Ramsay Muir, 1872-1941

Ramsay Muir was a leading figure in the Liberal Summer School movement and the National Liberal Federation in the 1920s and 1930s. He was briefly a Liberal MP, but, more importantly, he was one of the most prominent Liberal thinkers in inter-war Britain, and had a marked influence on party policy. After his death, Muir was described by his Oxford friend Ernest Barker as the scholar-prophet of Liberalism, and his writings on liberalism and international policy still have relevance today.

John Ramsay Bryce Muir was born at Otterburn, Northumberland, on 30 September 1872, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was educated at a small private school in Birkenhead, and won a scholarship to University College, Liverpool, in 1889. He was initially funded by the Presbyterian Church, and was training to be a Presbyterian minister, but after only a year, he switched to a history course, partly due to his own religious doubts. A first at Liverpool was followed by four years at Balliol College, Oxford, where he gained firsts in Greats and modern history. Whilst at Oxford, he became interested in politics, but his strong belief in the Empire meant that he was out of sympathy with many in the Liberal Party of the 1890s.

In 1898, Muir returned to Liverpool as a lecturer, and was later Professor of History in 1906-13. During this time he devoted much of his historical writing to a history of Liverpool, but his political awareness was further awakened by the constitutional crisis of 1910, when he wrote Peers and Bureaucrats. The Great War was also important in developing his interest in politics, and he wrote extensively on why Britain was justified in fighting Germany for democracy. Having spent 1913-14 travelling in India, he became Chair of Modern History at Manchester, but he resigned the post in 1921 in order to devote himself to politics.

By 1921, Muir had already become active in the Manchester Liberal Federation, and had made two contributions to Liberal politics. Firstly, he and his colleagues in Manchester had persuaded the party to think seriously about industrial questions. In 1920 he wrote Liberalism and Industry, a call to government and industry to work together in setting goals and strategies so that the country could be competitive, but also help remedy social problems. These radical proposals helped to pave the way for Lloyd George’s industrial enquiry and the Yellow Book of 1928. Secondly, Muir helped to establish the Liberal Summer School in 1921, with Ernest Simon, Walter Layton, J. M. Keynes, and Hubert Henderson. The Summer School was a major source of ideas for the Liberal Party in the 1920s and 1930s, and Muir was active in it throughout.

He was also editor of the Weekly Westminster, from November 1923 to January 1926, when the paper merged with the Westminster Gazette, for which he continued to write articles. Aside from writing and organising, Muir also stood for Parliament eight times, but was successful only once. His first battle was in Rochdale in 1922, and he took the seat at his second attempt in December 1923. This was an unfortunate time to enter Parliament as MP for a marginal seat; he was defeated in the Liberal catastrophe of October 1924. In March 1926, he then fought the Combined English Universities constituency in a by-election, and again stood in Rochdale in 1929. He fought Scarborough & Whitby at the May 1931 by-election, and at the 1935 general election. In the 1931 general election, he stood in Louth.

Within the Liberal Party, Muir had more electoral success, being Chairman of the National Liberal Federation 1931-33, and its President 1933-36. In 1936-41, he was Vice-President of the Liberal Party Organisation, and Chairman of its education and propaganda committees. Muir also remained prominent as a Liberal thinker in the 1930s. He became a leading publicist for issues which particularly concerned Liberals, such as proportional representation, and wrote a humorous political novel, Robinson the Great (1929), on the possibilities open to the Liberals in a balanced parliament. He wrote much of the National Liberal Federation’s The Liberal Way (1934), which was a powerful statement not just of Liberal policy, but also of the principles underlying modern social liberalism.

Through his historical and political works, especially The Interdependent World and its Problems (1932), Muir also popularised the idea of interdependency, originally developed through the pages of The Economist through its editor, Walter Layton. This argued that due to economic and technological developments, the world was now interdependent in a way it had never been before, which in turn meant that international political and economic issues could not be separated from each other. The idea was in part a restatement of free trade, but its promotion of the concept of a single international system was new, and it challenged the dominant belief that nations could maintain sovereignty independently. This was influential on Liberal international policy in the 1930s and after.

Muir died on 4 May 1941, at Pinner in Middlesex. He never married and had no children. His unfinished autobiography is reproduced in a book containing essays about Muir by his friends and colleagues: Stuart Hodgson (ed.), Ramsay Muir: An Autobiography and Some Essays (1943). Muir’s historical writings were extensive, but the most important include his historical atlases, used widely in schools, and A Short History of the British Commonwealth (1920-22). This latter work used history to show how the British Empire had developed into its contemporary form, and he also used history to illustrate other current issues – in, for example, Nationalism and Internationalism (1916); The Expansion of Europe (1917); and The Interdependent World and its Problems (1932). His most notable political works include: Liberalism and Industry (1920); Politics and Progress (1923); The Faith of a Liberal (1933); How Britain is Governed (1930); The Liberal Way (1934); The Record of the National Government (1936); and Future for Democracy (1939).


Richard Grayson is Director of Policy of the Liberal Democrats and the chief policy adviser to the party leader. He is the author of Austen Chamberlain and the Commitment to Europe: British Foreign Policy, 1924-29 (1997) and Liberals, International Relations and Appeasement: The Liberal Party, 1919-39 (2001).