National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
The Irish famine of the 1840s remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the United Kingdom’s history. Within six years of the arrival of the potato blight in Ireland in 1845, more than a quarter of its people had died or emigrated.
Despite this, Lord John Russell’s Whig government decided in spring 1847 – long before the famine ended – to cut Treasury spending on public relief efforts. The move is generally attributed by economic historians to the pervasive influence of ‘laissez-faire’ ideas on Russell and his colleagues. But they also faced a deepening financial crisis, which severely limited the government’s options. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 required all bank notes issued by the Bank of England to be fully backed by gold. A major harvest failure in Ireland and England the previous year had led to large price increases and trade deficits, which had in turn caused a sharp drain of gold reserves from the Bank of England in March and April 1847. The Bank responded by lifting the discount rate at which it would lend money to other banks. This led to a drastic curtailment of available commercial credit and contributed to the collapse of numerous businesses in the autumn.
By October 1847, Russell and his cabinet faced a choice: between suspending the Bank Charter Act to permit the Bank of England to discount more freely and to issue banknotes in greater volume, or sticking to economic orthodoxy. They also had to tread carefully through the two crises because the government lacked a parliamentary majority.
Dr Charles Read (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and author of The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis (2022)) and Liam Kennedy (Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University, Belfast) will discuss the Russell government’s response to the 1847 financial crisis and the Irish Famine. Chair: Baroness Kramer.
The meeting will start at 7.00pm, following the Annual General Meeting of the National Liberal Club, which will start at 6.30pm. The combined meeting will be a hybrid meeting, both in-person in the National Liberal Club and online via Zoom. You will need to register for Zoom access; registrations will open in January. For in-person attendance there is no need to register.
Lounge, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935, became one of the most influential accounts of the Liberal Party’s demise as a party of government. Dangerfield claimed that by ‘the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes’ by three forms of political turbulence and upheaval: the threat of civil war in Ireland; the campaign for women’s suffrage; and an unprecedented wave of strikes.
But in recent decades many historians have taken issue with Dangerfield’s thesis and some point out that liberal values, and the Liberal Party, endured in the inter-war years and after.
Vernon Bogdanor (Research Professor at the Centre for British Politics and Government at King’s College London and author of The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain: Politics and Power Before the First World War) and Richard Toye (Professor of History at the University of Exeter) discuss Liberal politics in the early twentieth century. Chair: Anne Perkins (journalist and historian).
Meeting Room 3 & 4, Novotel York Centre, Fishergate, York YO10 4FD
Shirley Williams, part of the ‘Gang of Four’ who founded the SDP and former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, was one of the UK’s best-loved politicians. She championed numerous progressive causes and for decades was an inspiration to millions of liberals.
Mark Peel (author, Shirley Williams: The Biography), Lord Tom McNally and Baroness Julie Smith discuss her life, beliefs and legacy. Chair: Baroness Kate Parminter.
Violet Bonham Carter Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
The Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H.H. Asquith included many ‘big beasts’. Sir Edward Grey served as Foreign Secretary and remains the longest-serving holder of the office. He maintained good relations with France and Russia at a time of great instability in Europe. When his efforts to avert conflict failed, in 1914, Grey persuaded a divided cabinet to support Britain’s entry to the First World War.
Richard Haldane was Secretary for War and created the Territorial Army and the British Expeditionary Force. As Lord Chancellor after 1912 he pursued a series of judicial reforms. He was also a co-founder of the UK university system.
Both have a credible case for being regarded as Liberal heroes. But Grey’s record has been strongly criticised in recent years and Haldane is largely forgotten.
Thomas Otte (University of East Anglia and author of Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey) and John Campbell OBE (author of Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain) assess these Liberal politicians and their legacies. Chair: Layla Moran MP.
National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
Launch of Partnership & Politics in a Divided Decade, by husband-and-wife team Vince Cable and Rachel Smith.
This new book tells the inside story of Vince Cable’s political career during the turbulent decade of the 2010s. The book covers Vince’s time as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition government, from 2010 to 2015. Having lost his seat in the calamitous 2015 election, Vince returned to Parliament in 2017, and six weeks later was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. The book includes his time as party leader and the Liberal Democrats’ role in the attempts to force a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Chair/interviewer: Anne Perkins, journalist and historian.
Lady Violet Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
2022 marks the centenary of the departure from office of the last Liberal to hold the post of Prime Minister; on 19 October 1922 David Lloyd George resigned after six years as premier. His fall followed the decision of Conservative MPs, meeting in the Carlton Club earlier that day, to end the post-war coalition.
Discuss why the Lloyd George coalition fell with Dr Matthew Johnson (Associate Professor of Modern British History, University of Durham). Chair: Baroness Liz Barker.
The 1920s were a challenging decade for the Liberal Party. With the advance of Labour, the Liberals were now the third force in British politics. The Asquith and Lloyd George factions united to contest the 1923 general election as one party, but tensions remained.
The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals holding the balance of power. They opted to sustain Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government, but the party remained divided over the decision. The Labour government fell the following year and the Conservative Party won a landslide victory in the ensuing general election, with the Liberals suffering heavy losses.
