History

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 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 Fallodon 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 […]

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1836-1908

There have been four Liberals at the head of clearly Liberal governments – Gladstone, Rosebery, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Three of them are well-known names. Yet of the four, ‘CB’ was far and away the best party leader. Only Grimond, in very different circumstances, can compare with him. Had Campbell-Bannerman not become leader in […]

Clement Davies, 1884-1962

Edward Clement Davies was born on 19 February 1884 at Llanfyllin, Montgomeryshire, the youngest of the seven children of Moses Davies, an auctioneer, and Elizabeth Margaret Jones. He was educated at the local primary school, won a scholarship to Llanfyllin County School in 1897 and proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became senior foundation […]

Charles James Fox, 1749-1806

Charles James Fox was born in London on 24 January 1749. His family was firmly placed within the political establishment, with his mother being the great-granddaughter of Charles II and his father having faithfully served Walpole for many years. From his early years, Fox mixed both a willingness and aptitude for hard work with periods […]

William Ewart Gladstone, 1809-1898

As Roy Jenkins concluded in his masterly biography, ‘Mr Gladstone was almost as much the epitome of the Victorian age as the great Queen herself’. He was the political giant of his lifetime and even at the end of the twentieth century the principles and aspirations he brought to public life are still inherent in the […]

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 […]

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 […]

David Lloyd-George (Earl Lloyd-George and Viscount Gwynedd), 1863-1945

Lloyd George, according to Winston Churchill after his death, ‘was the greatest Welshman which that unconquerable race has produced since the age of the Tudors’. Yet he was born in England at 5 New York Place, Robert Street, Chorlton-upon-Medlock, Manchester on 17 January 1863. His parents, William George, a school teacher, and Elizabeth Lloyd, a […]

Herbert Samuel (Viscount Samuel), 1870-1963

Herbert Samuel was a leading figure in the Liberal Party for over fifty years, from its zenith before the First World War to the nadir of its fortunes in the mid-1950s. With Sinclair , he was the last independent Liberal to serve in the Cabinet. A respected statesman, formidable mediator and administrator, and notable political […]

Sir Archibald Sinclair (Viscount Thurso), 1890-1970

Archibald Sinclair was the Liberal leader from 1935 to 1945. He was a leading figure in British politics in that period, first as an outspoken critic of appeasement, and then as a minister during the war. For Liberals, his importance lay in his belief in the possibility of a Liberal revival, which was crucial in […]

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 […]

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 […]

The ‘Buckingham Palace plot’, 1916

Edwin Montagu, Minister of Munitions and confidant of both Asquith and Lloyd George lamented that the two great men of England were being slowly but surely pushed apart during the winter of 1916.

Old heroes for a new leader

As we have done in each of the last two Liberal Democrat leadership elections, in 1999 and 2006, the Liberal Democrat History Group has asked both candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – the ones they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. Their replies are reproduced below. Their heroes? Vaclav Havel, David Lloyd George and Harry Willcock.

Journal articles

Jo Swinson as leader

Interview with Jo Swinson on her period as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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CB

Review of Alexander S. Waugh, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman: A Scottish Life and UK Politics 1836–1908 (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2019).

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Vince Cable as leader

Interview with Vince Cable on his period as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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It’s Boy David

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

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Events

The Leadership of Charles Kennedy

Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, from 1999 to 2006, the Liberal Democrats won a record number of seats in the Commons – but in January 2006 he was forced to resign by the party’s MPs. When he died, in August 2015, he was mourned deeply by the party he once led. This meeting will assess Kennedy’s achievements as Liberal Democrat leader and his strengths and weaknesses.

Speakers: Greg Hurst (author, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw) and Lord Dick Newby (fomer Chief of Sta to Charles Kennedy). Chair: Baroness Lindsay Northover.

‘Jeremy is Innocent’ : The Life and Times of Jeremy Thorpe and Marion Thorpe

Jeremy Thorpe led the Liberal Party over three general elections from 1967 to 1976. Immensely charismatic, under his leadership the Liberal vote at general elections more than doubled. Yet following a scandal, his career ended in a criminal court case. Why?

