Last modified on September 21, 2020, at 21:30

British Liberal Party

The Liberal Party was one of two main political parties in Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1920s. Since then it has become an also-ran with few seats in parliament despite a moderately large vote. In 1988 it merged with a breakaway faction of the Labour Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party. George Dangerfield argued in Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) that in the face of the multiple crises of Edwardian Britain around 1910—women's suffrage, Irish Home Rule, industrial unrest—liberalism crumbled. More recently historians have argued that 20th century Britain was dominated by liberalism and related creeds, especially as embodied in various kinds of "liberal socialism."[1]


The Liberal Party emerged from the Whig Party in the decades after passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 gave the vote to the British middle class. It brought together Whigs, Peelite liberal Tories, and radical politicians.[2] politicians. In terms of voters, the party appealed to businessmen, Scots, and non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Anglican Church, including Methodists and others).

In the 1830s there was a small but clear distinction between the "radical" (reformist) faction of the Whig Party and the reactionaries of the Tory ("Conservative") Party. The Tories accepted the reforms; the Whigs were still dominated by great aristocratic families. Politicians switched easily between parties. This era ended with Viscount Palmerston's death in 1865 and the emergence of a new leader who drew sharp party lines.


The great leader of the party was William Gladstone (1809–98), an intensely religious and intellectual politician, who dueled for decades with Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) over who would be prime minister. After the defeat of the Conservatives in the 1868 election, Gladstone became prime minister and proved he was not as ready to compromise as the much as the Whigs had done.

Between 1870 and 1874 religious disputes played a major part in ripping apart the broad Liberal Party coalition. Disputes over education, Irish disestablishment, and the Irish universities showed the divergence between, on the one hand, Whigs, who wanted state control of education and the propagation of a nondenominational, morally uplifting Christianity, and on the other hand Gladstone and his supporters, who sought to guard religion's independence from a modernizing civil power. This division struck a lasting blow to prospects of agreement on future policy over education and Ireland.[3]

The Irish Question

Gladstone united his party, which had several factions based on personalities. He got the Liberals to agree on the Irish question, which dominated British politics from the 1870s to 1914. One achievement was to disestablish the Church of Ireland—a branch of the Church of England that Irish Catholics did not want to support. In 1870, Gladstone tried to resolve the agrarian problem, long a major cause of Irish unrest, in which Protestants and absentee English owners controlled most of the good farmlands in Ireland. He extended to predominantly Catholic southern Ireland the "Ulster Tenant Right", which had protected Protestants in Northern Ireland. The new act provided that tenants who were arbitrarily evicted by landowners had to be compensated by them, and paid for improvements they had made to the farm. The act did not reduce the high rents nor give tenants any security. These problems were resolved when Gladstone passed a second Irish land act in 1881, which provided for The Three F's, (fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure), and established a land court to which landlords and tenants might appeal voluntarily. The land court reduced average rents by 25%, and helped resolve the agrarian problem. But the Irish kept demanding more power (although not yet agitating for independence). Following the reforms, there was an alarming increase of violent outrages and lawlessness in rural Ireland directed against Protestant landlords. In 1886 Gladstone, after a brief Conservative interlude, became prime minister for the third time. He now realized that 'Home Rule was the only answer to the Irish question, but this solution split the Liberal party. A faction of radical imperialists led by Joseph Chamberlain broke off from the party and became known as the "Liberal Unionists". The Liberal Unionists voted with Conservatives to defeat Gladstone's Home Rule bill. The Liberals again came into office in 1892, after a campaign during which both parties stressed the Irish issue. In 1893 the House of Commons passed Gladstone's second Home Rule bill, but it was thrown out by the House of Lords. The Liberals stayed in office for more than a year after Gladstone's resignation in March 1894; but Home Rule went off the Liberal Party agenda until 1910.

Reform legislation

Liberals prided themselves on being reformers. The "Education Act of 1870" greatly enlarged the schooling opportunities of the working class. Previously only voluntary schools provided opportunity for the education of the poor, and of 4,300,000 children of school age in England, about half were not in school. The act of 1870 divided England and Wales into school districts with board schools in every district in which there was not an approved voluntary school. At first, elementary schooling was neither free nor compulsory, but it soon became both. Within a generation, illiteracy decreased from 19.4% to 1.4%. The "Universities Test Act" of 1871 dropped the requirement of supporting Anglican doctrines and made it possible for non-Anglicans to receive degrees and teach there. The "Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1871", upgraded the legal standing of labour unions by declaring them to be neither criminal conspiracies nor unlawful combinations. The "Judicature Act, 1873," reorganized court system. The "Franchise Act of 1884" gave the vote to every man who was the head of a household, virtually established manhood suffrage. Along with it was a law that made one-member constituencies the norm. The buying and selling of officers' commissions in the army was ended. None of the reforms was reversed when the Conservatives came to power, and they became part of Britain's unwritten constitution.


