Liberal Party


Liberal Party
   In the years following the Second World War, the Liberal Party went into a long-term decline. The Conservatives and Labour were firmly established as the two main parties of Britain, a position which was strengthened by the bipartisan nature of the House of Commons and the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. From the late 1950s, the Liberals have consistently achieved many by-election victories but have experienced little success at general elections.
   In 1967, Jeremy Thorpe succeeded Joe Grimmond as party leader, rejuvenating the Liberal Party. The party managed to attract many young members who had radical views on international issues of the day. They developed organizations at grassroots level and performed well at local elections, benefiting from the widespread disillusionment with the bureaucracy and the corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s. In the February 1974 election, the Liberals obtained six million votes and returned fourteen MPs. Thorpe subsequently held what proved to be fruitless talks with Edward Heath about forming a coalition government.
   David Steel became leader in 1976 after Thorpe’s resignation in the wake of a sex scandal. Nevertheless, the Liberals were able to gain a consultative role in government from 1977–8 in the Lib-Lab pact, after Labour had lost its majority. With the government facing growing difficulties with the economy and the trade unions, the Liberals decided to leave the pact, but their election performance in 1979 was unimpressive and Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives swept to power.
   The Liberal Party was soon linked in the centre of British politics with the SDP, Steel having negotiated with and encouraged the Gang of Four in their founding of a new party on the understanding that it would align itself with the Liberals at election times. The Liberal Party conference enthusiastically endorsed this proposition. In general the SDP/Liberal Alliance worked well, dominating the centre ground of British politics and enjoying the image of two parties working in harmony with each other, an impression which gave them the highest third party vote in the 1983 General Election for sixty years. Despite the carefully nurtured image of unity, there was disagreement amongst members of both parties over policy and personality clashes between senior figures, particularly after David Owen replaced Roy Jenkins as SDP leader. Many Liberals and even prominent SDP politicians felt steamrollered into accepting the SDP leader’s vision of the Alliance’s future. The discord behind the united front of the Alliance became apparent in the highly charged post-election atmosphere following the decline of Alliance fortunes in 1987.
   Owen and fellow SDP MPs Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright made it clear they would not join a merged party. Liberals Michael Meadowcroft and Tony Greaves declared their antagonism towards merger, the former even trying to continue the Liberal Party single-handedly. However, 88 percent of Liberals voted for merger along with 65 percent of SDP members. SDP MPs Robert MacLennan and Charles Kennedy joined the new party. The choice of name and the constitution of the new party were the first obstacles to be overcome. The name Social and Liberal Democrats was eventually decided on, and this became the Liberal Democrats (often shortened to ‘Lib Dems’) following a membership ballot in October 1989. Steel and Maclennan were unsuccessful in their attempts to produce a constitution and policy document acceptable to Liberal MPs. A new policy document, evolved from policies already agreed between the two parties, and a constitution were ultimately hammered out; the latter had the concession to the SDP of an explicit commitment to NATO, in spite of opposition from Liberal unilateralists.
   A leadership election for the new party was contested between two former Liberals, Paddy Ashdown and Alan Beith, in July 1988. Ashdown won with 70 percent of the vote. The new leader faced the difficult task of regaining public confidence and support and a drop of 50 percent in membership. Nevertheless Ashdown’s popularity pushed up support for his party and under his leadership the Liberal Democrats gradually recovered and made three by-election gains from the Conservatives in 1990 and 1991. Since taking charge, Ashdown has consistently been the most popular leader with the public. The revitalization of the Liberal Democrats fuelled media speculation that their support would be sufficient to force a hung parliament after the 1992 General Election. The Liberal Democrats offered a radical solution to Britain’s economic ills by promising to create 600,000 extra jobs through government borrowing and to put a penny on income tax, to be spent on education. The possibility of a hung parliament meant that constitutional reform became a major election issue. Lib Dem leaders stipulated that their primary condition to guarantee Lib Dem support for a minority government would be the introduction of proportional representation. In the last week of campaigning Labour debated the merits of PR. Many Labour members regarded this as an error that cost Labour victory, given that it was a comparatively obscure issue compared with Labour’s strongest campaign themes such as the state of the NHS. In the event the Conservatives won with a reduced majority and the Lib Dems picked up only 18 percent of the vote and twenty seats. Since 1992, Liberal Democrat support has remained constant in the opinion polls at around the 20 percent mark. The party won four byelections between 1993 and 1995. In the 1994 European elections the party obtained its first two MEPs, and in the local elections of May 1995 the Liberal Democrats became the second party of local government. In December 1995, the Lib Dems achieved a notable coup in attracting Conservative Emma Nicholson to cross the floor of the House of Commons and sit on the opposition benches as a Liberal Democrat MP. However the Lib Dems have found themselves squeezed as New Labour has continued to move to the right, adopting many of the policies of the former SDP.
   Internally the Lib Dems have a constitutional structure which is largely a legacy of the SDP’s centralized structure with its checks and balances to prevent too much power being concentrated in the hands of small cliques. This is combined with the Liberal’s local party organization, which is reinforced by the Liberal Democrat federal structure with its state parties for England, Scotland and Wales, and England’s twelve regional parties. The Liberal Democrats continue to advocate the traditional Liberal Party positions supporting constitutional and electoral reform, close ties with Europe, environmental issues and individual rights and liberties. They now have a firmer commitment to the free market and support multilateral nuclear disarmament.
   See also: fringe parties; sex scandals
   Further reading
    (1988) Constitution of the Social and Liberal Democrats, Hebden Bridge: Liberal Party Publications.
    Cook, C. (1993) A Short History of the Liberal Party, 1900-1988, 3rd edn, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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