History

Nancy Seear (Lady Seear), 1913-1997

When Lady Violet Bonham Carter died in 1969, the Liberal Party lost its most powerful and indomitable female campaigner. The vacuum she left was filled by Beatrice Nancy Seear, always known by her middle name, a formidable politician possessed of a towering intellect. Seear was an active Liberal and latterly Liberal Democrat for over fifty […]

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 […]

Richard Holme on the merger negotiations

My recollections of the process which led to the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP are hazy since I am not a diary-keeper. Nor can I give anything but an outsider's view of the formal merger negotiations since, to my chagrin at the time, I was not elected to be a member of the negotiating team – any small ability I had as a negotiator being nullified in the eyes of the Party Assembly by my parti-pris commitment to the merger itself.

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 […]

Jeremy Thorpe, 1929-2014

The infamy of Jeremy Thorpe’s downfall unfairly colours all else in his life. Thorpe was a stylish, progressive and popular politician. Under his leadership the Liberal Party won more votes than ever before or since at a general election and helped drive legislation taking Britain into the European Community through a divided Parliament. But 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 […]

Michael Meadowcroft, 1942-

Michael Meadowcroft was Liberal MP for Leeds West from 1983 to 1987, confounding sceptics to win a solidly inner-city seat by using the community politics approach which he had helped to develop over the preceding fifteen years. He was the main, indeed very nearly the only, philosopher of applied Liberalism within the old Liberal Party […]

Roy Jenkins (Lord Jenkins), 1920-2003

Roy Jenkins played a significant role in developing and articulating a new progressive vision of social, political and constitutional change. His reforms at the Home Office helped to transform Britain into a more modern, more civilised society. He was a successful, if orthodox, Chancellor of the Exchequer. He played an important and consistent role in […]

Bill Rodgers (Lord Rodgers), 1928-

Bill Rodgers – one of the Gang of Four who founded the SDP, and now (as Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank) the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords – was born in Liverpool on 28 October 1928 and named William Thomas Rodgers. His father was employed for forty years by the […]

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 Clement Freud, 1924-2009

Clement Freud was one of the best-known faces on TV, and best-known voices on radio, when he became Liberal candidate for the Isle of Ely in the 1973 by-election. ‘Freud has them rolling in the Isle’ ran one tabloid headline. Those who did not know him were surprised that, even during a promising run of […]

Realignment of the left

The end of Jo Grimond's leadership in 1967 heralded a bleak period for the Liberal Party. His successor, Jeremy Thorpe, was never assured of the complete confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. Unlike Grimond, he displayed little interest in ideas, though he was an accomplished organiser, fund-raiser and speaker.

Formation of the SDP

Launching the new Social Democratic Party (SDP) on the 26th March 1981, the former Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins announced that the aim of the new party was to get away from the politics of outdated dogmatism and class confrontation and to release the energies of those who were fed up with the old slanging match.

The Liberal – SDP merger

The poor performance of the Liberal-SDP Alliance at the June 1987 election prompted the Liberal leader, David Steel to call for the unity of both wings, after only 22 seats were secured by both sides.

Michael Meadowcroft on the merger negotiations

It is difficult to realise that it is now sixteen years since the trauma and angst of the merger negotiations. As far as factual accuracy is concerned the book by Tony Greaves and Rachael Pitchford is an excellent record of the proceedings. There were only a few points of difference that I took up with them at the time.

Journal articles

Hampshire Liberals

Review of Martin Kyrle, Liberals in Hampshire: a part(l)y history, Part 4, Eastleigh 1978–85 (Sarsen Press, 2020).

Download available only for subscribers.

It’s Boy David

Review of David Torrance, David Steel: Rising Hope to Elder Statesman (Biteback Publishing, 2012)

Download available only for subscribers.

Events

The two Davids: Steel versus Owen

In 1981 the alliance between the Liberal Party and the newly founded SDP was agreed; the two parties would fight elections together on a joint platform with join candidates. Between 1983 and 1987, however, the working relationship between the Liberal leader, David Steel, and his SDP counterpart, Dr David Owen, became increasingly marked by tension and distrust. Steel became steadily more frustrated at Owen’s resistance to joint selection of candidates, and any convergence on policy proposals. The Liberal Party and the SDP clashed over some issues, most notably nuclear weapons. In particular, Owen strongly opposed any long-term moves to merge the two parties.