With the Liberals defeat in the elections of 1874, Gladstone relinquished leadership of the Liberal Party. He returned as prime minister in 1880, and his government lasted until 1885. Legislation passed included the Land Act of 1881 for Ireland, and the third parliamentary Reform Act of 1884. His foreign policy, which was one of avoidance of entanglements, lacked consistency and distinction. The 1880-85 period had mixed results at best. He undermined his reputation among pacifists and anti-imperialists by his military attack on Egypt in 1882. He was then denounced by jingoes when he sent General Charles George Gordon to the Sudan then failed to rescue him as he was besieged at Khartoum for 10 months and killed 2 days before rescuers arrived.

Laissez-faire policy

In the 1880s the Liberal government was confronted with a worsening agricultural and trade depression, to which Gladstone's policy of laissez-faire provided no answer. Cheap grains imported from America were ruining British farmers; across the world, tariffs were increasing and thus restricting British exports and causing unemployment; and a formidable growth of European armaments was menacing British security. That challenge stimulated two mass movements of British opinion, and demands arose for a policy of social reform at home and for a vigorous imperialist policy overseas. Gladstone rejected both demands. He held that the national character and prosperity would both be undercut by a welfare state of the sort that Bismark was initiating in Germany. He held that a race among the Great Powers for military and naval supremacy would quickly get out of hand if Britain either joined in or expanded its overseas empire in compensation for increasing relative weakness in Europe.

Disraeli's Conservative Party was proposing solutions that were popular and the root cause of Gladstone's anger toward Disraeli was his belief that his rival was deliberately corrupting the minds of the British people upon whom Gladstone placed their trust.


1906 landslide

The Liberals were out of power from 1895 to 1905, but made a remarkable comeback in 1906. In the 1900 election they had done poorly, as the Conservatives and Unionists had won 402 seats on the strength of success in the Boer War. The Liberals had only 184 seats; there were also 82 Irish Nationalists and two Labour Party members. The Liberals were split on such major issues as Leading the Boer war, imperialism, Ireland and women's suffrage. Their elderly leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836–1908) was not inspiring. In late 1905 the Conservatives split over tariff issues, and Campbell-Bannerman formed a government with Edward Grey (1862–1933) as foreign secretary, Herbert Asquith (1852–1928) at the Exchequer, Lord Haldane (1856–1928) at the war office, and David Lloyd George (1863–45) at the Board of Trade.

An election was called early in 1906 as the Liberals campaigned on free trade and cheap food, as well as Nonconformist resentment over the Education Act of 1902 for favouring Church of England schools. It was a surprise landslide. Liberals with 49% of the vote took 400 seats; Conservatives and Unionists with 44% dropped to 157 seats; Irish Nationalists had 83 seats and Labour 30. Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister 1905–8, and succeeded in keeping his very able ministers in harmony. Asquith became prime minister 1908-1916.

Domestic policies

The Liberal Party made its great contributions in the field of domestic affairs. It enacted legislation that began the welfare state. Britain was a few decades behind Bismark's conservative government in Germany in this regard, but they hurried to make up for lost time. The leaders were Herbert Asquith, who was prime minister David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. (Churchill later switched parties). The welfare state included the "Old Age Pensions Act", granting small pensions to the indigent poor aged 70 years or older; the "National Insurance Act", providing compulsory insurance against sickness for workers between 16 and 65, and unemployment insurance that was at first limited to certain skilled trades but was later greatly extended. Liberals passed the "Small Holdings and Allotments Act", which empowered county councils to buy farmland at current prices and to rent it out in small farms. They passed the "Housing and Town Planning Act," designed to eliminate urban slums.

House of Lords

The House of Lords, controlled by Conservative landowners, approved nearly all of the Liberals' social program, but it rejected the Budget of 1909, on the ground that the new taxes would destroy the landed interests. The Liberals launched a strong counterattack on the House of Lords. Two elections were held in 1910, and the result was to sharply reduce the Liberal majority; the balance of power in the House of Commons was now in the hands of the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists. By the "Parliament Act of 1911" the upper house was stripped of all control over money bills, and it were left with only the ability to delay legislation for two years. This made possible the final enactment of "Home Rule" for Ireland in 1914, but the coming of the World War meant that Home Rule was postponed until the war ended.

Foreign policy and World War

Liberal foreign policy seemed less able and vigorous than that of the Conservatives; the imperialism captured the public imagination around 1900 was a Conservative issue; it was alien to the Liberal mind. While not pacifists, the party generally opposed imperialism and overseas conflicts. Britain was so immersed in the Irish problem in 1914 that it was caught totally by surprise when war came. Counting on a fleet that remained powerful, the Liberals had downsized the army. German violation of Belgian neutrality outraged the Liberals as a betrayal—one that posed the immediate threat of German control of the entire continent. That was unacceptable and so unexpectedly Britain went to war with France and Russia against Germany, Austria and Turkey.