On the fiftieth anniversary of Thorpe’s rise to the party leadership, Ronald Porter (obituarist for The Independent and a regular speaker at National Liberal Club events) will present an illustrated talk covering the life of Jeremy Thorpe and his second wife, Marion, who was married to Jeremy from 1973 until her death in 2014. Chair: Michael Steed.

The event will start at 7.00pm after the Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group at 6.30pm.

The legacy of Roy Jenkins

NOTE: START TIME CHANGED TO 7.00pm

Roy Jenkins is best remembered in Liberal Democrat circles as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who established the Social Democratic Party, the SDP’s first leader, and then a staunch supporter of merger with the Liberal Party. But even as a Labour politician he had a liberal record. In his first two years as Home Secretary (which started just over fifty years ago), he abolished theatre censorship, passed the first effective legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and delivered government support for private members’ bills on the legalisation of homosexuality and on abortion. In 1972 he led the major Labour rebellion that saved the Conservative government’s legislation to take Britain into the European Community.

John Campbell (author of Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life) and Lord David Steel (Leader of the Liberal Party 1976-88) discuss how much liberalism in Britain owes to Roy Jenkins. Chair: Dick Newby (Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, House of Lords, and the SDP’s National Secretary  1983-88).

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Liberal leaders and leadership

Party leaders matter: they embody a party’s present, while also shaping its future. This is particularly important in the values-based Liberal tradition.

A total of twenty-five individuals led the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats between Earl Grey’s assumption of the leadership of the Whig opposition in 1828 and Nick Clegg’s resignation in 2015. What did it take to be a Liberal leader across these two centuries of tumultuous change? Who was a good leader and who was a bad one?

Join us to launch our new book, British Liberal Leaders, and discuss the challenges of leading the Liberals, with Sir Simon Hughes (MP for Bermondsey, 1982–2015) and Lord Paul Tyler (MP for North Cornwall, 1974, 1992–2005). Chair: Lynne Featherstone (MP for Hornsey & Wood Green, 2005–15).

Jo Grimond – the legacy

Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967, holds a particularly affectionate place in the collective memory of the Liberal Democrats. His charisma, charm, good looks, political courage, intellect and inherent liberalism inspired many to join the Liberal Party in the late 1950s and 1960s and gained him a national reputation as someone who could give politics a good name which has endured to the present day.

One hundred years after his birth in 1913, our next meeting will examine in more detail the legacy of Jo Grimond, not simply for the modern Liberal Democrats but, more widely, for British politics and political ideas.

Speakers: Dr Peter Sloman (New College, Oxford) on Grimond’s ideas, with a focus on his thinking around the role of the state and free market; Harry Cowie (former Liberal Party Director of Research and speechwriter to Grimond) on the development of policy under Grimond’s leadership; Michael Meadowcroft (Liberal MP for Leeds West 198387) on Grimond’s leadership of the Liberal Party, 1956 67, and its legacy. Chair: William Wallace, Lord Wallace of Saltaire (press assistant to Jo Grimond during the 1966 general election).

Leaders Good and Bad

Robert Maclennan MP, himself a former leader of the SDP, and Professor Peter Clarke, leading expert on the New Liberals, looked at leaders of the Liberal Party and the SDP over the last hundred years, using analysis and anecdotes to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the two parties leaders.

The audience was polled to see who they consider was the best and the worst Liberal/SDP leader of the last century.

Clement Davies Liberal Party Saviour?

Clement Davies led the Liberal Party from 1945 to 1956. During that time, the party came very close to dying out but it survived. He turned down Churchills offer of a government position and in so doing preserved the partys integrity. His tenure was as long as that of Jo Grimond, the hero of modern Liberalism. And yet today Davies leadership is hardly remembered at all.

Did Clement Davies save the Liberal Party from extinction? Or was he part of the problem?

David Lloyd George

Owen Lloyd George, the present and 3rd Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor, the grandson of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, will speak about his famous ancestor at the Kettner Lunch (organised jointly together with the Liberal Democrat History Group) to be held at the National Liberal Club on 15th April.

The lunch takes place at 1.00pm and costs £15 for two courses, followed by coffee and mints. You do not have to be a member of the National Liberal Club or the History Group to attend.