Author Archives: Duncan Brack

Green Book Pod 3: the party’s messaging on Brexit

There’s a paradox about people’s position on Brexit. Much as a clear majority of voters would support Remain (or Rejoin) in a new referendum, knowing what they know now, many of them nevertheless have no desire to go back to the divisiveness of the pre- and post-referendum period. Many families, friendship groups, communities and social groupings have been riven by Brexit; some people are still not on speaking terms with those on the other side. It’s little wonder that the Remain/Leave division is still the most powerful in British politics.

That makes the route back into the EU one that has to be handled with great delicacy – a question that we explored in the third episode of the Green Book Pod series of discussions on key issues for the Liberal Democrats, now available on Lib Dem Podcast via the usual platforms and also here on YouTube.

Some of the evidence for the paradox was presented by Luke Tryl, UK Director of the think tank ‘More in Common’, that takes its name from the quote from the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox: we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us. He told the podcast that public opinion is increasingly swinging towards the belief that Brexit was a mistake and that the UK should rejoin the EU, but focus groups reveal little enthusiasm for another referendum campaign, thanks to the horrors of 2016–19.

Professor Anand Menon, director of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, added that, while there is mounting evidence of the damage caused by Brexit, it would be dangerous to think that rejoining will be easy. The EU has suffered much less than the UK from Brexit, so its incentives to renegotiate the relationship are not strong (the episode was recorded two days before Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, claimed that the UK could rejoin the EU).

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 47 Comments

What have the Liberals ever done for us?

The Liberal Democrat History Group has just produced a new publication – What Have the Liberals Ever Done for Us?

From the very earliest days in the seventeenth century through to today, the Liberal values of liberty, equality, community, internationalism and environmentalism have underpinned what Liberal governments achieved in power, what Liberal and SDP and Liberal Democrat MPs fought for in opposition, and what Liberal Democrat ministers achieved once more in government.

This booklet is a concise summary of Liberals’ and Liberal Democrats’ greatest achievements over 350 years of Liberal history. Chapters cover human rights, fair votes, government reform, gender equality, international, economy, education, welfare, health and environment, together with a comprehensive timeline. As Ed Davey writes in the preface, ‘When you need to put your feet up after door-knocking, or to energise yourself for the next delivery round, read it to remember what we stand for and what we have done with the votes that people have lent us – and be inspired to campaign for even greater achievements in the future.’

We are launching the booklet at the History Group’s fringe meeting at Bournemouth, where Layla Moran MP, Sarah Olney MP, Wendy Chamberlain MP and Baroness Barker, chaired by Lord William Wallace, will choose their favourite Liberal achievements. The meeting takes place after the rally, at 8.15pm on Saturday in the Meyrick Suite in the Conference Centre. (Register here for Zoom access for those not at conference.) The booklet will be available to purchase at the meeting (at a special price!) and from the History Group stand in the exhibition (and, after conference, via our website).

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | Leave a comment

Forgotten Liberal Heroes: Sir Edward Grey and Richard Haldane

The Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H.H. Asquith, from 1905 to 1916, included many ‘big beasts’. Sir Edward Grey served as Foreign Secretary 1905–16 and remains the longest-serving holder of the office. He maintained good relations with France and Russia at a time of great instability in Europe. When his efforts to avert conflict failed, in 1914, Grey persuaded a divided cabinet to support Britain’s entry to the First World War.

Richard Haldane was Secretary for War 1905–12 and created the Territorial Army and the British Expeditionary Force. As Lord Chancellor after 1912 he pursued a series of judicial reforms. He was also a co-founder of the UK university system.

Both have a credible case for being regarded as Liberal heroes. But Grey’s record has been strongly criticised in recent years and Haldane is largely forgotten.

Posted in Liberal History | Tagged , , and | Leave a comment

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

Why does Ed Davey never talk about Europe? To be clear, I am not advocating launching a campaign to rejoin the EU. Although party policy supports this as a longer-term objective, there is no chance that the EU would treat an application from the UK seriously until a new government has taken steps to rebuild the EU–UK relationship –the kind of measures we set out in the policy paper Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe, endorsed by conference last year. This set out a detailed strategy for moving progressively towards a closer relationship with the EU, including ultimately joining the Single Market. These are of direct benefit in themselves, as well as steps the UK will have to take if we are to rejoin one day.