After the 1929 general election, MacDonald formed another minority Labour government, supported once more by the Liberal Party – which, yet again, led to division and dissent among Liberal factions.
Join Professor Philip Williamson (Durham University) and Michael Meadowcroft (former Liberal MP) to discuss the Liberal Party’s dilemmas and choices. Chair: Wendy Chamberlain MP.
This is a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ federal conference, which be held online, via the Hopin online conference platform. It will be open to anyone participating in the conference; to register, click here. You do not need to register separately for this meeting.
The general election of 1992 was the first contested by the Liberal Democrats, who had been formed from the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP just four years before. The new party entered the contest buoyed by parliamentary by-election victories, impressive local election results in 1991, and the high popularity of their leader, Paddy Ashdown.
The party fought an effective campaign, but the election result was disappointing: the Liberal Democrats finished with fewer seats and a lower share of the vote than the Liberal-SDP Alliance had achieved in 1987, and the Conservatives unexpectedly won a fourth term in office. Compared to the dark days of the post-merger period, however, when the party had come a distant fourth in the Euro elections in 1989, perhaps the result was not so bad.
Thirty years on, join Alison Holmes (General Election campaign co-ordinator for the Liberal Democrats) and Dennis Kavanagh (Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Liverpool and co-author of The British General Election of 1992) to discuss the 1992 general election and its significance. Chair: Lord Don Foster (first elected as MP for Bath in the 1992 election).
The meeting will start at 7.00pm, following the AGM of the Liberal Democrat History Group at 6.30pm. The meeting will be held online via Zoom. Pre-registration is essential: register here.
We have an upper limit on the number of participants, and will close registration when we reach it; if you are unable to register, the video of the meeting will be available on our Facebook page and via our website shortly afterwards.
In 1981 the alliance between the Liberal Party and the newly founded SDP was agreed; the two parties would fight elections together on a joint platform with join candidates. Between 1983 and 1987, however, the working relationship between the Liberal leader, David Steel, and his SDP counterpart, Dr David Owen, became increasingly marked by tension and distrust. Steel became steadily more frustrated at Owen’s resistance to joint selection of candidates, and any convergence on policy proposals. The Liberal Party and the SDP clashed over some issues, most notably nuclear weapons. In particular, Owen strongly opposed any long-term moves to merge the two parties.
The clash became painfully obvious during the 1987 general election campaign, when Steel ruled out supporting a minority Thatcher government while Owen was adamant that Labour was unfit to govern. The results of the election were disappointing for both parties. The leadership tensions ultimately wrecked the Alliance.
Discuss what went wrong with Sir Graham Watson (Steel’s former Head of Office) and Roger Carroll (former SDP Communications Director). Chair: Christine Jardine MP.
What is political liberalism in the United States?
The original concept was the protection of people from arbitrary power, support for the free market and advocacy of religious tolerance. But that started to change in the early twentieth century, when American liberals joined with progressives in advocating government intervention in the economy and social legislation. The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945 confirmed that American liberalism would be based on using the market economy to deliver mass prosperity and active government to promote greater equality. FDR’s version of liberalism became America’s national creed and for three decades, the welfare state expanded massively.
But in 1981, the new President, Ronald Reagan declared, ‘Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’. Most Americans seemed to agree and, despite some interruptions, a powerful surge from the right has dominated American politics ever since. The word ‘liberal’ is now a term of abuse in the country’s political discourse.
Join us to discuss the origins, development and challenges of American liberalism with Helena Rosenblatt (Professor of History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York and author of The Lost History of Liberalism) and James Traub (journalist and author of What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of a Noble Idea). Chair: Layla Moran MP (Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson)
This will be an online meeting, held over Zoom. You must register in advance to participate; register here.
In 1951, the Liberal Party’s existence was in grave doubt. At the October general election, the party contested a mere 109 seats, and only six MPs were returned. The party was badly divided over basic questions of strategy, and membership and morale were low.
The late 1950s saw an upturn in the Liberals’ fortunes. In March 1962, they won a sensational by-election victory at Orpington and, soon after, reached 25 per cent in the Gallup poll. The party’s performance at local elections was similarly impressive and it claimed a record 350,000 members.
Join Lord William Wallace of Saltaire and Mark Egan (Greffier of the States of Jersey) to discuss how the Liberal Party survived a near-death experience and revived. Chair: Baroness Liz Barker.
Online meeting, via Zoom. To register, see link below.
On 7 December 1916, H.H. Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George. The change followed mounting disquiet over the conduct of the First World War, and Lloyd George’s demands that a small committee, not including Asquith, should direct the war effort. Lloyd George forced the issue by resigning from the coalition government. Unionist ministers sided with Lloyd George and indicated their willingness to serve in a government led by him.
The Liberal Party remained divided until the end of the war and beyond. The party fought the next two general elections as two separate groups and the reunion that finally came, in 1923, was, in Asquith’s words, ‘a fiction if not a farce’.
Was the split between Asquith and Lloyd George caused by their contrasting personalities, or by substantive disagreements over management of the war? Or did their rivalry reflect deeper divisions between different Liberal traditions?
