There were many at the Brighton Conference who were in no doubt that if it wasnt for a young, charismatic party leader they would have no party at all.
In 1956 Jo Grimond took over the reigns of the Liberal Party and, as many will argue, he saved it from death.
He was responsible for the Liberal Party’s first post-war revival the highlight of which was the capture of Orpington in 1962.
It was his radicalism, enthusiasm and personal charisma that tempted the likes of Menzies Campbell and David Steel to get involved in Liberal Politics. Part of the attraction for Menzies Campbell was that Grimond “was arguing for a non-doctrinaire, non-socialist party in the centre-left,” whilst David Steel was attracted by Grimond’s personality and his power of argument.
Grimond was associated with the strategy of realignment of the left, which would bring together the nations radical, progressive forces into one effective political movement.
It is a strategy that remains very much in play today, most obviously in the devolved Parliaments of Scotland and Wales, but also at the highest level within the Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties in Westminster.
At their Autumn Conference, the Liberal Democrats debated their core values and principles in detail for only the second time since the party was formed in 1988.
Some saw the party as a largely a continuation of the Liberal tradition, which has been based primarily on a commitment to the rights of individuals. Others said that the influence of Social Democratic thinking, which has tended to emphasise the importance of greater equality as a central goal, was too often overlooked. But they may really be the political heirs of the socially reforming New Liberals who came to prominence in the early twentieth century. Such thinkers and politicians as J.M. Keynes, William Beveridge, Jo Grimond and E.F. Schumacher have undoubtedly been influential.
The History Groups summer meeting tried to shed some light on who are the Liberal Democrats philosophical antecedents.
Globalisation and its costs and benefits are at the heart of much of todays political debate. But intense debates on the liberalisation of international trade are by no means new. Free trade was one of the great rallying cries of the Victorian Liberal Party.
In the 1840s, the Anti-Corn Law League successfully campaigned for abolition of the high duties on the import of grain established after the Napoleonic Wars to protect British agriculture from foreign competition. Manchester, the centre of the cotton industry, whose products were denied access to overseas markets because of continental grain-growers inability to export to Britain, became the headquarters of the League. The radical Liberals Richard Cobden and John Bright were its leaders.
Our meeting at Manchester Conference looked at the work and legacy of Cobden, Bright and the Manchester School of Liberalism.
This meeting was held at the Peoples History Museum in conjunction with its current exhibition, “Reforming Manchester: Liberals and the City.”
People are concerned as never before with the deterioration of the NHS, the quality and safety of rail services and the standard of education. With Labour’s promises of big improvements, its controversial solutions in some areas and the debate that is developing inside the Liberal Democrats, public services are sure to stay at the top of the political agenda.
Ever since Joseph Chamberlain, as Mayor of Birmingham, purchased two gas companies and a water works, established public transport and embarked on slum clearance programmes, Liberals have claimed a proud record as innovative champions of public services.
Is there a Liberal tradition in the public services that we should carry on today? Was the work of Chamberlain and others an essential aspect of Liberalism? Or was it simply local politics?
The official launch of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s new book, Great Liberal Speeches, published by Politicos Publishing.
In the run-up to the 2001 general election, the issues of asylum and race relations moved to centre stage, with Liberal Democrats winning plaudits for their firm stand against discrimination.
But the arguments are not new. Race relations and immigration were a major phenomenon of post-war politics. From the Macmillan Governments “voucher” system for would-be immigrants to Labours 1968 legislation to end the passport privileges of Kenyan Asians, both major parties sought to pander to white prejudice. The late 1960s also saw Enoch Powells infamous call for the repatriation of black and other Commonwealth immigrants and the rise of the National Front.
Where did Liberals stand? And what impact did racial politics and immigration have on Liberalism?
On the eve of the first general election campaign of the twenty-first century, this meeting examined the development of campaigning techniques since the Great Reform Act of 1832.
From the introduction of electoral registers, the gradual elimination of corruption, and the appearance of new forms of communications – railways, the telegraph and newspapers – to the computerised and direct-mail based innovations of the SDP, had campaigns changed out of all recognition, or did they remain the same at heart?
On 25 January 1981, four former Labour cabinet ministers – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams – published the Limehouse Declaration, publicly signalling their intention to quit the leftward path that the Labour Party had taken. The Declaration advocated a classless society and called for the realignment of British politics. After an overwhelming public response, the SDP came into being two months later.