Over the last few months hardly a week has gone by without someone arguing for this, both here in Lib Dem Voice and in the mainstream press. So why isn’t our party leadership talking about it? I’m not defending their position – I think it’s wrong – but it’s worthwhile thinking through the reasoning behind it to see whether it’s justified. Although Ed Davey hasn’t shared his thinking with the party at large, I think we can identify three main reasons behind his consistent avoidance of the topic.

First, because, like Keir Starmer, he’s worried about alienating former Leave voters, particularly in the party’s 30 or so top target seats, almost all of which are Conservative-held. But opinions change – and over the last year they’ve changed significantly. Compared to most of 2021, when more people supported being outside the EU than inside, by the end of 2022, average support for reversing Brexit had reached 57 per cent. This is mainly due to Leave voters changing their minds: in November, one in five Leave voters told YouGov that they regretted voting Leave – the highest number yet recorded. In December Savanta found that 47 per cent of all respondents would favour a closer relationship with the EU compared with 14 per cent who wanted to be further apart. Even 30 per cent of Leave voters said they wanted the relationship to be closer, while 18 per cent wanted to be further away. So our position, of rebuilding the UK–EU relationship, has substantial support.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 60 Comments

New Journal of Liberal History just published

The autumn issue of the Journal of Liberal History has just been published. Its contents include:

Cromwell’s statue and the fall of the Liberal government in 1895. Maybe you think that controversies over political statues are a feature only of recent years? You’d be wrong. William Wallace recalls how the erection of the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament helped bring down Lord Rosebery’s Liberal government in 1895.

Solving the ‘problem’ of the twentieth century. In the 1930s European governments appeared to have a stark choice: appease the rise of Nazi Germany or prepare for war. But maybe there …

Posted in Books and Liberal History | Tagged | 2 Comments

Campaigning on Europe – members’ views

Please note that the title of this piece has been amended to reflect the content of the article.

You may remember, last November, taking part in a survey on members’ views on Brexit and the party’s campaigning on the future of UK–EU relations. Thanks to everyone who participated – 6,500 members, more than any previous survey of this type – and thanks to Greg Foster and Dan Schmeising at party HQ who organised it on behalf of the Federal Policy Committee. This article gives you the results.

The first question asked how you voted in the 2016 referendum. Completely unsurprisingly, over 91 per cent voted to Remain. Most of the rest couldn’t vote (for example because they were too young); just 2.5 per cent voted to Leave. No less than 95 per cent would describe themselves now as Remainers (more than four-fifths of whom chose the option ‘Yes, I am a Remainer and I am proud of it’) and just 1.3 per cent described themselves as Leavers (a third of whom – 25 people – were proud of it).

In response to the question, ‘Do you think people in your life who aren’t Liberal Democrats associate the current problems the country is experiencing – shortages of truck drivers, farmworkers, care workers and goods in shops – with Brexit?’, on a 0–6 scale, the average answer was 3.7: in other words, they do, but not all that strongly. Of course, the pandemic and the government’s feeble response have complicated the picture substantially, but this will change over time, as the impacts of Brexit become ever clearer. Indeed, if we’d asked the question now rather than two months ago, I suspect the response would have been stronger.

We next asked which EU-related policy areas the party ought to treat as a priority, given that the impact of Brexit is being felt across so many; people could choose three out of a list of fourteen. Trade came top, listed by more than half of respondents. The others, in order, were: climate change and energy; freedom of movement and immigration; rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; standards for environment and labour issues; scientific collaboration; cultural, artistic and educational links; environment and biodiversity; defence and security; health policy; justice and police cooperation; foreign policy (countries outside the EU); international development; and crime.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 18 Comments

The two Davids: Steel versus Owen – Fringe Friday 17:30

The Journal of Liberal History is organising a fringe meeting on Friday at 17:30. Sir Graham Watson (Steel’s former Head of Office) and Roger Carroll (former SDP Communications Director) will discuss what went wrong in the relationship between the Liberal and SDP leaders that led to the failure and break-up of the Alliance. Chair: Christine Jardine MP.

The meeting coincides with the publication of the autumn issue of the Journal of Liberal History.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | Leave a comment

The UK–EU relationship: the Liberal Democrat position

Anyone who was at the last two Liberal Democrat conferences should remember the two debates that were held on the party’s position on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. In a passionately argued debate last September, conference resolved that the party should support a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU, but we rejected a proposal for an immediate campaign to reverse Brexit, which, it was argued, was more likely to alienate voters sick of the recent history of Brexit-inspired division and bitterness. Conference also called for the closest possible alignment between the UK and the EU on trade, security, environmental, social, judicial, educational and scientific issues.