The clash became painfully obvious during the 1987 general election campaign, when Steel ruled out supporting a minority Thatcher government while Owen was adamant that Labour was unfit to govern. The results of the election were disappointing for both parties. The leadership tensions ultimately wrecked the Alliance.

Discuss what went wrong with Sir Graham Watson (Steel’s former Head of Office) and Roger Carroll (former SDP Communications Director). Chair: Christine Jardine MP.

This is a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference; you must be registered for the conference to be able to participate (you can register here). You do not need to register separately for the meeting.

The 1979 General Election

The 1979 general election inaugurated the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and an eighteen-year period of Conservative government. It took place after the ‘winter of discontent’, marked by public sector strikes which destroyed the Labour government’s social contract. The results signalled the end of the post-World War II political consensus, based on an enhanced role for the state in economic management, strong trade unions, a broad welfare state and the pursuit of full employment.

The election came at the end of a decade that had seen numerous political upheavals, including two hung parliaments and record levels of support for the Liberal Party. But the Liberals’ share of the vote fell sharply in 1979, and two-party politics seemed to be back.

Join Lord David Steel, Professor Sir John Curtice (University of Strathclyde) and Baroness Shirley Williams to discuss the 1979 general election and its significance.

The meeting will start at 7.00pm, after the Liberal Democrat History Group’s AGM at 6.30pm.

The Limehouse Declaration and the birth of the SDP

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?

Liberals and local government in London since the 1970s

Winning local elections has been a keystone in Liberal (Democrat) success in the years since the adoption of the community politics strategy at the Eastbourne Assembly in 1970. There have been many spectacular advances across London, from the heartland of the south western boroughs to Southwark, Islington and more recently breakthroughs on Camden and Brent to share power there. But there are still black holes – ten London boroughs with no Lib Dem representation; and places like Harrow and Tower Hamlets where we controlled the council only to see a near wipe out follow.

In a meeting supported by the Lib Dem group on London Councils, the umbrella organisation representing all 32 London boroughs, the City of London, the Metropolitan Police Authority and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the History Group will look at the performance of Liberals in London local government since the 1970s with our speakers being two key players from the party. Cllr Stephen Knight of London Councils will chair the meeting and our speakers will be Cllr Sir David Williams, first elected for Ham and Petersham Ward in 1974 and a former leader of Richmond Council and London Assembly member Mike Tuffrey, who was also GLC/ILEA member for Vauxhall in the 1980s.

Salad days: merger twenty years on

Twenty years ago a new political party was born from the merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties the Social & Liberal Democrats (or Salads, as the party was disparagingly nicknamed by its opponents).

This meeting will explore the political background to the merger and the byzantine process of negotiation through which it which it came about. Did it really deserve the description of merger most foul?

Speakers: Lord Clement-Jones, member of the Liberal merger negotiating team; Lord Goodhart, member of the SDP merger negotiating team; and Professor David Dutton, Liverpool University.

Working with Others: the Lib-Lab Pact, 1977-78

From March 1977 to October 1978, the Liberal Party kept Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in power through the Lib-Lab Pact. Labour ministers consulted systematically with Liberal spokespeople across a wide range of policy areas.

Arguably, the Pact restored a degree of political and economic stability to the country, but its achievements from a Liberal point of view were highly limited and it did not appear to be popular with the country at large.

Yet, in the longer term, the Pact can be seen to have paved the way for the concept of different political parties working together which led in the following decade to the LiberalSDP Alliance and may ultimately lead to coalition government at Westminster.

Twenty years on from the Pact, key participants from both sides discuss its history and impact.

Speakers: David Steel (Leader of the Liberal Party 1976-88); Tom McNally (Head of the Prime Ministers Political Office 1976-79); Michael Steed (President of the Liberal Party 1978-79, and academic psephologist). Chair: Geoff Tordoff (Chairman of the Liberal Party 1976-79).

Research in progress

Anarchism and Liberalism 1880-1980

Some anarchists were successfully influential in liberal networks, starting with many New Liberal networks around the beginning of the 20th Century. My thesis focuses on this earlier period but I am interested in anarchist influences on liberalism throughout the twentieth century. If any readers can help with informing me of their own personal experiences of […]

Russell Johnston, 1932-2008

Scottish Liberal politics was dominated for over thirty years (1965-95 and beyond) by two figures: David Steel and Russell Johnston. Of the former, much has been written; of the latter, surprisingly little. I am therefore researching with a view to writing a biography of Russell. If any readers can help – with records, other written […]