Introducing the Liberal Democrat History Group

‘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.’ (Paddy Ashdown)

Our party, the Liberal Democrats, is 27 years old. It came into being in March 1988, the product of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP was itself only seven years old, being formed in 1981 mostly by former Labour politicians, but bringing into politics many people who had never been involved in any party. The Liberal Party, by contrast, was one of the oldest political parties in the world, tracing its roots back into the seventeenth century and the struggles for Parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy.

The Liberal Democrat History Group exists to promote the research and discussion of any topic connected with the history of the party and its predecessors, and of Liberalism more broadly. Our activities appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of British Liberal politics, whether party activists, academics or spare-time students of history.

We publish the quarterly Journal of Liberal History, featuring articles, original research, biographies of leading (and more obscure!) party figures, reports of meetings, book reviews, guides to archive sources and news of History Group activities. Our next two issues are both special issues – the summer Journal will look back at the Liberal Party and the First World War, whereas the autumn Journal will consider the impact of the coalition on the party and of the party on the coalition. (We consider ‘history’ to be anything that happened up until about yesterday!)

We’ve also published a series of books. Peace, Reform and Liberation: A History of Liberal Politics in Britain, 1679–2011 is the most comprehensive and most up-to-date guide to the story of those who called themselves Liberals, what inspired them and what they achieved over the last 300 years and more. Great Liberal Speeches features more than 45 of the greatest Liberal speeches by the greatest Liberals. And the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations includes nearly 2,000 quotations, musings, provocations, jibes and diatribes about Liberals and Liberalism.

For anyone looking for shorter introductions to Liberal history, we also publish a range of concise booklets: Leaders of the Liberal Party from 1828 to 1899; Leaders of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats since 1900; Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism; and Liberal Thinkers. And we’ll soon be producing a concise guide to the history of the party and its predecessors.

We also organise discussion meetings, to which everyone is welcome. On Monday 13 July, in the National Liberal Club, we’ll be looking at the 2015 general election result and what it means for the party, with Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham University) and Baroness Olly Grender, Paddy Ashdown’s second-in-command during the campaign. Our fringe meeting at the Bournemouth conference will launch our next book, British Liberal Leaders, with a chapter analysing the record of each leader since the Great Reform Act in 1832.

A subscription to the Journal of Liberal History costs only £20 a year, or £12.50 unwaged. If you’re interested in subscribing or finding out more, see our website, buy our books or booklets (via our website shop), sign up to our mailing list, or come to one of our meetings. (We’re also looking for people to help us run the Group and its activities, whether it’s spending an hour or two on our stand at conference, inputting material to our website or helping us produce books and booklets – if you’d like to volunteer, drop me an email 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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  • David Warren 4th Jun '15 - 6:06pm

    I can recommend the magazine, its a really good read.

  • One of the great causes of the missteps and false courses embarked upon by the Liberal Democrats over the past several years has been an ignorance of or indifference to history — not, however, due to a lack of people to point out the relevant parallels. As ever, those who wish to ignore history have claimed that history is irrelevant, that in the new era there are new rules and one can expect the future to evolve in a manner entirely unlike the past.

    Such views have been categorically proven wrong. A thorough knowledge of the political history of the past two hundred years is indispensable to understanding where we are today.

  • George Potter 5th Jun '15 - 11:07am

    I still never cease to be frustrated with the number of people in the party who base their opinions on utterly flawed perceptions of the party history – such as the laughable idea that the Liberals were always a classical liberal party until the SDP came along and the merger meant we got taken over by soggy socialists.

  • SIMON BANKS 5th Jun '15 - 11:18am

    “Classical Liberal” is a pretty meaningless term as any political movement is evolving all the time. You can take a snapshot of one point in time, simplify it and say that’s “classical”, but there’s little point.

    I do very much believe we should be critically aware of our past and traditions, to learn from them and not just to avoid mistakes.