The government’s disastrous Trade and Cooperation Agreement was finalised at the end of 2020, so the motion we adopted at spring conference this year was able to add further detail.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 104 Comments

Liberalism in the United States

What is political liberalism in the United States? That’s the topic of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s next discussion meeting, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 6 July. All are welcome.

The original conception of liberalism in America was the protection of people from arbitrary power, support for the free market and advocacy of religious tolerance. Many of these concepts found their place in the American Declaration of Independence and in the constitution of the emerging United States. The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton (who may have been surprised to find himself, 230 years later, starring in a rap musical), John Jay and James Madison are now regarded as classics of western constitutionalism, laying out the doctrine of limited government, representative democracy and federalism.

Posted in Events | Tagged , and | 2 Comments

Journal of Liberal History – a preview of the latest issue

The latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History, just published, is a special issue on the early-nineteenth-century roots of Liberalism – a somewhat neglected period in party history.

Historians generally treat 1859 as the date that the Liberal Party came into existence, when three parliamentary factions – Whigs, Peelites and Radicals – agreed to unite under Palmerston to oust a minority Conservative administration. Yet, in truth, the Liberal Party can trace its roots back to a much earlier period in the nineteenth century. The term ‘Liberal’ came into common use in the 1820s. As the authors in our special issue suggest, it was a cultural as well as a political label, indicating a philosophical and artistic outlook as much as a defined political position. It represented a tendency and a state of mind: a willingness to be open to change and a desire to challenge social and political orthodoxy – a radical departure from the repression and authoritarianism of the Tory governments of the Napoleonic Wars and after.

Posted in Liberal History | Tagged | Leave a comment

Liberals divide!

On 7 December 1916, the Liberal H.H. Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by the Liberal David Lloyd George. The change followed mounting disquiet over the conduct of the First World War, and Lloyd George’s demands that a small committee, not including Asquith, should direct the war effort. Lloyd George forced the issue by resigning from the coalition government. Conservative ministers sided with Lloyd George and indicated their willingness to serve in a government led by him.

The resulting split in the Liberal Party persisted until the end of the war and beyond. The party fought the next two general elections, in 1918 and 1922, as two separate groups, and the reunion that finally came, in 1923, was, in Asquith’s words, ‘a fiction, if not a farce’. The divisions were critical: they helped Labour supplant the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives and relegated the Liberal Party to the third-party status it still possesses today.

Was the split between Asquith and Lloyd George caused by their contrasting personalities, or by substantive disagreements over the management of the war? Or did their rivalry reflect deeper divisions between different Liberal traditions? Was Lloyd George what we would today call a social liberal and Asquith an economic liberal?

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s next meeting, on Monday 1 February, will discuss the causes and consequences of the Asquith–Lloyd George rivalry, with speakers David Laws (on Asquith) and Damian Collins MP (on Lloyd George). David Laws will be well known to Liberal Democrat audiences as the party’s MP for Yeovil (2001–15) and a minister in the coalition government. Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Folkestone & Hythe and was chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2016–20. Both speakers contributed chapters to Iain Dale’s new book, The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020). The meeting will be chaired by Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 6 Comments

New Journal of Liberal History just published – including Jo Swinson’s reflections on her time as leader

The autumn issue of the Journal of Liberal History has just been published in time for conference. Its contents include:

Jo Swinson as leader. Interview with Jo Swinson on her political beliefs, her career as a coalition minister, and her five months as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Read the interview to find out how she thinks the party could have handled the tuition fees issue better, why calling for an early election in 2019 was the right thing to do, why the revoke policy was adopted, and what she thinks is the most important characteristic of a Lib Dem leader (hint: it’s not what any of the other former leaders we’ve interviewed have said).

Liberal Democrat leadership performance. Comparative table covering Ashdown, Kennedy, Campbell, Clegg, Farron, Cable, Swinson and the Davey / Brinton / Pack interim leadership. Data includes the leader’s personal ratings (highest and lowest), the party’s ratings (highest and lowest), best and worst election outcomes, and numbers of MPs, MEPs, councillors and party members at the beginning and the end of their term of office. 

