Liberal Party (UK)

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The Liberal Party was one of the two major British political parties from the mid 19th century until the rise of the Labour Party in the 1920s, 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.

Ideology

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). 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]

The political terms of "modern", "progressive" or "new" Liberalism began to appear in the mid to late 1880s 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 stance 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]

After 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 Conservative government of the time.[6]

Notes

  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
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