Liberal Party

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Liberal Party. Before 1868 the Liberal Party had been an uneasy coalition of Whigs and radicals. The Whigs, led by some of the richest aristocratic magnates in the land, dominated Liberal cabinets and imposed a veto on radical legislation. The broadening of the suffrage in the boroughs in the Reform Act of 1867 strengthened the radicals and the Gladstone government of 1868–74 ranks as one of the great reforming administrations of modern times. Whig disquiet grew, especially during the second Gladstone government of 1880–5. There was a slow drift of Whigs to the Conservatives but Gladstone's Home Rule Bill of 1886 was the catalyst for the realignment of parties which had long been prophesied. The bill saw a mass defection of Whigs, or moderate Liberals, to the Conservatives. Ninety-three Liberal MPs voted against its second reading in June 1886. Many of these rebels were Whigs for whom Home Rule afforded not only an incentive to leave the Liberal Party, but an excuse. The rebels, however, also included a contingent of radicals, led by Joseph Chamberlain, until then the most prominent and articulate of the radical leaders. Despite the loss of Chamberlain and his closest colleagues, the effect of the schism was to radicalize the Liberal Party.

More important than the Whig secession was the change in the character of radicalism. Until 1868 radicalism was an individualist creed. The mid-century Liberal slogan—‘Peace, Retrenchment and Reform’—summed up radical aspirations. Most radicals opposed armaments, belligerence in foreign affairs, and imperial expansion: the reforms they did espouse were political not social—the extension of the franchise, curtailment of the powers of the House of Lords, the equalization of constituency electorates, not factory legislation or the development of social services. The mid-century radicals were conspicuous champions of laissez-faire. The radical programme was negative in character. It called for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for the redress of other nonconformist grievances. It sought to limit the power of government and demanded that government should not intervene in economic and social affairs. As late as 1888, Labouchère and Bradlaugh, two of the most advanced radicals, voted against a measure to provide one half-day holiday for shop assistants. Such legislation, they averred, ‘would strike a blow at the self-reliance of the individual’.

After 1868 there was a gradual but major change in the nature of radicalism. Increasingly it was defined in collectivist terms. Radicals, perhaps seeking support from the now partly enfranchised working class, began to address the problems of industrial society. Thus, Joseph Chamberlain, while pressing the cause of disestablishment, as mayor of Birmingham embarked on a major programme of social reform in that city. Nationally, he declared for free and compulsory education and even, at one stage, urged redistributive taxation.

The exodus of the Whigs from the party has tended to obscure the significance of the transformation that was taking place. By the 1890s it was largely complete. Radicalism was now collectivist radicalism. It stopped a long way short of socialism but, even if it had no blueprint for a new society, was prepared to use the power of the state in a positive way to help the poorest sections of the nation.

The loss of the stabilizing power of the Whigs, however, meant that the way was open for every minor section of the party—the ‘faddists’ and ‘crotcheteers’ as they were called—to invoke their own demands. All parties are institutionalized log-rolls, but the Liberal Party after 1886 set a new standard for factionalism. The Welsh insisted on the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales; the temperance lobby on the strictest control of the liquor trade; the coal-miners wanted the eight-hour day; rural Liberals agitated for parish councils and smallholdings.

In the 1890s a new cleavage developed. Individual radicals had been Little Englanders, hostile to the growth of empire and fervent for a pacific foreign policy. The Unionist Party, as the conservatives were now called, became the party of imperialism, of strong defence, and of realpolitik abroad. Many Liberals still clung to the anti-imperial prejudices of the past. But after Gladstone gave up the leadership, some of the most prominent Liberals, such as Rosebery, his successor as prime minister, demanded a reorientation of party attitudes. The Liberal Party must show that it could be trusted with the administration of a great empire. Liberal Imperialism ranged itself against Little Englandism. Asquith, Grey, and Haldane, all to hold high office in Liberal governments after 1906, were among the leaders of the new organization, the Liberal League. The onset of the Boer War dramatized and made more acute the division of the party. Liberal critics of the war were called pro-Boers, and for a time the party seemed irrevocably split. Campbell-Bannerman, chosen in 1899 because there was no one else, strove to hold Liberals together.

In the end, the mistakes of the Unionists restored the unity of the Liberal Party. The Education Act of 1902 upset the religious balance achieved by the Liberal Education Act of 1870. Nonconformists were outraged and many of those who had deserted the party in 1886 came back. More important, in 1903, Chamberlain, now one of the leading figures in the Unionist government, repudiated free trade, an article of faith to both parties for over 50 years. A minority of Unionists still believed in free trade: Balfour, the prime minister, tried to trim by adhering to a qualified protectionism, but the bulk of the party followed Chamberlain and the tariff reformers, as the protectionists were called. The Education Act and tariff reform healed the rift in the Liberal Party which, in 1906, won a landslide victory.