The two Henry Redhead Yorkes, radical to liberal. Liberal Democrats are used to thinking of Dadabhai Naoroji as the first Liberal black or ethnic minority MP (in the 1892–95 parliament), but as Amanda Goodrich demonstrates in her fascinating article, he was not – he was preceded by Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke, who was Whig / Liberal MP for York from 1841 to 1848. The article focuses on him and his father, Henry Redhead Yorke, who was previously seen as an English revolutionary radical from Derby but was in fact a West Indian creole of African/ British descent whose mother, Sarah Bullock, was a slave from Barbuda. Neither of these men were identified at the time as of BME origin. 

Another Madam Mayor. The career of the second woman ever to be mayor of an industrial town – Meriel Cowell-Stepney, Lady Howard, who served as mayor of Llanelli in 1916. This acts as a supplement to its author Jaime Reynolds’ article in an earlier issue on the first Liberal women mayors; his work in bringing to light this hitherto largely unknown aspect of Liberal history is the kind of topic the Journal of Liberal History was established to encourage. 

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | Leave a comment

What are the party’s principles and values?

What values make you a Liberal Democrat? What makes you proud to be a Liberal Democrat? What is distinctive about the Liberal Democrat philosophy today?

If you have a view on any or all of those questions, please feel free to participate in the Federal Policy Committee’s consultation session on Liberal Democrat principles and values at autumn conference. It’s taking place in the afternoon fringe session on Saturday, from 1600 to 1650. There are no speakers – it’s an opportunity to hear your answers to any or all of the three questions in the first paragraph.

As background, you might like to look at the short consultation paper available on the party website. To quote the summary, it argues that: 

‘Liberal Democrats stand for liberty, the freedom of every individual to make their own decisions about how best to live their lives. We trust people to pursue their dreams, to make the most of their talents and to live their lives as they wish, free from a controlling, intrusive state and a stifling conformity. A free and open society that glories in diversity is a stronger society.

We stand for equality, for the right of everyone to be treated equally and with equal respect, whatever their personal characteristics; and in the duty of the state to create the conditions in which individuals and their communities can flourish.

We stand for community, for dispersing political and economic power as widely as possible, since government works best when it is closest to its citizens.

Since we believe in the worth of every individual, we are internationalists from principle, seeking cooperation, not confrontation, with Britain’s neighbours.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 14 Comments

Liberal history online

Like many other party organisations, the Liberal Democrat History Group is moving activities online during the lockdown. So this article brings news of two events you may be interested in, and a summary of the latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History.

General Election 2019: Disappointment for the Liberal Democrats

Our next discussion meeting will take place at 6.30pm on Wednesday 8th July. We’ll be taking a look at the Liberal Democrats’ 2019 election campaign and its outcome in historical perspective. 

The party entered the campaign buoyed by its best opinion poll ratings in a decade, a second place showing in the European Parliament elections, impressive local election results in England and high-profile defections from the other parties. The party had a dynamic, young new leader in Jo Swinson and a simple, clear message: stop Brexit. But the Liberal Democrat campaign gained little traction and the results were hugely disappointing.

Lib Dem Voice readers are welcome to discuss the election with one of the country’s leading psephologists, Professor Sir John Curtice (Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde), and James Gurling (former Chair, Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee). It will be chaired by Wendy Chamberlain MP.

The meeting will be hosted online on Zoom and also broadcast to the History Group’s Facebook page. You must register in advance to participate via Zoom (and be able to ask questions); to register, click here.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Participation via Zoom is limited to the first 100 registering – and as I write, there aren’t that many spaces left!

Old heroes for a new leader

During every Liberal Democrat leadership election since 1999, we’ve asked the candidates to write a short article about their favourite historical figure or figures – those that they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. We placed no restrictions on their choices: they could choose anyone they wanted, whether a Liberal or not.

We’re doing that again this year, and the articles will be published in the summer issue of the Journal of Liberal History, due out in late July. 

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | Leave a comment

A review of federal committee elections – your chance to comment

Readers of Lib Dem Voice with good memories might remember, in early February, an article from me about the review of the Federal Committee elections. We put the process on ice over the past couple of months, due to the lockdown and the cancellation of the spring conference, but now we’re getting it going again.

Last year’s elections to the federal party’s committees – the Federal Board, Policy Committee, Conference Committee, International Relations Committee and ALDE council – broke new ground, especially in the efforts to engage as many party members as possible, and also through the management of the process …

Posted in News and Party policy and internal matters | Tagged | 31 Comments

Review of Federal committee elections

‘Review of federal committee elections’ is probably not a title guaranteed to quicken readers’ pulses – but it’s important to the functioning of our party’s democracy, so please read on!

