Liberalism in the United States

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.

Back from the dead: the Liberal Party in the 1950s

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

This is a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ online spring conference, so you must be registered for the conference to be able to participate. You can register here.

Asquith versus Lloyd George

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.)

Liberals with a radical programme: The post-war welfare state, Beveridge and the Liberal Party 75 years on

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.

General Election 2019: Disappointment for the Liberal Democrats

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

The 1979 General Election

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 Peterloo Massacre and Nineteenth-Century Popular Radicalism

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.

Liberalism in the north

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).

Gladstone’s first government 1868–74

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.

Europe: the Liberal commitment

Why have the Liberal Democrats, and their Liberal and SDP predecessors, always supported the European project and membership of the EU?

The historical origins of the Liberal commitment to Europe stretch back to the nineteenth century. The next Liberal Democrat History Group meeting will feature a discussion on the issues with Anthony Howe (Professor of Modern History, University of East Anglia; author of Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 and editor of the collected letters of the leading British radical Richard Cobden) and Eugenio Biagini (Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, University of Cambridge; author of works on Gladstonian liberalism, the Italian Risorgimento, and Ireland). Chair: Baroness Julie Smith (Director of the European Centre and Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Cambridge).

A fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in September (no conference pass necessary).

The 1918 coupon election and its consequences

In November 1918, just 24 hours after the Armistice had been signed with Germany, the Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, announced his decision to hold a general election.

Selected coalition candidates received a signed letter of endorsement from Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. The 1918 election thus became known as the ‘coupon election’.

The election saw 133 Coalition Liberals returned to the House of Commons, but the independent Liberals, whom Lloyd George had abandoned, were reduced to a tiny minority, overtaken by the new Labour Party, while the Coalition Liberals increasingly became the prisoner of their Conservative Coalition partners. The election was a key stage in the decline of the Liberal Party; it cemented the wartime split and ensured that the Liberals were eventually relegated to third-party status.

Speakers: Kenneth O. Morgan, Lord Morgan (author of Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government 1918-22 and several other books on Lloyd George) and Alistair Cooke, Lord Lexden (official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club). Chair: Claire Tyler (Baroness Tyler).

The report of this meeting was published in Journal of Liberal History 100 (autumn 2018) and is also available here.

The Liberal Party and Women’s Suffrage

2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed under Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, beginning the enfranchisement of women. While the vast majority of Liberal MPs supported the change, this support was not unanimous, however: the party had been divided for many years over the issue, and the previous Asquith government had obstructed reform. Opponents argued both that politics was not the ‘proper sphere of women’ and that if enfranchised, women would be more likely to vote Conservative.

This fringe meeting at the Southport Liberal Democrat conference will discuss the divisions within the Liberal Party over votes for women, the stance taken by the Asquith government and the impacts on the party of the debates over women’s suffrage.

Speakers: Jo Swinson (Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for East Dunbartonshire) and Krista Cowman (Professor of History, University of Lincoln). Chair: Elizabeth Jewkes (Deputy Chair, Liberal Democrat Women).

Election 2017 – a missed opportunity?

The Liberal Democrats entered the 2017 general election campaign with high hopes: they were the only major UK-wide party unequivocally to oppose Brexit, and the campaign followed months of encouraging local government by-election results. But the outcome was a disappointment: a further fall in the vote from the catastrophic result in 2015, and four losses out of the eight seats that had been salvaged then – though this was offset by the recapture of eight seats which had been lost in 2015 or 2010.

What went wrong? Was it a failure of leadership, of positioning or of campaigning? Or was the party simply swept aside by the rising Labour tide?

Discuss the result and the implications for the Liberal Democrats with Professor Phil Cowley (co-author of The British General Election of 2017) and James Gurling (Chair, Liberal Democrats Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee). Chair: Baroness Grender (Paddy Ashdown’s second-in-command on the 2015 Liberal Democrat election campaign).

The AGM of the Liberal Democrat History Group will take place first, at 6.30pm, followed by the speaker meeting at 7.00pm.

