In search of the Great Liberals

William Ewart Gladstone, David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes, John Stuart Mill – who is the greatest Liberal of all time? All Lib Dems coming to the autumn party conference will be able to cast a vote.

The poll for the greatest British Liberal in history is being run by the Liberal Democrat History Group. In the first stage, in July, readers of the Journal of Liberal History voted between 15 potential candidates (plus an eclectic collection of write-ins).

We chose not to define what we meant by ‘great’ – leaving that up to our voters – but our criteria for candidates were that they must have been active in the Liberal Democrats, or its predecessors, or influential on Liberal thinking; they must have been British, or active in Britain; and they must be dead.

The final four to emerge were:

William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98), the political giant of Victorian politics. He defined the Liberal Party of the second half of the nineteenth century: the party of peace, retrenchment, reform and – above all – trust in the people.
John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), the most influential and important economic thinker of the twentieth century, whose ideas came to underpin Western governments’ post-war economic strategy. He effectively invented macroeconomics.
David Lloyd George (1863–1945), one of the most dynamic and brilliant – and controversial – politicians ever to lead the party. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Liberal Party adjusted successfully to the demands of a mass industrial democracy.
John Stuart Mill (1806–73), philosopher, economist, journalist, political writer, social reformer, and, briefly, MP, is one of the most famous figures in the pantheon of Liberal theorists. His masterpiece, On Liberty, is the symbol of office of the President of the Liberal Democrats.

The case for each of these four will be presented at the History Group’s fringe meeting at Brighton (8.00pm, Wednesday, 19th September), where leading politicians and historians – including Paddy Ashdown – will make the case for each one of the four. Votes can be cast either at the fringe meeting or at the History Group’s stand in the exhibition. Make sure you help to choose the greatest British Liberal!

See for more details of the candidates and the History Group.

* Duncan Brack is Editor of the Journal of Liberal History.

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This entry was posted in Conference and News.


  • DLG ‘was instrumental in ensuring that the Liberal Party adjusted successfully to the demands of a mass industrial democracy’ is an interesting take on one of the key men responsible for almost destroying the party in the 1920s and seeing it replaced by Labour (who clearly adapted to ‘mass industrial democracy’ far better).

    I would have thought Beveridge would be as least as important as Keynes.

    I haven’t seen the long list, but there are a number of philosphers who ought to merit a mention too – Berlin, Popper and Hayek for example…

  • What about Henry Dupre Labouchere???

    The man who coined the phrase Grand old Man to describe WEG – who agreed to a diplomatic posting in somewhere unappealing subject to his being allowed to remain in Baden – who occupied a few more empty hours by being Chairman of the Westminster Aquarium (I kid you not).

    Okay, not very sound on women’s suffrage; but how can you not warm to a man who never achieved cabinet status because of the Queen’s objections.

    He was a republican, an Irish home ruler, and an aetheist, but worst of all – from Victoria’s perspective – he believed in … whisper it softly … birth control.

    What a man !

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