Last year’s elections to the federal party’s committees – the Federal Board, Policy Committee, Conference Committee, International Relations Committee and ALDE council – broke new ground, especially in the efforts to engage as many party members as possible, and also through the management of the process online. It was also a substantial achievement to run it during what turned out to be a general election period, in October and November.

There were, however, also some serious difficulties, including the publishing of some candidates’ manifestos and not others, requiring the election to be paused and some voters to re-cast their votes, and other information required not being provided at all.

Posted in News and Op-eds | Tagged | 13 Comments

New Journal of Liberal History just published

Embed from Getty Images

The winter issue of the Journal of Liberal History has just been published. Its contents include:

‘Gambling on Brexit: the Liberal Democrat performance in the 2019 general election’ by Professor John Curtice, who has written election analyses for the Journal consistently since 2001. It won’t surprise readers of Lib Dem Voice that he concludes that the party’s decision to back an early general election was a gamble that failed spectacularly, and that the party’s campaign itself ‘proved ineffective at communicating to voters anything …

Posted in Liberal History | Tagged and | 7 Comments

What’s in a (Net Zero) date?

One of the questions that’s likely to be asked in tonight’s Channel 4 environment leader’s debate is about the target date by which the UK should reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. In the summer the government legislated for 2050. In September Liberal Democrat conference voted for our policy paper Tackling the Climate Emergency, which argued for 2045. The Labour conference voted for 2030 (though that’s not in their manifesto). The Green Party has gone for 2030, and Extinction Rebellion campaigns for 2025. 

Against these targets, our policy can look rather cautious. 2045 seems like a long way away; doesn’t that mean that government will do nothing until a few years beforehand and then rush to hit it? I’m sure Lib Dem Voice readers know what’s wrong with that argument – although this was the approach that a Conservative minister genuinely suggested to Ed Davey when we were in government.

Arguing over the net zero target date in isolation is simplistic and misleading. In reality, reaching net zero will require enormous effort, stretching over decades and affecting all sectors of the economy; it’s not something you can leave to the last moment. The real debate we need to have is over how we plan to meet the target; what’s the policy programme that cuts emissions fast where we know how to, and lays the foundations for progress where we don’t yet know the right solutions? And when you start to think about what’s needed for electricity, heating, transport, aviation, industry, farming and land use – and how you persuade people to change the way they live their lives, because it isn’t only about government action – you start to understand why near-term targets like 2025 or 2030 are an unrealisable fantasy.

Liberal Democrats set out, in our policy paper and in the manifesto, how we can make rapid progress in cutting emissions from power generation, through accelerating the uptake of renewables, and in heat in buildings, through a massive energy efficiency programme. Between them we think we can cut UK emissions by more than half over ten years.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , , , , and | 20 Comments

New issue of Journal of Liberal History out

The autumn issue of the Journal of Liberal History has just been published in time for conference. Its contents include:

Vince Cable as leader. Interview with Vince Cable on his political beliefs, his career in the party, in particular his period as Business Secretary in the coalition government, and his two years as leader of the Liberal Democrats. When asked about what went wrong with the coalition, he responded: ‘I think the simple answer is that we trusted the Conservatives, and we shouldn’t have.’ Read the interview to find out more about the challenges he faced in coalition and as leader, and what he’s most proud of.

Liberal Democrat leadership performance. Comparative table covering Ashdown, Kennedy, Campbell, Clegg, Farron and Cable. Data includes the leader’s personal ratings (highest and lowest), the party’s ratings (highest and lowest), best and worst election outcomes, and numbers of MPs, MEPs, councillors and party members at the beginning and the end of their term of office. 

E. D. Simon: Intellectual in politics; by David Dutton. Biography of E. D. Simon, 1st Baron Simon of Wythenshawe; a Liberal MP before the wars, a junior minister (for two weeks!) in the National Government in 1931 and later a Labour peer. Simon was also a long-standing Manchester councillor and a patron of the Liberal Summer School.

The Liberal Democrat performance in the 2019 European election. The well-known psephologist John Curtice analyses the Liberal Democrat vote in May 2019. Amongst which groups did we do best and worst?

Tentative feelers. Mitya Pearson examines the Liberal Party’s response to the emergence of the Green Party (then the Ecology Party) in the 1970s, including the distinctly odd occasion when Liberal MP and former leader Jeremy Thorpe attempted to join it.

Geoff Tordoff. Michael Meadowcroft remembers the life and long political career of Geoff Tordoff, a former Liberal Party chair and president and Chief Whip of the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats in the Lords.

