992. The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration, 1886–1929. London: Macmillan.
Stevenson, John. 1992. Third Party Politics in Britain since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell.
"Liberal Party (Britain)." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/liberal-party-britain
"Liberal Party (Britain)." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/liberal-party-britain
"Liberal Party." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/liberal-party
"Liberal Party." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/liberal-party