“The Liberal policy”, stated one nonconformist minister late last century, “makes for the establishment of the Kingdom of God”. Our two speakers examined the role that religion and religious movements played in the history of the Liberal Party. Jonathan Parry (Pembroke College, Cambridge; author of The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain) examined the 19th century, while Alan Beith MP (Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat MPs) dealt with the 20th.
After almost thirty years of continuous decline, the leadership of Jo Grimond, and byelection and local election victories, seemed to herald a new era for the Liberal Party. Why did it all go wrong? William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire), Lords spokesman on defence and reader in international relations at the LSE, examined the record.
Michael Kandiah, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History, spoke on Liberal-Conservative relations in the 1940s and 1950s. He looked at both the national negotiations which concluded in the offer of a cabinet post to Clement Davies by Churchill in 1951, and at the local pacts in Huddersfield and Bolton, which put Liberal MPs in Parliament. Dr Kandiah was in the process of writing a biography of Lord Woolton.
Massive Tory defeat …. sweeping opposition landslide victory …. major gains by small third party …. but what does the new government stand for other than opposition to unpopular Conservative policies?
The outcome of the 1997 general election? No – it happened in 1906, when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman led the Liberal Party to a crushing victory over Arthur Balfour’s Unionists, with the newly-formed Labour Party making important gains on the back of an electoral pact with the Liberals. And despite the lack of any clear Liberal election programme other than reversal of unpopular Tory policies, the following eight years were to see one of the most sustained periods of political and social reform of the twentieth century, as the Government put into practice the thinking and policies of the New Liberalism.
Nine decades later, were similar ingredients in place once again? The topic was discussed by Andrew Adonis, Political Editor of the Observer; John Grigg, biographer of Lloyd George; and Earl Russell, historian and Lords spokesman on social security.
The speaker is a former lecturer at the University of Surrey, several times a Liberal candidate and author of The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970.
The policy of the Liberal Party on the question of the land.
Unity in Europe was a central theme for the Liberal Party since Gladstones day, and was an important factor behind the SDP’s breakaway from the Labour Party. Yet continental liberal parties have not always proved so enthusiastic. Our three speakers examined the historical record.
The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 split the Tories for a generation, laid the foundations of the Victorian Liberal Party and ushered in nearly a century of free trade orthodoxy in economic policy.
One hundred and fifty years later, the Liberal Democrat History Group discussed this momentous event with one of the period’s leading historians.
The reforming Liberal Governments of 1906-14 helped lay the foundations of the British welfare state; amongst other achievements, they introduced old age pensions, national insurance and the principle of graduated taxation. Underpinning these political achievements lay the school of thought known as the “New Liberalism”.
New Liberal writers such as Green, Hobhouse and Hobson advanced the philosophical underpinnings of the Liberal Party onwards from Gladstonian individualism, developing the concept of community and drawing attention to the need for positive action to redress social and economic inequalities. Yet theirs was still identifiably a liberal and non-collectivist approach, stressing the need for participative reformism, rather than seeking to impose reforms from above.
Was Tony Blair’s “new Labour” Party adopting this agenda? Or were the Liberal Democrats the true inheritors of the New Liberalism?
Each talked about a philosopher, writer or politician of the past who still had something of relevance to contribute to the Party’s principles and policies. The aim was to connect the political beliefs and values which modern day Liberal Democrats hold with a historical tradition, or school of thought, or individual writings. (Alan Beith chose W. T. Stead, Sir William Goodhart Judge Learned Hand.)
The subject of the meeting was the influence of Keynes’s and Lloyd George’s Yellow Book on the problems of conquering unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s. With one of the major policy paper debates at Brighton that year being on Employment Policy, this provided us with a chance to trace the development of Liberal/Liberal Democrat thought on this important topic.
Lord Skidelsky was Professor of Political Economy at University of Warwick. His books include Politicians and the Slump and Oswald Mosley; he is perhaps best known for his biography of Keynes.
Gordon Lishman discussed the background to the Eastbourne resolution of 1970, which first committed the Liberal Party to community politics. Topics covered included the electoral and campaigning context of the time, the development of the ideology of community politics and the tactics required to persuade the Assembly to vote for it.
The reform of Britain‘s constitution has been a watchword of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors for over 150 years. This is partly because, compared to other countries, constitutional change has been relatively rare – particularly in England, and particularly in the 20th century.
This meeting examined why this should be so. We concentrated on the areas of the reform of Parliament, and of decentralisation of power.
The possibility of cooperation between Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had been much talked about. The twentieth century had in fact seen several examples of such cooperation – including the electoral pact of 1906, the Labour-supported Liberal minority government of 1910-14, the Liberal-supported Labour minority governments of 1924 and 1929-31, and of course the Lib-Lab Pact of 1976-78.
The next election will see a bigger chance of a hung parliament than any fought over the last thirteen years. But what happens if the Liberal Democrats do end up holding the balance?
Dr Stevenson examined the history of the Liberal Party after 1945, and its attempt to carve out an identity for itself in a hostile political world. He explored the historical dimension of the continuous tension within the Party between those members who saw its policies as essentially centrist, and those who fought for them be radical.
This conflict was reviewed against the background of the darkest years of the Liberal Party’s history: the many false dawns of successive but unsustained revivals, and its desperate struggle for survival, dependent in many cases on pacts with local Conservative associations to maintain a bare toehold at Westminster.
In the popular view, the Civil War and Glorious Revolution of the seventeenth century heralded the “bourgeois revolution” of which Thatcherism has now proved the culmination. Political change – the triumph of the middle over the upper classes – inevitably followed the social and economic changes deriving from the growing importance of commerce and industry compared to the land.
But did it? In this fringe meeting, Professor Russell put the alternative view, that English society steadily gained those characteristics identified as “middle class” from the fourteenth century onwards.
Political revolution need not follow directly from social change. There never was any “bourgeois revolution”.
Did the formation of the Social & Liberal Democrats represent the final coming together of the two philosophical traditions united in the Liberal Party of the turn of the century and split by the strains of war and the subsequent Liberal decline?