  • George Potter
    The Liberal Party changed after WW1, many entered the Tories or labour. Part of it was that by the 1920s it was the grandchildren or even great grandchildren of the founders of many companies and there experience of life and therefore outlook was very different to their grandparents . The Liberal Party was the party of manufacture and business. The grandchildren either wanted to become country landowners or those who entered the arts or to run charities: very few wanted to roll up their sleeves and learn to run the family business. Orwell , Waugh and Northcote Parkinson all commented on and mocked the class of people living off dividends from the family firm.

    Part of the problem was that the Liberal Party had problems with adjusting to the large companies, especially nationalised ones run by managers. Orwell is one of the few writers who predicted the rise of the managerial class. However, it was MacMillan who understood the aspirations of the middle class suburban managerial class and those who aspired to enter this class , better than labour or the Liberals. The Young Conservatives of the late 1940s to early 1960s was a massive organisation. Wilson was the son of an industrial chemist and educated at a new grammar school and he was emotionally much closer to the managerial middle class than Gaitskell or MacMillan.

    I would suggest that in many ways , the Liberal party was a victim of it’s success: by creating an aspirational class and the conditions which enabled many to meet them:, it became a shadow of it’s former self.

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Jun '15 - 5:12pm

    Charlie, the Liberal Party of 1914 was clearly a very different animal to the Liberal Democrats of 2015. I think we can all agree on that. It was a major player in a two-party system, it was big, it was confident, it had aristocrats, business people and trade unions all on board in a very very ‘big tent’ that was beyong the wildest dreams of most moder political parties (oh, and it was still fighting in an electoral system in which not all adults, not even all adult males, had the vote).

    It is our former self, and many of our traditions began there, but I do wonder, is it ‘liberal’ to want us to be the Liberal Party of 1915, as a party machine?

    I, like many others, am inspired by what that party did, and I like big-picture historical parallels more than the average person, but I just don’t us want to be that party, even were it possible. I don’t want the corruption that beset it, the arrogance of entitlement to power it had, the often hypocritical ability to do double-think that enabled it (sometimes rather cynically) to bind together so many competing interests.

    I don’t want a two party system, frankly.

    Also, by the point that MacMillan was genuinely politically active, the ‘old’ Liberal party was dead and buried, so I don’t entirely see what a historical narrative that jumps abruptly from pre-WW1 to the 1950s (almost completely ignoring the complex crises of the 20s and 30s, a long period of infighting and hung parliaments in which the Liberal Party, as was, basically tore itself apart, repeatedly) has to do with anything.

  • matt(bristol)
    Orwell pointed to the rise of the managerial class which could have been attracted to the Liberals but from 1951 to 1963 many supported Conservatives and from 1963 to 1979 Labour. I was pointing out our failure to attract people who were neither un and semiskilled labour or landowners.

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Jun '15 - 1:35am

    Charlie, I know that was what you were saying.

    I’m saying, as a way of countering your point that, by the late 1930s – well, well before 1951 – the old Liberal party was toast as a dominant party of government. I can see that a failure to attract emergent social classes may have been a contributory factor, particularly up to 1920, but rancorous personality splits between leaders who couldn’t heal old wounds were a more significant driver for decline after that point.

    I’d stick my neck out and say that the old Liberal party collapsing in the 30s wasn’t primarily about a failure to attract the right sociological voter group, it wasn’t about a bad campaign strategy, it was about an almighty personal argument and split between three rival leaders (Lloyd George, Samuel, Simon) coming on top of the previous decade’s almighty personal argument and split between two rival leaders (Lloyd George, Asquith). Parties – whatever their voter base – don’t come back from that sort of semi-permanent crisis thing well, particularly not when in the next decade – the 1940s – there’s a war on and people are somewhat busy doing things other than party management.

    Anyway, winning over and responding in a liberal way to the concerns of the groups who will dominate political culture for the next 2 to 3 decades should be our concern, not mourning for the loss of ‘our’ ancient status as a dominant party before the first world war.

    My membership card has a picture of Gladstone on it, but I do recognise he’s been dead a while and might struggle with the concept of Twitter.

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