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

The 2019 European Election and Liberal History

Everyone knows the 2019 European election result in the UK was remarkable – but do you realise quite how much? 

It was the best Euro election result for the Liberal Democrats or their predecessor parties ever. 

This is true in terms both of seats (16) and votes (20.3 per cent). The party’s previous best seat performance was 12 in 2004, though the UK then had 78 seats in the European Parliament, rather than its current 73. Our previous best vote performance was right back in 1984, when the Liberal-SDP Alliance scored 18.5 per cent. That was in the days before PR, when the country was divided up into giant Euro-constituencies fought on first past the post; the Alliance won none of them. Post-merger, the best Liberal Democrat performance was 16.1 per cent, in 1994.

The Liberal Democrat performance looks even better when compared to the other main parties, outpolling both Labour and the Conservatives by large margins. This has never happened before. 

The last time the Liberal Party won more votes than Labour in a nationwide election (i.e. a general or Euro election) was in 1918 (by 25.6 per cent to 20.8 per cent), though only if you combine the votes of the two factions the Liberal Party was then split into, led by Lloyd George and Asquith. And in that election the Labour Party fought only just over half the seats, and the two Liberal factions about two-thirds, making comparisons tricky. The Labour Party, on 14.1 per cent this year, has never scored even remotely this badly since it started contesting all UK seats; its previous low point was 27.6 per cent, in 1983.

The last time the Liberals beat the Conservatives in a nationwide election was 1906, the year of the great Liberal landslide: 48.9 per cent and 397 seats for the Liberals to 43.4 per cent and 156 seats for the Unionists (as Conservatives were known then). The Conservative performance this time, a mere 9.1 per cent, is staggeringly bad; the party’s previous low was three times as much, 29.2 per cent in 1832 (though throughout the nineteenth century many seats went uncontested, and MPs’ allegiances were often fluid, making calculations difficult), or, in the modern era, 30.7 per cent in 1997.

Posted in Liberal History | Tagged and | 6 Comments

Gladstone’s first government

Looking for something to take your mind off Brexit? The Liberal Democrat History Group can help! One hundred fifty years and six weeks ago, on 3 December 1868, William Ewart Gladstone took office as Prime Minister at the head of what can reasonably be accounted as both the first identifiably Liberal government and the first modern administration.

Gladstone was eventually to serve as Prime Minister on four separate occasions. The most famous, recognisable and enduring of all the Liberal Party’s leaders, he dominated British politics for more than thirty years. He brought to the leadership of the party and the labours of ministerial office a physical and mental temperament unequalled among former prime ministers. A voracious reader and bibliophile, who found leisure in his closely argued studies of the classical poets Homer and Dante, he also had a passion for physical labour, expressed in walking, estate work at Hawarden (his wife’s family home in north Wales), and tree-felling.

As Chancellor during the 1850s, he established his reputation for prudent financial innovation by replacing taxes on goods and customs duties with a progressive income tax and established parliamentary accountability for government spending. He swept away import duties on hundreds of products and established free trade almost as an article of faith. Although firmly devoted to the Church of England, he won strong support from Nonconformists for his attitude to religious questions, which at that time affected basic liberties as well as such matters as education.

Posted in News and Op-eds | Tagged | 15 Comments

Demand Better: Liberal Democrat Priorities for a Better Britain

For as long as I’ve been active in politics people have complained they don’t know what we stand for. We may have a reasonable profile for our position on Brexit, but the fact that we’re only the fourth party in terms of MPs makes it even more difficult than usual to gain media attention.

On top of that, the party has more than doubled in size over the last two and a half years, so we have a large number of new or newish members who aren’t as familiar as many of us with the details of party policy or our key priorities for action.

So over the last six months the Federal Policy Committee has worked to produce the paper Demand Better: Liberal Democrat Priorities for a Better Britain, which is available here and will be debated at our autumn conference at Brighton.

We’ve written the paper in close cooperation with the party’s campaigns and communications committees and staff, and we’re using the party’s new slogan as the paper’s title. Demand Better summarises the Liberal Democrat approach to politics in 2018 and highlights our key policy priorities. Should a general election take place in the next year or so, it will provide the core of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , , , , , and | 26 Comments

Europe: the history of the Liberal commitment

Opposition to Brexit has become of the defining characteristics of today’s Liberal Democrats. And probably everyone knows that our predecessors in the Liberal Party supported British entry to the European Community in the 1970s and before. But where does this commitment derive from? The latest Journal of Liberal History (issue 98, spring 2018) explores the historical origins of the Liberal commitment to Europe.

