Liberalism in the United Kingdom

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This article gives an overview of liberalism in the United Kingdom. It is limited to liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had a representation in parliament. The sign ⇒ denotes another party in that scheme. For inclusion in this scheme, it is not necessary that parties labelled themselves as a liberal party.

Background[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the word liberalism can have any of several meanings. Scholars use the term to refer to classical liberalism; the term also can mean economic liberalism, social liberalism or neoliberalism; it can simply refer to the politics of the Liberal Democrat party; it can occasionally have the imported American meaning, including the derogatory usage by conservatives. However, the derogatory connotation is much weaker in the UK than in the US, and social liberals from both the left and right wing continue to use liberal and illiberal to describe themselves and their opponents, respectively.

Historically, the term referred to the broad liberal political alliance of the nineteenth century, formed by Whigs, Peelites, and radicals. This alliance, which developed into the Liberal Party, dominated politics for much of the reign of Queen Victoria and during the years before World War I.

British liberalism is now organised mainly in the social liberalism of the Liberal Democrats (member LI, ELDR). The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (member LI, ELDR) is their counterpart in Northern Ireland.

Some members of the Conservative Party, most notably the late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, regard that party as the closest major party to classical liberalism, because of its commitment to low taxation and economic deregulation. This may change with the election of David Cameron as leader. In his speech to the party conference in 2006, Cameron described the party as a "liberal conservative" party, and in a speech in Bath on Thursday 22 March 2007, he described himself as a liberal Conservative. [1] Furthermore, Cameron has set up a web-site designed to appeal to Liberal Democrat members and making heavy use of traditionally liberal rhetoric.[2] During the 2010 general election Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said this of Conservative claims to the word liberal: "There is a gulf in values between myself and David Cameron. They have no progressive reform agenda at all—only an unbearable sense of entitlement that it’s just their time to govern"

Evolution of organised liberalism[edit]

Emerging primarily from the Whigs of the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party was a major force in pre-World War I politics. Their main political rivals were the Conservative (Tory) Party.

After the War, their influence was undermined by the rise of socialism in the form of Labour Party, who displaced the Liberals to become the party of progressive and reformist tendencies.

The doctrine of the party has evolved considerably throughout history, matching concerns of the day. For historical details, see the article about Whiggery.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the party merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are a main member of the European Liberal Democratic and Reform Party and the Liberal International.

Specifically Liberal policies that remain important to the party include support for free trade (albeit with heavy regulation aka 'fair trade'), progressive taxation, political reform and strong civil liberties.

Timeline of Liberal parties in Great Britain[edit]

Viscount Palmerston
For history prior to 1859, see Whigs (British political party)

From 1859 to 1899[edit]

1859
The Whigs merged with the Peelites and Radicals into the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1859 general election, winning 356 seats. Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston becomes Prime Minister for the second time.
1865
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1865 general election, winning 369 seats. Lord Palmerston dies in office and is succeeded by John Russell, 1st Earl Russell.
William Gladstone
1868
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1868 general election, winning 387 seats. William Ewart Gladstone becomes Prime Minister.
1874
The Liberal Party lose the 1874 general election, winning 242 seats. A Conservative Government is formed.
1880
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1880 general election, winning 352 seats. Gladstone becomes Prime Minister for the second time.
1885
The Liberal Party gain the most seats (319 seats) in the 1880 general election but fail to win an overall majority with the Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power.
1886
Opponents of Irish Home Rule in the Liberal Party, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, secede to form the Liberal Unionist Party. The Liberal Party lose the 1886 general election winning 191 seats. The Liberal Unionists win 77 seats and informally co-operate with the newly formed Conservative Government.
1892
The Liberal Party win 272 seats in the 1892 general election and Gladstone becomes Prime Minister for the fourth time forming a minority government dependent on Irish Nationalist support. The Liberal Unionists win 45 seats.
1894
Gladstone resigns as Prime Minister and his successor is Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery.
1895
The Liberal Party lose the 1895 general election, winning 177 seats. The Liberal Unionists win 71 seats and with the Conservatives form an Unionist Government.

1900 to 1944[edit]

Campbell-Bannerman
1900
The Liberal Party win 184 seats in the 1900 general election. The Liberal Unionists win 68 seats and with the Conservatives form an Unionist Government.
1906
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1906 general election, winning 396 seats. Henry Campbell-Bannerman becomes Prime Minister. This would prove to be the greatest victory for the Liberals and also the last time the Liberal Party won a majority in their own right. The Liberal Unionists win 25 seats.
H. H. Asquith
1908
Henry Campbell-Bannerman resigns as Prime Minister and is succeeded by H. H. Asquith.
1910
The Liberal Party win 274 seats and the Liberal Unionists win 32 seats in January 1910 general election. Asquith forms a government with the support of the Irish Nationalists. Another election is held in December, with the Liberal Party winning 272 seats and the Liberal Unionists winning 36 seats. This would prove the last time the Liberal Party won the highest number of seats in the House of Commons.
1912
The Liberal Unionists merge with the Conservatives to form the present-day Conservative and Unionist Party.
1915
After several British set backs in World War One, H. H. Asquith invites the Conservatives to form a war-time coalition government. This marked the end of the last all Liberal government.
David Lloyd George
1916
H. H. Asquith loses support of the Conservative Party and David Lloyd George becomes Prime Minister. The Liberal Party is now split into two factions: one camp supporting Lloyd George and the other following Asquith.
1918
At the end of the war, a general election was held. The Liberal Party remained split with Lloyd George's Coalition Liberals winning 127 seats and the Asquith led Independent Liberals winning 36 seats. Lloyd George remains Prime Minister with Conservative support.
1922
Lloyd George is forced to resign after loss of support from the Conservatives. In the 1922 general election, the Lloyd George led National Liberals win 53 seats, whilst the Asquith led independent Liberals win 62 seats.
1923
The National Liberals and the Independent Liberals factions are re-united as one in support of free trade and the Liberal Party win 158 seats in the 1923 general election. It was the last election in which the Liberals won more than 100 seats.
1924
The Liberal Party are nearly wiped out and win only 40 seats in the 1924 general election.
1929
The Liberal Party win 59 seats in the 1929 general election.
1931
The Liberal Party agress to join the National Government. After the National Government proposed to fight the 1931 election for a mandate of tariffs, the Liberal Party was split into three groups. A faction, led by John Simon, supported the protectionist government policy and formed the Liberal National Party. Another faction, led by Lloyd George, became the Independent Liberals. The third grouping, the 'official' Liberal Party, was led by Herbert Samuel. In the 1931 general election, the Liberal Nationals won 35 seats, the 'official' Liberals won 33 seats, the Independent Liberals won 4 seats.
1933
The 'official' Liberal Party leave the National Government.
1935
In the 1935 general election, the Liberal Nationals won 33 seats, the 'official' Liberals won 21 seats, the Independent Liberals won 4 seats. Lloyd George's Independent Liberals rejoined with the rest of the 'official' Liberal Party after the general election. The Liberal Nationals remain in the National Government.
1940
Both the Liberal Party and the Liberal National Party join the Churchill Wartime Government.

1945 to present day[edit]

1945
The Liberal Party win 12 seats, and the Liberal Nationals win 11 seats in the 1945 general election.
1947
The Liberal National Party is renamed National Liberal Party and formally merges with the Conservative Party at constituency level; however some MPs and candidates continue to use the National Liberal label (and variants thereof) for the next twenty years.
1950
The Liberal Party win 9 seats in the 1950 general election. Candidates under the National Liberals banner win 17 seats.
1951
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1951 general election. National Liberals win 19 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
1955
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1955 general election. National Liberals win 21 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
1959
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1951 general election. National Liberals win 19 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
1964
The Liberal Party win 9 seats in the 1964 general election. National Liberals win 6 seats.
1966
The Liberal Party win 12 seats in the 1966 general election. National Liberals win 3 seats.
1968
The National Liberals merge completely with the Conservative Party.
1970
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1970 general election.
1974
The Liberal Party win 14 seats in the February 1974 general election and hold the balance of power. The Liberal Party win 13 seats in the October 1974 general election.
1979
The Liberal Party win 11 seats in the 1979 general election.
1981
A faction in the Labour Party break away and form Social Democratic Party (SDP).
1983
An electoral and political alliance between the Liberal Party and SDP is formed. The Liberal Party win 17 seats and the SDP win 6 seats in the 1983 general election.
1987
The Liberal - SDP alliance win 22 seats in the 1987 general election.
1988
The Liberal Party merge with SDP into the Liberal Democrats. The anti merger Liberal Party and continuing SDP are formed.
1992
The Liberal Democrats win 20 seats in the 1992 general election.
1997
The Liberal Democrats win 46 seats in the 1997 general election.
2001
The Liberal Democrats win 52 seats in the 2001 general election.
2002
A splinter group of the Conservative Party, Pro-Euro Conservative Party merges into Liberal Democrats.
2005
The Liberal Democrats win 62 seats in the 2005 general election.
2010
The Liberal Democrats win 57 seats in the 2010 general election and form a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Timeline of Liberal parties in Northern Ireland[edit]

1956
The Ulster Liberal Association is formed, and is soon renamed as the Ulster Liberal Party.
1969
The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is formed
1985
The Ulster Liberal Party fields its last candidate in a Northern Ireland election and subsequently endorses Alliance candidates instead.
1988
A small branch of the Liberal Democrats is formed in Northern Ireland. Like the Ulster Liberal Party, it supports Alliance Party candidates in elections.