The Liberal Party as a whole—and indeed the whole nation—endorsed the declaration of war. Asquith, formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 1915. Asquith made a fine leader in peacetime, but lacked the broad vision necessary to run a war, and he was forced out by Lloyd George in late 1916. The new prime minister was an amazing dynamo who took control of the whole war effort, as well as politics and diplomacy. His government was composed of members of the Conservative, Liberal, Unionist, and Labour parties. However, the majority of the Liberal ex-ministers deserted him to organize a group known as the independent Liberals. Before the war ended, the Liberals became hopelessly divided. Lloyd George's coalition ministry fell in 1922 when the Conservatives (the largest bloc) withdrew support after he proposed military intervention in Turkey.

The Liberals never pulled themselves together, as the trade union and working class supported deserted to the upstart Labour Party, and Lloyd George kept personal control of the shrinking Liberal bloc in Parliament. More important than the MP's in the 1920s to 1940s were the Liberal intellectuals, especially economists John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge who devised programmes of government control of the economy, and expansion of the welfare state, that deprived the trade unions of their chance at controlling the economy through socialism.


In 1981 the Liberals formed an electoral alliance with the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP). The Alliance won 25.4% of the vote in 1983, but only 23 seats in Parliament. In 1988 the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to form the "Social and Liberal Democratic Party," popularly known as the Liberal Democratic Party, (informally, "Lib Dems") which usually positioned itself between the Labour Party on the left and the Conservative Party on the right. Led by Paddy Ashdown (1941- ) from 1988 to 1999, the Liberal Democrats lost two seats in 1992 to 20, but did well in 1997, winning 46 seats. Charles Kennedy (1959- ) was leader 1999–2006 followed briefly by Menzies Campbell (1941- ) from 2006–7. The best showing since the 1920s came in 2005, as they won 62 seats (10% of the seats) on 22% of the popular vote.

Today's Liberal Democrats have been described as a party with a preponderance of left-of-centre policies supported preponderantly by centre and right-of-centre voters.[4] They opposed British participation in the Iraq War. Efforts to form a coalition with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour party failed, and the Liberal Democrats continue to go it alone. They rejected a bid from Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007 to put two members in the cabinet, citing differences over Iraq and civil liberties. The party formed a coalition with the Conservative Party from 2010 to 2015, and it has since become anti-Brexit.

Further reading

  • Adelman, Paul. The Decline of the Liberal Party 1910-1931, (1995) excerpt and text search
  • Aldous, Richard. The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli (2007)
  • Biagini, Eugenio F. Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880. (1992). 476 pp.
  • Cannon, John. The Oxford Companion to British History (1997), online at academic libraries
  • Cook, Chris. A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900-2001 (6th ed. 2002) excerpt and text search
  • Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), collapse of Liberals 1910-20
  • DeGroot, Gerard J. Liberal Crusader: The Life of Sir Archibald Sinclair. (1993), mid 20th century
  • Dutton, David. A History of the Liberal Party in the Twentieth Century, (2004). 360 pp.
  • Ensor, Robert. England 1870-1914 (Oxford History of England Series) (1936), 652pp good survey of politics excerpt and text search; online edition
  • Green, E.H.H., and D.M. Tanner, eds. The Strange Survival of Liberal England: Political Leaders, Moral Values and the Reception of Economic Debate(2007).
  • Grigg, John. Lloyd George: The People's Champion, 1902-1911. (1979). 391 pp.
  • Jalland, Patricia. The Liberals and Ireland: The Ulster Question in British Politics to 1914. (1980). 303 pp.
  • Jenkins, T. A. The Liberal Ascendancy, 1830-1886. (1994). 252 pp.
  • Jenkins, T. A. Gladstone, Whiggery, and the Liberal Party, 1874-1886. (1988). 328 pp.
  • Matthew, H. C. G. "Gladstone, William Ewart (1809–1898)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition May 2006
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. Age of Lloyd George: The Liberal Party and British Politics, 1880-1929 (1971)
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. "George, David Lloyd, first Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (1863–1945)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; online
  • Murray, Bruce K. The People's Budget 1909/10: Lloyd George and Liberal Politics. (1980). 352 pp.
  • Parry, J. P. Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the Liberal party, 1867–1875 (1986), 504 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Parry, J. P. "Review: The State of Victorian Political History," The Historical Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Jun., 1983), pp. 469–484 in JSTOR, historiography
  • Perry, Jonathan. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain. (1994). 383 pp.
  • Searle, G. R. The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration, 1886-1929. (1992). 234 pp.
  • Searle, G. R. A New England?: Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005) 976 pp excerpt and text search, large-scale history of the era
  • Vincent, John. The formation of the Liberal party, 1857–1868 (1966), suggests the party lacked deep values and that workers were misled into supporting it

See also


  1. See Green and Tanner, eds, The Strange Survival of Liberal England: Political Leaders, Moral Values and the Reception of Economic Debate(2007).
  2. "radical" at the time meant reformer; "liberal" meant libertarian.
  3. J. P. Parry, "Religion and the Collapse of Gladstone's First Government, 1870-1874." Historical Journal 1982 25(1): 71-101. Issn: 0018-246x Fulltext: in Jstor
  4. Dutton (2004) p. 298