As Anthony Howe discusses in the first article, one of the foundations of Victorian Liberalism in the nineteenth century was support for free trade, the removal of tariffs (import and export duties) on trade in goods. Normally discussed today in terms of the economic benefits, Liberal support in fact drew much more strongly from a belief in free trade as an engine of peace, building links between nations and promoting a cooperative rather than a military interventionist approach to international problems.

Eugenio Biagini analyses the different approaches to Europe adopted by the Liberal leaders W. E. Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain. Gladstone, a committed internationalist, was a fervent supporter of free trade and an opponent of jingoistic nationalism; he was not opposed to the principle of pan-national empires, as long as their rule rested on consent and the protection of basic liberties. Chamberlain, the radical who broke with the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule, followed a different, ‘social imperialist’ path, arguing for the need for states to be powerful, democratic and reformist in social policy – strong enough to survive in the brutal world of international relations while also fending off the rising threat of socialism. His proposals for tariffs against imports from outside the British Empire, with the aim of binding the colonies more closely together, helped heal the divisions in the Liberal Party and underlay the Liberal landslide election victory of 1906.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 2 Comments

Federal Policy Committee report, 21 March 2018

FPC met for three hours on the evening of 21 March. The first item on the agenda was a discussion with the Leader; Vince is chair of the FPC, but inevitably his parliamentary and party duties mean he can’t attend every meeting, so we were pleased to have this opportunity. He updated us on three separate pieces of work under way on aspects of tax policy: on business tax, on the prospects for land value tax, and on options for a wealth tax. He hopes to be able to publish short ‘spokesperson’s papers’ on all of these and submit motions …

Posted in Party policy and internal matters | Tagged | 11 Comments

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Party and Women’s Suffrage

As we celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave the parliamentary vote to (some) women, for the first time, readers may be interested in two meetings and one publication:

In Conversation at the Mile End Institute: Jo Swinson MP (19 February)

At 6.30pm on Monday 19 February, at the Mile End Campus, Queen Mary University of London, Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrats’ Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary and the MP for East Dunbartonshire, will join Professor Philip Cowley in conversation.

This is part of the Mile End Institute’s regular series of political ‘conversations’, the most recent of which was with Jacob Rees-Mogg. Phil Cowley, co-author of the British General Election series of books (he’s currently working on the 2017 edition) is an excellent and engaging interviewer, and the event will be well worth attending.

It’s free and open to the public, but registration is required. To book your ticket, visit the Mile End Institute’s website or Eventbrite. For those unable to attend, the conversation will be live-streamed, and podcast and a video of the event will be available afterwards.

The Liberal Party and Women’s Suffrage (9 March)

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 2 Comments

Report of Federal Policy Committee meeting – 13 December 2017

FPC met on Wednesday evening for its last meeting of the year. Taking place in the House of Commons, we were regularly interrupted by the results of votes on amendments to the Brexit bill – including the one the government lost!

Tuition fees

Vince Cable – who is chair of the FPC as well as party leader – pledged in his leadership election manifesto to look at party policy on the tuition fees system: ‘We need a solution that keeps the benefits of the current system – relating contributions to income and protecting university funding – but is fairer across the board, including for the 60 per cent who never go to university, many of whom pursue vocational options instead.’ As he reported to conference in September, he asked David Howarth (Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge 2005–10) to consider options for reforming or replacing the current system and present them to FPC as a basis for consultation within the party.

David’s paper, which he outlined to FPC, sets out the benefits and drawbacks of five options. FPC members raised a series of fairly minor issues, but overall were happy with the paper. I won’t attempt to summarise it here, as the options deserve to be read in detail, and it’s not completely finalised yet. We will publish it as a consultation paper in late January or early February and hold a consultative session around it at the Southport conference, on the afternoon of Friday 9 March. Local and regional parties might like to consider organising discussions on the issue in the spring and summer. Based on the feedback we receive, FPC will aim to put a policy motion for debate to the autumn conference.

Education policy paper

Lucy Netsingha, chair of the Education policy working group, presented a near-final draft of the paper, following our discussion on its outline proposals at our previous meeting. FPC members raised a few new issues and resolved a number of others. We left the remaining major issue, on the future of the schools inspection regime and Ofsted, for discussion at our January meeting, when Layla Moran, the party’s education spokesperson, should be able to join us. The paper will then be published and submitted for debate at the spring conference in Southport.

