Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Liberals: Who Was the Greatest?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Liberals: Who Was the Greatest?

Article excerpt

Five years after the BBC conducted a search for the Greatest Briton of all time, the Liberal Democrat History Group is setting out to find the Greatest Liberal.

A shortlist of 15 has been drawn up by the group's executive committee and includes such giants from the party's history as the four-times prime minister William Gladstone and David Lloyd George (even if he split the party in 1916). Three other premiers also figure: Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Asquith and Lord John Russell ("the last Doge of Whiggism" or the first Liberal PM, depending on your point of view).

The list also features a number of Liberal thinkers: John Maynard Keynes, described as "the most influential and important economic thinker of the 20th century"; William Beveridge, "the father of the welfare state"; Richard Cobden, "who helped found the Anti-Corn Law League"; and the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill. It even includes John Locke (1632-1704)--"the patron saint of liberalism"--although, by my reckoning, he preceded the Liberal Party by 150 or so years.

Any such shortlist had to include a couple of modern Liberals or even Liberal Democrats, for the sake of appearances if nothing else. Step forward Jo Grimond, "the most important postwar Liberal leader" and, perhaps surprisingly, Roy Jenkins, the Labour deputy leader who co-founded the Social Democratic Party and then led the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords--or "the great Liberal prime minister Britain never had", as the History Group puts it.

Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground: only Asquith's daughter Lady Violet Bonham Carter and Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett ("Britain's most important leader in the fight for women's suffrage") make the shortlist. …

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