The Rise and Fall of the Liberal Party

The British political faction known as the Liberal Party is all but extinct, surviving in nothing but a loosely connected name and a philosophy of self-determination. Turn back the clock a century though, to the outbreak of World War I – the centenary of which is due this coming August – and one will find the Liberals firmly in power, having emerged victorious from a 50-year-long scrap with the Conservative Party (or the Tories), which claimed the careers, and lives, of many prominent politicians. The story of the Liberals’ route to and from power is a fascinating tale of rivalry, infighting and moral dilemma, featuring some of the biggest names in British, and world, politics of the time, and encompassing issues from Irish home rule to the establishment of the welfare state. A brief outline of the leading themes and personalities follows; dates given are those in which the mentioned individual was in the stated office.

Origin and Unity

The Liberal Party had its roots in Whiggism, the doctrine of the ‘Whigs’, who advocated a transfer in power from the crown to parliament, and held considerable influence after the English civil war (1642-51) until the mid-19th century. Perhaps the climax of Whiggism, the 1832 Reform Act – which extended political participation beyond that of wealthy, landowning males – pushed through by Prime Minister Lord Grey (1830-4) also turned out to be a significant factor in the downfall of the Whig Party, paradoxically creating an opposition to traditional Whiggism and demand for a new opposition to the Conservatives.

Viscount Palmerston
Viscount Palmerston

From the various divisions and factions that encapsulated the break-up of the Whigs, including the Tory breakaway group of free-market advocates known as the Peelites, emerged the Liberals, who united on the basis of classical liberalism – featuring a philosophy of laissez-faire political economy – and opposition to the ‘protectionist’ policies of the Conservative Party.  Viscount Palmerston’s second government, from 1859-65, is considered to be the first Liberal administration, containing names such as Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, Lord President of the Council Lord Granville, and Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell. Liberalism as an institutionalised philosophy had been born into British politics, although cohesion within the Party was abrasive, and the Tories won the 1865 election after Palmerston’s death in office.

Gladstonian Liberalism

After the resurgence of the Tories under the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli (1866-8), William Gladstone, who had held office in cabinet through the Peelite movement and alliance with the Whigs, took the helm as the second Liberal Prime Minister. Gladstone’s politics are perhaps the best remembered of the Liberal movement. Known by his supporters as ‘The People’s William’, and by his rival Disraeli as ‘God’s Only Mistake’, Gladstone and the Liberals advocated the limitation of government expenditure and the promotion of free choice. Such political philosophy became embedded in British politics, to the extent that, until the developments of the early 20th century, the great Tory Prime Ministers Disraeli (1868, 1874-80) and the Marquess of Salisbury (1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902) could not reverse Gladstone’s principles.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone

Gladstone himself remains the only British Prime Minister to have held office on four separate occasions (1868-74, 1880-5, 1886, 1892-4), a total of 14 years. His third and fourth terms were rife with controversy over the Irish Home Rule Bill, which split the Liberal Party and forced his resignation on both occasions. The legacy of the struggle to pass the bill, which was rejected first by the House of Commons, and second by the House of Lords, is a positive one for the Irish nationalism movement, however; after further antagonism, the southern portion of Ireland, known today as the Republic, was granted Home Rule in 1922. The Bill was the first instance of devolved government in the United Kingdom. Gladstone also had an impact in British financial reform, having served as Chancellor of the Exchequer four times too.

‘New’ Liberalism

Gladstone’s final resignation brought the Earl of Rosebery to power as leader of the Liberal Party, but the Tories quickly pushed back, and headed government under Salisbury and then Arthur Balfour (1902-5). A resurgent Liberal Party then returned with a new political philosophy known by some as ‘new liberalism’, by others as ‘social liberalism’; the focus of the Party moved away from free-market political economy towards basic welfare provision and the establishment of a British welfare state. This philosophy defined the administrations of Liberal Prime Ministers Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-8) and Herbert Asquith (1908-16), but was the brainchild of Chancellor of the Exchequer and later wartime and post-war Prime Minister David Lloyd George (PM 1916-22). The policies, such as old-age pensions, national insurance and greater employment rights formed the basis of the welfare state in Britain and have survived to the present day.

David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George

Despite the success of Liberal social policy, World War I epitomised the ultimate downfall of the Liberal Party. Asquith, although adept at domestic rule, proved an indecisive wartime leader, and was forced out by the more pragmatic Lloyd-George who, along with a young Winston Churchill before his Tory days, formed a coalition with the Conservatives. This marked the end of the last all-Liberal government in two senses. Firstly, no Liberal filled the post of Prime Minister again after Lloyd George; and two, many consider the Welshman to have abandoned much Liberal philosophy in his determination to win the war at all costs. Support for the Liberal party, catalysed by infighting and political contradiction, declined at catastrophic rates, and by 1930, the Labour Party under PM Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929-35) had assumed the position of prime opponents to the Tories.

Conclusion

The rise of Labour and the steadfastness of the Tories ultimately led to the extinction of the Liberal Party as Gladstone and later Asquith and Lloyd George had known it. The skeleton of the Party survived through the latter half of the 20th century, and lives on in the form of the Liberal Democrats, although association between the original post-Whig movement and its contemporary counterpart is tentative. However, some analysts argue that the Liberal Party in fact lives on in the structure of British politics as a whole, which, especially after the Conservative Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher (1979-90), has become increasingly centrist and accountable. Regardless, the combination of Liberal principles – in summary, a balance of laissez-faire political economy and social provision – has become a keystone to British politics, and that perhaps is the greatest legacy of any modern political movement.

 

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