Liberal Party

Liberal Party
   In British politics, the Liberal Party was the nineteenth-century successor to the Whigs of the Stuart and Hanoverian eras. In their own minds, the Liberals were the party of reform, liberty, and progress. Although in socialist dogma they were the party of the bourgeoisie, they usually attracted the support of those, from religious nonconformists to workers, who felt themselves excluded from power. From the middle of the nineteenth century to its breakup after World War I, the Liberal Party was one of two British parties - the other being the Tories, alternately called the Conservative Party or Unionists - that had a serious chance of winning office.
   Before the 1870s, political parties did not have much in the way of formal organization: the term party applied to groups of MPs (i.e., members of Parliament) who tended to vote together, and contemporaries could speak intelligibly of the radical party or the protectionist party. The term liberal as the designation of a political inclination first came into wide use to describe the Liberal Tories of the 1820s. In the years following the split of the Tory Party over the Corn Laws in 1846, it became common to refer to the diverse and fissiparous assemblage of radicals, Peelites - followers of Sir Robert Peel, including most notably William Gladstone - and Whigs that supported free trade and other ostensibly enlightened policies as “the great Liberal Party.” The Liberals kept the Tories from more than brief periods of minority government in the generation before Benjamin Disraeli ’s great victory of 1874. It was after one such interlude - Lord Derby ’s government of 1858–1859 - that Lord Palmerston became prime minister after the famous Willis’s rooms meeting in which radicals, Whigs, and former Peelites agreed to act together. The term Whig, being anathema to radicals, Palmerston’s government and its successors were normally called Liberal. A formal Liberal electoral organization, the National Liberal Federation (NLF), was founded in 1877, employing the machinery of Joseph Chamberlain ’ s National Education Federation. The NLF played a role in Gladstone’s convincing victory at the polls in 1880, as did the strident opposition of many among the party’s nonconformist base to Disraeli’s imperial and eastern policies. In 1886, however, the Liberal Party split over the issue of Irish Home Rule. Many Liberals followed Chamberlain’s lead into alliance with Lord Salisbury ’ s Tories, and thence into the Conservative Party itself. The Liberals were largely excluded from power, with the exception of the years 1892–1895, until 1906. During this period, the Liberal Party was paralyzed by divisions between its radical and liberal imperialist wings. The Liberal governments of H. H. Asquith put through a number of reformist measures, including old-age pensions, the Parliament Act of 1911 restricting the power of the Lords, and the Third Irish Home Rule bill, never put into effect. Asquith fell from power in 1916, and the former radical David Lloyd George took office at the head of a Torydominated coalition. The party divided into Asquith and Lloyd George wings just as many among its more progressive followers were defecting to the rising Labour Party. Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister, fell from power in 1922. It is of course difficult to say with any precision what a political party stands for, but if there was one fixed point of Liberal faith, it was free trade. The attitude of liberalism to the empire was more ambiguous: although imperialism has more often been associated with conservatism, some of the most bellicose and successful of British statesmen, from Palmerston to Lloyd George, were in fact Liberals.
   See also <>.
    Searle, G. R. The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration. London: Palgrave, 2001;
    Vincent, John. The Formation of the British Liberal Party. London: Constable, 1966.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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