Liberals in local government 1967 – 2017

The Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC) was founded, as the Association of Liberal Councillors, fifty years ago. At this meeting, organised in conjunction with ALDC, we celebrate its 50th anniversary and discuss the role of Liberals and Liberal Democrats in local government. What has the party achieved in local government? To what extent has it taken a distinctively liberal approach?

Speakers: Cllr Sara Bedford (Leader, Three Rivers District Council), Cllr Ruth Dombey (Leader, Sutton Council), Lord Tony Greaves (long-serving councillor, Pendle Borough Council), Cllr Richard Kemp (Leader, Liberal Democrats on Liverpool City Council), Baroness Kath Pinnock (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, former Leader of Kirklees Council) and Matt Cole (University of Birmingham). Chair: Lord Andrew Stunell (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2010–12).

This meeting is a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth; a conference pass will be required for access.

The Leadership of Charles Kennedy

Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, from 1999 to 2006, the Liberal Democrats won a record number of seats in the Commons – but in January 2006 he was forced to resign by the party’s MPs. When he died, in August 2015, he was mourned deeply by the party he once led. This meeting will assess Kennedy’s achievements as Liberal Democrat leader and his strengths and weaknesses.

Speakers: Greg Hurst (author, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw) and Lord Dick Newby (fomer Chief of Sta to Charles Kennedy). Chair: Baroness Lindsay Northover.

Who Rules? Parliament, the People or the Prime Minister?

Parliamentary supremacy, hard won in the seventeenth century, is being challenged by the government response to Brexit, placing under question whether Parliament or the executive – or the popular will, expressed through a referendum – should have the ultimate say.

Discuss the Liberal approach to who rules with English Civil Wars historian Professor Michael Braddick and Baroness Joan Walmsley. Chair: Baroness Lynne Featherstone.

8.15pm, Friday 17 March 2017

Meeting Room 4, Novotel Hotel, Fishergate, York YO10 4FD (no conference pass necessary)

‘Jeremy is Innocent’ : The Life and Times of Jeremy Thorpe and Marion Thorpe

Jeremy Thorpe led the Liberal Party over three general elections from 1967 to 1976. Immensely charismatic, under his leadership the Liberal vote at general elections more than doubled. Yet following a scandal, his career ended in a criminal court case. Why?

On the fiftieth anniversary of Thorpe’s rise to the party leadership, Ronald Porter (obituarist for The Independent and a regular speaker at National Liberal Club events) will present an illustrated talk covering the life of Jeremy Thorpe and his second wife, Marion, who was married to Jeremy from 1973 until her death in 2014. Chair: Michael Steed.

The event will start at 7.00pm after the Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group at 6.30pm.

Coalition: Could Liberal Democrats have handled it better?

The 2015 election decisively ended the Liberal Democrats’ participation in government. Did what the party achieved in coalition between 2010 and 2015 justify the damage? Could the party have managed coalition better? The meeting marks the publication of the autumn Journal of Liberal History, a special issue on the policy record of the coalition.

Speakers: David Laws (Minister for Schools, 2012-15), Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, 2010-12), Akash Paun (Institute for Government).

Chair: Jo Swinson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment Relations, Consumer and Poster Affairs, 2012-15).

The legacy of Roy Jenkins

NOTE: START TIME CHANGED TO 7.00pm

Roy Jenkins is best remembered in Liberal Democrat circles as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who established the Social Democratic Party, the SDP’s first leader, and then a staunch supporter of merger with the Liberal Party. But even as a Labour politician he had a liberal record. In his first two years as Home Secretary (which started just over fifty years ago), he abolished theatre censorship, passed the first effective legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and delivered government support for private members’ bills on the legalisation of homosexuality and on abortion. In 1972 he led the major Labour rebellion that saved the Conservative government’s legislation to take Britain into the European Community.

John Campbell (author of Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life) and Lord David Steel (Leader of the Liberal Party 1976-88) discuss how much liberalism in Britain owes to Roy Jenkins. Chair: Dick Newby (Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, House of Lords, and the SDP’s National Secretary  1983-88).

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