Join David Laws and Damian Collins MP to discuss the causes and consequences of the Asquith–Lloyd George rivalry. Both speakers contributed chapters to Iain Dale’s new book, The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020), David Laws on Asquith and Damian Collins on Lloyd George. Chair: Wendy Chamberlain MP.
This online meeting will start at 7.00pm, following the Liberal Democrat History Group’s AGM at 6.30pm. All welcome.
To register, please click here. (Zoom webinar, kindly hosted for the History Group by Liberal Democrat HQ.)
2020 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1945 general election and the beginning of the creation of the post-war welfare state.
While the system of social security introduced after 1945 is often heralded as one of the greatest achievements of the Labour Party, its intellectual origins and design were primarily owed to Liberal thinkers and politicians stretching back over several decades.
Join us to discuss these issues with Professor Pat Thane (Birkbeck College) and Dr Peter Sloman (University of Cambridge). Chair: Baroness Tyler.
This fringe meeting will be held online as part of the the Liberal Democrat autumn conference, and will be open only to those who have registered for the conference.
The Liberal Democrats entered the 2019 general election campaign buoyed by their best opinion poll ratings in a decade, a second place showing in the recent European Parliament elections, impressive local election results in England and high-profile defections from the other parties. The party had a dynamic, young new leader in Jo Swinson and a simple, clear message: stop Brexit. But the party’s campaign gained little traction and the results were hugely disappointing.
Discuss the 2019 election with Professor Sir John Curtice (Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde) and James Gurling (former Chair, Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee). Chair: Wendy Chamberlain MP.
The meeting will be hosted online on Zoom and also broadcast to the History Group’s Facebook page. You must register in advance to participate via Zoom (and be able to ask questions); to register, click here.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Participation via Zoom is limited to the first 100 registering.
Update following meeting: John Curtice’s presentation to the meeting is attached here: John Curtice 080720
David Lloyd George Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
The 1979 general election inaugurated the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and an eighteen-year period of Conservative government. It took place after the ‘winter of discontent’, marked by public sector strikes which destroyed the Labour government’s social contract. The results signalled the end of the post-World War II political consensus, based on an enhanced role for the state in economic management, strong trade unions, a broad welfare state and the pursuit of full employment.
The election came at the end of a decade that had seen numerous political upheavals, including two hung parliaments and record levels of support for the Liberal Party. But the Liberals’ share of the vote fell sharply in 1979, and two-party politics seemed to be back.
Join Lord David Steel, Professor Sir John Curtice (University of Strathclyde) and Baroness Shirley Williams to discuss the 1979 general election and its significance.
The meeting will start at 7.00pm, after the Liberal Democrat History Group’s AGM at 6.30pm.
The familiar story of the NHS has it that the health service is a Labour achievement, dating from the Attlee administration of 1945–51. But in reality the Liberal governments of the early twentieth century helped to lay the foundations of the NHS, and the welfare state as a whole.
Join Dr Chris Renwick (University of York) and Lord Kenneth O. Morgan to discuss the Liberal contribution to health policy and the origins of the NHS. Chair: Baroness Judith Jolly.
A fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference (no conference pass necessary).
Committee Room 4A, House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW
On 16 August 1819, 60,000 peaceful protesters gathered on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demand the right to elect their own MPs. The demonstration ended when local militia on horseback charged the protesters and cut them down with sabres, leaving at least eleven dead and hundreds injured. The episode became known as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’. Lord Liverpool’s ministry then cracked down on protests and dissent through the ‘Six Acts’, which stifled calls for reform.
Join Dr Robert Poole (University of Central Lancashire) and Dr Jacqueline Riding (Birkbeck, University of London) to discuss the importance and legacy of the Peterloo Massacre, particularly for the Whigs and their aspirations for parliamentary reform.
Meeting room 1/2, Novotel Hotel, Fishergate, York YO10 4FD
Despite its decline after the First World War, the Liberal Party managed to hang on in Yorkshire and Lancashire, contributing to its eventual revival. Discuss why this was with William Wallace, Tony Greaves and Michael Meadowcroft. Chair: Baroness Kath Pinnock.
A fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat spring conference (no conference pass necessary).
National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE
One hundred and fifty years ago, in December 1868, William Ewart Gladstone became Prime Minister for the first time. Over the following six years, from 1868 to 1874, his government produced a series of lasting reforms, including nationwide primary school education, the secret ballot, legalisation of some trade union activities and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. This record helped build his reputation as the greatest Liberal leader in history.
In this meeting Professor Jon Parry and Dr David Brooks discuss the importance and legacy of what might be considered the first Liberal government and the first modern administration. The meeting accompanies the publication of issue 101 of the Journal of Liberal History, a special issue on the same topic. Chair: Baroness Liz Barker.
Jon Parry is Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, specialising in the history of British politics and political ideas in the nineteenth century. His publications include Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867–1875 and The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain. Dr Brooks is Emeritus Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University London. He has written extensively on Gladstone and organises the annual ‘Gladstone Umbrella’ weekend conference at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden.