Liberal Party (UK)

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The Liberal Party is the renamed Whig Party, one of the two major British political parties until the rise of the Labour Party in the first quarter of the 20th century, and a third party of varying strength and importance up to 1988, when it merged with the Social Democratic Party (the SDP) to form a new party which would become known as the Liberal Democrats.


During the 19th century the Liberal Party was broadly in favour of what would today be called classical liberalism: supporting laissez-faire economic policies such as free trade and minimal government interference in the economy (this doctrine was usually termed 'Gladstonian Liberalism' after the Victorian Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone). The Liberal Party favoured social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England (many of them were Nonconformists) and an extension of the franchise (right to vote). In particular they wanted Home Rule for Ireland and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.

Sir William Harcourt, a prominent Liberal politician in the Victorian era, said this about liberalism in 1873:

Liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right. The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes, a Liberal Government tries, so far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do what he wishes. It has been the function of the Liberal Party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the country where people can do more what they please than in any country in the world.[1]

It has been argued that the political terms of "modern", "progressive" or "new" Liberalism began to appear in the mid to late 1880s (this is untrue as these terms were common parlance in the 1830s and 1840s in the Whig Party) and became increasingly common to denote the recent tendency in the Liberal Party to favour an increased role for the state as more important than the classical liberal stress on self-help and freedom of choice.[2]

By the early 20th century the Liberals position began to shift towards "New Liberalism", what would today be called social liberalism: a belief in personal liberty with a support for government intervention to provide minimum levels of welfare.[3] This shift was best exemplified by the Liberal government of Herbert Henry Asquith and his Chancellor David Lloyd George, whose Liberal reforms in the early 1900s created a basic welfare state.[4]

The Liberal Party was an early adopter of Keynesian economics: David Lloyd George adopted a Keynesian programme at the 1929 general election entitled We Can Conquer Unemployment!, although by this stage the Liberals had declined to third-party status. The Liberals now (as expressed in the Liberal Yellow Book) regarded opposition to state intervention as being a characteristic of right-wing extremists.[5]

Constantly losing voters to the socialists since The Great War and nearly becoming extinct in the 1940s and 50s, the Liberal Party revived its fortunes somewhat under the leadership of Jo Grimond in the 1960s, by positioning itself as a radical centrist non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives.[6]

Social Democratic Party

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was founded on 26 March 1981 by four senior Labour Party so-called moderates, dubbed the "Gang of Four"[7] Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams, who issued their Limehouse Declaration.[8] Owen and Rodgers were sitting Labour Members of Parliament (MPs); Jenkins had left Parliament in 1977 to serve as President of the European Commission, while Williams had lost her seat in the 1979 general election. The four left the Labour Party as a result of the January 1981 Wembley conference which committed the party to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. They also believed that Labour had become too left-wing, and had been infiltrated at constituency party level by the Militant Trotskyist group, or Militant tendency whose views and behaviour they considered to be at odds with the Labour Party and their voters.

Shortly after its formation, the SDP formed a political and electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, called the SDP–Liberal Alliance, which lasted through the 1983 United Kingdom general election and the 1987 general election. In 1988, the two parties merged, forming the Social and Liberal Democrats, later renamed the Liberal Democrats.[9].


  1. Harold Cox, Economic Liberty (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920), p. 170.
  2. W. H. Greenleaf, The British Political Tradition. Volume II: The Ideological Heritage (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 143.
  3. BBC - Education Scotland - Higher Bitesize Revision - History - Liberal - Impact: Revision 1
  4. BBC — GCSE Bitesize — History | Modern World History | Britain 1905-1951 | The Liberal reforms 1906-1914. GCSE Bitesize. BBC. Retrieved on 2009-02-28. “One government that is often seen as an example of 'reforming' by introducing positive changes that really improve peoples' lives is the Liberal government in Britain of 1906-1914. Many historians label this period the beginning of the welfare state [...]”
  5. Liberal Industrial Inquiry, Britain's Industrial Future (London, 1928), p. 453.
  6. 1964 Liberal Party manifesto
  7. This name was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Maoist Gang of Four
  8. (2000) The Longman Companion to Britain Since 1945. Longman, 95. ISBN 978-0-582-35674-0. 
  9. (2000) Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations: Parties, Groups and Movements of the 20th Century. Continuum, 360. ISBN 978-0-8264-5814-8.