Liberal hegemony lasted until 1915. During those nine years the party largely completed the unfinished agenda of Victorian radicalism, restricting the powers of the Lords, introducing Irish Home Rule, and disestablishing the Church of England in Wales. At the same time it looked forward, with the introduction of old-age pensions in 1908, the Trade Boards Act of 1909, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, to the collectivist agenda of the 20th cent.

There were two general elections in 1910, both bound up with the problem of the House of Lords. The Liberals, now led by Asquith, lost their overall majority and their continuance in office depended on the recently founded Labour Party and on the Irish nationalists. The next few years were a period of bitter political conflict over Irish Home Rule and a dangerous division between the two main parties was averted only by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. A coalition government under Asquith was formed in 1915; dissatisfaction with Asquith's leadership led to the formation of a new coalition with Asquith's rival, Lloyd George, as premier. Asquith, still party leader, went into opposition, with the Conservatives and a section of the Liberals following Lloyd George. This alignment was a paradox: Lloyd George had been one of the leaders of the radical wing of the party before the war, while Asquith had been a prominent Liberal Imperialist. At the general election at the end of the war in 1918, Lloyd George and his Liberals allied with the Conservatives against Asquith's independent Liberals and Labour. The election saw a huge increase in the suffrage, with the right to vote given to women over 30 and many more male voters on the register. Many of these new voters may have had no firm party allegiance. The result was a triumph for Lloyd George and a disaster for the Liberals. Even the two wings added together could muster only 170 MPs.

The early post-war years provided the most encouraging backcloth that Labour could have had. Heavy unemployment contributed to the unpopularity of the governing coalition which Labour, with more MPs than the Asquithians, could exploit. In 1922 the Conservatives broke with Lloyd George: a purely Conservative government was formed and called an early general election. The Liberals fought as rival sections, sometimes standing against each other. Their combined total fell to 115 while Labour more than doubled its representation to 142. This was a decisive victory, for Labour now became the official opposition in Parliament and henceforth the alternative to the Conservatives. Two years and two elections later, the reshaping of the party system was confirmed. In 1924 the Liberals, though reunited, were reduced to 40 MPs.

The Liberal Party split again in 1930 over the question of supporting the minority Labour government, a split made permanent in 1932 when more than half the party's MPs decided to support the National Government, under the title of National Liberal. The independent Liberals soldiered on but elected only nineteen MPs at the general election of 1935: after the Second World War the decline continued, in a seemingly inexorable way, until the party was reduced to five MPs in 1957.

There then began the first of the post-war Liberal revivals. Those of 1958 and 1962 soon petered out; but another revival in the early 1970s was followed by a remarkable Liberal performance in the two elections of 1974, when in October, for example, the party polled one-fifth of the votes and elected 13 members. The schism in the Labour Party in 1981 led to the formation of the Liberal-SDP alliance: in 1983 it won 25 per cent of the votes (2 per cent behind Labour) and elected 23 MPs, the best showing for the Liberals since 1929. Strains within the alliance led to a merger of the two parties in 1987 under the name Liberal Democrats. In policy the party's collectivist borrowings are more evident than its individualist roots: it shares, however, the commitment of 19th-cent. Liberals to constitutional reform and the devolution of power. It, and its predecessor the Liberal Party, has been the most consistently pro-European of all three parties.

The Liberal party continued to do well in the 1990s. It maintained a strong showing in local government and, after devolution, it shared government in Scotland and Wales with Labour. At the 1997 general election, 46 Westminster seats went to the Liberals and in 2001, under the new leadership of Charles Kennedy, it increased its total to 52. In 2005 it raised its numbers of MPs to 62. This was a remarkable achievement for a party still handicapped by the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, and suggests that hopes of, at least, holding the balance of power may not be excessive. But the party remains very dependent on the ‘Celtic fringe’, with more than half of its seats held in Scotland (10), Wales (2), and the West Country (18).

Hugh Berrington


Cook, C. , A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900–1988 (3rd edn. Basingstoke, 1989);
Douglas, R. , The History of the Liberal Party, 1895–1970 (1971);
Searle, G. R. , The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration, 1886–1929 (1992);
Vincent, J. R. , The Formation of the British Liberal Party, 1857–68 (Harmondsworth, 1972).

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Liberal party (Canada)

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