List of Liberal/Liberal led Governments of the United Kingdom [1][edit]

Portrait Prime Minister
(Birth–Death)
Constituency/Title
Term of office

Electoral mandates
Political party
of Prime Minister
Government
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston.jpg Henry John Temple,
3rd Viscount Palmerston

(1784–1865)
MP for Tiverton
12 June
1859
18 October
1865
Liberal Palmerston II
1859, 1865
Founded the Liberal Party in 1859, a few days prior to being elected ; term dominated by policy concerning the American Civil War; attempts to alleviate suffering caused by the Lancashire Cotton Famine. †Died in office.
Lord John Russell.jpg John Russell,
1st Earl Russell

(1792–1878)
29 October
1865
26 June
1866
Liberal Russell II
 —
Attempted to introduce a further Reform Bill, but was opposed by his Cabinet.
Gladstone.jpg William Ewart Gladstone
(1809–1898)
MP for Greenwich
3 December
1868
17 February
1874
Liberal Gladstone I
1868
Introduced reforms to the British Army, Civil Service and local government; made peacetime flogging illegal; Irish Church Act 1869; Irish Land Act 1870; Education Act 1870; Trade Union Act 1871; Ballot Act 1872; Licensing Act 1872; failed to prevent the Franco-Prussian War.
Gladstone.jpg William Ewart Gladstone
(1809–1898)
MP for Midlothian
23 April
1880
9 June
1885
Liberal Gladstone II
1880
First Boer War; Irish Coercion Act; Kilmainham Treaty; Phoenix Park Murders; Married Women's Property Act 1882; Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883; Reform Act 1884, Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 (sometimes known collectively as the Third Reform Act); failure to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan.
Gladstone.jpg William Ewart Gladstone
(1809–1898)
MP for Midlothian
1 February
1886
20 July
1886
Liberal Gladstone III
1885
First introduction of the Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which split the Liberal Party, resulting in the end of Gladstone's third elected government.
Gladstone.jpg William Ewart Gladstone
(1809–1898)
MP for Midlothian
15 August
1892
2 March
1894
Liberal Gladstone IV
1892§
§Minority government. Reintroduction of the Home Rule Bill, which was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the House of Lords leading to his fourth and final resignation.
Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery - 1890s.jpg Archibald Primrose,
5th Earl of Rosebery

(1847–1929)
5 March
1894
22 June
1895
Liberal Rosebery
 —
Imperialist; plans for expanding the Royal Navy caused disagreement within the Liberal Party; resigned following a vote of censure over military supplies.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman photo.jpg Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
(1836–1908)
MP for Stirling Burghs
5 December
1905
7 April
1908
Liberal Campbell-Bannerman
1906
Restored autonomy to Transvaal and the Orange Free State; Anglo-Russian Entente; first Prime Minister to be referred to as such in Parliamentary legislation; died nineteen days after leaving office.
H H Asquith 1908.jpg Herbert Henry Asquith
(1852–1928)
MP for East Fife
7 April
1908
25 May
1915
Liberal Asquith I
25 May
1915
7 December
1916
Asquith II
(Lib.Cons.Lab.)
Jan.1910§, Dec.1910§
§Hung Parliaments. Liberal Welfare Reforms; People's Budget; Old Age Pensions Act 1908 and National Insurance Act 1911; Parliament Act 1911; Suffragettes and the Cat and Mouse Act; Home Rule Act 1914; World War I; Easter Rising.
The Right Hon. David Lloyd George.jpg David Lloyd George
(1863–1945)
MP for Caernarvon Boroughs
7 December
1916
19 October
1922
Liberal Lloyd George
(Lib.Cons.Lab.)
1918
Welsh-speaking: only Prime Minister whose mother tongue was not English. End of World War I; Paris Peace Conference; attempted to extend conscription to Ireland during the First World War; Chanak Crisis.

Liberal leaders[edit]

Liberal thinkers[edit]

In the Contributions to liberal theory the following British thinkers are included:

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

References[edit]