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Artemy Zhdanov
Artemy Zhdanov

The Liberal Party

The Reform Act was the climax of Whiggism, but it also brought about the Whigs' demise. The admission of the middle classes to the franchise and to the House of Commons led eventually to the development of a systematic middle class liberalism and the end of Whiggery, although for many years reforming aristocrats held senior positions in the party. In the years after Grey's retirement, the party was led first by Lord Melbourne, a fairly traditional Whig, and then by Lord John Russell, the son of a Duke but a crusading radical, and by Lord Palmerston, a renegade Irish Tory and essentially a conservative, although capable of radical gestures.

the liberal party

As early as 1839, Russell had adopted the name of "Liberals", but in reality his party was a loose coalition of Whigs in the House of Lords and Radicals in the Commons. The leading Radicals were John Bright and Richard Cobden, who represented the manufacturing towns which had gained representation under the Reform Act. They favoured social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England (many Liberals were Nonconformists), avoidance of war and foreign alliances (which were bad for business) and above all free trade. For a century, free trade remained the one cause which could unite all Liberals.

However, the Whig-Radical amalgam could not become a true modern political party while it was dominated by aristocrats and it was not until the departure of the "Two Terrible Old Men", Russell and Palmerston, that Gladstone could become the first leader of the modern Liberal Party. This was brought about by Palmerston's death in 1865 and Russell's retirement in 1868. After a brief Conservative government (during which the Second Reform Act was passed by agreement between the parties), Gladstone won a huge victory at the 1868 election and formed the first Liberal government. The establishment of the party as a national membership organisation came with the foundation of the National Liberal Federation in 1877. The philosopher John Stuart Mill was also a Liberal MP from 1865 to 1868.[6]

Historically, the aristocracy was divided between Conservatives and Liberals. However, when Gladstone committed to home rule for Ireland, Britain's upper classes largely abandoned the Liberal party, giving the Conservatives a large permanent majority in the House of Lords. Following the Queen, High Society in London largely ostracized home rulers and Liberal clubs were badly split. Joseph Chamberlain took a major element of upper-class supporters out of the Party and into a third party called Liberal Unionism on the Irish issue. It collaborated with and eventually merged into the Conservative party.[14][15] The Gladstonian liberals in 1891 adopted The Newcastle Programme that included home rule for Ireland, disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, tighter controls on the sale of liquor, major extension of factory regulation and various democratic political reforms. The Programme had a strong appeal to the nonconformist middle-class Liberal element, which felt liberated by the departure of the aristocracy.[16]

Gladstone finally retired in 1894. Gladstone's support for Home Rule deeply divided the party, and it lost its upper and upper-middle-class base, while keeping support among Protestant nonconformists and the Celtic fringe. Historian R. C. K. Ensor reports that after 1886, the main Liberal Party was deserted by practically the entire whig peerage and the great majority of the upper-class and upper-middle-class members. High prestige London clubs that had a Liberal base were deeply split. Ensor notes that, "London society, following the known views of the Queen, practically ostracized home rulers."[20]

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of New Liberalism within the Liberal Party, which advocated state intervention as a means of guaranteeing freedom and removing obstacles to it such as poverty and unemployment. The policies of the New Liberalism are now known as social liberalism.[31]

The Liberals languished in opposition for a decade while the coalition of Salisbury and Chamberlain held power. The 1890s were marred by infighting between the three principal successors to Gladstone, party leader William Harcourt, former prime minister Lord Rosebery, and Gladstone's personal secretary, John Morley. This intrigue finally led Harcourt and Morley to resign their positions in 1898 as they continued to be at loggerheads with Rosebery over Irish home rule and issues relating to imperialism. Replacing Harcourt as party leader was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Harcourt's resignation briefly muted the turmoil in the party, but the beginning of the Second Boer War soon nearly broke the party apart, with Rosebery and a circle of supporters including important future Liberal figures H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey and Richard Burdon Haldane forming a clique dubbed the Liberal Imperialists that supported the government in the prosecution of the war. On the other side, more radical members of the party formed a Pro-Boer faction that denounced the conflict and called for an immediate end to hostilities. Quickly rising to prominence among the Pro-Boers was David Lloyd George, a relatively new MP and a master of rhetoric, who took advantage of having a national stage to speak out on a controversial issue to make his name in the party. Harcourt and Morley also sided with this group, though with slightly different aims. Campbell-Bannerman tried to keep these forces together at the head of a moderate Liberal rump, but in 1901 he delivered a speech on the government's "methods of barbarism" in South Africa that pulled him further to the left and nearly tore the party in two. The party was saved after Salisbury's retirement in 1902 when his successor, Arthur Balfour, pushed a series of unpopular initiatives such as the Education Act 1902 and Joseph Chamberlain called for a new system of protectionist tariffs.