Twenty years on, the Liberal Democrat History Group looked at the origins and importance of the Limehouse Declaration. Did it signal the end of both Old Labour and Liberal Party irrelevance? Or did it back the progressive forces in British politics into a cul-de-sac?
Was the SDP a mistake? Or was the party essential for both the reform of Labour and a rebirth of Liberalism?
In a US Presidential election year, we examined the history of the Liberal tradition in North America. The Canadian Liberal Party is one of the most successful liberal parties in the world, in terms of winning elections – why? And who were the liberals in the United States?
“When is a war not a war?” asked the Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman. “When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.”
One hundred years after the Boer War began, Professor Denis Judd (University of North London), author of The Boer War and Empire, reviewed the response of Liberalism to the War. Dr Jacqueline Beaumont, Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, discussed the attitudes of the Liberal press.
The West Country has a special place in the Liberal tradition. Home to Isaac Foot and his sons, Thorpe, Penhaligon, Pardoe … For much of the post-war period, the Liberal Party‘s parliamentary representation rested largely on the South West English MPs, along with their colleagues in the rest of the “Celtic fringe”.
Michael Steed (University of Kent) and Adrian Lee (University of Plymouth University), discussed the survival and strength of Liberalism in the West Country, at a meeting in the city that was the stronghold of the Foot dynasty.
Robert Maclennan MP, himself a former leader of the SDP, and Professor Peter Clarke, leading expert on the New Liberals, looked at leaders of the Liberal Party and the SDP over the last hundred years, using analysis and anecdotes to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the two parties leaders.
The audience was polled to see who they consider was the best and the worst Liberal/SDP leader of the last century.
Professor Ben Pimlott (Warden of Goldsmiths College and biographer of Hugh Dalton) and Dr David Dutton (biographer of Sir John Simon) reviewed relations between Liberals and Labour during the key period when Labour established itself as the main opposition party to the Conservatives.
The two elections of 1974 formed a peak of the second post-war Liberal revival, giving the party six million votes but no more than fourteen MPs. Participants in the campaigns – including Tim Beaumont, Viv Bingham, Adrian Slade, Sir Cyril Smith, Paul Tyler MP and Richard Wainwright – shared their recollections of the elections.
Liberals and Nationalists have sometimes shared common aims. But how close are they?
Are their basic philosophies compatible with each other? How has cooperation worked in practice? Why did nineteenth-century Liberals support nationalist movements while their twentieth-century counterparts have tended to oppose them?
What have Liberal Democrats today to learn from Liberal heroes of the past? Who contributed most to the development of the party and of Liberalism? What common themes bind them together?
Two speakers offered their choices: Bill Rodgers (Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank), one of the SDPs “Gang of Four” and leader of the Liberal Democrat peers; and Graham Watson MEP, former aide to David Steel and the one of the Liberal Democrats first two Euro-MPs. Chair: Graham Tope (Lord Tope of Cheam).
The meeting marked the launch of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s major publication, the Dictionary of Liberal Biography.
In the centenary year of Gladstone’s death, this meeting looked at three crucial aspects of the life of the most famous Liberal Prime Minister.
Conrad Russell, historian and Liberal Democrat front bencher in the Lords, looked at what the Liberal Democrats could learn from Gladstone.
John Maloney, lecturer in economics at Exeter University, will look at Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the founder of the modern Treasury; and
Professor H. C. G. Matthew, editor of Gladstones diaries and biographer of Gladstone, Fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, looked at Gladstone and Ireland, the abiding passion of his later years.
What did the Party and its predecessors achieve for women’s rights, from the suffragettes onwards?
Reform of the House of Lords was one aspect of the new governments manifesto which it seemed in no hurry to implement.
The meeting discussed attempts at reform in the twentieth century: the Parliament Act of 1911 and Labour’s attempts to reform the Lords in the 1960s; together with some thoughts on the future of the Second Chamber.
“Social Insurance and Allied Services – report by Sir William Beveridge” was published in December 1942, and its proposals were passed into legislation by Attlee’s government between 1945 and 1948. As Addison put it, “the historian of social administration finds in the Beveridge Report the blueprint of the postwar welfare state in Britain”. Along with Keynes, Beveridge provided the Liberal powerhouse of ideas which Labour governments implemented, and Conservative governments retained, for almost forty years.
But as the century nears its end, could Beveridges framework – modified and distorted by the Thatcher administations as it was – provide the blueprint for the modern welfare state?