Richard Cobden, 1804-1865

Richard Cobden is most famous for his advocacy of free trade and as a leader of the Anti-Corn Law League. He has been described as clothing free trade with a moral cloak. The repeal of the Corn Laws, and the subsequent embedding of the cause of free trade and cheap food in working-class beliefs, were […]

Dadabhai Naoroji, 1825-1917

When four black Labour MPs were elected to the House of Commons at the 1987 general election, much was made of the political breakthrough this represented for Britain’s ethnic minority communities. But the first non-white to win a Parliamentary seat had achieved his victory, as a Liberal, nearly a hundred years earlier.

Robert Maclennan (Lord Maclennan), 1936-2020

When Robert (Bob) Maclennan was first elected President of the Liberal Democrats in the summer of 1994, few realised just how much this seemingly self-effacing politician would come to represent so completely the ethos and values of the Liberal Democrats. Still fewer would realise quite how hard he fought for those values. It is characteristic […]

David Steel (Lord Steel), 1938-

With the exception of H. H. Asquith, David (now Lord) Steel has been the longest serving leader of the Liberal Party. During his twelve-year tenure of the leadership, the party enjoyed the highest share of the popular vote cast for a third party in half a century and won more seats in Parliament and in […]

Viscount Palmerston (Henry John Temple), 1784-1865

If we date the modern Liberal Party from the 1859 meeting in Willis’ Tea Rooms, we must accord Palmerston the honour of being the first Liberal Prime Minister, though he would have thought himself the Queen’s minister and the nation’s leader rather than a party’s. In truth, he was more the last of the old […]

Earl of Aberdeen (George Hamilton-Gordon), 1784-1860

Lord Aberdeen was the Prime Minister who first brought together the coalition of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals which later became the Liberal Party. He is perhaps best known for being premier at the time of the Crimean War. After his death several copies of a text were found which seemed to indicate that he felt […]

Earl of Kimberley (John Wodehouse), 1826-1902

When Lord Kimberley died on 8 April 1902, he was commonly remembered as Gladstone’s loyal lieutenant: competent, hard-working, and high-minded. By praising these very civilian virtues in the context of war-charged, turn-of-the-century high politics, his twentieth-century eulogists were politely wondering exactly why Kimberley had mattered. After all, as one journalist wrote, he was as far […]

Earl Granville (Granville George Leveson Gower), 1815-1891

For more than thirty years, at the height of its strength in the country, Lord Granville led the Victorian Liberal Party in the House of Lords, where it was in a perpetual minority. His diplomatic skills contributed significantly to its legislative achievements and to preserving the unity of a party always threatening to splinter. Granville […]

Earl of Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose), 1847-1929

Rosebery is perhaps the least well-known of the Liberal Prime Ministers, having the misfortune to serve in the office for only a short period, immediately after the extended career of the charismatic Gladstone. He had a difficult relationship with the radicals of his parliamentary party, not because of his social policy attitudes (he was a […]

Marquess of Hartington (Duke of Devonshire), 1833-1908

The birth of the modern Liberal Party in 1859 brought together three disparate elements, Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. Hartington, as he was known for most of his political life, epitomised the Whig contribution to government – rich, aristocratic but driven by noblesse oblige to take public office. When he broke with Gladstone in the 1880s it […]

Lord John Russell (Earl Russell), 1792-1878

The leading Liberal politician from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s, Russell was twice Prime Minister; he was associated particularly with the issues of parliamentary, educational and Irish reform. He was a Foxite Whig who updated Fox’s attitudes to make them more relevant to the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and added to them a […]

Viscount Melbourne (William Lamb), 1779-1848

Right from his London birth on 15 March 1779, at Melbourne House in Piccadilly, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, was at the centre of Whig social circles. The second son of Peniston Lamb, first Viscount Melbourne, he followed a normal early life for sons of Whig magnates Eton, Cambridge University, and education for a legal […]

Earl Grey (Charles Grey), 1764-1845

Charles Grey, second Earl Grey, Viscount Howick and Baron Grey, was the Prime Minister who oversaw the Great Reform Act of 1832, which overhauled the country’s parliamentary electoral system and was the culmination of two years of intense political crisis. Born on 13 March 1764, at Falloden in Northumberland, his youth was spent in a […]

Herbert Henry Asquith (Earl of Oxford and Asquith), 1852-1928

H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister from April 1908 to December 1916, bore the chief part in some of the greatest Liberal achievements of the twentieth century. Herbert Henry Asquith was born at Morley, West Yorkshire, on 12 September 1852. His father died when he was eight, and in 1863, sent to London to live with […]

Jo Grimond (Lord Grimond), 1913-1993

Regarded by many contemporary Liberals as their spiritual leader and mentor, Jo Grimond was a figure of great magnetism and intellectual originality. He was once described as a politician on whom the gods smile, and inspired a rare degree of public affection. Within the Liberal Party, neither of his successors, Jeremy Thorpe nor David Steel enjoyed the […]

Bernard Greaves, 1942-

For thirty years, Bernard Greaves has influenced Liberal, Liberal Democrat and public policy on a range of issues. Generally, he has done so by a willingness to rigorously follow through original ideas based on firm and clear principles and a painstaking application to detail. He has greatly influenced a smaller number by the force of […]

Charles Bradlaugh, 1833-1891

Charles Bradlaugh was born on 26 September 1833 in Hoxton, London, the eldest of the seven children of a poor solicitor’s clerk, and he received only an elementary education. Though brought up in the Church of England, he came to doubt the doctrines of Christianity. Pressure to conform drove him from home in 1850 and […]

Shirley Williams (Lady Williams), 1930-

As the byelection car cavalcade drove slowly through a council estate in Warrington, Shirley Williams, microphone in hand, was drumming up support for SDP candidate Roy Jenkins. Standing precariously on the front seat, her head and shoulders poking through the sun-roof, Williams was in her element. As she passed a broken-down car, its grease-stained owner […]

Sir William Harcourt, 1827-1904

William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt was born at York on 14 October 1827, of a land-owning and clerical family which traced its ancestry to the Plantagenet kings. His elder brother, Edward Harcourt, was a staunch Conservative and for eight years an MP. William Harcourt’s views, however, began to take a Liberal turn in the […]

Thomas Hill Green, 1836-1882

Thomas Hill Green was that rare combination, a high-powered philosopher and political theorist who also contributed effectively to practical politics. His friend, the Cambridge philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, said that while he could hold his own with Green in metaphysics and epistemology, when it came to politics, ‘I always felt the chances were that before long […]