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?