Liberal party (former British political party)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Liberal party (former British political party)

Liberal party, former British political party, the dominant political party in Great Britain for much of the period from the mid-1800s to World War I.

Origins

The Liberal party was an outgrowth of the Whig party that, after the Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts), joined with the bulk of enfranchised industrialists and business classes to form a political alliance that, over the next few decades, came to be called the Liberal party. Much of the Liberal program was formulated by an important manufacturing middle-class element of the party known as the Radicals, who were strongly influenced by Jeremy Bentham. The Liberals distinguishing policies included free trade, low budgets, and religious liberty. Their anti-imperialism reflected confidence in Britain's economic supremacy. Most Liberals believed in the economic doctrines of laissez-faire and thought labor unions, factory acts, and substantial poor relief a threat to rapid industrialization.

Achievements in Power

Lord John Russell is credited with originating the party's name, and his government of 1846 is sometimes described as the first Liberal ministry. Whig peers like Lord Melbourne and Lord Palmerston, upholding the principle of aristocratic government, prevented further franchise reforms for over 30 years after the 1832 act. But Lord John Russell, William Gladstone, and John Bright (one of the Radicals) fought stubbornly for electoral reforms, even though the newly enfranchised masses might then insist on labor legislation opposed by the party. These leaders provided the impetus for the Reform Bill that their Conservative opponents passed in 1867.

The laissez-faire outlook and hegemony of the Liberal party were challenged in the last quarter of the 19th cent. When the party's program of electoral reform reached completion in 1884, Gladstone took up Irish Home Rule as a new cause. However, during the long period of depression from 1873 to 1893, many businessmen began to demand closer imperial ties. Because of the Home Rule issue, a large segment of businessmen, led by Joseph Chamberlain, along with English owners of Irish land, left the Liberal party in 1886 to form the Liberal-Unionists, who allied themselves with the Conservative party.

In losing office, the divided Liberals became stronger advocates of labor legislation. They came to depend more heavily upon the support of special groups like the Irish, labor, and nonconformists. The party was once more victorious in 1892 and again, under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, in 1906. Herbert Asquith (see Oxford and Asquith, Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st earl of), a Liberal imperialist, became prime minister in 1908, to be followed by the flamboyant David Lloyd George during World War I.

Decline

By 1914 the Liberal government had passed substantial welfare legislation but, unwilling to adopt a full socialist program, the Liberals began to lose support to the new Labour party. The party's stubborn adherence to the doctrine of free trade, arguments between the Lloyd George and Asquith factions of the party, long years of depression, the Irish problem, growing labor radicalism, and the rise of a working-class party all account for the rapid postwar decline of the Liberals.

During the 1920s they were still a strong element in Parliament, and several, notably Sir John Simon, were members of the National government of the 1930s. During the 30s, however, their parliamentary representation fell rapidly, and in no election between the end of World War II and the 1980s did they return more than a handful of candidates. In 1981 the Liberal party entered into an alliance with the newly formed Social Democratic party; together they won 22 seats in the House of Commons in 1987. In 1988 the parties merged to become the Social and Liberal Democratic party (now the Liberal Democrats).

Bibliography

See R. B. McCallum, The Liberal Party from Earl Grey to Asquith (1963); T. Wilson, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914–1935 (1966); R. I. Douglas, The History of the Liberal Party, 1895–1970 (1971); R. Eccleshall, British Liberation (1986).

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