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.

While MPs could be found calling themselves Liberals in the 1830s and 1840s, the story of Liberalism is much more than the story of parliamentarians. In particular, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 marked a critical point, just as important to Liberal as to labour history. The killing of peaceful protestors by armed mounted militia shocked a public that increasingly feared the growth of a bloated military state in the years after Waterloo. Polite opinion was roused to raise petitions in protest, rallying behind a Whig Party who charged the Tory establishment with being complicit in the violence. Although in the short term the Whigs failed, the popular agitation created by Peterloo laid the foundations for the creation of a new Liberal public that rejected coercion and violence and favoured modest political change. The Whigs returned to power a little over a decade later and the passing of their 1832 Great Reform Act owed much to a new Liberal sentiment within the rising middle classes – one that would continue to grow and form a core part of the electoral base of mid-Victorian Liberalism.

Our authors in the special issue trace the development of Liberalism in this period. Robert Poole examines the Peterloo massacre in 1819, and its impact on the emergence of democracy. John Belchem examines the role played by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt at Peterloo and its impact on Whig politics, while Stephen Lee analyses the career and beliefs of the ‘Liberal Tory’ George Canning (who holds the record as the country’s shortest serving Prime Minister, at just 119 days). Ian Macgregor Morris tells the story of the 1820s journal ‘The Liberal’, edited by Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Leigh Hunt. Michael Winstanley examines the electoral bases of Liberal support in Lancashire in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. The issue also carries a report of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s meeting on Peterloo, with Robert Poole and Jacqueline Riding; reviews of recent books on Peterloo, by Ian Cawood; and an excellent introduction to the entire issue, by James Moore.

Subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History should have received their issue by now; if you haven’t, it may be because your sub is overdue for subscription. Individual copies can be purchased here, and subscriptions taken out or renewed here.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and a member of the Federal Policy Committee.

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