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.

Fifty years ago, the Liberal Party committed itself to help organise people in communities to take and to use power. It became the first major party to develop an environmental policy.

Forty years ago Liberals and Social Democrats joined forces to campaign for Britain’s place in the European Community. Steel and Jenkins led the Liberal-SDP Alliance that so nearly broke the mould of British politics.

These causes, this history, march at our back. If you need inspiration over the next six weeks, remember them and what they fought for and what they achieved.

And if you’re a new member and want to know more about this history – or if you’re a local party officer looking for something to give your new members – the Liberal Democrat History Group has just the thing for you: a new edition of our booklet, Liberal History: A Concise History of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats.

This is designed as a comprehensive but concise summary of Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat history for readers wanting more detail than they can find on the party website, but less than a full book. We produced the booklet originally in 2005, and we’ve revised it on three occasions since; this edition is up to date as of March 2017.

Liberal History can be bought for only £3 a copy (£2.40 for subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History) from our website, plus postage. We also offer a 50 per cent discount for bulk orders (40 or more copies) – a number of local parties have already bought large numbers to give to their new members. If you’re interested in a bulk order, please contact me at [email protected].

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alan Depauw 25th Apr '17 - 9:31am

    Oh bu**er. This article has just cost me 3 quid.

    Well spent though.

  • Bernard Aris 25th Apr '17 - 11:10am

    That is the evolution of the historical profession.

    Once it was enough to be able to research and tell a historical story well, to report it. Rich lords and Maecenasses bought such stuff anyway.

    Now it is also how to sell such stories, to get many people intersted.

    That is also a knack
    of Duncan Brack…


  • Sue Sutherland 25th Apr '17 - 12:17pm

    It’s a great history and I hope Newbies will be inspired by it. However, sometimes I think this history can, unfortunately, stop us from being great in our own time when we use it to justify policy or tradition when what is required is free thinking and a challenge to established ways of working. Don’t let’s glory in our past but in our future, otherwise history doesn’t just march at our back but pushes us over and tramples us in the mud of our hopes.

  • Duncan – Excellent article. Well said.
    Sue – I don’t think any of us would want our traditions to hold us back, but there is nothing wrong with knowing where you come from. Any new thinking that is based on our values is great, and those values can be seen in our history. Indeed, one of our traditions has been the ability to move with the times and think creatively about how liberalism should be applied to the problems of the day – and Duncan’s article sets this out very well.

  • Duncan Brack 25th Apr '17 - 10:05pm

    Sue, one of the Liberal traditions of which we can be proud is our propensity for individualism, free-thinking and not being afraid to rock the boat. Of course, you’re right, we must never let history hold us back – but equally, as Paddy Ashdown put it, ‘Santayana once said that those who won’t learn their history are condemned to repeat it. The Lib Dem History Group exists to make sure that we can so we don’t.’

    Bernard – of course! There’s no point in writing history if no one reads it … Alan, your copy will be on its way to you tomorrow.

  • Excellent reminder.
    It was once the case that I could meet folk in West Bromwich who would remind me of our helpfulness to Trade Unions, of pensions and of the welfare state. These have been generally forgotten in the public.

  • Simon Banks 26th Apr '17 - 6:38pm

    There have been big changes from the Whigs’ original agenda – which was, for example, anti-Catholic – but it’s true that a thread can be discerned not just back three centuries, but to the Parliamentary cause in the English (and Scottish) civil war(s), as the early Whig martyr (or from a different angle, failed regicide) Sidney said on the scaffold (“That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up”), to the Levellers and indeed to opposition to unlimited royal power back into the late 16th century.

    Even Cromwell could sound like a Liberal, comparing the idea of the danger of religious error justifying a crackdown on dissidents to a man who would ban all import of wine for fear that people might get drunk.

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