Posted in News and Op-eds | Tagged and | 15 Comments

New Policy Working Group on Race Equality: Chair Needed

Readers of Geoff Payne’s report on the last FPC meeting, on 18 October, may remember that we took the decision to establish a new policy working group on Race Equality.

The first stage in the process is for the FPC to appoint a chair of the working group, and we’re advertising for applicants now.

The chair will lead a group of around 15–20 members to produce policy proposals setting out the party’s plans for improving race equality and helping us reach out to BAME communities, while exemplifying the party’s values.

The working group will take evidence in the first half of 2018 …

Posted in Party policy and internal matters | Tagged and | 1 Comment

New from the Liberal Democrat History Group

As well as publishing the quarterly Journal of Liberal History (which features one of the esteemed editors of Lib Dem Voice on its Editorial Board), the Liberal Democrat History Group also publishes a range of books and short booklets on aspects of Liberal history.

New out, just in time for Bournemouth conference, is the second edition of Mothers of Liberty: Women Who Built British Liberalism. This booklet contains the stories of the women who shaped British Liberalism – including Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, the suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the first woman Liberal MP Margaret Wintringham, Violet Bonham Carter, Megan Lloyd George, Nancy Seear, Shirley Williams and many more. This second edition updates some of the entries, adds two entirely new ones and a table of all Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat women elected as MPs, and includes a foreword by Jo Swinson MP.

We have also published a new edition of our popular Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats. This has been revised and updated to include the 2015 and 2017 elections and their aftermath, including the election of Vince Cable as leader.

Starting with the earliest stirrings of Liberal thought during the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the booklet takes the reader through the coming together of Whigs, radicals and free-trade Peelites in 1859 to form the Liberal Party; the ascendancy of the Victorian Liberals under Gladstone; the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George and the party’s landslide election victory in 1906; dissension and eclipse; the long decades of decline until nadir in the 1950s; successive waves of Liberal revival under Grimond, Thorpe and Steel; the alliance with the SDP and merger in 1988; and the roller-coaster ride of the Liberal Democrats, from near-obliteration in 1989 to entry into government in 2010 to electoral disaster in 2015 and, now, the path to recovery.

Posted in News | Tagged and | 3 Comments

The leadership of Charles Kennedy

As nominations open for the sixth leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrat History Group’s meeting next Monday takes a look back at the record of its second: Charles Kennedy.

In many ways Kennedy’s period as leader, from 1999 to 2006, was a success. His opposition to the Iraq War – heavily criticised at the time by both the Labour government and the Tory opposition – proved entirely justified and in the 2005 general election he led the party to its highest vote since 1987 (22.0 per cent) and its highest number of seats since 1923 (62). He was a popular figure with the public, appreciated for his quick wit, self-deprecating manner, and careful understatement in an era when respect for mainstream politicians was rapidly eroding.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 11 Comments

History marches at our back

As I write this, the party should be signing up its 100,000th member. Our new members are joining a party with a glorious history – not just the twenty-nine years since the Liberal Democrats were founded in 1988, but the records of its predecessors, the short-lived Social Democratic Party and the three centuries’ old Liberal Party.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Three hundred years ago our political ancestors the Whigs fought for freedom of conscience and thought and religion, for equality before the law. Two hundred years ago the Victorian Liberal Party extended the franchise, brought in free trade, led the assault on privilege: the great cause of Cobden and Bright, Russell and Gladstone.

A hundred years ago the New Liberalism of the twentieth century – the social liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge – laid the foundations of the British welfare state, aiming to create the conditions for freedom for all.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 7 Comments

Recent Comments

  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    @Graham Jeffs - yes, I am fortunate to be living in a target seat, although I was campaigning for about 20 years before we won it. It's a long game. My point...
  • Alex Macfie
    The mistake made by Clegg & co wasn't going into coalition, it was the way they did it, going in too quickly and conducting it as a "love-in" rather than a ...
  • Mark
    I wouldn't normally encourage people to spend time reading Conservative Home website, but this article is well worth a read:
  • David Garlick
    Given in his speech his dismissal of action of climate change, so appropriate that the climate chose to give him a good soaking. A drip being dripped on....
  • Peter Martin
    @ Steve, "Might it help.if our party were to assertively oppose Neoliberal socio-economics...." Of course it would. It's unlikely any establishm...