Campbell-Bannerman was able to rally the party around the traditional liberal platform of free trade and land reform and led them to the greatest election victory in their history. This would prove the last time the Liberals won a majority in their own right.[40][41][page needed] Although he presided over a large majority, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was overshadowed by his ministers, most notably H. H. Asquith at the Exchequer, Edward Grey at the Foreign Office, Richard Burdon Haldane at the War Office and David Lloyd George at the Board of Trade. Campbell-Bannerman retired in 1908 and died soon after. He was succeeded by Asquith, who stepped up the government's radicalism. Lloyd George succeeded Asquith at the Exchequer, and was in turn succeeded at the Board of Trade by Winston Churchill, a recent defector from the Conservatives.

[T]he Liberals were traditionally the party of freedom of speech, conscience and trade. They were against jingoism, heavy armaments and compulsion. [...] Liberals were neither wholehearted nor unanimous about conscription, censorship, the Defence of the Realm Act, severity toward aliens and pacifists, direction of labour and industry. The Conservatives [...] had no such misgivings.[50]

Asquith's Liberal government was brought down in May 1915, due in particular to a crisis in inadequate artillery shell production and the protest resignation of Admiral Fisher over the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign against Turkey. Reluctant to face doom in an election, Asquith formed a new coalition government on 25 May, with the majority of the new cabinet coming from his own Liberal party and the Unionist (Conservative) party, along with a token Labour representation. The new government lasted a year and a half, and was the last time Liberals controlled the government.[53] The analysis of historian A. J. P. Taylor is that the British people were so deeply divided over numerous issues, But on all sides there was growing distrust of the Asquith government. There was no agreement whatsoever on wartime issues. The leaders of the two parties realized that embittered debates in Parliament would further undermine popular morale and so the House of Commons did not once discuss the war before May 1915. Taylor argues:[54]

Lloyd George remained a Liberal all his life, but he abandoned many standard Liberal principles in his crusade to win the war at all costs. He insisted on strong government controls over business as opposed to the laissez-faire attitudes of traditional Liberals. in 1915-16 he had insisted on conscription of young men into the Army, a position that deeply troubled his old colleagues. That brought him and a few like-minded Liberals into the new coalition on the ground long occupied by Conservatives. There was no more planning for world peace or liberal treatment of Germany, nor discomfit with aggressive and authoritarian measures of state power. More deadly to the future of the party, says historian Trevor Wilson, was its repudiation by ideological Liberals, who decided sadly that it no longer represented their principles. Finally the presence of the vigorous new Labour Party on the left gave a new home to voters disenchanted with the Liberal performance.[57]

Lloyd George was increasingly under the influence of the rejuvenated Conservative party who numerically dominated the coalition. In 1922, the Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the continuation of the coalition, citing, in particular, Lloyd George's plan for war with Turkey in the Chanak Crisis, and his corrupt sale of honours. He resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Bonar Law.

Labour was determined to destroy the Liberals and become the sole party of the left. Ramsay MacDonald was forced into a snap election in 1924 and although his government was defeated he achieved his objective of virtually wiping the Liberals out as many more radical voters now moved to Labour whilst moderate middle-class Liberal voters concerned about socialism moved to the Conservatives. The Liberals were reduced to a mere forty seats in Parliament, only seven of which had been won against candidates from both parties and none of these formed a coherent area of Liberal survival. The party seemed finished, and during this period some Liberals, such as Churchill, went over to the Conservatives while others went over to Labour. Several Labour ministers of later generations, such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, were the sons of Liberal MPs. 041b061a72


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